Penny Lernoux
Penny Lernoux

Fellowship Title:

Church Cowed by Uruguayan Military

Penny Lernoux
January 18, 1977

Fellowship Year

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Next to a loyal army commander, there is nothing so important to a Latin American dictator as the blessing of the archbishop. Even when the Catholic Church is hostile — as it now is in many military regimes — no government actively courts a confrontation with this powerful religious institution. There are too many examples in recent Latin American history of dictators who attacked the Church and paid for their folly, including Argentina’s Juan Domingo Peron and Venezuela’s Marcos Perez Jimenez, whose fall from power in the 1950s was largely due to the Church’s influence.

The lone exceptions to this rule are Cuba and Uruguay, the former because of the 1959 revolution, the latter because of its unusual history.

Unlike Chile and Brazil, where the Church has taken the lead in protesting the violation of human rights, the Uruguayan hierarchy is as cowed as the rest of the three million population. Not only is there no doubt that the civil-military junta would jail all the country’s bishops if they spoke in the same forceful terms as their Brazilian and Chilean colleagues. Religious sources believe that little would be achieved by such martyrdom. For the Uruguayan Church has no political clout and little religious influence. Though it is the only surviving institution in Uruguay that dares to suggest even the mildest criticism, the Church has not succeeded in moderating the repression that has grown apace over the past six years.

Uruguay’s weak Church and harsh regime are both products of the small nation’s frustrated experience in European liberalism. Among the oldest democracies in the hemisphere, Uruguay was long known as the “Switzerland of the Americas.” In contrast to its neighbors, the small country set the foundations for a liberal democracy early in this century, and, whilst Church and state remained firmly wedded in the rest of Latin America, the Uruguayan government unilaterally proclaimed its independence from Rome in 1917. A series of other reforms included the basis of a costly but advanced system of social welfare.

These innovations reflected the make-up of the population, mostly Italian and Spanish immigrants who left Europe before and after World War I, bringing with them new political ideas and, frequently, a contempt for the Catholic religion. The seaport of Montevideo, home to half the country’s population, was like many seaports — a wide-open city with a constant influx of foreigners and new ideas. Even Buenos Aires, the region’s cultural mecca, could not compete with Montevideo’s selection of book shops, newspapers and theaters.

Although 90 percent of the population went through the pro forma ritual of Catholic baptism, only two percent could be called militant Catholics in this most secular of Latin American nations. Under the liberalizing influence of Montevideo’s Archbishop Carlos Parteli, the Church was beginning to reach out to the estranged laymen with innovations and reforms in the mid-sixties when Uruguay once again became the scene for another experiment in foreign ideas, this time urban guerrillas.

Whatever their political persuasion, left, right or center, Uruguayans now unanimously agree that by 1967 the liberal foundations of their democracy had been reduced to ashes by political corruption, bureaucratic bungling and economic bankruptcy. As Uruguay slid from one crisis to another amidst such tragicomic spectacles as a duel between President Oscar Gestido and an irate congressman, the urban guerrilla Tupamaro movement emerged, first in the guise of Robin Hood, distributing the loot from bank robberies among the urban poor, and later as a disciplined army determined to bring about a socialist revolution to replace the unmanageable and scandal-ridden administration. As one left-wing priest admitted, “By 1972 there were only two choices — socialism or a military coup.”

The Church was early drawn into this war between left and right. Several religious deserted to the guerrillas; others were unknowingly compromised. One such was Msgr. Marcelo Mendihart, bishop of Salto, whose nephew used the diocese’s bank account to help finance the Tupamaros without the bishop’s knowledge. Mendihart was forced to flee to Buenos Aires and later to Rome, following death threats from Argentina’s right-wing paramilitary squad, the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance.

As elsewhere in Latin America, persecution of the left soon led to repression of any individual or group critical of the government. Between 1970 and 1973, when President Juan Maria Bordaberry joined the military in a coup to abolish parliament, the Tupamaros were destroyed, their leaders dead, imprisoned or in exile. Not satisfied with the guerrillas’ defeat, the military then set about purging society of all the political, social and cultural traditions of half a century. Just to make sure that everyone understood who was in charge, the army opened fire on several thousand people at a peaceful demonstration a month after the coup in June, 1973. “Since then,” said an Uruguayan businessman, “no one has dared open his mouth.”

In the ensuing purge, one out of every sixty Uruguayans was imprisoned and some 2,000 Uruguayans — representing an entire generation of political leaders — were deprived of their political rights; 300,000 Uruguayans fled the country.

As always, torture was and is applied indiscriminately with no appeal to justice since the barracks commander in charge of the arrested person is both jury and judge. Typical of the ongoing atrocities, which include burning at the stake, was the case of Eduardo Mondello. Contrary to military orders, Mondello’s father opened the casket when the body of his 27-year-old son was returned to him for burial. The face was completely destroyed, the body covered with wounds, the toenails and genitals torn off.

