Comments on the Central American Policy of the U.S. Catholic Conference
EDITOR’S NOTE: Catholicism in Crisis has obtained from Nicaragua an advisory (in Spanish), prepared earlier in 1985 by Nicaraguan citizens for the bishops of Nicaragua, in reply to the memorandum on the policies of the United States Catholic Conference towards Central America. The USCC report was drafted by Reverend William M. Lewers, C.S.C., and sent to the Bishops Conference of Nicaragua by Archbishop John J. O’Connor of New York. The USCC articulated six moral principles, and then applied them to El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan advisory criticizes each of these points in turn. The text (translated by Mark Fakoff) follows.
These are comments provoked by a policy synthesis prepared by the Reverend William M. Lewers, C.S.S., and sent to the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference by the Most Reverend John D. O’Connor, D.D., Archbishop of New York.
For methodological purposes, we shall follow the same order as the document itself.
1. Primacy of internal causes of conflict in Central America.
We believe that this principle is difficult to sustain, since it tends to underestimate the activity of Marxists-Leninists in the area.
It is certainly possible that social injustices, and the historic economic, political and social backwardness of the Central American region have provided the framework, and perhaps even acted as an initial motivation in the outbreak of revolutionary violence, but to say that this is the only cause of conflict in the area is excessively dogmatic and strikes a note of certitude that cannot be fully documented.
In order properly to relate cause and effect, we would have to determine first how much of the cause has actually been translated into effect, much as a blood test is sometimes used to determine the paternity of a child. Hence, if we study carefully the causes of revolution in Central America, we cannot but note that in the case of Nicaragua and El Salvador, there is present a strong Marxist-Leninist, pro-Soviet and pro-Cuban element; in the case of Nicaragua, now in its sixth year, we find little or no political, economic, or social advances.
In our opinion, social injustice and historical backwardness have indeed played a role, but Marxism has taken undue advantage of the ensuing frustration and discontent to exacerbate the situation; inciting people to insurrection, class war, and “liberation” through the violent destruction of other classes and an artificial division of society into irreconcilable poles—”rich” and “poor.” For this reason, these revolutions respond to Marxist doctrine, something which in and of itself would not necessarily be required to produce a revolution, even a violent one, committed to the realization of the social teachings of the Catholic Church and of the Second Vatican Council. (E.g. the Iranian revolution.)
Hence, without underestimating the element of injustice which exists in these societies, we should at least assign equal importance to the exogenous Marxist element, which affords ideological content and direction to popular discontent, and provides the political philosophy of the cadres that lead people towards revolutionary consummation.
2. Primacy of Political Over Military Solutions.
On the face of it, this proposal seems deeply Christian and worthy of our warmest support. Nonetheless, it cannot always be appropriate, since it depends upon the nature of the challenge one faces. For its part, the FSLN has said a thousand and one times that the source of its political wisdom and of its triumph were and are its willingness to recur to the force of arms.
Hence, if in El Salvador the Duarte government and that of the United States were to give primacy to a political solution, but not obtain a similar commitment on the part of the FMLN, the guerrillas would soon be at the very gates of San Salvador, or already in power.
We consequently believe that it is more just and logical to sustain that the kind of response that a legitimate government ought to offer to those who are attempting to destabilize it and overthrow it must be coherent with the sort of threat it faces. If it faces a military challenge, it must fashion a military response; if a political challenge, a political response.
Moreover, one must learn to distinguish between the abstract principle that naturally moves us as Christians (namely, the desire to resolve problems in a peaceful and negotiated fashion) and that which applies when one is faced with an armed aggression that places in danger the stability of a government and the destruction of a people’s culture.
