Second Thoughts: The New Face of Liberation Theology- An Interview with Arthur F. McGovern, S.J.

Editor’s note: Arthur F. McGovern, S.J., is a well-respected student of liberation theology and author of Liberation Theology and Its Critics (Orbis). In a recent interview with Crisis editor Scott Walter, Father McGovern discussed how liberation theologians are responding to dramatic economic and political changes in Eastern Europe and Latin America.

How do the liberation theologians view Eastern Europe, where many of them have traveled? Hugo Assmann, for instance, once said that he found the region “joyless.” More specifically, how did liberation theologians view Eastern Europe before the revolutionary events of 1989, and do they view it differently now?

 The last time I spent any extended time in Latin America was in 1988, prior to all the great upheavals in Eastern Europe. I think there was a mixture of viewpoints before that. There are some liberation theologians — Jose Comblin, for example — who’ve been very critical of the Soviet model, which extends through most of Eastern Europe. On the other hand, Leonardo Boff, when he went to the Soviet Union, made what I thought were some very embarrassing comments, comparing it to the kingdom of God on earth and so forth. My guess is that he must be re-evaluating such statements. I think that there has traditionally been a sympathy for socialism and therefore for socialist countries, but I also think there has been criticism of the inadequacies of socialism, especially in recent years.

To shift to Latin America, let’s consider the Nicaraguan elections. How would you say liberation theologians viewed Nicaragua before the elections, and have their views changed any since the elections?

 I would say that by and large there was a lot of sympathy on the part of liberation theologians for the Nicaraguan revolution, for the Sandinistas, the base com-munities, the Popular Church — that whole movement.

I believe that economic conditions in Nicaragua the principal reason for the Sandinistas’ defeat. The Sandinistas got 40 percent of the vote; compare this to the incumbent, pro-capitalist parties in economically pressed Ecuador and Bolivia which won only 3.7 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively, of the vote in presidential elections of the mid-1980s. Failing economies cause defeats. In Nicaragua, the military draft and political rights violations contributed to the Sandinista defeat, but I believe that an economy weakened by the war, the U.S. boycott, and government mismanagement proved more central.

Many pre-election polls said the populace supported the Sandinistas, yet in secret ballot they did not. One wonders how much fear the people felt.

 Most polls did predict a Sandinista victory, though some had Chamorro far ahead. I suspect that in responding to polls some may have felt that they should, out of a sense of nationalism, be loyal to the Sandinistas, but that when they placed their ballots they voted for UNO as more likely to bring economic change and to win U.S. aid. While fear could have affected some, in my visits to Nicaragua I found many people quite spontaneously, and without any sign of fear or caution, willing to criticize the Sandinistas. This was in stark contrast to my one visit in Eastern Europe, or my visit to El Salvador, where some people I interviewed felt they could not speak out against the government until we found a private location.

Why was nationalism not part of the opposition’s appeal?

Well, Chamorro was looked at as an ally of the United States, so nationalism stood for—

—then I don’t see why the people didn’t vote according to the nationalist sympathies you say they felt.

As I said, I think it was basically economic. I think they felt, first, that any government that might straighten out the economy would be an improvement. I think many of them felt, “we’re tired of being at enmity with the United States.” I found too much open expression of dissent to believe that fear was the significant reason.

Observers from the Left and Right have pointed out that Cuba and Nicaragua are classic examples of third world nations dependent on more developed nations. What would you say the response from liberation theologians to these dependencies has been?

That’s an argument that’s used mostly in the United States. I have not seen many liberation theologians responding to arguments about Cuban dependency. I think there’s much less dependency in the case of Nicaragua. Nicaragua tried to avoid dependency on any one nation. It tried deliberately to diversify its contacts. It wanted not to rely on the United States, but also not to rely on the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was never willing to pay the price for Nicaragua that it did for Cuba. I think Nicaragua knew that, so it wanted to trade with Eastern and Western Europe and other Latin American countries. I think Latin American liberation theologians are sympathetic to Cuba because they see the priorities that are addressed there: medical aid, health care, education, and care for the poor. Cuba’s problems are manifold: a rather stagnant economy, dependency on the USSR, serious political restraints, and so forth. But even the U.S. News & World Report, in a generally critical article several years ago, acknowledged that hunger had been eliminated, medical care improved, and education made more accessible. These gains appeal to liberation theologians.

