the rise of fascism
the recognition of human rights
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
However ineptly applied, President Carter's human rights policy
did save lives, placing the U.S. Government on record against
torture and murder.
Return to the Catacombs
Torture - the Rise of Fascism - the Agony
of the Church
Pastor Martin Niemoller, a Protestant minister imprisoned by the
In Germany they first came for the communists; I did not speak
because I was not a communist. Then they came for the Jews; I
did not speak because I was not a Jew. Then they came to fetch
the workers, members of trade unions; I did not speak because
I was not a trade unionist. Afterward, they came for the Catholics;
I did not say anything because I was a Protestant. Eventually
they came for me, and there was no one left to speak. .
Beneath the surface of Buenos Aires' opulence, behind the steak
houses, nightclubs, theaters, and opera houses, are the same malignant
forces responsible for still-cruder forms of repression in Bolivia,
Paraguay, and a dozen other, poorer Latin-American countries.
Though Latin America looks to be the most industrialized- of the
Third World areas, two thirds of its 320 million people still
live in a Dark Ages, ruled by petty warlords ambitious only for
power and money. The medieval torture chamber has been updated
with sophisticated technology, though Uruguay and other countries
still rely on such ancient methods as burning at the stake.
As under Hitler, organizations that might
have protested the brutality have been eliminated, one by one.
The communists were the first to go; then the liberal and conservative
political parties. Student federations and unions were banned,
their leaders imprisoned or killed. Congress was abolished, civil
courts were replaced the Church has a hemisphere-wide base and,
in the Vatican, an international forum. More important, it still
has the authority and organization to command the loyalty of a
majority of Latin Americans. (Even today, 90 percent of the people
are baptized Catholics.) Like the Spanish and Portuguese languages,
Catholicism is so deeply embedded in the Latin-American cultures
that a government can no more ignore or destroy it than an Arab
ruler can outlaw Islam. Thus the Catholic Church was and is the
only body in Latin America powerful enough both to criticize dictatorship
and to sustain a formal dialogue with the military leaders in
government. It is also the only organization able to encourage
alternatives to totalitarianism in the ongoing atmosphere of terror.
Unions, student groups, political parties, all seek the protection
of the Church: it alone can withstand the repression.
[According to a report by Amnesty International,
one of seventeen commonly used torture methods in Uruguay included
burning the prisoner alive in a barbecue pit or grill. "When
the smell of roasting meat is emitted, the victim is-taken away,"
reported Amnesty International. (Human Rights in Uruguay and Paraguay,
Hearings before the Subcommittee on International Organizations
of the Committee on International Relations, U. S. House of Representatives,
June 17, July 27 and 28, and Aug. 4, 1976, p. 50.]
However, not everyone in the Catholic
Church agrees that a commitment to social causes is necessary
or desirable. There are serious divisions between traditionalists
who want to preserve the old ways and progressives who envision
a new Latin-American Church similar in spirit and organization
to the primitive Christian communities. The split cuts right across
the Church, from cardinal to layperson. But the trend dearly favors
the progressives, at least in the concept of Vatican II.
One of the most important contributions
of Vatican II was its image of the Church as a community of equals
instead of a hierarchy of laity, clergy, and bishops. This concept
of a "People of God" found quick acceptance in Latin
America, where the mass of the people were starved for the Word
of God. Although hitherto the Church had dealt with the poor as
an afterthought, these Latin Americans cling to a deep sense of
religiosity. Indeed, in many cultures it is the only means whereby
the poor can express themselves. Unlike the secular societies
of industrialized countries, community life in Latin America is
still deeply colored by religion. Wherever bishops and clergy
have reached out to these people, they have found an immediate
response. But this is no longer the traditional Catholicism of
pomp and circumstance, of rigid divisions separating the princes
of the Church from the people. Bishops, priests, and nuns have
come to look upon themselves as brothers and sisters of the people,
at the service of the poor. And because almost everyone is poor
in Latin America, this
Church will endure, even as the Church
of the wealthy and middle classes is succumbing to the same materialism
that has infected religious institutions in the United States
By any historical measure the price of
commitment to the poor has been enormous. Persecution of the Catholic
Church. m Latin America, and of the Protestants, too, is unparalleled
m modern history, even in Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet
Union. Since 1968, when Latin America's Catholic Church began
to question the miserable conditions in which two thirds of the
people live, over 850 priests, nuns, and bishops have been arrested,
tortured, murdered, or expelled, and thousands of the Catholic
laity have been jailed and killed.
