Be a Patriot (in El Salvador)
and Kill a Priest

excerpted from the book

Cry of the People

The struggle for human rights in Latin America
and the Catholic Church in conflict with US policy

by Penny Lernoux

Penguin Books, 1980, paper


"When they took us to a Jeep outside the church, I counted I forty-five soldiers with machine guns," Carranza continued. "There were tanks and helicopters, too. The whole city was under siege. Shots here and there, soldiers ransacking the houses, breaking down the doors if there was any resistance. We three priests were taken to a police station in San Salvador, where we soon heard the beatings and cries of peasants as they were thrown into the jail. Although we were blindfolded, we knew they were bringing in all the furniture and belongings of our parish house. We later learned that they destroyed everything and that the church is now a barracks."

"Operation Rutilio," as the military called the May 1977 siege, was swift and brutal. Within an hour of the dawn attack two thousand government troops had cut off the town's electricity and occupied the school, the railroad, the gas station, and the church. Then the killing began. The armed forces and the police, using tanks, aircraft, and tear gas, sealed off a five-hundred-square-mile area, and every house was searched. The exact death toll is not known, but Church sources estimate that three hundred and fifty to four hundred people were gunned down, most of them unarmed peasants. Carranza and the other priests were taken to the Guatemalan border and expelled, their crime being that they had supported landless people in their efforts to organize a union, the worst offense that can be committed in El Salvador, or so think the military regime and the large landowners who control the government. Peasants are not supposed to talk back in a feudal society, and in El Salvador "the peasants live like serfs in Europe four hundred years ago," said a Salvadoran priest.

The most densely populated, most undernourished country in Central America, with nearly five million people in an area the size of Massachusetts, El Salvador is a microcosm of Latin America's social and political ills. Ninety percent of the peasants have no land, and they comprise two thirds of the population. Two percent of the people own 58 percent of the arable land. The average monthly income of the peasant families, 50 percent of them illiterate, is twelve dollars. Four fifths of the children are ill-nourished. Unemployment and underemployment total 45 percent.

Ever since commercial coffee growing came to the country in the nineteenth century, the large growers have been progressive}y squeezing the peasants off their communal lands. With no virgin land to exploit and an annual birth rate of 3.5 percent, El Satvador's desperate peasant population rose up-and was slaughtered-time and again; in 1932 President Maximiliano Hernandez' government killed thirty thousand of them. The "green revolution's" agricultural advances hastened the land accumulation, and thousands more were driven from their tiny plots by large cotton, sugar, and coffee estates. `'Coffee eats men!" became the anguished cry of the starving peasants.

None of this mattered to the country's coffee oligarchy, supreme in its assurance of power and wealth. The "fourteen families," sons and grandsons of earlier dictators who had confiscated the communat lands of the peasants, continue to live in splendor, with mansions in San Salvador, lakeside chalets in the mountains, and colonial ranch houses on their haciendas, each with a permanent staff of six or seven servants. San Benito, the rich, new residentiat suburb of northern San Salvador, is a tropical Beverly Hills with acres of manicured lawn, orchid gardens, swimming pools, and marble palaces stuffed with crystal chandeliers, European art, and imported luxuries.

A spurious republic with sham elections and a sham Constitution, El Salvador has always been governed by a privileged clique. (There have been only nine months of real democratic rule since 1931.) The current landowning-military coalition, known as the Nationat Concitiation Party (PCN), dates from 1961, when a reform-minded junta was overthrown by military hard-liners with the blessing of the U.S. military mission.

"I greatly fear that very soon the Bible and the Gospel will not be allowed within the confines of our country. Only the buildings will arrive, nothing else, because all the pages are subversive- they are against sin. And if Jesus were to cross the border . . . they would arrest him. They would take him to many courts and accuse him of being unconstitutional and subversive, a revolutionary, a foreign Jew, a concocter of strange and bizarre ideas contrary to democracy, that is to say, against the minority. They would crucify him again, because they prefer a Christ of the sacristy or the cemetery, a silent Christ with a muzzle on his mouth, a Christ made to our image and according to our selfish interests.


