Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

LATIN AMERICA: The Masonic Web

Diego Cevallos*

MEXICO CITY, Nov 11 2005 (IPS) - In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are a number of presidents, judges, legislators and party leaders who attend “temples” to work behind close doors, far from the sight of the uninitiated.

Within the masons there are conservative and progressive factions, and while the Roman Catholic Church condemns Freemasonry, many masons hold political power today and are in positions of influence in the educational, judicial and cultural spheres in the region.

Uruguay’s socialist President Tabaré Vázquez is a mason, and according to certain sources so is Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s leftist president, although others deny this. There may be other masons at the top levels of power, but that is very difficult to confirm.

Researchers and other sources that IPS talked to in Chile, Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela said that dozens of masons are currently in public office in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“We don’t appear in public like a political party. We participate as citizens and help build the country,” IPS was told by Víctor Higuera, the grand master of the lodge in Venezuela.

President Chávez, a former lieutenant-colonel, served in the army division headed up by Higuera, a retired army general.

“Our ultimate aim is to promote a world society where all men can live in freedom and brotherhood, where what is good for some is good for all,” said Higuera.

Members of the Freemasons, a fraternal organisation whose roots are traced back to the founding of the first Grand Lodge of England in 1717 and which operates in strict secrecy, are forbidden to reveal the identity of their “brother masons”, especially if they hold public office.

However, they recognise each other, not only by information they exchange but also by certain body language codes they use when they meet.

“In Latin America we are particularly strong in Chile, but we also have a significant presence in the Andean countries and in Mexico,” a master mason with wide knowledge of regional politics told IPS, requesting that his name be withheld.

Masonic leaders meeting at the Bolivarian Masonic Confederation in Panama in August proclaimed that “Masonry as an order is essentially progressive, and therefore it is one of our vital concerns to participate in the vanguard of processes of social change.”

Its resolutions, which received scant public attention, exhorted “all members to get involved and participate actively in all those aspects of the political, social, cultural and economic life of their communities which tend to improve the welfare of their peoples, exercising social and ethical responsibility as is the duty of every mason.”

In Chile it is estimated that 20 percent of legislators are masons, and there may be more than 40,000 masons nationwide. Moreover, there are masons among judges, in the military and among leaders of educational institutions. The situation is similar in Mexico, where the total number of masons is estimated at around 70,000.

Several 20th century presidents in both countries were masons, including socialist Salvador Allende in Chile and Mexican leaders Lázaro Cárdenas, Miguel Alemán, Adolfo López Mateos, Luis Echeverría and José López Portillo – all members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party which governed Mexico from 1929 to 2000.

According to a book by Uruguayan journalists Edison Lanza and Ernesto Tulbovitz, President Vázquez belongs to the José Artigas Lodge – information that has been corroborated by masons who spoke to IPS.

Michel Barrat, grand master of the Grand Lodge of France, has stated that like independence leader Simón Bolívar, the president of Venezuela is also a mason. However, sources in Venezuela categorically deny this.

Occupying the upper echelons of Latin American power structures and pulling the strings is not a novelty for Freemasonry. In the 18th century several masons were prime movers in the struggle for independence from Spain, including Bolívar of Venezuela, Bernardo O’Higgins of Chile, and José de San Martín of Argentina.

Masons also played a prominent role in the upsurge of liberal reforms which succeeded in separating Church and State, and providing non-religious public education. “We are a confidential institution but not a secret one, which merely seeks to promote justice, equality and fraternity, with humility and without personal glory,” remarked a master mason in Mexico.

Masons are still viewed with suspicion because they operate behind the scenes, and because only certain people are admitted to the brotherhood.

Some church sectors and conservative groups accuse them of worshipping the devil, being in compact with Judaism and even practising witchcraft. In the past these accusations, which masons say are absurd, led to many of them being imprisoned, tortured and killed.

“The Church’s negative judgment in regard to Masonic associations remains unchanged (since the 17th century) since their principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church and, therefore, membership in them remains forbidden,” the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Church declared in December 1983.

“The faithful, who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion,” warned this ecclesiastical body, headed at the time by Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI.

About 12 million people around the world are estimated to belong to the masons. As an institution, Freemasonry proclaims that its principles are laicity, tolerance, freedom, equality and brotherhood. However, divisions do occur on the inside, and every so often complaints and harsh words arise because of political or philosophical differences.

In Ecuador, for example, the Grand Lodge based in the city of Guayaquil is in conflict with the Equinoctial Grand Lodge with headquarters in the capital, Quito.

In 2004, the Guayaquil Lodge, whose members include rightwing politicians, made former president Lucio Gutiérrez – who was deposed in April 2005 and is now in prison for various charges – a master mason.

The Equinoctial Grand Lodge, which has links to the political centre and left, was indignant that such a heavily criticised leader should have been admitted to the masons.

But over and above such differences, which are found throughout the region, one of the main criticisms of the masons is their exclusion of women, although this tradition has already begun to break down in several countries.

At present there are several mixed lodges in Latin America and the Caribbean, but the older masonic organisations in the world do not recognise them. Another criticism is that Freemasonry’s membership grows by incorporating people who – masons believe – have good prospects of becoming leaders of change, and who meet specific intellectual, moral and even financial criteria.

These criticisms do not unduly disturb masons, who continue to operate and take in new members, many of whom today hold public posts in the region.

Like all active masons around the world, they go to temples and perform strict rites using symbols centred on the “Great Architect of the Universe” (God). They explore philosophical and ethical issues, debate current affairs and occasionally make plans for “brotherly action”.

In their ceremonies, they use traditional stonemason instruments like the square, symbolising reason, and the compass, symbolising understanding. They also don the mason’s apron, and black and white mosaic tiles adorn the floors of their temples.

Masons must undergo initiation rites and they ascend by degrees, beginning with that of apprentice, and rising to fellow craft and master. The highest degree is the 33rd.

Although the first Grand Lodge was founded in London in 1717, some historians trace the beginnings of “speculative” Freemasonry to the mediaeval Knights Templar.

Others say the real origins lay in the mediaeval guilds of stonemasons, in which craftsmen learned the virtues of religious and cultural tolerance in order to work together in harmony. This tolerance then developed into the principles of Freemasonry, they say.

*With additional reporting by Gustavo González in Chile and Humberto Márquez inVenezuela.

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