Repression - the Recognition of Human
One of the jokes repeated everywhere in Latin America, despite
cultural and language differences, tells of how the Angel Gabriel
complained to God about his excessive generosity to Argentina
(or Brazil or Venezuela, depending on the nationality of the storyteller).
Why, demanded Gabriel, had God given this country so many natural
resources, so many lakes and rivers, such fertile land and fine
weather, when other nations did not get half so much? Ah, said
God, but wait till you see the kind of people I'm going to put
The idea that the people's shortcomings
somehow balance nature's generosity almost always comes up in
conversation with foreigners when comparisons are made between
the development of the United States and that of Latin America.
Educated Latin Americans are forever bemoaning their past: "If
only our ancestors had been white Europeans," they will say,
"we would be just as developed as you Americans." Yet
the facts tell another story. Argentina, the "whitest,"
most European nation in Latin America, with many cultural characteristics
similar to those of the United States, wiped out its Indian and
black population in the nineteenth century. But observe Argentina
today-three decades of military dictatorship, a perpetually unstable
economy, public services that make New York City look like a model
of efficiency, and the largest concentration camps in Latin America.
So what ails these white Europeans?
Actually, there's nothing ethnically wrong
with any of the Latin American people, Andean Indians, Brazilian
blacks, or white Argentines. The problem was created not by God
but by the Spanish and Portuguese empires, with their methods
of colonization and land settlement and a legal code twisted to
venality and corruption. And neither land tenure nor the legal
system has changed much since the eighteenth century.
Unlike the United States and "white"
Argentina, much of Latin America was already occupied by culturally
advanced Indian civilizations when the Spanish and Portuguese
conquerors arrived. Although the Europeans managed to slaughter
several million Indians, enough survived to provide the manual
labor and the women for the basis of a colonial society. Many
of Latin America's cities are built on the ruins of Indian settlements.
Where the aboriginal source died out, as in coastal Brazil, the
Europeans imported African slave labor.
From the very beginning, Latin-American
society was constructed like a pyramid, with a few European settlers
enjoying all the privileges of empire and a mass of Indians, blacks,
and half-castes having no rights at all. The pyramid survived
because the mass at the bottom was repeatedly told that it was
stupid, lazy, and inferior. Foreign missionaries helped drum these
ideas into the natives' heads by claiming that it was God's will
that they should be poor and ignorant. As the archbishop of Lima
told his Indians, "Poverty is the most certain road to felicity.'
Any Indian or African who had the temerity to doubt such wisdom
by rebelling against the system was promptly killed.
The law, to be sure, was written in a
way to protect the poor and the Indians, but it never worked that
way, for Spanish and Portuguese legislation could be enforced
only on the rare occasions when the Crown threatened to send troops
to discipline the settlers. "The law is to be observed but
not obeyed," claims an old Spanish saying still in vogue
today. Put another way, the only law respected was-and is-the
law of the fist.
Latin America's independence movement
from Spain in the first part of the nineteenth century did not
in the least alter the social pyramid, nor did twentieth-century
industrialization. The only difference is that those at the top
are now white Latin Americans instead of white Europeans and can
count industries as well as ranches in their inheritance. The
overwhelming majority of the people remains uneducated and fatalistic.
All initiative was stamped out of the people's collective conscience
over the centuries because it was not intended that they should
think or react. Para yue? (Why bother?) has been the universal
response in Latin America, whether in a Caribbean black community
or an Indian village in the Bolivian highlands.
As anthropologists have amply proved,
there is an enormous difference between a culture that is poor
and a culture of poverty. In the former the people may have only
a rudimentary economy and learning but they are proud of their
traditions. In the latter the people are ashamed of their color
and origins because they have been taught to feel inferior. That
is the culture of poverty studied by Oscar Lewis in Mexico and
Puerto Rico, and the culture of two thirds of the Latin-American
population. They are the "kind of people" God put on
the continent to balance the Angel Gabriel's uneven score.
The Catholic Church must accept a lot
of the blame for this situation. Like the conquistadors, most
of the European missionaries who came to Latin America saw themselves
as bearers of cultures vastly superior to those of the natives.
The missionaries were less interested in integrating the Indians
or Africans than in subjugating them to the European religious
structures. Little attempt was made to understand or appreciate
the cultural heritage of the people, and most of the missionaries
remained a group apart, European colonists on the American continent,
right up to the twentieth century. Although the mass of the people
accepted the white man's God, either under physical duress or
because he seemed more powerful than their own gods, they never
really assimilated the ideas of Christianity, but merely changed
the names of their gods and rites for those of the Europeans.
(The orixas, or deities of the Brazilian Africans' Macumba religion,
for example, took on the names and characteristics of Christian
saints.) Baptism, which in its biblical sense is a sign of conversion
and hope, became a rite to ward off evil spirits, and in some
countries, such as Brazil, a ceremony of the dying.
