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MLive and the memory of Congressman Paul Henry

March 28, 2012

Yesterday, MLive posted a story that was more of a tribute to the late Congressional Representative Paul Henry.

The article sourced only Beth Bandstra Decker, a former aid to Rep. Henry, who is scheduled to give a lecture on the late Congressman at Calvin College.

Bandstra talked about what a “wonderful” person Henry was and that if he were alive today he would be President. She also said that Henry would be “disappointed” and “chafe” at the current political climate in the US, both in Washington and from the news pundits.

Paul Henry’s political career was cut short when he died of a brain tumor in July of 1993.

Putting aside the personal commentary from his former aid, it is important to distinguish Henry’s demeanor and his voting record. I had numerous interactions with the late Congressman and never found him to be rude or arrogant.

However, many of us in the social justice sectors had serious issues with the late Congressman in the 1980s and early 1990s.

In the 1980s one of the most contentious issues during the Reagan/Bush years was US policy towards Central America. The US was providing military aid, weaponry and military advisors to fight insurgent wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, while at the same time was supporting the Contra forces, which were attempting to overthrow the Sandinista-led government in Nicaragua.

On the matter of the US support for the Contras, Paul Henry consistently voted for military funding that allowed the Contras to attack Nicaragua from both Honduras and Costa Rica, the countries which border that Central American nation. The Reagan administration (and Paul Henry) was claiming that the Contra forces were “freedom fighters,” despite the record of massive human rights violations. The Contras were known for attacking farming cooperatives, literacy workers and other social programs, which were at the forefront of the Sandinista revolution.

There was a lively campaign in Grand Rapids to challenge Paul Henry’s position on Nicaragua and his support for the Contras beginning in 1984, with the Stop The Invasion Campaign (STIC). There were weekly demonstrations outside his office in the federal building for years and several acts of civil disobedience, where people occupied his office until they were arrested. On one occasion, a group of people put 100 crosses in the lawn of the federal building with the names of Nicaragua civilians that the Contras had killed. Despite these efforts and many more Paul Henry never changed his position on Nicaragua, even after the Iran Contra affair and the allegations that the CIA was working with the Contras to traffic cocaine to buy weapons.

In the 1980s the US was also providing massive amount of military aid to the country of El Salvador to fight the FMLN guerilla forces. Throughout that period human rights groups and many US-based church groups were claiming that the Salvadoran military and the death squads were responsible for the bulk of the human right abuses, but Congressman Henry (who support military aid to El Salvador) was staunch in his conviction that the human rights abuses were equally committed by the FMLN.

Again, people in Grand Rapids organized to oppose the US support of the Salvadoran military and Paul Henry’s office was the target of people’s rage. The largest action against Henry’s support for the death squad terror in El Salvador was right after several priests, their cook and her daughter were assassinated on November of 1989.

About 100 people blocked traffic on Michigan Avenue in front of the Federal building in Grand Rapids. After the police came, another contingent of people went into Paul Henry’s office and attempted to make a citizen’s arrest against the Congressman and his staff. Eventually, the people who were in Paul Henry’s office were dragged out and the doors to the federal building were locked so no one could get in.

In 1992, there was a ceasefire in El Salvador and a UN Truth Commission was established to investigate the crimes committed in El Salvador between 1980 and 1992. In March of 1993, the UN Truth Commission published their findings, which stated that the Salvadoran military was guilty of 85% of the human rights abuses during that 12-year period and that the FMLN was only responsible for 5%. Congressman Henry never admitted he was wrong or that he was mislead by the Reagan/Bush administrations.

The other major foreign policy that Congressman Henry endorsed was the 1991 US war in the Persian Gulf. After the border dispute between Iraq and Kuwait in the summer of 1990, the Bush administration immediately began a massive US military building up to invade Iraq.

Once again, people in Grand Rapids organized regular demonstrations, teach-ins and engaged in civil disobedience at the office of Congressman Henry. The US invasion began on January 16, 1991 and lasted on 45 days because of the intense areal bombing by the US military. President Bush considered this action a victory for the US despite the fact that the US killed thousands of Iraqi civilians during that brief war and even more Iraqi civilians died because of the US imposed sanctions and the devastation done to the Iraqi national infrastructure.

It is bad enough that the MLive reporter did not seek out other voices for this story on the annual Paul B. Henry Lecture series at Calvin and it is equally frustrating that his voting record on critical issues of the day were not looked at in this story. Paul Henry may have been a “wonderful” person, but he signed off on US policies that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2012 6:44 pm

    Excellent article, nice to see somebody trying to not let Mlive & the far right re-write history, I hope she gets to answer some serious questions at the Calvin Lecture about this kind of stuff.

  2. November 30, 2012 1:50 pm

    fascinating stuff….I was aware of Paul Henry, and put him in my little Mark Hatfield category of “conservative Christians in politics who I could, in a way, admire”– but this Contra support is beyond the pale.

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