Congressman Jim McGovern

Representing the 2nd District of Massachussetts
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Nov 15, 2014
Press Release

The following are the remarks given by U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (MA02) during a panel, The Legacy of the Jesuits on U.S. Foreign Policy toward El Salvador and Central America and on the Society of Jesus, at University of Central America José Simeón Cañas on Saturday, November, 15, 2014. 

Thank you for that very kind introduction.  I am here this morning because I am grateful to the Jesuits of El Salvador, and especially those who have served and those who continue to serve here at the UCA.  You have been my friends, my mentors and my teachers.  How I think, what I believe, how I view and evaluate what is going on in the world has been shaped by my relations with the Jesuits, before, during and after the war.

The UCA itself was founded in the spirit of liberation. It is named after a Salvadoran priest, José Simeón Cañas, who as a congressman in the Constitutional Assembly championed and achieved the abolition of slavery in Central America in 1824.  Abraham Lincoln didn’t sign the Emancipation Proclamation until forty years later, in 1863.  So it’s right that we in the United States look to and work with the UCA to advance human rights, human dignity, freedom and equality.

Many people look upon the deaths of Fathers Ignacio Ellacuría, “Nacho” Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno, Joaquín López y López, Amando López, and Elba and Celina Ramos as crimes that epitomize the harsh reality of the war and the brutality of the Salvadoran armed forces.  I prefer to remember their lives. I remember how they lived, how they carried out their pastoral work, their intellectual work and research, and how they interacted with their students, friends, colleagues and the Salvadoran people. And if there is one lesson that they taught me, it was that faith is more than ritual – it means action.  “Feed the Hungry” means feed the hungry.  “Treat Everyone with Dignity” means every person, and especially the poor, rightfully deserve a life with dignity.

One of the reasons U.S. policy changed towards El Salvador in the 1990s was because Jesuit university and college presidents from all around the United States – many who are here today – took up the challenge of the murdered Jesuits and ignited their alumni across the country to take action, not to remain silent.  Those actions had tremendous power – the power of faith working to move history in support of human rights, truth, justice and peace. 

We come to El Salvador this weekend to commemorate the lives and the loss of our Jesuit brothers.  But we are also here to reflect on what has happened over the past 25 years.  I believe that U.S. policy toward El Salvador has fallen far short in the aftermath of the war.  In 1995, we all but abandoned El Salvador, significantly reducing our economic and development support just when it was most needed to consolidate the peace.  When we have seen increases in our development aid, it has mainly been in response to natural disasters.

The U.S. should have helped lead a Marshall Plan for Peace in El Salvador over the past 20 years; instead, we did the opposite.  We still don’t have robust assistance ready to support a national development strategy for El Salvador – and we certainly aren’t prioritizing projects focused on listening to, working with and helping lift up the poorest and most neglected Salvadorans, rather than economic projects that support elite interests.  Even our Millennium Challenge Grants, which are targeted at strengthening Salvadoran agriculture and related infrastructure, and now at supporting development projects along the Pacific Coast, were held hostage to private sector interests for too long. But I’m glad that all conditions have now been resolved and I’m hopeful that development projects that take into account the interests of the communities on the coast might now move forward.

So, we Americans should not be surprised that we are now reaping what we have helped sow.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that had we invested significantly over the past 20 years in jobs, education, health care, food security, youth, women and families, fewer Salvadorans would have felt forced to abandon their homes and seek a life elsewhere.  Not only did U.S. policies export gang violence to Central America, we did precious little to invest in preventing violence from taking root.

With all these families and unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border – many with terrible stories to tell – it is time to develop a policy that is good for the people of El Salvador, Central America and the United States.  Will we help our friends and neighbors create jobs and greater opportunities for young people and marginalized communities and towns?  Will we help strengthen judicial institutions to investigate and prosecute those responsible for violence?  Will we help those same institutions root out corruption and identify those among society who are in league with or benefit from criminal activity and violence?  Will we invest in the kind of citizen security and infrastructure that benefits all Salvadorans, not just the wealthy few? 

President Sanchez Cerén is in Washington right now, and he and the other Central American presidents met with U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden yesterday.  I hope that the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress will decide to make long-term investments in youth, in development, and in citizen security. I hope they will embrace the positive lessons learned from USAID’s recent programs on youth violence prevention.  As they work on these proposals, I hope the U.S. and Salvadoran governments will make sure that programs are designed in partnership with civil society and affected communities – a real partnership. 

We in the U.S. government need to be committed to reforming and strengthening institutions, and we have to make sure that our partners in Central America, most especially the regional governments, are also genuinely committed to using these investments for real institutional reform, and for development that benefits youth and marginal communities.  We need to make sure that civil society and affected communities are wholly integrated into designing and evaluating these projects. And when I look around the region, I feel like the most potential for creating these types of sensitive and genuine partnerships is here in El Salvador.    

Such long-term investments not only need to be made, they will need to be sustained. I am very concerned that the Administration, and especially the new U.S. Congress, will try to do everything “on the cheap.”  And meanwhile, the questions remain whether we in the United States will respect our own laws, as well as international humanitarian law, and welcome those who come to our borders in need of protection?  Or will we continue to spend money primarily on increasing border security, expanding detention facilities, denying immigrants legal counsel, streamlining deportation proceedings, and overwhelming, rather than strengthening, our immigration courts?

