Two sisters, Dorothy and Gwen Hennessey, who are also nuns with Dubuque's Sisters of Saint Francis of the Holy Family, have been indicted for civil disobedience at a Nov. 19 protest at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. (The School was recently renamed The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.)
Dorothy, 88, a Franciscan for 70 years, and Gwen, 68, who celebrates her 50th anniversary as a Franciscan this year, have confronted the School before and "crossed the line," entering the gates of the US Army base illegally. They were processed by the military and given letters banning them from entering the base property for five years.
They violated that ban in November, and on March 26 were notified they are targets for prosecution, charged with a Class B misdemeanor in US District Court, punishable by a six-month prison sentence and a fine of up to $5,000. The sisters have said they will not pay a fine. They and 24 other protesters, dubbed the SOA 26, are ordered to return to Columbus, Ga., on May 22 for trial in US District Court.
The Hennesseys, reared on a family farm near Monti in northeast Iowa, have a life-long passion for religious social activism and justice that brought them to confront the School of the Americas during protests organized by SOA Watch. That group opposes the training of military and civilian leaders from Latin America at SOA, once located in Panama but now renamed and housed at Fort Benning. Graduates have been responsible for countless human rights violations in their native countries.
Recent US administrations under presidents Carter, Reagan, and Bush I have been accused of intensifying the repression of largely poorer people in Latin America, particularly Central American countries. In 1990 Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest, began organizing annual protests at SOA in Fort Benning to oppose our training of thugs. Since then Father Bourgeois and other protesters have been convicted and have served a total of 30 years in Federal prisons for these protests, Dorothy Hennessey noted.
The Hennessey sisters posit that the SOA is a tool of US policy to continue the long suffering and repression of peasant people in our southern neighbors, specifically in the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. They recount numerous incidents of brutal repression not only from their experiences and those of their late brother, Ron, who served as a Maryknoll priest in Guatemala for 34 years, but also of their religious sisters who have served Central America for 20 years.
Dorothy, who served as an observer in the 1990 Nicaraguan election, recalls the frustration of many of the local women who informed her that voters were told in some polling places that it was not a "secret ballot" and "wealthy at some sites paid up to $20 to each voter. That was money that some couldn't pass up."
Dorothy added, "NAFTA is not improving the lot of most people; rather, NAFTA is spoiling it for the people of Central America." Gwen said that from her experience, "union people in Honduras, inevitably men and women who get involved in union organizing, 'disappear'."
Once in Honduras, after visiting in a village, Gwen recalled how she and 25 others sponsored by Catholic Peace Ministry in Des Moines were held at gunpoint while police tried to retrieve from them any union literature they may have received. The police went through their backpacks. Gwen said the only literature that was retrieved were copies of a prayer service.
Gwen added that visitors were not allowed to set foot on Chiquita Banana property. "They were afraid of any kind of investigation into their operation."
Dorothy remembered her brother Ron's frequent declaration that "United Fruit has the power of life and death," and how he'd known many individuals and their families who had suffered torture, "disappearances," and murder at the hands of those who'd been trained or under the authority of those who'd been trained at SOA.
Dorothy also recalled Ron's friendship with Oscar Romero, the late Archbishop of San Salvador, who publicly begged President Carter in early 1980 to stop the military aid to his tortured country, and who was assassinated in March 1980. Both sisters recalled Reagan's secretary of State, Al Haig publicly fulminating upon the deaths of the four churchwomen outside the San Salvador airport that the women had been "running guns" and he implied they got what they deserved, the rape and butchery.
Gwen mentioned also that Ron was a friend of the six Jesuits who, along with their housekeeper and her teenage daughter, were murdered in San Salvador in 1989. These were three more highly visible incidents in one country of ongoing police repression by graduates of SOA.
Gwen observed, "The military are not protecting the borders of their country from invasions but just protecting the ruling oligarchies and the wealthy in these countries from their own poorer citizens."
Dorothy mentioned Ron's lamenting of the environmental damage of clear-cutting forests in causing worsening mudslides in Guatemala. These are also happening in El Salvador, as a result of clear-cutting. Locals would protest the cutting of these forests by lumber interests, but "indigenous peoples were snuffed out."
Gwen mentioned Ron's distaste for the multinational corporations, such as Coca Cola, Del Monte, United Fruit, Chiquita, citing also the 1984 volume of Guatemala history, Gift of the Devil, by Jim Handy of the University of Toronto. She observed that so much of the prime agricultural land was in the hands of the multinationals, that land was then exploited, and profits sent out of the country.
The Hennesseys acknowledge their indictments are not idle threats on the part of the US government, and their convictions and sentences are real possibilities but also believe in gospel imperatives to assist those who are suffering SOA repression. Dorothy repeated the Vatican II dictum that the Church show a preferential option for the poor, "The documents state that, but it's not easy to live them out".
Bespeaking their Franciscan heritage, Dorothy and Gwen justify their protest and consequences in saying, "The more of us who do our part, the more that can be done for the common good. We can make a difference."
The threat of prison doesn't scare them. As Dorothy earlier told the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, "I can survive; I haven't lived a real luxurious life anyway."
Bill Cullen lives in Dubuque, Iowa.