Penny Lernoux
Penny Lernoux

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Religious Cold War Heats up in Latin America

Penny Lernoux
September 14, 1976

Fellowship Year

SANTIAGO, Chile — When 43 visiting bishops and priests were arrested in Ecuador last month, the Catholic Church was stunned. Though persecution of priests and nuns is becoming commonplace in Latin American countries, the arrest and expulsion of such high-ranking Churchmen, including four U.S. bishops, presaged a dangerous escalation in the ongoing cold war between the continent’s religious and military leaders.

While some diplomatic observers attributed the bizarre incident to internal Ecuadorian politics, the bishops put another interpretation on the affair, claiming their arrest formed part of a “concerted plan of action” by South America’s military regimes to harass and undermine the Catholic Church.

Because of its moral authority and prestige, the Church is the only institution able to protest the violation of human rights. The price for such temerity, however, has been unprecedented persecution in eight South American countries. (Since the beginning of this year, seven priests and three seminarians have been killed in Argentina alone.)

Ecuador’s three-man junta, which is one of the newer, less stable members of the military bloc led by Brazil, is not noted for its diplomacy. The decision to carry off 15 foreign bishops, 2 archbishops and 26 priests at gunpoint, as well as 30 Ecuadorian bishops and religious, caused a hemisphere furor equalled only by the shoe-banging antics of an earlier Ecuadorian president at a summit conference with Lyndon Johnson.

As Venezuelan Bishop Mariano Parra Leon tells it, the group was midway through a meeting in the city of Riobamba on pastoral work when “40 barbarians armed with machine guns, revolvers and tear gas bombs burst in on us.

“None of us was allowed to touch any of our personal belongings, not even to put on a pair of socks. We were pushed at gunpoint into a waiting bus, 80 of us crammed into a space meant for 50.

“We had no idea what was happening, and it was useless to ask those gangsters for an explanation.”

After a three-hour trip through the Andes Mts. in the dark, the bishops were deposited at the San Gregorio Prison in Quito, where they were forced to spend the night without food, sleeping on the floor. As a result of the commotion, Bishop Parra Leon, 65, suffered a heart attack.

Although the bishops were never officially informed of the reason for their detention, Ecuador’s Acting Interior Minister Javier Manrique told the local press that they had been “invited to leave tho country” because they had “intervened in the country’s affairs” at a “subversive meeting.” Papal Nuncio Luigi Accogli and Quitol’s Cardinal Pablo Munoz Vega, who secured the group’s release, described tho government’s charges as “totally false.”

Msgr. Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, secretary general of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) headquartered in Bogota, said that the Churchmen’s expulsion was a “flagrant injustice” and indicative of the “concerted campaign against the Church. “

Similar expressions of outrage were soon heard from the hierarchies of Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and the United States.

“I thought that (the Ecuadorian military government) was composed of decent people since I supposed these generals had gone to school and knew how to respect the human condition of others,” said Bishop Parra Leon. “But I was wrong. They are beasts, criminals, rabble.”

Msgr. Roberto Sanchez, archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and one of the U.S. prelates in the group, said on his return to the United States that he suspected the incident had boon engineered to embarrass the meeting’s host, Riobamba’s Bishop Leonidas Proano, who has long been at odds with the region’s large landowners over the property rights of the poverty-stricken Indians.

The Latin American bishops say that this is true as far as it goes but that there were other, equally ominous motives. They point out that the Riobamba conference was not the first such meeting in Ecuador, since the continent’s bishops regularly meet in one country or another to exchange opinions and experiences. Both the Vatican and CELAM had been informed of the Riobamba conference several months in advance.

Nor did Proano have any reason to expect such an attack. Though the “Bishop of the Indians” has never enjoyed cordial relations with Ecuador’s conservative civilian and military governments, there was no outstanding dispute with the junta at the time of the Riobamba meeting.

More important, say Church sources, is the new junta’s attitude towards Chile and the presence of 10 Chilean intelligence officers in Quito to help the army’s chief, Gen. Guillermo Duran, in setting up a network of intelligence and security. Unlike the last military government which was overthrown in January for attempting some mild social reforms, the current junta led by Vice-Admiral Alfredo Poveda in decidedly right-wing and pro-Chile.

While Bishop Proano may have been a convenient local target, Chile’s military regime made far more mileage out of the incident by arranging a rock-throwing reception for the three Chilean bishops who had been in Riobamba on their arrival at Santiago’s international airport.

