1985 has seen polls through Central America. Peter Stanford reflects on what changes, if any, they have brought, and on the determination of the Church to 'live out the Gospel'.
"1 make this fast so that the right to life and selfdetermination of the people of Nicaragua and of the peoples of Central America and of the world will be respected." This was just one of the sentiments expressed by the Nicaraguan Foreign Minister, Maryknoll Fr Miguel d'Escoto when he launched a month long fast in July. Surveying Central America at the end of 1985 the casual onlooker might be forgiven for thinking that Fr d'Escoto's prayers had been, in some small way, answered. From the viewpoint of western Europe, the right to selfdetermination would generally be taken as the right to vote in an election. And sure enough 1985 has been a year of polls in Central America. Honduras went to the polls last month to elect a civilian president who trades under the banner of "liberal". In Guatemala, apparently more significantly, the military have handed over the reins of government to a civilian administration of the centreright. In El Salvador, president Jose Napoleon Duarte and his middle-of-the-road Christian Democrats scored a surprisingly convincing victory over the farright Arena party of Major Roberto d'Aubuisson, the man accused of "masterminding" the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador. In Fr d'Escoto's own Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega was installed as head of state in January after his Sandinista party had won 67 per cent of the vote in an election seasoned international observers described as "fair and secret". The relative merits of each of these polls could be discussed at great length — and indeed a comparison of voter intimidation, range of options, opportunities for campaigning and so forth might change some notions of the ideological identities of the countries involved. However, that was not what Fr d'Escoto was referring to when he spoke of the "right to life and self-determination". We have to move beyond our western conceptions and ready identification with the cosmetics of electoral politics. In the vein of what is often referred to as "the option for the poor", Fr d'Escoto was talking about the quality of life of ordinary people — their freedom to work, to speak, to read, to pray.
When looked at in that sense, 1985 has seen few advances in Central America.
In 1979 at the landmark Puebla conference of Latin American bishops, the final document stated: "A little more than ten years ago, the Medellin Conference noted . . . 'a muted cry wells up from the millions of human beings, pleading with their pastors for a liberation that is nowhere to be found in their case'. The cry might well have seemed muted back then. Today it is loud and clear, increasing in volume and intensity and at times full of menaces".
Should another Puebla or Medellin have been held in 1985 then that cry for liberation would have been heard just as loud.
Since 1979 though, the one factor to have changed radically in the Central American jigsaw has been the advent of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Many observers and visitors have noted the uniquely Christian qualities of this revolution. After a trip to the country, London priest Fr Michael Rollings described the Nicaraguans as a "people living the Gospel". The element of liberation is ever present in the revolution. Education and health care facilities have spread across the country causing the infant mortality rate and illiteracy rates to tumble. People have been liberated from ill health and ignorance. Lands previously in the hands of the Somoza family have been redistributed and used to set up peasant co-operatives. The people have been liberated from the brutality of the former regime where to speak out against injustice was to risk arbitrary punishment. Yet the liberation pf the Nicaraguan people is far from complete. In embarking on his fast, Fr d'Escoto drew attention to the forces which still "oppress" them. His fast was "an expression of Christian rejection of the policy of state terrorism imposed by the United States government against Nicaragua, and a religious expression of condemnation of the systematic kidnappings, tortures and assassinations of our sisters and brothers by the counterrevolutionaries whom the United States government finances and directs". The horrors of the "contra" attacks are described below by an English eyewitness.
The year 1985 also saw the imposition of a trade embargo
on Nicaragua by its erstwhile biggest trading partner, the United States. The embargo has caused shortages of the most basic goods. The people of Nicaragua have yet to be liberated from hunger and warfare. And that warfare has spilt into the countries which surround Nicaragua. The "contras" have bases in Honduras, and this previously underdeveloped "banana republic" has become in the words of one observer the "Pentagon republic", centre for US operations in the region. United States involvement has included economic aid to the Honduran regime, and therefore food shortages are not so much a part of the everyday life of the Honduran people as in Nicaragua. The ever apparent US military presence has, however, made war just as real and oppressive for the people of Honduras. Their government, despite the recent elections, remains in the United States' pocket, and real changes, necessary to curb the growing tide of human rights violations, seem unlikely to be forthcoming. In El Salvador, too, 1985 has seen the continuing escalation of the civil war between the government forces and the guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. Civilians have been caught in the crossfire, forced to abandon their homes and move as refugees to the city centres, or to neighbouring Honduras. Despite the brave words of President Duarte, reinforced by' his triumph in April's elections, El Salvador is on the point of
collapse. In an August report,
Estudios Centroamericanos, edited by members of the Jose
Simeon Canas University in San AFTER less than a month in Nicaragua, 1 find myself in Cristo Redentor parish, in a small town called Muelle de los, Bueyes (means Ox-ford, but ' there are no university spires) a on the chief link road between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
In the last week this area has became the main focus of combat between the local Sandinista army and the US backed "contras". This parish house may well be turned into a casualty hospital within a day or so.
Last Sunday 1 was scheduled to say Mass at 2pm in the village of Cara de Mono, but the "contras" got there first. At 12.30 about 100 heavily armed mercenaries burst out of the tropical rain forest and tried to capture the village.
There was heavy cross-fire immediately behind the
Catholic chapel, and the first to die was Ivan Torres, a /7 year old villager fighting with the Sandinistas.
Fr Jose Curcio (the parish priest) and myself reached the village at 3.30 and discovered that the mercenaries had been driven off; 19 of them had been killed and many others severely wounded. The Sandinista Air Force had sent in three small reconnaissance planes and two troop-carrier helicopters, and the village resembled an outsized waspnest. My most poignant memory of that Sunday afternoon was the horrified grief of the young brothers of Ivan Torres, whose head had been blown off by a grenade.
Since the "contra" attack on Sunday afternoon, there have been reports of a build-up of forces on both sides. One of the six parish deacons came in yesterday to the parish house; 80 mercenaries had passed
Salvador, highlighted the collapse in Salvador's economy — domestic private investment has fallen by 74 per cent since 1980, those with money preferring Swiss bank accounts. Warfare is a constant feature of Salvadorans' life — indiscriminate air strikes against guerrilla targets have left thousands of civilians dead. The notorious death squads continue to operate, albeit in a less obvious manner. Despite his lofty promises, President Duarte was unable to stop 2,500 assassinations in 1984. 1985 saw few of the perpetrators of these crimes brought to justice. The murderers of Archbishop Romero still walk free. In Guatemala, the people have suffered in a similar fashion. Warfare with an outside power is not part of their suffering, but government strikes internally against its opponents. Two British bishops who visited the country produced a report in 1985 which accused the Guatemalan military government of creating "a nation of widows and orphans". A human rights report noted 100 assassinations per month, and 10 "disappearances" a week. In the rural areas, food supplies and seed for planting are distributed by the army through "model villages", likened by churchmen to "concentration camps". Those who refuse to co-operate with the military do not receive aid. Those who do are forced to take part in "civil patrols" which are used by the army to draw the fire of guerrillas in military operations.
The elections have made little difference. As General Rodolfo
Lobos Zamora, assistant head
of state before the poll
commented: "To the extent that a civilian government enables us
within a few yards of his smallholding. His fear was all the more understandable when 1 learned his teenage daughter was taken hostage to Costa Rica a few months ago where she was repeatedly raped before escaping.
Another of the deacons is on a "contra" blacklist, because of his adherence to the Sandinista militia; his house has been burned once, and there have been two attempts on his life.
The massive involvement of the US in trying to destroy what it regards as communism is yet another major error on the part of the Reagan administration.
The silence and compliance of most of the Nicaraguan bishops is perhaps no worse than the performance of the German bishops when faced with Nazism 50 years ago, but it is equally unpalatable.