“Believe it or not, you can be arrested for having two guests in your home for dinner,” said one frightened Uruguayan, who was imprisoned for “holding a political meeting” when he invited his brother-in-law and a neighbor to join him for supper.

The Church suffers its share of persecution, too. The crackdown began in 1970 with the arrest of Jesuit Pier Luigi Mugioni, who reported that “they gave me so much ‘picana’ (electric prod) that when I was transferred to Punta Carretas (the Monvetideo prison), I still had the marks.”

Father Arnoldo Spadaccino, head of the pastoral program for the archdiocese of Montevideo, was one of several religious arrested in 1972. Three Methodist pastors also were imprisoned. But it was not until after the 1973 coup that the military began to persecute the Church on a national scale. Religious houses were searched by the police, government agents attended Church ceremonies to monitor sermons, and many of the Church’s community base groups were disbanded, particularly in rural areas. When Archbishop Parteli refused to give the new junta his blessing, the military announced that the Church had been subverted by international communism.

The Evangelist publication “Mensajero Valdense” was closed the following year because it received financial aid from the World Council of Churches. The government decided the Council was Marxist after it published a report describing torture in Uruguay by a team of U.S. Protestant ministers who had visited the country. The Council is in good company; the government also has denounced the United Nations as Marxist.

The demise of the “Mensajero Valdense” was followed in early 1975 by the temporary closure of the Catholic archdiocesan newspaper “Informaciones” which published an article on the beatitudes with a picture of armed soldiers surrounding a house in the slums. “Vispera,” one of the most respected religious journals in Latin America, was next to go, its editor and administrator imprisoned. Also arrested was Juan Artola, a prominent official of the ecumenical World Student Christian Federation.

Typical of the junta’s paranoia was the arrest of four Jesuits, including Jesuit Provincial Carlos Meharu, and three dozen teenagers during a Good Friday service at the Ramon Cabre Novitiate in Montevideo. The group was taken blindfolded to the Fifth Artillery Regiment for a night-long interrogation, apparently because the teenagers are active in social work in the slums. The testimony of their experience was later published by the Jesuit magazine “Perspectivas de Dialogo” in an article entitled “Another Good Friday.”

“When they arrested us I was very frightened,” recalled a girl of 18. “I felt I was in God’s hands. When we were in the truck blindfolded the girl beside me said, ‘Let’s say the Lord’s Prayer.’ I tried not to lose faith or spirit when we arrived. I put my arm around a girl who was crying and I couldn’t see her. Together we prayed, ‘Thy will be done.’ She gave me courage when she squeezed my hand. In the silence of the night, with the feeling of something burning within me, I sensed great solidarity with everyone.”

“I felt like we were Christians in the catacombs,” added a young man of 18. “I sang in silence.”

“We were talking about forgiving enemies when they came to arrest us,” said another teenager. “Now I was practicing forgiveness, not just theorizing. I was thinking how I might help my companions.”

For publishing this article, “Perspectivas” was closed by the government.

The crisis in Church-state relations came to a head in the fall of 1975 when the bishops made a concerted effort to stem the repression with a strongly worded pastoral letter urging a general amnesty for political prisoners. The letter turned out to be a terrible faux pas because, as one theologian said, “the bishops are not diplomats and do not have the courage of their convictions.”

Instead of reading the letter at Sunday Mass as was originally planned, the bishops first showed it to President Bordaberry, who naturally hit the roof. The hierarchy was told that if it did not delete the forbidden word “amnesty” and tone down the overall contents of the letter, there would be severe retaliations, including the expulsion of all foreign-born priests, or 30 percent of the clergy.

“The bishops should never have shown the letter to Bordaberry,” said an Uruguayan priest, “but having made that blunder, they should have refused to publish a watered-down version. Instead, they gave into the government, and the capitulation continued.”

“The archbishop is a saintly man, a progressive thinker truly concerned for the welfare of the people,” said another priest. “But he is not the leader for this sort of situation.

“The hierarchy thought that because Bordaberry is a practicing Catholic he would intervene with the military on their behalf. Quite the contrary.

“The military does not like Bordaberry (he was sacked in mid-1976). Attempts by the Church to use him as mediator just made the generals madder. One of them told me that the bishops would have been much wiser to deal directly with them.”

That is easier said than done, as another religious admits. “This military only thinks in terms of body counts,” he said, adding that “Archbishop Parteli has had a bad time of it. When he earlier tried to take a stand on human rights, Bordaberry called him a Marxist.

“Consider the mentality of a government that puts out a most-wanted-criminal bulletin on radio and television for Wilson Ferreira Aldunate, including height, color of eyes, etc., as if the people did not know him.” (Ferreira Aldunate, head of the politically centrist Nationalist Party, is generally considered to have been the real winner of the last presidential elections in which Bordaberry took power. He is now in exile in the United States.)

As would be expected, the bishops’ weak acquiescence over the matter of the letter only led to more repression — the expulsion of four Dominican nuns in November, 1975. By this time the Church was so shaken that orders went out to all priests, nuns and laymen to tighten security precautions to prevent government infiltration and to refrain from any new pastoral or social programs that might cause suspicion. Notwithstanding, the persecution continued.

