Option for the Poor: the Life and Witness of Bishop Juan Gerardi

The “Nunca Más” (Never Again) poster has always fascinated me. The images are from the covers of the four volumes of the REMHI report. A young man is shown covering his mouth, his eyes, his ears and then finally shouting. His image is shown superimposed over an unchanging image of a pelvic bone (but it looks like the wings of an angel).

Jim Hodgson

After being away for three years, I have returned to Guatemala to join a small Breaking the Silence team that will be looking into just one of a myriad of land conflicts that continue to afflict this country’s most impoverished people. I’ll write more about that in days and weeks ahead. 

For now, I want to share some thoughts about the life and witness of Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera(1922-1998), a man that I never met but whose friends have influenced me for decades.

From deep inside my venerable laptop, I found notes that I prepared on April 24, 2004, the sixth anniversary of his presentation of the report of the Catholic Church’s three-year Recuperation of the Historic Memory (REMHI) project entitled, Guatemala: Nunca Más (Guatemala: Never Again).

Gerardi was born in the Guatemalan capital in 1922. His biography says that at age 12, he “insisted firmly” that he wanted to enter seminary and to become a priest. His ordination came at age 24 in 1946. Over the next 20 years, he served as parish priest in several small communities and thus came to know the lives of Indigenous people and small farmers. 

In 1967, he was named bishop of La Verapaz, a diocese that lacked economic resources but was rich in human resources. He worked with the Indigenous communities and organized courses for catechists, Indigenous pastoral accompaniment, and the movement of Delegates of the Word of God. Together, they organized liturgies in the Kekchi language.

In 1974, he was named bishop of El Quiché, and that trajectory is better known. This was in the time that violence was increasing. In 1980, after the massacre of protesters in the Spanish embassy, military repression increased in all of Quiché. Violence against the priests and other pastoral agents of the diocese was so extreme that the decision was taken to close the work of the diocese. (See the image below of my 1985 article about the Guatemalan Church in Exile.)

Almost two decades later, he would present the REMHI report. After his own time in exile and return to Guatemala in 1982, he was named auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Guatemala in 1984, and that is where he worked to create the Office of Human Rights of the archdiocese (ODHAG), and where he began the work of REMHI.

Francisco Goldman’s excellent book (left) has been made into an equally-fine HBO documentary. On April 26, Cardinal Álvaro Ramazzini (white shirt, centre) led the march from the garage where Bishop Gerardi was murdered to the cathedral where he is buried. (Photo: La Hora).

Bishop Gerardi presented the report in the capital city’s Metropolitan Cathedral on April 24, 1998. This was 16 months after the peace accords had been signed, and in that context, the bishop said: 

“Within the pastoral work of the Catholic Church, the REMHI project is a legitimate and painful denunciation that we must listen to with profound respect and a spirit of solidarity. But it is also an announcement. It is an alternative aimed at finding new ways for human beings to live with one another. When we began this project, we were interested in discovering the truth in order to share it. We were interested in reconstructing the history of pain and death, seeing the reasons for it, understanding the why and how. We wanted to show the human drama and to share with others the sorrow and the anguish of the thousands of dead, disappeared and tortured. We wanted to look at the roots of injustice and the absence of values….

“Years of terror and death have displaced and reduced the majority of Guatemala to fear and silence. Truth is the primary word, the serious and mature action that makes it possible for us to break this cycle of death and violence and to open ourselves to a future of hope and light for all…. Peace is possible – a peace that is born from the truth that comes from each one of us and from all of us. It is a painful truth, full of memories of the deep and bloody wounds of this country. It is a liberating and humanizing truth that makes it possible for all men and women to come to terms with themselves and their life stories. It is a truth that challenges each one of us to recognize our individual and collective responsibility and commit ourselves to action so that those abominable acts never happen again.”

While the report does not claim to include all the violations committed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, it documents 55,000 violations of human rights. A little over 48 hours after the presentation, Bishop Gerardi was killed. Perhaps more than any other event, this assassination highlighted the fragile state of human rights and the peace process in Guatemala. 

One of those present in the Cathedral for the presentation was the Very Rev. Robert Smith, a former moderator of the United Church of Canada there on behalf of the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America. Bob wrote later about the great bells of the Metropolitan Cathedral ringing that day. He wrote that telling the truth about the genocide is essential to creating a new society: without this, “there can be no possibility of justice, healing or reconciliation.”

“Shockingly,” he added, “no more than five days later the great bells of the Metropolitan Cathedral were ringing again, this time as devastated Guatemalans followed the funeral casket…. Well, they can silence Bishop Juan Gerardi, beloved human rights defender and martyr. But they can’t un-ring the bells that barely a week ago celebrated the truth that some in the shadows of power do not want told. The sound of those bells – arrhythmic and at times discordant – is nonetheless the sound of un-utterable courage and unquenchable hope.”

