Agony in the Garden: A Stranger in Central America
By Edward R.F. Sheehan
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Pages: 362 pages
Review Author: James G. Hanink
A journey into darkness is the burden of this pilgrimage through Central America. However elusive, it was truth that Edward Sheehan sought. But getting hold of the truth, bloodied as it is in Central America, depends on gaining a certain perspective. Sheehan seems to have achieved that perspective, indeed, to have been educated for it.
His curriculum vitae includes an early fascination with Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement and a Jesuit education when such an education was still formidable. To this we can add that Sheehan has been a diplomat, a journalist of distinction, and a successful dramatist. Education and experience (especially his time in the Middle East) had led him to an initial sympathy with the Sandinistas, tempered by a marked distaste for dictatorships. Sheehan comments that, setting out for Central America, he had “settled on an unsatisfying, perplexed Christian humanism, ideologically neither left nor right.”
Reciting a reporter’s credentials might occasion impatience. After all, there is something called the “genetic fallacy.” One commits it when one accepts or rejects an argument because of who puts it forth. The point is that even an Einstein can’t make an invalid argument sound and even a Stalin might produce a valid argument.
But while Sheehan’s background can’t guarantee his inferences, it does affect what he sees — and where he looks. And arguments, especially about nations and cultures, often begin with the slippery data of personalities and politics. Because of his credentials, Sheehan seems to see in, say, Nicaragua what the standard two-week visit of “concerned citizens” or the newest “administration trouble-shooter” is apt to distort or overlook.
So Sheehan’s reporting is the kind for which the right bona fides are essential. Still, neither we nor Sheehan are interested in data for data’s sake. In the end we need to build arguments and justify policies. We’ll closely examine, then, his sobering impressions. But, with him, we’ll move to the personal conclusions they support. Finally, we’ll consider the political response he recommends.
When we sort through Sheehan’s impressions of Central America, it’s instructive to acknowledge first the range of national characteristics that distinguish the peoples of the isthmus. Honduras shows chronic torpor and dependency; Costa Rica demonstrates stability and civic imagination. Guatemala reveals its continuing Mayan heritage; El Salvador displays energy and entrepreneurial spirit. And Nicaragua? Its people are poetic, sensuous, intensely religious. We might, of course, protest that these are generalizations; yet they help adjust our assumptions of regional homogeneity, assumptions that invite a dangerous “understanding.”
Despite the isthmus’s internal variety, each of its nations has suffered foreign intervention. Spain was long dominant. In recent times the United States has been the captain of imperialism, though often invited in by competing domestic factions. Since the Sandinista victory in 1979, Russia and Eastern bloc countries have been scouting the region. What would Central America be like if allowed to live its own life?
Because of, in part, the military sequelae of foreign intervention and the economic lead of its industrialized masters, Central America is of a pattern in another sorry sense. In country after country an internal immigration of farmers and villagers floods the larger cities. Unemployment is pandemic. An austere but coherent way of life splinters into the fragments of urban slums and shantytowns.
Another pattern Sheehan found is an extraordinarily young population. North America experiences an aging populace, but the nations of the isthmus experience the reverse. Medical resources are scarce; guerrilla warfare exacts a heavy toll. At the same time, agricultural demographics continue as in the past. We are surprised to read of soldiers in their early teens, but where else might more recruits be had?
So far, though, we’ve considered Sheehan’s findings almost as abstractions. It ought not be so when we turn to his account of the degradation into which so many Central Americans have fallen. Here especially we must see something of what Sheehan has seen.
There are lots of beggars, and they are persistent. A campesino in El Salvador, shriveled like so many others, looks twice his age. “Please, I want to work for you. I’ll do anything.” In frustration Sheehan must sometimes push the beggars away.
Street urchins form a separate caste, In Honduras many are addicted to the fumes of a glue called Resistol. They are los Resistoleros. Sheehan finds a place for three of them in an orphanage, but their leader says he’d rather live in the street.
Equally pathetic is the sexual degradation, with its parody of love. In Honduras a military official warns that “prostitution has made Comayagua violent. At the hospital, most of the emergency cases are from stabbings,” A puta (prostitute) tells of coming from the coast: “There’s no work there. My husband abandoned me. I have three children…they have to eat.” In Nicaragua another puta, learning of Sheehan’s meeting with a Sandinista commandante, says, “Tell him to give us more milk.”
Sometimes the sexual exploitation is a by-product of war, sometimes not. Sheehan is struck by the wild sexuality both in the poetry of Ruben Dario (Nicaragua’s finest poet) and in the lives of many Nicaraguan men. Poverty exacerbates a mindless machismo. (The links between promiscuity and poverty are plain enough in our own culture.)
Because of war and poverty and sexual mania, Sheehan finds another set of tragic impressions to put before us. Statistically they fit under the heading of infant mortality. But what does one see? By 1988 in Nicaragua, Sheehan sees children showing “evidence of kwashiorkor, arms and legs as thin as toothpicks, bellies distended from hunger and parasites, the roots of their hair turning yellow and orange, their little cribs of sticks and branches foul from diarrhea.”
Perhaps there is nothing worse than the starvation of children. But Sheehan offers images, too, of something as heinous. Torture is woven into the political fabric of Central America. Both the Right and the Left, in Nicaragua and Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala, practice it regularly. The Sandinistas are relatively abstemious; they rely on the psychological torture of intimidation. The Right has been more direct.
