Eyes Open to Disillusionment


Written by Caroline Sheaffer

Exploitation of the poor, oppressed, marginalized, and disadvantaged is nothing new in the world. Large companies are offenders, governments are guilty, law officials are wrongdoers, members of military are criminals, even churches are transgressors.

Until I began making frequent trips to El Salvador, I lived in a naïve bubble or was an ostrich with my head buried in the sand thinking those were events of the past that took place in distant continents such as the “blood diamond” issue in darkest Africa. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to discover those incidents continue to take place today on a regular basis.

Little did I know that the name brand tag in the back of my shirt was a product made under something akin to slave labor in Central America or child labor in Southeast Asia. I found myself shrink under the table from embarrassment when hearing how complicit my own government has been in aiding and abetting in the massacres of thousands of innocent lives during the Salvadoran civil war, I came to realize there are members within the Salvadoran police and military who not only refuse to investigate disappearances and deaths but also may be involved. Last, but not least, members within the institutional church often fail to protect and care for even their own flock.

My eyes were certainly opened.

My disillusionment began during one of my early trips to El Salvador when we were driving around the country with our translator/guide casually pointing out one nasty-looking run-off stream beside a factory. Its water was the color of reddish-yellow corrosive rust. The U.S.-owned cosmetic/cleaning supply company discharges its untreated wastewater into the nearby stream which is the source of drinking water for local villages located downhill. The daycare children of its factory workers were getting sick from drinking that same polluted water; therefore, the daycare had to close. Apparently, no environmental protection laws existed at the time requiring the factory to clean its run-off water. The factory wasn’t about to spend the money to do so on its own and violated any safety measures it could have taken, opting instead to harm the environment and the local people.

I have stopped using beauty/cleaning products from this company.

American fruit consolidations have been habitual violators of workers’ rights throughout Central America for years. With no unions to protect them, the workers are expected to work long hours for obscenely low wages without benefits because the large companies can get away with it.

I think about this every time I eat a banana or pineapple from Central America.

On the way to and from the airport outside San Salvador we pass huge maquiladoras (garment sweatshops) producing name brand garments sold in our upscale malls and on-line. By appearance from the road, they seem to be long metal buildings without windows reminding me of large-scale American chicken farms. Without AC or proper ventilation, conditions inside are unbearable for workers in the tropical heat. The women toiling in them are permitted only a brief lunch break from their 12-14 hour work day, and pay is a pathetic low rate. Regardless of the unhealthy conditions, jobs are so hard to come by in El Salvador that women line up in desperation to apply.

When I heard the name of a certain company producing high-end garments under these conditions, I refused to enter their stores or patronize them on-line. I am told that if the international owners of these companies are cited for unhealthy/unfair work conditions, they literally pack up their sewing machines in the middle of the night and move elsewhere.

Throughout the world the “have countries” seek to take advantage of the “have not” countries when natural resources are believed to be available, whether gold, oil reserves, sugar for the rum industry, or any other commodity considered lucrative. Central America is no exception. El Salvador’s highly-sought minerals are up for grabs in a “take and run” attitude by international companies with powerful attorneys unafraid of litigation. Local environmentalists have become more vocal and actively object by taking their cases to local courts to protect the country’s natural resources. However, they have difficulty competing with large companies that then move their litigation cases to the powerful U.S. court systems.

One U.S. company has perpetually defied health concerns of local sugar cane workers by continuing to send pesticides (outlawed in the U.S.) to other countries that likely contribute, if not cause the young field workers to end up with very high rates of cancers and renal failure.

The Salvadoran military was responsible for numerous atrocities attested by the stories from the mothers of the disappeared during the civil war and by seeing the piles of heart-wrenching photos in their black photo albums. However, my jaw dropped to the floor when I learned that those soldiers were trained in paramilitary techniques at a southern U.S. military base. Was the wool pulled over my eyes when I grew up believing my country protected innocent people in other countries from their evil dictators?

These massacres that occurred around the country are still being investigated and testimonies still being heard in both Salvadoran and Spanish court systems 40 + years later and can no longer be denied when survivors testify their truth. We have interviewed survivors of massacres, a prominent military officer who deserted his post when ordered to lead his troops to conduct a massacre of innocents. Each story is heart-wrenching. Yet our country is known to provide sanctuary to the military officials who escaped.