Multinational Skulduggery in Central America

Franklin D. Roosevelt
"Somoza may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch."

The largest nation in Central America, with only 2.2 million people living in an area about the size of England and Wales combined, Nicaragua does not have the population pressures of El Salvador. But like its neighbor, it harbored a small group of greedy people. Half the arable land was occupied by 1,800 ranches, with 96,000 small farms crowded onto the remainder. Another 200,000 peasants had no land. During Somoza's presidency, the Somoza family alone owned 8,260 square miles, or more than 5 million acres, an area approximately the size of El Salvador. (The Somozas controlled an equally disproportionate share of the country's industry; they owned Nicaragua's twenty-six biggest companies.)

A rural teacher in Nicaragua in the 1970s, whose school had been closed by the National Guard

"Teaching people to think is the worst crime you can commit under the Somoza government."

Ex-President Somoza's father, Anastasio, Sr., who founded the family dynasty in 1936

"I don't want educated people. I want oxen."

"We cannot sit with our arms crossed in our convents."

While conditions had been considerably better in Managua than in Zelaya, the atmosphere there was as oppressive. As in Stroessner's Paraguay, the Somoza regime employed an efficient network of spies, including telephone operators, waiters, taxi drivers, and the corner grocer. Such "troublemakers" as the Capuchins and the Cardenal brothers were listed in a government directory supplied to the police and immigration authorities. Among the prominent Nicaraguans on this backlist was Arch bishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, a short, rotund prelate with the half-caste features of his people, whom the government press liked to bait as "that uneducated Indian." Although Obando spoke carefully in public, it was no secret that he opposed the regime. Indeed, his first act as archbishop was to return Somoza's gift of a Mercedes-Benz. (Somoza controlled the Mercedes-Benz agency.) For thus refusing to become indebted to Somoza, the archbishop was threatened with a "car accident" of the sort that killed another progressive Latin-American bishop. His house was ransacked by security agents, and his weekly radio program was censored. Nevertheless, Obando joined the country's other bishops in publicly upholding the Capuchins' denunciations of peasant massacres in Zelaya with a strongly worded statement against "arbitrary detentions, torture, rape, and executions without previous trial."

Jesuit Fernando Cardenal was similarly abused for testifying on Nicaragua's violation of human rights before the U. S. House Subcommittee on International Organizations. The government press described him as a "pervert" and "mental incompetent"; Cornelio Hueck, president of the Somoza -dominated Congress, threatened to try him for treason, and the National University of Nicaragua, where Cardenal taught philosophy, was pressured to dismiss him. Because of media censorship, Cardenal could answer none of the accusations made against him. His telephone was tapped, his letters opened. The Jesuit was not jailed-or murdered-only because Donald Fraser, chairman of the House subcommittee, told the State Department that the U. S. Congress would hold the Somoza government responsible if any harm came to him.

Fernando's brother, the poet Ernesto, was also threatened with charges of treason for denouncing the Somoza government's misuse of AID funds, an accusation backed up by the General Accounting Office in Washington. After Ernesto Cardenal gave a speech in Washington early in 1977, the Somoza newspaper Novedades ran a crude cartoon depicting him as a dirty hippie. Cardenal was a dangerous enemy because of his highly respected writings, including The Gospel in Solentiname, a series of dialogues with the peasants of the Solentiname Archipelago in Lake Nicaragua, based on Medellin's consciousness-raising techniques in reading the Bible. Solentiname is generally agreed to be one of the most damning denunciations of the Somoza dynasty ever printed.

Though less spectacular, government harassment of other priests and nuns was equally unpleasant. After the 1972 earthquake leveled Managua, a number of religious orders moved to the slums instead of rebuilding their schools for the rich, but even the well-to-do Catholic schools that remained placed increasing emphasis on the sort of "liberating education" that searches out the whys and wherefores of injustice and poverty. Since this went against the Somoza preference for "uneducated oxen," the government, in addition to banning courses in philosophy, logic, psychology, and sociology, burdened these Catholic institutions with endless red tape, arbitrary orders to dismiss teachers, and threats of closure.