In 1985, I wrote for Catholic New Times about the Iglesia Guatemalteca en Exilio — the Guatemalan Church in Exile — a group from Quiché that I met in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Repression in the department had become so fierce that the Catholic diocese of Santa Cruz del Quiché (led then by Bishop Gerardi) had closed its churches and withdrawn its personnel. You can find a beautiful profile of Fr. Luis Gurriarán (in the photo above) here (in Spanish).

Fanning the fires of hope in Chiapas, still

There was one time when I was glad to see the riot place arrive: Sunday afternoon, February 19, 1995 in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas. 

For more than a week, Maya Indigenous people of the Chiapas highlands had protected their cathedral, the seat of Bishop Samuel Ruiz. On that Sunday afternoon, the feared attack had become real as a larger group of about 400 “auténticos coletos” (denoting descendants of the European settlers in the city) hurled stones: the settlers saw the Indigenous people as interlopers, the ones who had no business in the heart of their city.

The defenders stood three deep in scraggly lines surrounding the cathedral. They held flowers. Men, women and children, old and young, Indigenous and Mestizo, Mexican and foreign, held marigolds, lilies and carnations and wore white ribbons across their chests as they faced the attack. They endured the attack, holding blankets over their heads and trying to duck the stones. The woman next to me whispered prayers and repeatedly blessed the rock-throwers: “God, forgive them.”

The mob tried for more than an hour to storm into the cathedral and the diocesan office next to it. Finally, the riot squad arrived and traced a line between the two groups. The people on the steps cheered; the mob dispersed. In the meantime, at least five people, including two reporters, had been injured. 

For 10 days, ever since Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo pledged to capture the leaders of the rebel Zapatista army (EZLN), the people of this diocese had maintained a vigil around the cathedral and diocesan office. That building also housed the National Mediation Commission (CONAI), chaired by Bishop Ruiz and in session at the time of the attack.

Left: a view of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Right: a “wanted” poster that describes Bishop Ruiz variously as a traitor, existentialist, liberation theologian and Marxist – typical of the charges laid against him by his opponents over many years.

For more than a year, Ruiz had been at the centre of ecclesial and political controversies over his decades-long advocacy for and with Indigenous and impoverished people in Chiapas and his role as a mediator between the government and the Zapatistas. The EZLN uprising had begun on January 1, 1994, the day that the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect.

Zedillo failed to capture Zapatista leaders, but instead arrested people who worked for community development organizations (notably Jorge Santiago of DESMI, Economic and Social Development of Mexican Indigenous Peoples). His army also achieved what it considered to be better strategic positions near the Zapatista communities. 

Over the subsequent year, CONAI’s mediation work continued and bore fruit: on February 16, 1996, the government and EZLN representatives signed an Agreement on Indigenous Culture and Rights in San Andrés Sakamch’en. It was not a comprehensive peace deal, but rather the first step in a planned process to address Indigenous rights in Chiapas and beyond. “It was the first time in Mexican history that the state had sat down with Indigenous people to hear their demands,” wrote La Jornada columnist Magdalena Gómez recently. Later that year, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) was created and continues its work today.

But from the government side, nothing happened! The first agreement has not been implemented; worse, the government negotiators essentially sabotaged a second round that was to address issues of democracy and justice, leading the EZLN to suspend the dialogue on September 4, 1996. It has not been renewed. The EZLN continues to press its cause in multiple public fora in Mexico and far beyond, and the communities persist in building a fairly successful example of Indigenous autonomy. 

Sadly, even the somewhat more progressive government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in power now for more than three years, has failed to move beyond what Gómez called “recycled, low-intensity, neo-Indigenous” policies of individual support and mega-projects without reference to the San Andrés Accords. 

A year ago, the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Centre in San Cristóbal said the San Andrés Accords persist as a framework and reference for the people of Chiapas. “The people who struggle will continue to fan the fire of hope, and history will give an account of this, because despite the war of extermination, the construction of autonomy gives light and fire to women and men throughout the world.”

Parts of this post are adapted from two of my articles published in Catholic New Times, March 5 and 19, 1995.

“I give you a flower,” says a t-shirt from Yajalón, Chiapas.

Salvadorans remember peace accords, celebrate martyrs, dream of a different possible world

by Jim Hodgson

This is a historic week in El Salvador. January 16 was the 30th anniversary of the Peace Accords that ended the country’s long civil war. And this weekend, four Christian martyrs will be beatified – a step toward sainthood – by the Roman Catholic Church.

The commemorations take place in a political and social context that is not what we hoped for when we watched news coverage showing the government and the rebels sign the accords at the Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City in 1992. The president today, Nayib Bukele, has dismissed the Accords as a “farce.” The country is on the edge of insolvency; Bukele flirts with cryptocurrencies that no-one understands; between 200,000 and 300,000 people leave the country each year.

Sometimes looking at the past can offer some signs for the future, and that’s why the celebration of the lives and witness of the martyrs this weekend matters.

Beatification of the Servants of God, Saturday, Jan. 22. Celebrant is Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez.

