The Goverment Turns on the Church of the Poor
The revolutionary outburst in Chiapas has unleashed a high-level campaign against the people-oriented church and against theology liberation. Thus today Mexico “smells like Central America”.
On April 8, the Mexico City daily newspaper Summa declared with much fanfare that Subcomandante Marcos, of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), was in fact a Jesuit priest by the name of Jerónimo Hernández López.
The newspaper, owned by Televisa, Mexico's largest television and radio consortium, reported that Subcomandante Marcos' supposed identity was discovered through an "investigation carried out by a special group of the Federal government" known as "Operation Identity," which had seen it "necessary to infiltrate a special agent into the heart of the EZLN." According to Summa, the operation had established from results "obtained by computer, photographs, voice recording, and video studies" that the enigmatic and popular spokesperson who emerged from the armed conflict in Chiapas is a priest, about 36 years old, whose other pseudonym is "jXel" (Jerónimo, in the Tseltal language).
Televisa's Offensive The news quickly spread through the country and much of the world. The New York Times and other international media immediately sought confirmation. The afternoon of the day the Summa story appeared, the Mexican Provincial of the Society of Jesus issued a statement declaring the "news" to be an utter falsehood and energetically condemning "some media" which had been publishing equally false and slanderous news stories for months.
A Jesuit priest named Gerónimo with a G did work in Chiapas supporting indigenous and peasant organizations for more than five years, but he left the area in August 1992, to dedicate his time to pastoral work with Guatemalan refugees in the state of Campeche. The Ministry of Interior as well as the Attorney General were aware of this transfer, since those who work in the refugee camps are required to register with the authorities. Several days before the sensationalist news item appeared, this priest had been questioned by National Security agents, supposedly to confirm where he was working and exactly what he was doing.
Since the truth would have been easy to corroborate, the false information was not mistakenly published. Its intentions were clear: to further stir up an already convulsed national situation on the heels of the Chiapas insurrection, the assassination of PRI presidential candidate Colosio and the kidnapping of Alfredo Harp, one of Mexico's most important bankers.
Despite the Jesuits' quick denial of the story, Summa, whose president and general director is Jacobo Zabludovsky, the right wing's patriarch of televised Mexican news, continued its offensive against Gerónimo from the Society of Jesus, as well as against the Parallel Church (as churches committed to the poor are called in Mexico) as a whole.
On April 9, alongside the clarifications by the Mexican Jesuits, Summa published a new charge regarding priests' supposed participation in the EZLN and Gerónimo's "declared activism." It also printed an in depth report with the names of dozens of church people involved in nongovernmental organizations, grassroots movements and social organizations, presenting this as an "overview of radical movements."
According to the Summa reporter, Juan Manuel Beltrán, Marcos' identification as a Jesuit priest is not surprising: "For those who have studied liberation theology and Christian groups on the left, this is completely credible, since the class struggle and revolutionary violence are principles they have accepted by resorting to Marxist analysis to interpret reality." The report assumes "doctrinal errors" in these Christians' thinking, and also takes their active participation in the EZLN guerrilla forces as a given.
Open Hostility Three things immediately jump out upon reading the newspaper's list of activists:
* They are recent lists, with only minor inaccuracies.
* They have been prepared professionally, through internal reports on the movements and external observation of events.
* The underlying intent is to demonstrate a link between Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the main opposition candidate, and these religious sectors.
The report's central claim is that these socio religious groups in which leftist Christians take part are trying to achieve greater social support for the left Cárdenas' PRD in the upcoming elections.
But the editorial by the publishing director, José Antonio Pérez, takes the cake. He printed two documents the union record of Jesuit Jesús Acosta from his days as a worker priest at the Modelo brewery, and a letter of recommendation for that post issued by an educational enterprise called Servicios Educativos de Occidente, A.C. Based on these documents, Pérez insinuates that Jesús Acosta was involved in the labor "problems" at the brewery and, through a series of rhetorical questions (to avoid a possible libel suit), he charges much more:
* That Jesuits linked with liberation theology have acted clandestinely in many countries throughout the continent;
* That a number of liberation theology priests have participated in the violent events in Chiapas;
* That some Chiapas guerrillas and liberation theologians are behind the kidnapping of banking consortium Banamex President Alfredo Harp;
* That the doctrinal and pastoral position assumed by Bishop Samuel Ruiz has been condemned by the Church, "which has demanded through its respective channels that the Bishop leave Chiapas since he is considered to be totally distanced from the Church itself."
