Viva la Democracia: Thomas Quigley, the Bishop’s Latin America Advisor, Speaks Out on U.S. Policy in Nicaragua and El Salvador

Thomas Quigley, the American bishops’ advisor on Latin and Caribbean affairs, has the reputation of being a True Believer in radical causes, a partisan of liberation theology, a sort of inside-the-Beltway Sandinista.

He hardly looks the part of a Latin revolutionary. No bandanna, or bullets across his chest. Quigley is a quiet, soft-spoken man. He looks a bit like a college dean, suave yet slightly disheveled, stern yet pleasant, speaking deliberately with occasional bursts of Spanish thrown in.

His office at the U.S, Catholic Conference abounds with posters in English and Spanish—obscure Argentine heroes, slogans about liberty and equality, a picture of the Maryknoll nuns who were killed because of their support of the Salvadoran guerrillas.

In a recent interview with Crisis editor Dinesh D’Souza, Quigley discussed U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, the recent Salvadoran elections, liberation theology, and the future of the contra resistance in Nicaragua.

Latin America, a continent habituated to dictatorship, has seen in the last ten years or so, beginning with the Carter administration and continuing with the Reagan administration, an outbreak of democracy. Now, over 90 percent of Latin America is democratic. Do you think that’s a good development, and do you think that President Reagan deserves credit for it?

Do I think that the progress of democracy’s a good development? Unquestionably. But there are so many other factors that have brought about the reversion to democracy in places like Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. U.S. policy is always a factor in Latin America, but to think of it as the single, most important factor is a mistake. Argentina is a case where U.S. policy was not particularly helpful, and the reversion to democracy came about largely because of the Argentines’ failure in the Falklands War. But does the administration of either of those two presidents deserve some credit? Absolutely yes. In particular, the U.S. State Department, the Foreign Service, and the ambassadors in Paraguay and Chile played a very helpful role.

Do you think that it should be a conscious goal of U.S. policy to promote democracy and democratic values abroad, and if so, do you disagree with those who say, “U.S. out of Central America”?

Oh, I definitely disagree with those who say, “U.S. out of Central America,” because it’s an unreal kind of request. The United States is going to be in Central America, in South America, because they are part of the Americas. Without talking about spheres of influence, and still less about hegemonic rights, it’s just the nature of things —of geography, of history, of size— that makes the United States an inevitable player. Should the goal of foreign policy be to promote democracy and respect for human rights, and I would add economic development and social betterment of all the peoples, so far as that’s a realizable goal, I think that’s absolutely right. Noblesse oblige is one way of saying it, but I don’t think that’s quite the way we want to phrase it. But the United States does have the responsibility of seeking the betterment of the Americas; the issue of difference probably comes from the method used. How do you promote democracy? How do you promote respect for human rights? I think there can be an excessively interventionist role, which I don’t see as a good thing, even though the purpose has a good intent. But it can be frustrated, it can come back upon itself, it can breed further resentment and further hostility, and therefore results in bad international relations, if it’s done poorly. But, largely as a result of the Carter years, concern for human rights has become an integral part of the equation of how U. S. foreign policy is defined.

But although Carter made human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy, a lot of people think that he did human rights a disservice. In Iran, for instance, the human rights violations of the Shah were far exceeded by his successor the Ayatollah Khomeini. In that sense, one could say that Carter made things worse.

But he didn’t intend to. The question of what hap-pens afterwards—well, one can’t foresee the future. But I think that the intent to integrate concern for human rights, for global peace, and for all those other good things in foreign policy on the one hand, with the concern for national security on the other, was a step for-ward. That it didn’t succeed in each instance during the brief time that Carter was in the White House, or that it hasn’t succeeded in the years subsequent to that, I don’t think argues against the validity of the approach. The annual State Department human rights reports are also a major step forward. Every embassy in the world is attuned to the human rights equation in a way that just wasn’t the case before the establishment of the Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Bureau.

In 1979, El Salvador was in the grips of a powerful civil war, which continues today. However, the U.S. Congress has supported Salvador through a bipartisan military and economic aid package, and that seems to have helped bring about a transition to democracy. Do you think that the U.S. should provide economic and military aid to Salvador as it has been doing, or do you think that our policy is wrong?

