e-mail us


Still need for truth-telling on Central America

If there is a ray of hope that emanates from the dark chapters of recent U.S. involvement in Central America, it is generated by those who will not allow lives to simply disappear unnoticed.

Fr. James Carney, a Jesuit missionary believed killed by Honduran military officers in 1983, is one of those lives. His religious community, his family and the tireless activists who have monitored human rights abuses in the region for decades are among the keepers of the memory. And they are being aided these days by increasing revelations of just how horrible was some of the U.S. involvement.

Like the various dirty wars in the region, Carney's involvement in Honduran history did not have a simple line to it. He first went to Honduras as a missionary in 1961. Struck deeply by the nation's poverty, he soon got on the wrong side of business and military leaders for supporting peasant unions and working for land reform and higher wages.

He was expelled from the country in 1979 but returned in 1983 -- apparently after signing dismissal papers from the Society of Jesus -- to be a chaplain to a revolutionary group. The group, however, was captured by the Honduran army, and Carney, in the tortured language of those awful conflicts, "was disappeared." On April 22, The Miami Herald reported that a former Honduran lieutenant, in a sworn statement, said that Carney and a guerrilla leader "were killed and later put on a helicopter and thrown into the jungle." All along, the government had said only that Carney apparently died of starvation in the mountains.

Those who knew Carney are now pushing the Clinton administration to release all U.S. government files regarding him and others missing in Honduras. To date, according to the Jesuits' Office of International Ministries, only a few of the State Department documents dealing with the case have been released in response to an official request from the Honduran Human Rights Commissioner.

The Carney case is but one more reason to push for full disclosure of the U.S. role in Central America during the past 40 years. With the revelations contained in the recent Presidential Intelligence Board's "Guatemala Review" -- revelations of assassination and torture by CIA employees called "assets" and of training materials used by the controversial school of the Americas at Fort Benning that condoned false imprisonment, torture and executions -- it may be time for the United States to square up with that period of history.

The United States should establish a truth commission, similar to that employed by the United Nations in El Salvador, and air the truth, no matter how ugly. Such a move would be, in the long run, less painful than trying to keep contained what will inevitably leak out. Telling the truth, particularly in this period of reassessing the use of intelligence gathering, would not only help to heal deep wounds but might also help the government to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

National Catholic Reporter, August 9, 1996