the recognition of human rights (continued)

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


Revolution in the Ranks

The emphasis of the Medellin documents on Christian rather than t political values was fundamental to the Church's declaration of independence from the state. Although frequently in the past Christianity has appeared in ideological guises, it is essentially a critical discipline, a constant call for justice. By denouncing poverty and social injustice at the cost of political influence and privilege, the Latin-American Church could claim, for the first time in its history, that it was the conscience of all Latin-American Catholics, not just a rich minority.

As events soon proved, however, few of the bishops present at Medellin recognized what this declaration of independence meant. No one will argue (though some may privately believe) that hunger and illiteracy are good things; thus the bishops were easily persuaded to denounce such injustices, having already been primed by Vatican II, Pope Paul's Populorum Progressio, and their own experiences. In any organization the most intelligent, dynamic sectors tend to dominate; at Medellin these were the progressive bishops like Larrain and Camara and the young technicians of CELAM. The majority of the prelates merely followed their lead, unable to sense any contradiction between their own ideas and the documents they signed. Most missed the heart of the matter: that the Medellin documents were a revolutionary call to work for social justice, placing the Church in open conflict with the moneyed classes that for centuries had been its political and economic mainstay. There were no platitudes or concessions-the gates were wide open.

The first shock to hit the hierarchy was revolution in the religious ranks. Throughout the 1960s there had been a confused, sterile debate over the efficacy of violence and guerrilla warfare among young Latin-American leftists in universities, high schools, and trade unions, who mistakenly believed that Fidel Castro's guerrilla tactics could be successfully repeated in the rest of the hemisphere. The leftists' theory was quickly disproved in Venezuela and Peru, where rural guerrillas were destroyed by the military in, respectively, 1962 and 1963. Venezuelan guerrilla leaders privately admitted that they were defeated primarily because they could not elicit the support of suspicious, conservative peasants who had not the slightest idea what the university-educated guerrillas were talking about. Although the odds were heavily against guerrilla ventures, Latin-American university students remained unconvinced- during most of the decade; so, too, did the Pentagon, which based its Latin-American military training on counterinsurgency techniques, to the lasting grief of the civilian population.

Many of the best-educated priests either worked on university campuses or were involved in programs that included students, and because of this association they became infected by the idea of violent revolution. When the student guerrillas were wiped out in country after country, the priests began to fill the gap. Very few actually joined the guerrillas, but a well-publicized minority openly upheld partisan positions in favor of socialist organizations, frequently participating in vociferous confrontations with the local authorities and with other members of the Church Medellin was like a red flag waving them into action, although its documents deliberately skirted any suggestion of a political solution and certainly could not-be considered a manifesto for violent revolution.

These combative young religious could put their own interpretation on Medellin, no matter what the bishops said, because of the institutional reforms of Vatican II. In an attempt to achieve more democracy within the Church the council had thrown out many of the old canonical traditions of clerical obedience, and once those were gone, priests and nuns in growing numbers chose their own ideas and type of work. In Latin America, where there is only one priest for every 5,891 Catholics (in the United States the ratio is one to every 827) there are many more jobs than clergy. So, as a left-wing Peruvian priest put it, "Any bishop who doesn't like what we are doing can lump it, because there is always another bishop who will be glad to have our services."

Bereft of the old disciplinary rules and confronted by secularism and socialism, Latin-American priests and nuns went through a painful period of confusion and upheaval. During the late sixties more of them left the Church to marry than did the religious of any other continent.

