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Testimony on U.S.-Central American Relations

Testimony of the Most Reverend John J. O’Connor, Archbishop of New York,
For the U.S. Catholic Conference
Before the Subcommittee on International Operations
of the Committee on Appropriations,
U.S. House of Representatives

April 18, 1985

I am John J. O’Connor, Archbishop of New York and Chairman of the United States Catholic Conference’s Department on Social Development and World Peace. The U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC) is the public policy agency of the Catholic Bishops of the United States. I am pleased to appear before this Committee to share with you the position of the USCC on certain key aspects of U.S. policy regarding Central America.

The USCC has presented testimony on Central America on numerous occasions in the past, dating back to 1977. We have sought, over this period, to lend our voice to the on-going public discussion of these complex issues that are of such critical concern both to our own society and to the peoples of Central America.

We have sought to address these issues as informed citizens, conscious of the enormous impact our government policies necessarily have upon smaller nations so close to us; as religious leaders concerned with the moral implications of those policies; and as Catholic bishops intimately associated with the bishops and churches of Central America.

Our ties with the local churches of the region are many and of long standing. As an expression both of our solidarity with the bishops of Central America and of our desire continually to test our analysis of the situation against ever-changing realities, I was recently commissioned by the president of the U.S. Bishops Conference to lead a delegation of bishops to Central America. While visiting only Nicaragua and El Salvador in this February visit, we were able to consult with bishops and many others from the entire region. My testimony today will reflect both our long-standing analysis of the general situation as well as insights more recently gained.

I. U.S. Policy and Central American

A. A Basic Perspective: The Central American reality can be viewed adequately only if three separate but closely related dimensions are kept in constant focus. These are: 1) the local roots of the crisis in each country, the largely indigenous sources of the several conflicts; 2) the geopolitical reality, which has converted Central America into an arena of super-power competition; and 3) the regional nature of both the problem and its potential resolution.

First, the indigenous sources of the conflicts: there is a temptation in. this country, because of our justifiable concern about Soviet intrusion in the Americas, to ignore or misread the harsh realities that have brought revolution to Central America. Historic social inequities and brutal repression, accentuated over the past two decades by economic advances that, ironically, deepened the disparity between prosperous minorities and impoverished majorities, were responsible for social unrest which was then exploited by marxist ideology. Masses of people, many of them awakened to a social consciousness by the teachings of the Catholic Church, have sought to assert their God-given rights to live in dignity and freedom. As our government strives to evolve a policy responsive to perceived threats both to our national security and well-being as well as to the democratic process in the region, we must never lose sight of the still urgent demands for social change throughout much of Latin America.

The geopolitical dimension cannot be ignored. Our highly active U.S. presence, and the intrusive policies of the Soviet Union and its ally, Cuba, have helped to convert a previously little noticed region into a global focal point of indirect superpower confrontation. To fail to recognize the geopolitical aspects of the Central American arena is to miss a crucial dimension of the present reality; to overestimate the geopolitical is to distort the policy problem in both its ethical and political dimensions, and dangerously risk ever higher levels of armed conflict.

The regional nature of the problem, is, from our perspective, the crucial dimension of the Central American reality today. To be sure, each of the countries has its own special history and circumstances, and each is inescapably affected by external forces of today’s world. But the root problems in each country are, with qualifications, the common problems of the Central American region, and they need to be addressed from a regional perspective. The overriding imperative for U.S. policy should be to work toward a political and diplomatic solution of the regional conflict in Central America.

B. Elements of a Regional Diplomatic Solution: The first requisite of a political and diplomatic solution is the recognition and acknowledgement that a military solution is neither possible nor desirable. To pursue a military solution, even while proclaiming the goals of political settlements, is to fail the test of political realism and of moral action. From the outset, U.S. policy should be defined in political not in military terms. This in turn should set the limits on the means used by the United States in pursuing its goals in Central America.

Secondly, a regional solution requires the active engagement of the other regional actors and U.S. cooperation with their efforts. While there will be no political solution in El Salvador or Nicaragua or the region generally without U.S. participation, there can be no solution by the Uunited States alone. Our solidarity with the countries of the Contadora Group and our support of their process or of similar regional processes, is essential to a peaceful outcome.

Thirdly, an over-all political and diplomatic solution requires a coordinated approach both to the region as a whole and to problems specific to each country.

Finally, a political-diplomatic solution requires a commitment to dialogue within the region and inside individual countries. Pope John Paul in his 1983 visit to Central America stressed the need for dialogue within El Salvador. The bishops of the region have repeatedly echoed the call for dialogue both within and among nations. The U.S. Catholic Conference continues to urge our government to make the pursuit of political and diplomatic dialogue in Central America a matter of highest priority.

