Documentation: Brotherhood and Fratricide In Central America

Editor’s Note: The speech that follows was given by Most Rev. Rene Gracida, Bishop of Corpus Christi, at a National Conference of Christians and Jews banquet in Corpus Christi, Texas. It is reprinted here with permission of Bishop Gracida.

I have given a name to this speech. I have called it “Brotherhood 1985.” It is a tradition which goes back to ancient times and which is clearly recorded in the Bible that man identifies those things which he creates or discovers by giving them a name. In so doing, he not only asserts ownership or at least claims credit for discovery, but he also reveals something of the nature of the thing by the name he chooses, and he often reveals something about his own personality or character through the name he chooses. It is therefore with some hesitation that I confess that I was tempted to name this speech “Fratricide 1985.” I use the term fratricide in its broadest meaning; brothers in the family of mankind killing one another.

I was tempted because it seemed to me that there is almost as much fratricide being practiced in the world today as there is brotherhood, perhaps even more. The list of nations involved is long; the Philippines, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, North and South Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Crete, Sudan, Ethiopia, Rhodesia, South Africa, Angola, Chad, Chile, Peru, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Perhaps it is because I have only recently returned from a visit to these last two countries that I am at this moment so sensitive to the horror and tragedy of fratricide. In El Salvador and Nicaragua one encounters fratricide in both its broad and narrow meanings; in those two countries blood brother is killing blood brother.

It seems appropriate for me, in the context of our celebration of brotherhood here tonight, to reflect with you on my trip to El Salvador and Nicaragua. It also seems appropriate because, in spite of all our past mistakes and misuse of our power in Central. America or perhaps especially because of those mistakes and misuse of power, we have a responsibility toward our brothers and sisters in Central America which we cannot and must not ignore—no matter how painful our memories of our involvement in Vietnam may still be. Brotherhood, like charity, may begin at home, but is in complete harmony with our Judeo-Christian heritage that we should extend our brotherhood to our neighbors to the south of us, especially now in their hour of greatest need.

The trip to Nicaragua and El Salvador was conceived last September when it was decided by the leadership of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops that contact should be had with the Catholic Church in those two countries to determine if our previous public statements on the situation of the church in Central America still had validity in view of the rapidly changing situation in that region. Accordingly, a synthesis of the previous statements of our conference was prepared and was hand delivered by two staff members of our conference to all of the bishops of Central America and Panama in January. The bishops were told that a delegation of five bishops would be coming to visit with them in late February or early March to dialogue with them about the synthesis.

Archbishop John O’Connor of New York, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, Archbishop James Hickey of Washington, Bishop Sean O’Malley of the Virgin Islands and I arrived in Managua on Feb. 24. We engaged in dialogue with the apostolic nuncio to Nicaragua and Honduras, with the bishops of Nicaragua, with priests loyal to the hierarchical church, with priests heading the so-called popular church, American missionary men and women, both Catholic and Protestant, with the arch-diocesan human rights commission, with representatives of Nicaraguan youth, with a large group of mothers of sons fighting on both sides in the conflict, with a group of Nicaraguan writers, journalists and intellectuals, with some vendors in the marketplace and with some of their customers, with Ambassador Lewis and with Commandante Daniel Ortega and several members of the Sandinista party.

In El Salvador we met and dialogued with the apostolic nuncio, with the bishops of El Salvador, with the bishops of other Central American nations, with Salvadoran priests and religious women, with American missionary priests and religious women, with the archdiocesan human rights commission, with the government’s human rights commission, with refugees in a refugee camp, with the minister of defense, with the chief justices of the Supreme Court, with the National Assembly leaders of the major political parties, with a group of the faculty from the Jesuit University of Central America, with Ambassador Thomas Pickering and with President Napoleon Duarte.

Our meetings with governmental officials in both countries was of their invitation; we had gone to visit the church in those countries. Our visit was intended to be a pastoral visit, not a political visit. If we met with political figures and governmental leaders it was because either they or our hosts, the bishops of the country, felt that we should have such meetings.

What did we learn as a result of our visit? Let me begin with the question which was primarily the reason for our trip: Had the status of the church in its relation with the state changed in the past 12 months? In my opinion the answer is yes, it had changed. In Nicaragua it had changed for the worse, while in El Salvador it had changed for the better. In Nicaragua the church is subject to many different forms of repression—most of these forms of repression are quite subtle, but some are open and blatant. In Nicaragua the church is denied access to the means of modern social communication; in El Salvador the church now has greater access to such means than it has ever had before. In Nicaragua church schools have been taken over by the government and Marxist-Leninist dogma is taught through the use of Sandinista-supplied textbooks, which priests and sisters are, forced to use; in El Salvador the government has not interfered in church schools. In Nicaragua the church—and I ask you to keep in mind that I am speaking always of the hierarchical church unless I specify the so-called popular church—is not permitted to print religious materials nor can they be imported; in El Salvador there is no such difficulty. I could go on with an extended list of such examples but time will not permit. Permit me simply to state that I heard enough about cases of murder, assassination, mob violence, imprisonment, torture, executions and deportations to convince me that the Sandinista regime is well on its way to becoming a repressive totalitarian regime of the left and that it is already much worse than the brutal dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza which preceded it. El Salvador, on the other hand, under the leadership of Napoleon Duarte’s government, seems to be making progress toward the establishment of a truly democratic government. Last Sunday’s elections, which gave Duarte’s Christian Democrat Party a majority of seats in the National Assembly, seem to promise an even more rapid reform of that nation’s government.