Blinded by their own cultural limitations,
the missionaries never saw how superficial was the religious conversion.
Nor did they think it strange that two cultures should coexist-one
belonging to the masses with their syncretic religion, the other
to the rich, educated elites. The Indian- artisans who built the
churches of marble and gold were not expected to understand the
mysteries of the faith; it was enough that they submitted to its
superiority. If there was any doubt about their ethnic inferiority
in this religious hierarchy, they had only to observe the statues
and pictures they were ordered to carve and paint-not one of these
light-colored effigies looked like them.
At its best, Catholicism was a benevolent
paternalism that protected the Indians and the Africans from the
settlers' atrocities while it reinforced the colonial system through
praise of patience, obedience, and the virtue of suffering. The
people believed the missionaries when they said that it was God's
will, or destiny, that they should be poor, wealth and poverty
being conditions of birth and color. As Brazilian theologian Eduardo
Hoornaert points out, "Colonizers show the colonized that
there is wealth to be had, and even luxury, but they don't show
them how to obtain it. Obviously, they tell them that wealth comes
from work, but the people aren't convinced, because they can see
it isn't so: a 'good' situation in society comes from a diploma,
from position, from education, ultimately from belonging to the
The Jesuit reductions, or missions, in
Paraguay, southern Brazil, and northern Argentina are often cited
by Church historians as examples of the good done by the colonial
Church, and it is true that for 150 years these missions protected
and sustained some 150,000 Guarani Indians. When they were closed
by order of the Spanish Crown in 1767, there was a dramatic decrease
in the Guarani population, which was slaughtered or enslaved by
the settlers. Many of the Jesuits gave their lives for the Indians,
caring for them during smallpox plagues and physically interposing
themselves between the bloodtnirsty settlers and the natives.
The weather was hot and unhealthy. The woods and swamps were places
of mosquito swarms, brackish waters, floods, jaguars, reptiles,
and vermin. Frequently living alone or with a single companion,
the typical Jesuit missionary was carpenter, farmer, physician,
nurse, and one-man defense of the stockade. There is no doubt
that these men were heroes, but to what avail?
Contrary to the claim that they were an
advanced form of religious socialism, an Arcadian democracy in
which the Indians enjoyed equal rights, the reductions were medieval
estates where everyone lived under the grip of the Jesuits, a
caste apart. The priests decided when and what the Indians should
eat, how they should organize the workday, who should be punished
or rewarded, where they should live, everything down to the last
detail. True, this was a vast improvement over the wretched treatment
meted out on the Spanish haciendas, but it was nevertheless a
form of slavery. Even the Jesuits realized that they were destroying
a millenary culture, but they could do no better because of the
language block, the cultural gap, and the colonial mentality itself.
Thus they continued to treat `'those people" as children.
Except for a few churches and religious carvings, nothing survived
of this Jesuit empire of thirty cities and towns, for when Spain
removed the Jesuits there was no one to lead or even think.
As an experiment in benevolent paternalism,
the reductions were an example of the best aspects of the colonial
Church-and the worst. When the Guarani Indians were dispersed,
they carried with them two centuries of fatalism. They had lost
many of their cultural traditions and could find none to replace
them in a white society whose name for Indian to this day is chancho,
or "pig." Their descendants live in the festering slums
of Asuncion or on the Iarge Paraguayan cattle ranches where, says
a Paraguayan bishop, "they have less value than a horse or
"No one listens to the cry of the
Over the past decade the Latin-American
Catholic Church has consciously tried to rid itself of such paternalistic
traditions and colonial attitudes in order to rebuild Christianity
on the cultural heritage of the people and to encourage the emergence
of a more mature and democratic Church. By doing so, it moves
in direct opposition to the ruling classes and their governments,
still mired in the prejudices of the eighteenth century. Whether
the country is Brazil or Guatemala, more or less industrialized,
in South or Central America, the statistics are always the same:
a tiny minority, usually 1 to 4 percent of the population, owns
the majority of the arable land and takes an overwhelming share
of the nation's agricultural and industrial wealth. The great
majority, in the slums or impoverished rural villages, owns little
or no land, is undernourished, illiterate or semiliterate, and
unemployed or underemployed. One third of Latin America's 320
million people earn less in a year than a U.S. housewife spends
on groceries in a week. Conversely, the well-to-do in Latin America
usually live better than do the upper classes in the United States;
they have platoons of servants, enormous estates, limousines,
private airplanes, and yachts, and pay practically no taxes.