II. U.S. Policy and Nicaragua

In addressing the U.S.-Nicaragua relationship it is useful to state some general characteristics of the Nicaraguan reality, to highlight the impact of the war on Nicaragua and then to assess the mainlines of U.S. policy toward Nicaragua.

A. An Overview of a Society in Conflict: In broad strokes, the following elements of recent Nicaraguan history seem pertinent to understanding the policy problem facing the United States.

In 1979, a popular and justified insurrection, led by the unified forces of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) with the active support of virtually all sectors of Nicaraguan society, including the Church, overthrew an entrenched dictatorship. The justice of their cause and the right of all those who participated in the overthrow of the Somoza government to also participate in the formation of a new government was not in question. Since 1979, significant accomplishments, achieved in the face of daunting obstacles, have taken place. An emphasis on expanding health, literacy and educational services has resulted in some significant advances. Needed land reform, difficult to accomplish under the best of circumstances, has made some progress, and the private sector is still somewhat active in the economy.

Simultaneously, however, deeply troubling signs have come to overshadow many of these accomplishments. An increasing reliance upon the Soviet Union and its allies, the imposition of Marxist-Leninist philosophical ideas into important areas of social life, including education and the media, and an excessive use of state power to monitor and restrict dissident behavior represent one set of these troubling signs. While we can sympathize with the extraordinary difficulties confronting the new government emerging from a fratricidal conflict that claimed 50,000 lives and depleted the economy, we cannot ignore trends that so closely resemble the unacceptable developments of the Cuban Revolution. For example, the organization of neighborhood defense committees can have a chilling effect upon the exercise of freedom of expression.

A second set of concerns that particularly touches us as Catholic bishops is that of church-state relations and the role of religion in Nicaragua. Time and again we have spoken out against the violation of religious rights and the persecution of church personnel wherever they have occurred, whether in Chile, Guatemala and the Philippines or in Lithuania, Czechoslavakia and Poland. In the case of Nicaragua, we cannot fail to be concerned about a number of incidents that directly affect the freedom and well-being of the Catholic Church. The disturbances of August 1982, the disruption of the Papal Mass in 1983 and the expulsion of ten priests in July 1984 are among a number of instances, some of which the USCC has previously denounced publicly in testimony before committees of the Congress.

As Archbishop John R. Roach stated after his visit to Nicaragua last August, the bishops of the United States maintain ecclesial solidarity with the Church in Nicaragua and “stand with the bishops of Nicaragua as they carry out their pastoral ministry in the face of significant pressure and tensions.” We renew and reaffirm our solidarity with our brother bishops in Nicaragua.
In two separate and extended sessions with President Ortega during our visit, our delegation listed a number of specific instances of government interference in church affairs. Nicaraguan authorities have frankly acknowledged to us the wrongness of certain past actions and state that other problems which we have raised with them are on the way to solution. We fervently hope that to be the case, although we must note, unfortunately, we have as yet seen no evidence of constructive government action concerning these problems.

Still other actions are claimed to be justified, even required because of the exigencies of the ongoing war. I want now to turn to that issue, the war in Nicaragua.

The war being waged against the government by the insurgent forces (the “contras”) is the dominant fact of Nicaraguan life today and its impact is felt throughout the country; the consequences include the following:

  1. The entire society is in a constant state of alert: restrictions on rights of assembly, publication and organizing have been extensive. Mobilization for war, as always, provides the opportune occasion for excessive government control of a society.

  2. The economic toll is enormous: both the diversion of limited resources to defense and the severe damage to the economic infrastructure and to the agricultural sector have created great economic hardship in the country.

  3. The universal male conscription law has caused considerable discontent and imposed severe hardship on many families.

  4. The fear of a U.S. invasion, periodically predicted, is a palpable and generalized phenomenon. However much our government protests it has no intention of invading Nicaragua, the general populace cannot fail to be affected by hostile actions of our government and by the Nicaraguan government’s repeated “invasion alerts.”
Our delegation found that radically different perspectives on the contras are held in Nicaragua as in our country. During our visit in February we heard direct testimony from witnesses to contra atrocities and saw published material detailing these happenings. To refer to the role of the contras simply as “pressure” is to ignore the human cost of this reality - the cost is measured in narratives of death and destruction, some of which we heard while in Nicaragua.

Yet other witnesses presented a different view of the contras. Some in political opposition to the Sandinista government see the contras as providing a threat which deflects government attention from political opponents.

A major point of contention is the composition of the contras. Some focus on the allegedly heavy presence of former Somoza National Guardsmen in the military leadership of some of the contra groups; others on the large percentage of previously uninvolved campesinos and Indians among the troops. It seems unhelpful therefore to characterize all of the contras simply either as idealistic freedom fighters or as bloodthirsty right-wing terrorists.