For this reason, and with all due respect to the United States Catholic Conference, we do not consider it logical to oppose a massive increase in military aid (but not all aid), except in a specific situation, in which the purpose is to pressure a government to negotiate or its military leaders to obey that government, etc. But to pursue that policy over a long term is not acceptable, since it would be equivalent, in a boxing match, of depriving one of the two contenders of his supply of oxygen, while not merely allowing the other to continue to receive what he needs, but to offer him additional stimulants. The USCC should take special note of this fact when it makes recommendations to both superpowers; it is capable of inhibiting the United States, to be sure. But who will pressure the Soviet Union? For this very reason its declarations should be drafted with extreme care. In this the Central American bishops have given us an excellent example: in their repeated statements, they not only ask both superpowers to withdraw from the area, but insist upon adequate measures of inspection and control.
3. Priority of Avoiding a Wider War.
We are wholly in agreement with this principle, but it must be applied completely. If one of the sides regionalizes the conflict, or renders it more inhumane through the importation of deadlier, more sophisticated armaments, the other will be compelled to recur to similar measures, unless we choose to take sides, and/or to decide that one of the contending parties should surrender because its struggle is unjust, useless, or impossible.
4. Priority to Dialogue.
This is also a very Christian principle, but do both sides really wish to engage in dialogue? Is there a disposition to compromise—to give something up to receive something in return, to achieve a concrete accord? Or is dialogue simply a device to confuse the issues and gain additional time? Is the same value given to dialogue in Nicaragua as in El Salvador? Why is it so commendable in one country but not in another?
On April 22, 1984, the Nicaraguan bishops called for dialogue and reconciliation among all Nicaraguans, including those who have risen up in arms against the government. [See “Nicaraguan Bishop’s Pastoral Letter on Reconciliation,” Catholicism in Crisis, June 1984.] As a result, for more than two weeks they were exposed to insults and false accusations in ten full pages of the daily press, unable to respond, because the Directorate-General of the Media censured whatever defense the faithful wished to make upon their behalf.
As we have said before and continue to repeat: dialogue is a valid instrument, but only if both sides are willing to use it—and of course, in good faith. Under such circumstances, it would be the option superior to all others.
5. Priority of Regional Peace Efforts.
We are in agreement with this point. Nonetheless, in the Nicaraguan case, the Sandinistas have stated on various occasions that they are willing to talk to the dog’s owner (the United States), but not with the dogs (the Nicaraguan counter-revolution).
The strong and active support of the contadora initiative is most welcome.
6. The Importance of Human Rights and the Criterion of Social Justice.
The notion that the United States should give economic aid only to countries that respect human rights can be used very constructively, or inappropriately, depending upon the situation.
Generally speaking, the observances of individual human rights and political rights is the greatest of values on any serious scale, and for this reason it should take precedence over all others.
Nonetheless, there is one case in which we believe that the principle of lesser evil should be employed: that is, when it is necessary to aid a regime which does not observe human rights in order to save a nation from falling into something worse, such as the installation of a new regime in which such rights are not observed either, but in which also religion is subject to persecution, private property is unjustly expropriated, and trade unions and political parties are subject to totalitarian control.
Consequently, in extreme cases, in which to deprive a regime of military aid would be equivalent to overthrowing it, we believe it appropriate to keep in mind the conditions established by St. Thomas Aquinas with respect to the right of rebellion. One of those conditions was that the new regime be significantly better than the one it brings down.
What we can never accept as Christians is the complacency, friendship, or support that—under less drastic circumstances—some give to governments which violate human rights.
1. El Salvador
We have already stated our criterion with respect to military aid. Summarizing we could say that:
*If a government is legitimate, it has the right to acquire the means to defend itself. If the challenge is of a military nature, then the government will have the right to buy or to request all necessary equipment to fend off the violence inflicted against it. Precisely what quantity of arms it is authorized to acquire is not a matter of religious or moral judgment, but rather a military consideration—whatever is necessary to repel the aggressor.
*If the government is not legitimate, then the USCC is right to oppose the transfer of arms to it, and not merely arms, but any other form of assistance.
We believe that the testimony of Archbishop Hickey in March, 1983, takes this consideration into account, in emphasizing that some military equipment could be necessary and legitimate, if at the same time a government seeks to resolve its problems through political and diplomatic channels.
We believe that just as it supports dialogue in El Salvador, the USCC ought to support it in Nicaragua, since both are passing through civil war, although under different ideological banners.