Best-know in the group is Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who was driving with 15-year-old Nelson Rutilio Lemus and 72-year-old Manuel Solórzano, to the small town of El Paisnal to join the town’s celebration of the feast of St. Joseph when they were gunned down on March 12, 1977, in Aguilares, 33 km north of San Salvador. 

The fourth man celebrated is Father Cosme Spessotto, an Italian missionary priest of a Franciscan order who had served in El Salvador since 1950, and was murdered on June 14, 1980, as he prepared to celebrate an evening Mass in his parish church in San Juan Nonualco, La Paz department. Like other church leaders, including Saint Oscar Romero (the archbishop of San Salvador, slain March 24, 1980), he had denounced the crimes of the military junta in the 1970s including the murder of Fr. Rutilio, thus drawing threats against his own life.

Fr. Rutilio’s death came as El Salvador’s civil war was beginning. Over the next dozen years, at least 75,000 people were killed; about 8,000 more were made to disappear; a million people fled. In 1993, the United Nations Truth Commission report attributed at least 85 per cent of the killings to government security forces and related paramilitary death squads. 

Salvadorans recognize many martyrs, among them the four U.S. church women who were killed near the San Salvador airport in December 1980, and the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter who were killed in November 1989 at their home in the University of Central America (remembered in the photo above). May they all be recognized soon too! As James T. Keane wrote in America magazine this week, “We need more dangerous saints.” Photo: Jim Hodgson (2019).

It’s important to remember what the martyrs represent: a persistent witness to life as experienced by people long oppressed, marginalized, landless, impoverished, unemployed, violated on a daily basis. Their sacrifice amplifies the cry of the poor, and I believe influenced the negotiations that produced the Peace Accords in 1992.

The Peace Accords brought about a new legal regime in El Salvador. One of the negotiators for the Farabundo Martí Liberation Movement (FMLN) at Chapultepec was Nidia Díaz, who spoke recently with Jacobin magazine:

“All those laws that oversee the new institutions that are the product of the peace accords were made in COPAZ, the National Peace Commission. They weren’t a whim. In COPAZ, you had the FMLN and the government as parties, and, as observers, the Catholic Church and the UN and the parties that were in the legislature at that moment. All the laws — the law for the National Civil Police, the army, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the Human Rights Ombudsman, etc. — were made in COPAZ and sent to Congress. There was a debate process. 

“Now Bukele comes along and says, ‘I don’t agree with these responsibilities and powers,’ and he tries to annul the laws and the constitution. He’s dismantling the democratic process that permitted his very election.”

Rev. Miguel Tomás Castro speaks at a Romero memorial event, March 24, 2009. Photo: Jim Hodgson

Another prominent defender of the peace accords is Rev. Miguel Tomás Castro of Emmanuel Baptist Church (known by its Spanish acronym, IBE). Speaking with the newspaper Diario Co Latino this week, he said:

“There is a lot of criticism of the Peace Accords and an attempt to diminish their value. I think we have to commemorate them, and why not celebrate that the Accords put an end to the armed confrontation? Of course there are various sectors, particularly in the city of San Salvador, and perhaps in other cities where people did not live the intensity of the war as it occurred in other parts of the country. We saw so many people suffer, our brothers and sisters in those communities, places where the war was very harsh and caused greater damage: those people celebrated the end of the war with much joy. And that cannot be hidden.

“And there’s more than one reason that it is important to commemorate and to give thanks to God for the end of the armed confrontations: it’s to say to our sons and daughters that we do not believe in hatred or in confrontation. The Peace Accords give a place for us to say to our younger generations that we want peace, a peace that reaches everyone and a peace that is the hand of justice.”

He was asked what his message would be on this 30th anniversary of the Accords:

“We say that there are two things that we have not been able to accomplish since the Peace Accords. As churches, really there are two themes: on truth, because we have not been able to close the chapter on the Accords without knowing the facts behind the conflict. That’s important; the United Nations recognized it. The second is reconciliation, because you can’t talk about Peace Accords without reconciliation. The church in that has a great responsibility, but it is also an ethical, more and spiritual debt with our people.

“Supposedly we were to go towards reconciliation, but there was an agenda of priorities and the theme of reconstruction was in first place, when reconciliation should have been the principal theme. Apart from whether we lived a conflict or no, the call of God is to see each other as sisters and brother, to build a spirit of family nation, where everyone of us makes an effort so that all of us have lives of dignity. It’s humiliating that every day people leave because there are no conditions here for that life. Something is going wrong.”

The model of reconstruction imposed after 1992 resulted in shopping malls and fast-food restaurants, not sustainable and participatory development or comprehensive land reform.

Even in the face of the current crises in Central America – violence, migration, the impacts of climate change – what gets proposed derives from tired models from the past. Social movements have a different vision.

In the United Church’s Mandate magazine (summer 2020), I reported on a conversation with Miguel Tomás and youth peace-makers in his church: