Following is Blase Bonpane's account of La Marcha. Guerrillas of Peace on the Air is
a compilation of many of his Los Angeles-based
KPFK radio programs. The book is available through The
Office of the Americas, which continues to lead in the struggle
against U.S. imperialism.
For citation purposes, book page numbers appear on this page at the left margin,
as if at the top of the book page.
The International March for Peace in Central America
December 10, 1985 — January 24, 1986
Columbus sailed the coast of Panama and called it "Veragua." Here Balboa "discovered"
the Pacific Ocean in 1513 and here
Pizarro used the isthmus to transport his Peruvian plunder to Spain.
By 1572 Francis Drake was attacking the mule trains of treasure as they crossed the
narrow link from Pacific to Atlantic.
William Parker and Henry Morgan followed the example of Drake and burned Panama
City to the ground in 1671.
Everyone wanted the isthmus. What the Spanish lost and what the British plundered
was formed into a tiny nation by the
sculptor Theodore Roosevelt. Since its creation in 1903, Panama has survived the
presence of fourteen U.S. military bases
and a Canal Zone. The country does not claim to be part of Central America. Nor
is it thought of as part of South America
although it was formerly part of Colombia.
Now it was our turn. We hoped that our presence would not be as negative as those
who came before us. While the Panamanians
did not seem afraid of us, carefully contrived press of dubious origin made our
people appear to be a combination of the
conquistadores and the barbarians.
The International March for Peace in Central America had begun. Early in December
internationalists began to assemble in
Panama City at a humble suburban retreat, Centro Gomez y Gomez. The Danes came,
the Swedes, the Norwegians, the Germans,
the Finns, the Australians, the Dutch, the Japanese. There was Iceland, and
Canada, France, Mexico, Argentina, Guatemala,
England, New Zealand, Scotland, Ecuador, Belgium, Costa Rica, El Salvador,
Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, and the largest
delegation of all: The United States of America.
There was something pentecostal about the spirit, the languages, the singing and
the sports as these nations gathered,
communicated and celebrated the beginning of this historic march.
As a member of the directorate, I was preoccupied about how we were going to keep
ourselves together for the six weeks ahead.
Our logistical problems were endless. For months we had planned on how to maintain
over three-hundred people in a tropical
setting. We had not answered all the questions. But we were determined to begin.
While the marchers had little knowledge of Central America, they did have a great
desire for world peace.
These were not passive people. There was pronounced individualism, almost adventurism;
an eagerness to try anything in the name of peace. The only quality in absence was fear.
We gathered at the National Lottery Building in Panama City for the official opening
of the March in the late afternoon of December 10th, 1985. After an opening statement
by novelist Graham Greene, Panama's senior spokesman, Jorge Illueca, gave the opening
address. Illueca reminded the audience that today was the 37th anniversary of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that, as a nation involved in the Contadora
Process, Panama sought a solution to the Central American conflict without war.
Illueca spoke of the heroic sacrifices of the marchers saying that this was a struggle
not of soldiers with arms but of messengers of peace, as the dove which brought
good news to Noah in the biblical account, we marchers were bringing the olive
branch to the convulsed isthmus of Central America to promote worldwide peace.
We were welcome in Panama in spite of the red-baiting of the Panamanian press and paid
ads placing slogans foreign to our march under our logo, in other words, sabotage.
Aggressive, rhetorical, dogmatic, psuedo-revolutionary phrases were listed below our
peace dove. It seems that some entity, most probably the CIA, had been hard at work
to discredit the March. I asked a reporter from Newsweek to remind the CIA of the
peril such propaganda could cause for us.
Panamanians, however, did not seem afraid of us. But only a few joined our ranks. Our
first action was in commemoration of the raising of the Panamanian flag over the Canal
Zone in 1964 when twenty four Panamanian high school students were killed. This act
led to the breaking of relations between Panama and the United States by President
Chiari. We retraced the steps of the students. But we were an undisciplined unit.
Hence we decided to dedicate a good bit of the ,next day to discipline and preparation
for our next action, the march to Fort Howard.
We gathered at the tomb of General Omar Torrijos which is located in Balboa within
the Canal Zone. It was a time for speeches by
us and by the Panamanians. Torrijos' father and sister were present. Our homage
was genuine but some of our marchers had to take cover from the tropical sun and
sit under trees. The critical need for hats and canteens was demonstrated at this
event. Monitors were trained, and we became a more serious marching group.
We stood at the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal and sang peace songs to the
passengers of various ships including the famous Love Boat as these vessels sank
low enough to pass on into the waters of the Pacific.
Jesse Jackson called me on that same day saying,
"The Rainbow Coalition supports the International March for Peace in Central America.
It is as Ghandi's March to the Sea and King's March to Washington, to Montgomery and
to Selma. People who are willing to put their lives on the line are bringing light
to Central America by this March.
This is a time of genocide in Central America This is a time of military
oppression. The U.S. government should meet with President Ortega. It would be mutually
beneficial. This is not the same as Somoza's period of tyranny. We must respect the
sovereignty of Nicaragua and end our sanctions. We must create relations which will
make us all proud. We must support the Contadora process not by ignoring the Contra
Invasion of Nicaragua but by acknowledging it, and stopping it.
Many are dying on bloody battlefields, others are choked off by the
International Monetary Fund and bear the burden of years of economic domination.
I am happy that Reagan and Gorbachev met in Geneva, but they made no
accord on human rights. This is not a matter of peace between East and West. This
is a matter of peace with justice in Central America.
I want to express my support for the gallant men and women marching in
Central America. Political colonizers have been conquered. Economic colonizers have
not been conquered. We must remove the debt. People want peace as opposed to quietness.
My prayers are with you and know that peace is the presence of justice,
health care, housing and job training. The golden rule is the measure of foreign policy
and there is no way we can have peace without justice. We must light candles in the
night and in the day. We must look for honest people.
