My Search for Social Justice
As told by Rafael Coello Serrano
JUSTICE for all! A social mirage? My pursuit of that elusive goal took me into prison 10 times, into and out of Communism, from one-room dwellings in misery to diplomatic missions before foreign governments. It took 50 years, but I found the answer.
I was born in August 1910, in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Our modest home sheltered a large family, including my grandfather, a journalist, who gave me “at knee” training. My father spent all his free time with friends. The men—relatives, neighbors or guests—boasted of being antichurch and freethinkers; the womenfolk talked of God and Jesus.
I could perceive, even then, the great differences in people’s life-styles. The community at large was characterized by the absence of shoes and by varied one-room dwellings. The privileged few financed their European residences with their cocoa-based riches while the barefoot workers dried the “seeds of gold” in the sun-scorched streets.
During that time the people of Guayaquil suffered greatly as epidemics of yellow fever and bubonic plague periodically racked the area. Malaria and tuberculosis were routine. I was a thin, sickly child, so friends and teachers expected that I would die young. But I came to have a great zest for life, which I maintain till today.
A Fighter Against Social Injustice
In high school I felt the pressure of social injustice, suffering a number of setbacks because I did not have an aristocratic family name. There began my desire to be a fighter against social injustice.
I learned of man’s sorry history of blood-spilling wars, religious divisions, the Crusades and the Inquisition, which were climaxed by the eruption of the first world war, all taking place predominantly in Christendom. The majority of the human race lived in shocking misery. Workers, humble countryfolk and the poor in general were less than outcasts under the yoke of the wealthy. Underdeveloped countries were the raw-material warehouses for the industrial nations, which developed prosperously, while we continued in our primitive simplicity. On all sides there was the cry: “Social injustice!”
Although I had a passion for mathematics, physics and astronomy, upon completion of high school I enrolled in the university law school because it was the one most readily available. But the university labored under many defects. Students with social and economic influence received special treatment. And there were backward teaching methods.
I recall one professor whose teaching style was simply to sit at his desk and have us read out loud material on the philosophy of legislation. One day we decided to request the opportunity to discuss the material since we had already read it ahead of time. Class spokesman? I was.
The opening of class went something like this: “Doctor, sir, we’d like to request that you not make us read aloud this paper, since we’ve already . . .”
“Silence!” he shouted, “I’m the one who decides on the method of instruction here.”
“We’re only asking you . . .”
“Get out of this class!”
“I don’t have to leave,” I answered.
“One of the two of us is not needed here,” replied the angry teacher.
“The extra person is not I!” I countered, to a round of applause.
The professor left and did not return. And so began our fight. Five months later 16 students were expelled and denied entrance rights to the universities in Quito and Cuenca as well. A group of laborers and farm workers formed a faction to back us. Some months later, at just 19 years of age, I found myself in jail.
At that time religious activity within the prison was forbidden. Nevertheless, one Sunday a Roman Catholic clergyman appeared in order to conduct Mass. We political prisoners incited the others to protest, and religious medals and statues were burned amidst the excitement. The prison warden had one of the protesters dragged from his cell, stripped to the waist in front of our quarters and whipped unmercifully. We were advised that, if any news of the happenings was leaked to the press, we would also be punished. The next day, the major daily newspaper in Guayaquil carried the news. We were put in solitary confinement. However, the reaction of the city was such that the prison warden was removed. Then we were released one by one. For being the most obstinate, I was released last.
Now I decided to get into Communism. “Here I can fight against social injustice,” I thought. I studied in detail the teachings of Marx, Engels and Lenin, organizing the first Communist group in Ecuador to operate openly. But being a Communist at that time meant becoming an outcast. I was thrown out of my home, and my family would not speak to me. I worked as an oiler on a river launch and as a mechanic’s helper. Many times I went hungry.
For seven years, from 1929 to 1936, we Communists waged bitter fights against Socialists, against the mounted police and against other groups that claimed to be Communists but who were moderates. The chief of the mounted police was the father of a friend of mine. I frequently was invited to eat at his home. “Coellito,” he said to me, “here in my home you are like a son; but if I catch you in the street demonstrations, I’ll whip you like any other rebel.”
