The Roman Catholic Church
Social life in Paraguay had always been closely tied to religion, but politically the Roman Catholic Church traditionally had remained neutral and generally refrained from commenting on politics. In the late 1960s, however, the church began to distance itself from the Stroessner regime because of concerns over human rights abuses and the absence of social reform. The Auxiliary Bishop of Asunción, Aníbal Maricevich Fleitas, provided an early focus for criticism of the regime. With the growth of the Catholic University and the influx of Jesuits from Europe, especially Spain, the church had a forum and a vehicle for reform as well as a dynamic team of spokespeople. Some priests moved into the poor neighborhoods, and they, along with others in the rural areas, began to encourage the lower classes to exercise the political rights guaranteed in the Constitution. These priests and the growing Catholic Youth movement organized workers and peasants, created Christian Agrarian Leagues and a Christian Workers' Center, and publicized the plight of the Indians. As part of the program of education and awareness, the church founded a weekly news magazine, Comunidad, and a radio station that broadcast throughout the country.
In April 1968, the regime reacted against this criticism and mobilization by authorizing the police to invade the university, beat students, arrest professors, and expel four Jesuits from the country. Although the Paraguayan Bishops' Conference (Conferencia Episcopal Paraguayo--CEP) met and issued a blistering statement, the regime was not deterred from continuing its crackdown on the church. The Stroessner government arrested church activists, shut down Comunidad, disbanded Catholic Youth rallies, outlawed the Catholic Relief Service--the church agency that distributed assistance from the United States--and refused to accept Maricevich as successor when Archbishop Aníbal Mena Porta resigned in December 1969.
The following January, the government and church reached an agreement on the selection of Ismael Rolón Silvero as archbishop of Asunción. This resolution did not end the conflict, however, which resulted in continued imprisonment of university students, expulsions of Jesuits, and attacks on the Christian Agrarian Leagues, a Catholic preparatory school, and even the offices of the CEP. Rolón stated that he would not occupy the seat on the Council of State provided by the Constitution for the archbishop of Asunción until the regime restored basic liberties.
In the 1970s, the church, which was frequently under attack, attempted to strengthen itself from within. The church promoted the establishment of peasant cooperatives, sponsored a pastoral program among students in the Catholic University, and endorsed the creation of grassroots organizations known as Basic Christian Communities (Comunidades Eclesiásticas de Base--CEBs). By 1986 there were 400 CEBs consisting of 15,000 members. These organizational efforts, combined with dynamic regional efforts by the church symbolized in the Latin American Episcopal Conference (Conferencia Episcopal Latinoamericana--Celam) meeting in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979, resulted in a renewed commitment to social and political change. Following the Puebla conference, the Paraguayan Roman Catholic Church formally committed itself to a "preferential option for the poor," and that year the CEP published a pastoral letter, "The Moral Cleansing of the Nation," that attacked growing economic inequalities and the decline of moral standards in public life. In 1981 the CEP released a detailed plan for social action. Two years later, the bishops issued a pastoral letter denouncing increasing evictions of peasants.
By the early 1980s, the church had emerged as the most important opponent of the Stroessner regime. The CEP's weekly newspaper, Sendero, contained not only religious information but also political analysis and accounts of human rights abuses. The church's Radio Caritas was the only independent radio station. Church buildings and equipment were made available to government opponents. In addition, the bishops joined with leaders of the Lutheran Church and Disciples of Christ Church to establish the Committee of the Churches. This committee became the most important group to report on human rights abuses, and it also provided legal services to those who had suffered such abuse.
Keeping an eye on the post-Stroessner political situation and concerned to bring about a peaceful democratic transition, the CEP began in 1983 to promote the idea of a national dialogue to include the Colorado Party, business, labor, and the opposition parties. This concept was endorsed by the National Accord, which demanded constitutional reforms designed to create an open, democratic, pluralist, and participatory society. The Colorado Party rejected the calls for dialogue, however, on the grounds that such action was already taking place in the formal structures of government at national and local levels.
In the late 1980s, the church was better able to respond in a united manner to criticism and repression by the regime than had been the case in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Five days after the suspension of the state of siege in Asunción in 1987, police broke up a Holy Week procession of seminarians who were dramatizing the predicament of peasants who had no land. Rolón denounced this police action. In October 1987, the clergy and religious groups of Asunción issued a statement that condemned the preaching of hatred by the Colorado Party's radio program "La Voz del Coloradismo," demanded the dismantling of assault squads made up of Colorado civilians, and called for respect for civil rights and a national reconciliation. Later that month, the church organized a silent march to protest government policies. The march, which attracted between 15,000 and 30,000 participants, was the largest public protest ever staged against the regime and demonstrated the church's impressive mobilization capabilities.
Critical statements by the church increased with the approach of the 1988 general elections and with the government's continued refusal to participate in the national dialogue. In January 1988, the CEP issued a statement on the current situation, calling attention to the government's use of corruption, violence, and repression of autonomous social organizations. The bishops warned of increasing polarization and violence and indicated that blank voting in the upcoming elections was a legitimate political option, a position frequently denounced by Stroessner and the Colorado Party. The archbishopric of Asunción followed up in February by issuing a document rejecting the government's accusations of church involvement in politics and support for opposition parties. Immediately after the elections, Rolón granted an interview to the Argentine newspaper Clarín, in which he blamed the tense relations between church and regime on the government's use of violence. He criticized the government for its disregard of the Constitution, harassment of political opponents, and refusal to participate in the national dialogue, and he charged that the elections were farcical.
In the confrontational atmosphere after the elections, the visit by Pope John Paul II to Paraguay in May 1988 was extremely important. The government rejected the church's plans to include Concepción on the papal itinerary, claiming that the airport runway there was too short to accommodate the pope's plane. Maricevich, who now headed the diocese of Concepción, charged, however, that the city had been discriminated against throughout the Stroessner era as punishment for its role in opposing General Higinio Morínigo in the 1947 civil war. The pope's visit was almost cancelled at the last moment when the government tried to prevent John Paul from meeting with 3,000 people--including representatives from unrecognized political parties, labor, and community groups--dubbed the "builders of society." After the government agreed reluctantly to allow the meeting, the Pope arrived in Asunción and was received by Stroessner. Whereas Stroessner spoke of the accomplishments of his government and the recent free elections, the Pope called for a wider participation in politics of all sectors and urged respect for human rights. Throughout his three-day trip, John Paul stressed human rights, democracy, and the right and duty of the church to be involved in society. His visit was seen by observers as supporting the Paraguayan Roman Catholic Church's promotion of a political transition, development of grass roots organizations, and defense of human rights.
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