Priests formed left-wing organizations in seven countries, some doing so in open support of radical parties or governments, as in Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia. And in several dioceses there were ugly, sometimes violent clashes between priests and bishops. Thirty diocesan priests in Mexico demanded the resignation of Bishop Leonardo Viera Contreras, and in Maracaibo, Venezuela, twenty-two pastors called on Archbishop Domingo Roa to resign. Several hundred priests and laymen petitioned the Guatemalan Congress to expel Archbishop Mario Casariego, cardinal of Guatemala City; in Argentina a group of priests from Cordoba and Rosario demanded the dismissal of Bishop Victorio BonamIn, chief military chaplain. Similarly, activist priests in Rio de Janeiro and Peru insisted on their right to elect the local archbishop. Chile's left-wing religious movement, Christians for Socialism, attacked Santiago's Cardinal Raul Silva, while in Rosario, Argentina, Archbishop Guillermo Bolatti and thirty priests belonging to the Third World movement engaged in a mud-slinging match that lasted three months. Dissident priests also demanded the removal of the papal nuncio in Bolivia; in Peru they actually prevailed on the hierarchy to blackball Papal Nuncio Romulo Carboni. Although the majority of the militants were leftists, there were also cases, as in El Salvador, where conservative priests demanded the removal of a progressive archbishop.

With the exception of Peru, none of these radical groups achieved its aims, religious or political, and that was because many of the "new utopians," long on theory but short on political savvy, tilted with adversaries whose intelligence and resources they greatly underestimated. Moreover, they were "arrogant and narrow-minded," said a progressive U.S. missionary, who argues that the militants' insulting attacks on the hierarchy and their know-it all attitude toward religion and politics alienated not only the bishops but the majority of priests and nuns as well.

The religious rebellion gave the bishops a sharp jolt, and, under the influence of the conservatives among them (particularly the Colombians, who had raised the lone dissenting voice at Medellin, they began to worry about what they had wrought. The idea that Marxist analysis had been used by CELAM theologians and sociologists to reach some of the Medellin Conclusions was particularly galling and confusing. While by now the bishops had no love for capitalism, instinct and tradition made them wary of anything with socialist connotations. And then, of course, everyone could see what trouble poor Cardinal Silva was having in Chile with Christians for Socialism. There was no telling where the Church would find itself if such shenanigans were allowed to continue.

By 1972 many of the bishops were in hurried retreat. The progressive prelates who had engineered Medellin were voted out of their CELAM posts, and the think tanks that had nourished the theology of liberation were either closed or restaffed. The retreat might easily have become a rout had the region's armed forces not intervened in the nick of time, swinging the balance back in favor of Church progressives by unleashing a reign of terror unequaled in Latin-American history.

While terror had long been an instrument of repression in such old-fashioned military regimes as Stroessner's Paraguay and the Somoza dynasty of Nicaragua, it was not scientifically applied until the late 1960s when Brazil developed sophisticated systems of surveillance and torture and a geopolitical doctrine to rationalize the imprisonment, murder, and exile of political dissidents. This was the other side of Brazil's "economic miracle," which supplied the money and technology to computerize repression.

The Nixon administration and corporate business hailed Brazil as a model for development in the Third World, but Church leaders were not convinced. On the contrary, progressive prelates in Brazil, Paraguay, and Mexico warned their colleagues that Orwell's 1984 was almost upon them. But because these men had been the architects of Medellin, their warnings went unheeded. Few Latin-American bishops had experienced the sort of "round-the-clock persecution" Helder Camara suffered in Brazil; most had other, more pressing diocesan problems, including rebellious priests. As far as these bishops were concerned, the "fascist menace" in Brazil was a figment of the communists' imagination. Then too, Brazil was far away, both physically and culturally, and what happened there seemed unlikely to influence some small parish in the Andes or Central America.

Nor was there any reason to perceive the threat. Despite its influence on Latin America, Vatican II was essentially a European event, and very few Europeans seriously believed that fascism could rise again. Council delegates took Western Europe's mix of liberalism and social democracy as their political reference and applied it to the developing countries. Despite their criticism of social injustice in Latin America, neither Populorum Progressio nor Medellin attempted to analyze the economic and political background responsible for such conditions.

This view prevailed until September 1973, when Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown in one of the bloodiest coups in living memory. His downfall was a milestone in Latin American history, the ultimate proof of the fallacy of peaceful revolution. The Chilean experience also forced the Catholic Church in Latin America to take a good look at what was happening in its midst.

Unlike Helder Camara and the other bishops of northeastern Brazil who made no secret of their radical leanings, Chile's Cardinal Silva has always opposed Marxism. During the Allende administration, Church-state relations were correct but cool, with Silva steadfastly refusing to condone the partisan politics of Christians for Socialism, even though his support would have improved the Curia's standing with the government. The cardinal's unwillingness to compromise with either Left or Right greatly enhanced his prestige within the Latin-American Church and in Chile itself, where in the last, tense months before Allende's death, he became the chief intermediary between the hostile Christian Democrats and the ruling Socialists. That Silva failed to avert a coup in no way diminished his reputation as a diplomat of intelligence and integrity. Thus Chile's military junta committed a terrible blunder when it launched a smear campaign against this aging but resolute man.

The suggestion that Silva was unpatriotic and a fellow traveler merely because he defended human rights focused the Latin American Church's attention on political realities as no amount of persecution of Helder Camara had done. Camara was the "Red Bishop" of Brazil; Silva, a man of the middle. By attacking the political center of the Church, the military forced the moderates back into the ranks of the progressives-only now there was no doubt of what was at stake.

As history has repeatedly shown, totalitarian regimes soon treat all critics as enemies of the state, even those who supported the regime's rise to power against a real or imagined threat, such as Marxism. Thus many of Chile's Christian Democrats came to rue the day they had encouraged the generals to overthrow Allende, since, contrary to their expectations, they suffered as much repression as did the Socialists and the Communists. The experience of repression, like the experience of living in a slum or a backward village, almost always provides a radical political education. Things that were taken for granted, such as food or freedom, no longer exist, and inevitably one is forced to ask, Why? In the Church's case, the bishops asked themselves why laity, priests, and nuns were being imprisoned and tortured and murdered in Chile, and a dozen other Latin-American countries, merely because they objected to the lack of such political freedoms as the right to organize a union, or because they were trying to improve the living standards of the masses. And by studying the reasons for this repression, many bishops came to the conclusion that they had been right after all to take a hard line at Medellin; only it now appeared that the Medellin documents had not been tough enough.

Cross and Sword

Chile's aping of Brazil, and the emergence of a similarly repressive government in the once-proud democracy of Uruguay, gave credence to the earlier warnings of the bishops of northeastern Brazil, and the Church seriously began to question capitalism's model of development in Brazil, with its anti-Christian "Doctrine of National Security." A mixture of creole militarism, European fascism, and U.S. McCarthyism, the doctrine is a compendium of complex arguments that, when closely examined, turn out to be an excuse for Manifest Destiny and a colonial society embellished with the technological trimmings of an Orwellian state. Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century English philosopher, is generally cited as the inventor of the doctrine's model of an all-powerful state that guarantees national security in exchange for the people's freedom. But Hitler's Nazism and Mussolini's corporate state, modern refinements of Hobbes's theory, also contributed to the doctrine's development, as did cold-war politics and the Pentagon's promotion of the Latin-American military as "nation builders."

Developed at the Brazilian Advanced War College in the l950s, these ideas stemmed from the "science" of geopolitics, which, as its name implies, studies the interrelationship of geography and politics. Brazilian geopolitics start from the political premise of a permanent world war between the forces of communism and the West. Because by size and geographical position Brazil dominates the South Atlantic, it has a duty to keep that part of the world "safe for democracy and free enterprise." A corollary of this assertion is that Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay should become satellites of their much larger neighbor, and that relationship has been achieved by economic imperialism and "living frontiers" - that is, by Brazilian colonists invading poorly protected border lands in areas like the Upper Parana River basin of Paraguay. "Democracy," one realizes, is a relative term, like the word "Christian," which the generals so frequently invoke to describe their regimes. Along with "science," they are the necessary, if merely verbal symbols of Western civilization.

Once the permanence of world warfare is assumed, national security becomes the first priority of geopolitics. Individual rights are sacrificed to the power of the state, since only it can defend | and develop the nation. Critics of government policy are considered traitors because in wartime opinions are weapons and everyone is either a friend or a foe. Civilian politicians having proved | inept in government, only the military can run the state and press | the war against international communism.

