Monday, 31 August 2009

Morning in Thessaloniki

[Vergina is not a misprint. It is a small town near Thessaloniki. It is where the tomb of Alexander the Great's father is believed to have been located.]

It's three in the morning
and we're walking
through Thessaloniki

in and out of rain-soaked


side by side
but not touching

I want to kiss you

to taste the morning mist
on your lips

to smell the dawn
in your hair

to wake up to you
not your memory

of course nothing happened

but autumn's desire
left unfulfilled
still lingers

like the pinewood smoke


above the misty hills
of sacred Vergina

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Indigenous Peoples' Rebellion in Central America: A Remembrance of Things to Come?

[While a lot of attention has been focused on Honduras lately, I'd like to reflect on those years not long ago when the indigenous peoples of Guatemala decided they had to take up arms against a series of brutal dictatorships.

Guatemala remains a powder keg.]

Toward the end of the 20th century and, perhaps, for the first time since the Spanish Conquest, the indigenous peoples of Guatemala were once again taking up arms against the government. As a result, some U.S. State Department officials were afraid that, by their example, Guatemala’s indigenous peoples would show their cousins in neighbouring Mexico the road to revolution.

It was an observation that wasn’t lost on at least one indigenous member of the Ejercito Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP) – the Guerrilla Army of the Poor whom I interviewed at the time. When the interview took place, 1980, the EGP was Guatemala’s largest guerrilla group.

“We are fighting for our survival, for our way of life, against a corrupt government that wants to destroy us and our culture,” said the young guerrilla fighter. “We Indians have to fight together. I’ve been to Mexico, on my way to the United States. I know how the Indians there live. We can’t help them now. But we will after we win the revolution here.”

Little did anyone know that before the century ended, an armed group calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation would emerge in Chiapas in 1994 and declare war against the Mexican state. However, I don’t know what influence the earlier indigenous guerrilla movement in Guatemala had –and has -- on the Zapatistas.

Although armed insurrection among Mexico’s estimated 30 million indigenous peoples was still a vague, rarely expressed possibility in the last half of the 1900s, by 1980 certain facts could no longer be ignored. And if these facts were not acted upon, the spectre of an indigenous revolution would continue to haunt Mexico. For example:

• 17,000 Nahua and Otomi who lived in the mountains of Veracruz had to eat raw worms to keep from starving to death. In 1979 30 of their children had died of hunger.
• About 150,000 indigenous peoples in Mexico were forced off their lands because of their inability to obtain credit to buy seeds and farm equipment.
• On June 15, 1980 the Mexican Army killed at least 47 indigenous peoples in Chiapas during an attempt by impoverished peasants to claim land for their own. By September of that year, hundreds of families, fearful of similar treatment, had fled into the hills and forests.
• Though the average per capita income of Mexicans was more than $1,100 per year, the indigenous peoples of Chiapas worked 16-hour days on large ranches for wealthy latifundistas (large landholders) for less than $1 a day. Conditions were similar to those of the 19th century, when Mexicans of European heritage exploited indigenous peoples and took their land, according to Mexican anthropologist Ricardo Pozas Arciniega.
• Early in 1980 seven Mexican bishops had denounced the increasing number of killings of indigenous peoples and peasants – estimated to be in the hundreds – by the army, police and latifundistas in the states of Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Guerrero, Veracruz and Chiapas.
• Thousands of indigenous peoples in the state of Hidalgo formed organisations to present a united front against the government and local strong men.

The Mexican government adopted several political postures toward the country’s indigenous peoples over the years, from denying their existence to token displays of support, said Francisco Rojas Cuevas, adjutant director of the country’s National Indigenous Institute. Rojas then recounted some statistics about the country’s indigenous population.

Approximately 1 million indigenous people did not understand Spanish, he said. The indigenous population was divided into 56 ethnic groups, the largest of which was formed by the 1 million who spoke Nahua, the language of the Aztecs. The second largest ethnic group was made up of indigenous people who spoke Maya, or one of the closely related languages, and live, for the most part, in southeastern Mexico. Indigenous peoples in parts of Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras also speak Maya.

In 1932, the indigenous peoples of El Salvador began what has been called the first attempt at a communist revolution in Latin America. More than 30,000 people were killed during the uprising. After the army emerged victorious, the indigenous peoples, fearful of further repression, stopped speaking their native languages and never again wore their traditional clothing. But El Salvador’s indigenous peoples achieved a kind of notoriety at the same time they almost lost their culture. For the country’s guerrilla movements toward the last decades of the 20th century took their inspiration from that bloody uprising half a century earlier.

