A Blood-Soaked Road: Human rights came slowly to Latin America.

When we think of human rights violations today, Latin America is not the first region of the world that comes to mind. We might think first of Burma and North Korea, Sudan, Congo and Zimbabwe, but not the countries to our south. In the first half of the 20th century, however, Latin America bristled with human rights abuses.

Long-lasting dictatorships had taken hold in several countries: the Somozas in Nicaragua, the Duvaliers in Haiti, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, Rojas Pinilla in Colombia, Batista in Cuba, Perón in Argentina, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and Pérez Jiménez in Venezuela. Democracy was still an alien concept in some of these countries, and dissidents were treated harshly. But these were not yet identified as “torture states,” and at that time the church did not routinely invoke the evolving tradition of human rights or the social encyclicals to protest the actions of the reigning caudillos. Several bishops, however, did issue harsh pastoral letters that hastened the downfall of Perón, Pérez Jiménez and Rojas Pinilla.


More recently, Latin dictatorships have taken the form of the “authoritarian” military regimes once favored by Jeane Kirkpatrick, as opposed to the “totalitarian” model. The authoritarian model began with the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, a left-leaning but democratically elected president overthrown by the combined forces of the United Fruit Company and the C.I.A. This ushered in a series of repressive regimes that culminated decades later in the genocidal rule of Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83). In 1954, however, the Guatemalan church was minimally engaged in the nation’s political struggle.

Three events were to change all that: the Cuban revolution (1959), the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the Medellín Conference of Latin American bishops (1968). Castro embodied the new challenge; Vatican II and Medellín called on the church to respond to that challenge by defending the dignity and rights of the human person.


The first South American dictatorship to gain popular notoriety was in Brazil in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It had become a classic “national security state,” in José Comblin’s phrase, a country prepared to use all means necessary to eliminate its perceived enemies, even when these were its own citizens. The enemy within was presumed to be tied to the enemy without: since January 1959, Communist Cuba and its Soviet puppeteer.

The contemporary human rights tradition can trace its origins to the violent overthrow of President Salvador Allende in Chile on Sept. 11, 1973, and the extraordinary response of the Chilean church to that crisis, but these events were presaged by the state’s indiscriminate violence and the church’s courageous response in neighboring Brazil. In 1973, before the Chile coup, bishops in at least three regions in Brazil issued powerful pastoral letters denouncing the oppression and torture that had become the norm in that country. The year 1973 was also the 25th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a date whose symbolism was not lost on leaders in the Latin American churches.

State censorship in Brazil at that time was as stringent as anywhere else in the hemisphere. Newspapers routinely appeared with huge sections of white space where offending articles had been excised. The Archbishop of Recife, Dom Hélder Câmara, was declared a non-person and could not be mentioned in the press. His pastoral letters could not be published and had to be passed about from hand to hand. The church then decided to observe the declaration’s anniversary by printing a broadsheet with the entire text. After each of the 30 articles in the declaration, the bishops added quotations from Scripture and citations of Catholic and Protestant statements. The text was then posted on church bulletin boards all over the country, a silent cry of protest against the world’s worst “torture state” and a clearly subversive act that the military censors found difficult to suppress.


After the 1973 coup in Chile, the churches there responded by forming an ecumenical Committee of Cooperation for Peace in Chile (Copachi). The committee, under the leadership of the Archbishop of Santiago, Raúl Silva Henríquez, S.D.B., and headed initially by Fernando Salas, S.J., devoted itself first to providing sanctuary for the hundreds of political dissidents who had fled their native Brazil, Uruguay or Argentina for the safety of Chile under Allende. The committee helped many to find asylum elsewhere. It set up “common pots,” neighborhood kitchens that offered food to the many families whose breadwinners had been summarily fired, imprisoned or “disappeared.” In the words of the Chilean Truth Commission’s Rettig Report of 1991, Copachi was “the only institution carrying out the important function of aiding the victims, with the risks and limitations deriving from the situation at that time.” The Rettig Report noted that from the beginning, “the only significant reaction to this pattern of human rights violations came from the churches, since they had the means and the willingness to act.”

