Thanks be to God and to the Revolution

David Lehmann

The silhouette of Cesar Augusto Sandino, his hands clasped behind his back, his left foot pointing outwards, wearing high-laced army boots and a ten-gallon hat, is the universal emblem of Nicaragua’s revolutionary movement. In the 1920s Sandino led a prolonged guerrilla campaign against the US marines who had been occupying his country since 1912. The Marines withdrew, but left in their place a surrogate, the National Guard, whose commander, Somoza, had Sandino murdered after he had laid down his arms in 1934. Somoza seized power and kept it until he was shot in 1956. He was succeeded by his son, who was overthrown in the revolution of 1979 and killed later in Paraguay. The National Guard – the personal instrument of the Somoza dynasty and the chosen arm of the United States – behaved like an army of occupation right to the end. The end came on 19 July 1979 when the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional took over the government of Nicaragua.

The class struggle nonetheless continues – but where? Obviously, in military clashes with the counter-revolutionary and Honduran forces trained and financed by the US Government. But what of the internal front? In the countryside a large capitalist farming sector remains, but there is little conflict: the Government deals with the farmers, negotiates the wages they pay and the prices they get, and the workers seem disinclined to take disruptive action. In the towns, industry (such as it is) is now mostly in the hands of the state and again one hears little of shop-floor conflict. In short, the state has gained a position of indirect but fairly firm control over the conditions of production and over the production process itself. Yet ideological clashes continue and they continue in the most unlikely place: within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

This isn’t what one would have expected. The Archbishop of Managua, Miguel Ovando y Bravo, was a fierce opponent of Somoza and he welcomed the revolution when it finally came in July 1979. He then began to have doubts, however, and in June 1981, falling in with public declarations by the Pope on this specific issue, he called on those priests who occupy high positions in the state and in the ruling party, such as the poet Ernesto Cardenal, to give up these involvements. This call, as he no doubt realised, was tantamount to a declaration of war.

How could one of Somoza’s most outspoken critics (one of the few, of course, who could speak out at all during that period) become the leader of the internal opposition to the Sandinista revolution? The standard answer is that the Archbishop was never a Sandinista: he merely identified with those sectors of the Nicaraguan oligarchy which Somoza excluded from power, Somoza’s government was not simply a dictatorship: he ran the state as if it were a private business organised for the benefit of his family and their mafia, who used their power to exclude others from the ‘action’ This became very obvious after the earthquake of 1972 which destroyed most of the old capital city and created fabulous opportunities for those involved in its reconstruction. Somoza himself put up a cobblestone factory which got all the orders for paving the new roads, of which there were a great many since the city was redesigned as a sprawling network in order to maximise the future value of the empty spaces Somoza was buying up between built-up areas. To protect this sort of business the family had to find associates and clients, hitmen and ‘fences’, thereby extending personal greed into a system of government with a dynamic of its own. The traditional oligarchy of cattle-farmers and coffee-producers, as well as the new bourgeoisie which blossomed independently of the Somoza apparatus in the cotton boom of the Sixties, felt excluded and sometimes threatened. The murder in 1977 of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, a member of Nicaragua’s most distinguished family and the editor of the only (mild) opposition newspaper, united the country in opposition to Somoza and sealed the fate of his regime.

What made this movement for unity into a revolution was the Sandinistas’ expanding popular base and their initial skill in moulding a bunch of squabbling Marxist groups into a coherent force under one nationalist banner. The coalition which was so carefully nurtured in the two years leading up to the overthrow of Somoza began to crumble at the edges as the new government, dominated by the Sandinistas, initiated a far-reaching programme of social and economic change. The Archbishop, then, has not shifted his ground or his loyalites: it has merely taken some time to become clear to everyone that the Sandinistas are now, as they always were, in charge of the revolution.