B. The Role of the U.S. in Nicaragua: As the war has come to dominate Nicaraguan life today, the effect of U.S. policy is ever more central. The U.S. role in organizing, training and funding the contras is a pervasive and inescapable issue. How, in the final analysis, to evaluate that U.S. aid, what role to assign it in the overall political equation, is at the heart of the policy debate in Nicaragua and here in the United States.

On the one hand there is evidence that to both the Government of Nicaragua and the supporters of the contras, the U.S. backing is viewed not only in terms of its direct military and political impact, but also in terms of its symbolic and psychological importance. On the other hand, it is clear that U.S. support has been instrumental in transforming the contras into a much stronger fighting force, enhancing their logistical capabilities and providing them with an assured line of supplies and equipment. In this sense the U.S. aid has helped intensify the war.

As bishops we seek to bring a moral perspective to this question, not a purely pragmatic view nor a purely national one. Our moral responsibilities as a people and our legal obligations as a nation must be constantly and clearly assessed. Government policy is not exempt from ethical scrutiny. We recognize that forms of de facto external intervention exist throughout Central America. In Nicaragua, both the U.S. and the Soviet bloc (especially Cuba) are part of the interventionary syndrome: the U.S. by providing military and other aid to the contras, by exerting economic, psychological, diplomatic and even military pressures against the Nicaraguan government; the Soviet bloc nations through their programs of military aid and advisors, and through a more subtle but objectionable ideological intervention. We thus examine U.S. policy fully cognizant of the existing patterns of external intervention.

Our central moral concern at this point is for a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict and therefore for an end to all military assistance from any outside party. We must oppose military aid from the United States, the Soviet Union, or any other country to any party to the conflict in Nicaragua, whether the Sandinista Government or any irregular military force in conflict with the government.

Our rationale includes the following elements:

  • We are convinced that only a political solution can finally be successful in Nicaragua as in Central America generally; there is no acceptable military solution.

  • Further intensification of the military conflict must be avoided; the tide must be turned in a new direction.

  • Extra-hemispheric intervention, whether Soviet or other, is particularly objectionable for its effect of raising a regional conflict to a new, more dangerous level and of fomenting ideological conflict; we seek an abolition of Soviet and Cuban military activity in Nicaragua.

  • Direct military aid to any force attempting to overthrow a government with which we are not at war and with which we maintain diplomatic relations is illegal and, in our judgment, immoral and therefore cannot merit our support. We are convinced that such military aid undercuts the possibilities of a political solution within Nicaragua and jeopardizes the political process elsewhere in the region. We believe that it violates existing treaty obligations and undermines the moral standing of the United States within the international community.

  • In light of these propositions, we call for a U.S. policy toward Nicaragua with the following dimensions:

  • We accept the need for a continuing series of political and diplomatic measures pressuring the Government of Nicaragua both to allay U.S. and Central American fears about Soviet intrusions in the area and to respond to the undeniable grievances of many Nicaraguans.

  • We urge all parties to accept the principle of dialogue as the preferred method of resolving differences. We urge the continuance and strengthening of regional dialogue on the lines of the Contadora process or something similar; we urge the resumption of bilateral talks between the United States and Nicaragua, even when only a slight hope of progress is evident; and we urge the Nicaraguan authorities to take seriously the call of their episcopate for an inclusive national dialogue and the bishops’ offer to mediate or facilitate such dialogue.

  • We are convinced that significant U.S. economic aid should be provided to Nicaragua both as a measure of humanitarian assistance to a people in need and, with appropriate human rights criteria and evidence of a sincere pursuit of a political solution, as a legitimate means of influence.

  • We counsel a bona fide attempt to settle Nicaraguan problems between and among Nicaraguans. We urge them to a national effort to achieve dialogue with the participation of every element of Nicaraguan society, governmental, civic, and insurgents under arras. The government of Nicaragua has already granted amnesty to those who lay clown their arms; it seems appropriate, therefore, that the same government take the further step of initiating a comprehensive dialogue. This act would be a useful step toward that mutual disarmament and national reconciliation so important to the people of Nicaragua. Such a reconciliation would include, except for those guilty of specific personal crimes, the reintegration into the civic and political life of the nation of those now in armed insurgency.

  • There is a need for the Nicaraguan government to achieve a situation in which there is genuine respect for human rights, political pluralism, freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of private enterprise within a mixed economy. We suggest that the steps to be taken not involve the importation of governmental models from outside Nicaragua but rather the development of a system truly reflecting the historic spiritual and political values proper to the Nicaraguan people.

