Testimony on U.S.-Central American Relations, October 21, 1983

Year Published
  • 2011
  • English
Archbishop James E. Hickey
October 21, 1983

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Commission:

On behalf of the Catholic bishops of the United States and our president, Archbishop John R. Roach, I thank you for the opportunity to appear before this National Commission on U.S. Policy in Central America.

I. Our Perspective

As you know, the American Catholic bishops are not new to this discussion. For more than four years the bishops’ conference has been consistently raising questions about U.S. policy in Central America. I include for the record the statement on Central America overwhelmingly adopted by the U.S. bishops in November of 1981, which is the foundation of our frequent testimony. Speaking personally, I have been visiting and observing Central America for more than eight years as I sought to support our missionary efforts there and understand the forces at work in the region.

The American Catholic bishops come to this discussion with several perspectives. As Americans, we want to see our vital national interests protected and our government’s policies reflect our national values and ideals.

As citizens we want U.S. policies to help bring about greater justice, democracy and stability in this hemisphere and to limit communist influence in the region.

As Catholics we start with the social teaching of our church which calls us to defend human dignity and human rights and to work for social justice and peace as an integral part of our faith. Our views have been shaped and our hearts moved by the inspiring witness of the church in Central America as it seeks to defend the poor, work for justice and search for peace and reconciliation in the face of brutal violence, continuing conflict and frequent repression from regimes of both right and left. As Catholics we are not naïve about Marxist influence or activity. We emphatically reject any innuendo that the church’s defense of the poor and advocacy of social justice serves Marxist interests. The church’s mission requires it to defend human rights whenever they are threatened whether by dehumanizing ideologies or economic exploitation. Let me cite the activities of the church in both El Salvador and Nicaragua, in both Poland and the Philippines, as examples of this consistency.

As bishops in the United States we are not experts or specialists, but as pastors and religious leaders we have the right and responsibility to judge policies of our government by the values articulated in our teaching. We have developed our position in dialogue with our brother bishops in Central America, but we speak as U.S pastors to the U.S. government about U.S. policies in the region.

II. Our Concerns

For that reason and on that basis, we welcome this opportunity to share our deep concerns about the future course of U.S. policy and activity. We fear that future U.S. policy may be based on a number of misconceptions regarding the basic issues and choices in Central America.

Roots of the Conflict
One concern is that the conflict in Central America is too often seen as primarily a geopolitical battle—a struggle between East and West, between the United States and the Soviet Union. We have repeatedly pointed out that long before there was outside intervention there was a legitimate struggle in El Salvador and other parts of the region for social, political and economic justice. The conflict has been over land, wages, the right to organize, and the issue of political participation. To ignore this long struggle of people for justice, dignity and freedom is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of the conflict today in Central America.

Because the conflicts in Central America are fundamentally rooted in questions of social injustice and the persistent denial of basic human rights for large sectors of the population, the USCC has always opposed interpretations of the Salvadoran and Central American conflict which place primary emphasis on the superpower or East-West rivalry. This is not to ignore the international implications and dimensions of the conflict. Nor to deny the willingness of outside actors such as the Soviet Union to take full advantage of the crisis. But we urge the commission to reject the notion that the geopolitical struggle is at the core of the problem in Central America.

The Search for a Military Solution
A second concern is the continuing pursuit of a military solution for Central America. U.S. statements move back and forth on this question, but our actions speak more clearly—U.S. policy still has hopes that military force can solve the problems.

In El Salvador victory by either side, which could only mean abject surrender and bitter defeat for a large number of Salvadorans on one side or the other, would not serve the interest of either El Salvador or the United States. A society divided into victors and vanquished is unlikely to result in either stable peace or justice. Likewise, if the U.S.-backed “contras” were to somehow topple the government of the Sandinistas, do U.S. policymakers really believe that would bring peace and stability to Nicaragua or the region? We hope the commission will make clear that a continuing military struggle in an already devastated region is not in our interests or Central America’s.

A Wider War
A major concern of ours and of the bishops of Latin America is the imminent possibility of a wider war which will plunge the entire region into armed conflict. The heightened tensions, strident language and increased military activity make this threat a real danger. Last August the bishops of Latin America spoke of:

“The possibility of unleashing an open war covering the whole subregion with sorrow and destruction. Militarization is increasing; nations are feverishly readying for war, leading to serious deterioration of productive activities; tensions grow, accusations are hurled back and forth, border incidents multiply while, as a result, misery grows and with it the risk of outside interventions.” (CELAM, August 1983)

We hope the commission will seek a way to help Central America step back from the brink of regional war. We need to find ways to reduce the tensions in the region which are turning nations into armed camps with unfortunate consequences for the domestic life as well as the region.