Nowhere, however, were the indigenous peoples of Central America as militant as in Guatemala. There, they not only joined existing guerrilla groups, but more significantly, formed their own, all indigenous revolutionary organisations.

Squatting in a small, hot, humid room behind a church, a university-educated Quiche man and 15 other Guatemalan indigenous men and women from surrounding villages were planning an armed insurrection. They had already made arrangements to get arms and training from the EGP.

“This is a separate organisation,” said the EGP guerrilla attending the meeting. “We will help them all we can, but it is their organisation. They are not responsible to us.”

Meanwhile, in Guatemala City, sitting in the air-conditioned office of the daily newspaper, La Prensa Libre, the managing editor said rumours were spreading throughout the city about an all-indigenous group calling itself Gregorio Yuxa.

“If this is true,” said the editor, “it would be the first time that the Indians of our country have formed their own revolutionary organisation. Up until recently, we didn’t even think they would join the other guerrilla groups, such as the EGP, much less form their own organisation.”

Because of the assumed passivity of the indigenous peoples, their growing militancy caught not only Guatemala by surprise, but the U.S. State Department, as well. In 1979, then-assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Viron P. Vaky, told a congressional subcommittee that Guatemala’s guerrillas were “isolated from the large but unassimilated Indian population in rural areas.”

But Vaky’s September 1979 testimony contradicted a secret U.S. intelligence report prepared five months earlier. That document did not appear in the subcommittee’s report. In the classified document, intelligence officials SAID Cuba was “impressed with (the EGP’s) initial success in recruiting members of Guatemala’s Indian population.”

The indigenous resistance to the government was highlighted during the occupation of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City in 1980 by peasants from villages in the Quiche province. Their villages had been under military occupation since 1975, when the EGP killed an influential local landowner. The occupants in the embassy were part of a delegation of 89 indigenous people from the province who had come to the capital three weeks before to protest what they called “army atrocities,” including the disappearance of more than 100 local peasants.

Earlier, in October 1979, another delegation of indigenous people had gone to Guatemala City to register a protest about the army’s abduction and presumed murder of nine peasants over a two-month period. They were sent home with the promise that an investigation would be conducted into the matter. The investigation was never conducted, while 60 more peasants from the area were reported to have been killed between November 1979 and February 1980.

The plight of the indigenous peoples received worldwide attention when the Guatemalan police stormed the occupied Embassy. A fire started during the attack and killed 39 people, mostly native people. One of the two survivors, Gregorio Yuxa, was kidnapped from his hospital bed and killed by right-wing terrorists the following day. The recently formed guerrilla group carried his name.

Spain broke diplomatic relations with Guatemala over the government’s handling of the embassy incident.

Meanwhile, the army’s counter-insurgency drive in the Quiche province continued to cause increased friction between the army and the indigenous population. There were complaints that soldiers raped native women, terrorized the towns and villages, and made arbitrary arrests. To counter the Guatemalan army’s increasingly bad image among the country’s 3,574,800 indigenous peoples – 54% of the population – the government resorted to an extensive advertising campaign to portray the soldier as “the Indian’s friend.”

But the public relations blitz fizzled, in part because most of the propaganda was disseminated through television commercials depicting friendly gatherings of soldiers and indigenous peoples. Most indigenous peoples, however, did not own television sets. Most did not even have electricity.

The EGP selected Quiche province as its centre of operations because of the widespread land conflicts, and the continuing turmoil over police and army brutality in the area.

The conflicts over land arose from the fact that in most of Quiche the land is in the hands of a few landowners. One part of the province had more widespread land distribution, but even there it was dominated by a few large coffee plantations, and landless indigenous people were a source of cheap labour.

The lot of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples worsened since 1970, with many small tenant farmers forced off their land by large landowners. With an eye on the rising price of coffee on the world market, the area’s latifundistas moved to increase their profits by producing a bigger coffee crop with the land obtained from the tenant farmers. In addition, the more landless peasants, the more available cheap labour for the coffee grower to choose from.

When the army occupied Quiche in 1975, the soldiers found ready collaborators among the area’s landowners and labour contractors. They were quick to identify suspected EGP sympathizers, who were then handed over to the army. They also enlisted the aid of the ladinos (mixed indigenous and European heritage), who often owned small plots of land, as spies in communities where it was thought there was guerrilla support.