Priests and nuns involved in social work in the Managua slums were automatically on the government's blacklist, since attempts to teach the poor their legal rights were judged subversive. Maryknoll nuns in the slum of Open, for example, were persistently badgered because they supported the thirty-five thousand inhabitants in a protest against the high price for water imposed by Managua's privately owned water company. A parched, dusty shantytown on the capital's outskirts, Open is so poor that its inhabitants lack even a cemetery in which to bury their dead, yet they were paying water rates double those levied on Managua's wealthy suburbs until a peaceful demonstration by one thousand Open inhabitants forced the water company to lower its rates.

Like their Capuchin counterparts in Zelaya, the Maryknoll sisters live with the people, sharing their deprivations, problems, and aspirations. The nuns' tiny house is on the corner of a dusty dirt road in the heart of the slum, their only concession to luxury a battered pickup truck used to transport the people to religious meetings or to a school or hospital in the city. (Open's "health centers" have neither the medicine nor the facilities to treat the people.) Known as the "Peggys" because both are so named, the two resident nuns run a dawn-to-midnight program of community meetings, religious education, civic action projects, and conferences with Maryknoll sisters from outlying regions. Slender, pretty young women dressed in sandals and cotton dresses, they are welcomed everywhere in Open, good examples of the men and women who believe that the religious life in Latin America "has never been richer." There is no whining about poor living conditions or hard work, no nit-picking over theology, sex, or whether the Mass should be said in Latin or Spanish, because the issues these nuns face are so much more immediate-hunger, sickness, misery, and death. "I would have gone home a long time ago," said Sister Peggy Healy, "were it not for the Christian testimony of these poor people. No matter how much they are beaten down every day, they refuse to give up."

... in January 1978, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, publisher of the opposition newspaper La Prensa, was killed by assassins. A national figure renowned for his unremitting criticism of government corruption and repression, the fifty-three-year-old Chamorro was the leader of a center-left coalition, the Democratic Liberation Union, which included representatives of three political parties and two labor federations. He was a strong contender for the presidency, not only as a well-known newspaper crusader but also as one of the few men of his generation who were never compromised by the Somoza family. As a colleague remarked, in describing the outspoken publisher's frequent stints in jail and exile, Chamorro refused to give up, whereas most Nicaraguans of his age had long since tired of fighting the dictatorship. "Imagine living under the Pinochet junta in Chile for forty-two years, and you have some idea of what it is like in Nicaragua," said a university professor.

According to conservative estimates, some thirty thousand Nicaraguans died in the four decades prior to the 1978-79 civil war for opposing the government of Anastasio Somoza and his sons Luis and Anastasio II. Those who survived, including the sons and daughters of the Nicaraguan aristocracy, were either bought off, forced into exile, or caught up in the economic vise of the Somoza family, which dominated Nicaragua's industry, agriculture, and banks. To silence Chamorro, the president of Somoza's rubber-stamp Congress had threatened him with bankruptcy by demanding damages worth the approximate value of La Prensa on a trumped-up libel charge. But Chamorro wasn't frightened. "I will continue to fight no matter what happens," he said.

His last editorial campaign was directed against a Managua blood-export firm called Plasmaferesis, controlled jointly by Somoza and exiled Cubans, and Somoza tried to pin the assassination on his erstwhile Cuban partner, the director of the company, who was supposed to have masterminded the killing from Miami. It was a story that only the government accepted.

The ill-advised murder of the popular newspaperman set off a wave of violent opposition that shook the Somoza dynasty to its foundations. Family panic had already set in when a sudden upsurge of guerrilla warfare in the fall of 1977 coincided with the discovery that Anastasio II had a serious heart condition. Nevertheless, the ailing strongman was determined to assure the succession of his son, Anastasio III, who had taken over many of his father's duties. Thus, when the business community protested Chamorro's murder with a two-week general strike, Somoza responded by ordering the National Guard to bomb, burn, rape, and pillage cities and villages. At least 350 peasant families were killed in the department of Chontales in the first two months of 1978, according to the department's Bishop Pablo Vega, who said the National Guard had used helicopters to massacre the people and bomb the houses. The Indian quarter of Monimbo, near Managua, was stormed by eight hundred National Guardsmen in tanks, armored cars, and helicopter gunships. The toll there will never be known because the Nahoas Indians buried their dead and hid the wounded in the hills behind the town, but Red Cross and Church sources estimated at least thirty dead and hundreds wounded. Others put the number of dead at over four hundred. The cities of Leon, Diriamba, and Matagalpa were also severely attacked.

As often happens in such repressive situations, increasing numbers of Nicaraguans turned to the Sandinista guerrillas as the only organization with a hope to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship. Such was the anger against the regime in the months following Chamorro's assassination that a number of prominent businessmen publicly sided with the guerrillas. They included landowners, corporate lawyers, bankers, the owner of one of the largest chains of supermarkets in Managua, and the former treasurer of the Managua Chamber of Commerce. Even Alfredo Pellas, the richest non-Somoza in Nicaragua, urged the strongman to resign. "Many of my fellow countrymen now believe that the only way out of this situation is with a gun," said the secretary general of Nicaragua's Conservative Party. "Private enterprise and workers are united in saying, 'No more Somoza!"' Somoza's promises of reform and dialogue fooled no one-the family had broken too many promises in the past. Pedro Chamorro, the only man of sufficient reputation and political support to have conducted a dialogue on equal terms, was dead-killed, most people thought, by Somoza's own men.

One of the few who still believed in the possibility of dialogue, and in Somoza's promise to step down in 1981, was Terence Todman, the State Department's Under Secretary for Inter-American Affairs. Despite the ongoing massacres, he insisted that the human rights situation in Nicaragua had substantially improved. There were good reasons for Todman's inability to recognize facts: while the Carter administration had made known its displeasure at Somoza's heavy-handed way with opponents, it would hardly do for a left-wing guerrilla movement to seize power in Central America. What nobody wanted to admit was that the United States was directly responsible for the popularity of the Sandinista guerrillas. Had it not been for Washington's many years of economic and military support of the Somozas, it is unlikely that conditions in Nicaragua would have reached the point where conservative businessmen were willing to treat with guerrillas. Or as Ernesto Cardenal put it: "Fortunately for us, the United States has never learned the lesson that in supporting cruel and corrupt dictatorships, it only radicalizes the population, causing the very thing it does not want-socialist governments."

The first and fatal mistake was made long ago, in the 1920s, when U. S. Marines attempted to put down a peasant uprising led by Augusto Sandino, a popular leader and the namesake of the current guerrilla front. Anastasio Somoza I was named to head the Army-police force. He used his position to seize the presidency in 1936 and to murder Sandino by first promising amnesty for a conference and then promptly killing everyone who took him at his word. That was a long time ago, but, incredibly, the United States' relationship with the Somozas survived unaltered into modern times. Washington continued to prop up the dictatorship with loans. The Pentagon created, trained, and armed the National Guard, and nearly all Guard officers spent their last year of training in U.S. schools in the Panama Canal Zone. (One of Somoza's chief police advisers, Gunther Wagner, was the former head of AID's police training program in Nicaragua.

During the 1960s and '70s, the Somoza family regularly cried wolf at congressional aid hearings, falsely claiming that such assistance was needed to fight off a Castro-financed guerrilla invasion. Although there were periodic flare-ups, just as there had been in the thirties, forties, and fifties, guerrilla forces never seriously threatened the government, and even as late as 1976 the Sandinista guerrillas numbered no more than fifty militants. The money, the training, and the arms received from the United States were used for something quite different: to repress the poor people in the slums and rural areas by imprisonment, torture, and death. Very few peasants in the department of Zelaya, for example, wanted any truck with the Sandinista guerrillas, but when thousands of unoffending people are repeatedly hounded from their homes, when their families are tortured and murdered, when their land and goods are seized, they eventually turn to the other side, because, as Ernesto Cardenal said, there is no choice. So one day the wolf did finally appear: the phantom threat of a guerrilla uprising that the Somozas had used to keep Nicaraguans in bondage for so long had become a reality by 1978. But neither communism nor Fidel Castro had anything to do with the [Sandinista] guerrillas' success. It was Somoza's own doing with the loyal help of the United States.