This march will have an impact on the United States. We cannot turn the
lights out on Central America.
I will be with you soon, brother, and remember,
The Lord is our Shepherd, we shall lack nothing.
Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall fear no evil."
The words of the 23rd Psalm had never been more meaningful to me than on that torrid
day in Panama when Jesse called.
Our march at the Southern Command was disciplined and effective. Torrill Eide and
I went ahead to make sure we were at the proper entrance of Fort Howard, and we
made a few wrong turns before we were ready to give the signal to the marchers
waiting on the highway. Our tactic was to tell the military exactly what was about
to happen so they would not panic or overreact.
This demonstration had no historical precedent. People from twentyfive countries
marched up the hill to the entrance of Fort Howard to be met by the commanding officer,
a Panamanian. While the officer would not permit passage of the March through the
base, he did cooperate fully with our alternate plan. Each and every one of the
three hundred marchers would request permission to enter the base, and he would
subsequently deny permission individually. This was done in the spirit of the Posadas:
the Christmas custom in Latin America to reenact the search of Joseph and Mary for
a place to stay. Had the officer not been a Latin American, this cultural act
would have been impossible. It was a Central American custom which he knew and
accepted. Group after national group arrived at the main gate singing and waving
the flag of their country.
This base was selected because it is the center for the forces of state terror in
Central America. From here bombs are delivered to El Salvador for the indiscriminate
bombing of the Salvadoran people. From here the training of Contra mercenaries
takes place. Standing behind the Panamanian commanding officer were two U.S. Air
Force officers who were not anxious to talk until someone brought up the subject
of retirement in Panama. They were for it. The entire demonstration took about
three hours. We left Fort Howard knowing our position in history had been established.
Our efforts would have been a success if we had gone no further.
Even now we are aware of trouble at the next nation up the Pan American Highway.
We have received word that it may not be possible to enter Costa Rica. Our visas
have been cut back to twelve
hours. The March may reach a dead-end at the northern border of Panama in the state
I called Ambassador Lewis Tambs in Costa Rica, and he assured me he would seek cooperation
from the Costa Rican government for an extension of our visas. He said, however, as it
stood now we would be undocumented aliens in Costa Rica after twelve hours. We certainly
have many friends in the United States who share the same status.
Later the same day Ambassador Tambs assured Senator Cranston's office that a political
officer of the U.S. Embassy would be at the border to observe the International Peace
March. We were leaving Panama with warm feelings for and from the Panamanian people.
The critically important help of the Panamanian support committees led us to understand
the need for local assistance in each country.
To deal with the impasse at the Costa Rican border, Torrill Eide, Daniel Moore and I
flew from Panama City to San Jose, Costa Rica, to seek full governmental permission
and to remove any fears the government might have of our presence. As we departed by
air, the March continued by land toward the Costa Rican border. Neither we nor the
rest of the marchers knew that they would be detained for some 48 hours at the Costa
When our delegation of three arrived in San Jose, President Monge had already denounced
the march as an action of the extreme left. Terror was in the faces of our Costa Rican
preparation committee when we arrived at 3:00 AM. They knew we had arrived at the airport
at 9:00 PM. They could not understand why it took us six hours to get from the airport
to the city. Well, it took us two hours to get through customs. When we finally realized
some people were looking for us, we avoided them because they looked suspicious; we did
not recognize anyone we knew. We did not acknowledge our reception group until we had
studied them for some time. After successfully communicating with our hosts, we started
toward the city and had car trouble half way there. Hence the preparation committee thought
we had been arrested or kidnapped.
Word from the border informed us that the March was being threatened by Costa Rica Libre.
Until this time I did not know there was such an organization. I called the Minister of
Security and ran into a flood of negativity. The march could not go to the university
because his Ministry does not have jurisdiction over the university; we could not have
any public meetings; we must be out of the country In twelve hours: we may not visit anything
or anyone. We are in transit and we must keep
going. Those who are now at the border must not come to San Jose. If there is a confrontation
of any kind, he said, the March would be expelled by police escort directly to the Nicaraguan
border. I was speaking to Benjamin Pisa, and he insisted that groups of rightists were waiting
to attack us. He said that sixty to eighty taxis representing the extreme right were preparing
to blockade the Pan American Highway.
This was the first of various phone calls to Pisa. I wanted to maintain contact at all cost.
For some reason I found the man accessible. Finally on a Sunday morning I called to say, "May
I come by your home and talk to you personally?" He agreed. Here was the godfather. Research
from nationals enlightened me; Benjamin Pisa is not only the Minister of Security, but he is
also the founder of Costa Rica Libre. Sitting in his palatial home, I was told that he did not
think he could protect us. I had heard the same words almost twenty years before in Guatemala.
But at that time it was from the U.S. Ambassador. The phrase is, of course, a diplomatic threat.
I asked Pisa if he could please allow our marchers to come to San Jose for humanitarian
reasons. By now they had been held up at the border for almost 48 hours with little food
and less water. They had no shelter and Costa Rica Libre was there to taunt them. It was
ironic; on the horns of their cabs they were playing the Nicaraguan song, "No pasaran,"
but in this case the words applied to the March. At last Pisa agreed to let the group
come into San Jose if they remained in effect under house arrest at the youth hostel
where the three of us were staying. We agreed that this would be better than nothing
and word was sent to the border to let the March pass. Pisa kept repeating that if
there is a confrontation of any kind the entire group would be expelled to the border
of Nicaragua under police escort.
After a long tense wait, the marchers arrived in San Jose. A substantial number of Costa
Rican security forces stood guard in front of the youth hostel. Literally hundreds of
Costa Ricans had come onto the property to welcome the March. This angered Benjamin Pisa.
As the marchers arrived in full force, the security officers began to fade away. But as
uniformed security officers disappeared, plainclothed individuals of Costa Rica Libre
multiplied. Hand grenades of CS gas were thrown at us. We picked up the empty canisters
to read "Made in U.S.A." This is not old fashioned tear gas. It is much more powerful and
much more dangerous. [Footnote here: O-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile]
Marchers were sickened by it as
they attempted to enter the youth hostel. A deadly barrage of bricks and stones followed.
We were under attack for about two hours, and we were wall-to-wall people. Every missile
was hitting someone. Tables were placed in front of windows. The youth hostel was in shambles.
The Red Cross arrived to take away some of the injured. Marchers called the embassies of
their homelands asking for protection. I awakened a sleepy Marine at the U.S. Embassy
at about 2:00 AM. He said he would, "Do what be could."
At approximately 2:30 AM, just as we were expecting the attackers to invade, Benjamin Pisa
himself arrived and waved off his organization, the Costa Rica Libre. Then he entered the
hostel and ordered us to be out of San Jose by seven in the morning. We were being expelled
from Costa Rica.
Our marchers were very tired. Some were emotionally upset and others were injured. The
directorate of the March determined not to awaken the group for a 7:00 Am departure. It
was now close to 3:00 Am. We determined to simply let them sleep, which they did.
The following morning, we were not ready at seven. We were not ready at eight. By nine,
Benjamin Pisa appeared and said, "If you are not out of here by noon, I will remove all
of my security people." This was a clear threat to give us back to Costa Rica Libre. Our
group was so combative, especially the young, that they did not care. They were ready
to confront Costa Rica Libre once again. It would have been a one-sided bloody confrontation
between armed violent fanatics and unarmed pacifists. I could not help but think of the
early Christians being fed to the lions. Initially the Costa Rican preparation committee
had stated they would cooperate with anything we wanted to do. But finally and prudently
they said: "Look, we think it is best for you and for us if you are out of here by noon."
In spite of this counsel, some marchers still wanted to vote on whether or not we should
leave. Fortunately, in their respect for the Costa Ricans, they agreed to leave at noon
as they were ordered to do. Some wanted to be dragged on to the buses. I had to explain
to them that there is no Central American custom of U.S. civil disobedience and that
it is hard for soldiers to drag anyone while trying to balance an M- 16 at the ready.
We were expelled from San Jose under heavy security.
During this entire March, we had press contacts from CNN, McNeill-Lehrer, CBS, UPI, AP, all
local media, radio, etc., and in spite of these constant contacts with national and
we heard from the United States that the press coverage was quite light. This seems to
indicate a heavy-handed editing at the U.S. end. It is not that they did not have the
material, it is quite obvious that they did not want to promulgate this material.
We were still finding it hard to believe that the March was a reality, that we were actually
walking in the jungles of Panama and the mountains of Costa Rica. We made many friends and
received some resistance, but we were becoming a unit. We were thinking together, making
decisions together, and making mistakes together. We looked forward to becoming even more
united, but perhaps this was unrealistic. It seems to me that if five people were walking
together planning to have a picnic, that they should have disagreements and different
ideas as to how to have that picnic. It would be very unrealistic to presume that over
three hundred people could make decisions about traversing seven countries without
severe disagreements. We were not in a posture of military discipline, and it probably
would have been easier if we were, but the kind of discipline represented by the
military is exactly what we were trying to avoid. So we practiced the democracy of
listening to people, hearing them out, and attempting to come to collective decisions,
in most cases with consensus. This was time consuming, and our meetings could be lengthy.
There was little complaining about the hardships of the journey. Within a few days people
became accustomed to sleeping wherever they could, be it in the open, or in some cases,
inside of schools or union facilities. Most of the time, sleeping was on the ground. Insects,
of course, were a great problem and there were many bites. Water is an eternal problem in
Central America, not only because of the shortage of quantity in some places, but also the
dubious quality. There were the usual gastro-intestinal diseases. Food at best was simple,
and sometimes sparse. But most of the decisions, discussions and differences were on
matters of tactics and strategy rather than on the living conditions.
Prior to this summary expulsion from Costa Rica, a few of us had two significant meetings
unobserved by the Costa Rican authorities. The first was with Jose Figueres, former president
and senior statesman of Costa Rica. As president in 1948, he had discontinued the Costa
Rican military. He, as other Costa Rican citizens, was ashamed of the growth of the
neo-fascist Costa Rica Libre organization. He told us to have all of the marchers come
to his hilltop home and assured us that such a meeting could not be considered public be-
cause his home was private. Don Pepe Figueres is up in years now, but he is still willing
to confront corruption in his beloved Costa Rica.
Our second unobserved meeting was with Archbishop Arieta of San Jose, Costa Rica. After
attending Mass at the Cathedral, I approached the Archbishop in the sacristy. He recognized
me immediately and said in English, "Father Bonpane, we understand your program." I asked
him if he would support the Peace March,
and he began a ten minute ethereal commentary on how he could not support the Peace March
and how the Church was for peace. To our surprise, the prelate concluded his discourse by
saying, "Yes, you can celebrate Mass in this Archdiocese for your Peace March ... but not
in my Cathedral." We had planned to go ahead with such a Mass in the open air, but the
Ministry of Security had other plans.
Speculating on the impact of the International Peace March in Costa Rica, the revulsion
of Costa Ricans at the brutal attacks on us may have led voters away from the hawkish
Angel Miguel Calderon and contributed to the election of the more centrist Oscar Arias.
We were asking ourselves, however, "If things are so difficult in peaceful Costa Rica,
how will it be in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala?" But this apprehension did not
last long. The spirit of the March was one of achievement and optimism. Some weeks after
the attack in San Jose, we were pleased to read that the Costa Rican Association of
Jurists had demanded of President Monge that Costa Rica Libre be dissolved precisely
because of its attack on the International March for Peace in Central America. Government
officials were living in terror of the organization. Costa Rica Libre was directly
linked to the Contra mercenaries and as such opened up employment opportunities for
rapists murderers and thieves.