Who is to condemn our deacons and catechists for taking up arms to defend their families and their freedom?
Does 61 year old Fr Curcio act wrongly by publicly declaring his readiness to fight alongside the youths of his parish against the American invaders? I don't think so.
And I am sure that in wartorn Nicaragua, and in all of Central America, God has taken sides, just as he took the side of the enslaved Hebrews in Ancient Egypt.
God is visible in the faces of the poor who are struggling for a better life, a life without fear and hunger.
Please give these people the support they deserve, by making known the justice of their cause.
Padre Juan Luis (John Medcalf)
to obtain aid, we are pleased — but that is not to say that the army will disappear". 1985 then has not been a year of "liberation" for the peoples of Central America — food shortages, brutality, human: rights abuse, the constant threat of warfare, displacement have affected them all to differing degrees. The Church response to such suffering has taken several different forms. Fr d'Escoto's fast was just one. Before starting he said: "I extend my hand and my voice to the oppressed people of Latin America so that they reinforce with their prayer and action the aspirations of justice of the Nicaraguan people". 1985 has been a confusing year for Catholics in Nicaragua. Four members of their government are Catholic priests — Fr d'Escoto, Fr Fernando Cardenal, the Education minister, his brother, the poet, Fr Ernesto, the Culture minister, and Fr Edgar Parreles, the Nicaraguan ambassador to the Organisation of American states. Yet these four men have been suspended a divinis from their priestly functions by the Vatican, and shunned by their hierarchy for their continuing refusal to resign their offices. Despite their suspension they have vowed to continue in office. In May Archbishop Miguel Obando Bravo, the Sandinistas' most implacable enemy, was appointed a cardinal by the Pope, further highlighting the divisions of the Nicaraguan church. That split is political, Fr Cesa' Jerez Si told a London audience in November. The vice-rector of the Catholic university of Managua felt that there was considerable support both for the bishops stance and for that of the priests in government, and the so-called "popular church". He did not see a possibility of the rift being healed in the near future. Divisions in the church about its political role and profile in the struggle of the Central American people against oppression has not been as prominent in other countries in the region. In Honduras the bishops have taken a very low profile in stressing the sufferings of their people. Individual bishops have spoken out about human rights violations — particularly in respect of the Salvadoran refugees in the border area. The Guatemalan Church operates in "a restricted and semi-clandestine manner", the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group reported after a visit early in 1985. Two British bishops who also went there said that the Church was "persecuted, suffering and in danger". In the past the Guatemalan military have shown little compassion in dealing with religious who have stood in their way. Sixteen priests and many thousands of catechists have died since 1976. Operating under such pressures, it is not surprising that the Guatemalan Church has chosen not to make public declarations. It remains to be seen whether the change to civilian rule might create conditions where the Church can operate on a more public plan. For speaking out for the many, for highlighting their sufferings. the Archbishop of San Salvador, Arturo Rivera y Damas, was attacked by both right and left in 1985. The FMLM guerrillas took exception to an August pastoral letter stressing the need for dialogue, but also warning that "the big danger of manipulation of the Christian comes from the extreme left or those associated with them. They responded by condemning the "biased conduct" of the Church as "yet another obstacle on the road to dialogue". Meanwhile in a full page advertisement, a right-wing church group warned the Archbishop "it should be enough to remember your predecessor". Archbishop Rivera y Damas has pledged himself not to waver "from the path of dialogue and continues to work for a resumption of the peace talks between government and guerrillas. He achieved one success in 1985, when he acted as an intermediary and effected the release of President Duarte's daughter, held captive by guerrillas. 1985 may have seen few positive steps towards the alleviation of the sufferings of the people of Central America, but the Church continues its work for peace and justice. Returning to Fr d'Escoto, he asked that "my brothers and sisters in faith will ignite . . . an evangelical insurrection with the means of struggle which emanate from the Gospel and which it is indispensable to begin to use for the coming of the Reign".