These lies would not be cause for such concern were they not accompanied by many other events in the national panorama. They also must be taken seriously because they are presented behind a facade of journalistic seriousness in one of the country's major dailies.
A day later, on April 10, Summa again insisted in a top headline that "Marcos is Jerónimo"; "Whereabouts of Jesuit denied. Fear EZLN reprisals"; and, finally, "Campeche, possible refuge for Jerónimo."
On April 21, the Society of Jesus in Mexico filed a libel suit against Summa. It is an unprecedented challenge to Mexico's principal media consortium, and opens a new, legal battlefront.
"The temptation is great," says the Jesuit communiqué announcing the introduction of the legal charge, "to distract public opinion and mask the fundamental heart of the conflict that Mexico is currently experiencing: the problem of injustice, in which lies, corruption and the empty democracy we have today are all aggravating factors. It is easier to invent guilty parties than recognize one's own guilt. These problems openly and urgently challenge all Mexicans. The crisis demands complete dedication to the search for urgent and efficient solutions. This objective should never be lost sight of. The Jesuits hear this challenge in the voice of an entire people, and they make it their own."
Televisa's reports and positions expressed through Summa and, at times, the daily Ovaciones are only the most visible and acute points of a much broader confrontation in Mexican politics at this moment. The hostilities against liberation theology and a Church that is close to the poor are longstanding and involve in addition to the private business sector some government sectors as well as the Papal Nuncio himself.
Bishop Ruiz García: In the Beginning The most recent stage of the confrontation is probably linked to the figure of Samuel Ruiz García, bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas. It began with attempts by Girolamo Prigione, the Papal Nuncio, to strip Ruiz of his post at the request of the President himself, it is said.
The first alarm was sounded by journalist Miguel Angel Granados Chapa in his Sunday column in El Financiero on October 24, 1993. Granados reported that, at a dinner given at his residence, the Papal Nuncio had stated that "the Mexican government has imposed, and the authorities of the Catholic Church have accepted, the removal of Samuel Ruiz from the diocese where he has served for more than 30 years. The decision responds to governmental needs rather than to ecclesiastical concerns, and even less to the needs of the social and indigenous ministry in which don Samuel excels."
The request to remove the bishop came from the office of the Chief of Presidential Advisers, José Córdoba Montoya, after Bishop Ruiz had handed the Pope a pastoral letter criticizing governmental policy during the Pope's visit to Mérida in August 1993. The request was then taken up by Prigione, who declared on October 28 that "Samuel Ruiz has made grave doctrinal, pastoral and governmental errors. They clash with the Church and offend the Pope." With tiresome insistence, Prigione subsequently insisted that the actions being studied as possible steps against the bishop had nothing to do with politics or governmental pressure. But nobody believed him.
The national and international reaction in defense of "the Bishop of the Indians" was immediate and impressive. An avalanche of communiqués, letters, pronouncements and demonstrations of all kinds made its way to the Nuncio's office, which was forced to change telephone numbers due to the overwhelming expressions of opposition to the Nuncio. Many demanded his expulsion or resignation.
With the Salinas government repeatedly denying any participation in the attempts to remove Bishop Ruiz, the Nuncio ended up completely isolated and without the support of the very parties who had pushed him to punish the bishop. At the same time, the bishop's moral stature increased considerably, and broad sectors of Mexico and the world defended his cause.
This first skirmish between the government and Bishop Ruiz and the rest of the committed church was quite probably due to the government's fear of the national elections to be held in August. The panorama became even more complicated just a month later.
Chiapas Unmasks Its Intentions With the violent explosion of Chiapas' indigenous communities on January 1 this year, the bishop of San Cristóbal suddenly became tremendously important. Proposed as mediator for the eventual dialogue between the EZLN and the Mexican government, he was transformed virtually overnight into a key element in securing a peaceful solution to the armed conflict. Given his knowledge of the reality in Chiapas and his considerable moral authority, it was felt that no one could better facilitate a meeting and subsequent dialogue between the parties in conflict. The Nuncio and his intentions were thus dealt a serious blow. The Mexican Bishops' Conference expressed its support for Ruiz. Cardinal Corripio's approval of him at that moment made his position in the intra church conflict imposed on the bishops by the Nuncio clear and significant.