When U.S. policymakers talk about the dangers of outside interference in Central America, they refer to the Soviet Union and its proxies. When Central Americans talk about outside interference they are talking about the Soviets to be sure, but they are also talking about the United States. There is no need to recite the sad history of U.S. intervention in the region, a living memory for the people and leaders of Central America. The present and past experience of intervention has led to the unified opposition by the Latin American hierarchies to all outside intervention without exception. By outside intervention they do not refer to the efforts of other Latin American states to facilitate political dialogue; such efforts the bishops specifically endorse.

Rather, the unacceptable interference is that of the “foreign powers,” essentially the Soviet Union and the United States. Latin America does not expect, nor desire, the United States simply to forfeit any active role in the Latin American quest for peace and development. Still less do they welcome expanded Soviet influence in any area of the hemisphere. What they oppose now more strongly than ever in the past, is in the words of the Central American bishops, “the meddling of foreign powers who come to support those in the countries who fit their own interests which are generally far from, even opposed to, those of the great majority.”

To give a clearer sense of this nearly universal Latin American episcopal concern, let me cite the relevant paragraphs from the recent statements of the bishops of Central and Latin America.

The bishops of Latin America stated in July:

“We desire that neither the governments nor opposition groups invite foreign powers to intervene in this conflict, and that those foreign powers, if already present, leave; and if not present refrain from planning to do so. In this way both will avoid the repeated calamity of other historical experiences that have demonstrated the futility of such interventions.” (CELAM, July 1983)

Even more strongly the Central American bishops wrote in August:

“To the outside powers and ideological forces that are interfering politically and militarily in Central America contrary to our cultural values, we demand that they do not do so, so that our people and only they can end their conflicts, overcome their differences and plot their course toward the longed-for goal of peace.

“There must be absolute guarantees now and for the future that all of them leave. If not, the intervention of one will automatically guarantee the intervention of the other and thus the establishment of peace will become progressively more difficult.” (SEDAC, August 1983)

The commission must take into account the long history of outside interference in Central America and our role in it.

Human Rights
On inconsistent aspect of the debate over Central America is the use of human rights criteria for tactical advantage or propaganda points rather than as a steady and consistent benchmark for governments in the region and our relationships with them. Selective application of human rights standards depending on our ideological preferences erodes our credibility both at home and abroad. Human rights are being violated throughout the region.

The people of Central America are assaulted by death squads, arbitrary imprisonment, uninvestigated murders, harassment of land reform efforts, restrictions on free union activity, interference in education and journalism, and other threats to life and freedom. While life itself is threatened in some parts of the region, human freedom and social justice are too often violated by powerful interests and governments across Central America. We need a consistent policy which sees human rights as a principal focus of U.S. concern, not as debater’s points in our policy discussions. We hope this commission will make respect for human rights a fundamental criterion for U.S. policy for all nations in the region.

III. Criteria

In dealing with these concerns, we need a clear vision of our goals and a way to judge which policies hold the best chance of achieving them. Permit me to suggest some basic criteria for evaluating both present and future policies:

  • Do they move the parties toward diplomatic rather than military options, toward ceasefire, dialogue and negotiations? Toward free and open elections where all can participate without the threat of violence or coercion?

  • Do they increase respect for human rights and basic freedoms? Do they make respect for human rights a consistent standard for governments in the region?

  • Do they address basic issues of social justice, genuine land reform, broad participation in development and economic justice? Do they in fact offer hope of a better life for the poor and dispossessed in the region?

  • Do they build the capacity or people and their governments in the region to deal with their own problems? Do they promote self-determination and self-sufficiency?

  • Do they respect and respond to the cultural, ethical and religious values of the people of Central America or impose answers from a distance?

  • Do they respect and support the positive role of non-governmental and local institutions (churches, small business, trade unions, cooperatives, etc.)?

  • Do they strengthen the hand of moderate and democratic forces or, by further polarization, help the extremes of both right and left? Do they combat communism by offering alternatives to Marxism as vehicles for needed reform?

  • Do they support effective civilian control of the military, the rule of law and an effective criminal justice system?

IV. Critique of Current Policy

In applying these criteria, we remain deeply disturbed by the direction of current U.S. policy in Central America. Let me cite policy toward El Salvador and Nicaragua as the two examples I am most familiar with. This is not to minimize the serious problems in Guatemala and Honduras.

