Firmezza Permanente: Nonviolence in Central America

by Matt Meyer

Book jacket art courtesy

Editor’s Preface: The following, previously unpublished essay was presented to the Alternative Defense Commission, as part of the War Resisters’ International Peace Education Project, c. 1987. It continues our series of discoveries from the WRI archive.  Please see the notes at the end for acknowledgment, archival reference, and biographical information about the author. JG

To many western activists it may seem that revolution and nonviolence are clear contradictions. Nonviolence is often seen as passive, utopian, naive, or as a bourgeois luxury that we in the West arrogantly urge upon our Central American sisters and brothers. However, revolutionary nonviolence is not passive, reformist, or romantic. It is a powerful means of social change, which confronts the roots of militarism; its use in Central America has often been ignored.

Western pacifists may well be challenged about their commitment to nonviolence even in the war zones of Central America. “What do you know?” someone might ask. What we know, and what we believe history has taught us, is that revolution is a long process, with many difficult questions and no easy answers. We know that to strive for an end to war, we must first struggle for the elimination of the causes of war, including racism, sexism, class structures, and imperialism. We know that any revolution, including nonviolent revolution, will suffer bloodshed and innocent casualties, and we continue to experiment with diverse forms of resistance to minimize bloodshed and maximize lasting social change. Above all, we know that we cannot begin to talk about nonviolent revolution until we place ourselves firmly in solidarity with those already in revolutionary struggles throughout the world.

Phillip Berryman, Latin America specialist with the American Friends Service Committee, has written: “Many who take up arms have previously taken nonviolence much farther than I have and with much more courage.” Western pacifists must recognize this, and must realize that if nonviolence is ever to become successful, we must maintain militancy and strength. We must bring our resistance to higher and higher levels, and broaden our definition of nonviolence to include the wide variety of tactics used by our Central American counterparts.

We must also be aware of the long history of nonviolent philosophy and action that is part of Latin American revolutionary struggles. We must know that within most revolutionary struggles there are those fighting against militarism needing our acknowledgement and support. And, of course, we must constantly act out of the knowledge that it is the US military’s economic and political intervention which has been the greatest hindrance to peace and justice in the region.

In order to be aware of the role of nonviolent action in Central America, and of the strategies used there, we must look at nonviolence in its historical context.

Nonviolence and Victory

All of the Latin American social change movements of the 1930s and 1940s included at least some aspect of nonviolent protest. Though many of these demonstrations and campaigns were not explicitly pacifist, they demonstrated the power of peaceful resistance. These actions, using tactical nonviolence methods, helped to build a mass movement, and win significant short-term reforms.

The participants in the most successful of these actions often did have a disciplined and long-term commitment to nonviolence. Pat Parkman and George Lakey, organizers who were involved with a Quaker Action Group providing North American support for Latin American activists, have described several of these campaigns as a form of “nonviolent civilian insurrection”.

For example, in El Salvador, high school students inspired by the independence movement of India called for creative and militant actions against dictator General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez. The students wrote: “The basis of our strike shall be general peaceful resistance, including non-cooperation with the government, the wearing of mourning bands, the unity of all the people, and the prohibition of fiestas. By showing the tyrant the abyss between him and the people, by isolating him completely, we shall cause his downfall. Boycott the movies, and the national lottery. Pay no taxes. Abandon government jobs.” Through such tactics, pressure increased and eventually General Martinez fled El Salvador in 1944.

In Guatemala, General Jorge Ubico was also forced to flee his country due to insurrection movements. Though large sectors of the army remained loyal to Ubico, the efforts of the opposition forces prevailed. The call to the military of “Brazos Caidos” was a simple one: “Arms down at your sides.”

Throughout this period in Guatemala, it was difficult to sort out the role of violent tactics and nonviolent acts. “It appears that force was deliberately employed in the efforts to shut down the cities”, report Parkman and Lakey, “but a careful examination of the day-to-day events suggests that (organizers) relied primarily on peaceful parades and strikes to make their point.”