III. U.S. Policy and El Salvador

The USCC has addressed the issue of El Salvador in some detail over the past years. Let me here briefly summarize our positions.

A. Dialogue within El Salvador: We strongly support the dialogue begun last October between the Government of El Salvador and the FDR-FMLN, facilitated by the bishops of El Salvador. We applaud this initiative of President Duarte. This process is a specification of the general approach we believe should be followed in seeking political-diplomatic solutions to the region’s conflicts. We urge the U.S. Government to do everything to support and nothing to hinder this dialogue process.

B. U.S. economic assistance: While we support the continuance of economic aid we urge that greater care be taken to guard against the instances of graft and corruption that have plagued the administration of parts of the aid program in the recent past. We are particularly concerned that programs of humanitarian aid, intended especially to assist the approximately half-million internally displaced persons, not become political instruments of a pacification program.

C. U.S. military assistance: We continue to oppose the militarization of U.S. policy toward El Salvador and the region. We recognize the right of the Government of El Salvador to seek military assistance adequate to ensure its continuance but we do not want the United States to contribute to the further militarization of the region. We consider military aid from the United States justified to the extent that it enables, and encourages, the Salvadoran government to progress towards a political resolution of the conflict.

We specifically oppose increases of U.S. aid substantially greater than the 1983 levels. We firmly oppose the introduction into El Salvador of highly technological weapon systems and weapon systems that intensify the destructive nature of the war and increase the danger to civilians.

We believe that all programs of military aid should be constrained by certain conditions that enhance the progress of democratic and civilian government. Although the number of reported human rights violations has clearly decreased in El Salvador over the past year, we must note both the continued activity of organized death squads with alleged ties to the military and security forces and also terrorist activities on the left. We applaud President Duarte’s efforts to bring the armed forces under civilian control and reduce civil rights violations.

We recommend that all U.S. military assistance be conditioned upon human rights criteria and evidence of sincere efforts to pursue a political solution.

IV. Guatemala and Honduras

More briefly still, let me turn to the two other conflicted countries of Central America simply to re-state our standing position. I should mention that although our recent delegation did not visa Guatemala and Honduras, we had the opportunity to consult with church leaders from those countries. We anticipate another USCC delegation to those countries later in the year.
Given the continued high level of human rights violations in Guatemala, despite some evident improvement on the political level, we affirm the position we took before this committee in 1983, that U.S. military assistance should not be provided to Guatemala in any form.

We view with great concern the continued build-up of U.S. military aid in Honduras. We recognize the need for legitimate defense and security, but we are seriously disturbed by the effects of this build-up upon the economy and the fragile civilian government of Honduras as well as the imminent danger of igniting a regional conflict.

V. Refugees and Displaced Persons

In 1981 the U.S. Bishops said, “We believe that as long as the present state of violence and turmoil exists in El Salvador, the citizens of that country, regardless of political philosophy, should not be forced to return home. Hence, we urge that a moratorium be placed on all deportations to El Salvador, at least until such time as the government in power can guarantee the safety of its citizens.” That has continued to be the USCC recommendation regarding the half million or so recent arrivals from El Salvador, extended to include the many thousands from other countries of Central America. The Conference has been encouraged in this position by members of the Central American episcopates.

The Intergovernmental Commission for Migrants has begun, since last December, a program for the reception and supervision of Salvadorans deported from the United States. This project is laudable and gives great promise for the safety of individual deportees. We urge its continuance.

Nonetheless, in view of the large areas of conflict where on-going struggle between the government and guerrilla forces renders many villages, farms and other country areas dangerous, it seems necessary that the United States government be urged on humanitarian grounds to grant extended voluntary departure status to Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans as it has to citizens from Uganda, Afghanistan, Poland and others who have taken refuge from countries in conflict.

V. Conclusion

If I were to summarize our position in one sentence, Mr. Chairman, it would be that we urge our government to direct its powerful influence toward a regional effort to achieve a diplomatic and political settlement.

Our position concerning the indigenous roots of the conflicts, the imperative need for fundamental social change, and the futility of military solutions has been stated often and is well known. As the dominant external actor, but not the only actor, our government must play the creative diplomatic role that uniquely belongs to it, namely to effect the goals of a regional settlement: dialogue leading to cessation of hostilities resulting in an end to conflicts and an internationally guaranteed process of political and social reform and economic development. Under no foreseeable circumstances can direct U.S. military intervention in the region be justified.

With the bishops of the region we express our alarm over the growing militarization of the Central American countries, the danger of a more generalized war, violations of fundamental human rights, lack of progress in judicial redress, and the wrenching tragedy of so many refugees and displaced persons.

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