Within a year the representative of private business in the governing junta joined those Nicaraguans living abroad who were planning the violent overthrow of the government. Later, Eden Pastora, noted for his acts of revolutionary bravado and his socialdemocratic sympathies, did the same. Their main complaint was about Cuban personnel, teachers, doctors and advisers, but this was a camouflage for their opposition to the Sandinistas’ bias towards income redistribution and their promotion of various forms of state planning and economic control, as well as their revolutionary rhetoric and their relentless hostility to the policies of the United States. Pastora and his associates wanted to be – and now are – armed by the United States and in these times, for better or for worse, an overarching commitment to private enterprise in Central America is inseparable from that choice. The word ‘overarching’ is important. What distinguishes the Sandinistas from their opponents is not that the former wish to destroy private enterprise: indeed, the Sandinista agrarian reform has on the whole been extremely respectful of private enterprise. The conflict is between those who place the interests of businessmen above those of everyone else, and others who are prepared to respect most of the rights of property but will not allow them to undermine policies intended to favour the poor.

The Archbishop, for his part, is fighting on two fronts: against the revolutionary priests within and against the Sandinistas without. This internal conflict in the Church has been developing ever since the Second Vatican Council and its Latin American sequel, the Episcopal Conference of Medellin in 1968 which paved the way for two fundamental changes: one was the encouragement of comunidades de base, grass-roots lay communities; the other was to lend theological support to the view that ‘structural violence’ was a form of physical violence – a move which legitimised the struggle against social injustice as a form of the struggle for peace.

Over the past fifteen or twenty years a network of priests has grown up in Central America committed to helping the poor to organise themselves and to transform society: their theology is the Theology of Liberation, and their vocation la opcion por los pobres, the implication being that they are ‘for the poor’ at the expense of the rich, unlike the Pope, whom they accuse of calling for ‘peace’ without saying who is to blame for the war and who is to gain from the peace. Many priests have been killed in Central America, mostly in reprisal for their activities in raising the consciousness of the people. In El Salvador the Jesuits played a crucial role in forging what eventually became a popular base for the revolutionary army in the countryside. In Nicaragua, during the Seventies, many men and women in holy orders moved from private, passive opposition to public dissent and eventually to collaboration with the Sandinista revolution. Father Uriel Molina, for example, was a parish priest in a working-class suburb of Managua and a teacher of Biblical Theology at the Catholic University. In the mid-Sixties he became involved in active revolutionary politics: his comunidad de base began to ask political questions, and even to take such action as puncturing the tyres of strike-breaking milk-floats. Other priests collaborated by creating front organisations for political agitation and by representing the Frente Sandinista at various international gatherings.

Ernesto Cardenal, one of the greatest poets writing in Spanish today and Minister of Culture in Nicaragua, is also a priest, and at one stage spent two years training as a Trappist with Thomas Merton. He abandoned that road and created a community on an island in the vast Lake of Nicaragua where he wrote some of his greatest and most deeply revolutionary poetry. Eventually, he was compelled to abandon his contemplative, artistic protest and join the ranks of the Frente Sandinista. In 1976 he appeared as their spokesman before the Russell Tribunal. By then several young people from his community of Solentiname had joined the armed struggle: soon afterwards Somoza’s National Guard laid waste to the community. Clearly the Vatican would have watched these things happening with some concern.

Now the politicisation of even the most trivial issues shows how the Church has become the main public arena of ideological conflict in Nicaragua. A peasant claims to have had a vision of the Virgin: promptly the Sandinista press accuses the Hierarchy of making political capital out of it (the Virgin has come to save the people from Sandinismo and atheism ...). Some prankster-gangsters produce a ‘sweating Virgin’: ponderous visitations and pompous (but very cautious) statements follow from the Hierarchy, while the Sandinista press discovers that it is a plaster-of-Paris effigy which sweats after being dowsed in water and then left for several hours in a freezer. Furthermore, the pranksters, who made plenty of money out of selling pieces of cotton-wool dampened by beads of the Virgin’s sweat, turn out to have a mafioso past and even connections with the National Guard itself. The most extraordinary incident involved the appearance in the newspapers of a photograph of the Archbishop’s press spokesman, also a priest, naked. Since the press is censored, La Prensa, the opposition newspaper, carries hardly any news at all about political events within the country, limiting itself to tendentious reports of ‘Amnesty in Guatemala’, ‘French Socialists lose election’ and the like: religion remains one of the few areas where the rival mouthpieces can confront each other directly, and they join battle with gusto.

More significant are the Hierarchy’s attempts, many of them successful, to remove revolutionary priests and nuns from their positions and indeed from the country. In some cases, there have been protests from the laity as well as the priests in question: in one case a church was occupied and its occupiers then excommunicated. The only seminary in the country lost most of its (Mexican) staff, who resigned because they were being pressured, as they put it, to train young priests to turn their backs on the real conditions in which they live. According to the departing rector of the seminary, priests must come from the poorest strata of society if they are to fulfil their role as guides of the people. The term ‘the people’ recurs again and again in these statements, but whereas for the Archbishop, or the Pope, ‘the people’ means all Catholics taken together, for the People’s Church it means the poor and oppressed, and excludes the rich. The recalcitrant priests believe they are engaged not merely in a local struggle against the Archbishop, but in a much larger struggle against the entire hierarchical and episcopal apparatus of the Church. The Archbishop clearly thinks the same way. These may be provincial views but they are not necessarily mistaken.

Pope John Paul evidently does not think they are. His journey to Central America was that of an enraged (and conceivably ill-advised) chief constable come to impose order on an unruly populace and on his own badly-disciplined rank and file. The plaza where the Pope celebrated Mass sports two massive hoardings. Behind the podium: a vast set of portraits of heroes of the revolution – all but one dead, those madmen of the Sixties who were once the butt of many ill-judged dismissive remarks. Facing the podium: a poster welcoming the Pope – ‘Thanks be to God and to the Revolution’ – a juxtaposition which His Holiness can hardly have found to his taste. Yet these details were all negotiated and agreed by a commission made up of representatives of Hierarchy and Government prior to the Pope’s visit. The Government and their supporters were desperate to extract from the Pope some kind of statement of support for their revolution, if only for its conventional achievements like the massive reduction of illiteracy, the agrarian reform or the improvements in health care: nothing was forthcoming. They thought they deserved some condemnation, however mild or indirect, of the USA for its support of counter-revolutionary incursions: they got none. Finally, it was hoped that the Pope would say a prayer for the 17 boys who had been slaughtered in a border village shortly before his arrival. Their mothers standing in the crowd before him implored him to say something: he remained steadfastly silent on the subject. Instead, the Pope’s speeches referred to the beauties of Nicaragua’s lakes and volcanoes, to the need for peace, and to the merits of the Monsignor, the only individual whom he singled out. But the main theme chosen by the Pope for his homily in Managua was episcopal authority and the illegitimacy of any ‘alternative, new, non-traditional or, as it has been described, People’s Church’. The Pope would only talk about authority, his authority.

The crowd was deeply divided. Since early morning the Monsignor’s followers had taken up position, preparing themselves for a struggle with the Sandinistas for control of the plaza. Their slogans were ‘El Papa, El Papa’ and the words associated in every Catholic country with the integralist Right: ‘Viva Cristo Rey’ – ‘Long live Christ the King.’ They also monopolised the rituals of the Papal Mass, limiting communion to selected individuals whose social standing and political allegiance were not in doubt. Under severe provocation from their opponents and from the Holy Father himself, the Sandinistas eventually lost control, responding to the Pope’s condemnation of the Iglesia Popular (the People’s Church) with shouts of ‘Poder Popular’ (‘People’s Power’). The Holy Father’s cries of ‘silencio’ were of little avail. Only with difficulty was he prevented from leaving Managua before the usual airport ceremonies had taken place.

