Yo Soy Centroamericano

Why vote Kerry? Exhibit No. 1: George W. Bush has shamelessly hired the dangerous figures behind the Iran-Contra Affair into senior diplomatic posts.

George W. Bush made Reich an assistant secretary of state.

Bush even hired an actual Contra -- Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, who worked with the Contra political leadership in Washington, was appointed a deputy assistant secretary of defense for inter-American affairs.

When Bush winks and nods to right-wing fundamentalist evangelicals by using terms such as "creating a culture of life," he receives credit from pundits for "being better on moral issues."

They don't seem to notice that Kerry also uses a type of sacred language, overlooked by those not attuned to it, that likewise acknowledges a vast religious universe largely invisible to the television-watching world. It evokes a moral and religious struggle that for many defined the 1980s Central American wars.

"There's a great passage of the Bible that says, 'What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds? Faith without works is dead,'" Kerry said during the third debate. "And I think everything that you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith."

This is a key tenet of the Christianity of Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, and the millions of members of America's Catholic and mainline Protestant churches who take seriously Jesus Christ's message that God's sympathy lies with the poor and oppressed.

This vision of Christianity now inspires priests in the Southwestern United States, where Christian communities are defending rights to clean water and housing for Mexican-Americans, and in low-income L.A. suburbs, where church leaders fight for better schools and medical services. It's the vision that has inspired large segments of the Catholic clergy to become involved in social causes, promoting change, using politics as a tool supported by church newspapers, radio stations, and pulpit homilies on Sunday. Outside the United States, these social-justice clergy helped lead the downfall of Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and of Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza in 1979.

Kerry's words cast my mind to my friend, a former Maryknoll nun who worked in Nicaragua, and who now serves as a religious adviser to inmates on San Quentin's death row. Kerry reminded me of my counselor from a church backpacking camp 25 years ago who during the early 1980s was imprisoned for helping across the Texas border El Salvadoran refugees who feared U.S.-sanctioned death squads in their own country. He reminded me of the difference between living your faith, and using it as a political prop.

The Central American wars, which involved the murder of thousands of church workers -- including priests, nuns, and laypeople -- in some ways resembled a war between differing interpretations of religion.

Maria Elena Mestayer attended Colegio Asuncion in Managua, a Catholic high school, and recalls a priest who preached the social-justice gospel. "It's how I view the Bible," she says.

In 1977, the year in which historians say dictator Anastasio Somoza began a widespread campaign of arresting, torturing, and killing his perceived foes in the country, Mestayer and her girlfriends began putting their schoolgirl faith into action. Mestayer and some of her friends began participating in student protests, handing out leaflets, and talking with others in support of the incipient Sandinista revolt. One day, Mestayer recalls, they were walking by a university near her school where students were holding a hunger strike. Mestayer picked up a small plastic Sandinista flag and shouted words of support over a wall to the strikers. Some National Guard officers happened to notice her.

"There were three jeeps, and one of the officers had a machine gun at my back. There was a blue jeep and a green jeep and an orange jeep. In Managua, when the jeep was orange, that was the Seguridad del Estado. The orange jeep meant you could be tortured. They put me in the orange jeep," she says.

She and her friends were brought to a jail north of the city and thrown into a room with a head-crushing torture device known in those days as las marimbas. Someone asked the girls who had held up the flag, and Mestayer was then brought alone into another room with a group of officers. A corporal in green fatigues did most of the talking, she says.

"There was a light next to the table. They put me on the corner of the table. I said to myself, 'OK, I'm going to die.' Because I knew what this room was. There were stories going around," Mestayer says, recalling the moment one of the Seguridad del Estado officers asked Mestayer for her family's address.

"He put the revolver on my temple. He cocked it. He said, 'We're going to play Russian roulette.' Every time he asked me a question he would cock the gun. A guy in a bed, at the corner, in the dark, was sitting there with his legs open. I just knew what was next."

Mestayer's life was spared, though. She recalls how she was next transported to another room, the domain of an officer notorious during those days as a torturer and killer.

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