El Salvador
The United States should use its influence to help bring about a ceasefire and dialogue among the relevant parties leading to serious negotiations aimed at elections and a stable government in El Salvador, as well as to begin the political, social and economic reconstruction of the country. These three elements have been stressed by the Salvadoran bishops and by John Paul II in his visit to El Salvador.

These steps are, if anything, more necessary today than ever before. The violence has already taken the lives of 30,000-40,000 civilians, the majority killed by death squads or the security forces. Thousands of Salvadorans have been driven into exile. The tactics of the leftist opposition become more and more destructive as the war drags on. The U.S. role in El Salvador continues primarily in a military direction. A continuation of the present course is exceedingly dangerous for both the United States and for El Salvador. Archbishop Rivera Damas has described the conflict as a war which cannot and should not be won. The political option, a negotiated settlement, is the humane and wise way to end this brutal conflict.

It is not clear to me, however, either from the content of U.S. policy or from recent statements explaining it, that there is a real determination in the U.S. policy process to pursue the road of military force with a diplomatic façade, rather than a political policy with a military component.

U.S. policy gives the appearance of encouraging war in Nicaragua. It seems clear that intensified military pressure, through both overt measures and covert support of the “contras,” is the principal element of U.S. policy.

Let me make clear that I am deeply disturbed by the trends inside Nicaragua. During my Nicaraguan visit last February, much in the direction of the country disturbed me and the two other archbishops accompanying me. I have shared my concerns before the Congress: the expanding control of key sectors of social life by the Nicaraguan government; the visits we had with journalists, labor leaders and businessmen who described restrictions on their activities and the imprisonment of some colleagues; and the harassment of church leaders, including even the Holy Father during his visit there.

My concerns also include the lack of positive commitment on the part of the Nicaraguan government to the promises for early and free elections together with genuine political and economic pluralism. I still have these same concerns; nothing in the intervening months has alleviated them. Violations of human rights must be brought to light and opposed. We have and are doing that.

I fear U.S. policy is contributing to the deteriorating internal situation in Nicaragua. It provides precisely the pretext for increased government control and surveillance. The public rhetoric of our government toward Nicaragua, the cutoff of bilateral economic aid, U.S. support for a military buildup on the Honduran border and covert efforts to destabilize the government employing even members of discredited Somosista elements, all contribute to a state-of-siege mentality which reinforces misguided policies. U.S. actions do not determine internal Nicaraguan policy, but they exaggerate some of its most troubling aspects. The forces of political moderation in Nicaragua are being diminished by counterproductive U.S. policy.

Instead of a policy which isolates and provides an excuse for the Sandinistas to consolidate their power, the USCC has advocated that U.S. policy engage Nicaragua diplomatically. Our policy should include the provision of economic assistance under the same conditions we give aid to other countries. I refer especially to their human-rights performance. We see no reason to change this advice nor do we see reason to change our opposition to further funding of covert activity against Nicaragua. Let me state personally that as an American citizen and as a Catholic bishop, I find use of U.S. tax dollars for the purpose of covert destabilization of a recognized government to be unwise, unjustified and destructive of the very values that a democratic nation should support in the world. Such actions seem to be in violation of our treaty pledges and our commitments under the U.N. Charter.

In these two cases and other parts of the region, U.S. policy fails to respond to the criteria which we have laid out. It neglects the root causes of the problems, strengthens the extremists of both right and left, relies on military force rather than diplomatic creativity and applies human-rights standards only selectively. In ignoring these criteria, I fear our policies isolate us from our allies in the region and around the world, erode our credibility at home and undermine our future role and influence in the region.

V. Choices for the Future

Peace: The Primary Goal
The first requirement for future U.S. Policy in Central America is to change the basic thrust of present policy and stop the drift toward a regional war in Central America. Among our goals in Central America should be a group of states developing and maturing under viable political systems, enjoying good relations with one another and with us. Therefore, our policy should foster regional stability through efforts which encourage the individual efforts which encourage the individual nations to reach an accommodation with one another and settle their differences without outside intervention or arms.

In Central America there are some tasks the United States is well-suited to fulfill and other tasks which we should leave to other actors. I believe the United States can set a tone and an atmosphere in Central America which is conductive to diminishing the military elements of the struggle and encouraging the opportunity for diplomatic dialogue. There are three dimensions to this role for U.S. policy.

First, there is a superpower or geopolitical dimension. I have argued throughout this testimony that this is not the way the problem in Central America should be defined, nor is it the principal aspect of the diplomatic agenda. But there is need for a direct approach by the United States to the Soviet Union to address Soviet intervention directly or by proxy in the Central American region. This aspect of U.S. policy has its greatest relevance in terms of Nicaragua, but it is a mistake to focus U.S. pressure only on Nicaragua. This puts us in the position of a superpower squaring off against a small state; it raises all the old memories of U.S. intervention and it fails to address the key issue: the Soviet Union’s conception of where its primary interests are in its relationship with the United States.

