On Tuesday, June 21st, Professor Mauricio, along with myself, 5 other Americans, and a local attorney met with the Chancellor of the University of El Salvador, Ingeniero Rufino Antonio Quezada. We sat in the spacious conference room outside his office for almost 2 hours and discussed the history of the University, its role in social and political activism in the country, and the past and ongoing problems it has with the government.
About halfway through the conversation, Chancellor Rufino recognized that I was wearing an Oregon Law t-shirt and stopped mid-sentence to ask if I was from Oregon. When I said I lived in Eugene he laughed and said he loved the river there and wondered if the residence halls at U of O were still standing, or if we had built new ones. It was an odd break in what was otherwise a very serious conversation, and when I spoke to him later he told me that he lived in a residence hall at U of O in 1986 for several months and loved the city (note: it was summer when he was there, so among other things the weather won him over). It turns out that he fled to the US after his second arrest and ended up spending time in Eugene.
In 1986, when he was arrested on campus and detained in the same building where the torture of Professor Mauricio took place, he was already relatively high up at the University and the National Police felt pressure from academics and politicians abroad to let him out. Apparently, a small group of lawyers from the US, who were in in El Salvador and had support from people like Jesse Jackson, helped get him out of jail and then out of the country. He was told by the police that he had to leave and if he ever came back they would kill him.
After first spending a small amount of time in Washington, D.C., he ended up being moved to the west coast and eventually Oregon, where he lived on the U of O campus for several months. And when he returned to El Salvador and was arrested again in 1987, someone from the University (he thinks it was a Dean of some sort, but isn’t sure) paid $2,000 to the Salvadoran government to have him released. He didn’t remember the name of the hall he stayed in or the lawyers that helped him, but he did remember recuperating from the abuse during a summer in Eugene relaxing next to the river that flowed near campus. Time and again I realize how small of a world we live in.
The University of El Salvador was formed in 1841 and is the oldest institution in the country. It has always been a hotbed of political activism and social critique, and since it is almost completely comprised of left-leaning students and faculty it has historically been the object of serious oppression from the government. The University itself has been taken over and controlled by the military at least 3 times (1932, 1980, and 1989), and has been attacked more times than that. Many of these attacks consisted of the military surrounding the University with tanks, helicopters, and armed soldiers, killing dozens of students and faculty members. Even more were arrested and went missing during each of these raids, especially leaders of student groups. When Professor Mauricio was only 14 (and working as a day laborer helping to build the new campus) he was rounded up during a “demonstration” and for the first time was imprisoned in the National Police Headquarters. Years later, after being tortured in the basement for over a week, his blindfold was finally removed and he realized where he was because he remembered the floors, walls, and structure of the holding area that he had seen as a teenager. Chancellor Rufino watched Professor Mauricio being kidnapped by soldiers in 1983 and thought he was dead until he saw him in Berkeley, California a few years later.
According to Chancellor Rufino, in 1980 the government felt that if they could control the university and stop the student groups from organizing then they could stop the resistance completely. At that time the FMLN did not yet exist in the form it took later in the war, and thus various armed resistance groups were fighting somewhat in concert, but not necessarily together. There were also many smaller resistance movements in the rural areas, but San Salvador and the University in particular was a focal point for underground organizing. Chancellor Rufino was an “underground commander,” in the early part of the war, meaning that he wasn’t armed and didnt directly participate in the fight but was in charge of organizing and communicating between the various resistance groups working for the same goal – the removal of the military dictatorship. Any type of organizing (other than small family gatherings), was illegal in El Salvador at the time, and explains why he was arrested so many times without actually firing a shot himself.
Chancellor Rufino, like many other Salvadorans I have met with, is able to present the seriousness of the problems in El Salvador (past and present) while at the same time remaining at ease with us and making jokes. I am so far fascinated by the ability of these passionate people to discuss the horrible abuses they have experienced, and then quickly smile and laugh at the irony of the situation. They seem to realize from the reactions on our faces how heavy the information is coming across, and they never forget to mention that they are the lucky ones, the survivors, so they have a lot to be happy about.
At present the University has a relatively good relationship with the leftist FMLN government of President Funes, but there are still many problems. When Chancellor Rufino condemed several actions and non-actions of the government (unemployment is still a major problem), and made clear that the University felt that the Supreme Court must find the amnesty law unconstitutional, he was quick to respond with a smile and say that “regardless of all that, we are just happy that ARENA isnt in power!” ARENA is the conservative government that has a very close connection with the military dictatorship that ruled the country for 50 years prior to the peace accords in 1992. It felt like I was sitting at a table in Eugene hearing someone chastise Obama for not doing what he said he would while simultaneously praising him for being so much better than George W.
We also visited a memorial created by the people of El Salvador for the victims and disappeared from the war. It was somewhat analogous to the Vietnam War Memorial, a long granite wall with a list of names, but what is most amazing is that even after the peace accords were signed the government would not support such a monument. Instead they built a small column in a large park in San Salvador and dedicated it to those who lost their lives fighting for the country. It stands about 5 feet tall and I didn’t even notice it as we first passed by. It is seen as a slap in the face to the people I have been meeting with, and ironically enough sits only 50 yards from the giant wall that was paid for by private donation with the names of the thousands who were killed and/or went missing during the conflict. Some names on the list of missing escaped and are alive and well. But most, like the one Professor Mauricio is pointing to in the picture, are victims whose families and friends do not know where they are buried.
A few interesting facts about the University of El Salvador:
• The University has about 60 thousand students in total, about 30 of those at the San Salvador Campus.
• On top of the hundreds of students and student-activists that were killed during the war, the Military assassinated 2 chancellors, one of which was a personal friend of the current Chancellor and Professor Mauricio.
• It is a public University, and last year accepted just over 9500 of the more than 30 thousand applicants. The Chancellor says their resources are completely saturated (they only receive about $300,000 USD from the government each year) and they rely at times on student groups to provide supplemental resources to the students themselves.
• The majority of students pay about 4 or 5 dollars a year, with medical students paying about 15. About 10% pay as much as $60 or $70 a year for tuition and fees, but that is the most. Not a lot of student debt here, but at the same time people are graduating from medical school and can’t find jobs, even though there are too few doctors to take care of the population.