The most critical question which faces Nicaragua and the United States is the question of the continuation of military aid to the “freedom fighters,” as President Reagan calls them, or the contras, that is, counterrevolutionaries, as the Sandinista regime and its sympathizers call them.

The question of whether Congress should authorize the continuation of military assistance must be seen in terms of the moral dilemma which it poses for us. The consensus among those I spoke with in Nicaragua was that if the people who have taken up arms against the Sandinista regime are not given further military aid they will surely be defeated by the Sandinista party’s arms with its much more sophisticated military equipment. The consensus further stated that if that defeat should occur, the Sandinista party will rapidly consolidate its totalitarian rule over the nation along the lines of the Cuban model and, further, the Sandinista regime will then begin to export revolutionary destabilization to the rest of Central America, Panama and Mexico.

The dilemma which this whole question of military aid poses for us is this. If we furnish military aid we will thereby contribute to an escalation of war with no guarantee of victory for those who oppose the Sandinistas since other policies of our own government seem to exacerbate the military situation in much the same way that previous administrations engaged in a no-win war in Vietnam. Does our nation really want to assume even indirect moral responsibility for the human rights violations perpetrated by some of those who are fighting the Sandinistas?

On the other hand, if we do not furnish military aid to those who are fighting to free Nicaragua from the totalitarian regime of the Sandinista party, we will almost certainly be guilty of another Bay-of-Pigs fiasco in that we will have cut off aid to combatants at a crucial moment, thus making their defeat and death almost inevitable. But worse than that, in a certain sense, we will be condemning the Nicaragua people to live, perhaps for several generations to come, under a Marxist-Leninst totalitarian regime which will move rapidly to consolidate its power over the people once all internal armed resistance is ended. But even worse than that, if such is possible, we can expect to see the rest of Central America, Panama and Mexico begin to experience destabilization as Cuba and Nicaragua together export their Marxist-Leninist revolution from their Nicaragua base on the mainland of our continent.

Is there no way out of this dilemma? Must we choose either the violence of war or the destruction of the young struggling democracies in Central America and the enslavement of our brothers and sisters to the south? What is our obligation, at least under the title of “brotherhood” to assist them and how can we do it without escalating the violence of war?

I have agonized over this dilemma ever since I returned from our trip to Central America. I have not yet found an alternative third way out of the dilemma. But I do have two questions, the answers to which may point the way to resolving the dilemma.

1. Why does the United States continue to maintain diplomatic relations with a regime which the president of the United States asserts stole the anti-Somoza revolution away from the democratic parties which also fought to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship? How can the United States continue to recognize the government of Nicaragua, which the United States is seeking to have overthrown by citizens of Nicaragua who are opposed to the Sandinista regime? What are the moral implications of such duplicity? Would it not be better for the United States to break diplomatic relations with the Sandinista regime and thus deprive that regime of even a semblance of legitimacy?

2. Why does the United States continue to be the principal commercial trading partner with the Sandinista regime? What is the justification for the United States to give the Sandinista regime some $70 million or more of hard currency through our purchases of their exports when it is obvious that some of those same dollars will be spent to purchase sophisticated weapons from Russia or East Germany for use against the very people we are giving military aid to through Honduras?

Is it possible that the breaking of diplomatic relations, the withdrawal of recognition of the Sandinista regime and the placing of a total embargo or blockade against trade with Nicaragua might do more to bring about a change in the government of that nation, and much more rapidly, than the continuation of our present ambiguous and in some ways conflicting policies toward Nicaragua?

I do not know the answers to these questions. But I do believe that we, the people of the United States, have an obligation to be concerned about what is happening to our brothers and sisters in Central America just as much, if not more, as we are concerned about what is happening to our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. And I believe that we, the people of the United States, have an obligation to demand that our own government pursue a coherent and morally correct set of policies with respect to Central America.


  • Most Rev. Rene Gracida

    Bishop René Henry Gracida (born 1923 in New Orleans, Louisiana) was the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Miami (1971–1975), the first Bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee (1975–1983) and Bishop of the Diocese of Corpus Christi (1983–1997). As auxiliary bishop of Miami he had the honorific Titular Bishop of Masuccaba (1971–1975).

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