The overall state of U.S.-Soviet relations has deteriorated in recent months, but it is still possible to recognize different levels of the relationship. Direct Soviet intervention in Central America is no more welcome, legitimate or tolerable than direct U.S. intervention in Eastern Europe. The point should be made clearly to the Soviets. Save for this direct approach on a superpower basis to the Soviets, the geopolitical dimension of the problem should not be given a more expansive role in our policy.

Second, the principal focus of U.S. efforts to achieve peace in the region should be a regional approach. U.S. efforts should be primarily aimed at supporting the activity of the Contadora Group or a similar regional effort. The United States is not in a position to play a mediator’s role in Central America. We are looked upon as partisans. The Contadora Group is a Latin American initiative aimed at solving the Central American crisis precisely because it has grave consequences for all of Latin America. The Contadora formula is aimed at disengaging the superpowers from the conflict, withdrawing all foreign military forces and assistance and then proceeding to a multidimensional diplomatic dialogue.

Contadora nations can say and do things that the United States would be either unable or unwilling to say or do. But the Contadora initiative cannot succeed without strong, explicit, consistent U.S. support. I realize that the U.S. government has often said that it supports the Contadora activity, but U.S. warships in Central America and support for the “contras” do not provide a convincing picture of support to anyone.

Present U.S. policy follows an independent course in El Salvador, toward Nicaragua and in the region as a whole, while still giving verbal support to Contadora. The recommendation of this testimony is that the United States endorses the Contadora effort, subscribe to its component elements and then shape U.S. policy so that it supports at each stage the Contadora effort. Real progress requires a belief in Central America that the United States is truly supporting Contadora, not just tolerating it.

Third, if the United States did move fully in support of the Contadora process our policy toward individual countries in the region would have to shift. As I have argued above, we should seek genuine dialogue, ceasefire and negotiations in El Salvador as part of our support for Contadora. Such an approach would require pressure by the United States on the Salvadoran military and pressure by the Contadora countries on the FDR-FMLN. In relation to Nicaragua, genuine U.S. support for Contadora would mean first the stopping of covert support for the “contras” and, second, the willingness to open serious high-level diplomatic dialogue designed to recast the U.S.-Nicaragua relationship. Such a reorientation would not signify U.S. support for Nicaraguan policy, but it would be aimed at conducting diplomatic relations based on the recognition of the right of self-determination and respect for the principle of non-intervention by the Nicaraguans toward their neighbors, and by us toward the Nicaraguans.

A halt in the drift toward a regional war should be the first priority for U.S. policy. It must be clearly understood that no significant economic program for the region can be implemented when war rages in some countries and threatens others. A political solution must precede large-scale and lasting economic programs. Likewise, a proposed economic effort should not be used to justify more military aid for the region. The need is not for a military policy to protect economic development, but for a comprehensive policy which brings peace to Central America and with it a real chance for economic reconstruction and development.

Social Justice and Democracy
A second essential choice for the future is the acceptance, and more than that, the welcoming of dramatic social change to achieve social justice and human rights in the region. We need to define U.S. interest in a way which recognizes and supports substantial political and economic change in countries needing both. If we fail to define our interests to accommodate change, we are fated to oppose it. This will place the United States in opposition to the majority of the people in a region which cries out for change, and in opposition to the Catholic Church there which supports change. We must support genuine land reform and other efforts to eliminate the enormous inequities in the region.

In addition, our long-term choices should reflect the best of our own political tradition. Not that we seek to impose it on others but that we are committed to abide by our deepest values in our policy toward others. We should strive to be seen as a mature, democratic, stabilizing force in the region, not a destabilizing bully. We should be confident enough of democratic values and virtues that we support moderate democratic regimes and that we use only democratic means in our support. Let us be known in Central America by the finest line of our heritage: liberty and justice for all.

Fund for Central American Development: A Long-Term Policy
I realize the bipartisan commission is examining ideas for a long-term approach to economic development in the Central American region. I am convinced that such an approach is absolutely necessary, and I am equally convinced that it cannon succeed unless it is linked to peace in the region. The United States should not repeat the mistake of the Mekong Delta proposal during the Vietnam era; it is not possible to carry out a large-scale, well-planned development effort while a war is going on.

