Report on Delegation to Guatemala, September 4, 1991

Year Published
  • 2013
  • English
Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, Bishop James Griffin, Bishop Placido Rodriguez

September 4, 1991

At the invitation of the President of the Guatemalan Episcopal Conference, Bishop Rodolfo Quezada Torruno of Zacapa and Prelate of Esquipulas, we traveled to Guatemala in representation of our Conference on Sunday, August 25. The primary purpose of the visit was to express our support and our solidarity with the Church in Guatemala, particularly in its role of fostering the recently begin dialogue for peace in that country. 

We were accompanied on the trip by USCC staff members Father Drew Christiansen, S.J., and Mr. Thomas Quigley, both of the Office of International Justice and Peace. 

This report consists of three parts: a) a listing of meetings and persons met with; b) summary observations on certain issues; and c) areas for possible follow-up.

A. Meetings and Persons Met With

  1. Episcopal Conference of Guatemala: We met for a full morning at the headquarters of the Conference with Bishops Julio Betancourt (Huehuetenango), Julio Cabrera (Santa Cruz del Quiche), Gerardo Flores Reyes (Vera Paz), Fernando Gamalero (Escuintla), Victor Hugo Martinez (Quezaltenango), Rodolfo Quezada (Zacapa and Esquipulas), Alvaro Ramazzini (San Marcos), and Mario Rios Montt (aux. of Guatemala).

  2. Apostolic Nunciature: In addition to meeting us at the airport (together with Bishop Quezada and CEG Secretary Fr. Antonio Bernasconi), Archbishop Giovanni Battista Morandini invited us to lunch at the Nunciature, where we also met with Msgr. Leon Kalenga, Secretary.

  3. Presidential Residence: We had a long private lunch with the President, Jorge Serrano Elias.

  4. U.S. Embassy: In the absence from the country of Ambassador Stroock, we were received by Political Officer Philip B. Taylor, charge d'affaires, and Third Secretary Arnold Sierra.

  5. Commission for National Reconciliation: Besides Bishop Quezada, CNR president (called Conciliador), we met with Julio Mendizabal, the executive secretary, and with Teresa Bolanos and Mario Permuth, the two "notables" on the eight-person commission. (The other six consist of two each representing the government, the political opposition, and the Catholic Church.)

  6. Procurator for Human Rights: We met with Licenciada Maria Eugenia Morales de Sierra, one of the two Associate Procurators of this important national human rights monitoring office created by the National Assembly.

  7. Archdiocesan Human Rights Office: We visited the historic cathedral and chancery of the Guatemala City archdiocese and met with Ronalth Ochaeta and Daniel Saxon, legal staff of the human rights office.

  8. Maryknoll Regional Center: We celebrated Mass and had dinner at the Maryknoll center house, followed by an informal discussion with some 25 U.S. religious and lay missioners.

  9. Interdiocesan Seminary: We also celebrated Mass with some of the bishops, plus the faculty and student body of the country's principal seminary. Special remembrance was made of Bishop Richard Ham, M.M., who was instrumental in building the seminary.

  10. Diocese of Solola: For the opportunity of visiting a rural and indigenous diocese, part of the delegation spent a day in Panjachel of the Solola diocese with Bishop Eduardo Fuentes and Fr. John Vesey of Brooklyn, and visited the neighboring parish of Santiago Atitlan, staffed by the Oklahoma dioceses.

  11. Press Conference: Finally, we had what our hosts considered a very successful press conference, resulting in extensive TV coverage and front-page stories in the main dailies. Our press statement is attached to this report.

