Pope John Paul in Guatemala, 1983

In March 1983, Guatemala was not a place you would want to visit.

The country was then led by José Efraín Ríos Montt who had staged a coup a year earlier. A general who was defeated in a fradulent election years earlier, Ríos Montt was a friend of the United States (especially of President Reagan), which lifted up the arms embargo on the country in January. This led to the situation in the country slowly deteriorating.

Into this mix came Pope John Paul II, on his pastoral visit to Latin America. Before Guatemala, he had been in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, and eventfully in Nicaragua, where he famously clashed with the Sandinistas. (See here). Ríos Montt, who was born Catholic but abandoned the faith to became a preacher in the California-based Church of the Word and struck up friendships with American evangelists, including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, was not going to be too accomodating to his visit. The general pointedly refused to grant clemency to six guerrillas right on the eve of the papal visit.

Laboring well into the night, Guatemalans laid an 80-mile carpet of colored sawdust and grass, decorated with pictures of doves and brilliant floral designs for the papal motorcade. However, the presidential reception was stiff. Rios Montt proclaimed that “the Guatemala we are building is based on mutual respect between the government and those governed.”

The pope privately chastised Rios Montt for killing of the six men, and to the assembled crowd of about 500,000 at a military parade ground in the capital, he stressed that the government still had to improve its human rights record. “When you trample a man, when you violate his rights, when you commit flagrant injustices against him, when you submit him to torture, break in and kidnap him or violate his right to life, you commit a crime and a grave offense against God.” There could be “no more divorce between faith and life,” he added. 

The above picture — marked with the stark contrast, and the solemn irony — of a cardinal in a military helicopter was taken by James Nachtwey as the Pope and his retinue traveled by helicopter to Quezaltenango, some 100 miles northwest of the capital, for a meeting with Guatemala’s indigenous peoples, hundreds of whom are believed to have been killed during the previous year in a government crackdown on leftist insurgents. Under Ríos Montt, the country’s Mayan population was seen as an “internal enemy” of the state and targeted — actions for which the general would eventually be put on a genocide trial.

Demanding legislation to protect the Indians, John Paul told a crowd dressed in bright colored handwoven outfits that “the church is aware of the discrimination you suffer and the injustices you must put up with, the serious difficulties you have in defending your lands and your rights, the frequent lack of respect for your culture and customs.” 

The pope was on the right side of history — although history had terrible surprises still in store of the Guatemalans. In June, General Rios Montt would establish a state of emergency. In August, rival officers overthrew the regime and precipitated a civil war that lasted into the mid-90s. Ríos Montt remained a public figure, running for president in 1990 and 2003, his supporters proclaiming him as an incorruptible man who brought a measure of peace to a country that was careening toward anarchy.

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5 thoughts on “Pope John Paul in Guatemala, 1983

  1. “On the right side of history?” Yeah, people say that about the pope allllll the time. Collaboration with the Nazis? Condemning condom use in AIDS-ravaged Africa? Imprisoning Galileo? Totally infallible in hindsight, you’re right.
    Your blog is interesting, but you’re much better off sticking to descriptions than opinions.

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