“The ladinos in Guatemala are afraid of a race war,” said an EGP guerrilla. “They have exploited the Indians for centuries and now they are afraid of us. But it is a struggle of the Indians, the poor ladinos and the workers against the government. We try to stress that to our people.”

Until 1979 the army’s method of curbing guerrilla activity was to arrest or kill anyone suspected of being sympathetic to the guerrillas. The tactic was used successfully against guerrillas during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The insurgents were routed.

But by the late 1970s, the army began to recognize that their strong-arm tactics had become increasingly counterproductive, as they received progressively less cooperation from the indigenous population. In early 1979 the military decided to modify its tactics. A permanent army garrison was set up in Quiche, and in July 1979 a major “civil-military” campaign was started.

Since then, the army strategy aimed at winning over the local population by sending in doctors, dentists and free food and medical supplies.

The indigenous population, however, remained suspicious of the army and the government it represented. They cited dozens of cases of government repression.

Among them were:

• Peasants in two towns – San Marcus and Huehuetenango – left their homes in record numbers because of a wave of kidnappings they attributed to the military police.
• A peasant leader was kidnapped in the northern province of Peten in February 1979, another in Guatemala City toward the end of the year.
• Sixty peasants in another town in Peten were accused of being guerrillas. Several were arrested.
• Two peasants – assistants to the local priest – were kidnapped in Guatemala’s south coast and carried away in cars with government license plates.
• Men “dressed like soldiers” assaulted a village in the eastern province of Zacapa.
• Two workers at the Palo Gordo sugar mill, in the western part of the country near the Mexican border, were kidnapped.

In addition to the increasing numbers of indigenous peoples joining guerrilla groups, entire villages rose up against their occupation troops. For example, in the village of Senahu in the northeast, a group of indigenous woodcutters – men and women – attacked a police patrol that was carrying off one of their friends on charges of violating the forestry law. In another case, two youths were picked up by the Treasury Police for distributing subversive material. More than 300 people in the village of Chalva surrounded the police and forced them to hand over the youths. On another occasion, 200 indigenous people from the village of Chajgual surrounded the city hall at Santa Maria Cahabon, demanding that six peasants jailed for defending their land be freed.

Obviously, the discontent of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples was widespread.

“We’re not fighting for communism or capitalism or socialism,” said a young indigenous guerrilla. “We’re fighting for our survival.”

To help them with their struggle, the indigenous peoples counted on the support of Marxist-oriented guerrilla groups such as the EGP and sympathetic elements of the Roman Catholic Church.

“We just can’t stand idly by and watch these people get slaughtered,” said Father Donald McKenna, a 30-year-old Irish priest who served his parishioners in Quiche for two years. As an advocate of the theology of liberation, McKenna, who was on the government’s death list, was convinced that the church had to take the side of the poor and that “if we have to fight alongside the Indians, so be it.”

As the revolution in Guatemala escalated, indigenous people were increasingly being driven farther and farther north. Many of them were forced to seek refuge in neighbouring Mexico, whose border with Guatemala is virtually open.

Weapons were being smuggled to the EPG using the same routes that had been used for years by gunrunners and drug smugglers. Some Guatemalan guerrillas were already using the Mexican border as a refuge from government forces.

But there was good reason to believe that the traffic in guns and guerrillas would not affect only Guatemala. As refugees and guerrillas brought with them the latest reports of the Mayan revolt in Guatemala, sharing experiences with their Mayan cousins in Chiapas, Quintana Roo and the other states in Mexico’s southeast, the indigenous peoples of Mexico took notice. The Zapatista movement was a beginning.

The final chapter has yet to be written.

Liberation Theology: Its Legacy in Mexico and Central America

The young priest said Mass for his parishioners, just as he had a hundred times before, and lying on the altar were the tools of his trade: a Bible, a wine goblet, a lit candle – and a .357 magnum revolver.

After Mass, he climbed the stairs to the bell tower of his Spanish colonial church, where he scanned the surrounding countryside. He was on watch for government troops. They were the enemy. As a priest, it was his job to bring the message of the Church to his flock, but he was also a member of a revolutionary guerrilla network, which had brought its own message to the people: it is time to rise up against your oppressors.

For the priest they were one and the same message.

Nor was he alone.

All over Central America in the 1970s, priests and nuns were re-evaluating their traditional role within the Church, and the role the Church should play in effecting social change. They were calling for a “theology of liberation,” and their call has had serious consequences, threatening to divide the Church irreparably. It had also affected them on a personal level. By 1980 more than 50 priests had been killed for their activities, including an archbishop.