By the end of 1975, however, Copachi had become too active for the government to ignore. Several highly respected Chilean Jesuits and Holy Cross fathers were arrested, some of whom were expelled; and Sheila Cassidy, M.D., was held incommunicado and brutally tortured, leading the British government to sever relations with Chile. This was too much for General Pinochet, who demanded that Cardinal Silva shut down this obstreperous church agency.


The Vicariate of Solidarity

But what Cardinal Silva did in response was more extraordinary than is commonly recognized. On Dec. 31, 1975, he dissolved the Peace Committee, and on Jan. 1, 1976, he created, not another human rights organization under the auspices of the archdiocese, but a church vicariate called Vicaría de la Solidaridad. It was a Roman Catholic vicariate headed by the Rev. Cristián Precht. While this might be seen as an attempt to give ecclesial standing and protection to a human rights agency in a traditionally Catholic country, the Vicariate of Solidarity will ever stand as a powerful witness to the defense of human rights as integral to the preaching of the Gospel. Defense of human rights, in other words, was recognized with the establishment of the vicariate as an essential dimension of the church’s mission in the world. Among the many publications it issued before it was converted in 1992 to the archdiocesan Pastoral Social, was the Spanish translation of the Brazilian 1973 broadsheet of the Universal Declaration, which found its way onto those parish bulletin boards throughout Brazil.

Along with the historic statement that defending human rights was an inherent dimension of the church’s mission, the vicariate’s most lasting contribution to the human rights movement worldwide was its systematic recording in great detail of all data dealing with arrests, killings and disappearances. Its bulging files contain sworn testimony of witnesses, photographs and other forensic information that provided the basis for reports later published by both the United Nations and the Organization of American States human rights commissions and the later Truth Commission. It was, someone said, the collective memory of the fragmented history of a nation.

The church in Brazil and even more in Chile provided the inspiration and template for the promotion of human rights elsewhere in the hemisphere. Diocesan vicariates of solidarity sprang up in Peru and Panama. Paraguay established a Committee for Emergency Aid, Bolivia a Permanent Assembly for Human Rights and Argentina an Ecumenical Committee for Human Rights. No fewer than five human rights groups with ties to dioceses or religious orders can still be found in Mexico.


El Salvador

After Brazil and Chile, the two most important and best-known church human rights agencies in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s were those in El Salvador and Guatemala. Each had distinctly unique origins. El Salvador’s Socorro Jurídico (Legal Aid) was initially begun by a group of lawyers under the auspices of the Jesuits in 1975. After Oscar Romero was installed as archbishop in 1977, he made the group an official archdiocesan entity, with the dynamic young lawyer Roberto Cuéllar as director.

After Archbishop Romero’s assassination in March 1980, the office came under increasing attack from the Salvadoran government and the U.S. State Department. Human rights lawyers insist that governments can commit human rights violations, as well as insurgents or guerrilla groups. Cuéllar maintained that Romero’s mandate for the group was to report on violations committed by government entities, and to be the voice of those who had no voice, the poor and persecuted peasants. It was not his function to record the killings attributed to the F.M.L.N. insurgency.

Not only was the Salvadoran government unhappy with Socorro; the State Department under President Reagan mounted attacks against it, accusing it of biased reporting. So in 1982, the acting archbishop, Arturo Rivera Damas, sensitive to his unique role in pressing for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, decided to reorganize the social ministries of the archdiocese, creating a new human rights office. Led by another close collaborator of Romero, María Julia Hernández, Tutela Legal was charged with reporting abuses on both sides. Hernández performed heroically in this role until her death in March 2007, despite continuing hostility from the U.S. State Department. Beto Cuéllar renamed the group he had headed for seven years as Socorro Jurídico Cristiano and affiliated it once more with the Jesuits.