I am sure that a serious long-term development effort on the part of the United States would receive the support of the church in our country, if it were shaped in accord with some key principles. My concern here is not to design a development program but to specify the importance of these principles.

The first principle is that the short-range objective of such economic assistance should be targeted to meet basic human needs. Existing U.S. law as well as the approach of multilateral agencies are presently geared toward a basic human needs approach. The people throughout Central America are in dire need of help in areas such as food, nutrition, health and housing.

Given the historic problem of institutionalized structures of inequity in many countries of the region, a second principle for a development effort should be a system of monitoring how both short-term and long-term economic assistance are being used. Such a system of monitoring would have to be carefully and cooperatively designed with each country to protect both cultural autonomy and political self-determination, but some oversight is needed to assure that funds go to those most in need.

Third, a long-term effort should seek to build and preserve the human capital of the region through support for education, training, cultural development as well as much needed assistance for the reform of legal and justice systems. These efforts should make extensive use of multilateral agencies like the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank or other regional efforts. No one expects an enlargement of the activities of these institutions without significant new U.S. support, but they can act as mediating institutions which do not carry all the historic baggage the United States brings to any Central American policy.

Fourth, a long-term economic strategy should be aimed at complementing our support for political self-determination with effective action to enhance economic self-determination for the countries of Central America. In an interdependent world, nations do not achieve total independence, but they should not be forced to face a permanent state of dependence, a condition which epitomizes exploitation for Latin Americans. It is crucial that the economic reconstruction and development of the region be controlled by the Central Americans themselves, not by powerful outside interests or by the remnants of an oligarchy.

Fifth, long-term economic planning should be respectful and supportive of local institutions in Central America. These institutions which are social, educational, economic and religious often embody key cultural and ethical values which must be preserved. I know from my contact with El Salvador that key institutions of higher education, for example, are already in place and should be supported and not displaced. These efforts should involve and build upon the strengths of local institutions, cooperatives, trade unions, churches and non-governmental organizations. North American models and structures cannot substitut4e for the development of local efforts respectful of the values and beliefs of the people of the region.

“Direct Soviet intervention in Central America is no more welcome, legitimate or tolerable than direct U.S. intervention in eastern Europe. The point should be made clearly to the Soviets. Save for this direct approach on a superpower basis to the Soviets, the geopolitical dimension of the problem should not be given a more expansive role in our policy.” Refugees and Displaced Persons: A Special Crisis
An urgent Concern for both the church in Central America and the church in the United States is the question of refugees and displaced persons.

A first recommendation applies to the United States. The USCC has long advocated a policy of Extended Voluntary Departure for Salvadoran refugees in the United States. We find no good reason why this status is applied to other groups in similar situations and denied to Salvadorans. We hope the commission will add its weight to this just and humane proposal in your final report.

A second tremendous tragedy and need is the situation of the more than 1 million displaced persons and refugees. These victims of the Central American crisis are throughout the region, but concentrated in Southern Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras. A major commitment is needed to meet the immediate human needs of these people and offer training and relocation to them as they seek to cope with the enormous trauma of displacement. Our own Catholic Relief Services is already working to develop effective assistance for these people. But our private efforts are not enough. Refugees are at least theoretically eligible for some assistance through the United Nations, but there is virtually no adequate help for people displaced within their own country.

In short, for a seed to grow and develop one needs to prepare the soil. The weeds and stones of past neglect, injustice and violence in Central America must be removed so as to permit the growth of those spiritual and social values on which true democracy thrives.


In this testimony, we have outlined our concerns about current policy, criteria for future choices and our own proposals for peace and development in Central America. We are convinced they lay the foundation for a new relationship between the United States and Central America which will protect our national interests, help meet the needs of this troubled region and serve also to curb Soviet and Marxist inroads in this hemisphere.

In the past, U.S. policy toward Central America has too often been seen as defending the status quo and authoritarian regimes. Future policies cannot ask people to choose between the status quo and revolutionary violence, between continued injustice and Marxism. U.S. policy, given our history and traditional values, should stand as a beacon of hope, a force for justice and a defender of human rights.

Years ago the Catholic Church was perceived by some as distant from the struggles of ordinary people for justice, too closely linked to the status quo and authoritarian regimes. By reflecting on the Gospel and the situation in Latin America and by applying the church’s teaching on justice and peace to their own lands, the church has renewed itself and become a leading advocate for non-violent social change, a defender of human rights.

The church and its leaders are a powerful force for justice and reconciliation in Central America. As a Catholic, I am proud and deeply impressed by the witness of my church. As an American, I want to be equally proud of my country’s contributions to justice and peace in that region and in all the world.