This baronial style of life is still possible
because the cornerstone of the colonial system remains intact-the
law of the strongest. Typical of conditions in much of rural Latin
America are the cattle haciendas of Paraguay. Enormous spreads
that stretch for miles over the undulating red hills, with a few
head of cattle here and there, they look like something out of
the wild West, with a cluster of shacks for the peon cowboys,
a slightly better house for the ranch administrator, and almost
no evidence of agricultural machinery. Because manual labor is
plentiful and cheap, less than fifty cents per worker per day,
the large landowners are under no pressure to modernize. As a
result only 1 percent of the country's arable land is efficiently
Few of the peasants who serve these primitive
estates ever learn to read or write, see a doctor, or know the
luxury of running water or electricity. Malnutrition causes nine
tenths of the deaths. Submissive, with intense feelings of inferiority,
these peasants ex. plain their tragedy by quoting an old Guarani
Indian saying: "No one listens to the cry of the poor or
the sound of a wooden bell." Three fifths of Paraguay's 2.6
million people live this way.
Such conditions would be impossible if
Paraguay's farm labor were sufficiently organized to demand better
wages and a more equitable distribution of land, but whenever
an attempt is made to establish cooperatives or unions, the government
suddenly discovers a "communist conspiracy" and sends
troops into the countryside to destroy the cooperatives, burn
the peasants' huts, rape the women, and kill or imprison the men.
During the last outbreak of terror, in 1976 in southeastern Paraguay,
some three thousand people were arrested and several cooperative
leaders murdered. The Catholic Church was also severely punished
for sponsoring some of the cooperatives: twenty-four priests were
jailed, tortured, and expelled.
Governed by the longest-ruling dictator in the hemisphere, General
Alfredo Stroessner, Paraguay is dismissed by the more advanced
Latin-American countries as a cowboy backwater, its President
a crude throwback to the nineteenth-century caudillo. But whatever
may be said of Stroessner, he has the courage of his convictions.
Unlike the military regimes in Chile and Brazil, which dressed
up dictatorship with ideological or technological trimmings, Stroessner
has never pretended that there is any reason for power except
corruption. Brazil's wealthy generals might talk about technology
and efficiency in government, while privately enjoying such perquisites
of office as butlers, lakeside chalets, and unlimited expense
accounts. Paraguay's military and police make no such excuses:
they support Stroessner for what they can get, and in addition
to land, which is the foundation of Paraguayan wealth, this includes
government graft, contraband, and revenue from narcotics and prostitution.
Stroessner encourages ... illegal activities in the belief that
the more people are compromised and corrupted, the more beholden
they will be to his system of government. On the basis of this
simple logic, his undoubted machismo, and shrewd understanding
of the weaknesses of potential rivals, whether they be drugs or
little girls, the burly, red-haired general has ruled unchallenged
While considerably less savage than the military dictatorships,
Latin America's few formal democracies are hardly models of good
government. Corruption and government graft are as wide spread
in Mexico and Colombia as in Paraguay. Mexico's rural poor are
as oppressed as the peasants on Paraguay's cattle ranches, and
the entire Caribbean coast of Colombia is dominated by the local
cocaine and marijuana Mafia.
For years the Catholic Church, though
supposedly the moral teacher and guardian of virtually all the
Latin-American people, chose to ignore this lawless situation.
Often it publicly collaborated with corrupt dictatorships for
what it could extract in power and material privilege, and even
as late as the 1940s churchmen were identified with the most reactionary
sectors in Latin America, particularly the large landowners. In
Colombia, for example, the Church sided with the country's Conservative
Party in a civil war that lasted from 1948 until the early 1960s,
parish priests and bishops encouraging and even personally leading
the Conservatives in their slaughter of peasants.
Why did the Church suddenly regret and
reject its traditional alliance with the conservative rich? In
the beginning, at least, it was fear of communism, and for this
Fidel Castro must be thanked. The Catholic Church's experience
in Cuba after Castro took power, when 70 percent of the clergy
fled the island, profoundly shocked Latin America's bishops, many
of whom were jolted out of their complacency to see clearly for
the first time the extremes of Latin America's poverty and wealth.
The seeds of violent revolution lay everywhere, they came to believe-in
the teeming slums, the impoverished countryside, the universities.
Religion no longer served as the opium of the people, and the
upper-class youth who had once formed the Church's intellectual
backbone were rallying to Marxism. Church leaders had only to
look at the sharp decline in religious vocations and church attendance
to realize that Latin-American Catholicism was in trouble. So
the Church launched a great anti-communist crusade.
Like the Kennedy administration with its
Alliance for Progress, the Catholic Church believed that the only
way to stop the spread of communism in Latin America was to reform
its social and economic structures. The Church had a ready-made
vehicle to promote such programs in the Catholic Action groups
that had been organized in various countries during the 1930s
and 1940s. Originally formed to spread the Church's social teachings
in Latin America, Catholic Action spawned numerous youth organizations,
the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions, and the Christian
Democratic parties of Chile, Venezuela, Peru, and Central America.
In addition, it sponsored such innovative Church programs as radio
schools and agrarian reform of diocese lands. In the early 1960s
these programs were greatly expanded and modernized with foreign
personnel and money, following the Vatican's worldwide appeal
for aid to shore up the Latin-American Church.
But these reforms were badly timed, coming
as they did at the end of the cold war and the beginning of the
conflict in Vietnam when success was still measured in simplistic
military and political terms with no consideration for complex
social issues (that is anyone who did not agree with U.S. foreign
policy obviously had to be a Red). Both the Church and the U.
S. Government saw the primary goal of reform as the defeat of
left-wing political movements and guerrilla groups. Reform was
a means, not an end, and therefore it failed. Everybody was so
busy devising strategies to defeat communism that all completely
overlooked the real cause of the people's misery: nearly five
centuries of social and economic oppression. As long as the dictators,
Stroessner and the others, proclaimed their fealty to the United
States and their abhorrence of communism, Washington was prepared
to support them with military and economic aid. Unions, political
parties, housing developments, and agrarian reform were all designed
to advance the anti-communist crusade; as a result they soon became
political tools instead of vehicles for genuine reform.
U.S. writer Thomas Sanders
"Latin America is underdeveloped not just because it does
not produce enough but because the people do not participate in
Brazil's Archbishop Helder Camara
"People with no reasons for living will not find causes to
A Colombian priest from a well-to-do family, [Camilo] Torres was
revolutionized by his study of sociology at Louvain. Sociology
not only gave him a scientific tool with which to measure the
degree of Christian commitment in his country (he found it sadly
wanting) but also allowed him to see Latin America's economic
and political predicament without the rose-colored glasses supplied
by Alliance for Progress salesmen. Unlike his classmate Gutierrez,
Torres was a doer, not a thinker, and when all his attempts at
peaceful persuasion failed, he shed his cassock to take up arms
with the Colombian guerrillas. He died in his first encounter
with the Army, on February 15, 1966, in the central Colombian
Camilo Torres' death sent tremors through
the Latin-American Church, which was unprepared for the phenomenon
of the guerrilla-priest, and of all places in conservative Colombia,
supposedly the continent's most Catholic country. The thirty-seven-year-old
priest instantly became a martyr for the Latin-American Left,
particularly high school and university students, and bishops
everywhere worried about his influence on their own young clergy.
In retrospect, however, it can be seen that Torres was less a
model for the future than a symptom of the frustrated times. For
while it is true that a few priests, mostly in Colombia, followed
his path, the vast majority rejected the idea that, in order to
love, it is necessary to kill. One such was Gustavo Gutierrez,
a Peruvian intellectual who has emerged as Latin America's principal
spokesman for a Third World theology. Although the two men shared
similar viewpoints on basic social problems, Gutierrez did not
support Torres' decision to join the guerrillas.
Like other young religious who were disappointed
in Christian Democracy, Gutierrez turned to Marxism as an analytical
guide to the causes of economic and social underdevelopment. These
Latin Americans believed that Christian theology had grown stagnant
from its emphasis on the Greek deductive process of thought, because
"deductive theology imposes its own, prior idea of God on
Christ, and if he does not fit it, he is twisted and deformed
to achieve that purpose." The inductive process, on the other
hand, moves from reality to idea, from experience to theory. And
it was one of the original tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Thus "the whole Bible, Old and New Testament, is really the
history of Israel and of Jesus, set forth in the most varied literary
genres. The Event always preceded the Word."
Although the language of the gospels has
changed little since Christ's death, cultural interpretations
have tended to alter its significance. Encumbered by bureaucracies
and traditions that grew out of different historical circumstances,
Roman Catholicism evolved over the centuries into a conservative
institution that lost touch with the poor. It also became Church-centered
instead of Christ-centered, bound up in rituals and rules that
have little, if anything, to do with the original tenets of Christianity.
By emphasizing an inductive process of thought, by starting from
the reality of poverty and injustice in Latin America, the new
theologians hoped to bring the Church back to earth, to face the
facts and to do something about them. Nine out of ten Latin Americans
are baptized Catholics, and eight of those ten are poor. Not only
are they still deprived of the liberation promised by Christ,
they don't even know of his promise.