Conscious Nonviolence: The Search

In the 1950s, the growing interest in liberation theology and radical Christian pacifism enabled groups such as the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) to set up nonviolent training programs throughout Latin America. These programs took place in Costa Rica, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Columbia and Mexico. At the same time, the successful examples of the anti-Batista movement in Cuba led many groups into following a philosophy of guerilla warfare. These revolutionaries, however, were by no means the only ones struggling for radical reform. By the mid-1960s, with the widespread killing of guerilla activists by repressive governments, more and more activists were looking for other methods of social change.

“Never before had we found such great interest in training courses in nonviolence,” wrote Jean and Hildegard Goss-Mayr, two secretaries of the IFOR. “We even got the impression of a deep, desperate search for alternatives to violence. And, little by little, we understood that we had arrived in these countries at a crucial moment: the death of Camillo Torres (a Colombian priest who eventually concluded that violence was necessary), the death of Che Guevara (a well-known revolutionary and proponent of guerilla warfare), the brutal reaction of the police and army wherever the poor or their friends stood up in violent revolt. All these experiences had led to a growing disillusionment with violence as an effective means for struggling for justice. The violence of the poor now appears to many as romantic, inefficient, incapable of obtaining satisfactory solutions. They are asking: Are there no other weapons, no other possibilities to effect necessary changes?”

Even as they searched for answers, leaders such as Brazil’s Dom Helder Camara were using Christian pacifism as a basis for building mass political action.  Camara’s literacy programs added a pacifist perspective to educationalist Paulo Freire’s methods of conscientization. Camara’s Movement for Basic Education spread messages of the government’s exploitation and stressed the people’s role in the solving of community problems. Camara became a symbol throughout Latin America of the strength of nonviolent Christian-based movement building.

An important part of Camara’s philosophy is respect towards revolutionaries who share the quest for justice without sharing a belief in nonviolence. In a 1968 speech, he declared: “I respect those who feel obligated in conscience to opt for violence, not the all too easy violence of the armchair revolutionaries, but that of those who proved their sincerity by the sacrifice of their lives. In my opinion, the memory of Camillo Torres and Che Guevara merits as much respect as that of Martin Luther King.”

This attitude brought Camara strong criticism from “absolutist” pacifists. But it was an important step in recognizing that in a world where there are many roads to revolution, there is no absolute contradiction for pacifists to work with guerillas.

Throughout this period, a more self-conscious ideology of radical nonviolence was being developed throughout Central America. On a tactical level, some activists now saw nonviolence as being more effective than brute force, because brute force only invited counter-violence by a better-equipped force. On a religious and personal level, these activists considered violence to be dehumanizing and unworthy of “children of God”. Marjorie Hope and James Young, caseworkers for IFOR, wrote that nonviolent action had become an example of “consciousness-raising carried to its ultimate conclusion”.

Don’t Mourn; Organize!

It was not until 1968, however, that coordination and organization of Central American nonviolent activists began. In Montevideo, Uruguay, a meeting of activists and religious leaders set up Servicio Paz y Justicia (SERPAJ) as an international Service for Justice and Peace. Bringing together locally trained activists, base community groups, and leading Christian pacifists, a network quickly grew from a simple newsletter to a powerful international organization.

By 1974, at a conference in Medellin, Colombia, the decision was made to set up an office in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and hire Adolpho Perez Esquivel as a full-time coordinator. “Our effort is to reach the top, but not at any price”, proclaimed Esquivel in 1976. “We must keep central our respect for human beings at every level of achievement . . . Power is only valid if it is the power of service.” The Argentinean military felt so threatened by this growing movement that Esquivel was jailed in 1977. The international recognition for SERPAJ triggered by the arrest, however, brought even more attention to the movement. New national secretariats were set up in Chile and Brazil.