In 1979, the debate over the role of the Church in Latin America had swept past the local parishes to the highest levels of the Roman Church. When Pope John Paul II journeyed to Puebla, Mexico, to inaugurate the Third Latin American Bishops Conference, it was clear that the quiet, charming colonial town, known for its staunchly conservative Catholic population, had become the backdrop for a theological battleground that would determine the future of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America.

Liberation theology draws the Church into an active role, demanding that it help the poor meet social and economic needs and liberate the oppressed from authoritarian regimes. Some priests, supported by dissident bishops, argued that only through establishing communist governments can the poor and oppressed be liberated. A few had gone so far as to join guerrilla movements. Most followed a more moderate line, contending that neither communism nor capitalism is suited for Latin America, and that a new political and economic order is needed.

In Puebla, those espousing liberation theology were officially excluded from the conference, but some got around it by becoming personal advisers to sympathetic bishops who were delegates. For example, Gustavo Gutierrez, the principal spokesman of liberation theology, became the adviser to eight bishops. But the cards were well stacked against what has become known as the Church’s progressive faction by Colombian Archbishop Alfonso Lopez Trujillo. The conference was controlled by political conservatives led by Trujillo; Belgian Jesuit Roger Vekemans; and the Roman Curia’s Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, who was Trujillo’s power broker at the Vatican.

The dominance by the conservatives was not unexpected.

Ever since the conquistadores set foot in the New World, claimed the land and all its people and then sanctified their conquest with a priest saying Mass, the Church has been considered one part of the traditional triumvirate of power in Latin America, along with the military and the large landowners.

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, the identification of the Church with the rich and powerful was not so clear. An increasing number of the continent’s poor were apt to think of their parish priest as a defender of their interests.

The radical change had surfaced only in the last 10 years, largely due to the theology of liberation. Although most advocates of liberation theology condemned communism as well as capitalism, it was Marxism that forced the Catholic Church in Latin America to confront the plight of the continent’s poor and oppressed. In the mid-1960s, with guerrilla activity spreading throughout the continent, young theologians began to question their traditional view of Latin American Catholicism. They turned to Marxism as an analytical tool to help them understand the causes of economic and social under-development on the continent that seemed to underlie the growing revolt.

Marx was respected as a sociologist in many parts of the Third World, and the use of Marxian analysis was dominant among scholars from countries with colonial backgrounds.

But an acceptance of Marx the sociologist did not necessarily lead to support for a Marxist ideology, much less communism, which most liberation theologians rejected as a political system incompatible with Christianity. What attracted the theologians was not Marx’s formulas for a new society, but his suggestion of the interrelationship of experience and theory – that one supported and furthered understanding of the other. As a result, the dissident theologians developed a series of new religious and sociological insights based on Latin America’s historical condition as an economically and politically dependent continent. The work that resulted became known as the “theology of liberation.”

Gutierrez, a Peruvian, was the principal spokesman for this new theology. He studied at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, where he met Camilo Torres, a Colombian priest from a well-to-do family. The two students argued about the role of priests among the poor in Latin America. Torres, who espoused direct involvement by priests in revolutionary activity, later took up arms with the Colombian guerrillas, and was a prototype of an increasing phenomenon in Latin America, the guerrilla-priest. He was killed in his first battle. Gutierrez is among those who declined to follow in Torres’ footsteps.

“Those who attribute violence to the theology of liberation do not know what they are talking about,” Gutierrez said in an interview. “The theology’s position on violence is the same as the Church’s traditional teaching on “just wars” that dates to St. Thomas Aquinas: that violence is possible as a lesser evil and last resort against a greater violence, such as tyranny, but that no Christian willingly accepts such a choice.”

Within the theology of liberation, the “choice” ranges from the non-violent preachings of Brazil’s Archbishop Dom Helder Camara, to the Spanish missionary priest, Gaspar Garcia, who became a comandante with the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN guerrillas in Nicaragua. Camara rejects violence in any form. Not only is violence un-Christian, he said, but it does not work. Nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, Camara’s influence stretches from Brazil to other parts of the world. His teachings are especially revered in Third World countries.

“We are replacing the force of arms by moral force, the violence of the truth,” wrote Camara in his book, “The Desert Is Fertile.” In it he offered a plan for his followers to counter institutionalized violence: “Love will help them to decide firmly that the goal is not superficial reform but the transformation of human structures...”