What the Latin-American theologians find
particularly attractive in Marx is his suggestion of the relationship
between experience and theory-that if man has sufficient understanding
of his reality he can improve that reality and himself, and that
this new situation in turn influences, changes, and educates him.
The study of Marxism nourished the seeds that had been planted
in Louvain: namely, that scientific knowledge is necessary to
interpret reality. Sociology, in its own area, was given importance
equal to that of theology. Thus equipped, Gutierrez and other
theologians developed a series of new religious and sociological
insights based on Latin America's historical condition as an economically
and politically dependent continent. Appropriately, their work
was called the theology of liberation.
It is not surprising that Marxism was
used to decipher capitalism in Latin America, since Marx, a respected
sociologist in many parts of the developing world, makes sense
to a people who have suffered both imperialism and colonialism.
But an acceptance of Marx the sociologist need not imply support
for a Marxist ideology, much less communism, which the liberation
theologians reject as a political system incompatible with Christianity
Although many of their conclusions are
now taken for granted by Latin-American economists and sociologists,
these theologians were pioneers, for they used the social sciences
as guides to theological development. Moreover, it was a development
based on the realities of Latin America and not on the Church's
traditional colonial mentality or the political rationalizations
of men like Vekemans.
The formulation of so radical a theology
would have been impossible in Latin America without the Vatican's
Second Ecumenical Council (1962-65), which sought to modify institutional
rigidity and anachronistic liturgy. But even before Vatican II
had announced its conclusions, Pope John XXIII had set the Church
on a new path with his encyclicals Mater et Magistra (1961) and
Pacem in Terres (1963), which emphasized the human right to a
decent standard of living, education, and political participation.
John also questioned the absolute right to private property and
the Church's unswerving allegiance to capitalist individualism
in the cold war against socialist collectivism. Vatican II widened
the floodgates by establishing two radically new principles: that
the Church is of and with this world, not composed of some otherworldly
body of eclestical advocates, and that it is a community of equals,
whether they be laity, priest, or bishop, each with some gift
to contribute and responsibility to share.
Among the participants at Vatican II was
a highly vocal minority of Third World bishops who lobbied for
a "Church of the Poor." This idea was further developed
in a 1966 declaration by fifteen bishops from the developing countries
that went far beyond Vatican II in committing the Church to the
Third World poor. The majority of the signers came from the impoverished
northeast of Brazil; their leader was Dom Helder Camara.
A slight, soft-spoken Brazilian with an
iron will, Dom Helder was one of a small group of men responsible
for carrying the ideas of Vatican II to Latin America. Although
John XXIII had placed the Church firmly on the side of human rights,
it fell to Camara to put words into action in Latin America by
denouncing the torture, imprisonment, and murder of political
dissidents in Brazil in 1967. For daring to speak out, Camara
"was treated by the authorities and the media as no bishop
has been treated in the Western world in this century," said
Father Jose Comblin, a Belgian theologian who worked with the
archbishop. "Only he knows the details of the round-the-clock
persecution that went on for two years. The assassination of his
associate, Father Enrique Pereira Neto, on May 26, 1969, was part
of the campaign.''
Back in Rome, meanwhile, Pope Paul VI
was writing Populorum Progressio, by far the most advanced of
his encyclicals, with its emphasis on the economic, social, and
political rights of mankind. Directed specifically at Latin America,
Populorum Progressio encouraged the Latin-American bishops to
hold a hemispheric conference to examine the conclusions of Vatican
II in light of Latin America's own particular situation.
Camara might have been a voice crying
in the wilderness and Paul a wishful thinker had it not been for
a third prophet, and superb organizer, Manuel Larrain, the bishop
of Talca, Chile. Larrain was always an advanced thinker even in
as politically advanced a nation as Chile. As early as the 1950s,
when everyone else was worrying about communism, he was warning
the Church that it would lose the masses if Catholicism remained
a minority religion of the wealthy elites.
Larrain was instrumental in founding the
Latin-American Episcopal Conference (CELAM), which in 1955 brought
together the region's highly heterogeneous national bishops' conferences
into a single organization. Not only did CELAM provide the first
regular means of communication throughout the Latin-American hierarchy;
Larrain and a like-minded minority of progressive bishops also
saw to it that CELAM spread the conciliar word of Vatican II through
a series of CELAM-sponsored institutes, which were really think
tanks for the theologians of liberation and sociologists and economists
trained at Louvain and other European and U.S. universities.
