Statement on Human Rights in Honduras, September 15, 1975
Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin
September 15, 1975
Few peoples have known as much unrelieved suffering over the past year as have the poor of Honduras. Barely a year ago the country was devastated by Hurricane Fifi. While the toll in death and destruction at that time was fearful, the full effects of the crop devastation are only now beginning to be felt. The hurricane was followed by drought, the two combining to wipe out much of the country's banana and corn crops, leaving the subsistence farmer, or campesino, utterly destitute. According to some reports as many as 700,000 people in this Virginia-size country of 2.5 million may face famine in the coming months. Many are hungry today.
The partial but essential remedy of reordering the system of land ownership had been proposed for years, and just as staunchly opposed by the powerful minorities who presently control much of the land and almost all of the food production destined for export. An agrarian reform law, finally enacted at the beginning of this year, has yet to be implemented, partly because of a change of government in April. This followed in the wake of revelations that one of the three multinational corporations with a virtual monopoly over the shipping, ripening and marketing of bananas had won special tax concessions from the Honduran government in exchange for bribes to high government officials.
Although the new government was pledged to continue the social reform programs, including implementation of the agrarian law, of the previous administration, no progress was visible. The campesinos, aware of their rights and dignity as children of God and citizens of the Republic, began to protest. As in the past, some of the protest took the form of land seizures and, also as before, the military intervened quickly and forcefully.
On June 25, after an early morning Mass at the Cathedral in Juticalpa, hundreds of campesinos began the march which was to link up with several thousand others from the same Department of Olancho, joining finally with campesinos from all over the country at the seat of government in Tegucigalpa. In a period of less than two days a series of tragic events occurred that directly affected the Church and worsened further the lot of the campesinos.
The marchers were stopped by the military, forcefully and at times brutally; virtually all of the priests, religious and seminarians in the area of Olancho were forcibly detained and brought to the capital; all were later released but forbidden to return to their people; some were expelled from the country; rectories, convents and social centers run by the Church were invaded and searched; and numerous people, including two missionary priests, were brutally murdered.
Who is responsible for the deaths of Colombian missionary Father Iván Betancourt, his future sister-in-law María Elena Bolívar, her friend Ruth Argentina García, our own fellow American, Father Casimir Cypher, O.F.M. Conv., and an as yet unknown number of poor, helpless campesinos? The Honduran government has conducted an investigation and charged a few individuals, both military and civilians connected with the landowners and ranchers association. But these few individuals are just agents and symptoms of a larger evil.
Honduras is a microcosm of the Third World. Like the other so-called underdeveloped countries, it is rich in people and land but the vast majority of its population is forced to live in a state of misery while a tiny minority, the national oligarchy, grows rich and the multinational corporations realize ever greater profits. Last year Honduras and other banana-producing countries sought to impose a tax amounting to 2 ½ cents on each pound of bananas exported from their countries. It would have resulted in a slight increase in cost to the consumer abroad but would have had a significantly beneficial impact on the economies of the producing countries. Pressure from the multinational corporations, however, in the form of production cutbacks and wage reductions, forced the governments to reduce the tax and thus eliminate the benefit that the worker might have received.
The Church in Honduras is itself a microcosm of the Church of the poor, committed to preaching the whole Gospel to the whole person, joined with the people in their "joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties" and, increasingly these days, slandered, attacked and persecuted.
We admire the courage and dedication of the bishops, priests, religious and laity of the Honduran Church. We are proud that many of them, including some who have been called upon to suffer most, are men and women from our own country. We pledge our continued support of their evangelical work in whatever ways may be feasible. If emergency food or financial assistance from either the private or public sector of our country is clearly indicated, we will make every effort to encourage such help. We will be sensitive to their comments regarding the role played by our government and by U.S. based transnational corporations in their country.
Finally, we join this expression of solidarity with a fervent plea to all our people in this country that they be mindful in their prayers and sacrifices of those in Honduras who suffer for the sake of justice. May the Spirit of the Lord be upon all who continue to build the kingdom of justice and peace.