Archbishop Romero: Martyr of Salvador
The Challenge of Basic Christian Communities
After the 1959 Cuban revolution, guerrilla groups appeared across Latin America, their ranks crowded with urban middle-class student radicals anxious to emulate Fidel Castro. But, as Ernesto Che Guevara learned to his cost, they had neither support nor organization among the peasants, workers, and slum-dwellers in whose name they were acting. And, gradually, they were wiped out—in Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia,, Brazil, Uruguay, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and, finally, Argentina.
In Central America, however, a new generation of guerrilla groups emerged in the late 1970s, this time made up largely of Indian and mestizo peasants and factory workers. And when repression came on a scale exceeding even the horrors of Argentina, the guerrilla movements survived: in Nicaragua, they seized power in July 1979; and in El Salvador and Guatemala, they are still at war with brutal military regimes.
What happened, then, to make the armed struggle seem alive in Central America today when it proved so hopeless in South America a decade or so ago? Poverty is certainly not the answer, because Bolivia, for example, is decidedly more backward than El Salvador. Repression as a catalyst for rebellion is also an unlikely explanation since official terror did, in fact, eliminate the guerrillas in Guatemala in the late 1960s. Nor, despite the Reagan administration’s insistent assurance, is Cuban involvement a major factor since, disillusioned by the failure of its effort to “export” revolution to the continent, even Havana was caught off guard by the surge of popular unrest in Central America.
Rather, the key lies in the changing role of the Roman Catholic Church. It is not the only reason—the Carter administration’s human rights policy undoubtedly helped to destabilize the region’s near-feudal political structures; the dimensions of the tiny Central American republics also create a “politics of scale” in which the ingredients for revolution can reach the combustion point more easily—but the most important single variable is the Church.
In the early 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church, still sharing the fears of communism of the ruling élite, had yet to address the root causes of poverty. But by the late 1970s, important parts of the Church were not only busily promoting political organization among the poor masses, but they were also increasingly identified with radical groups. In Central America, at least, activist priests served as a bridge between the guerrillas and the poor and helped make armed struggle legitimate, while Christian revolutionaries took up arms and helped to temper the Marxist dogmatism of the rebel groups. The Church changed, but so did the left.
It is not difficult to argue that the metamorphosis of the Church is the most significant political development in Latin America since the Cuban revolution. And it is made easier by the fact that so little else has changed. The economic structures of the continent are still designed to bring growth for the few rather than development for the many. Political freedom is even scarcer than two decades ago, as corrupt and …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.