Anyone who studies the history of repression and corruption in Nicaragua will see the obvious parallels with Batista's Cuba prior to Castro's successful revolution. The wonder is that nobody in Washington seems to have bothered with history.

Civil War

By the time of the September 1978 uprising, when several thousand young insurrectionists seized five of the country's largest cities, a majority of Nicaraguans were openly demanding Somoza's resignation. Ten days later, after the insurrection had been (temporarily) put down at the cost of enormous-and unnecessary-suffering, there was "not a decent person left who is not against Somoza," in the words of a Nicaraguan lawyer. "Everyone is cooperating with the guerrillas. He can only stop the killing by resigning-or by killing all Nicaraguans.''

Eyewitness accounts of the slaughter by the National Guard suggest that Somoza was prepared to do just that. The Red Cross reported at least five thousand dead, ten thousand missing, over fifteen thousand injured, and twenty-five thousand homeless.

If the Nicaraguan people ever forgive the United States for foisting the Somoza family on them, it will be because of Americans like the Sisters Peggy and the Capuchins, whose only motivation is a Christian concern for the poor in Open and Zelaya. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the U.S. congressmen who, despite ample evidence of corruption and repression, continued to support a dictatorship set up by the State Department more than forty years ago.

... in Washington money and influence count more than proof of corruption and repression. No one should be surprised to learn, then, that the Nicaraguan word for a Somoza bootlicker is "gringo."

As in most of Central America, Honduras is divided between: wealthy few who own the majority of the land and 2 million peasants who own little or no land. Again, it is a question not of too little acreage to go around but of violence and greed: with a population of only 2.9 million in an area nearly the size of Pennsylvania, there is no reason why 23,000 peasant families should starve to death for lack of an acre to plant. But that sort of simple mathematics plays no part in the thinking of the Honduran Government.

The principal difference between Honduras and the other Central American countries is the high degree of political organization of its peasant unions, and for this United Fruit must be thanked. Over the years, conditions on United Fruit's Atlantic Coast banana plantations became so bad that they eventually produced a militant labor movement. The company then employed armed bands to intimidate striking workers, and company planes flew kidnapped union leaders to neighboring El Salvador, where they were dumped. United Fruit thugs took their machetes to the small growers' banana shipments as they lay on railroad platforms. Conditions were not much better on the plantations of United Fruit's principal rival, Standard Fruit. Workers were paid an average seventy-five cents a day and had no right to vacations, medical care, or redress from arbitrary dismissal.

That was until the historic strike of forty thousand workers in 1959, which lasted seventy days despite various deaths and massive arrests of union leaders. All through that terrible period, peasants in the surrounding countryside supported the banana workers, sharing their small portion of beans and bananas with laborers who otherwise would have starved. The banana workers never forgot this solidarity, and it was due to them that the peasants organized their first labor federations.

The other major impulse toward peasant organization came from the Catholic Church and the young technicians of Venezuela's Social Christian Party (the Venezuelan version of Chile's Christian Democrats), who laid the foundations for a vast network of rural radio schools, peasant training centers, and cooperatives that later came under the umbrella of the Council for Coordinated Development (CONCORDE), financed by various European and U.S. Christian organizations. But while CONCORDE's activities spawned three different peasant federations with a combined membership of 140,000, it could never solve the basic problem of land distribution. The people knew their legal rights but were repeatedly balked by the country's military regimes which, while they were quick to make promises, and even passed an agrarian reform law in 1974, did nothing to alter the pattern of land tenancy because of the militant opposition of the cattle ranchers and plantation owners. The frustrations caused by this run-around came to a head when twenty thousand peasants marched on Tegucigalpa in 1972. with the usual massacres by the Army and police.

Honduran Lieutenant Colonel Mario Maldonado

"Agrarian reform is not communist. It is opposed simply because it affects the traditional privileges of the few wealthy people."

Cry of the People

Latin America Watch

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