After the Revolution

The recent death of Ronald Reagan has brought back many memories from the 1980’s, none more controversial or painful than the secret war against the Sandinistas. The war began in March of 1982 with the destruction of the bridges linking Nicaragua and Honduras and continued until the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990. To say that the last quarter century has been turbulent in Central America would be an extraordinary understatement. In July 1979 the Sandinistas came to power on a wave of anti-Somoza revulsion, in which a broad coalition of forces formed to put an end to almost 50 years of authoritarian rule by the Somoza family. Only a few months later, in March 1980, the beloved archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, was murdered as he celebrated Mass, a symbol of the profound political polarization of his country. These events came at the beginning of a long period of political, social and religious turmoil in the region, from which it has only recently begun to emerge after successful democratic elections in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Divisive Times

Nonetheless, echoes of those earlier conflicts continue to be heard in the region. In recent weeks the church in Nicaragua reawakened many of the bitter, partisan memories of the 1980’s by celebrating in Managua’s cathedral a commemorative funeral Mass for Mr. Reagan, the architect of the secret war against the Sandinistas. In the Nicaraguan National Assembly, charges continue to be traded about the church’s alleged complicity in corruption scandals touching the previous president, Arnoldo Aleman.


There is little doubt that the 1970’s and 80’s were difficult decades for the Catholic Church in the region. In Nicaragua and El Salvador the church was profoundly traumatized by protracted civil wars. In Nicaragua, in particular, the church found itself deeply divided over the Sandinista revolution. The archbishop of Managua, Miguel Obando y Bravo, was initially sympathetic to the revolution, as were many members of the Catholic middle class. That sympathy, however, quickly turned to confrontational opposition, fueled by the Sandinistas’ own deep suspicion of the church as a conservative force that had been loyal to the military autocracy of the Somoza family over more than two generations.

The fact that a large number of priests and religious actively joined the revolution (including three who became ministers in the Sandinista government) created a situation of extraordinary tension, further exacerbated by the Vatican’s strenuous efforts worldwide to remove priests from positions of political power. This tension reached its culmination in the pope’s visit to Nicaragua in the spring of 1983 and his efforts to silence thousands of Sandinista militants, who were shouting, We want a church on the side of the poor. The result was a widening of the gap between those who saw the revolution as the embodiment of the church’s preferential option for the poor and those who saw it as little more than a front for totalitarian godless Communism. To this day, that tension has not been fully resolved.

El Salvador was little better. The church was similarly divided. Conservative political and paramilitary forces saw Oscar Romero and many expatriate priests and nuns as overt sympathizers with the revolutionary Marxist agenda of the F.M.L.N. (Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation). They assumed, incorrectly, that the church was bent on assisting the F.M.L.N. to achieve power, much as the church had helped the F.S.L.N. achieve power a short time before in neighboring Nicaragua. The murder of the archbishop and of American nuns, lay volunteers and Jesuit priests in subsequent years only deepened the divisions within the church and between the church and political leaders.

Turmoil in Guatemala took a more brutal turn with a succession of regimes that set out to repress both indigenous and Marxist rebels. The coup that ousted the leftist President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 hung heavy over the political landscape throughout this period. The church’s influence seemed to be on the wane when Guatemala elected General Efraín Ríos Montt, a fundamentalist evangelical Christian, president in 1981-82. Ríos Montt, notorious for his human rights abuses, was convinced that the church in the 1970’s had thwarted his political ambitions as part of a left-wing conspiracy against him. Other Guatemalans believed that the church had been complicit in the abuses of past regimes and saw no objection to a military leader whose religious roots were evidently not in the mainstream Catholic tradition.

Free Trade and the Church of the Poor

The critical question today, after 25 years, continues to be: how can the church be on the side of the poor in Central America? The debate about the Central American Free Trade Area and the decision of many in the Central American hierarchy to oppose the Central American Free Trade Agreement, because of the treaty’s failure to address comprehensively the needs of Central America’s poorest citizens, suggest that this debate is not yet over. The bishops were quite explicit in a statement issued last March, stating that the poor must not be excluded from the benefits of globalization through the signing of commercial treaties.

Recent opposition to Cafta reflects a widely held perception in the church and nongovernmental organizations that Cafta will do little to end the polarization between rich and poor within Central American societies, which has intensified since the end of the revolutionary wars of the 1980’s. It also reflects a profound suspicion of made-in-Washington solutions, which seem blindly obsessed with the virtues of free trade, even though these seem likely to bring benefits primarily to existing economic elites. This suspicion, of course, is reinforced by the history of consistent United States opposition to the social and economic agenda of Central American revolutionaries over the last half century, beginning with the overthrow of the Arbenz government in 1954.

Democracy Without Justice

The question repeatedly posed throughout the 1980’s, and still posed today, is whether the church’s preferential option for the poor requires social, economic and political revolution. Embracing Marxist revolutionary movements, with their messianic millenarianism, as many Christians did in Nicaragua and El Salvador, created deep social polarization and loss of solidarity. On the political level, that polarization is now somewhat reduced. With democratic reform has come alternation in government. Former ruling parties have been replaced and new leaders have been chosen. Freely elected democratic regimes, which offer some degree of viable choice between the competing forces in Central American society, are now in place. The civil wars of the 1980’s, however, did not resolve Central America’s underlying problems. The Sandinista regime did not succeed in eliminating poverty in Nicaragua, nor have its conservative successors. Poverty remains endemic throughout the region. Unemployment is rampant. Economic power remains in the hands of relatively few families.

On the political front, political parties remain weak and are often little more than vehicles for personal ambition. Institutions of civil society are relatively ineffective and have at best a marginal impact on the political process. Even the church, which retains the nominal loyalty of the vast majority of Central Americans, has difficulty making its progressive voice heard in the political debate. Thus, while the formal institutions of participatory democracy existelected presidents, national assemblies, political parties and the restthere is little genuine consensus about how these societies can be modernized and how fragile political freedoms can lead to genuinely just societies.

Needed: A Single Voice for Justice

As we look back over 25 years of revolution and counterrevolution, it is clear that neither the church nor the democratic governments have succeeded in tearing down the walls of poverty and social injustice that divide Central American societies. Corruption remains deeply ingrained in both government and the private sector. Class tensions persist. Income distribution remains radically skewed. Development assistance and foreign investment, seen in the 1980’s and 90’s as the solution to the region’s problems, have proved to be grossly inadequate to Central America’s needs. A greater infusion of resources and a reduction in Central America’s debt burden would undoubtedly help alleviate these problems. With the end of the cold war, however, official American concern for Central America has waned, as has the willingness of the U.S. government to make major transfers of resources to the region. For many in both the Republican and Democratic parties, free trade, not aid, is the answer.

But as the Central American bishops have made clear, if free trade does not bring tangible benefits to the rural masses, it may exacerbate underlying problems. Obviously there is no panacea for such deep-seated problems. But one thing is certain. They will not be solved until politicians and civil society join with the church to speak with one voice on the imperatives of justice and the need for true social solidarity among the contending forces in Central America.

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