My country owes a great deal to the hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans who have made the United States their home.  They are great assets to our local communities, working hard, opening small businesses, investing in their neighborhoods, and all the while continuing to invest in their families and former communities here in El Salvador.  It reminds me a lot of my own Irish-Polish immigrant heritage. 

I first learned about El Salvador from refugees in 1983 who told my former boss, Congressman Joe Moakley, their stories.  I believe that Salvadoran children and families telling similar stories about why they are trying to escape gang violence and criminal networks can make a difference today. Policymakers need to understand this reality. It also requires a commitment to invest in new policies, new ideas, new approaches – both here in El Salvador and in the United States.

When we deal with criminal and gang violence in the United States, we know we need to deal with education, social services and prevention programs, and with jobs and opportunities for young people.  I don’t know why anyone believes it’s any different here.

 The Government of El Salvador has made great progress.  When I first traveled to El Salvador, the FMLN was in the mountains, settling differences through the barrel of a gun.  Today, the Salvadoran people have just elected its second president from the FMLN political party.  Peace has made a tremendous difference.  The Salvadoran people’s commitment to peace has made a tremendous difference.  And today, political disputes are settled in the political and public arena.

I am grateful to be able to honor the lives of the Jesuit martyrs, and to know that their memory and their example continue to influence so many people, even now, 25 years after their murders.

I am also proud that we will be presenting later today a gift from the Moakley Foundation in Massachusetts for the UCA.   I still believe that one of the best investments we can make in El Salvador is to support this university.  Future leaders of El Salvador are being educated here today – maybe one of you sitting in the audience will be president of El Salvador one day, or a financial leader, or a teacher whose students will change the world, or a social worker who will work with communities and design the model that lifts thousands of Salvadorans out of poverty and into a dignified life.  It is all possible, here at the UCA.

Education is the great liberator.  The history of the UCA – and the lives and work of the Jesuit community – have long stood for an engaged and educated society, able to transform itself for the good of all people.  This is why universities throughout Central America and around the world have created partnerships with the UCA.  The UCA is the place where new ideas, new visions, and new leadership come to be nurtured and to flourish.  And the UCA has always been where the voices of the poor were amplified – not just during the war, but in the hard work of advancing and consolidating the peace.

We all know there is no quick fix to the problems facing El Salvador.  But many of the solutions to those problems are ones that the Jesuits and the UCA have advocated for as long as I can remember.  All people deserve to be treated with dignity.  Investing in the poor means listening to those who live in marginal communities and letting them decide how best to address the many problems that affect their daily lives.  Certainly, confronting violent gangs and criminal networks requires strong police and judicial systems.  But it also requires that those institutions be free of corruption, transparent, respectful of basic human rights, able to carry out their duties at a decent living wage, and in harmony with the communities that rely on their protection.

The good news is that there are solutions, and we basically know what they are.  I believe with the commitment to act and press policymakers to do the right thing for the majority of Salvadorans, especially the poor, we can all make a difference.  And I rely on the UCA and the Jesuits in El Salvador and the United States to remain committed and engaged, and to help show us the way.

In 1982, in a speech at Santa Clara University, Father Ellacuría spoke eloquently about the role of the university.  He began by saying:


“ Our historical reality – the reality of El Salvador, the reality of the Third World, that is, the reality of the larger part of the world and the most universal – is characterized fundamentally by the dominance of falsehood over truth, of injustice over justice, of oppression over liberty, of scarcity over abundance, in short of evil over good .  .  .” 


He then went on to describe the role of the university this way: 


“We ask ourselves what to do with the University.  And we answer, above all, from the ethical point of view:  transform it, do what is possible so that good wins over evil, liberty over oppression, justice over injustice, truth over falsehood and love over hate.  .  . 


“A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor.  This does not mean that only the poor study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence – excellence needed to solve complex social problems.  It does mean that the university should be present intellectually where it is needed:  to provide science for those who have no science; to provide skills for the unskilled; to be a voice for those who have no voice; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to promote and legitimize their truth and their rights.


I do not mean to be presumptuous by quoting Fr. Ellacuría to all of you who work and study at the UCA, but for me, those words resonate as strongly today as they did three decades ago. How can we look at the agony and desperation of so many Salvadorans and Central Americans and not feel called upon to respond generously and in solidarity with them, their families and their communities?   I strongly believe – and it is one of the most important legacies of the Jesuit martyrs – that we are here to help the least among us. For me, this is the most important mission – for governments, for churches, for universities, for all of us.  As Professor Dave O’ Brien, at the College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit college in my home town of Worcester, wrote earlier this week, the challenge for all of us is in “creating the next chapter.” 

When I think of the lives and the deaths of those who we honor and who bring us together for this reflection, I believe that if they were still here with us, experiencing El Salvador’s current reality, they would be calling us to the same commitment, built on the same ideals. 

These eight individuals – six priests, two women – they died for a reason.  What they stood for is very powerful.  As long as I live I will be inspired by their words and by their example.

 It is a powerful legacy.  Let us build upon it together.  Let us create the next chapter.

Thank you.