This view of the world, which could be straight out of a Nazi primer, is shared by the governments of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and, to a lesser extent, Colombia and Peru. (The Central-American dictatorships did not bother to dress up repression in such pseudoscientific frills.) Brazil has provided the chief ideologists, the most famous of whom is General Golbery do Couto e Silva, but Chile's General Augusto Pinochet, a professor of geopolitics before he assumed the presidency, is aIso known to be expert in the subject.

Inevitably, the formation of these military states has followed a pattern. Usually an all-powerful national security council is drawn from the chiefs of the armed forces; it then names the President and his Cabinet and sets national policy. The council is served by a national intelligence network answerable only to the President. All independent political parties, labor unions, and student federations are outlawed, and anyone critical of the regime is persecuted as a "communist subversive." Punishment ranges from imprisonment or exile to loss of job and/or smear campaigns by the government-controlled media. Following Argentina's example, several of the regimes have dispensed with the complications of police arrest, and "enemies of the state" are now kidnapped and disposed of by groups of unidentified men. Attempts by family or friends to trace the victims are futile, since the police deny all knowledge of their existence. (According to diplomatic sources, an average of thirty persons a day "disappear" in Argentina; Chile's Catholic Church has calculated that some two thousand Chileans were thus swallowed up in the four years following the 1973 coup.)

Catholicism plays a crucial role in this new military order, not only because of its influence among the masses, but also because the Church has provided the moral legitimacy for authority in Latin America ever since the Conquest. Hence the archbishop must be present at the dictator's inauguration, a High Mass marks the regime's first year in power, and other such symbols of Church-state collaboration are scrupulously observed. Like the Spanish conquistadors, Latin America's generals feel that the Church should be an active agent for their regimes, not because they necessarily believe in Catholicism or any other religion, but because Christianity is part of Western civilization, the defense of which is their reason for being.

Like France's schismatic Bishop Marcel Lefebvre, who wanted to undo the reforms of Vatican II, this cross-and-sword Christianity places heavy emphasis on rituals and individual piety at the expense of Christian solidarity and a commitment to social and economic justice. It is also an extremely political concept of religion, empowering the military regimes, in the name of Christianity, to ostracize any Christian who expresses or supports popular aspirations within the Church, since these aspirations undermine national security and, again, Western civilization. This repression is accompanied by a great deal of flag-waving, nationalism serving as a convenient pretext to censor or ban critical Church publications supported by European and North American religious groups and to expel foreign priests, who comprise one third of the Latin-American clergy.

But despite promises of government protection and financial aid in exchange for religious support, the mainstream of the Church has refused to adopt this view of Catholicism, not only because it is basically un-Christian but also because, after Vatican II and Medellin, it is outdated. Even if the bishops had been willing to turn back the clock, to do so would have lost them a majority of their communicants and their religious base. After two decades of decline-in vocations, Mass attendance, and lay participation in Catholic organizations-the Church in Latin America is at last experiencing a renaissance that is directly related to its commitment to social justice. To renounce that commitment would be akin to institutional suicide, particularly since so many priests and nuns-those responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the Church-have chosen to work with the poor.

At first glance, this alliance with the people might seem unrealistic because, under the Doctrine of National Security, individuals do not count in the all-powerful state and therefore a people's Church would seem to have neither prestige nor power. But, says Chilean theologian Segundo Galilea, the crucial point missed in all the geopolitical double-talk is that "in the long run no government can survive without some measure of popular support." By taking the people's side, bishops and priests were following the example of the primitive Church, whose popular roots allowed it to survive the persecutions, calumnies, and ideological threats of the Roman Empire and eventually to absorb its very enemies.

Many churchmen also felt that, given the model of capitalist development, there was no alternative. Jose Comblin, the Church's foremost authority on national security, maintains with considerable statistical support that "development" as demonstrated in Brazil is "anti-people" and therefore "anti-Church," because "without people there can be no Church." Contrary to the claims of its rulers, there has been very little "trickle-down" from the country's so called economic miracle, except to the nouveau riche military caste. According to Sao Paulo's prestigious pro-business daily O Estado, the military's standards of luxury have reached the point where the principal status symbol is not a house or a car but a butler. During the seven-year economic miracle, which collapsed in 1976, the richest 1 percent of the population increased its share of the nation's wealth from 11.7 to 17.8 percent. Almost half the country's 38 million workers earn less than the minimum monthly wage of $70, according to the government's own statistics. And for all the razzmatazz about Brazilian nationalism, the economy is actually more dependent on foreign markets and foreign corporations than it was when the military took power. The government has run up a $50 billion foreign debt, the highest in the developing world.