In January of last year, the government banned the World Student Christian Federation and the Frontier Internship, an international organization financed by the U.S. Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. All students applying for university entrance were forced to sign a letter swearing to refrain from political, labor and religious activities. In April the government closed the Catholic Action Workers Movement and its bulletin. More recently, it forced the hierarchy to expel a Jesuit theologian and fire two priests from their teaching posts after a Dutch journalist was caught trying to photograph a Montevideo prison.

Police agents found the theologian’s name in the journalist’s address book and searched the Jesuit’s offices where a paper describing a course on morality was found to contain criticisms of the government. The theologian was jailed as well as a seminarist who had helped to teach the course and two priests who had approved it. They were released only after the hierarchy agreed to exile the theologian to Holland and sack the two priests.

Even the Papal Nuncio is subject to attack. When his secretary, Msgr. Guy Saint Hillaire, petitioned the Defense Ministry, with the Nuncio’s approval, to allow an Uruguayan family to send medicine to a sick political prisoner, Saint Hillaire was immediately denounced in the government-controlled press as a Marxist.

The campaign against the Church is directed from the Interior Ministry, where former Catholic militants trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) keep tabs on bishops, priests and laymen. Their boss, until his recent promotion to secretary to the presidency, was the Interior Ministry’s Under-Secretary Luis Vargas Garmendia, who is listed as a prominent CIA collaborator by Philip Agee in “Inside the Company.” Vargas Garmendia is widely suspected as the man behind the murders of two Uruguayan senators in Buenos Aires last May, one of whom, Hector Gutierrez Ruiz, had been the president of Uruguay’s lower house of congress.

As in other military regimes, the Uruguayan government loses no opportunity to smear the Church. Recently, the owners of Catholic book stores in Montevideo were called on the carpet by the Interior Ministry for failing to sell “The Church of Silence,” a nasty hatchet job on the Chilean hierarchy published by Chile’s right-wing Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), which has been condemned by the Pope.

The government-controlled press also has taken up the cause of France’s schismatic Bishop Marcel Lefebvre, suggesting that Rome is run by leftists who attack anyone with right-wing views.

Though persecuted and frightened, the Church nevertheless is managing in some small way to protect and nourish the seeds of democracy in 200 Christian base communities known as “groups of reflection.” Located in Montevideo, these middle-class groups are not like the usual Latin American base communities because members do not live or work together. And therein lies their strength. Small (usually eight to a group) and dispersed, they are the only organizations in Uruguay that continue to function simply because they are so hard to control. Most of the participants have been members since 1968 in what are now tightly knit groups extremely difficult to infiltrate. Moreover, the Church has refused, for once, to give into government pressure to reveal the names of the members. While concerned primarily with religious matters, these groups also discuss Uruguay’s economic and political problems.

The government worries about these Christian seedlings, hence its persecution of any new groups of reflection. “We have had to concentrate on what already exists,” explained an Uruguayan priest. “Every time we try to organize a new group there is a leak, the police arrive, and everyone is put in jail for 24 hours. Since a worker can lose his job for failing to report to work without a written excuse, people are reluctant to attend these meetings because the police will not give them a certificate stating that they have been in jail.

“Persecution has reached the point,” he added, “where a person can be fired from his job, as a friend of mine was, if another member of the family joins a group of reflection.”

Few religious have any short-term illusions of change in the system of government even though the people in charge of repression come and go. Bordaberry, for example, was replaced by President Aparicio Mendez, a 72-year-old lawyer who religiously follows the military’s dictates since, as he himself publicly admitted, “I have no qualifications for the post (of president).”

What Mendez does have is a big mouth. In a spurt of rage over the U.S. Congress’ suspension of military aid because of Uruguay’s human rights violations, Mendez publicly fumed against “the seditious Democratic Party of the United States” and “those publicity seeking Kennedys.”

Though a crude way of putting it, Mendez’s comments reflected the military’s concern about the Carter administration and what one Uruguayan general described as “a rash of puritanism that has broken out in the United States.”

While viewing the military aid cut off as a promising beginning, religious sources insist that President Carter will have to do much more to prove his human rights credentials. “For a starter, his government might look into the $12 million AID budget for Uruguay,” suggested one priest. “It was AID that trained the police agents at the Interior Ministry.”

Others pin their hopes on Wilson Ferreira Aldunate, the ex-presidential candidate, who has gained the ear of several influential U.S. Congressmen.

“We are a small, developing country entirely dependent on external forces,” explained an Uruguayan bishop. “The situation is not going to change in Uruguay until it changes in the United States.”

Received in New York on January 18, 1977

©1977 Penny Lernoux

Penny Lernoux, freelance writer and Latin American correspondent for The Nation, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Her subject is the theological, political, and sociological impact of the revolution in the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. This article may be published with credit to The Nation, to Miss Lernoux as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, and to the Rockefeller Foundation. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of either Foundation.