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I also have a memory about former Michigan Congressman Paul Henry

July 15, 2019

Recently, I read a piece by Joel Belz from the publication World Magazine, which discussed the 1992 Congressional race between then Congressman Paul Henry and challenger Carol Kooistra. 

The article by Belz, is entitled Opponents and Friends: An unlikely 1992 political race seems even less plausible in today’s climate. The article shares the story that while Henry and Kooistra were campaigning, it was revealed that Henry was diagnosed with brain cancer just two weeks before the election. Kooistra decided to withdrawl campaign literature that attacked Henry’s voting record and she helped to distribute his campaign literature while she and her team were going door to door with her literature. Henry won the election and died in late July of 1993.

I have my own story about Paul Henry, one that was years earlier, when Henry was still fairly new as a member of Congress.

Paul Henry was elected in 1994 and began his career as a Congressman in 1985. One of the most controversial issues that was taking place while Henry was still a newcomer, an issue that would continue throughout the rest of his life, was US policy towards Central America.

The US was financing two counterinsurgency wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, along with using Honduras as a massive US military base and using Panamanian President Manuel Noriega for CIA activity. However, maybe the most controversial aspect of US policy in Central America at the time, or at least the one that received the most media attention, was the US support for the former Somozan National Gaurdsmen in Nicaragua, known as the Contras.

The specific issue was whether or not the US Congress should provide funding for the Contras, which were attempting to overthrown the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The Reagan administration wanted to fully fund the Contras, while Democratic members of Congress were not fully supportive of such a plan.

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 1986, the community that I was part of then, the Koinonia House, was in the process of becoming a Sanctuary for Central American refugees. Some of us went to a conference in Washington, DC, to learn more about being a sanctuary and connecting with the larger Central American Solidarity movement. At the conference, several members of Veterans for Peace were in the midst of a 30 day fast to end US support for the Contras. They were encouraging others to do the same, in their own communities.

I decided to do a 30 day fast against US funding of the Contras, in 1986. As part of my fast, I decided that In would write to Congressman Paul Henry every day of the fast to share my thoughts and information about what the consequences of US funding were having on the Nicaraguan people.

On day 26, I received a phone call from Congressman Henry, saying that he had a stack of letters from me on his desk and that he thought he would reach out to me. I said I was grateful for the call and then said that I would like to talk with him in person. I then suggested that I would end my fast early if he would sit down and break bread with me. Congressman Henry declined, so I finished the 30 day fast as planned.

In the 1980s the US was also providing massive amounts 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.

I respected the fact that Paul Henry called me during my fast, a respect that Carol Kooistra seemed to share about the former Congressman. Kooistra’s decision to not distribute literature that would have held Henry accountable for his voting record, particularly on funding human rights abusers in Central America, was laudable. However, I believe that one can be respectful when interacting with those who hold political office AND hold them accountable at the same time. It is sad that anyone would die prematurely because of cancer, but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore their support for policies that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Central America during time in Congress.

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