Penny Lernoux
Penny Lernoux

Fellowship Title:

Military Repression Angers Argentine Church

Penny Lernoux
February 4, 1977

Fellowship Year

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Msgr. Antonio Aguirre was furious. The Argentine police had just arrested Father Anibal Coerezza on charges of “subversion,” and there was little doubt about his fate. Coerezza works in Bishop Aguirre’s San Isidro diocese in suburban Buenos Aires, where four laymen and a priest were killed by the police last February after similar charges were made.

Though normally mild-mannered and cautious, Aguirre marched down to the police station where he threatened to close all the churches in San Isidro “right now” unless Coerezza was released immediately. Furthermore, he told the 20 dumbfounded policemen, they would also have to arrest him if they did not free the priest. After a stern lecture, the bishop walked out of the station with Coerezza arm in arm. “Come, Anibal,” said the indignant Aguirre, “there is nothing here for you.”

Like the rest of the Argentine hierarchy, the bishop of San Isidro is beginning to show his anger. And that has to be bad news for any government in Argentina, where the powerful Church already has been instrumental in the overthrow of one regime, Juan Domingo Peron’s government in 1955.

Though slow to anger, the Argentine Church has ample cause for complaint. Since 1974, ten priests and a bishop have been murdered by right-wing paramilitary squads. Forty-six priests and seminarists have been arrested, 21 of whom are still in jail; 13 others were deported or left Argentine because of death threats. Church schools, magazines and religious and social work programs have been threatened or closed by the police and the armed forces. Papal Nuncio Pio Laghi has received death threats as have Father Jorge Mejia, director of the conservative Catholic magazine “Criterio,” and Msgr. Antonio Devoto, bishop of Corrientes. Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, former president of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) and one of the most prestigious Churchmen in Latin America, was forced to leave Argentina after death threats and an assassination attempt. Right-wing assassins narrowly missed the cardinal in an attack on a local church in which a florist standing next to the front door was killed. The extreme right-wing Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA) also warned Pironio that if he did not resign from his post as rector of the Catholic University of Mar del Plata, a seaside resort south of Buenos Aires, the people working for him would be killed. Shortly afterwards, a woman dean was kidnapped and murdered. In order to save Pironio, the Vatican ordered his transfer to Rome in September, 1975.

Unlike Pironio, Msgr. Enrique Angelelli did not heed the warnings. One of the hierarchy’s most outspoken members, the bishop of La Rioja denounced those who would “silence the voice of the Church, the voice of those who have no voice” at a funeral for two of his priests who were murdered by the police last July. Angelelli was killed a few days later when his Fiat van was forced off a little-trafficked mountain road by a mysterious Peugeot. When Bishop Angelelli tried to get the van on the road again, it crashed, ricocheted 16 yds., landed upside down and bounced another 13 yds. Angelelli was thrown through the windscreen and died immediately from a broken neck. The priest travelling with him was later picked up by a private car which took him to Chamical, site of the two priests’ funeral. Contrary to official reports, Church evidence shows there was no puncture in the back left tire of the van, the supposed cause of the crash. “I don’t believe Angelelli’s death was an accident,” said a bishop who asked not to be identified. Nor do the peasants and slum poor of La Rioja whom the bishop served.

The political violence that has claimed the lives of Angelelli and scores of other Argentines is rooted in the 1966-70 dictatorship of Gen. Juan Carlos Ongania. Many of the right-wing assassins who terrorize Argentina today got their first taste of blood under the Ongania regime in the Buenos Aires headquarters of the federal police where torture was commonly used, according to a former CIA agent. From the very beginning, the military turned a blind eye to their activities although these were minor (i.e., throwing Molotov cocktails at the Russian Embassy and beating up students) compared to the current violence with an average five murders per day.

A militant Catholic, General Ongania overthrew the constitutionally elected government of Pres. Arturo Illia in mid-1966 after a “cursillo” retreat organized by the local branch of Spain’s right-wing Catholic movement, Opus Dei. While the Argentine hierarchy welcomed the coup, the Ongania dictatorship polarized the Church. Disillusioned militants in the youth wing of Catholic Action abandoned the Church to form the Montoneros, a leftist Peronist group that is one of the two most powerful guerrilla organizations in Argentina today. Radical priests also challenged the bishops’ authority by forming the pro-Peronist, left-wing Third World Priests Movement, which had 300 members at the height of its influence in the late 1960s.