The bishops, who have spoken of this, have argued since the early 1980s that the policy toward El Salvador should be driven by the need to find a political settlement of the conflict. There should be the assistance provided for the economic development of the country. The military component, while an inevitable component —it’s there, it cannot be simply wished away —ought to be subservient to the more central issue of finding a political settlement. That there will continue to be military aid to El Salvador, well, it seems to be a given. I would have said more confidently a year ago that, for the foreseeable future, there will certainly be military aid to El Salvador. One is hearing now, for almost the first time in a few years, from serious people, not just people who say, “U.S. out of Central and South America,” that the aid should be cut out, especially if the newly-elected Arena party realizes the worst fears of its enemies —that is, it becomes some kind of bloodthirsty, right-wing death- squad supporting pogroms.

You mentioned the importance of the political settlement. But there is a tension between a commitment to democracy per se and a commitment to a political settlement, because simply by taking guerrillas into the bush, you can create strife and then demand a political settlement which is an accommodation, and that’s quite different from saying, let the people exercise their choice through elections. Should we be for a political settlement, or should we be for elections?

I think that the number of militants under arms is significant. There’s still a major segment of the population of El Salvador, as in other countries, which needs to be accommodated or rather needs to be brought into the political process. Will it be done simply by the election process? The problem is that in societies like El Salvador, large parts of the people have no real experience of voting regularly and being part of parties. The parties themselves have a minuscule membership of people who are militants. A few people who are political gather together, and they put up the elections, and they get lots of people to vote for them or for the other fellow, but there isn’t any real party allegiance. If democracy is to succeed, it’s got to be something more than just the number of people who turn out for the periodic elections and cast their ballot. These people who represent a large segment of the disenfranchised—they may be 100 percent wrong in their perception of where they stand in the society, I don’t think they are, but even assuming that they are, they are too significant a bunch of people, the masses of the peasantry, the campesinos. They need to find some other accommodation than simply having a better person elected president, and a less vicious military.

You claim that parties are small, with small membership, but it seems that the Salvadoran voters are, in a sense, even more vigilant than American voters. Many more of them than us show up to vote, perhaps because politics plays a greater role in their life than it does in ours.

Well, 1984 was a very special case where the turnout was phenomenal. That’s because there was more hoopla than people had ever seen before. Similarly, the last election was important. The elections don’t come around as often as they do in more stable democracies, and there’s a certain novelty about it. I’m not suggesting it’s going to wear off, and people will start dropping down to the levels of participation we have in this country. They may or they may not. But although I don’t mean to use the phrase “formal democracy” as a pejorative, it is a limiting factor. There is such a thing as going to the polls, and then there’s such a thing as making participation in the polity a reality. I think the Salvadoran people are a very participative people, in the sense that they join mass movements. People join in movements much more than we do here, where society is supposedly an endless number of voluntary associations —the National Rifle Association or the American Association of Retired Persons. But we don’t show the kind of commitment that’s involved in groups that belong to these various so-called popular movements in El Salvador.

Now clearly, democracy is not a panacea, but it is one mechanism to achieve not only self- expression, but as a register of who’s popular and who does reflect the aspirations of the people. The Marxist rebels during the elections and in past elections have not only not participated, but have carried out their promise to threaten and to shoot voters. What do you think about that?

Well, it’s true. There haven’t been very many people killed in the elections, but one person is one too many. The rebels have called for boycotts of elections, they’ve stopped traffic along the roads, intimidating people. They do that as a way of saying that the elections are, from their point of view, illicit, or at least not sufficiently representative. Is it naive to believe that once there is a political settlement, that these same people will encourage the full turnout for the elections, because there will have been sufficient opportunity for them to get their message across to the broader public, to organize people for their side, their candidate, to register people? Right now, so many people don’t have any way of registering: the people who have been refugees internally, or those who have gone abroad and come back. Most of them don’t have any papers, don’t have anything that really gives them the right to get a voting card. Is it naive to believe that the rebels, the so-called FMLN people, will really go to the polls the way good democrats are supposed to? Maybe. I think that there is no choice but to hope that that can come about.

You’ve raised the specter of the Arena party and its connection to Roberto D’Aubisson and to the death squads which have been terrifying the peasants and the population generally. How can such a hated group win an election with such a decisive plurality?

