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New interview:
Talking about Development project

By Vera Britto

Father Francisco Ortega, Catholic Church

(Webmaster's Preface: The following item was originally posted on the DEVMEDIA mailing list. It's an interview with a priest who was involved with the Guatemalan clandestine station, La Voz Popular. The interview switches between radio, politics, and religion, so readers interested in only part of that will still want to look through the entire interview.

Father Francisco says that the station was located on a volcano in the ORPA front area. ORPA was one of the smaller Guatemalan guerilla organizations within the URNG. It was based on the volcano immediately behind the town of Santiago Atitlan. I've read elsewhere of how they had the volcano highly fortified with mines, so although he doesn't say so, I'm sure that's the volcano he was talking about. Literary fans might be interested to know that the head of ORPA was the son of Miguel Angel Asturias, the Guatemalan author who won the Nobel Prize for literature in the 1960s. Asturias (the father) started out highly prejudiced against Guatemalan Indians (which he labeled a "disease" in some of his early writings) but later became very interested in their culture and changed his views. His novels, for which he won the Nobel, were based on his in-depth knowledge of the Indian cultures.)

The interview is placed here with permission of the author.


Father Ortega, a Spanish Catholic priest that has lived a great deal of his life in Guatemala, has dedicated his life to working alongside disenfranchised peoples. He brings a fascinating mixture of religion, politics, and communication. We talked about his life history and work, his ideas, and the choices he made in life, as well as the challenges that await Guatemala in the post-war period and the transforming of war into peace, guerrilla groups into political parties. Father Francisco Ortega was the head of the guerrilla's radio station for the URNG (the umbrella organization of the Guatemalan guerrilla during the war). They broadcast during nine years amidst bombings and attacks, being cooped up on an inaccessible volcano mountain side in Guatemala. As I waited in a Latino cafe' in Washington to interview him, I saw a man dressed in plain clothes walk in, to whom the waiter said, "Good morning" "Y yo tengo cara de gringo ahora? Buenos dias!" " (And now do I look like an American?) he joked with the waiter. "That must be Ortega," I guessed.

VB) Could you start with a small introduction about yourself?

I went to Guatemala in 1978 as a priest for the Catholic Church. There I joined a group of priests that worked with peasants in San Marcos (a province in Guatemala near the Mexican border). Together with other priests we became directly involved in a guerrilla organization called ORPA (People in Arms Organization). Well, I stayed about five years in the parish and simultaneously working for the guerrilla organization. Because I understood very well how the situation was in Guatemala in 1978, and it was already very difficult. It was military governments, where the people had no rights, the people lived in extreme poverty, totally exploited, any peasant leader, worker/union leader, was persecuted, students, politicians, they killed them, simply murdered them, or they would kidnap them, torture them and then they would turn up dead.

Therefore, I, as a Christian, had to ask myself: "Which side? Which side will I be on?" On the side of those who are suffering or on the side of the very few wealthy and the military who are making life impossible for the people? So, naturally, one has to side with those that are oppressed, that are suffering, and that are struggling to get out of this situation. This is the reason why I joined a clandestine organization and had been a member until very recently.

In '83-'84 I left the parish because ORPA sent me to another country to do radio production training. Because my background in the seminary had been philosophy, I had studied Humanities, but I needed specific training for radio, because the plan was that the URNG was going to launch a clandestine radio station in the mountains.

So I got ready, and with a few others, we formed the radio group to which I belonged from the start and we produced programs, with tape recorders, writing, etc and we would broadcast them. The radio transmitter was in one zone, and we in another, and we in May 22 of 1987 started our first broadcast. And the station was transmitting until the very end of the war, in 1996. So I was the head of the broadcast team, everything that was written/produced, and I worked there doing broadcasts for seven years until 1994. In 1994, the URNG sent me to Washington to open up an office to do diplomatic work in the name of the URNG, representing them before the Department of State, the Congress, the Senate, the OAS (Organization of American States), before the solidarity groups, the various church groups, etc, etc. I lived in Washington from '94-'97.

In the beginning of '97 I returned to Guatemala. Now the new URNG has another perspective, that is, at this very moment it's converting itself into a political party. So, first of all, I am a foreigner, I'm Spanish, I can't belong to a local political party. During the war, yes, I could belong to a guerrilla group, because that was an international struggle, but to a political party of Guatemala I can't belong to, and, second of all, I'm not interested either. Since I came from a Christian platform as a priest, well then, that is what I have returned to. So I have returned to the Capital and right now I'm working in a poor neighborhood, where people live in horrible conditions, very poor, with great difficulty. I have returned working with another priest, with whom I had worked with before, although he didn't join the struggle. So right now I don't have much to do with the URNG, the work I do now is of a priest in a Church parish.

VB) Where did the idea to become a priest come from?

I joined the seminary because I met a young man in elementary school that was in the seminary. He would come talk to us, he would play soccer with us, and I got a good impression of him, I said to myself, "I want to be like him." So I went to study for several years in the seminary and then I did 3 years of philosophy, at the time I was 18-19 years old and I had to ask myself again, "What am I going to do with my life, what does it mean to be a priest?"

Since we were small we had always been taught us at the seminary that to be a priest is a vocation, it is to work for others, never to think of going after your own comfort, or a mere job to earn a living with. No. The priest is at the service of others, specially to those that are most in need.

So I asked myself at 19, "What am I doing? If that's what it means to be a priest, how do I want to be a priest?" So I decided to transfer from the seminary where I started, in Cordoba, to another seminary in the North of Spain, where they had from each Spanish province other seminarists and that's where they formed the missionary priests to go work in the third world. For me it seemed more coherent, more logical, to dedicate my life working in the third world where there was more need, than to stay in Europe, for example.

So I was ordained when I was 25 and my first directive was that I was told to go to Madrid to get the necessary credentials to teach philosophy. So I spent two more years studying philosophy and together with the other three years that I had already spent, I began to teach philosophy. But in two years there were changes in the seminary, the young men were now going to the civil universities for their studies and so there was no need for us to teach them philosophy or anything, and so, we, the professors, were discharged of this responsibility and I asked to go to Zambia.

With a group of four, we joined another group of priests that was working in Zambia and there I remained for another five years. But the way they were working didn't impress me, because it was a work done with the Church very enclosed in itself, not open to the outside world. So I thought this doesn't seem to be very worth while. This was a form of Christianity that had no commitment with life. Zambia had just obtained its Independence (From England) when I arrived, a political independence that was bestowed, not fought for, and they were all so happy with the Independence, but all the exploitative structures and all remained exactly the same as before, but no one was preoccupied in fighting against injustice, etc etc. I realized that this was not the place for me, because I was not going to waste my life doing little internal Church things, and giving people a rosary here, a rosary there, like the other priests. I said, "I'm leaving."

I returned to Spain where I went to work with the peasants and there I had the chance to meet priests who were returning from Guatemala, because we had an assembly where we met every five years. So they explained to me the dire situation in Guatemala and I said to myself, "This is worth it."

VB) And approximately what year was this?

This was '77-'78. So when I arrived in Guatemala, I already knew more or less what the situation was. This is my personal history.

VB) Can you talk a little about how was your work with the clandestine radio station during the war?

This work with the radio station ("The Popular Voice" ) was interesting because the station fulfilled many functions. First of all, it was to inform the Guatemalan people of many things that the other official media would censor. And the station also informed the combatants the results of the various battles in different places, at each front.

From all fronts we would get updates every day, it would come by other radios. We would then gather all of this information, and we would put it together and explain to all other fronts so that everyone could know what had happened in various parts of the territory.

VB) How many people worked in this "station?"

Just a few, our team had a total of five.

VB) All men or were there women too?

No, there were 3 women. One Mam (an ethnic group), one announcer, and another. Our sources of information were: the commanders of the different guerrilla groups, we also had to read the various newspapers, even though we could only do it in a delayed fashion, we had to monitor every day the other radio stations, to record broadcasts, get news, etc in order to be well informed. We also had a small television and a small laptop computer to write in. So we would gather all the information on the various union, student, peasant struggles, etc, we also had newspapers and we also received letters, even though sometimes with great delay.

VB) Were there many radios or just this one?

Only ours, which was located in one of the ORPA fronts, because each guerrilla organization has its own territory, but all under the URNG. And I was in charge of the radio production team. I had to converse with all the commanders to receive their orientation, etc.

So the radio station fulfilled this important work, because most of the peasants are illiterate, but they do listen to the radio, little ones, they go to work and listen to their radios.

VB) And evidently you were in great danger doing this kind of work, risking your lives?

Yes, but the Army never got us. The Army knew where we were. (He took a napkin and drew a volcano and pointed to the top and the base of the mountain.) The Army had units here and here and here, shooting at us all night long with canons. We were here (about one third down from the top of the volcano), a very difficult area to reach. When the Army tried to reach us by sending soldiers on foot, they never made it, because we had put mines in the whole area of the mountain side. Last March when the peace accords were signed, the helicopters of MINUGUA took out more than 370 mines. But we had put many more. They couldn't advance because they would try and they would get blown up with the mines and that would scare them off. When a mine explodes, the guys in the Army all back up.

And also, because we did our broadcast at 5 and 8 p.m., Tuesdays and Fridays. And here (he points to the region of the volcano where they had been) there is always a very dense fog in the afternoon and so the military helicopters couldn't do anything. So from there we broadcast for nine years.

But we ran into lots of problems. We launched our station with 2 kilowatts of power, short wave, and that's a lot. We were broadcasting all over Guatemala and Central America. But soon our equipment began to deteriorate because of the humidity and we had to decrease to 400 Watts of power, that was a great loss, because we couldn't reach all the territory anymore and that was a problem.

Another problem was that the Army, when they realized that they were not going to be able to climb and shoot us dead, they began to broadcast a noise signal to cause interference at the same time we went to do our broadcast. We had to tell our listeners to keep changing slightly the frequency, it was like cat and mouse.

VB) Going back to religion, are you a Jesuit priest or from such an order?

No, I am a secular clergy, diocesan clergy. That's why in Spain there was only one seminary, because the Jesuits, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Salesians, these orders are different, they have the three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. We do not have a poverty nor a obedience vow, that is, we have more freedom, we depend solely on the bishop where you work and a small hierarchy in Madrid that sends you to different places.

VB) What or who is God for you?

I have never asked myself that question like that. I believe that the world has a beginning, God is basically the supreme being, above us, our father, that sent us his son because he loves us, and that he has to accept us. And what I am doing is to work in his kingdom, here on earth, building his kingdom that is a kingdom of peace, of justice, of love, honesty, all of this is the kingdom of Christ, so that when we die we can join the father. I don't know who it will be, or how, or where, it doesn't worry me, but yes, life has a meaning beyond here. So I have never asked myself who is God (smile). Because as one progresses in life, you leave behind many things you once believed in, and you remain with a few fundamental ones. And I have great faith and hope in the human being.

VB) What do you think will happen to the Catholic Church in the future, what do you think about the fact that the number of men choosing priesthood as a vocation has diminished greatly?

You don't need to worry because the Catholic Church will manage to survive...

VB) (laughter)

The Church is huge, and now, curiously enough, we are seeing a small growth in the number of vocations for priesthood. It is unfortunate though, that those that are beginning now are not thinking along the same lines as I did, it's a more traditional line, more religious, more mystical, as I say, from the doors of the church inward. The Catholic Church has the great advantage of having millions and millions of single women and men willing to work, let's say that they are single (smile), willing to work where they are needed. And this is a great internal labor force for the Catholic Church that makes it grow altogether. I think the Catholic Church will be around until the end of time... (laughter) but there will always be different currents within the Church. I continue to think of myself as being inside the Catholic Church, of course.

VB) And what do you think of the idea of women clergy?

I don't see any problem at all with it. For me, this is not an essential question, when we talk about being a priest, the question of which gender, because a man or a woman can do it just as well. It's simply a custom for the Church. Now in our parish, for example, women do everything that men do. Women give communion in mass, of course they read the texts, they take the communion in little boxes and visit the sick and give communion to them in the poor neighborhoods. They direct the groups, they have many responsibilities, just like the men.

And in the Revolution, the leadership would assign responsibilities to those who were up to it, man or woman, it didn't matter. I had women who were my commanders in the beginning. But the number of women combatants unfortunately was much less, like 10%.

VB) The Pope has said that clergy should not mix religious and political work. At the same time, very recently as we all know, he visited Cuba and he talked in great length about politics. How do you explain your stand of doing this political work with the guerrillas to people who say one shouldn't mix these two things?

For me, it depends on what you mean by politics. The only thing I have done is to act coherently with my way of thinking and my understanding of the message of Christ and of the gospel. The Church itself understands it that way, the official Church, the Church of the Pope, the Church of Vatican II, that ended in '65, which proclaimed that the Church should belong to all and that one has to make a preferential option for the poor, this was in Medellin, when the bishops met in '68. This is what I have done. You are not going to work alone, you are not going to fight alone, you have to join those who are fighting to make structural changes, and not just practice charity.

So this takes you to a situation where you as a Christian have to work in other arenas that are also human and are also Christian, the only difference is that they are called "political." They can call it whatever they want (laughter), because I am also convinced that the Pope gets into politics.

When I was studying in Spain, the bishops were doing politics, but it was right wing politics. Franco, the dictator, would *name* the bishops. This is right wing politics! They criticize our political work because it's left-wing, not because it's political.

So I think you have to be honest. Now when I returned to Guatemala, I had to talk to the Guatemalan archbishop so that he would grant me permission to work there in the parish again. He knows where I'm coming from, because he was my bishop before. He is a good man, older, in his seventies. He had not agreed that I leave the parish before, but now when I returned, he called me his "prodigal son," (smile) he did not agree that I had left, but he has accepted me and he understands. Now the phase of the war is over, for me it was 19 years, and I told him, I have returned because I want to be coherent with what I have always believed, and I believe I should work with the people of Guatemala, now without the URNG and without war. But I will strive to continue to develop the human and Christian potential of the Guatemalan people, not doing work for them, but walking together with them, because when we walk together we all grow, no? So he accepted me and told me that was good.

VB) In thinking about multiple histories of various countries in Latin America, and that there has only been "democracy" when right wing groups were in power, if left wing politicians were elected legally and by popular support, the right wing coups and dictatorships and the wars would begin, do you truly think that there is a real possibility for democracy, for a political process in Guatemala?

I do not lose hope. I have hope, and if I didn't, I wouldn't be working in Guatemala. I believe you need to infuse people with hope for change, because many people have lost hope, have lost faith, they don't believe there's a chance. Of course it's possible! But the new URNG is going to have to get some batteries in it so that it can work. And this will cost us because there are also many divisions within the Left.

VB) What are the main challenges that you see for the URNG to transform itself from a guerrilla group to a political party?

First of all, I think that the URNG, which was an umbrella of 4 organizations, made a mistake to leave out one of them, ORPA, my organization, in this phase of the process. Why? Because the commander of ORPA, Gaspar Ilom, unfortunately kidnapped Mrs. De Novello and so had to remain out of the country until September (of 1997). This is a sour note because the URNG is no longer the 4 organizations of always, they're three, and people from these three have now occupied the new positions in the party, and in the organization called the Foundation Guillermo Torrillero, which is an organization to aid the transition of former combatants into civil society. So the URNG has left people out, whether on purpose or not. We, from ORPA, are neither better nor worse than the others, we are comrades who have fought at least like the others.

An example, I have a friend who is a doctor, who worked with me in our radio station, now he works as a doctor, he doesn't want to have anything to do with the URNG. Because they excluded him as well. The former combatants are still in recluse, they have nothing to do, just waiting, waiting, and this Foundation needed to have produced results. A whole year has passed and the URNG has said almost nothing in opposition to the government, they have acknowledged in one of their documents that they've had limitations to deal with, but there has been silence, and a bit of dispersion. The URNG has to be very careful, and I say this with empathy and pain, because I continue to support the URNG project, which is broader than a political party. The national project which is to form a new nation, multi-cultural, multi- ethnic, multi-lingual, with social justice; a national project that encompasses all the democratic movements in Guatemala, this is the project we have to support and I do support it. But the political party of the URNG is something else, and if they don't do things right, they'll end up with few supporters, and you can't abandon people like that, specially those who fought together with you for so many years. Because, in this way, they'll lose a crucial force.

I am ready to support the URNG project to radically change structures for a new Guatemala, but the party has to be a tool, it's not an end in itself, it's a tool to achieve a new Guatemala with democracy, with justice, with peace, with people doing well, with development for all. And now people are faring worse than before in poverty and duress.

Many of these URNG leaders are living in middle class neighborhoods. Go live with the people, go live in the poor neighborhoods, like I did, and they will see how needy people are.They say they know how needy people are theoretically, but whenthey have to chose a place to live, where do they go? They don'tchoose to live with the poor people in the slums, at least I am honestand I go to live with the poor.

But I must also stress that in spite of all these problems, only one year has gone by, and this is really a very short time and this transition to a political party is indeed very difficult. They will need more time.

VB) You mentioned development for Guatemala, what's your idea of development?

For me, and you have to always stress this, development is integral, it's the development of the whole person. A person is an individual, she or he is a member of a family, and a member of a society. That is, a person cannot see themselves as totally separate, in the Church or outside the Church. Christ didn't come to save one person or their soul, a person is saved as a whole, body and soul, and this person is a social being, and this is Christian and it's philosophy, it's human. A person has to count on others because you grow and enrich yourself when you open yourself up to others and you become impoverished when you shut others out, in selfishness, there you become poorer. So for me, development is the integral development of the person and the community where you live and the nation.

We can't have some people very ahead and some others way behind. That's not development, that's privilege. Because a society, when it is structured so that only a small groups develops, this isn't development, development should be for all, no?

VB) What people or authors have influenced your way of thinking?

If you mean someone that I read, there wasn't any particular person. It was very good for me that I studied philosophy, which was classical philosophy, although it was a more modern philosophy, and it helped me in the metaphysical sense that I just explained, to see the concrete human being, flesh and bone, a person who is open to others, a person that has to transform the world, for the benefit of all. I think it was the whole of our experience, to be alert to life and to reflect and see things. In the seminary, I thought a lot about the questioning of St. Ignacio de Loyola, he has spiritual exercises that touch upon fundamental things. I have always been very concerned with the meaning of life. Why do we live? Where are we going? What are we doing? What do you have to do in your life?

Because you realize, and I'll be 56 this year, you realize that life has to be for something meaningful, right? I think you discover this along the way, for me life has meaning as long as and while I guide my life to support a bit the happiness and the welfare and development of other human beings. Why does one work? To acquire machines and gadgets, to have material comfort? I don't think that's all that important, it's necessary, but I continue to think that the most important thing in this world are people.

VB) And when you lived here in the U.S, how did you relate the U.S. to all this?

For me, this society, with the speed and path that they've taken, they're greatly mistaken, and this will collapse someday, because the most important thing, which are the human values of people, that's being ignored and they are revering above all finance, money, globalization, technology, and for me, that's a mistake, that's not what the world is about. So I was not swept away by this society's values of consumerism, of materialism, of power, prestige, fame, all that's rubbish, it doesn't cut the grade. That's how I see this society and the unfortunate thing is that this society is determining the world order, the directives for others, because now there are no opposition.

Globalization can be good because it transposes borders, you communicate with all the world, but if all of this is only used for financial accumulation, there may not be borders, but people aren't thinking (critically). I went to the shopping mall to see how were things and when you have a shirt that has a "Made in Guatemala" label, that costs $20-$25, no one stops to think that the youngster who sewed that shirt earned $2 *a day*, sewing hundreds of shirts. This they do not want to think about, because it doesn't concern them. People are not important in this system, it's only finances and money, and I think a system like it's losing its main base.

With each passing day we have a more global system, worldwide, that rules the world and unfortunately for this system the people don't count. As someone said, before at least the very wealthy, the industrialists, depended on the poor to exploit them. Now not even to be exploited, they are totally excluded from the system. This is the harshest, the gravest of it all.

VB) If you could turn back time and could change something you did in your life, would you change something?

In my life? I would go back and do as I did, that is, to guide my life as I have been doing. And if there were another revolution in Guatemala, or somewhere else, I would offer myself to help change things that continue to be wrong, because I defend and I seek the structural changes that will allow people to live as human beings, not as beggars. I would offer myself once again to fight for these rights, for this radical change for all peoples of the world. Because for me, life only has meaning like this. And I believe I was fortunate to have discovered it.

Copyright Vera M. Britto 1998 - All rights reserved.


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