“What we need to find for Latin America is a line of socialism adapted to Latin American needs,” said Camara during an interview. “I am thinking of a conscious participation by more classes of the population in the control of power and the sharing of wealth and culture,” he said.

Though battle lines have been drawn between those who advocate violence and those who condemn it, both sides agree that capitalism has been a failure in Latin America. Some conservatives in the Latin American Church also question the behaviour of multinational corporations and the terms of trade imposed by the industrialized nations, especially the United States. At the Puebla bishop’s conference, various participants criticized the United States and its large corporations for much of the misery in Latin America. One archbishop exhorted the underdeveloped countries of the continent to shake off whatever kind of political, economic and social colonialism the United States exercises over them. At the local level, many among the clergy direct their criticism not toward the theoretical problems or questions of American economic dominance, but at daily concerns – housing, sanitation, and social services. In some cases they do so under the threat of death.

In 1980 alone, four priests working with poor Indians in rural Guatemala were murdered by right-wing terrorists affiliated with the country’s military dictatorship. The most recent case occurred in the predominately Indian state of Quiche in July 1980, when a Spanish missionary priest, Faustino Villanueva, was murdered in his church office by two men. Villanueva, a follower of Camara, had spent more than a dozen years in Guatemala. Warned by fellow liberationist priets that his work with the Indians endangered his life, he replied: “Why would they want to kill me? I’m not politically involved.” He declined offers of protection by his parishioners and refused to abandon his work.

Less than eight miles from where Villanueva was murdered, another priest made a decision to take up arms against the government he held responsible for his friend’s death. Donald McKenna was an Irish priest who had been active in Guatemala for two years. A committed follower of Camilo Torres, McKenna was convinced that violence does have a role to play in the modern Church. With his name on the Guatemalan government’s death list, McKenna carried a .357 magnum revolver, stored Molotov cocktails on the premises of the church, and met frequently with guerrillas and planned revolution.

Soon after Villanueva’s funeral, gunmen made three attempts on the life of the bishop of Quiche. As a result, the bishop took the extraordinary action of removing all priests and nuns from the state. He then flew to Rome to discuss the assaults with the Pope. At this writing (1980)there are no clergy in the state of Quiche. But Father McKenna, with help from his friends in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), was making plans to return.

To the south, in El Salvador, nine members of the clergy were killed between 1977and 1980. At the bishops’ conference in 1979, the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar A. Romero, made an impassioned plea for official condemnation of the Salvadoran government’s attacks against the Church. With tears rolling down his face, Romero, an outspoken critic of the government, begged for action by the conference attendees, saying, “They are killing my church.”

Romero, a Nobel prize nominee and influential advocate of liberation theology, was murdered in his church while saying Mass earlier in 1980.

On April 2, two traditional enemies joined hands in Mexico City to condemn Romero’s murder and to show solidarity for the revolutionary movements in El Salvador and Guatemala. Communists and liberation clergymen stood together for the first time under the banner of Mexico’s Communist Party, which later adorned the country’s most sacred religious shrine, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico.

But the same country that offered tight security for the clergy attending the bishops’ conference and which allowed a show of solidarity for a fallen archbishop, appears to have been responsible for the murder of a simple priest trying to serve his impoverished parishioners three years earlier. The U.S. military intelligence branch became interested in the case of Father Rudolfo Aguilar through their monitoring of leftist activities in Mexico. The murder of the activist priest is described in a report by U.S. intelligence agents as follows:

Aguilar was the parish priest of a poor neighbourhood in Chihuahua, which Mexican authorities claimed was sympathetic to leftist urban guerrillas. The priest frequently intervened on behalf of his working-class parishioners with various government agencies. He was usually successful in obtaining needed services for the his people. The neighbourhood needed a sewage system. In order to empty into the Sacramento River, the pipes had to pass through land owned by the mayor of Chihuahua. Aguilar pressured the official to get him to allow the pipes through his land, but the mayor refused. The mayor was afraid the value of his land would decline, although the river was already polluted by industrial waste. The governor of Chihuahua, under pressure from the mayor, sent a letter to that state’s archbishop, demanding that Aguilar be removed. Eight days later, on March 2, 1977, the priest was found shot in the back of the head. State police officials announced that Aguilar was a member of the 23rd of September Communist League, at that time Mexico’s most active guerrilla group. They officially concluded that the priest show himself while handling firearms.

But according to confidential U.S. military intelligence reports, father Aguilar was killed either by the Chihuahua State Judicial Police or the federal government’s illegal, anti-terrorist organization called “La Brigada Blanca,” the White Brigade.
The reason for his death, said Chihuahua’s archbishop, was that Aguilar “dared to cry out for justice on behalf of poor people.”

Mexico has also been the scene of a little-known struggle between progressive members of the Roman Catholic Church and the government. In 1977, Arturo Lona Reyes, the bishop of the southern city of Tehuantepec, issued a strong protest against what he called government-sanctioned killings of students, peasants, and workers.

“We cannot remain silent in the face of these murderous deeds,” said the bishop, who is an advocate of liberation theology, “and we denounce the lack of respect for human life. There is no doubt that the poorest people are once again the victims. We will neither accept the excuse of incompetence (by the authorities); nor are we satisfied with vague promises that these gory deeds will be investigated and justice done.”

Soon after his denunciation, assassins attempted to murder the bishop.

In Guerrero, also in southern Mexico, Bishop Fidel Cortes Perez, another follower of the new theology, repeatedly received death threats. The chancery was robbed, gunshots were fired into the church patio, and the bishop’s chauffeur was attacked by three men and a woman who tried to kill him.

Mexican authorities failed to respond to the new church activism until 1972, when, according to members of the clergy, a paramilitary group calling itself the Anti-Guerrilla Squadron kidnapped two priests, one of whom they reportedly severely tortured.

The campaign was stepped up in 1977. In addition to the incidents involving the two bishops, two priests were murdered and two kidnapped, and several church organizations were raided. In every case, the priests involved were advocates of the new theology and were engaged in applying its principles through work with Mexico’s slum and rural poor.

This, then, was the backdrop – division in the Church, activism in the local parish, murder and government harassment f clergy – that Pope John Paul II faced when he arrived in Mexico to inaugurate the Third Latin American Bishops Conference.

The Pope’s universally acclaimed warm welcome by Mexicans – millions greeted him wherever he went during his week-long stay – lay in stark contrast to the reason for his coming: to attempt to narrow the extreme differences that plague the Latin American Church. At first, liberation theologians were convinced that the Pope had come to speak out against their activism. En route to Mexico, the pontiff had said, “Jesus Christ was not a political figure, a revolutionary...” He continued his theme in a speech at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, admonishing priests “not to give in to socio-political radicalisms which in the long run become inopportune, counterproductive.” Lecturing the clergy, the Pope continued, “You are spiritual guides who try to orient and improve the hearts of the faithful. You are not social leaders, political leaders or employees of temporal power.”

The opponents of the new theology were delighted.

Two days later, however, the pontiff journeyed to the south of Mexico, and before an audience of 40,000 Indians in the Oaxacan town of Cuilapan de Guerrero, adopted a tone that shocked Church conservatives and elated proponents of the new theology. Abandoning the speech that had been prepared for him by Vatican advisers, the Pope passionately addressed the problems of poverty and powerlessness, denouncing the “exploitation, plunder and abandonment” of Latin America’s indigenous peoples and peasants.

“It is not just nor humane nor Christian to continue with certain unjust situations,” the pontiff said, and he emphasized that all private property has “a social mortgage” that must be attended to. If common welfare demands it, he went on, then expropriation is in order. Uniting his cause with that of the poor, the Pope continued to stress the obligations of the wealthy and powerful toward the less fortunate, and the growing impatience of the impoverished masses for “dignity” and “recognition.”

The response by the audience of indigenous peoples was tumultuous. But at the pontiff’s side, astonished bishops sat in disbelief. Afterwards, one of his entourage judged the speech as “the most severe that any Pope has delivered.”

By the time the Pope ended his visit, both factions of the Church felt he had strengthened their claims to true interpretation of Christ’s teachings. If anything, the pontiff’s sojourn heightened the divisions, with both revolutionaries and members of the region’s authoritarian regimes quoting from his various speeches.

Today (1980), 20 months after John Paul’s historic trip to Mexico, the Church in Latin America remains bitterly divided. The same divisions that plagued the delegates at the Puebla bishops’ conference continue to fuel instability, both in the Church and in the society it serves.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Reflections On Che, Revolution, Central America and Honduras

[Having recently seen Benicio del Toro’s cinematic biography of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, I got to thinking about guerrilla warfare in Central America, which I covered as a war correspondent in the 1970s and 1980s, and the current events in Honduras. This led me to put down some thoughts about the world’s most famous revolutionary.]