Ongania was forced to step down in 1970 after three days of rioting by students and workers in the industrial city of Cordoba. He was replaced by Gen. Marcelo Levingston, who in turn was deposed by Gen. Alejandro Lanusse in 1971. Torture was so widely practiced under the two-year Lanusse government that in 1972 the normally complacent hierarchy was forced to protest “the murder, kidnapping and torture of innocent people.” The Lanusse regime also marked the beginning of a series of Church-State clashes when the bishop of Neuquen refused to inaugurate a military chapel until the government fulfilled its promise of better wages to workers at the huge Chocon hydroelectrical complex in southern Argentina.

Despite repressive measures, the Lanusse government was unable to keep the lid on Argentina’s boiling social pressures, and in 1973 Juan Domingo Peron, Argentina’s aging caudillo, was allowed to return to the country from exile in Spain as the only man who could unite the country. (A few days before his return, the Vatican conveniently lifted its earlier excommunication of Peron.)

The honeymoon lasted until Peron’s death in July, 1974, when his second wife Isabel became president of what Argentines unanimously call “the most corrupt government in the country’s history.” With the demise of the Peronist myth, political violence escalated, pushing the country to the brink of civil war. Some 6,000 people were arrested by the military and police while such death squads as the AAA, sponsored by Isabel’s Social Welfare Minister Jose Lopez Rega, roamed the country unchecked. Meanwhile, the Montoneros’ Castroite rural counterpart, the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), opened a guerrilla front in the mountains of Tucuman in northwestern Argentina with the support of at least half the impoverished population, according to military calculations.

As in Ongania’s time, the Church hierarchy welcomed the military coup in March, 1976. Indeed, the Church’s conservative wing actually begged the generals to intervene.

The pro-coup campaign was started by the military vicar, Msgr. Victorio Bonamin, who gave a highly controversial sermon at the Lujan sanctuary in September, 1975, in which he declared that the armed forces had a divine mission to rule Argentina. He also described the military’s offensive against the Tucuman guerrillas as a sacred crusade against communism. “How good it is,” Bonamin rhapsodized, “to be able to say of (the military) that they are a falange of honest, spotless people who have…purified themselves in a Jordan of blood to place themselves at the head of the country (in order to guide Argentina) to its great future destinies.”

Far from contradicting Bonamin, Archbishop Adolfo Tortola, the then president of the Argentine Bishops Conference, said that he “was not in the least surprised by the contents of the homily.” Msgr. Guillermo Bolatti, archbishop of Rosario, followed this up a few days later with a diatribe against liberalism and “the free play of political parties” which he claimed were responsible for “the worst crisis in the country’s history.” Moreover, said the archbishop, the churches “also have been incubating guerrillas.” Cardinal Juan Carlos Aramburu, archbishop of Buenos Aires, took a similar line at a Mass in the capital’s cathedral, describing the Argentine police as “benefactors of our society.” Meanwhile, Mariano Grondona, a well-known Catholic columnist, announced that the only way to end the “libertinage” in Argentina was through the fusion of cross and sword in a parody of the early conquistadores. Grondona also advocated the use of terrorist squads under a centralized military command.

Adding fuel to the fire, “Gente” magazine, a pop publication which normally has no editorial line, suddenly became a sounding board for the opinions of Bonamin and Bolatti. In a rare editorial, “Gente” went so far as to suggest that the Vatican was in complicity with left-wing terrorists. Many Argentine Churchmen were shocked by the suggestions of “Gente,” Gorondona and Bonamin because, as the magazine “Cuestionario” pointed out, they implied that the Argentine Church should forsake its allegiance to the Pope for an alliance with the Argentine military in an “internal political crusade.”

Bonamin also caused considerable division in the Church by stabbing Bishop Angelelli in the back in 1976 shortly before Isabel’s overthrow. During a Mass celebrated at the Chamical Air Force Base, Angelelli angered the commanding officer by warning against a coup. The irrate officer stalked out of the chapel, loudly complaining that he did not go to church to hear about politics. Although it was not within his jurisdiction to do so, Bonamin took Angelelli’s place after the latter cancelled religious services at the base. (Church sources believe that Angelelli’s confrontation with the military contributed to his death.)