Esquivel was released after fourteen months and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980. As more people throughout the world learned of SERPAJ, grassroots movements also grew. Nonviolence became a fundamental principle: from the inspirational Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina to the trade unionists of Sao Paulo, Brazil, who led a remarkable thirteen-year strike against the Perus Cement Company. Their support was possible, they noted, “because our resistance was peaceful”. What Gandhi called nonviolence, or “truth force”, they branded with a new name, which they felt indicated a new strength and positive force. They called their commitment to nonviolent action firmezza permanente, meaning, “relentless persistence”.

Leonardo Perez, SERPAJ coordinator in Argentina, summarized the organization’s basic approach: “Although a nonviolent struggle is harder to organize, it is more democratic, mostly because it requires such large numbers. It consequently prepares people for the kind of democratic society we hope to have in the future.”

Conflict in Nicaragua

In Father Ernesto Cardenal’s pacifist community of Solentiname, Nicaragua, the lessons of nonviolence and of the Bible were applied to the struggle against dictator Anastacio Somoza. “The man who gives the punch feels worse than the man who takes the punch,” reflected one Solentiname community member at a discussion of the Gospel. “The work stoppage, the peaceful demonstration in front of guards with machine guns, the hunger strike, the takeover of factories — all these are turning the other cheek.”

After Somoza bombed and destroyed the Solentiname community, Cardenal decided to join with the FSLN and those in the guerilla opposition movement. He fled to Costa Rica, which at that time took a neutral position in the conflict. In 1978, before the Reagan-inspired militarization of Nicaragua, President Daniel Oduber described his nation as engaging in a “permanent struggle against militarism”. From Costa Rica, Cardenal wrote about his conflicts of conscience. “All authentic revolutionaries prefer nonviolence to violence,” he concluded, “but they are not always free to choose.”

Others in Nicaragua, such as Maryknoll priest Father Miguel D’Escoto, held to their nonviolence throughout the revolutionary period and after the victory of the FSLN. “I looked on Martin Luther King as a guide, as a standard”, D’Escoto reflected in 1983. He felt that the the church and base community activists had not properly taught the tactics and philosophy of nonviolence. Therefore, he chose to join the anti-Somoza opposition and support the revolution in his own way. As Nicaragua’s Foreign Minister, he called for a “nonviolent evangelical insurrection” in support of the revolutionary process.

“Changing the world also means changing the means or the methods to bring about change,” D’Escoto told The Other Side magazine in June 1986. “At the present time, because nonviolent struggle is something that has not been developed, its role is to complement conventional methods to defend our sovereignty, independence, and right to life. But in due time, nonviolence will replace the old, violent methods . . . Violence is only a concession of the gospel to a world in transition. But the transition will only come if we begin to use nonviolent means to replace the violent means that the world has already known. In Nicaragua, this transition has begun.”


Under siege, facing severe challenges on every side, nonviolent struggle not only survived but increased in Central America. From those struggling for peace and a continuation of the revolutionary process in Nicaragua, to the grassroots activists struggling in the tradition of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador; from the Group for Mutual Support in Guatemala, to the popular organizations such as the National Peasants Union in Honduras; and from the Friendship Centre organizers in Costa Rica to the SERPAJ chapter in Panama, nonviolence became more and more creative and vital in the war-torn regions.

Reference: IISG/WRI Archive Box 720: Folder 2. We are grateful to WRI/London and their director Christine Schweitzer for their cooperation in our WRI project.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Matt Meyer’s publisher provided the following biographical statement. Please consult their website at this link for further information and a list of Meyer’s publications. “Matt Meyer, a native New York City based educator, activist, and author, is the War Resisters International Africa Support Network Coordinator, and a United Nations/ECOSOC representative of the International Peace Research Association. The founding Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Association and former Chair of the Consortium on Peace Research, Education and Development (COPRED), Meyer has long worked to bring together academics and activists for lasting social change. A former public draft registration resister and chair of the War Resisters League, he continues to serve as co-convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in commenting on Meyer’s first book (co-authored with Pan-African pacifist Bill Sutherland), wrote that ‘Sutherland and Meyer have looked beyond the short-term strategies and tactics which too often divide progressive people.’ They have begun to develop a language which looks at the roots of our humanness.”

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi