Guest Post by David Gullette
David Gullette is vice-president of the Newton (MA)/San Juan del Sur Sister City Project which has worked since 1988 on programs in health, appropriate technology and education in rural and urban parts of the township. See www.newtonsanjuan.org. His books about Nicaragua include “Nicaraguan Peasant Poetry From Soletiname”, “!GASPAR! A Spanish Poet/Priest in the Nicaragua: Revolution” , and “Dreaming Nicaragua”, a novel set in San Juan del Sur.
Gaspar García Laviana (1941-1978) was a Spanish missionary whose solidarity with the people of Nicaragua and with the struggle of the Sandinista Front to overthrow the Somoza dynasty led him to a fateful decision, to take up arms and go into combat against the National Guard. He did not leave the Catholic Church nor his missionary order, the Sagrado Corazón, in order to become a combatant. He joined the ranks of the FSLN, and rose to the rank of Comandante, because of his religious commitment. He died in combat on the Southern Front in December 1978, only seven months before the Triumph.
Those of us who have supported Nicaragua for decades but lack religious faith (I include myself) need to understand how a Catholic priest could make such a decision. For some of us the ‘60s meant “sex, drugs, rock and roll” and radical politics. But devout young Catholics of that era heard a different call, in the wake of Vatican II, a series of high-level council meetings between 1962 and 1965, called first by Pope John XXIII. John was Italian but so progressive in his views that wags in Rome called him “il Papa Rosso” (the Red Pope). The bottom line for Vatican II was the emergence of what came to be known as Liberation Theology, a return to the deep roots of Christian teaching: simplicity, self-sacrifice and an abiding love for and commitment to the well being of the oppressed and marginalized. After all, the word radical comes from the Latin word for roots. For Catholics like Gaspar, answering the question “What would Jesus do?” was not a trivial jocular meme. The answer could lead to real danger.
He was also a poet—not full time, but in stolen moments from his busy life when he took time to give voice to his love for Nicaragua, his frustration with the slowness of campesinos to accept necessary changes in their thinking, his agony over the deprivations of campesino life, his hatred of Somocismo, and his sometimes manic horror at what the failure of the insurrection might mean. In my book, GASPAR! A Spanish Poet/Priest in the Nicaraguan Revolution (Bilingual Press) I argue that Gaspar’s poetry is essential to understanding the complex drama of his revolutionary commitment.
A brief overview: Gaspar García Laviana came from a working class family in Asturias, in north-central Spain. His father was a miner. When Gaspar was ordained as a priest one of his first acts was to give communion to his parents, a major moment of family pride. For a while he was a “worker priest” in Logroño and Madrid—holding down a regular job during the day, and performing priestly duties in his off-time. Then, in the early ‘70s, Gaspar and his fellow priest, Pedro Regalado, swept along by the music of Liberation Theology, accepted the call of the Sagrado Corazón missionary order to become priests in two adjacent parishes in southern Nicaragua—San Juan del Sur and Tola.
What Gaspar found stunned him: malnourished children, untreated disease, squalid housing in the port and hovels in the countryside, domestic violence, prostitution, illiteracy, alcoholism, and the complete indifference of local and national officials. He threw himself into palliative projects — youth clubs, an anti-alcoholism program, a sewing cooperative, an attempt to help longshoremen start a union, a campaign against war toys. Well meaning, but mostly ineffective.
One night he’s summoned to a rural community: an old man is dying of an easily preventable disease. Gaspar loads him into his old white Renault and speeds off to the nearest hospital, an hour away, but it’s too late. Gaspar explodes with grief and rage, a scene noticed by a captain of Somoza’s National Guard.
He brings groups of campesinos up to Managua to stage sit-ins in the offices of the Ministers of Public Health and Education, demanding a health clinic and schools in San Juan del Sur. The Archbishop of Granada complains to Gaspar’s immediate superior about the young priest’s “subversive” activities, but Padre Luis says he won’t intervene: it’s a matter of individual conscience.
But the tipping point is when Gaspar and Regalado discover in Tola a brothel named Luz y Sombra, using underage girls. According to the Madame, the brothel is protected by the National Guard (which takes a percentage of the gross). Gaspar uses his weekly radio address to denounce the place, and it is after that that he receives his first death threats.
The local commander of the Guard calls Gaspar into his office and warns him that the “mafia” might try to kill him. Gaspar refuses the offer of an armed guard at his residence.
There are two rural ambushes set up to trap him: he manages to drive around them and escape. Finally he flees into Guatemala and then Costa Rica, certain to his core that the Guardia wants to kill him.
In Costa Rica he meets Sandinistas in exile. They agree that Somoza has to be overthrown. Gaspar wants to play an active part in that. “But Padre, you’re a priest and we’re armed revolutionaries. To join us you’d need to be ready to kill other human beings or be killed yourself. Taking up arms is not a game.” Gaspar reads deeply in Church doctrine about supporting just wars, and decides that not only can he justifiably bear arms against Somoza, but he must. Other priests have given logistical support to armed insurrections (there’s a famous photo of Ernesto Cardenal in combat fatigues saying mass in Solentiname, although he never carried a gun) and many priests throughout Central America were murdered in the ‘80s and ‘90s for their political activities.[Ed note: Fr. Camilo Torres died with the guerrilla in Colombia in 1966, the first priest to die in combat in Latin America in the modern age.]
For Gaspar, it’s all or nothing. The FSLN accepts him as another combatant. He’s sent to Cuba to learn explosives. His poetry in this period expresses a sort of giddy relief that something real has begun for him. In one poem he meets a figure called “Peace”: “I cried out to her against the affliction/ that keeps my people down/ eating the dust of fear/ of abuse, of injustice…. When I stopped shouting,/ Peace spoke of war;/ she told me that here on earth/ War and Peace are sisters.”
In 1977 Gaspar wrote two important letters. The first was published in papers all over Central America (except in Nicaragua). In it he tells of his decision to “join the clandestine struggle as a soldier of the Lord and as a soldier of the FSLN.” After listing the horrors of Somocismo, he declares that he has joined the armed struggle “because this is a just war, and one that strikes my conscience as a good war.” He quotes a document passed by a council of Bishops in Medellín: “revolutionary insurrection can be legitimate in the case of a clear and persistent tyranny which gravely offends the fundamental rights of the individual and deeply injures the common good of a country.” Then he concludes: “Somocismo is a sin, and to liberate ourselves from oppression is to liberate ourselves from sin. And so with rifle in hand, full of faith and love for the Nicaraguan people, I will fight to my last breath for the coming of the kingdom of justice in our fatherland….”
When the letter made its way through the grapevine to all parts of Nicaragua, it was as though Gaspar had baptized the FSLN and encouraged Nicaraguan Catholics to love the struggle.
A second letter, written with help from Sergio Ramirez and directed to fellow priests, says bluntly: “my faith and my membership in the Catholic Church oblige me to take part in the revolutionary process along with the FSLN because the redemption of an oppressed people is an integral part of Christ’s overall redemption.” These letters were of immense consequence in legitimizing the Sandinista struggle among ordinary Nicaraguans. They were Gaspar’s matchless contribution to the revolution.
Because he was older (and more disciplined) than most guerrillas, Gaspar rose rapidly in the ranks, and was soon appointed a comandante. In combat (in the Southern Front along the border with Costa Rica) he was brave to the point of foolhardiness, striding into firefights as though he were invulnerable. He did not announce to his troops that he was a priest, and he did not say mass out in the field. His discipline was tough and inflexible. One of his comrades was Eden Pastora (later known as Comandante Zero), who said, “Courage consists of conquering fear, and I have known only one person who never showed fear: Gaspar.”
In December 1978, on a farm on the Costa Rican border nicknamed “El Infierno,” Gaspar’s unit is betrayed by an informant and the Guardia sets up an ambush. When the shooting starts, rather than stay down Gaspar rises to begin firing and is instantly wounded: “Ay Mamita! They got me!” The Sandinistas disperse; the Guardia commander shoots the wounded Gaspar in the head. It’s all over.
For a week Somoza’s TV stations broadcast over and over the image of Gaspar’s shattered skull, along with the headline: COMMUNIST PRIEST DIES IN “THE INFERNO.”
Since, along with Pedro Regalado, Gaspar had worked in both Tola and San Juan del Sur, he is buried in the former town, although when there is a service in San Juan before the body is to be turned over to the people from Tola, there is a near riot when the women of San Juan del Sur refuse to turn over the coffin holding Gaspar’s body.
Months later, the Revolution triumphed, without Gaspar. But every December 11, the anniversary of his death, there is a pre-dawn ceremony in San Juan del Sur in which Gaspar is remembered. And just before dawn, every pistol, shotgun, rifle, rocket and firecracker in town is shot off at once. For a minute or so the earth shakes. Every bird in town bolts into flight, banking this way and that, to avoid the noise. Then the last shot, and the town falls silent again. Slowly the birds settle back into the trees. Then the sun rises.