Many factors influenced these young Latin
Americans' thinking, including Camilo Torres' desertion to the
guerrillas, but the most decisive were Chile's sorry experiment
in Christian Democracy and the overthrow of the populist administration
of President Joao Goulart by the Brazilian military in 1964. Both
experiences pointed to the same conclusion: whether you called
it a populist government or a third way between capitalism and
communism (the claim of Chile's Christian Democrats), such reformist
governments were halfway measures that would never succeed because
they started from the wrong base, namely capitalist "development."
While a number of prominent U.S. and Latin-American
historians and economists are gradually coming to understand and
accept the "dependency" theory of underdevelopment,
Goulart's Planning Minister, Celso Furtado, was among the first
to put his finger on the problem by insisting that "development"
was a myth invented by the industrialized nations to con the Third
World into footing the bill for the American (and European) way
of life. He J based his assertion on Latin America's experience
in the 1960s, when development meant essentially a series of foreign,
mostly U.S., Ioans for industrial infrastructure and large inputs
of foreign investment. The loans have so burdened the Latin-American
countries that many are now spending an average 25 percent of
their foreign earnings just to service the debt. As for foreign
investment, far from creating the millions of new jobs promised
by the advance publicity, nearly half this money went to take
over existing Latin-American industries. By the end of the "decade
of development," 99 percent of the loans made by AID to Latin
American countries were being spent in the United States for products
costing 30 to 40 percent more than the going world price.
True, U.S. Ioans also supported educational
programs, low-cost housing, and the like, but these were politically
oriented and in any case peripheral to the main thrust of development:
foreign control of the most dynamic Latin-American industries
and co-optation of the small upper and middle classes that wield
the economic and political power and can afford the consumer goods
produced by the foreign subsidiaries. Even the "green revolution,"
which promised such lavish grain yields for the small farmer,
was part of the myth of development; it soon became a technological
device whereby the large landowners might "agroindustrialize"
the small, inefficient plots of the peasants, who were forced
off their land in the name of progress to swell the cities' slums.
Naturally enough, development programs
like the Alliance for Progress were not presented in this light.
American taxpayers were told that foreign aid would help their
poorer neighbors. The Latins were sold the idea that U.S. Ioans
and private investment were essential for economic takeoff. Neither
allegation was true, and the fact is that Latin America would
have been better off had the United States left it alone. In contrast
to its poor economic performance during the 1960s, when U. S.
Government and business interests became deeply involved in the
region's economies, Latin America did better during the depression
and World War II when the export of U.S. goods and capital was
sharply curtailed. In those earlier years Brazil and some of the
other countries began to produce their own capital equipment instead
of importing it. Had they continued to do so, the Latin-American
economies might have taken off; but once the war was over, Latin
America reverted to the old patterns of dependency-the habit was
too old and too strong.
Long before the Americans appeared on
the scene, Latin America was an economic colony of Europe, specifically
of Victorian Britain. Before the British, it had been a colony
of the Spaniards and the Portuguese. For three centuries after
Columbus, it had served primarily to enrich the Iberian states
through the export of precious metals, taxes, the import of European
goods, and the African slave trade. After the wars of independence,
outright imperialism was replaced by a more sophisticated arrangement
when the British introduced mercantile capitalism, trading manufactured
goods for raw materials. The United States followed a similar
pattern at the beginning of this century, its interest being primarily
minerals, and U.S. investors gradually replaced the British as
the most important foreign influence in the region. The dependency
relationship also changed, for now Latin America [after WWII]
was no longer the Indian come to barter his skins at the trading
post. It was an important source of income for corporations in
the United States, of cheap labor for U.S. export subsidiaries,
and of small but extremely lucrative markets, particularly for
arms and capital equipment.
During these centuries economic colonialism
ran in tandem with political dependence, first on the Spanish
and Portuguese crowns, then on the nineteenth-century European
powers, and finally on Washington. Even Latin-American leaders
who wanted to take an independent course-and they were few-found
themselves boxed in by an international economic system and the
terms of trade. Though more sophisticated than the nineteenth
century European rulers who sent gunboats to collect money from
Latin-American governments, the International Monetary Fund serves
substantially the same purpose today. Any Latin-American government
that ignores its dictates does so at the risk of bankruptcy, as
Peru's nationalistic generals learned-to their cost in 1977. Not
that many countries want to object-most Latin Americans in government
belong to a wealthy minority, often the nouveau riche military,
and such people are perfectly content with their junior partnership
in U.S. corporate industry.
But the region's increasing economic dependence
on the United States has paid no social dividends, propaganda
notwithstanding. The rich got richer; the middle class got poorer;
and the poor, that unregarded majority, got nothing. There was
no trickle-down of wealth, but rather a substantial upward redistribution.