When the coup finally occurred in March, no one was surprised to hear Archbishop Tortola exhort the people to cooperate with the military government in the name of the Argentine Church.

As events have since shown however, the coup turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the Church’s conservatives. While Tortola, Bolatti And Bonamin may have appeared to have spoken with authority, they never represented more then 10 percent of the Argentine hierarchy or clergy, much less the Vatican. “If asked to name the prelate they most love and respect, 90 percent of the bishops and religious would choose Cardinal Pironio,” said a politically moderate Jesuit who specializes in internal Church politics. A gentle, deeply committed Christian, Pironio refused to sanction a “sacred war” of either the right or the left, even at the cost of his life. Instead, he preached “unity in peace and love so that we may be messengers, not of sadness, but of happiness.”

When the Vatican honored Argentina with a new cardinal last year, it chose Pironio, not Tortola or Bolatti. Nor was Tortola reelected to his post as president of the Argentine Bishops Conference. His successor, Cardinal Raul Primatesta, archbishop of Cordoba, is a political moderate deeply concerned about human rights. The conference’s new vice-president, Msgr. Vicente Zaspe, archbishop of Santa Fe, is the intellectual leader of the Church’s progressive wing and was one of 15 prelates thrown out of Ecuador last August for attending a “subversive” meeting on pastoral work with Latin America’s Indians.

While relevant, these appointments are a reflection of a more important event — the gradual radicalization of religious and hierarchy, a typical example of which is the indignant bishop of San Isidro, who was a quiet conservative until the police started jailing and killing his priests.

As in Brazil and Chile, the military dictatorship has achieved what no Third World Priests Movement could, for by unleashing a reign of terror, the government of Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla not only has alienated vast sectors of the Church; it has also forced the hierarchy to review and reject its traditional support of militarism and capitalism. In a country as Catholic AND as sophisticated as Argentina, with the most militant, best organized trade unions in Latin America, this is indeed significant. Without the support of either the Church or the unions, Videla’s regime can only rely on guns to stay in power, yet this sort of repression “just won’t work (because) such methods are alienating the people and creating even more determined revolutionaries,” according to Jesuit Robert Drinan, a U.S. Congressman for Massachusetts.

However corrupt the previous government, the situation is now much worse, said Drinan, who visited Argentina in November as a member of a fact-finding team for Amnesty International. “People kept telling me that they had imagined nothing could be worse than the government of Isabel Peron. But the terrorist policies of this government have stretched their imaginations a lot.”

This is particularly true for the Church. Instead of ending the violence as the bishops had hoped, the Videla government has increased persecution of the Church. Seven of the eleven clergymen who have been killed in Argentina since 1974 died after the military coup. Arrests, torture, deportation and harassment of Catholic religious and lay leaders have also increased. A few days after official protests were lodged by the Argentine hierarchy against the murder of three Irish priests and two seminarists, two more priests were assassinated in Chamical and Bishop Angelelli died in an “accident.” Equally ominous is the emerging and familiar pattern of Nazism, including concentration camps; attacks on Jewish schools, businesses and synogogues; and a Nazi propaganda campaign linking the Vatican with the Jews and Marxism as the cause of all the country’s ills.

Considered the lesser of several evils, President Videla has never made any secret of his intention to “kill as many people as necessary” to rid Argentina of left-wing terrorists. On the other hand, Videla has always publicly deplored the mindless murder of innocent people, including priests, and is generally believed to be sincere in his desire to end the violence. Either this is wishful thinking, or Videla does not control the government (most Church sources incline towards the latter theory). Even with the support of the U.S. government which has repeatedly warned Videla “to cool it” in the face of mounting world opinion against human rights violations in Argentina, the president has not been able to purge the hard-liners in the armed forces who take public delight in their reputations as bloodthirsty butchers. “While Videla governs, I kill. ” boasted Gen. Benjamin Menendez, commander of the Third Army Corps in Cordoba and its notorious political prisons.

