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Blase Bonpane, Presente!

ColumnApril 11, 2019
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By Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan

President Donald Trump is intensifying his vicious crusade against asylum-seekers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Last weekend he declared, “Our country’s full.” He ousted Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen by tweet, reportedly because he thought Nielsen, who oversaw the separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents and then lied about it to Congress, was not tough enough. Tens of thousands of people are seeking asylum in the U.S., fleeing systemic violence. The desperation and fear that drive them north derives in part from decades of U.S. policy in the region that has overthrown democratically elected governments, destabilized civil society, and trained and armed repressive militaries. The U.S. cultivated this crisis for over half a century; it won’t be fixed by a wall.

The effort to challenge Trump’s policies got a bit harder this week with the death at age 89 of Blase Bonpane, a lifelong peace activist. Based in Los Angeles, Bonpane devoted his life to social justice, and had a deep and hard-earned understanding of Central America, its people and its problems.

The CIA overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, largely to protect the interests of the United Fruit Company (now called Chiquita Brands). Bonpane served as a Maryknoll priest in Guatemala in the 1960s, when that country waged a bloody war on its own population that lasted into the mid-1990s. Bonpane and other Catholic missionaries were in the rural areas where violence against the indigenous population was most intense.

At the same time, Pope John XXIII had convened the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), which liberalized many centuries-old church practices, leading to the emergence of “liberation theology” in Latin America. Liberation theology applied a biblical, Christian analysis to the entrenched poverty and inequality that dominated Latin American society, and called for action to change the status quo. Bonpane embraced the challenge. He was lauded by the local population as a “guerrilla of peace.” By 1968, the government of Guatemala expelled Bonpane and other clergy from the country.

Despite Vatican II, the leadership of the Maryknoll Order was not pleased with his activism. “I was put under a gag order,” he said on one of his appearances on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. “I was told not to speak, not to write anything about Guatemala, and as a result of that, I went to The Washington Post and released all the information I had. That went out to some 400 newspapers, proving that the U.S. was engaged militarily in Guatemala, that it was using napalm, that the Green Berets were there, and that this was our Latin Vietnam.”

When he married another peace activist, who was a Maryknoll nun, Bonpane was promptly excommunicated from the Church. But he maintained his commitment to liberation theology. He and his wife, Theresa, founded the Office of the Americas in 1983, continuing to organize in solidarity with Central Americans and other oppressed people for decades.

Ironically, their organization is based in Santa Monica, the same liberal bastion where Stephen Miller grew up. Miller, just 33 years old, is one of Trump’s key White House advisers, and is the driving force behind Trump’s most xenophobic policies, including several attempts at a Muslim ban and migrant family separations. Miller also espouses a chillingly autocratic view of presidential power. Appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Feb. 12, 2017, Miller said, “Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

Questioning power is exactly what Blase Bonpane spent his life doing. A former Marine turned priest, Bonpane titled his autobiography “Imagine No Religion,” borrowing the phrase from John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” World renowned linguist and dissident Noam Chomsky said: “I am often asked by young people, deeply disturbed by the state of the world, ‘What can I do to make this sad world a better place?’ An eloquent answer now is, ‘Read Blase Bonpane’s autobiography. If you can aspire to a fraction of what he has achieved, you will look back on a life well lived.’”

As President Trump and Stephen Miller escalate their assault on migrants from Central America, threatening to continue the cruel policy of separating children from their parents, those who would honor the memory of Blase Bonpane should heed the words of early 20th-century labor organizer Joe Hill, quoted prominently on the website of the Office of the Americas: “Don’t mourn. Organize.”

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