According to the Chilean Bishops Conference, the pro-government press deliberately distorted the Ecuadorian story to paint the bishops as communist subversives. (All three are critical of the government and Bishop Carlos Gonzalez of Talca has had several arguments with Chile’s strongman, Gen. Augusto Pinochet.)

At a table-pounding press conference chaired by Chile’s Cardinal Raul Silva, the bishops produced photos and documentation proving that the airport demonstration had been organized b the government’s National Direction of Intelligence (DINA), Pinochot’s secret police. Bishop Gonzalez reported that a DINA official had threatened to arrest him and his driver. The official was excommunicated, along with three other DINA agents.

The bishops also said that during their detention in Ecuador the Chilean embassy “deliberately ignored” them in contrast to the U.S., Venezuelan and Argentine ambassadors who helped obtain the group’s release.

“We thank our Lord for the privilege of having personally experienced the same sufferings of so many others who cannot defend themselves as well as a bishop,” said the Chilean prelates. “Many of our brothers who are not bishops have suffered and are suffering equally unjust treatment, arbitrarily deprived of their freedom and their honor or impeded from exercising fundamental human rights.”

“German Catholics did not know anything about the crimes of the Gestapo and the massacre of millions of Jews until after the war when they were shown the pictures,” added Bishop Carlos Camus, permanent secretary of the Bishops Conference.

“I believe something similar is happening in Chile. There are many people who do not know what is going on. Some day they will know the truth and then they will wonder, How could we have been deceived? But as Solzhenitsyn says, violence is always disguised by lies and is the justification for those lies.”

The situation in Chile is not unique, according to the bishops. “The actions that we denounce and condemn are not isolated. They form part of a process or system with well-defined characteristics that threatens to engulf Latin America unresisted. Always invoking the justification of national security, a justification with no appeal, a model of society is gradually being fashioned which eliminates all basic liberties, tramples on the most elemental rights and subjects its citizens to a fearful and powerful police state. Were this process to be consummated, we would be mourning the burial of democracy in Latin America.

“The Church cannot remain passive or neutral in such a situation. Christ’s legacy is to speak out in defense of human dignity and the effective protection of the individual’s rights and liberties. The only authority we recognize to define the limits of our pastoral competence is the Pope.”

It is not surprising therefore that there have been “evident acts of hostility against the Catholic Church.

“According to responsible sources, the arbitrary detention (of the bishops in Riobamba) was encouraged by ‘governments friendly’ to Ecuador,” concluded the Chilean bishops, referring to a statement by the Ecuadorian interior minister which described some of the prelates’ problems with the governments of their countries “which are friendly nations.”

These “friendly nations” could include any of the regimes in the military sea covering the continent south of Colombia and Venezuela, the region’s sole surviving democracies. But Church sources pinpoint Chile and Brazil as the leaders, particularly the latter, which has the most efficient internal security and information apparatus in the area and is teaching most of the other countries its expertise.

Interestingly, many of the prelates and religious who attended the Riobamba meeting earlier had been at a conference on Christian communities held in Vitoria, Brazil, under the auspices of the bishops of the country’s northeastern region. On the opening day of the meeting two members of Brazilian military intelligence showed up to enquire about the conference and the people attending it.

As in Riobamba, most of those in Vitoria belong to the Latin American Church’s progressive wing. Many have earned the ire of military governments because of their denunciation of torture and imprisonment of political prisoners or because of their work with the poor. But to suggest that discussion of pastoral work with the poor is subversive is “absolutely ridiculous,” as Quito’s Cardinal Munoz Vega pointed out.

Moreover, no attempt was made to define the different theological positions of those present at Riobamba. Among the prelates arrested, for example, was Msgr. Vicente Zaspe, archbishop of Santa Fe, Argentina, a moderate conservative who has repeatedly denounced the country’s left-wing guerrillas.

The problem, said a Brazilian bishop, is that the continent’s military regimes have come to view the Church “in the same black-and-white terms they use for economics and politics.

“They talk about ‘their’ Church and ‘their’ Christianity as if they had some sort of monopoly over the institution.

“If we don’t subscribe to ‘their Church,’ we are subversive. But how can we accept a mentality that endorses torture and murder, that is so totally unChristian?”

“The bishops are arriving at a point where they must choose between their people and the military,” added a Paraguayan priest. “It isn’t a political choice between right and left but a humanitarian one. In Paraguay, for example, conservative and liberal bishops are united in their opposition to Alfredo Stroessner’s regime. Even the military vicar signed the last pastoral letter denouncing government repression.”

Bishop Juan Moleon’s about-face in Paraguay is indicative of the hierarchy’s growing hostility towards the military regimes ruling 80 percent of the Latin American population. Indeed, the only countries where Church-state relations are normal are those with elected governments.

