The Tragic Christian

Father James Carney left St. Louis to work with the poor in Honduras, putting him at odds with both church and state. Fifteen years after his mysterious death, a new CIA report raises more questions than answers.

In 1955, Carney began a three-year regency in British Honduras, now Belize, where he taught English and coached basketball at a Jesuit-run high school. After this service, he spent four more years in theology school at St. Mary's College in Kansas, chafing under the middle-class trappings while fellow students played golf and enjoyed fine whiskey. "We never analyzed the reality of the world that surrounded us," wrote Carney. "Our theological studies had no connection with social injustices, the social sins, that abound in the United States, in its national as well as international policy."

Finally, after his ordination in 1961, the Jesuits assigned Carney to a mission in Yoro, Honduras, the next year.

Among the Campesinos
Carney had decided to be a missionary to Honduras on the basis of idealistic photographs that appeared in Jesuit Missions, a religious publication. The pictures showed priests traveling through the jungle on horseback and caring for emaciated children. Before his arrival, however, he knew little about the political realities of the country or its history.

In his new incarnation, Carney took the name Guadalupe, after the Virgin of Guadalupe, a notable Hispanic icon. His parishioners called him Padre Guadalupe or simply Lupe. He would learn of their struggles by sharing them, often residing in a dirt-floored champa, or hut, with a palm-leaf roof. "He lived a very spartan life," say Father John Kavanaugh, a Jesuit at SLU. "He felt the great danger was not communism. The great danger was becoming overwhelmed by wealth and power and prestige."

Carney's literal interpretation of his vow of poverty may have been sanctified by church canon, but straying too far from the rectory in those days ran counter to normal Jesuit practice. On the contrary, the religious order's headquarters were located in the northern Honduran city of El Progreso, in an area known as the Company Zone.

The Tela Railroad Co. -- a subsidiary of United Fruit Co. -- generously sold this property to the Jesuits for only $11,000. The grounds included offices, residences, a swimming pool, a country club and part of a golf course. In essence, it was a gated community with restricted access. The campesinos who visited the luxurious complex would inevitably compare it to their own impoverished existence. For this reason, Carney argued against the real-estate deal with his superior: "I told him it would be better that he break the vow of chastity that we take and live with a woman -- all Hondurans would understand that and forgive him -- rather than break the vow of poverty in such a way." Despite his objections, the Jesuits purchased the real estate.

The longstanding relationship between United Fruit and the church extended beyond the transfer of this particular property, of course. The church regularly accepted donations from the company, and priests were granted free passage aboard its vessels. The company and its religious handmaiden formed a cooperative bond, a marriage of convenience that under the best of circumstances treated Honduran citizens paternally. Under this system, church fathers absolved the devout of earthly sins and promised heavenly rewards while workers toiled at company-owned banana plantations and shipping docks under near-slavery conditions. This unrepentant exploitation of labor gave Honduras the dubious distinction of being the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti.

"He thought the treatment of laborers was such a violation of human dignity there," says Kavanaugh. "That's one of the things that got him in trouble." Or, as Carney's classmate Wilkerson explains it: "His sharpness of vision about injustices (put him) at cross-purposes with the more orderly agenda of the Society of Jesus."

The U.S. imperialism that repulsed Carney began at the turn of the century, when a tropical variety of North American robber barons invaded the fertile northern coast of Honduras. The top banana of this bunch was Samuel Zemurray of New Orleans. In 1911, Zemurray, known as Sam the Banana Man, financed his own revolution in Honduras to consolidate control of the market. He later sold his vast holdings to United Fruit. United Fruit subsequently became United Brands and now does business under the name Chiquita International Inc. Corporate intrigue has continued to the present day, often so tightly intertwined with official U.S. foreign policy that the two are indistinguishable.

In 1954, while Carney was still cloistered in the seminary, the CIA used Honduras as a staging ground to instigate a coup in neighboring Guatemala, after democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman daringly announced agrarian reforms, including the seizure of United Fruit lands. United Fruit returned the favor by lending the CIA two of its ships for the agency's failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

With the CIA preoccupied with toppling Arbenz in Guatemala, Honduran workers staged their own successful strike against United Fruit. As a result, the Honduran government passed its first labor laws, and the country quickly became the most unionized nation in Central America.

Carney's introduction to Honduras came in the wake of this social change, as the winds of the Cold War turned south. To quash the potential expansion of the Cuban revolution, the Kennedy administration began directing foreign aid to Central and Latin America and the Caribbean, through the Alliance for Progress. As a function of this anti-communist crusade, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the CIA and a litany of transnational corporations funded the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) under the aegis of none other than the AFL-CIO, the North American labor federation. AIFLD, in turn, helped eliminate independent labor unions in the region, replacing them with docile, company-oriented substitutes.

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