Well, they’re not hated by everybody. What we’re dealing with is a party which controls public opinion. Arena has had the advantages of U.S. tutelage as far as how to run a smart campaign. They’ve done stuff with the media, organizing rallies and so on. The U.S. has sold a lot of Coca-Cola in El Salvador, and certain persons have helped Arena to run a more sophisticated campaign than I think you could argue the Christian Democrats did.

I thought the U.S. was supporting the Christian Democrats.

I don’t say the U.S. government has done this, but the Arena party has purchased the services of public relations firms in the United States. This is smart, and apparently effective, a smarter kind of campaign packaging.

So they’re duping the people, basically.

I’m not suggesting that, unless one accepts that all the elections in this country are duping the people. But what Arena had very much going for it this time was the failure of the Christian Democratic program and party. It’s a case of, “Let’s throw the rascals out,” blame whoever’s in charge for the very bad economic situation, deteriorating war situation, government corruption, and so on. There was a sense that the Christian Democratic Party was impotent. There’s no point going further. Arena had a lot going for them, and they did very well. They did, in fact, better than anybody that I know of expected them to do. Almost everybody that I talked to —I visited the country just a few months earlier—expected a runoff election, but Arena won the first time around, and I think it was a perfectly honest election, by the way. I don’t think there’s any question of fraud.

The breakdown of the voting suggested that Duarte’s strength was primarily in the middle class, whereas Arena drew heavily among the poor people. Is that accurate?

I think so, but there are poor people who wouldn’t vote for anybody, none of the above right now, that is, people who perhaps didn’t vote at all.

But my point is that it seems to cast a totally different light when you view the struggle in El Salvador not as a class struggle between the rich and the poor but rather an internecine conflict among peasants with very different views on their country’s future.

I don’t think it is just a class struggle. I don’t think that’s a correct way of putting it. There is a struggle for bringing about change and rectifying some of the past inequities. El Salvador has been a highly inequitable social system, but some of that has changed. There are those on the right, here as well as there, who believe that the Duarte program and the U.S. aid program were in fact a socialization of El Salvador. That’s stretching things a bit far. People who are democratic, who believe in social justice, who do want to make a vital and progressive economy out of that society, could agree upon a program of land reform and distribution against some entrenched interests who are simply not prepared to see change come about. There are also extreme leftists who want to turn it into the People’s Republic of El Salvador. I have no doubt that they don’t have sufficient strength inside the country, nor any external aid that would make it realistic to win and create a Kampuchea in El Salvador. There’s no way. The most that can be hoped for, it seems to me, is a gradual movement toward an ever more democratic and more socially just society. Arena has a role to play in that. Arena voters certainly do. They’re not just people who need to be cast into the outer darkness because they’re seen as somehow linked to D’Aubisson or death squads.

But if what we ‘re saying is right, then it would appear that the model in which liberation theology has been analyzing Salvador is quite seriously flawed, because much of the literature does emphasize a class struggle between the haves and the have-nots, the proletariat seeking emancipation from the evil oligarchy, defined as the adversary. Do you think that liberation theology, to some extent, is obsolete?

No, I don’t think so at all. Liberation theology is very dynamic and growing. Some of the language from the analysis of the 1960s and 1970s is no longer used. Every philosophy that deals with the concrete structures of society today has to have some tool to analyze that society, and the liberation theologians of Latin America tended, as did most Latin American intellectuals of the time, to rely upon the Marxian analysis. I find very little of that, in the strict class sense. We hear a great deal about the struggle between good and evil; between the people, the masses, and those who would keep the people down. That could be anything from the sense of Dives at the table or the oligarchy. We just sort of depersonalize it as “those people,” not this per-son, not that person, but this class of people. It comes close to a class analysis, but not very much different from the traditional Christian way of looking at those who would oppress the weak and the downtrodden. Very few people in El Salvador talk about the dependency theory the way it was some 15 years ago. Is the United States the enemy? Most liberation theologians, like most Latin Americans, have at best a conflictive view of the United States, a kind of love-hate relationship. Insofar as they view American policy as detrimental to the values of their people, they’re going to be anti-U.S., anti-imperialist. If the imperialist happened still to be Spain, they would be anti-Spanish. I find the insights and the expressions of liberation theologians —they are a very distinct minority —to have entered into the mainstream, so that episcopal statements, which can’t be accused of violating any principles of Cardinal Ratzinger’s letters, reflect the attitude and the approach that liberation theologians helped to put on the agenda.