Sheehan finds the carnage of Guatemala extraordinary. “In a lifetime of travelling the world, even in the heart of Africa, I have never come so close to martial cruelty on such a scale.” One incident from a young woman’s testimony stands out: “They lined up the prisoners, dressed like soldiers…. They hit them with their rifle butts to make them stand, but they would just fall down again…the captain said all subversives would be treated this way. And when he gave the order to undress them, they had to cut off the uniforms because the blood from the wounds made the uniforms stick to their bodies. They tied them and piled them up together, then the captain ordered his soldiers to pour gasoline over them and set them on fire.”
How can human beings act this way? With Sheehan, we can’t help but speculate. Is it the compartmentalizing of emotions? (He reminds us that in Argentina Jacobo Timerman’s torturer asked his help in getting a son placed in a private school.) Is there something in the culture? Sooner or later we must answer for the humanity we share, even with torturers.
There is, though, a final set of impressions Sheehan would have us review. They are images of a people, and this is especially so in Nicaragua, with a living faith — even in the presence of death. As in Poland and the Philippines, there is a deep Catholic sensibility and an intensely public Church.
Throughout Central America the Church is a voice of the simple people. Often it is hemmed in by at best suspicious regimes, whether of the Right or the Left. In Honduras, for example, lay Celebraddres de la Palabra (Delegates of the Word) become the victims of death squads. In Nicaragua the Holy Father can have turbas (mobs), orchestrated by the government, drown out his words.
One lesson has become painfully clear: whenever the Church becomes an agent of the state, it fails to minister to its people. In earlier days the Church embraced colonialism — to its shame. Now, when a “Popular Church” becomes a proxy for the Sandinista leaders, it again fails. Sheehan, indeed, insists that the “Popular Church” is not popular with the people of Nicaragua. Nor have some politicized theologians, Jesuits among them, kept enough distance from the Sandinista leaders to be credible. Sheehan argues that Nicaraguans have resisted the Popular Church “not only because they favored the poetic, bleeding Christ but because…they sensed that the demystified practical Christ was another Sandinista. They had no mind to substitute that Savior for the old one.”
Certainly Sheehan finds Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, the Archbishop of Managua, to have more appeal to ordinary Nicaraguans than does the Marxist priest Ernesto Cardenal. Nor can the Sandinistas deny Obando’s sociopolitical credentials, for he played a major and public role in bringing down Somoza. Obando’s life of service to the campesinos gives him as deep a unity with them as any in the commandante leadership can claim. The Cardinal, moreover, is painfully blunt about his competition: “You know a tree by its fruit, and this tree has produced bad fruit. If you absolutize an ideal, as. liberation theology does, then man returns to slavery.” And, he insists, “…I’ve nothing to do with the contras. I’m against all violence. I favor dialogue, civilization, reconciliation, and pardon.”
Sheehan sees just as clearly how an archbishop fares under rightist rule. It was in El Salvador that rightist death squads shot and killed Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero as he celebrated the Eucharist. Romero was the first archbishop since Becket (under Henry II) whose enemies murdered him at the altar.
It is little wonder that bishops court martyrdom in Central America. Obando, for his part, has done what history suggests so many other bishops ought to have done. With the Nicaraguan episcopal conference, in 1983, he issued an explicit endorsement of conscientious objection. In Nicaragua, as elsewhere in Central America, press-ganging adolescents is a standard form of military recruitment.
We have, by now, shared something of the range of Sheehan’s powerful images and haunting impressions. What personal conclusions would he derive from them? He draws only two fundamental conclusions. The brevity with which we might state them is striking in contrast with the multiple and often searing particulars which support them.
It is from Cardinal Newman, speaking from the quiet of a different century, that Sheehan borrows to state his first conclusion: “Either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence…if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity.” The experience of Central America compels us to recognize the lethal reality of sin. In the brutal political charade of Central America, sin is at once original and actual and structural. In Sheehan’s words: “I see the sorrows of Central America as a religious mystery, and I believe that all human problems, in the end, are theological.” If we learn to weep for the brokenness of Central America, we might perhaps shed tears for our own as well.
And Sheehan’s second conclusion? It is not to counsel insurrection. He approves, rather, a Guatemalan bishop’s verdict: “nothing can justify wars that make things worse. So here is the lesson. Guerrilla wars don’t work.” Rather, Sheehan concludes that the best route is simple compassion. When he can, he feeds the poor and shelters the homeless. He visits the imprisoned, in their special hell, and does what he can to bring their petitions to the proper authorities. Persistently, he presses for the truth, whether it is a contra leader or a commandante, a prostitute or a diplomat, whom he interviews. He has decided that it is the small gestures, together with seeking truth, that offer the best chance of helping flesh-and-blood people.
Yet Sheehan cannot gainsay political reality. The agony of Central America is occasioned, in large part, by the agency of nations. The U.S. often shares a responsibility for the suffering. How, then, should his own country address the chaos to which it has so regularly contributed?
Sheehan imagines himself, in the post-Reagan period, speaking with a less obsessed president. The new president solicits his advice for a reformed government policy. What political script does our author propose?
He offers some lucid suggestions. The first is that we let the Sandinistas follow, internally, their already failed revolution. The second is that we encourage an evolution within Sandinista Marxism by a policy of external containment (a stick) and by sending food to the people of Nicaragua (the carrot, but one to be left always in place). Thirdly, we must build up the rest of Central America, but (somehow) without fashioning a new generation of “big programs with armies of rich and conspicuous experts.” Last, we must commit ourselves to a twofold policy of rescheduling Central American debts and permitting the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the isthmus to stay in the U.S.
More than this we cannot do. We cannot expunge the sins of Central America. Each people’s agony must in some ultimate sense be its own.
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