“Thank you, Captain,” I replied, “and by the same token, if you come down on us, we’ll stone you too.” And one night, as things turned out, he was nearly killed when he was knocked from his horse during a stoning. It was a demonstration in which I did not participate.
As I studied Marx’s doctrines, I found many inconsistencies and unanswered questions. For example, the Communist Manifesto, by Marx and Engels, is a thesis on the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” At the same time, Lenin said that the State, composed of “the army, the police, the jails,” is a “club” to oppress the proletariat. “Physical nature is matter in movement,” said Engels. But, how does it move? Where is it moving? Is there order to the movement? Communism does not explain those matters. Eventually I decided that the solution to social injustice was not in Communism.
One year later my first marriage was dissolved. It had lasted four years and had seen the birth of two daughters. In 1939, three years after my separation from Communism, I met my present wife, Olga. She was a sincere schoolteacher and a fervent Catholic whose beliefs I respected. Together we have had seven children.
Injustice on All Sides
Upon my return to school, the local university had changed. There were many excellent teachers who made me study hard. Besides, I now wanted to succeed in my learning. I was successful.
In 1942, I graduated, a Doctor of Law. By then I had fathomed that the written law, generally reasonable, is one thing, but the application of the same is something quite different. People in high places, with money and influence, using subtle bribes, could change the decisions of the majority of judges. If one of the “mighty” found himself involved in gross public fraud, it became an “error” or a poorly calculated financial operation. But if a commoner stole money for food (nonetheless robbery) he went directly to jail. As a lawyer I envisioned myself as a helper of the poor.
In 1944 there erupted in Guayaquil a violent political commotion, which quickly spread throughout the country. I suddenly found my life in danger. In spite of my separation from previous leftist activities, certain ones feared that I might once again contest their influential positions. They claimed that there was an “enemy of the people” in their midst. Neighbors advised me of the plots, and, viewing it as necessary for self-preservation, I decided to enter the political arena again.
In this insurrection I was horrified by the atrocities, persecutions, tortures and lynchings of even innocent victims for the “benefit” of the people. Opportunistic leaders scaled the ladder of success in the name of the “people,” there to enrich themselves at the public’s expense. Did the insurrection of 1944 bring about social justice? Certainly not!
Once again in the political arena, I experienced marked contrasts in my life. In 1946, I was the government’s official representative to the inauguration of the president of Mexico. At the huge reception I watched thousands of international guests displaying their elegant finery: Soviet military officials decked with medals; British marshals; American generals; famous movie stars. That same night, the temperature in Mexico City fell well below freezing. The following morning, the police gathered dozens of corpses—malnourished victims of the inclement weather. Having been forced to sleep outdoors, they died of exposure. What I witnessed on that memorable night left me with a healthy distaste for that way of life.
During 1950 and 1951, under the government of a “democratic” president, I spent a year in jail. I was then a parliamentary representative, but was deprived of immunity. Held incommunicado for six days, I was denied my legal rights and was nearly lynched. Why? I was among a group of politicians who actively opposed the democracy of millionaire landowners on whose holdings the Indians lived in the most inhuman poverty.
During my detention I began to think that social justice could come only from God. Then a missionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Albert Hoffman, visited me in jail and left me the book “Let God Be True.” This incident was not to be without meaning, for Albert and I would meet again.
Later, in 1953, having become a close coworker with the president of the Republic, I was sent as an ambassador to a meeting of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. On that occasion I watched as another delegate systematically opposed any measure that could favor the underdeveloped areas of Latin America. Social justice on the international scale? None, not even in the United Nations—mostly united, it appeared, under the oppressive yoke of the giant powers.
I remember that one day the president of Ecuador said to me: “Dr. Coello, you have been a real fighter. You need something to complete your notable career; a touch of gold, say, the pure gold-leaf of the life of a diplomat for a few years.”