Since he was tracked down and slain in 1967 by the Bolivian army, with assistance from the U.S., Ernesto “Che” Guevara has become a legend throughout Latin America, indeed, the world.

An American journalist once described him as a “cross between a faun and a Sunday-school print of Jesus.” Che Guevara did have that visual quality, but of course that was not what Guevara was. He was a revolutionary – he lived and died thinking about, living and pursuing revolution.

For the revolutionaries in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mexico, Che Guevara’s presence was still felt toward the end of the 20th century. His books on guerrilla warfare were best sellers at university bookstores throughout Central America. In Nicaragua, posters of Che were tacked up next to those of Augusto Cesar Sandino, that country’s own rebel hero. Guevara’s face could be seen on walls, doors and sidewalks in the barrios of virtually every Central American city. His face graced T-shirts and car doors, as well.

Che remained a source of inspiration for the dozens of guerrilla groups that prowled the region’s mountains, jungles and urban slums, many of whom I accompanied as a war correspondent at that time. Considered the consummate guerrilla fighter, he was admired by communists and anarchists alike.

Che Guevara was not revered by everyone, of course. For governments threatened by revolution, for the wealthy and much of the middle class, Che was the anti-Christ. He represented destruction, a tearing down of the social order, and with it, everything they held dear.

When Salvador Allende’s left-leaning regime in Chile was overthrown by a military coup, one of the first acts of the new military junta was to blow up a statue of Che that Allende had erected in a working class suburb in 1971, with Castro himself on hand to dedicate the sculptor. Significantly, rather than simply tearing down the monument, the government first blew off the head of the figure. It was the end of Che Guevara in Chile. The revolutionary was dead, both as a major influence and as a symbol.

Che’s influence was due to a number of factors and quirks of history and personality. In the first place, there is his association with a kind of revolutionary purity. Che, the middle class intellectual, descended from a family of aristocratic and military background, who spent his life with the poor and formally uneducated – and paid for his purity with his death. It is a near-perfect, Christ-like image, a martyr who offers his life for his fellow human beings. It is still a powerful image for a continent dominated by the Catholic faith.

For many Guevara also represented idealism. A Cuban university student, a woman in her early 30s, put it this way in 1980: “When we won the revolution, Che didn’t settle down in a big mansion, like some of the other leaders. No, he left Cuba to fight for the poor people of Bolivia.”

Oddly, Che was revered for his realism, as well. He was not an armchair revolutionary, but a man of action, leadership and charisma. Not one to be satisfied spinning out theories, Guevara took to the field to try them out. Yet he was also a thinker and writer.

Guevara’s life, spent in a host of countries in Central and Latin America and in Africa, reflects another trait admired by his followers: Che was always an internationalist, fighting under the flag of change and revolt, roaming the world like a 20th century knight errant, a modern Don Quixote, who tilted at capitalism like so many windmills.

Although among many revolutionaries, Che Guevara is a godlike figure, during his time as part of Castro’s government in Cuba, he was responsible for very human mistakes. Charged by Fidel with reorganizing the economic base of Cuba’s faltering economy, Che had little success in the job, and had a falling out with the Russians over the direction that Cuba’s economy should take. Ultimately, Guevara resigned and left Cuba to lend his talents to Africa’s revolutionaries.

While I was in Cuba on an assignment, I heard a joke about Che’s dismal handling of the economy. Fidel asks Che if he remembers when, after the fall of Batista, he asked his colleagues, “Which one of you is an economist?” Che quickly raised his hand. So, Fidel put him in charge of economic reform. “Do you remember?” Fidel asks Guevara. “Yes, very well,” Che replied. “Then what the hell happened?” Fidel asked. “I thought you said you were an economist.” Che smiled. “I thought you asked, ‘Who is a Communist?’ So I raised my hand.”

Some Cubans as late as 1980 were still unhappy that Che left. In Havana, one young Cuban, discussing her feelings about Che, ironically mused, “Now there was a real revolutionary. We wouldn’t be in such an economic mess if he were still alive.”

Ernesto “Che” Guevara studied medicine in his native Argentina. After graduation in 1953, he travelled to Bolivia, where he became acquainted with leftist ideas and decided to go to Guatemala, where a newly elected leftist regime was in power.
On his way, he visited Costa Rica, where he studied Marxism and for the first time encountered Castro-led revolutionaries who were bent on overthrowing the Batista regime.