Neighboring Guatemala suffered even more ruthless devastation than El Salvador. A series of military governments had fought what they perceived as the scourge of world Communism since the C.I.A.-led overthrow of President Arbenz in 1954, and they did so with a brutality unmatched elsewhere. There was civil war almost continuously from 1960 to 1996. Bishop Juan Gerardi of Santa Cruz del Quiché was forced to close down his diocese in 1980 after repeated attempts on his life and that of his clergy and religious. Thousands of Mayans were slaughtered during the rule of Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83), which earned the country its reputation as a genocidal state.

With the installation in 1983 of Próspero Penados del Barrio as archbishop of Guatemala, the church began to denounce the violence forcefully. The Guatemalan church had an undeserved reputation for being timid and conservative. The reality was quite different, as numerous strong pastoral letters from the country’s bishops, without the signature of the cardinal archbishop, testify. While there was no Romero, the hierarchy as a whole was far more progressive than the Salvadorans next door.

Archbishop Penados at least twice publicly announced plans to form a church human rights office, but its opening never took place. When asked why, he noted sadly that any persons he would name to the task would be in very grave personal danger, and he could not ask that of young lawyers with families. With the 1985 election of the Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo as the first civilian president since 1970, the situation seemed more favorable for the church to set up a human rights office. At the time, I asked Bishop Gerardi, who had finally been let back into the country and was now auxiliary to Archbishop Penados, if the time had come to establish such an office.

The problem, Gerardi replied, was that the new president estimated that his control over the government was very limited, not even 25 percent. Since a church human rights agency would chronicle the violations committed by the government, this could only further weaken President Cerezo’s tenuous hand. By 1991 Cerezo was able to hand off the presidency to another elected civilian, Jorge Serrano Elías, who was an evangelical Christian but not a fanatic, committed to the peace process. In 1993 he shut down Congress and the Supreme Court, and the resulting furor led him to flee the country. He was succeeded by civilian presidents.

The following year Bishop Gerardi and Ronalth Ochaeta co-founded the Archdiocesan Human Rights Office. They conceived of a project such as had never been attempted in any of the other countries experiencing years of brutal repression. They would compile a tally of as many of the specific crimes and violations of human rights as possible, drawn from the testimony of thousands of survivors and witnesses. The project, Recovery of Historical Memory, called Rehmi, began in 1995, and produced in 1998 a four-volume report, Nunca Mas, that provided information on some 50,000 Guatemalans killed outright and another 50,000 “disappeared,” with 93 percent of the cases attributed to government forces. Just days after he presented Nunca Mas on April 24, 1998, Bishop Gerardi was bludgeoned to death, the final martyr of Guatemala’s genocidal chapter.


The Declaration: A Final Word

As we observe the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, a word should be said about the contribution of Latin America to the declaration. At the 1945 signing of the U.N. Charter, some 20 Latin American countries were members of the United Nations. Their combined numbers made them the largest regional bloc, and the decisive influence exercised by the delegations of Chile, Cuba, Argentina and Panama made them the leaders in pressing for a human rights charter. But numbers aside, real power lay with the Big Three—the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. The United States was decidedly cool to the idea, and the Soviet Union opposed it.

After some 80 fruitless meetings of the Commission on Human Rights seeking consensus for a proposed “international bill of rights,” the Haitian rapporteur to the Commission proposed that the declaration recently adopted by a Latin American conference held in Bogotá be considered the basis for a U.N. statement. Finally this was accepted. Thus the American (meaning Latin American) Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man became the basis for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While Eleanor Roosevelt and René Cassin are often cited as the main architects, in fact, no one may have been more important than the Cuban Catholic Guy Pérez-Cisneros and his Latin American colleagues.


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Domingo Garcia
8 years 12 months ago

The bravery of Catholic clergy in many of these countries in the past three decades is probably the single strongest factor in bringing me back to my faith and inspiring me to a closer relationship with my church.  May God rest their souls....


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