The Brazilian Church, scorning to endorse such a model of development, is "demanding a fair distribution of the "nation's wealth." "Why is it that only a few people can eat well while the majority go to bed hungry?" the bishops asked in their October 1976 pastoral letter. "Why is it that some people, including foreigners, are able to amass millions of acres of land for cattle and the export of meat, while our poor people are not even allowed to continue cultivating the tiny piece of land on which they were born and grew up? Why is it that only a few people have the power of decision? The organized forces of evil do not want to share anything with the poor and the humble, who constitute the majority of the people. Only the great and powerful have rights. The humble are allowed to possess only what is strictly necessary to survive in order to continue serving the powerful. To mistreat these poor people is to mistreat Christ."

That sort of plain speaking is what has caused the Church so many problems in Latin America "Oppressive regimes are afraid of a conspiracy against the established order, and we are questioning that order," said Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider, president of both the Brazilian Bishops' Conference and CELAM. "The rationale of security is not acceptable when it means destroying human beings. This is the socially critical and prophetic position that the Church takes in light of the Gospel and in its fight against sin. We also believe that the [capitalist] economic system does not take sufficient account of the need for respect and development of the human being but emphasizes money and profits instead." According to Lorscheider, many Latin-American bishops are prepared to act on the Medellin Conclusions, now that there is "widespread regret" for the Church's historical role as an ally of the rich. Like other churchmen, he believes this change is due primarily to external events.

Even the most conservative hierarchies, including Argentina's bishops, have been forced to protest a reign of terror that has converted South America into a giant concentration camp with some thirty thousand political prisoners, and thousands more murdered or exiled. In previous times of military dictatorship, there was at least somewhere to hide. Argentines could find safety in Uruguay; Bolivians and Brazilians could flee to Chile. But now, when all these countries are marching in step, with a central pool of computerized data on political exiles and open collaboration among the region's secret police, repression is standardized and ubiquitous. Brazilian military officers taught Chile's secret police the techniques of modern torture in the weeks following the 1973 coup. Several hundred Chileans and Uruguayans who fled to Argentina for fear of arrest were murdered by Chilean and Uruguayan police with the Argentine Government's collaboration. Over fourteen thousand refugees live in Argentina in daily terror of arrest, torture, and assassination. They can run no farther because there is no longer any sanctuary in the neighboring countries. Frequently it is impossible to obtain a passport and visa to emigrate, not to mention the cost to these penniless people of passage to the nearest refuge, in Venezuela. Nor is there any suggestion of immediate relief. In earlier swings between democracy and dictatorship the latter rarely lasted longer than a decade, but most of the new Latin-American military regimes have fortified themselves to stay in power for several generations, the better to wipe out any vestige of liberal political traditions.

"The Americans are killing us."

... increasing numbers of churchmen are denouncing U.S. capitalism and militarism for abetting the repression. "The Americans are killing us" is a cry repeated throughout Latin America, often by once-loyal friends of the United States who were brought up to believe that U.S. democracy is a "shining beacon for the Free World." Between 1950 and 1975 the United States trained 71,651 Latin-American military personnel, including 8 of the region's current dictators, and in addition supplied $2.5 billion worth of armaments. Such collaboration is the lifeblood of the Doctrine of National Security.