B. Key Issues

  1. Issues of U.S. Policy:

    a. Military Aid: There was universal agreement, even at the U.S. Embassy, that U.S. assistance to the Guatemalan military was inappropriate. Some of the bishops seem to believe that U.S. advisors are presently accompanying Guatemalan troops in combat, a recurring allegation in Central America, but they also accept the possibility that these non-Guatemalans may simply be mercenaries from other countries.

    b. U.S. Influence on Guatemalan Military: The bishops seem agreed that the U.S. cannot have any positive impact on a military they describe as irreformable; some tend to believe that previous U.S. training is partly responsible for the army's brutal tactics. The acting ambassador also agrees that the U.S. has "zero influence" on the military; U.S. pressure on human rights, culminating in the case of U.S. citizen Michael Devine who was killed by Guatemalan soldiers, has served to close off all communication. According to the Embassy, the military believe U.S. policy seeks a de-militarized Central America, citing tendencies in Panama and Nicaragua, which they strongly reject.

    c. Family Planning: The bishops are concerned with the anti-natalist emphasis of U.S. policy. It is said that IPPF has a $5 million annual budget solely for propaganda to try to change popular attitudes toward birth control. They cited the Inter-American Development Bank's debt reduction program which calls for population control. Various rural centers of APROFAM have sought to hire catechists, at good salaries, because of the confidence people have in them.

    d. Undocumented Migrants in the U.S.: This was the first issue brought up by the bishops and is a matter of great concern. They would like us to do whatever we can to prevent forcible repatriation, to offer pastoral care, and to enable the Guatemalan church to find ways of being in contact with the refugees. The harsh treatment given by Mexican authorities to those passing through to the US was noted. In addition to the basic right of people to seek refuge from violence, the bishops cited the high degree to which the Guatemalan economy is dependent on the remittances (said to be $1.5 million a day) sent back by Guatemalans abroad. We spoke of our efforts to have Guatemalans included under Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

  2. The Peace Process: With the signing of the Central American Peace Process, "Esquipulas II", on August 7, 1987, each of the countries with internal conflicts established a Commission on National Reconciliation. The Guatemalan CNR, headed by Bishop Quezada, undertook a series of meetings with representatives of the political, social, and economic sectors of the country, laying a basis for eventual dialogue between the armed opposition, the URNG, and the government. On March 30, 1990, the URNG signed the Basic Agreement on the Quest for Peace Through Political Means, the Oslo Agreement, setting in motion the present series of negotiations with the government.

    The bishops, the Nuncio and the President all stressed the historic importance of these initiatives, the first realistic prospect of ending thirty years of war, repression and insurgency, in which over 150,000 have been killed, 200,000 children orphaned, a million persons displaced, a war to which 90 percent of all the violence in the country can be attributed.

    The role of the US church in getting more attention to what is happening in Guatemala, in denouncing human rights violations, the war itself, and the desperate condition of the poor and the displaced, was strongly emphasized by the bishops.

  3. The Guerrillas: The view of the bishops regarding the guerrillas, the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), is that they are a mixture of communists, socialists, Christians, and others. Several of the bishops have direct personal experience of them; while it's impossible to know how much support of the people the URNG has, it is considerable, and the church has no choice but to be present in the midst of these conflictive situations, to be with the people.

  4. Human Rights Advocacy: As in other countries of Latin America, the Guatemalan church has taken a clear stance of denouncing human rights violations, the vast majority of which are attributed to the military and to military-related death squads, but has had to do so with the greatest caution. The human rights office of the Archdiocese had a history of false starts, due to the extreme danger to anyone associated with it; it is now functioning well and there are now two other diocesan offices, with one or two more in formation.

  5. Drugs: The drug problem was noted as very serious and growing. Guatemala has become a major trans-shipment point for the South American drug traffic. Domestic production of the poppy has increased lately.

  6. Sects: Guatemala is perhaps the Latin American country where the phenomenal growth of fundamentalist groups, and the sectarian conflict that sometimes accompanies it, are best known. The bishops estimate that the population is now perhaps 20-25 percent evangelical; other sources say 33-40 percent. Part of the reason, the bishops stressed at the beginning, is our own shortcomings--massification of parish life, inadequate catechesis, failure to realize the importance of the electronic media, and the long and specialized training required of our clergy.