Of course, Nick Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has studied infant mortality figures, death rates, and so on in Cuba, and it would seem there is a serious argument to he made that in fact health is not at all better there than in other Latin American countries, but I’m not a demographer.

No, I’m not either, so I can’t speak to that.

Certainly it’s fair to say that the Eastern European nations were dependent on, and exploited by, the Soviet Union. These are nations that have had long experience with dependency. What would you say the liberation theologians have to teach the Eastern Europeans, now that the Eastern Europeans must decide what path to follow to improve themselves?

First of all, I would question whether liberation theologians believe they have something to teach Eastern Europe. I don’t think that even the Christians in Eastern Europe are going to look to liberation theology for answers. I don’t know at this point that they even need theological motivation; they’re exulting in the possibilities of democracy. One of the most interesting things that Michael Novak and I were discussing at lunch is, What model will Eastern Europe opt for? Novak believes that most people in Eastern Europe want simply to get rid of socialism. Since I have not been to Eastern Europe since 1986, I cannot respond to that. In 1986, leaders of Solidarity spoke of achieving a “democratic socialism” (which I believe can operate with a free market and does not imply state ownership and control). I believe that it still remains unclear whether some model of democratic socialism or capitalism will be the likely future of most Eastern European countries. In either case, I do not think they will look to a Latin American liberation theology for answers, unless perhaps to consider its concern for the poorest sectors of society.

I didn’t think that they would, but it occurred to me that liberation theologians have thought about dependent nations a great deal and that therefore they might have something to say.

I think that their thinking has been very much rooted in Latin America.

To shift from economics to politics, you have spoken about liberation theology’s new attitude toward democracy. That’s probably something worth reiterating: how their attitude has changed, and what they think now.

In December 1986, an association of third world theologians partial to liberation theology met in Mexico. When they listed the conference priorities, the Latin American theologians put democratization as the number-one priority for social change. In Latin America, I don’t think there’s any kind of utopian hope any longer that socialist regimes will come in and offer popular participation for the poor. The model that had created some excitement — Allende in Chile in the early 1970s — is not something that would be very realistic for Latin America right now. What has also changed is that you don’t have as many repressive military regimes as you had at that time. Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay are no longer under military rule. Consequently, I think the idea has been to emphasize using democracy for “giving space to the poor,” “providing an opportunity for the poor” to mobilize, to get a sense of being able to do things together.

That almost sounds like entrepreneurship.

Except that it’s collective, and it’s more what we call in the United States “community-organizing,” getting people to create, to work together to bring electricity into their neighborhood, running water, sewage disposal, roads, police protection, etc., whether you do it by political pressure on the government or by collecting money and doing it yourself. A lot of the poor areas have developed soup kitchens, not for the indigent poor, but for themselves — common soup kitchens where they cook together and then take home the food for their families. It’s less time-consuming, and there are more entrées. Also, many liberation theologians feel that out of this process will come a certain political maturity which can be translated into linking the poor’s problems to national or local politics.

There seems to be a convergence of sorts between what liberation theologians are now saying and the things that classical liberals say. For example, the famous Peruvian liberal Hernando de Soto is outraged that the poor are being kept poor: You spoke about the need for “space” for the poor: the idea that all must have a chance to make a living without undue interference from great concentrations of wealth. From the eighteenth century onward, classical liberals have worried about great concentrations of wealth. They have attacked aristocratic privileges, but they have also, of course, attacked what those aristocracies are usually connected with, namely the state, which tends to be — and always has the ability to be — the single greatest concentration of wealth and power. Certainly in Latin America, under governments of both the Left and Right, the state usually is the richest power: You have written that your ideal vision of a Latin American country would have 60 to 70 percent of the economy in private hands. That would require a dramatic revolution in most Latin American countries, in many of which there is little left to nationalize. First, do you agree that there is a convergence in many ways between the classical liberals and liberation theologians? Second, is a crucial part of that convergence a growing skepticism about the ability of the state, at least at the national level, to help the poor? Is it becoming clear that the state usually interferes with the poor’s efforts to help themselves?

In the U.S. experience especially — and I think it’s probably true of the European experience, too — the liberals’ emphasis was always placed on political freedom, partly because the economic freedom was already there. We didn’t have to break up great landed estates or end primogeniture. We could take economic opportunities for granted and then say, “We don’t want the state intruding, especially in areas of religion or freedom of speech or freedom of mobility.”

I think the situation has been different in Latin America, where they can’t take economic access for granted. A small percentage of wealthy landowners historically controlled most of the land. They still do: the top one or two percent of landowners control 60 to 80 percent of all arable land in many Latin American countries, with 60 to 70 percent of rural households remaining landless or nearly landless. The issue of land distribution remains one of the major sources of social conflict in Latin America. So when one speaks of free enterprise or capitalism in Latin America, this translates for many Latin Americans into a retention of the prevailing system.

But of course that’s not what liberals like Hernando de Soto want.

Yes, I realize that.

You have emphasized change from below. That certainly is what de Soto wants.

Well, I think there is convergence between liberals and liberation theologians in that we both stress giving ordinary people more freedom to develop their own small enterprises, trades, and farms, to give more people access to the market and to property.

Would that be accomplished better by having the government step back rather than step in?

Hernando de Soto addressed primarily the issue of government-bureaucratic regulations that stifle free enterprise. I would acknowledge this problem, but I want to stress that government must also be involved in addressing the problem of concentrated land ownership, which continues as one major reason why many Latin American countries have the worst records in the world in respect to disparity between rich and poor.

De Soto has documented specific examples of under-ground, “informal” private enterprises succeeding. In a way, the informals are the freest of enterprises because they are outside the law. With no government help — indeed, despite government hindrance — they have succeeded. In Lima, for instance, informals provide almost all public transportation. The state has produced little housing, even though it has spent millions of dollars, whereas persons working privately have produced half the city’s low-income housing. A classical liberal, then, can point to these concrete successes. What success stories could one point to on the part of liberation theology?

That’s a good question. Liberation theologians don’t stress so much what an individual can do as a taxi or truck driver. They would probably point to the success of cooperative farming. I know Jesuits who are involved in that in the northern part of Peru. The problem of farming there is the difficulty in making one-family farms work. Farmers don’t have the credits, the tools, the machinery, and so forth to compete. They do it collectively, in a workers’ co-op. There are many such enterprises — how many I don’t know — that liberation theologians would hold up as a model: collective, not state-owned, ownership and production.

Local cooperation.

That’s right.

That is reminiscent of the pioneers in America, when everyone helped everyone else build barns, and so on.

Except in this case there is more communal ownership. It wouldn’t be just, “I help my neighbor when he’s got harvest time.” You would own tools together because no one person could even afford the tools.

In Juan Luis Segundo’s famous essay “Capitalism versus Socialism,” he says that societies must choose one or the other. That was written in the early 1970s. Do liberation theologians still ask that question, and if they do, how do they answer it?

In more recent works, Segundo has developed a much more modified response; he’s critical of different types of socialism, including being very critical of the Marxist model of socialism. He doesn’t criticize the institution of socialism itself, but rather complains that it never lived by its own main ideals, that it became guided by materialistic goals, and so forth. So there’s much more criticism of socialism now, even on the part of Segundo.

There has been a great deal of change in this area, then.

Yes, but I think you’d have to say that liberation theologians are still supportive of the ideals of socialism. You can criticize them for not fleshing out what are the institutions they’re talking about to achieve the ideals, but they cherish the ideals of the poor having participatory power, the poor cooperating with each other — it’s much more of a communal idea of the poor working their way out of poverty. This is what a number of liberation theologians now associate with socialism Yet Gustavo Gutierrez has specifically said that you don’t have to advocate socialism to be a liberation theologian.

What in liberation theology shows the greatest hope? Where do its advocates place their greatest hopes?

They place their hopes in ways in which the poor can be masters of their own destiny, can be participants politically, can be participants economically, no longer marginalized. “Protagonists of their own liberation” — that’s a phrase that has been used for 20 some years.



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