...what is perceived by the Pentagon or the State Department as 'good for the United States" may run exactly counter to the interests of the Latin-American people. As one former State Department official concedes, the "word 'communist' has been applied so liberally and so loosely to revolutionary or radical regimes that any government risks being so characterized if it adopts one or more of the following policies that the State Department finds distasteful: nationalization of private industry, particularly foreign-owned corporations; radical land reform; autarchic trade policies; acceptance of Soviet or Chinese aid; insistence upon following an anti-American or nonaligned foreign ' ~ policy, among others." Or as theologian Jose Comblin says: "Almost everything that happens in the rest of the world is somehow made to appear related to U.S. national security, whether it occurs in the heart of Africa or in Paraguay or Bolivia. In such a concept, the American citizen is prompted to feel threatened by economic, political, and even cultural changes in the rest of the world."

Since there is no serious evidence to support the claim that Latin America is threatened by an external enemy, the next-best excuse for spending billions of dollars on arms is internal "subversion." While few of the guerrilla groups that emerged in the sixties were a serious menace to established governments, the phantom of "communist revolution" gave U.S. governments an excellent pretext to mold the political attitudes of two generations of military men. These men learned the lessons so well that they now see communists lurking in every doorway. Most of the techniques of counterinsurgency, such as intelligence gathering, police work, propaganda, and the skills to operate sophisticated equipment, have since been turned against the civilian population, and long after the last guerrilla has died, the bloodletting continues. Many of the victims of this repression charge, with good reason, that the nation that led the fight against fascism in Europe has contributed to its resurrection in Latin America.

That this could happen is due in large part to the United States' historically contemptuous attitude toward Latin America, which it has always looked upon as a purely business venture. Whereas the atrocities committed by Hitler and Mussolini outraged the American people, similar repression in Latin America elicits little more than a yawn. And yet Latin America supplies many of the United States' strategic materials, is its second most important trading partner, and is the ethnic root of 10 percent of its population. So, by default, business dominates U.S. foreign policy. And business as practiced in Latin America cannot live with the sort of checks that democracies impose through the media of a free press, elected Congress, and labor unions. Were U.S. companies to behave in the United States as they do in Latin America, with their bribes, double sets of books, tax evasion, monopolies, and failure to observe even the minimum standards for consumer protection, many of their executives would be behind bars. In Latin America such matters are considered standard business practice. After all these years, foreign companies are still selling thalidomide in Brazil and dumping DDT in Colombia.

For every dollar that U.S. companies invest in Latin America, three dollars come back to the United States in profits, according to the U. S. Department of Commerce. Between 1950 and 1965, this meant a drain on the region's economy of $7.5 billion. Most of this burden has been loaded onto the shoulders of the poorer classes, and with it has come increasing repression. In taking up the issue of human rights, therefore, the Catholic Church necessarily finds itself in opposition to such business practices; yet every time it dares to question the ethics of the foreign companies it is immediately accused of "communist subversion," with the usual threats of repression. But the more abuse the Church suffers for such criticism, the more critical it becomes of capitalism's alliance with dictatorships.

Nelson Rockefeller foresaw such a possibility, though not precisely in these terms. After his 1969 tour of Latin America on President Nixon's behalf, he warned the U.S. business community of the anti-imperialist nature of the Medellin documents. The Rockefeller Report, which became the basis of Nixon's Latin American policy, also foresaw-indeed, looked forward to-the emergence of military regimes. Though not specifically stated, the logical conclusion was that Washington had better keep an eye on the region's Catholic Church, since it was "vulnerable to subversive penetration." At least, that was the conclusion reached by the CIA, which had both used and abused the confidence of U.S. missionaries in the 1960s, and in 1975 concocted a master plan for the persecution of Church liberals that was adopted by ten Latin-American countries. Just as the Pentagon encouraged the Latin-American military's phobias, the CIA used extreme rightwing Catholic organizations to harass political reformers and outspoken bishops and priests. Some of the military regimes' most knowledgeable religious inquisitors were trained by the CIA. They are not only versed in the fine points of theology but also so well educated in the science of intelligence that they have files on every nun, priest, and bishop in the country, including place of birth, education, ideological convictions, and personal weaknesses. Thus when bishops and priests criticize U.S. militarism and capitalism, they speak from personal experience: many of the Latin-American Church's recent martyrs were killed by people trained and armed by the United States.

Cry of the People

Latin America Watch

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