After a Problematic Tutelage, El Salvador Emerges from a Bloody Epoch to See a Possibly Promising Future

After a year in office, one of the achievements brought about by the still completely untested Salvadoran administration of President Mauricio Funes, a space has been created for several innovative, yet not well known, projects like that of the University Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero (UMOAR). If successful, this entirely estimable institution, founded by Dr. Francisco Acosta Arevalo and his wife, Dr. Barbara Acosta, under the welcomed provisions of the 1992 Salvadoran Peace Accords, has become an important step in the direction of educational advancement in one of El Salvador’s poorest regions.

The burgeoning political landscape in El Salvador, coupled with the leadership, vision, and tenacity provided by the Acostas, allowed for the kind of educational institution UMOAR has become. Its rebirth reflected a stunning accomplishment in a region traditionally neglected by the country’s political elites. In order to create UMOAR, a small group of visionaries had to face huge obstacles in order to achieve fundamental change in El Salvador’s traditional ways of doing things.

El Salvador became engorged in the maw of Cold War U.S. foreign policy-making that called for Latin American governments to maintain a political order that discouraged any change, while encouraging standard procedures at the expense of the country’s democratic principles. As a result of this hard-line domestic policy, seen throughout Latin America but especially in El Salvador during the 1980s, the country experienced the coming to power of a series of right-wing regimes intent on persecuting a leftist-leaning political opposition. In 1980, a fiercely contested civil war broke out in El Salvador, eventually prompting a mass exodus of those who saw their lives being in extreme danger. Ironically, several million of them made their way to the US, the source of the repression they were trying to flee in El Salvador. Dr. Francisco Acosta Arevalo and his wife Barbara, who together provided the thrust behind the idea of creating the university, took their life experiences and distilled from them a sense of a mission to bring the conflict to a close and restore a country which honored the university’s sense of purpose: to achieve peace, social justice and democracy.

Fountains of Inspiration

El Salvador, like much of Latin America, has existed within a socio-political spectrum that was divided into tripartite sectors. Acosta described the country’s political system of the 1970s and 1980s as a triangle in which each end acted as a dominant political force. There was the Salvadoran oligarchy (the “Fourteen Families”), the military, (which had dominated the political scene for over sixty years, whose mission was to defend the status quo, as exemplified by the role of the Fourteen Families), and the Catholic Church (whose upper clergy was in close alliance with the families). These dominant social classes controlled most of the means of production, which resulted in a grossly unequal distribution of the country’s wealth. On the other hand, 65% of the population owned no land, nor did the government begin to meet its basic needs, in terms of job creation and in the break up of large plantations.

Born in the foothills of the Guazapa volcano, Francisco Acosta came from a marginated social class traditionally ignored, if not repressed, by the government and the ruling classes. In 1966, the US Peace Corps set up operations in the region and brought with it some innovative farming techniques, as well as fertilizers and a variety of improved barnyard livestock. Acosta at the age of thirteen was elected president of his 4-H Club, in which he became one of those anxious to promote advanced agricultural projects. In spite of his youth, Acosta’s leadership in this work and his concern for the welfare of others, encouraged him to consider studying for the priesthood. He studied the vocation at the seminary for six years until 1972, when the country experienced fraudulent elections that placed Colonel Arturo Armando Molina in power. As Acosta relates, “After [the fraud], we were asked to sing the mass in the cathedral during the inauguration of the president.” However, given that this president was not elected democratically, the 120 seminary students in attendance refused to participate, and acting as one, walked out of the seminary quarters, thus frustrating the timetable the authorities had in mind. “Many of my former colleagues [went on] to join the guerrillas, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN),” Acosta recalled.

As a member of a pacifist family, Acosta decided to work to achieve social justice in its many manifestations. Along with six of his former colleagues from the seminary, and led by a Jesuit priest, he started a fund for the construction of housing for low-income people. In eleven years, the organization was able to build 15,000 houses for some of El Salvador’s most disadvantaged citizens. However, in the beginning of the 1980s, the triggering of the Salvadoran Civil War had a tumultuous impact on both the country and Acosta.

Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, whom Acosta deeply admired, was assassinated while conducting mass in San Salvador’s national cathedral in March 1980. This event signalized the beginning of a bloody conflict that ravished El Salvador for the next twelve years. “Monsignor Romero was killed because he broke the triangle of power,” said Acosta. The Archbishop spoke out against the serious social inequalities that had the country in their grip, thus jarring the disturbingly passive role of the church in the country’s confining political triangle. On grounds of his personal safety, Acosta was forced to leave the country a week after the assassination of Archbishop Romero, but this did not cause Acosta to lose his intense calling for social change.

Birth of a Dream

Acosta and his wife, Barbara, returned to El Salvador in 1990, while El Salvador was still engulfed in civic conflict, to initiate a project he affectionately calls their “third daughter- the Oscar Arnulfo Romero University.” The University was established in an abandoned house in the Department of Chalatenango, one of the bloodiest cockpits of combat during the Civil War. UMOAR launched its lectures and seminars beginning in 1994 with 200 students matriculating in its classrooms, 25% of whom were former war combatants. The university thus began its institutional life based on a bedrock strategy to promote an educational format founded on the teachings of Archbishop Romero. These teachings, focusing on social justice and a preferential option for the poor, were meant to inspire those who graduated to remain in the northern region of the country in order create a caring commitment as well as try to cope with a destructive brain drain. Thus, the education provided by UMOAR aims at creating educated individuals willing to give back something to their home communities and deepen human development throughout the region. Although the University was born in the protective context of the birth of the peace agreements, it would soon have to engage in a fierce face off with the government of the rightist National Republican Alliance party (ARENA), which viewed the UMOAR with the barest of tolerance.

The Government’s Disregard for Education

Since ARENA’s founder, Roberto D’Aubuisson was purportedly an author of the demise of Romero; the ARENA government, from the beginning, was uncomfortable with the name and mission of the University and several times made attempts to close it down. But the international clamor against these attempts was so vast that the education minister, Cecilia Gallardo de Cano, received hostile notes of protest from opponents all over the world. During the past decade when neoliberal policies were in the ascendancy throughout much of the hemisphere, UMOAR underwent significant internal conflict. ARENA was intent on promoting tight government involvement in educational affairs. Such on-hand policies inevitably lead to deterioration of the role of social justice and humanist attitudes in educational matters. These neoliberal convictions which permeated UMOAR at the time, according to Acosta, “basically divided the University into two factions.” The educational mercantilists were “the corrupt individuals who [did] not care about the future of the institution, [but rather] sought [after] personal advantages.” Acosta’s group, along with the Bishop of Chalatenango, became “a real team of Romeristas.” The Romeristas were concerned about the widespread evidence of corruption in government, which spilled over into institutions, including their own. Consequently, they embarked on a campaign to inform their international contacts about such matters. UMOAR managed to attract support from key US legislators such as Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy who asked the then president of El Salvador, Tony Saca, to curtail corruption throughout the country. These attempts at halting corruption saw vindication when President Mauricio Funes, of the FMLN, defeated the ARENA party and took office on June 1, 2009, promising to end governmental corruption.

The Triumphs and the Future

In November 2009, with Mauricio Funes as the presidential victor, the UMOAR won approval of the new administration via the Ministry of Education of El Salvador. Today, the University is headed by Director Porfirio Cerritos Parada. The newly invigorated UMOAR seeks to restore its original mission of education for social justice. A total of 717 students have graduated from UMOAR since its beginning. “Each graduate is a trophy for us,” said Acosta. El Salvador is now under the leadership of President Funes, who has vowed to take El Salvador in a new direction, something that is very different from its recent past. Both Funes and Acosta, in their own ways, have become solid examples of how to help a country move forward. Latin America has persevered through difficult times in the recent past and must now seek to more systematically promote social equity, improved democratic institutions, and improved financial conduits. Noble promises like these can begin to be fulfilled through conciliatory strategies such as those being advocated by a number of Salvadoran individuals.