One sudden current of concern jolted the March as we were nearing the northern border of
Costa Rica under heavily-armed escort; we were prisoners. The Costa Ricans could turn us
over to the ARDE Contras because there is no direct contact with Nicaraguan authorities
at the Costa Rican border station. The Nicaraguan station is inland some five kilometers
after a no-person's land of devastation. It was not bizarre to speculate that the Contras
would be waiting in that sinister location.
But the Nicaraguans were not about to let this happen. They personally came through the
no-person's land to meet us at the Costa Rican customs gate. This was a risk for the
Nicaraguans, but they are accustomed to taking risks for their friends. We were extremely
this heroic reception. We had left word with our Costa Rican committee to please inform
Managua that we would be arriving in Nicaragua early and against our will. Father Ernesto
Cardenal had been waiting all day until he became ill and had to return to Managua.
We passed through this devastated, dismal, destroyed region without incident.
When we arrived at the Nicaraguan customs gate, we were admitted as a group with
no complications or paper shuffling. A few kilometers up the road an entire community
was waiting for us. We were recipients of gifts including a well preserved deer head
and neckerchiefs. We exchanged greetings with town elders, children and Mothers
of Heroes and Martyrs. The latter group is everywhere as living witness to the
terrorism inflicted on Nicaragua by Contras.
Much of our time in Nicaragua was in areas with a Contra presence. There was a
strategic value to such a presence. The Contras were aware of our international
mix and were less apt to attack. Marching from town to town, we were spontaneously
received by people who refuse to be terrorized. In Palacaguina we began singing
"Cristo ya Nacio in Palacaquina" and the townspeople continued as a choir.
Nicaraguan students welcomed us at the coffee co-op known as El Chaguiton. The
danger here was such that we could go no more than one kilometer from the camp
during the day and no more than 50 meters at night (that was the distance of the
outhouses). Devastation of the Contra war was everywhere. Our limitations were
taken seriously by all but the Spaniards who wandered off into the mountains and
who were not expected to return. By some good fortune they came back unharmed.
Throughout Nicaragua we received nothing but good will and welcome. It was a country
at peace. Its peaceful and nonviolent people were being attacked from the outside,
and they were responding as peaceful and nonviolent people by defending their
families and their country.
But there was a pall hanging over us within this island of good will in Central
America. Word was coming from all sides; we were unwelcome in Honduras. Honduras
is the only country to the north with a Nicaraguan border. El Salvador has no
border to Nicaragua (Washington does not seem to know this). In short, we began
to fear that Nicaragua could be the northern terminus of our odyssey.
We made our way up the Pan American Highway to the border town of El Espino in the
province of Madriz in Nicaragua. The town had been completely destroyed; there was
no living soul in El Espino. This was to be our stand for seven days in an attempt
to enter by land
into Honduras. We were greeted by the Cobras, an elite group of Honduran troops who were
adorned with gas masks and rifles at the ready.
Behind the Cobras was a contradictory emblem, "Bienvenido a Honduras" (Welcome to
Honduras). We stood at the very line of the border; we sang, we chanted, we talked
to them, but no one would respond to us. We tried every way of getting some kind of
communicative response, and after some four hours I personally received a gesture
from a man dressed in white. At his insistence I crossed into Honduras and asked him
if our group could enter. He said, "No, you will never enter Honduras." He asked me if
I was a priest, and I said that I was. He said that priests should be in their churches,
and should not be involved in political activities. He asked me if I had seen the
arms in Nicaragua. I told him that I was not a military man, and was not able to tell
him the kinds of arms. He told me that Nicaragua had shown us only what they wanted
us to see. He further said that Nicaragua had to disappear. He then asked to see my
passport, and read it through page by page. He said, "You have been in Nicaragua too
many times. You must know more than what you are saying. I do not believe that you
do not know more about Nicaragua. You say you have seen schools. You say you have
seen churches. I want to know what else you have seen." His tone was threatening.
He repeated, "You will not pass." I asked if we could pass simply in transit to El
Salvador or to Guatemala. He said, "No," he said, "Honduras is a country of peace.
We do not need a peace march in Honduras. We are a peaceful people."
I told this man, who would not identify himself but who was obviously in charge of
the customs house in Honduras, that I had visited recently with Edgardo Paz Barnica,
the Foreign Minister of Honduras. This was the result of another quick trip made
by me and two other members of the March to Tegucigalpa. We had flown from Managua
to Tegucigalpa in order to visit with the Honduran Peace March preparation committee.
We found them receptive, helpful; members of the University community, members
of the unions, women demonstrating in the Plaza of the Cathedral demanding that
we be admitted; and in spite of the fact that we were there on Christmas Eve,
we were able to visit the home of the Foreign Minister, who indicated that we
would be allowed to enter the country legally. We spoke, however, with the
Minister of the Interior, who gave us another message. In Honduras the lines
of governmental authority are not clear, but certainly the ultimate authority
is the military.
While we could not enter some areas by road, we were having success by air. That is,
by arriving in small groups, and without much fanfare.
Getting back to the man in white: When I told him that Paz Barnica had been enthusiastic
about our visit to Honduras, he was not impressed. He seemed to view the government
officials and ministers with nothing but contempt. He obviously represented the military,
the actual political, visible power in Honduras.
The International March for Peace in Central America was the major item in the Central
American press from December 10th through January 22nd. We were very pleased to receive
positive press in Honduras, revealing that the nation was making a grave mistake by not
allowing us into that country. After seven days on that Honduran border with little
food or water, it was time for the march to plan on entering Honduras, El Salvador
and Guatemala by air. We retreated to Managua to reconnoiter.
We rented one room at the Intercontinental Hotel to serve as a communication center.
From there, we distributed marchers throughout the three countries. The plan was
simple: Send a few by air to Tegucigalpa, have them report back by phone and with
their approval, send another group, and another. They assembled as a unit. The plan
was successful. Our Honduran team spoke to Miskito Indians forced to serve as Contras.
The Honduran people expressed bitter opposition to occupation by the United States
military. People on the street are quick to express their antipathy for the
denationalization of their country. Honduran misery has not been limited one bit
by hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars expended for military purposes. Literacy
has not improved, infant mortality has not decreased and unemployment is the rule.
Honduras remains a conquered, occupied country with a high level of resentment.
While sending people into Honduras, we simultaneously began to send small groups into
El Salvador, once again awaiting their response upon arrival, and then sending more after
them. We were inspired by the response of the Salvadoran preparation committees. Our arrival
in El Salvador in early 1986 was greeted by a march of over a thousand Salvadorans who
declared their march to be our march, the International Peace March in Central America.
They used our slogans and symbols. This was undoubtedly the boldest gesture of any of
the nationals on the March to this point. The Salvadorans together with
the international marchers began a trek towards San Francisco Gotera from San Salvador.
They were physically stopped, forced to turn around and return to the capital. There were
interrogations by the military. Brigido Sanchez, a Salvadoran, was arrested and imprisoned.
The Salvadoran commander put his arms around Brigido and stated cynically, "We will take
care of you, Brigido." The Salvadoran marchers occupied the basement of the Cathedral of
San Salvador, and stayed in that location for three days together with our marchers. The
next attempt for the combined group was to march west to Santa Ana. The Salvadoran military
intervened and the group was once again ushered back to San Salvador.
We had asked the Salvadorans if we would be jeopardizing their safety by marching with them.
They insisted that whether we were there or not they were always in danger and that our presence
would not hinder their safety. They were determined to continue marching with or without us.
They urged us to continue doing what we were doing. In each country the greatest wisdom came
from the citizens who were indigenous to the country, and in each case the safety of our
marchers was assured only by listening to the wisdom of the local people. There are no experts
on such matters. Many of the people we had consulted prior to the march had rejected our
proposal. Nobel Prize laureate Perez Esquivel of Argentina was convinced a march of this
type was much too dangerous and could not succeed. Many told us we would never get out
of Panama. Others said we could in no way get beyond Nicaragua. Here we were, already
crossing Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador and now waiting for
the greatest challenge of all, that of Guatemala.
The time was right for Guatemala. The country was preparing for the inauguration of Vinicio
Cerezo Arevalo, the new president, and was attempting to give an image of democracy to the
world. We considered chartering a plane from Managua to Guatemala City to get the entire
march into Guatemala, but if we chartered a plane we would come under the jurisdiction of
the Guatemalan military, and the Guatemalan military would never authorize such a charter.
By arranging regularly scheduled flights, we were able to fly group after group into
Guatemala, in the form of tourists, and to prepare for the unveiling of our march on
the day of Cerezo's inauguration, January 14th. It worked. Our people unveiled their
posters and banners as part of the inaugural celebration. There was no opposition from
the Guatemalan military.
The March was joined by members of the GAM (Grupo Apoyo Mutuo), the families of the disappeared,
in Guatemala City. Local citizens joined us in the streets. The Peace March in Guatemala City
will be remembered as the first international peace demonstration since the CIA destroyed
democracy in Guatemala in 1954.
The March went on to Quetzaltenango, and again took to the streets. The March was welcomed by
the Mayor, a gesture no one expected. On into the high country of Huehuetenango. A jubilant
international throng marched through the devastation to be joined by Indians as if long
expected and long awaited. Almost two hundred marchers were now together in Guatemala.
None of us had thought this possible in this nation with one of the world's worst
human rights records.
A delegation from the March was permitted to visit a "Model Village." These camps are modeled
on the strategic hamlets of Vietnam. People are thrown together from various linguistic
backgrounds living in utter misery. The schools are non-functional, and terror is in their
faces. Hundreds of thousands of men are now part of the civil counterinsurgency patrols.
Movement from place to place is by permission only. Even the flow of refugees to Mexico
We were aware that all of Central America was talking about the March. Personally I was concerned
that after the jubilation of the Guatemala experience, marchers might think they were home free
in Mexico. As the marchers were still in Guatemala waiting to cross to the Mexican side, the
Mexican committee began to chant some revolutionary slogans. I had to ask them to stop and at
least give our people a chance to get on the Mexican side before they started that type of
chanting because the Guatemalans could have clamped down at any time.
As we poured across the border at Cuauhtemoc in Chiapas, we were in a distinctly new political
situation. All of the Mexican political parties endorsed our March including the all-powerful
PRI. Minority parties took advantage of us by surrounding us with their banners and their
symbols. We had a meeting with representatives of most of the minority parties and asked them
to respect the fact that we were an autonomous march representing no partisan interest. We
were here to support: nonintervention, self-determination, human rights, and the Contadora
process. Two representatives of one of the more rigid parties objected saying, "Don't we
have a right to use our banners as we wish?" Our response: "This is not a matter of rights;
it is a
matter of tactics among compañeros." Our meeting led to full agreement and for us demonstrated
the maturity of the Mexican parties. Beyond this agreement was the accord that we would not
focus on Mexican domestic problems which are many. Our attention was on Washington, D.C.
(Mexico is not aiding the Contras). We believe that Mexico is the key to a successful
The Mexican preparation committees were in accord with us. We proceeded to San Cristobal de las
Casas to be received by hundreds of people including the great Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia. He is
responsible for the welfare of over one-hundred thousand Guatemalan refugees in Chiapas. The
Mexican government refused to give us permission to visit the refugee camps, but all we had
to do was visit the hillsides around us. They were everywhere.
A march around this frigid high-altitude city was followed by a festive ecumenical celebration
at the Cathedral. Some of the antireligious Europeans were reborn at this celebration expressing
their comprehension of a liberation theology experience. They had not previously seen Buddhist
monks receive holy communion. They had not heard the marimbas in the sanctuary, They had not
heard the commentary of people applying scriptures to the here and now. They had not heard
a bishop break into tears on the first sentence of his sermon saying: "The people of Latin
America are oppressed and I'm sorry to say many of the oppressors call themselves Christians."
The March proceeded to Tuxtla Gutierrez and was again received by large crowds of people
as it proceeded on its way to Juchitan and Tehuantepec to be received by another model
Bishop. Bishop Arturo Lona Reyes. He is generally dressed in Levis and a T-shirt with a
tiny wooden cross around his neck. Because of his opposition to the Mexican land-owning
class, it is often necessary for him to sleep in different locations night after night.
As we approached Puebla, a town I had last seen when the Pope was present in 1979, the
crowds became massive. Thousands of people were there to march with us. We began to feel
a culminating spirit of the March. We felt the impact of six weeks of nonstop Central
American press, both pro and con. We began to realize the historic impact of this March
and were able to prepare ourselves, at least in part, for what was to greet us in
It was overwhelming to arrive at the Juarez Monument in Mexico City and understand that
the crowds were there for us. Fifty thousand
people marched with us to Chapultepec Park to the Monument of Niños Heroes to culminate the
March with a stirring speech by Archbishop Mendez Arceo. Members of the Mexican Congress
marched with us. The Mexican press was extremely positive; Mexico City probably has more
daily newspapers than any other city in the world. It was hard for us to realize we had
reached our goal; we had completed the March.
The energy and enthusiasm of everyone was certainly at a high point in that frigid Mexican
cold, zero degrees Centigrade, where we celebrated the final hours with a huge fiesta, and
where all the participant nations gave their cultural best for the Mexican people. We stayed
at the Sports Palace that night. I could not believe the energy of the participants. After
a day of marching, singing and celebrating, they began a soccer game at 1:00 AM.
The United States delegation went directly to Washington early the next morning, January
24, 1986, and demonstrated at the Vietnam Memorial. Local and national press arrived. From
that point, we went to the State Department for an hour-long demonstration and vigil, and
spent the rest of the day lobbying in Congressional offices.
The March will now continue in nations around the world as an international secretariat
for peace. Our objective in such a march is to change the means of change; to ask the
whole world to think about the fact that military methods are not the only methods to
bring about change. Once people understand these new methods of change, they will surpass
the old methods of change. Fidelity to the past requires the ability to change. Those
who repeat the ignorance, the racism, the brutality of the past, are unfaithful to the
past. Those who are willing to change, to understand change, are the faithful to the
past because they have learned from the past. Our intention is to take the methods
which Reverend James Lawson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and Ghandi applied
on a national level and extend them internationally. We are very grateful that the
March was completed without the loss of life. We had anticipated that lives might
be lost on a march of this type and we had talked about that eventuality with all
of the marchers.
We were moved by the absence of fear and the willingness of the marchers to do almost
anything in order to make their plea for peace. Speaking personally, it was necessary
for me time and again to restrain people who had adventurist or bizarre ideas they would
have carried out spontaneously. Some of the marchers were inclined to do
things that would have brought harm not only to themselves but to all of the other marchers
as well. I think that the greatest safety valve for the March was the national preparation
committees. We listened to them. Even if people were not concerned about their own lives,
we were able to convince them to be concerned about the lives of those who remained behind
after we left.
Some Reflections on the March:
I kept thinking about the Book of Exodus. After fleeing the oppression of Egypt,
Moses was confronted by people who missed the Egyptian food. There were complaints.
They had set out not knowing where they were going. In similar fashion, our day
to day insecurity led to anxiety. We made no attempt to claim this as the best
possible march in Central America. It happened to be the only March in Central
America and, as such, one of the hopes for nonviolent change in Central America,
Success does not depend on how far we walk but rather on the fruits of our labor.
Our unity is in our agreement on the objectives of the March, not on when, how or
where we march. There were differences on such matters. Some of the young people
wanted to log in more kilometers per day. Often it was not possible to walk even
five kilometers in a day. Many times it was necessary for me to repeat the axiom
of Jesus, "Sufficient for the day is the trouble thereof." Calm and confidence were
essential to combat anxiety and disaster. The luxury of losing control even for a
moment was not acceptable. It was often necessary to debate other members of the
directorate publicly. What people want to do is simply what they want to do, not
necessarily the best thing to do. We had to ask people not to be so in love with
their idea of what the March should be that they could not accept anything else.
Many great actions in history were matters of waiting. Gandhi was frequently waiting
out the British. Desmond Tutu waited out some situations in South Africa. It is
harder to endure than to attack.
The Buddhist monks were the contemplative heart of the March. Their constant prayers,
their constant chanting, their drums, served as a great unifying element. Several days
in Managua they chanted from sunup to sundown. They prayed through the day at the
destroyed Cathedral in Managua and did not eat or drink until evening.
One of the very bizarre ideas during the March was to attempt to take launches from
the town of Potosi, Nicaragua across the Gulf of Fonseca to the Salvadoran town of La
Union. These launches were actually dug-out canoes with motors on them. This launch
proposal was made in a demagogic, can-you-top-this fashion. I opposed it.
In spite of the fact that the action was admittedly being done for media purposes
(another reason I opposed it), a substantial number of our people, especially the
Danes (the Vikings), proceeded north toward Potosi, Nicaragua. They were interrupted
on the way with word that the Salvadorans would not permit the launches to land at
La Union and that any such action would be considered a provocation by the Sandinista
government of Nicaragua. Without a doubt, adventurism was one of the occupational
hazards of this march.
At worst, I thought of some individuals as suicidal. But that was generally
not the case. I was quite worried during the seven-day vigil at the Honduran
border that some people were simply going to walk across in defiance of the
Cobras. I heard discussion of this tactic and even support for it from sources
that I thought would know better.
While our March was in El Salvador, Archbishop Rivera y Damas was with a group of
priests and sisters in Chalatenango and came under heavy bombardment from the
Salvadoran Air Force. They were in the community of Guarjila when A-37 aircraft of
U.S. manufacture indiscriminately attacked the city with bombs and rockets.
One of my happiest recollections of the March was a personal visit with Rigoberta
Menchu (please read her book: I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman of Guatemala,
Verso Press, London, 1984).
It is important to mention a criticism of Rigoberta's book which was written by
David Stoll, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. (Westview,
1999). But even more important is the scholarly response to Stoll's criticism
written by Julie Bolt, "Towards an Active Utopia: Truth-making in Menchu, Stoll,
and the Classroom" an article in The Review of Education / Pedagogy / Cultural
Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3. pp. 265-279. A linguistic expert told me that Rigoberta,
now a Nobel Laureate, actually speaks in verse. Here are some of her words to me
translated into English:
The new president will make demands
But his demands will not be permitted.
The Military is going to select the Minister of Defense
Not the President.
Power has been militarized.
Our men are mobilized into Civil Patrols.
A special cedula (internal passport) awaits
Those who are accepted by the Fundamentalist
People of Nahuala have become fundamentalists.
People who used to be Catholics.
Why have they changed religions?
Because they are allowed to go further from the village
To look for firewood if they have a Fundamentalist Cedula.
People are forcibly acculturated.
They build highways.
They grow wheat instead of corn.
We are now living in total misery.
The new government will change names But not reality.
We lack salt.
Salt is sold by pinches.
It would be three or four quetzales per pound.
No one buys a pound
So it is sold in pinches rather than pounds.
We are losing our culture.
There is no other way to preserve our lives
But to lose our culture.
Our people are prisoners in Chiapas.
We lack water.
Those in Campeche have it better.
Do you know that two thousand people died in Alta Verapaz
Rather than to give in to the army.
The army was going to Put them into open prisons.
This was not the only massacre.
They use certain churches to oppress us
A woman told me recently that she could no longer
Make huipiles (blouses woven of many colors).
But now that we cannot make huipiles
We must make history instead. After we make our own history
We will make huipiles again.
Perhaps we were guilty of triumphalism.
We thought victory was right around the corner
But this is not the case.
We must remember the slogans of
Grupo Apoyo Mutuo
To Die Honoring the Name Of our Beloved.
They took them away living. We demand to see them living.
The risk is very great
But Grupo Apoyo Mutuo is an obstacle to the new government
And the new government might strike out at Grupo Apoyo Mutuo.
I know my parents are dead and I am very proud of them
But in my dreams I see my brothers and sisters.
I do not think they are dead.
Many times I dream they are alive.
They were captured by the army
Taken away by night.
I don't know if they are dead or alive.
And now I live in airports
An international diplomat for the Indian people of Guatemala.
I do not have a house, a family, a roof.
I do not have a country
But hundreds of families are supporting me.
I have hope
We can arrive.
We can have greater joy.
Drags take people away from the realities of life
But I have a vision of great change in the world.
People must make history.
I am disturbed at the level of ignorance in the U.S.
I am disturbed at the degree of illiteracy in the U.S.
Your culture wants people to say, "Oh, I didn't know that."
While the March was in El Salvador, we heard about an attack from a U.S.
warship. It appears the FMLN forces were attacking the Salvadoran battalion
Cuscatlan in the area of Usulatan, that is a hundred and thirty kilometers
from the capital of San Salvador. This represents another violation of
United States law which forbids U.S. forces in El Salvador from any acts
of war without an executive order. The ship described was said to be similar
to the destroyer 963 Spruance, the same type that contains missiles capable
of carrying nuclear warheads. The U.S. Defense Department of course denied
the presence of this ship and also denied the attack.
A few of the marchers returned to El Salvador to find out exactly what happened
to Brigido Sanchez. They insist on pursuing the case until he is released. He
symbolizes the many Salvadorans held without charge.
After delays, opposition, attacks, injury, insects, hunger and thirst, anxiety,
disagreements and some sleepless nights, we were in Mexico exactly on the day
planned. We were on schedule in good spirits, and we believe we have had an impact
on Central America as Central America has had an impact on us.
At times I found it difficult to be in a position of authority while living together
with all of the marchers. Military tradition separates officers from enlisted people
to retain authority. But we were the antithesis of military tradition.
As a white male, over fifty, and a U.S. citizen, I think I symbolized everything
that is wrong in contemporary society. Some people had difficulty with that, but most did not.
Group Three was the directorate; it consisted of some seven leaders who deliberated
on issues and projects. Group Two were representatives from each of the national groups.
Group One was the assembly
of national groups. The Spaniards observed that Group One and Group Two did not
function well and that the entire body vote on all things submitted by Group Three.
We gradually accepted the Spanish demands, and put many things to a popular vote.
This was, of course, enormously time consuming, and I think too many issues were
dealt with in this deliberative fashion.
The Danes and the Spaniards were quite similar-they were aggressive, defiant, fearless,
adventuresome and ready at the proper moment to give a united front. These people were
initially anti-religious. At the beginning of the march they had no understanding of
the concept of theology of liberation. The militant example of the Buddhist Monks,
however, gave them a new outlook on religion. The most memorable musical event was
the incredible Danes marching defiantly up to the Honduran Cobras, who were ready
to kill them. The music was Beethoven's Ninth, The Hymn to Joy. The image of these
tough, hard-drinking people will remain forever in my memory.
Some of the pious, selfless, obedient, thoughtful and generous members simply
could not take the strain, and left the March. The Danes and the Spaniards could
sing all night, joke at the world, pay no attention to the fact that some people
wanted to sleep. They could be categorized as thoughtless and selfish, but these
thoughtless, selfish people were making history and they seemed to know it. This
ability to complain and to be one's self, as they were, seemed to keep them going.
I do not know what we would have done if they had stopped complaining.
A few [of] the British women had served at the Greenham Common anti-nuclear demonstrations.
How great people can look with no makeup, no laundry, no water, no fancy clothes. Their
femininity seemed enhanced as did their courage. They complained less than the men.
Occasionally one of them would get understandably hysterical. I recalled the hymn,
"How beautiful the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace," and thought, not
only the feet, but the whole person. At times I would took at them and they seemed
to glow with a spirituality that was not pietistic, that was not self-righteous and
was not sectarian. It was whole.
Occasionally, in my view, some of the marchers looked like children, angry at their father, and
apparently I was the father figure. "We're going to live our own life, this is our project and
we're going to do it our way," they said. It was necessary to point out time and again that
the most dangerous project was not necessarily the most effective and that sometimes
the most selfish project was the most dangerous.
One lad was so desperately ill he could not hear; he remained behind in Esteli
to rest and to get some medicine at the local hospital. Coming down from the
Honduran border I went to his sickbed, moved him into a cab and took him to Managua.
"We are going to the Military Hospital," I said. He responded, "I don't want to go
to the Military Hospital. I'm a pacifist," be said in obvious pain. I insisted,
"You are going to the Military Hospital." The efficient Nicaraguan doctor
carefully diagnosed a mastoid infection, gave shots, medicine and a series
of future appointments. The young man improved rapidly. Of course, there was
no charge. Medical care was free in Nicaragua, for all, including foreign visitors.
This March is a beginning; it is a beginning of the family of nations observing areas
of dispute and arriving as family to attempt peaceful settlement. We are extremely
grateful to all of the people of the globe who contributed their time, their
effort and their money to support the International March for Peace in Central America.
The Impact of the March on Central America
Personnel for Service in Central America:
Many marchers returned to do long term volunteer work in Central America.
Revitalization of the Contadora Peace Process:
On the day our march began we were addressed by the former president of Panama, Jorge
Illueca, a pillar of the Contadora nations. At that moment, December 10, 1985, Contadora
was at its lowest ebb. Illueca made the following prophecy:
The March of these messengers of peace will light a flame of hope in the region and
will contribute to creating a climate to stimulate and revitalize the Contadora negotiations.
We marched for a full month before the Contadora Group met again. Our daily reports
and press conferences were major news in the region during each day of that month.
We believe that our constant support for Contadora as the avenue to a peaceful
settlement prepared the way for the bold proposals of the meeting at Caraballeda
in Venezuela on January 11th and 12th. We believe the prophesy stated by Jorge
Illueca on December 10th was fulfilled on February 10th when all eight Foreign
Ministers present at Caraballeda presented themselves to Secretary of State George
Schultz in Washington, D.C. (the countries represented were Mexico, Panama,
Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina) with the following demands:
- A permanent solution to the Central American conflict must be Latin American. It
must not be considered part of the east-west conflict.
- Self-determination, nonintervention and respect for territorial integrity.
- Observance of human rights.
- Suspension of international military maneuvers.
- Formation of a Central American Parliament.
- Reestablishment of conversations between the United States and Nicaragua.
- No political, logistic or military support for any group intend
ing to subvert or destabilize the constitutional order.
While the Caribbean Basin was saturated with news of the March, the U.S. media
was not. But why call it censorship? Journalists from major U.S. television,
radio and print media traveled with us filed reports from each of the seven
countries on our route. Press conferences were held in all seven countries;
attendance was excellent. The largest delegation on the march was from the
United States. Editors in the U.S. received this material and for the most
part it was shelved. Why
was its shelved? Because of a general support for U.S. foreign policy by major
media. Certainly an opinion piece here or there is accepted as an example of
press freedom. But hard news is generally reported with the implication that
our side is right. Certainly no major media outlet is about to say that the
United States is practicing state terrorism. And that is why our march was
declared to be non-news. We are proud to say, however, that the media crew
of the march produced fifty hours of professional quality video tape. This
material was used to make the award winning documentary Viva La Paz (The
International March for Peace in Central America).
Relationship of U.S. Foreign and Domestic Policy:
We can only hope that by sharing briefly with the Central American people
the brutalization they have suffered, we can be motivated to stop the billions
of dollars in military aid which have contributed nothing but misery to Latin
America. The relationship between such malicious military adventures and
the dismal domestic conditions in the United States should be obvious.
The Costa Rican Association of Jurists demanded of President Monge that the pro
Contra organization Costa Rica Libre be dissolved because of its violent attack
on the International Peace March in Central America.
Revulsion of the local citizens at the attack on the march by Costa Rica Libre
was so intense that it may have tipped the scales away from the favored pro-war
candidate leading to the presidential election of the underdog Oscar Arias who
was later awarded the Nobel Prize for his peacemaking efforts.
The March represented the first demonstration of U.S. internationalists at the
Southern Command in Panama. The huge reception in Mexico City was the largest
that country had seen for any event in five years.
Exposure of Lies:
Witness to the devastation caused by Contra Mercenaries in Nicaragua will bring
to the International community an authentic definition of these so-called
The presence of marchers and other foreign visitors in Contra zones of Nicaragua
and with the Indian people of Guatemala had strategic value in protecting these
people from attack.
An Australian attorney on the march identified the forced recruitment of Miskito
Indians for service as Contras. He judged the Honduran judiciary to be non-functional
and declared Honduras to be a de facto military dictatorship.
Inauguration Day in Guatemala was possibly the only time for such a march to "invade"
that country. Citizens in every part of the country joined us and spoke of the repression
in which they live.
Assurance of Future Assistance:
The people of El Salvador and the rest of Central America know that they can call
on the international peace community to join them in their times of struggle.
Strategy for the Future:
Such Guerrillas of Peace are apt to strike anywhere they might be needed; Seattle,
Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Philadelphia.
LA MARCHA CONTINUARÁ! (The March will continue).
[End chapter. For information on obtaining Guerrillas of Peace on the Air, contact the
Office of the Americas.]