I responded, “It is truly an honor, Mr. President, but unmerited and for that reason I decline the offer. I decline precisely because I am a fighter. I am not made for the soft life of the diplomat. I prefer to be with the masses, sharing their destiny. Many thanks.” And I refused.
I remembered having read a passage in the Bible in which Jesus had felt pity at seeing the crowds, the people, like sheep thrown about without a shepherd. (Matt. 9:36) The privileged few continued to feed themselves at the expense of the deprived masses. I was still searching for the solution to this injustice.
In 1956 I separated from all political activity. Why? Two years earlier I had been the object of a fierce attack by all the political parties in the country. Ecuador’s Social Security Administration, of which I was the president, had acquired nearly 1,800,000 square meters of land, to be used for subdivisions and low-cost housing, at the extremely low price of 12 sucres (about 40 cents, U.S.) per square meter. My political enemies charged that I had personally received from the sellers, on the side, an additional 14 million sucres! I was wrongly painted as the great villain.
At this point I decided to fight by publishing a weekly newspaper that I called Truth. With the appearance of the first issue, my enemies were quieted and I surprised myself. How so? I began to tell the truth without ambiguities and without slurs.
However, the printing press that I had obtained on credit and my home, mortgaged through social security, now became the objects of legal restraint. My enemies wanted to ruin me. But they failed. I had the feeling that justice could come only from on high.
I persuaded my family to join me in an hour of Bible reading each week. We were moved by the words and deeds of Jesus, although there were many things in the Bible that I wanted to explain to my children but could not. Yet we understood clearly that true justice could come only from God.
One morning in October 1958, a man of kindly appearance knocked on my door. Albert Hoffman was looking for me again! I realized that he was someone I had been waiting for without knowing it. We started a study of the Bible with the help of the book “This Means Everlasting Life.”
I began to discover that the Bible is a deep ocean of sayings of life, a loving gift from the tender Creator. My heart was touched by such passages as John 3:16: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, in order that everyone exercising faith in him, might not be destroyed but have everlasting life.” Everlasting life! And perfect life, including real justice for all!
Preacher of Justice
Following a year of Bible study with Albert, in 1959 I dedicated my life to Jehovah God. Since then I have used the Bible, along with my own experiences in life, to try to help others to understand that true justice comes only from Jehovah God.
I have had the privilege of speaking of Jehovah’s justice to men of all stations, from ex-presidents of the republic to very humble laborers. Some were able to see from the light of the Bible what real justice is. Others have not listened.
My greatest happiness, however, has been to aid my wife and children and to see them dedicate their lives to Jehovah.
At last I could change my narrow point of view. I had learned that true justice could come only from Jehovah God. Only he can see into the hearts of men and remove selfishness, which is responsible for social injustice. He has promised a totally new system for this earth under the direction of a heavenly government, which will rule with complete impartiality. How happifying it was for me to learn that soon in that new order every man will cultivate and reap from his own garden and build and live in his own house. All will be motivated by generous impulses and not by sordid selfishness.—Compare Isaiah 65:21, 23.
Experiences and Happiness
As Doctor in Jurisprudence, I was named to the Court of Appeals seven years ago. I tried always to make decisions based on the law and justice. Throughout my judgeship I was able to appreciate even more the great chasm separating human justice from the true justice of Jehovah. In 1980 I retired.
Although we live in imperfection and do not yet have true social justice, I have experienced, even now, that, to a remarkable extent, social justice is being practiced among Jehovah’s Witnesses. Any evidence of social, racial or economic segregation is very rare among them.
In August 1981, I turned 71 years of age. Although I keep very busy, there are moments when it is pleasant to give free rein to my thoughts and dream of the things Jehovah has promised. I imagine myself as already being in the New Order, reunited with my resurrected forefathers, lovingly sharing Bible truths with my grandfather as he taught me in my youth. I long, too, for the opportunities that there will be then to learn of Jehovah’s greatness and unitedly praise him as the God of love and justice forever.
[Blurb on page 18]
‘In prison I began to think that social justice could come only from God’
[Blurb on page 19]
‘I learned that God has promised a totally new government for this earth’
[Picture on page 17]
During my time as a political leader, I championed social causes