In spite of this official church support and Samuel Ruiz' position as mediator, however, the attacks against him and the Church in Chiapas increased. They came from sectors clearly identified with private business and large cattle ranchers in the region. This group was joined by some well known pens at the service of the Salinas regime. To Héctor Aguilar Camín, for example, the Chiapas insurrection was the result of a mixture of hackneyed leftism and liberation theology fundamentalism. In a display of irresponsibility, and without even having set foot on Chiapas soil, Luis Pazos, the inconsistent PR man for neoliberalism, printed 10,000 copies of a book pamphlet blaming unemployed Central American guerrillas and liberation theology priests (both Jesuits and Dominicans) for the events there.
A list naming the supposed Zapatista leaders, which clearly came from the state security forces, soon began to circulate. It was essentially a list of priests and religious workers from the San Cristóbal diocese. Important national magazines such as Impacto and Epoca (the latter also owned by Televisa) basically promoted the lynching of pastoral agents in the Chiapas area. They said that Marcos was Father Joel Padrón. Then they said he was Walter Meade, a former Jesuit novitiate. And later they claimed that religious worker Janine Archimbaud "one of the EZLN's key leaders" had been killed in combat. Everything turned on the key thesis that "Samuel Ruiz is the commander in chief of the Zapatistas."
When Mexican civil society demanded with virtually one voice that the government dialogue with the armed guerrillas and hammer out a negotiated solution to the conflict, a number of important statements came from Church institutions: the Mexican Bishops Conference, the Mexican Conference of Religious Institutes, the Order of Preachers and the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits distanced themselves from the majority position, which condemned violence "wherever it comes from," denouncing first and foremost the structural and institutional violence so prevalent in the state of Chiapas.
Some media and business circles wasted no time making their reactions known. The daily Ovaciones titled its editorial, "Once Again the Society of Jesus is Against Mexico."
Coletos to Arms After the first round of dialogue was finished, the situation in San Cristóbal became more serious for the bishop and his pastoral workers. An organization of cattle ranchers, landowners and "authentic coletos" a title that born and bred San Cristóbal citizens grant themselves undertook a campaign to smear the bishop, accusing him of instigating the EZLN and demanding his immediate expulsion. The medium and large bourgeoisie in Chiapas mobilized for a number of days, protected by some politicians in the region, claiming in chorus that the neo Zapatista movement is the doing of catechists trained in the diocese. This front of cattle ranchers and large landholders demanded the closing of two daily papers, Tiempo and La Jornada, as well as the removal of all NGOs and "Zapatista priests" from the area.
Manuel Camacho Solís, the Commissioner for Peace, had to intervene to calm things down and demobilize this group of people. Nevertheless, the danger of a strengthened third "army" corresponding to the so called white guard or paramilitary forces at the service of the cattle ranchers was all too obvious.
The country's bishops reiterated their support for Ruiz, and declared that an investigation of the catechists allegedly involved in the uprising would be carried out subsequently, and, that in the event that some involvement was proven, the corresponding sanctions would be applied.
"Traitors to the Country" After a short respite, prompted in large measure by government fears of a major unraveling of Mexico's social fabric, and by the drafting of new policy guidelines in light of the Chiapas events, the offensive against the ecclesiastical agents, options and activities committed to the country's poor majority quickly reappeared following the assassination of Luis Colosio. The supposed revelation that Marcos was a Jesuit came out precisely at that moment, together with attacks on "clerical politics" by the presidential candidate of the Popular Socialist Party now a para state entity. They were paralleled by the announcement of the Ministry of Government's head of Church relations, Nicforo Guerrero, that political intromission by ministers will not be tolerated.
A new element was added to the onslaught. The daily Ocho Columnas, property of the powerful autonomous University of Guadalajara and the ultra right, secretive organization Tecos, responded to the media's petition for "truths" about the Society of Jesus by enumerating some supposed facts and Jesuit figures related to "Marxism" and "subversive activity":
* "The total support the Company of Jesus gave to the 'student' movement of 1968, whose objective was to topple President Díaz Ordaz and impose a communist dictatorship on Mexico."