One uncomfortable truth from these testimonies includes the collusion and cover-up of U.S. government’s helping to financially subsidize this 12-year war. The infamous El Mozote massacre by Salvadoran military is now undeniable and well-documented; the 800 innocent women and children villagers rounded up and killed was collaborated and paid for in part by the U.S. government, along with contributions by individual Miami millionaires. El Mozote was only one of many massacres. I am deeply ashamed of my own government’s involvement.

I once asked a Salvadoran who runs delegations of North Americans this question: “Why aren’t your people angry and bitter toward us Americans for their role in supporting the 12-year civil war?” His response was, “They realize you personally took no part in those decisions. They do not hold it against you.”

Sadly, even today citizens continue to disappear and receive death threats at an alarming rate. Often the locals refrain from reporting their loved ones’ disappearances or deaths knowing the police are often complicit and will never investigate the cases. In fact, reporting them can make the reporter, or clergy member, who inquire about the person, the next target.

In many areas owners of businesses large and small, the owner is expected to pay a monthly renta (extortion) to the local gang. Repercussions for refusing to pay – well, we won’t discuss that here. A woman we interviewed for a story freely admitted to paying it; however, out of fear, she removed that detail before we printed her story. The obvious question is why not report it to the police? Again, we are told they are often complicit.

The saddest of all institutions for me to reveal wrongdoing is the church. Given the recent events of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. that came to light as a result of the 2002 Boston Globe investigation, it should come as no surprise that sexual exploitation of children occurs in other parts of the world.

My partner and I have interviewed a couple of leaders of small Salvadoran faith-based communities led by lay leaders. Often these are located in rural areas where people began living in communal settings centered around their faith. The Roman Catholic Church neither supports nor encourages them. It has often seen them as a divisive threat. Death threats and accusations of being communists were common to those members during the country’s civil war even as Archbishop (now Saint) Romero came to preach in them.

Few of these faith-based communities have survived, but at least one of them still exists by living on inherited property of a member. It offers business loans to its members to form business co-ops such as artisan cottage industries to support themselves. Despite discrimination from its church-at-large, faith remains the focus of the community.

One of El Salvador’s most famous and renown artists, Fernando Llort, now deceased, was commissioned to create a ceramic tile mural on the exterior of the National Cathedral in 1977. He called it “Harmonia de mi pueblo” (Harmony of the People). In January 2012, church officials tore it down without reason or without telling Llort in advance. No effort was made to restore his work nor to return the handmade tiles to him.

When we asked Llort his feelings about his creation being destroyed, he responded, “It was all very sad. It made me angry and confused. I don’t know why they tore it all down. I know what they said, but I don’t believe the explanation that was given. I always thought I created this work for God; everything in it had religious symbolism. So, I didn’t understand why an authority of the church would not like religious symbolism.”

To celebrate the 41st anniversary of the assassination of archbishop/saint Oscar Romero, the Dominican order commissioned Costa Rican artist Ivonne Araya to create a portrait of him in the El Rosario Church in central San Salvador.

I had to re-read this three times before I believed I read it accurately. The Catholic Church chose to overlook the capable and talented artists within their own country for this artwork; these artists could reflect their own culture better than an artist from another country. Certainly, they remember that now Saint Romero himself spent his entire life meeting the needs of the poor within his own country. I was sorely disappointed in the church’s insensitive decision. However, my dismay is not limited to the Salvadoran Catholic Church.

I struggle with each and every example I shared.

Amid all the injustices, inequities, and collusions that have occurred and continue to occur, the character of the Salvadoran people in general is one of integrity and hope. They remain a people of warmth, hospitality, and compassion, determined to improve life for their communities and country. I have never met a bitter or angry Salvadoran.

I find that absolutely uplifting, and remarkable.

This group of newly-ordained Lutheran pastors gives me hope. Our scholarship program helped support three of them.


    Afflicted with Hope / embracingelsalvador.org is one of many outreach ministries at
    Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
    New Kingstown, PA 17072

    Tax deductible donations for support of this work in El Salvador may be sent to the above address.