Aristide's Lineage: Latin America's Radical Priesthood HAITI: POLICY AND PRIESTS U.S. And Haiti -- Uneast Partners, Turbulent Past

September 25, 1994|By RICHARD O'MARA

"Who will free me from this turbulent priest?"

Henry II of England is said to have muttered these words within earshot of his loyal knights in reference to his antagonist, Thomas a' Becket.

They heard, and the priest was removed.

At some point in Haiti's recent past it is possible someone very powerful in the Creole republic uttered words similar to these about President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The priest was removed.

But Father Aristide was not murdered, as Becket was. This priest is coming back.

That Father Aristide was a "turbulent priest" there is no doubt. He was meddlesome to those who have run Haiti: the wealthy business elite, the industrial monopolists, their friends within the armed forces.

What did Father Aristide do to provoke these people? For one thing, he tried to collect taxes from them. Imagine!

But he did more.

"He sought to overturn the whole social structure," said Anthony Bryan, a Caribbean scholar at the University of Miami. "He represented a popular movement that would have changed the traditional political culture in Haiti. This was to be the rise of the black masses in Haiti, and that was something very threatening to the mulatto elite."

In short, Father Aristide was a revolutionary. Such figures are rare in Haiti, but not within the broader context of Latin America.

That region has had more than its share of priests who for reasons of conscience put themselves into collision with their own ecclesiastical authorities, with unyielding, sometimes murderous governments, or even against what they regarded as inimical foreign forces.

There is a long list of such figures in modern and historical times.

There were the committed revolutionaries.

Camilo Torres, an aristocratic priest, was killed fighting with guerrillas in Colombia in the 1960s.

The Sandinista priests -- Miguel D'Escoto and Ernesto Cardenal -- fought in the revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. They then occupied ministerial positions high in the Sandinista government and helped implement the policies that caused President Ronald Reagan to launch a proxy war against that country.

There were the victims.

Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, a vehement opponent of the military in El Salvador, was shot to death while saying Mass in his church in March, 1980.

In December of that year three American nuns were murdered in El Salvador, and in December, 1989, six Jesuits were taken from their bedrooms and at the University of Central America and machine-gunned to death, along with their housekeeper.

Many among the movement of Priests for the Third World, which formed in Argentina in the decades of the '60s and '70s, were killed by the military during the Dirty War, which began in March 1976.

Members of a similar movement in Chile, Christians for Socialism, led by priests, suffered the same fate following the military takeover there in September, 1973.

The tradition of priestly activism in Latin America goes back to the beginning of the European occupation. In the 16th century, Bartolome de las Casas, the bishop of Chiapas (the Mexican state only this year the scene of an Indian rebellion) campaigned against the ill-treatment of the indigenous peoples and won a small measure of relief for them from the Spanish crown.

There were the priests who created and ran the Jesuit republic in South America in the 17th and 18th centuries, an independent state centered in Paraguay and as big as Western Europe into which the Guarani Indians were drawn for their protection against Portuguese slavers.

In Mexico the Revolution of 1810 against Spain was sparked and led by a priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla.

In historical times, figures like de las Casas, Hidalgo and the Jesuits of Paraguay arose to challenge the authorities as individuals. In modern times clerical political activists in Latin America were joined in larger movements with strong philosophical underpinnings.

What caused this?

"You had a confluence of events in the '60s which put Latin America ideologically very far to the left," said Scott Mainwaring of Notre Dame University, an expert on the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. "This was in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution which had generated enormous optimism. At the same time dependency theory had emerged," the belief that Latin America's underdevelopment stemmed from its dependent position in the world economic system.

Contemporaneously, the church itself was going through turbulent times as it tried to adapt to the changes initiated by Pope John XXIII, changes stoutly resisted by the conservative ecclesiastical establishments that held sway in most Latin American countries.

It was in this atmosphere, in 1971, that the Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutierrez, published his book, "The Theology of Revolution." Overnight it became the pillow book of a generation, Father Aristide's generation.

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