Videla has not dislodged Menendez or an even more dangerous rival, Gen. Ramon Diaz Bessone, whose transfer from the powerful Rosario garrison to the post of minister of planning failed to reduce his influence. On the contrary, Diaz Bessone is now unofficial prime minister and has appropriated many of the functions of the Economy Ministry, such as drawing up the budget. His principal ideological ally in the cabinet is Adm. Emilio Massera, head of the Navy and one of the three members of the military junta headed by Videla. Some of the worst atrocities have occurred in the Navy’s School of Mechanics in Buenos Aires under Admiral Massera’s tutelage. Whereas Videla would prefer a more conciliatory attitude towards the labor unions and the civilian population in general, it is Massera’s belief that the only way to deal with protesters is to kill them. Like Menendez and Diaz Bessone, the admiral has no time for the niceties of civilian justice. If innocent people are tortured and murdered in the war on the left, well, that’s just too bad, said General Menendez.

Just how bad it is may be judged by the 10,000 political prisoners and the horror stories that are common fare in Argentina. “Everyone has had a personal experience of or knows someone who has suffered from this repression,” said the head of a large U.S. subsidiary. Three of his workers have “disappeared,” a euphemism for kidnapping by right-wing paramilitary squads. The 17-year-old daughter of a jeweler he knows was dragged screaming from the family apartment while the police ransacked the rooms for money and jewelry. (“Stealing is officially approved as a means of encouraging these thugs,” he said.) Other friends were arrested simply because a map with directions to their ranch was found in the apartment of another person who had been imprisoned. “It has reached the point,” he added, “where you can leave your apartment for a minute to buy something at the corner grocery and end up in jail, as happened to another friend of mine.” Caught up in one of the police’s regular street roundups in which everyone in the block is jailed, the man left his dinner burning on the stove. When his girlfriend arrived for supper, she immediately guessed the reason and went to the local jail to protest. She, too, was arrested. Torture is automatic for anyone imprisoned, according to Church sources.

In this atmosphere of madness, “people can be abducted, tortured and killed for anything — old grudges, blackmail or just because they work with the poor,” said a foreign journalist.

Three Irish priests and two seminarists, for example, were murdered in revenge “for our dynamited police comrades,” according to a chalk scrawl on the Buenos Aires church where they were assassinated, a reference to 21 policemen earlier killed by a bomb planted by Montonero guerrillas. But the priests had nothing to do with politics. Father Jose Tedeschi was killed in February, 1976, apparently because of his criticism of human rights violations. A few days after his abduction from an Argentine slum by a group of armed men, Tedeschi’s body was discovered, his eyes gouged out. Father Francisco Soares also was killed in February, along with his invalid brother, after he denounced the murder of a woman catechist working in the San Isidro diocese who was found bleeding to death with one of her breasts ripped away. Church evidence shows that these murders, as well as two related deaths, were the work of the local police division. With this sort of background, it is no wonder that Bishop Aguirre rushed down to the police station to save Father Coerezza.

Nobody is safe from what one military official admitted were “30,000 armed and violent (police)men,” including such cross-and-sword advocates as the very same Mariano Grondona, who was kidnapped with his wife in August for a four-hour harangue about the evils of communism by a group of armed men. Whether these paramilitary squads are really organized into clandestine cells and therefore impossible to control, as one general claims, is questionable. State Department leaks of a report on human rights violations prepared for the U.S. Congress suggest quite the contrary, implicating high-ranking military officers in terrorist activities. Who is responsible may be of speculative interest to journalists, but it is of no import to the Argentine Church, which takes the attitude that the government has failed to stop the violence and therefore is guilty by omission, no ifs, ands or buts. Central to the Church’s position is the fact that no right-wing terrorist has ever been arrested for, much leas convicted of any crime, although hundreds of left-wing Argentines have been jailed and/or killed. While the Argentine Church is firmly anti-Marxist, said Archbishop Zaspe, it is “not possible for a Christian to support what are purported to be anti-Marxist campaigns that are obviously unChristian.”

To make the indictment even clearer, the hierarchy issued a sweeping denunciation of human rights violations in two pastoral letters in May and July which were expanded and republished in September by the bishops’ Commission for Justice and Peace. Stating that they could not confine their protests to the murder of priests, the bishops demanded to know, “What forces are so powerful that they can operate with impunity and anonymously in our midst? What guarantees, what rights remain the ordinary citizen? The common good must never be achieved at the expense of the rights of the individual…but, on the contrary, must act as the very safeguard of such rights. We unreservedly condemn the act of assassination — with or without punishment — and whatever may be the circumstances of the slaying.” It is an error, the bishops added, to confuse such Marxist subversive groups as the guerrillas with Christians “struggling for justice for the poor and the voiceless.”