But isn’t that because of guys like you, who are here, and reflect those attitudes?

No, no. I don’t have a thing to do with it. It seems to me that’s been largely done in the Latin American church. Archbishop Rivera y Damas was seen as a person who was sympathetic to liberation theology, but he would hardly be considered a radical liberation theologian. He has had his own difficulties with some of the priests in the country. But he’s got a very pastoral approach, and he takes those who are much farther to his left as part of his flock or his clergy as well as those who are far to his right. The whole approach of the preferential option for the poor, which has become part of the identity of the Church in Latin America, and in-deed of the universal Church today, came out of the rediscovery of the value of the poor, the meaning of the poor in history. Gustavo Gutierrez’s “irruption of the poor in history” is a fundamental insight, not just the trickle-down constant —we in the Church, the smart, wise and holy ones, will get the act together, and we hope that it will eventually come down, the Mandarin approach of the early Jesuits. The language of liberation theology, the sense of community, the value of people who are not the learned, having a voice in their own affairs, these Basic Christian Community structures —all of those things are part of the contribution to the universal church.

One thing that is a bit puzzling, though, is that there are some very different attitudes that are often taken between Salvador and Nicaragua. To some extent, there are powerful symmetries between those two neighboring countries. For example, you mentioned earlier that the guerrillas in Salvador were a force, right or wrong, and should be accommodated. I suppose you would be critical of a government that refused to accommodate them. In Nicaragua, we have a force of contras that’s no smaller than the guerrilla force in Salvador, and the government has been doing little to accommodate them, and much to exterminate them. What do you think about that?

The guerrillas of El Salvador, to whatever extent they have benefitted from external aid, are fundamentally indigenous, they fundamentally come out of the Salvadoran context. The Salvadoran FMLN has gotten help, no question about it, from Nicaragua, from Cuba, and, one assumes, from the Soviet Union. The Nicaraguan contras are really a creation of U.S. government policy and the Central Intelligence Agency. Does that delegitimize them entirely? By no means, because many who have joined the contras since those early days do reflect and represent the genuine sentiments of large segments of the Nicaraguan population who are disaffected, for whatever reason, with the government. Today, more than in the past, the Nicaraguan resistance demands to have a right to being treated, dealt with, accommodated by the government of Nicaragua. And the Sandinista government has made significant concessions —you could argue they should have been made long ago, but governments act by their own timetable. Now, there is not as yet any willingness on the part of either side to really sit down and work out whatever their differences are. The contras are not about to come and re-integrate into the political life of Nicaragua until there are some other guarantees and changes made. The Sandinistas are not about to just welcome them without any conditions, so there’s a lot more jockeying to be done, but I think the corner has been turned. I think we’re in a much different situation within the last six months than had been the case before. That, to me, is a very positive thing. The government of Nicaragua has to deal with its opposition, not just from the point of, “We control all the levers of power, and the opposition can vote as we tell them to vote.” Just as in Cuba, the government has to increasingly deal with its opposition in a different way from what has been done in the past.

If there has been progress, however, it has not come about because of sweet persuasion. It seems that the military pressure applied by the contras has made them a force to be reckoned with, and if that’s the case, do you think that in order to have continuing progress, one needs to apply continuing pressure? The Nicaraguan government does not seem to respond merely to logic.

I’m not sure if any government responds exclusively to logic. Their interests are going to be expressed by their own light. I do not accept the idea that the contras are the sole or even the principal cause of the change of heart among the Nicaraguan leaders. They are part of a complex of factors, including things totally outside of the Central American reality: economic factors, political factors, the degree to which the European and the other Latin American countries support or withhold support from the Sandinistas, quite independent of anything Mr. Reagan did or, presently, under Mr. Bush. But things are moving in a much different and much better direction today, as far as U.S. policy is concerned. The question basically comes down to: Should the contras be maintained as a fighting force in Honduras, or even within the country? My own opinion is: absolutely not. It’s completely wrong to do so. It violates the agreement that was signed by the five Central American presidents, including the president of Honduras. What the United States is doing is splitting it down the middle, providing non-lethal aid for a period of time, in the hopes that pressure will continue to move the Sandinistas to make further concessions, and it may work. But I don’t think it’s necessarily justified.