While the issue of human rights is a major source of friction, the conflict between Church and state essentially is a struggle for power. Like the Spanish conquistadores, today’s Latin American generals believe the Church should be an active agent for their regimes. Not that they necessarily believe in Catholicism or any other religion. Christianity is seen, rather, as a symbol of Western civilization, and it is the defense of this civilization that is the raison d’etre of these military governments.

The generals’ frequent use of the word “Christian” to describe their regimes is not coincidental, for all follow a political model refined in Brazil, where geopolitics has replaced philosophy as the universal science. Developed at the Brazilian Advanced War College in the 1950’s, this new “science” presents a world at permanent war between communism and the West in which individual rights must be subjected to the power of the state since only the state can defend and develop the nation.

Because all human endeavor is considered an act of war, there can be no neutral acts. Individuals are either enemies or friends, and this is why the state must guard against internal infiltration. National security is the first priority of geopolitics. All else, including the populace’s standard of living, is secondary.

Since civilian politicians are inept in government, only the military can run the state and fight the war against international communism. But in order to mobilize the population to war, it is necessary to use the three symbols of Western civilization — Christianity, democracy and science. Of these Christianity is the most important because of its influence on the masses. A state-Church alliance is therefore essential.

In exchange for Church support in the war on Marxism, the state will guarantee its security and provide financial assistance. But if the Church is unwilling to collaborate, the military will be forced to intervene for the Church’s own good to prevent it from becoming an unwitting ally of communism.

Although this view of the world is extremely narrow, even simplistic, it is shared by the governments of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia and, to a lesser extent, Argentina and Ecuador. Peru’s military regime, which recently shifted from left to right, is now marching in the same direction.

Not surprisingly, the chief ideologists are the Brazilians, who have written extensively on the subject since the 1964 revolution. Chile’s General Pinochet also is known for his expertise in the new science, having been a professor of geopolitics prior to assuming the presidency.

Inevitably there has been a good deal of repetition in the formation of these military states. Usually there is an all-powerful national security council composed of the chiefs of the armed forces which names the president and his cabinet and sets national policy. The council is backed up by a national intelligence network such as DINA in Chile which is answerable only to the president.

All political parties, labor unions and student federations are outlawed. Anyone critical of the regime is considered a traitor to the state. Punishment ranges from imprisonment or exile to loss of job and/or smear campaigns by the government-controlled press. Following Argentina’s example, several of the regimes have eliminated the complications of police arrest. “Enemies of the state” are now kidnapped by a group of unidentified men, never to be seen again. Attempts by family or friends to trace the victim are futile since the police deny all knowledge of his or her existence. (According to diplomatic sources, an average of 30 people daily “disappear” in Argentina; Amnesty International calculates some 1,200 Chileans have suffered the same fate since the 1973 coup.)

That such states could come into being, particularly in the democratic strongholds of Chile and Uruguay, is generally judged to have been the fault of the extreme left. Impartial Latin American analysts agree with Brazil’s generals that the country was on the verge of chaos in the last months before President Joao Goulart’s overthrow. In Chile Salvador Allende’s Socialists so forced the pace of revolution that half the population literally begged the military to intervene. In Uruguay a corrupt and weak civilian administration was gradually forced to turn over the government to the military because it could not cope with the threat of the urban Tupamaro guerrillas. And in Argentina, still in the throes of a mini-civil war, the only institution capable of defeating the country’s various guerrilla organizations is the armed forces.

The problem, however, is that, once embarked on an anti-Marxist crusade, Latin America’s military regimes soon eliminate any vestige of democracy in their countries. Large sectors of the civilian population now feel that they have simply exchanged the threat of one form of totalitarianism for the reality of another.

Like many laymen, the Latin American Church is not convinced by the new science of geopolitics, and it dares to say so publicly. “We are anti-Marxist but we are not pro-fascist,” explained a Brazilian bishop. “All this talk of the danger of communism is designed to obscure the failings of the military. They simply are not the intellectual and moral supermen they claim to be.”

Corruption, for example, which often has been used as an excuse to overthrow civilian governments, is just as widespread in today’s Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru as it was under elected presidents.

According to a recent series of exposes in the prestigious, pro-business daily “0 Estado de Sao Paulo,” the Brazilian military elite lives on a scale usually associated with European aristocracy, with lake-side villas, dozens of servants, limousines, airplanes and night club expense accounts, all paid for by the government. This is in addition to monthly salaries of $10,000 or more plus shares in state enterprises such as the Banco do Nordeste, which despite its location in the poverty-stricken Northeast paid each of its five directors $40,000 in profits last year.