Those who suffered most from this "trickle-up" process
were the workers, whose real wages plummeted during the sixties
and seventies. That was the second stage of "development";
not only were the people deprived of the benefits of economic
progress, they also lost many of their earlier gains.
Workers whose buying power is sharply
reduced can be counted on to protest, so the next and final step
had to be military dictatorship. Without repression, it is impossible
for the rich to increase their income indefinitely at the expense
of the mass of the people who, for all their ignorance and lack
of political organization, have the advantage in numbers. These
millions will not stay quietly on the farms or in the slums unless
they are terribly afraid. As in Stroessner's Paraguay, the rich
get richer only because they have the guns.
A child born in the United States will
consume thirty to fifty times more goods of all descriptions in
his or her lifetime than one born in the impoverished highlands
of Bolivia. A child born to wealthy parents in the Bolivian capital
of La Paz will equal the consumption of the American. Consciously
or not, both owe their life-styles in some degree to the poverty
of the highland peasant child. A similar relationship exists between
the economies of Latin America and the United States. And that
is what the "dependency" theory of underdevelopment
is all about-a mass of poor peasants and slum dwellers supply
the wants of a few rich people, and they in turn satisfy the U.S.
demand for raw materials and profit remittances.
As Panama's Archbishop Marcos McGrath
points out, "Great doubt has been cast on the possibility
of achieving the necessary reforms for the integral development
of our people within the capitalist structure of the international,
and particularly the inter-American economy," when the terms
of trade and foreign investment are still colonialist in structure
and thus contribute "to the continuing impoverishment of
the poorer nations." "Ironically," adds McGrath,
"the efforts of the prime producers-for instance, of crude
oil-to exact a higher price from buyers to the north have roused
pious cries of protest: 'Extortion!' Suddenly Northerners fear
that they may have to 'depend' on foreign producers. Do they ignore
the extortion and economic dependence they exercise upon the poorer
lands? This is 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' in
international economics. But who set the rules for ~ game? The
Christian nations to the north."
A Magna Carta
Whatever their thoughts about socialism,
by the end of the 1960s a good many Latin-American bishops were
prepared to agree with McGrath's criticisms of capitalism. In
fact it began to appear that U.S. capitalism, not Karl Marx, was
Public Enemy No. 1. Unlike the theologians, sociologists, and
economists in CELAM's think tanks, few bishops had sufficient
training to define capitalism's failings in scientific terms,
but they could see ample moral reasons to condemn the obsession
with profit as selfishness, particularly in the repressive, right-wing
military regimes spreading across the continent.
Thus Latin America was approaching a religious-political
turning point, where the ideas of the theologians of liberation,
of Camara, Larrain, and Pope Paul, would be approved by the Latin
American hierarchy. The name of that turning point was Medellin,
the Colombian city where in 1968 the bishops of Latin America
met in an extraordinary assembly for the second time in their
history. Medellin produced the Magna Carta of today's persecuted,
socially committed Church, and as such rates as one of the major
political events of the century: it shattered the centuries-old
alliance of Church, military, and the rich elites.
Paul himself traveled to Colombia to inaugurate
the meeting, the first Pope in history to visit Latin America.
He set the tone of the conference by telling a huge crowd in Bogota,
"We wish to personify the Christ of a poor and hungry people."
But he also appealed to the rich:
What can I say to you, men of the ruling
class? What is required of you is generosity. This means the ability
to detach yourselves from the stability of your position which
is, or seems to be, a position of privilege, in order to serve
those who need your wealth, your culture, your authority.... You,
lords of this world and sons of the Church, you must have the
genius for virtue that society needs. Your ears and your hearts
must be sensitive to the voices crying out for bread, concern,
justice, and a more active participation in the direction of society.
... there is no financial or educational justification for the
low levels of literacy. The real cause is political: as long as
people remain uneducated, they cannot wish or hope to participate
in a democracy. Many members of the radical Right in Latin America
will point out, candidly enough, that educated people expect higher
wages and more efficient public services, so it's better to keep
the masses in darkness. Government officials are not nearly that
blunt, but it is easy to surmise their opinion by looking at the
national budget: in most cases education is at the bottom of the
list, along with public health. The largest outlays are earmarked
for the armed forces and internal security. One of the few exceptions
is Costa Rica, where there are more teachers than policemen. Costa
Rica is also a Central American rarity-an established democracy.
Like the governments, the Catholic Church
used to disregard the poor. Most of its schools were oriented
to children of the wealthy upper classes. The Jesuits specialized
in universities for the rich. The values and structures on which
Latin America's society of privilege was built were reinforced
in the Catholic school room.
of the People