With respect to the question of refuges, we are totally in agreement, but not only with respect to Guatemalans or Salvadorans, but also Nicaraguans, who have the right to the same status of “Prolonged Voluntary Exile.”
We believe that in Guatemala the guerrilla war is sufficiently under control to justify the position of the USCC—that is, that the regime there not be granted military aid until the human rights situation improves. In this particular case, the denial of aid would not, we believe, lead to the downfall of the existing government and its replacement by a Marxist regime, but rather would tend to assist in the improvement of the human rights situation there.
We do not believe that U.S. military aid to Honduras should be viewed exclusively—as the USCC apparently does—as a possible provocation to war with Nicaragua, but rather should be seen from the same point of view as the stationing of U.S. troops in West Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe. It represents a counterforce against an enemy whose sole raison d’etre and mission is to spread Marxist revolution throughout Central America by military means.
We are in agreement—and we gratefully acknowledge—the prophetic statements of the USCC with respect to the violation of human rights in Nicaragua, particularly with respect to the treatment of political prisoners and ethnic minorities, restrictions on the press and trade unions; with respect to political liberties, interference with private education, and conflicts with the Church.
We share the hope of the USCC that the government of Nicaragua may eventually transform itself into one which truly respects pluralism, and implements a mixed economy and a non-aligned foreign policy. We are wholly in agreement that the best way to achieve this would be through pacific means—dialogue, reconciliation, etc.
With respect to the methods to achieve such noble ends, we must ask, What do we do now?
One point of view which many Nicaraguans share is that the Sandinistas forged an alliance with the USSR and Cuba, provoking the displeasure of the United States, which naturally does not wish to see an additional beachhead in the area for its mortal enemy, the Soviet Union. In that sense, the Sandinistas could properly be regarded as the ones who have introduced a new element into the picture. Consequently, it is incumbent upon the Sandinistas to remove this new element if they do not wish to suffer the consequences. For our part, we believe that Nicaragua ought to abandon the alliance with Russia and Cuba, which serves only to provoke distrust and hostility on the part of the U.S. government.
On the other hand, the Sandinistas have tried to introduce a political system which is wholly unacceptable to the Nicaraguan people—which places in danger their religious sense, their culture, their public and private liberties, and the existence of their characteristic organizations and institutions. The Sandinistas do not enjoy the kind of consensus which justifies their statement that the people are sovereign, and as such, has opted for their road. The people evidently do not wish to fight for this form of political organization; to the contrary, they abhor and reject it.
The Catholic people gratefully acknowledge the solidarity that the USCC has always evidenced with our bishops.
With respect to the opposition of the USCC to the covert aid to the counter-revolution, we as Christians—and because we have opted for a civic course of living and working in Nicaragua—fully understand your position. However, we also insist that you consider the motives and circumstances that have led many of those Nicaraguans to take up arms against the FSLN. We believe that the insurrectionaries should enjoy the same benefit of the doubt which the USCC extends to the rebels in El Salvador. As such, we would hope it would endorse for Nicaragua the solution that it favors in El Salvador: that is, a dialogue between the government and the insurgents, leading to an eventual political solution.
Our young men on both sides continue to die in a war that should be brought to a halt. The situation somewhat resembles that of two brothers each fighting one another with a knife: their mother dares not disarm one for fear of the immediate death of the other, and therefore brings to bear all her resources to ensure the survival and reconciliation of both.
To have requested His Holiness John Paul ll to pray for the Sandinista dead was tantamount to asking him to support one of the two brothers. The same temptation is placed before our bishops on a daily basis. Nonetheless, even under pressures and attacks of all kinds, they have firmly refused to take sides.
The proper position is to ask the United States to utilize all of the appropriate resources to facilitate dialogue and constructive negotiations so that the conflict in Nicaragua and also elsewhere in the region may be resolved. This is the option favored by those of us Nicaraguans who remain within the country, and who have the greatest interest in the achievement of a peace with liberty, where each of us can exercise our political sovereignty and the right to worship God individually and collectively, in private and in public.