    These shortcomings have been accentuated by the sects, some of which are closely allied with the military in certain areas, so much so that three successive Ministers of Defense have said they have had no problems with the evangelical groups, but they have had problems with the Catholics.

    One of the needs cited by the bishops is that of making annotated and inexpensive versions of the Scriptures available to those able to read.

    With the Protestant participation in the peace process, a better relationship is emerging at least with the historic churches, although for some of the bishops, this is also reason for wanting clear support for the process from Catholics abroad. Because international ecumenical groups (the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches) have provided financial help for the process, some have evidently wondered aloud if the Catholic church also supports it.

    Some bishops cited World Vision negatively as a group engaging in aggressive proselytizing, denounced as insidious the California-based church growth movement known as DAWN--Discipling a Whole Nation--which is seen as having targeted Guatemala as the pilot case for the rest of the world, and referred to an alleged NCC meeting in Hawaii in August 1954 that supposedly laid plans for the Protestant conquest of Latin America through the sects.

  7. V Centenary: The Guatemalan conference plans to observe by issuing a letter on indigenous pastoral work.

  8. CELAM IV: Preparations for the Fourth General Conference of Latin American Episcopates to be held next year in Santo Domingo are said to be moving forward well. Every diocese is carrying out reflections on the CELAM preparatory document and forwarding their results to the Conference which will in turn send them to CELAM by mid-November.

C. Areas for Possible Follow-up:

  1. Undocumented Guatemalans in the U.S.

    a.The Conference should seek ways of pressing more strenuously for granting TPS to Guatemalans.

    b.We should explore feasibility of joint action by U.S., Guatemalan, and Mexican bishops in urging more humane treatment of migrants, especially by border police and migration agencies of both Mexico and U.S.

    c.How can we facilitate Guatemalan bishops' contact with and assistance to Guatemalans in our midst?

  2. The Peace Process

    a.The bishops stressed the importance of U.S. public opinion to the success of the peace process. How can greater media attention in this country be given to the importance of the peace process and the church's role therein?

    b.They also stressed the help the U.S. church could provide because of its ability to communicate with people able to affect policy. How can we best address these concerns before the Administration and the Congress?

  3. Human Rights

    a.While acknowledging that every human life is equally sacred, certain cases arise that call for particular attention from the church, including those directly involving church workers. How can we follow up on the cases of Ursuline Sister Dianna Ortiz, Marist Brother Moises Cisneros, Georgetown-affiliated anthropologist Myrna Mack, etc.?

    b.As requests for funding for human rights work arise, can the Secretariat for Latin America be encouraged to consider them favorably?

  4. Sects

    The question was also raised about possible funding for providing inexpensive editions of annotated books of the Bible.

Concluding Remarks

We come away from this visit deeply impressed with the dynamism, commitment and unity of the church's leadership in Guatemala, and we return with the conviction that the people of Guatemala, who have suffered long years of poverty, war and oppression, are truly blessed in their pastors. 

One of the bishops described their joint Central American bishops grouping, SEDAC, as "el mas alegre, pobre, diligente"--the most joyful, poorest, hardest-working of all. The Guatemalan church, like that of El Salvador, is outstandingly a church of martyrs, with some thirteen murdered priests and countless catechists and lay leaders. It is a church that sees itself having a clear role in defending human rights and in promoting the process for peace. In a country described as beset by crushing poverty, an enormous debt, an intransigent military and an unresponsive oligarchy, there is "una iglesia viva", a church alive. 

The bishops and others were truly grateful for our visit. They asked for continued and increased communication between our two conferences. Moral support, one of the bishops said, is more important to us than financial aid. This was reinforced by another who said the church needs more fundamental help than that of financial aid--injustice, poverty have to be confronted. They told us that we can help greatly by increasing public awareness of the Guatemalan situation, and by trying to influence the policy makers. As an example of this kind of aid, they cited the Administrative Board's statement on relieving third world debt. 

We pledge to do what we can to keep their concerns before us and our people, as we will continue to keep in our prayers the needs of the church and people of Guatemala.