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Priest-Congressman Works for Guatelala’s Poor

September 20, 1991

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) _ He is called a guerrilla, communist, a disgrace to his cassock. None of it stops Andres Giron, Roman Catholic priest and congressman, from championing Guatemala’s millions of poor.

He became one of the 116 congressmen in January and is believed to be the first priest to hold public office in this country.

Bishop Fernando Gamalero of Giron’s native Escuintla state threatened him with excommunication and forbade him, in keeping with Vatican rules, to administer church rites if he took office. The priest, who now lives in Guatemala City, said the ban did not apply in the new jurisdiction and ignored it.

Giron, 44, heads the congressional committee on human rights, and his attacks on the military and landed elite are making some enemies.

Luis Alberto Reyes, president of a landowners’ association, accused him of ″dangerous and illicit acts that seriously jeopardize the stability of the country.″

Reyes has demanded Giron’s resignation or expulsion from office. Giron shrugs off criticism as part of the job.

Crowds wait for hours outside his tiny office on the second floor of the congressional building, hoping a priest will pay more attention to their needs. They line up, some crying and others shouting through an open office window.

″They are here before I get here,″ said Giron, who wears his cassock to work. ″They want money or American visas. I cannot give them these things and that is painful for me.″

He hopes to give them land, however. Giron has proposed a law that would give small groups of peasants plots of at least seven acres of unused public and private land to farm as cooperatives. The government would buy unused land at prices based on tax assesments, which gemerally are well below actual value.

″We want to get all the land that is sitting idle and give it to the landless,″ he said. ″I ran for office because I felt I could do more public service work as a congressman than I could as a priest.

″I don’t believe in the traditional church anymore, which only gives sacraments. ... I believe in the service aspect of the church to its community.″

Giron left a parish of 120,000 people to become a congressman. He now preaches on Sundays to about 200 people at a small seminary school outside the capital.

″There are congressmen who ... think he is crazy, but for the most part, people take him seriously,″ said Edmond Mulet, a longtime legislator. ″Most people respect him.″

Previous government efforts at land reform have accomplished little.

When President Jacobo Arbenz introduced Guatemala’s first land-reform law in 1952, he was called a communist by United Fruit. The U.S.-owned company was the country’s largest landowner, with holdings of more than 500,000 acres.

Arbenz was overthrown two years later by a CIA-backed coup. His reform law was annulled and expropriated property returned to its former owners.

Another bill planned by Giron would create a commission to investigate disappearances. More than 40,000 Guatemalans have vanished during a sporadic 30-year-old war with a small, stubborn leftist insurgency, most of them in the past decade.

″You feel like you have solutions to many human rights problems, but then the government doesn’t seem to listen to you,″ Giron said. ″Sometimes, I feel tied up.″

The priest was on the board of a the Pro-Guatemala Foundation, a fledgling leftist party that disbanded after another board member, Dinora Perez, was assassinated in April.

All the directors except Giron have gone into hiding. ″I receive death threats every day,″ he said.

If his bill fails, Giron said, he will try again because land reform ″is the most dangerous ... the most fragile issue″ in Guatemala.

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