It was the evening March 21, 1994. The sun was setting on the mural of the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero on the outside wall of San Bartolomé Rectory in the town square of Arcatao, El Salvador.
I could hear children's laughter as they kicked a soccer ball around the square of this rural community. Inside, Padre Manolo Maquiere talked to some of us from the Madison sister city delegation about the special relationship between our two communities.
"The most important aspect of sistering is about relationships, establishing relationships based on justice and love between peoples...and about sustaining those relationships," Padre Manolo said.
Even though governments change, he added, "that doesn't change the relationships between people."
In 1986, when the U.S. bankrolled the Salvadoran military to fight a proxy war to repress the rising social movement for justice in that country, Madison and Arcatao became official sister cities. Many other communities across this country did the same, thus creating the bonds of citizen diplomacy.
The war eventually ended, and the peace accords were signed in 1992. But the memory of the bad days of the '80s is hanging over El Salvador's landscape again like a dark cloud.
That dark cloud came down from the north in the form of the U.S. Patriot Act, which became the basis for El Salvador's Decree 108, the Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism.
In October 2006, President Antonio Saca's right-wing government rewrote the penal code. Decree 108 annulled basic tenets of due process and created new categories of felonies for actions previously protected as freedom of expression.
And in July of this year, Decree 108 became the cudgel to halt a growing social movement, starting with the Association of Rural Communities for the Development of El Salvador (CRIPDES). Riot police responded to a peaceful demonstration against water privatization in Suchitoto by arresting 13 activists, including Lorena Martínez.
Lorena Martínez is no stranger to Madison. As president of CRIPDES, the organization that helped establish our sistering relationship with Arcatao, Martínez has met many Madisonians both here and in El Salvador.
The Suchitoto 13 were charged with "acts of terrorism" and sentenced to three months of preventative detention while awaiting trial. Thanks to international and national outcry, the 13 were released and now await trial by a special tribunal sometime in 2008.
The accused face up to 60 years in prison for activities that before Decree 108 were protected as freedom of expression.
This is a bitter turn of events. Once again, as in the 1980s, the U.S. government stands idly by, disclaiming any leverage over El Salvador. But how can this be? Is there not leverage in the $461 million in development aid recently lavished on El Salvador?
This aid, which U.S. taxpayers subsidize, is explicitly conditioned on compliance with human rights criteria, some of the benchmarks being "rule of law," "civil liberties" and "political rights."
The Suchitoto incident has prompted consternation within Salvadoran and U.S. human rights groups.
Shortly after the July incident, Madison officials sent a letter to President Saca and U.S. Ambassador Charles Glazer protesting the charges.
Signed by Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, Common Council President Mike Verveer and nine other alders, the letter objected to the "use of 'Special Tribunals' to prosecute these individuals for what was clearly an exercise of free speech."
In August, a "Dear colleague" letter expressing similar concerns was signed by 41 congressional representatives, including Tammy Baldwin, and sent to President Saca.
And over the next few days, Madisonians will have their chance to speak out against injustice. The Madison Arcatao Sister City Project will host a national gathering of U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities and the Citizens Not Terrorists Campaign Tour.
Pedro Juan Hernández, a Salvadoran economist and leader in CRIPDES, will attend the gathering and speak at a number of public events. (See sidebar.)
As the prophetic words of Romero on the Arcatao mural state, "The shout of liberation of this people is an outcry that rises to God and that nothing or nobody can stop." Or as he said another time, before he was assassinated: "La lucha continúa." The struggle continues.
CITIZEN IS A FORUM FOR ISTHMUS READERS. CAROLYN GANTNER IS A MEMBER OF THE MADISON ARCATAO SISTER CITY PROJECT.
To learn more
CRIPDES leader Pedro Juan Hernández will speak at the following events:
Rock for Rights concert featuring Marques Bovre, SoDangYang, Tony Brown and Bonobo Secret Handshake, Saturday, Oct. 6, 7:30 pm, Labor Temple, 1602 S. Park St., free.
Interview on Forward Forum, Sunday, Oct. 7, 7:30 or 8 pm, WTDY 1670AM, www.forwardforum.net.
UW Brown Bag Discussion, Tuesday, Oct. 9, noon, sponsored by Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies, 206 Ingram Hall, 1155 Observatory Drive.
Discussion, Tuesday, Oct. 9, 7 pm, at Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, 426 W. Gilman St., sponsored by Rainbow and Community Action on Latin America.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 251-9280.