Labor Minister Arnaldo Prieto, for example, has a staff of 28 servants. All beef consumed in the Prieto household is specially flown in from southern Brazil by a government airplane. Similar amenities are enjoyed by Mines and Energy Minister Shigeaki Ueki; the presidential press spokesman, Humberto Esmeraldo; and Col. Darcy Siqueira, director of the civil service. Since their transfer from the state oil enterprise Petrobras, which pays some of the highest wages in the public sector, they have continued to receive their Petrobras salaries plus 20 percent of the salary they earn in their cabinet posts.

The newspaper’s revelations, which were made after the government lifted prior censorship on the paper, showed that such high living is not limited to cabinet members but extends throughout the officer ranks. The status symbol of this new elite no longer is a car or a television set but a butler.

As to the claim that only the military knows how to run the economy, both Brazil’s tarnished “economic miracle” and Chile’s rampant inflation suggest the contrary. With a $25 billion foreign debt, a $4.8 billion balance-of-payments deficit and an annual inflation rate of 38 percent, Brazil is finding that many of its former friends in the international banking community are deserting it. “The Economist,” which used to be a staunch defender of the military’s economic policy, is now likening the way in which the generals steer the economy to Brazilian motorists’ erratic driving habits.

“The generals who took office in 1964 sailed along on a sea of illusion,” commented the British magazine. “They called their economic managers — men who in Juscelino Kubitschek’s day had been derided by a hard-pressed private sector as bureaucrats — technocrats. These men have drowned Brazil in an ocean of economic pseudoscience pretending that economic decisions were no longer governed by political choices.”

However the military drives the economy, the masses have never benefitted. The government’s own census figures show that nearly half the 19 million Brazilians in the labor force earn less than the monthly minimum wage of $50. In contrast, the income of the richest 10 percent of the population, including the military elite, has risen from 40 to 48 percent of the national wealth since 1960.

Though inflation has been the priority target of the Chilean regime since seizing power three years ago, the cost of living is still climbing by 170 percent per year, this in spite of massive infusions of foreign loans and an unprecedented unemployment rate of 20 percent (official figure).

The social cost of the economy’s “shock treatment” has been enormous. For the first time in memory the streets of Chile’s capital are crowded with beggars. Were it not for the Church’s free lunch programs, 24,000 children in Santiago would be starving to death.

In their way the lunch programs are as much a denunciation of the military regime as the bishops’ public criticisms because they imply that the economy is not doing as well as the government claims. This is why the regime has attempted to torpedo the programs by pressuring local merchants to stop giving food to the Church, according to business sources. It may also explain some of the reasons for the rock-throwing reception arranged for the bishops at the airport, two of whom are promoters of the lunch programs.

As in Brazil, Church-state relations in Chile have reached the point where the government is prepared to intervene “for the Church’s own good,” in the terminology of Brazilian geopolitics. By a fortuitous coincidence, France’s schismatic Bishop Marcel Lefebvre has provided just the opening by challenging the Vatican with a view of the Church that nicely fits the generals’ scheme. Lefebvre, who wants the Church to return to its former, pre-Vatican II forms, including a Latin Mass, also has kind words for Latin America’s military governments. (Argentina’s military regime was singled out for special praise by Lefebvre during one of his sermons last month.)

Lefebvre’s ideas, which have been widely publicized in South America, coincide with those of such rabid right-wing Catholic groups as Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), which are particularly active in Brazil, Argentina and Chile. They also fit the military’s idea of a more malleable Church, a return to the cross and sword of the first conquistadores and missionaries.

The difficulty, of course, is that neither the Vatican nor the Latin American hierarchy is prepared to turn back the clock. At the same time, attempts to force the Church to heel are proving counter-productive. As in the days of the early Christians, the Church’s influence is growing under the spur of persecution. Previously at an all-time low, religious vocations have increased so sharply in the last two years that several archdioceses, such as Buenos Aires, are now building new seminaries.

“There will be more conflict; we may even be entering a period of martyrdom,” said a Chilean priest. “But the Church will endure.”

It is not a wishful prediction, to judge by the upsurge in religiosity. All across the Southern Cone of Latin America the churches are crowded with people as they have not been for years.

“We used to have to organize dances, card games, ping-pong matches, anything to get the people to come to church functions,” said an Argentine nun. “There is no need for that now. The people spend hours praying and singing in the churches, often till late at night.”

Received in New York on September 14, 1976

©1976 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.