(Nicaraguan church mural of the nativity)
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The Somoza family dictatorship with its ultra-rich hangers-on had been ruling the Central American republic of Nicaragua for decades, backed by the United States. 80% of the population lived lives of poverty in the rural areas where they worked on plantations owned by the elite. Human rights, health care and education were just a dream for the vast majority of the population. The country was predominantly Catholic, although only one third of the priests worked in the countryside, the rest preferring the bright lights of the capital Managua and other cities. The resulting shortage of priests in the village parishes meant that there was a bigger role for lay people. So-called Christian Base Communities (i) were set up to study the bible: clerical input was minimal and it didn’t take the peasantry long to notice that Jesus said he was on the side of the poor (like them) and against oppressors (like the land owners and the rich elite).(ii)
Named after Augusto César Sandino, an anti-government rebel of the 1930s, the F.S.L.N. (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional or Sandinista National Liberation Front) started an armed marxist guerrilla rebellion. They drew most of their support from the urban middle classes. The rebels’ aim was to overthrow Somoza. The army with full American backing (of course) tried to put them down.
That’s the background to the setting up in 1972 of the Revolutionary Christian Movement (MCR) by catholic priest Fr Uriel Molina. A founder member of the MCR was Luis Carrión (1952-), the son of a prosperous banker who was one of the dictator’s inner circle. His story is worth spelling out as it not untypical of a Sandinista fighter. Carrión led the MCR in the University in Managua and worked to politically organise the barrios (slums). He joined the FSLN and formed the first FSLN Christian cell in 1974. He rose to be on the FSLN’s National Directorate and fought in the final offensive that brought down Somoza in 1979. He then became Vice Minister of Defence – a practising Roman Catholic in a goverment labelled by the US as “Communist”!
The Sandinistas ruled as an elected semi-marxist government until they lost the election of 1990. During this time they had to fight the American-backed Contra rebels who attempted to re-establish the Somoza regime.
1983: An anti-communist Polish pope reprimands a Sandinista leader who happens to be a Catholic priest!
The 3 main policies of the Sandinistas were
- mass literacy
- health care
- gender equality
Many progressive Christians, both urban and rural, clergy and laity, supported the Sandinista guerrillas. (The church hierarchy continued to support the dictator as it had always done.) The liberation theology (ii) that had emerged from base communities was not so different from the Castroist ideology of the rebels. The population was overwhelmingly Catholic, and the actual Nicaraguan Communist Party was very small. The expected revulsion at Marxist atheism did not happen. What united them was much greater than what divided them. Christians eventually operated at all levels of the FSLN. Contact had first been made in 1968 when Fr Ernesto Cardenal was approached by the FSLN who wanted to discuss matters of common interest. They really wanted to tap into progressive structures such as church youth groups and the MCR to use them to recruit new members. The FSLN even used religious terminology in their communiques, and
Their impact on one American nun working in Nicaragua at the time, Maria, is typical. When she took some medical supplies to fighters in the mountains she was very much impressed with the courage and unselfish work of the FSLN. “They had given up their comfortable (urban, middle class) lifestyle. They were living clandestinely. The conditions were miserable. Always with the risk of not knowing whether they were going to be alive for the victory or not. To me it was just an unselfish love.”
Maria held the FSLN belief that Nicaragua needed a profound change that “would bring the people, the poor and the oppressed a voice in the government. They would gain their dignity and necessary conditions to lead a human life.” She was not concerned with ideological differences between herself and some of the FSLN members who did not believe in God. She was confident that every true Christian would participate in the revolution. “This is what God would have done and what Jesus would have done.”
Senior army officer, Alvaro Baltodano, a Roman Catholic and former MCR member, expressed his view of the Christian/Marxist issue in these terms :
“Whether there was a God or not wasn’t the concern. The concern was the practical politics we were involved in and how our Christianity got expressed. For us to be Christian meant to work with those who were poorest and at that time it meant working with the FSLN. That gave us the possibility of helping liberate the people and working towards a different world, the kind of world that the Bible talks about.”
The Catholic church was divided and the anti-communist Polish pope, Karel Wojtyla who visited in 1983 supported the reactionary bishops and reprimanded the 3 practicing Catholic clergy who were cabinet ministers. He urged them to leave the “marxist” government at once. When they all refused they were suspended or expelled from the religious orders they belonged to.
Let the last word go to Luis Carrión: (iv)
“I see no obstacle which should prevent Christians, without renouncing their faith, from making their own all the Marxist conceptual tools which are required for a scientific understanding of the social processes and a revolutionary orientation in political practice. In other words, a Christian can be at once a Christian and a perfectly consistent marxist…We have linked up with the grass roots structures of the church, not to pull people out of them, but to integrate them into the Sandinista Front as a stage in its political development, without this meaning in any way that we oppose their participation in Christian institutions.”
(i) See Zingcreed Post “Red Christians # 10 Christian Base Communities”
(ii) See Zingcreed Post “Liberation Theology: Dead or Alive?”
(iii) Faroohar, Manzar “The Catholic church and Social Change in Nicaragua” State University of New York Press
(iv) Löwy, M. “The war of Gods. Religion and politics in Latin America” Verso (1996) p.79