But you have thousands of families that are in the bush that would be totally at the mercy of a government that wants to destroy them in the absence of aid, so wouldn’t a preferential option for the poor dictate that the U.S. should come to the assistance and rescue of the contras?

I don’t think that the government of Nicaragua wants to destroy these people. They recognize that many of these people are the people who voted for the FSLN in 1985, or would vote today except that their lives have become so wretched that they have decided that anything’s better than what they’re doing. People join the contras for quite a variety of reasons. Unless you are positive that the leadership of Nicaragua is simply so committed to a concept of revolution that believes it really doesn’t matter if everybody dies, so long as they keep the resolution alive —and I don’t accept that —then, these are people who, as rational human beings, do not intend to have their country as divided as it is right now. They don’t really want to see the contras destroyed, that is, killed.

But one of the things that’s always struck me about the rhetoric of class struggle, to some extent resonated in liberation theology, is when you do create, as you put it, this abstract category of “the enemy,” then to the extent that you are committed to this ideology, it’s precisely the abstraction that allows you to destroy the enemy, because you’re not talking about Tom, Dick, or Harry, you’re talking about a nameless bourgeoisie.

Nicaragua’s triumph of the revolution was not carried out by liberation theologians, but by people with guns, who are not directly related to the liberation theologians. As a sympathizer with the Latin American church, I resist strongly the assertion that somehow Ernesto Cardenal, as Minister of Culture, is a great liberation theologian. I don’t see him in the context of liberation theology at all, nor Miguel d’Escoto as well. They’re part of the government. Liberation theology ought to be allowed to have some identity other than just whatever is revolutionary change. So, I don’t think that the killing that’s going on in each of those several countries of Latin America today has very much to do with liberation theology.

Do you think the Sandinistas are democrats, Marxists, or democratic socialists? A large number of them say they’re Marxists, so the question is, Do we take them at their word?

Sure, I would take them largely at their word. They also say they’re committed to a democratic polity. We may say, “You’re misusing the term,” or “The term is used equivocally.” Most socialist countries are called the “Democratic Republic.” I guess I want to take them at their word as much as I take the word of the leaders of most of the other countries of Latin America in the past who also claimed to be revolutionary when they weren’t, or democratic when they weren’t. Words are words. What in fact are they doing, what is their program? Are they Marxists? Certainly, there are significant Marxist-Leninists among the Sandinistas, and it is basically a Marxist rule, there’s no question about that.

They have said that they have no intention of relinquishing power through elections.

Individuals have said that; I don’t really want to argue that point. I don’t think that anybody in the power structure in the Sandinistas is going to willingly or happily give up power or share power or lessen their own power, but that’s essentially part of what we inherited from Adam.

We have seen important examples, Ferdinand Marcos being one, and you gave the Argentine ex-ample—of people succumbing to, in a sense, the democratic wave.

That’s called defeat. That wasn’t succumbing to the democratic wave. Ferdinand Marcos did not say, “I’ve really lost, so I think I’ll walk away.” It was hardly a choice in that instance. I think that the Sandinistas, or the people who run the government in Nicaragua, will have to accommodate themselves to the pressures that come from a variety of places, internally as well as externally. My guess is that they will be able to do so —not happily, not willingly —but they will be more persuaded to do so as their present program becomes unviable, as more people go into opposition. But the armed opposition of the contras, I think, will strengthen those who still control the levers of power to fight until the last opposition is gone.

The U.S. has been twisting the arms of so- called “right- wing dictators,” if you will, in the Philippines, in Chile, in Haiti, to have elections. The problem is that you don’t have any reciprocal arm- twisting going on on the other side, so the question becomes: from where comes the pressure on the Nicaraguans to have free elections? Maybe they’ll take a cue from Gorbachev now.

Exactly. The Poles are going to have elections, and there are other things happening in the East Bloc countries and, indeed, in China. In no case are any of the countries of the Americas in as favored a position as far as retaining their ties to the Soviet Union. The economic pressures, diplomatic pressures, political pressures are real, and they should not be scoffed at. To those who say we have nothing left except the threat of the use of arms, I remind them that, given the nature of the political organization of most of those countries, the threat of Northern American military presence, either directly or through surrogates, is the best red flag one can imagine to mess up any reform program.


  • Dinesh D'Souza

    Dinesh D'Souza is an American conservative political commentator, author, and former college president.

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