* "The dozens of Mexican and foreign Jesuits who faltered in their faith and doctrine and allied themselves with Marxist Leninist communism in both word and deed."
* "The case of those Jesuits who abandoned their apostolic task to convert themselves into high level leaders of the Socialist Workers' Party the most violent of its era and who later shifted to Chiapas."
Simultaneously, thousands of posters appeared in the streets of Mexico City, defaming the bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas. They called him a "traitor to the country" and a "comandante of the northern Shining Path," among numerous other insults.
A High Level Campaign One intention of this campaign was to deal a fierce blow to the peace negotiations in Chiapas, as well as to presidential Commissioner Camacho Solís, who was accused of using the conflict in Chiapas as "a lever to reach the Presidency of the Republic, with the shameless support of a foreign army (EZLN), the foreign press and foreign powers." The attempt to damage Camacho Solís coincided with a strategy to destroy the popular negotiator drawn up at that very moment by a group within the Mexican government.
Leaks from the Ministry of Government provided access to a document analyzing Bishop Ruiz's role in the Chiapas peace process. The document was both undated and unsigned, but was obviously prepared by a team of advisers to the minister himself. The document, besides offering analytical observations regarding Chiapas, put forth some measures that would reduce the bishop's social and political influence.
Viewing Ruiz as "part of the conflict and its mediation" from the very beginning, the document suggested the following steps to gradually get him out of the picture:
* Move the next round of negotiations to a site other than the Cathedral. (It has now been announced that it will take place in a different location).
* Promote the group of "authentic coletos" and cattle ranchers in their activities against the bishop.
* Make clear to society that the prelate is not neutral in the conflict, but is allied with one side.
* Prepare and send a dossier to the Vatican containing the accusations and accounts of the bishop's political activities.
* Promote a new role in the peace process for the Papal Nuncio and his bishops to help overcome the isolation into which they were thrust after the failed attempt to oust Bishop Ruiz.
* Indicate the concept of "ministers of the service" to a much greater degree in the Law of Religious Institutions, and in such a way that it encompasses all lay people who also carry out pastoral activities, to make the restrictions applying to them also applicable to the catechists.
* Undermine the Bishop's social prestige.
It cannot be concluded, based on the mere existence of this document, that all the attacks and accusations against the church springing from the people and liberation theology have been agreed upon and coordinated by governmental sectors. Nevertheless, the media used, the groups attacked and the tone adopted all raise the specter of a very well organized, high level campaign, one of whose objectives is to hit at the bases that have most militantly supported Bishop Samuel Ruiz.
Memories of Central America The aggressiveness of the campaign against the Society of Jesus cannot be explained just by the Jesuits' strong support for Bishop Ruiz, but also by the fact that it is one of the strongest groups within the Church to firmly place itself on the side of the poor. The logic in this case would be to hit at what the government considers to be the strongest ally of its principal adversary.
To date, not one of the accusations has been proved. Not one priest, religious worker or catechist has been found to be involved in the EZLN. Samuel Ruiz has accepted the possibility that some catechists may in fact be participating actively in the Zapatista movement, but has made clear that, if they are, they are doing so by accompanying their communities, as an individual decision, and not as part of a diocesan policy.
All the testimonies, among them that of the Bishop himself, confirm that he has been a consistently staunch opponent of armed struggle as a strategy, although he is in accord with the concerns and demands of the indigenous communities.
In any case, some business sectors and government officials have taken the road of slandering and discrediting their adversaries. This is particularly dangerous right now, with the atmosphere of national politics so extremely fragile. The country reminds us of Central America. We are suddenly surprised by the evident similarities between our circumstances and those preceding the wars in the isthmus. The much heralded national modernization, to be ushered in by Salinas, was not real. What we are seeing speaks of a rollback to an era of political primitivism, in which slander is more important than truth and assassinations triumph over democratic competence.
It is likely the death throes of a regime that has lasted more than 60 years, erected upon a foundation of lies and corruption, whose collapse drags in its wake many healthy social sectors even as it steamrolls others.