There were also individual protests from Cordoba’s Cardinal Primatesta, president of the Bishops Conference, and the bishops of Neuquen, Mendoza and Formosa. Even Cardinal Aramburu was incensed, demanding to know why the military had invaded a Buenos Aires Catholic school and arrested four priests.

As in other South American military regimes, Argentina’s armed forces respond to all criticisms with the rationale of “national security,” but in Argentina’s case there are some important variations on the theme. Fascism has been a latent force in Argentine society ever since Peron’s flirtation with Mussolini in the early 1940s. Moreover, anti-Semitism is deeply ingrained in the armed forces, where no Jew can ever hope to rise beyond the rank of colonel. The specter of Anti-Semitism has haunted Argentina’s Jewish community (the largest in Latin America with some 400,000 people) off and on since Peron, reappearing during the first year of the Ongania regime and blatently obvious in the first year of the Videla government. Since the coup, there have been Brownshirt commando attacks on the Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires and harassment and/or arrest of prominent Jewish businessmen, doctors and lawyers. Despite a government ban on anti-Semitic literature, the newsstands are packed with such Nazi publications as “The Ritual Crimes of the Jews” and “Mein Kampf,” complete with swastika. Unlike Chile or Uruguay, there is a historical basis in Argentina for fascism, paramilitary squads and the midnight knock on the door.

Paradoxically, Argentina also offers the most fertile ground for Marxism in South America. Since the death of Peron and the Peronist myth, the disillusioned populace has been offered only two alternatives — the extreme left or the extreme right. Unlike Brazil’s peasants and slum dwellers, the Argentines are the best fed, most literate people on the continent, and it is these people who make revolutions in Latin America, not starving, illiterate peasants, as Fidel Castro proved. Yet the military does not understand this. The Church, on the other hand, clearly sees that the generals are playing into the hands of the Montoneros and the ERP: as any guerrilla primer explains, the whole point of guerrilla warfare is to provoke the armed forces to overreact, thereby alienating the people and pushing them into the arms of the revolutionaries.

Parallels are frequently drawn between French interrogation methods during the 1950s in Algeria and those used by the Argentine military in its war on subversion, the theory being that if you terrorize enough people, you will eventually come across some useful information. These methods work, but only to a point. In Algeria they ended in France’s expulsion and a left-wing government. In Argentina they are encouraging the alliance of militant labor unions with the Motoneros in what is called the General Labor Confederation in Resistance (CGTR). The existing CGT, whose corrupt, malleable leadership helped previous military regimes to survive, has been checkmated by the hardliners in the Videla government who would rather shoot workers than authorize a wage increase. Since no labor-government dialogue is possible, factory workers are faced with the choice of poverty or membership in clandestine, militant unions associated with the Montoneros. Real wages have fallen to their lowest level in 30 years, and because there are no price controls, inflation increased by 186 percent last year (this is according to official sources but businessmen say the rate was actually much higher). It is not surprising, therefore, that there has been a rash of illegal, frequently violent strikes, crippling the automobile, steel, metalurgical, meat and electrical industries, the banks, the ports, the trains and the buses.

Church sources predict more repression and more labor violence. While the government appears to be making some progress in its fight against the guerrillas, knowledgeable Argentine journalists say that statistics on guerrilla deaths published in the tightly controlled press are misleading. Many of the casualities, it is suspected, are not guerrillas but Argentines who were kidnapped by the paramilitary squads and later killed to make up the body counts.

Whatever the outcome of the struggle, it has already permanently marked the Argentine Church. Increasing numbers of priests and nuns are taking a position with the poor and the politically oppressed, and at its last meeting the hierarchy condemned capitalism as well as Marxism, a total reversal of the Argentine Church’s traditionally conservative position. Church-State relations already are strained, and some priests, such as Congressman Drinan, believe continuing violence will lead to a complete break.

There are still the Bonamins and Bolattis, to be sure, but informed sources say that these conservatives count less and less as the Argentine Church follows the Brazilian and Chilean Churches’ example in defending human rights. “There is a time when everyone must stand up and be counted for their beliefs,” said an Argentine priest, “and that time has come for the Argentine Church.”

Received in New York on February 4, 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.