- While US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was touring Latin America seeking support to overthrow the elected government of Venezuela, the government of Nicaragua used the two day visit of Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza to reaffirm its absolute solidarity with Venezuela and support for its sovereignty. Vice President Rosario Murillo said, “Everything we are doing in Venezuela, in Nicaragua, in the countries of the ALBA, is to fight for peace, for well-being, for the quiet, safe and joyful life of families with levels of well-being that will be improved every day from the work of all, the effort of all, the meeting of all.” (Informe Pastran, Feb. 5)
- Coming on the heels of a decision a few years ago in which the International Court of Justice in the Hague (World Court) settled the maritime boundary between Nicaragua and Colombia largely to Nicaragua’s benefit, the World Court has now settled the maritime boundary between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Nicaragua gained 145,468 square kilometers of off shore territory in the decision compared to Costa Rica’s 123,873 in both the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. Nicaragua’s claims in the Caribbean were favored by the Court, while Costa Rica won its claims in the Pacific. Nicaragua maintained sovereignty over the Harbor Head Lagoon wetland at the mouth of the San Juan River, but the Court did award Costa Rica US$378,890 for environmental damage from 2010-2013 when Nicaragua set up a military base on Portillos Island and dredged several channels that had silted shut. Costa Rica had asked for US$6.7 million. Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister stated that that country will respect the Court’s decision. (El Nuevo Diario, Feb. 3)
- Informe Pastran reported that several members of the political opposition said they have been invited to meet with Trump administration officials visiting Managua this week. The unnamed US officials will meet with Citizens for Liberty Party President Kitty Monterrey and reportedly with the FAD-MRS leadership which includes banker Eduardo Montealegre and the Sandinista Renovation Movement. Maria Haydee, president of the Constitutional Liberal Party, the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, said she has not been invited to the meeting. (Informe Pastran, Feb. 5)
- French Ambassador in Managua, Philippe Létrilliart, said Nicaragua is becoming one of the most attractive tourism destinations among French travelers. “Our country is literally in love with Nicaragua. The arrival of French tourists increased 5% last year and we believe that this year there will be greater growth,” the Ambassador said. (Nicaragua News, Feb. 2)
- Jorge Familiar, vice president of the World Bank for Latin America and the Caribbean, said Nicaragua is making significant progress to strengthen its inclusive economic growth model. “Nicaragua will grow 4.4% this year, one of the highest projections in Latin America. The economic performance has been sound, and the country is advancing in the fight against poverty through the implementation of programs in health, education, agriculture and renewable energy,” Familiar said. Minister of Finance and Public Credit Ivan Acosta announced that the World Bank will invest more than US$400 million in Nicaragua between 2018-2021, with an average of US$150-$160 million per year. “This shows the good performance of the country, the effort of the government sector, the private sector that executes the projects and above all the accountability, which is very important to mobilize more resources,” Acosta emphasized. (Nicaragua News, Jan. 31; El Nuevo Diario, Feb. 4)
- The Nicaragua Central Bank (BCN) reported that remittances to the country surpassed US$1.3 billion last year, 10% above the amount sent home by families in 2016. The United States, Costa Rica and Spain were the main sources of these remittances. (Nicaragua News, Jan. 31)
- President of the Nicaragua Federation of Livestock Associations (FAGANIC), Álvaro Vargas, announced that a US$21 million beef processing plant will be built this year. “The purpose of the project is to improve the quality of our beef products and increase exports to the United States, Mexico, Japan, the European Union and China-Taiwan,” Vargas said. (Nicaragua News, Feb. 5)
- In Managua, Ambassador Kenny Bell, head of the European Union delegation in Nicaragua, announced the approval of US$200 million for development projects in Nicaragua. “We are firmly committed to continue to strengthen cooperation with Nicaragua in areas such as trade, security, regional integration, agriculture and sustainable development,” the European Union Ambassador said. The prospect of passage of the NICA Act in the US Senate does not appear to be dampening Nicaragua’s support among countries providing aid or by international lenders. (Nicaragua News, Jan. 30)
- President Marc Murnaghan of Polaris Infrastructure Nicaragua said the company is pleased with the results at two new wells in the San Jacinto Tizate Geothermal Project. “We have started the year with very good news. The SJ12-4 well registered an average generation of 6 MW and the SJ12-5 generated 12 MW. These preliminary results confirm the high geothermal potential of the area,” Murnaghan said. (Nicaragua News, Jan. 30)
- Informe Pastran also reported on an interview in La Prensa with Texas Democratic Congressman Vincente Gonzalez. Gonzalez said that the US budget crisis prevented him from traveling to Nicaragua, but that in April or May he would like to come to Nicaragua with Texas business leaders and meet with President Daniel Ortega to discuss improving relations and trade opportunities. Gonzalez said he opposed the NICA Act because he thinks this is a time to strengthen relations and settle differences through negotiations. (Informe Pastran, Feb. 5)