On his arrival in Guatemala, he offered his services to the government and was assigned to with indigenous peoples in a health programme. But before he could get started, the regime, whose agrarian reform programme threatened the holdings of the United Fruit Co., was toppled by a CIA-backed coup in 1954.

Che fled to Mexico, where he made a living as an itinerant photographer. It was in Mewxico that he met Fidel Castro, who convinced him to join his band of revolutionafries, who were about to invade Cuba.

After training for months on a ranch outside of Mexico City, the handful of armed men and women left Mexico aboard a U.S.-made yacht renamed Granma and headed for Cuba in November 1956. The rest if history.

Che was a man of action. But he was also a thinker, a planner, a strategist. He was a man who plotted things out, and he wrote down his observations to help revolutionaries benefit from his experience. His major contribution to the theory of armed struggle was his book, “Guerrilla Warfare,” in which he contended that popular forces can defeat an army, and that they can create the conditions for making revolution.

His major contribution to revolutionary strategy was his belief that the countryside is the basic stage on which guerrilla warfare should be played out. In 1979 the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) guerrillas in Nicaragua ousted the Somoza dictatorship while following Guevara’s tactics and strategy. They waged war mostly in Nicaragua’s rural areas, supported by popular uprisings in the cities. The Sandinistas also were careful, in most cases, to follow Guevara’s advice on the treatment of prisoners: “A wounded enemy should be treated with care and respect unless his former life has made him liable to a death penalty.”

Along the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border (which I covered), Sandinista guerrillas frequently handed over their prisoners to the Costa Rican Red Cross. Sandinista field hospitals were filled with wounded guerrillas and Somoza’s national guardsmen.
The guerrillas in Guatemala were also using Guevara’s book as their military Bible. Guevara stressed that “attempts to take the lives of particular persons are to be made, though only in very special circumstances; this tactic should be used where it will eliminate a leader of the oppression.”

In response to the Guatemalan military government’s reign of terror against indigenous peoples, peasants and liberal elements of the Roman Catholic Church, guerrilla commando groups concentrated their efforts on assassinating military leaders and heads of right-wing terrorist groups. They generally ignored local police, minor officials and the general population.

This is a far cry from the tactics that are being used by Muslim insurgents in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Although most Central American revolutionaries professed to revere Che and followed his ideas concerning armed struggle, some were involved in activities that Che would not have approved. In El Salvador, for example, military personnel unlucky enough to fall into the hands of the guerrillas were sometimes executed. Guerrillas in El Salvador at times used terrorist methods not only against the government and that country’s ruling oligarchy, but also against the general population. Their attempts at times to frighten the masses into cooperation were contrary to one of Che’s major tenets of armed struggle: “We sincerely believe that terrorism is of negative value, that it by no means produces the desired effects, that it can turn a people against a revolutionary movement...” Without the support of the people, according to Che, guerrillas degenerate into bandits, and are left without a base or a programme.

El Salvador’s small size (8,260 square miles) and large population forced most guerrilla activity into the city. Che felt strongly that urban guerrilla activity was secondary to the war in the countryside. Urban guerrilla warfare alone, according to Guevara, can at best produce a bloody stalemate with the government forces. It cannot bring a guerrilla victory.

Although Che believed that conditions could be created for a successful revolutionary struggle, he was careful to caution against armed insurrection until all peaceful attempts at change had been tried.

“Where a government has come into power,” he wrote, “through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or note, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted.”

Guevara’s spirit and his theory of armed struggle are still alive today. But he remains a tarnished figure, partly because he failed in his final attempt to follow his own plan for revolt. There are assumptions in Che’s theories that cannot be taken for granted in the, for example, volatile political climate of Central America. Unity of city and country cannot be guaranteed. Radical groups with the same ends often differ about the means to achieve them. Often, a government is not strong and loathsome; it can be weak and pathetic. It does not inspire affection, but neither does it stir people to revolution.

Until recently, Honduras fell into this category.

Guevara also failed to take into account the native suspicion of outsiders. He understood that revolutions are made from the conditions within a country. Yet he failed to realize that their success is dependent on leadership emerging from among the population itself. Significantly, Che never led a successful – except for his role in Cuba, where the real leadership rested with Fidel Castro, a Cuban.

Still, Che’s theories constituted a road map on which could be traced the progress of revolutionary movements in Central America.

As peaceful means of change are rapidly being exhausted in Honduras, one wonders whether Che Guevara’s ideas for revolution will once again be taken up by people when they feel they have exhausted all possible peaceful means of ousting the illegitimate government in Tegucigalpa.