1992 will mark the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, and already how to mark the event is a subject of controversy as George Gelber found when he visited a Brighton theatre with a Peruvian bishop
IT was a pity that Peter Shaffer couldn't come to the meeting. Bishop Jose Dammert of Cajamarca would have enjoyed the "exchange of views". He had just seen The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a Theatre Royal, Brighton, revival after 20 years of Peter Shaffer's play in which the author pits the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, against the Inca ruler, Atahualpa. Bishop Dammert's house and cathedral face the very square in Cajamarca where Pizarro's small band massacred 3,000 Incas. Not far away is the room which Atahualpa filled in vain with gold to pay his ransom.
Bishop Dammert has lived as bishop in Cajamarca, high up in the Peruvian Andes, since 1962 and is steeped in its history. He wanted to tell Shaffer that Marcos de Niza, the Franciscan friar, was not among Pizarro's band, that Vicente Valverde, the Dominican chaplain to the expedition who describes Atahualpa as the anti-christ and prefers a dead baptised Inca to a live heathen one, became Bishop of Cuzco and a committed defender of the Peruvian Indians against the harsh treatment meted out to them by the Spanish colonialists.
He also wanted to point out that Atahualpa, who is almost naked throughout the play, could hardly have gone around like that in the bitter cold of the Andean winter. As Dammert put it, this telling parable about the clash between European civilisation and the noble savage rests heavily on British stereotypes, and "could not be performed without alteration" in Latin America. Bishop Dammert's trip to the theatre had been organised by Fr John Medcalf who, before working in Nicaragua, had organised a system of rural libraries in Cajamarca.
Daminert, however, is more concerned with the lives of today's cajamarquinos in his mountain diocese, where a population of 600,000 living in an area half the size of Belgium, is served by 38 priests, seven of them over 70, and a handful of nuns. Now a frail 72 year old, limping badly from an old injury to his right foot, Dammert outlines his concerns with a passion belied by his soft and always courteous voice.
He is a friend and former teacher of Fr Gustavo Gutierrez, the originator of the term "liberation theology" and shares his approach to the problems which Peru and other Latin American countries face.
He likens the insistence of our banks on wringing the last drop of interest from Latin America to the avarice and desire for gold of the conquistadores 500 years ago. Dammert sees the debt as Peru's principal problem, a mountainous burden imposed on the backs of the poor by international banks, a debt which has reduced public services in Cajamarca to penury. He gave the example of hospitals without anaesthetics, scalpels, cottonwool or alcohol. The belttightening affects everything: all the priests of the diocese used to meet once a month; now it is once every two months because the Church cannot afford the cost of the petrol for their journeys from their scattered parishes.
Because the causes of poverty are external, he says, there can be no development without the cooperation of the rich "first world". He asked for solidarity from British Christians in lilting the burden of debt from the poor of Latin America.
fie is proud of the rondos campesinas (rural or peasant patrols), which he and his pastoral teams have encouraged in Cajamarca. They are a system of self-defence, organised by the peasant farmers in the absence of any police in the rural areas. The rondascampesinas were first as a response to cattle-rustlers and now to the altogether more serious threat posed by the Shining Path (Sendero Lurninoso) guerrillas who, in waging war on the Peruvian government, also seek to impose their will on the population through terror.
One farmer told Dammert that before the organisation of the rondas campesinas he was up every night trying to ensure that no one stole his animals and that now he could sleep soundly for six nights a week and was up only one night in seven on patrol with the rondo. Dammert dismisses Sendero Lurninoso as the creation of frustrated schoolleavers and university graduates.
In Cajamarca, at least, — and also in Puno where the Catholic Church is strong — the advance of Sendero Luminoso has been checked by the rondos campesinas, not because they are a military response — they are armed with only a few hunting rifles — but because they are the product of strong and united community organisation.
Dammert's approach is always to encourage people, and especially the peasant farmers of Cajamarca, to assume responsibility for their own lives. He finds a response in the grassroots of the church. Cajamarca has the highest percentage of native Peruvian priests of any diocese in Peru. Of the five priests whom he will ordain next year, three are the sons of campesino catechists encouraged and promoted within the diocese.
In 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing on the shores of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, the Americas will erupt with claims and counterclaims about the consequences of European "discovery" of the New World. What did Bishop Dammert think would be an appropriate way of celebrating this anniversary? A year of silence, in which all concerned should reflect on those consequences and their own entrenched positions.
And the British should not get carried away by the evils of the Spanish conquest because their unique contribution to the sorrows of the New World was the transport of 10 million African slaves to the Caribbean and the colonies of the United States.
George Gelber is a special consultant on Latin America at CAFOD where he is planning a campaign to mark the 1992 anniversary.