The puzzle which remains is this: how do the lay Catholics, at least those who support the revolution, cope with the rift between their Pope and their government? To find out, I went to the Good Friday service in a working-class area of Managua, Barrio Rigueiro, the parish of Father Uriel Molina, and a notorious hotbed of revolutionary Christianity. The Church was a recent octagonal construction with a roof supported on visible steel girders: simple but by no means ugly. The walls were painted with scenes depicting the history of the Nicaraguan people: Pre-Colombian civilisation; the figure of a peasant facing the menacing figures of the Conquistador, the Gringo and Somoza; the Sandinista Revolution, the agrarian reform. On the altar there was a photograph of Monsignor Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, murdered just as he was elevating the host at Mass, and now a venerated martyr of liberation.

After more than an hour’s delay the service began, with a band of four guitars accompanied by drums playing revolutionary songs. The church was almost empty. A visiting Colombian priest delivered several homilies in which he praised the Sandinista revolution, stated that in Nicaragua, unlike Colombia, one breathes the air of freedom, and exhorted the faithful to ensure that the Government remained responsive to the people and did not fall into authoritarian or arrogant ways. The band then sang ‘Venceremos’ (‘We shall overcome’), a song associated in many people’s minds with Allende’s ill-fated government in Chile. By this time the church was filling up. Father Molina proceeded slowly up the aisle towards the altar, shook off his slippers and in a dramatic gesture prostrated himself before the Cross. Eventually he stood up and the service proceeded. There were readings from the Bible, interspersed with revolutionary songs sung in rhythms and modes adapted from Spanish popular music during the Civil War and later further adapted with Andean rhythms and harmonies by the Chilean singer Violeta Parra. (Since the fall of Allende this has become the standard idiom of revolutionary togetherness in Latin America.) There was a long succession of prayers for selected groups and individuals, and the priest’s full-voiced incantation. Before each prayer Father Molina called for someone to come forward and make a few remarks. As a rule, some ‘little old lady’ (viejita) would approach the microphone and make a short speech. (The Monsignor had his viejitas too, whom we had seen leaving his Mass that same day, chattering away about the Sandinistas as if they were a rival neighbourhood clan.) The viejitas of Barrio Rigueiro prayed for the Church, and in particular for the ‘People’s Church which we are building’; they prayed for the Holy Father, and said it was not his fault that he had offended the people so: it was the fault of the Monsignor who was ‘playing the role of Judas, watching him as he spoke’ – ‘Lord, forgive the Monsignor for he does not know what he is doing.’ They prayed for the atheists, especially those in the Sandinista Government who are doing the work of God without knowing it.

The high point of the service came when the priest read the passage from St John’s Gospel describing the Passion and the Crucifixion. He declaimed in full voice, shouting out the protests of the High Priests, lingering over the drama. Earlier in the service Molina had drawn an explicit parallel between Christ’s struggle against Roman imperialism and the Nicaraguan people’s struggle against US imperialism. The metaphor was quite clear: Jesus the revolutionary leader, crucified at the insistence of the burguesia vendepatria – the bourgeoisie always ready to sell out their country to save their profits – against the better judgment even of Pontius Pilate, the vacillating gringo ambassador, ‘We are the true Romans,’ they said.

If it is not, unfortunately, surprising that the country which disturbs the Pope so much is precisely the one where Catholics are so heavily involved in the pursuit of greater equality, social justice and national independence, the explanation for this is not as simple as might at first sight appear. Many people have remarked on the incongruity of the Pope’s position in Central America compared with his position on Poland, but despite the apparent similarities between the oppression suffered by the people in the two places, the differences are more important. First, the Church is not divided in Poland as it is in Central America. Secondly, the principal of episcopal authority is not at stake in Poland as it clearly is in Central America, where the spokesmen of the People’s Church openly question its legitimacy. Thirdly, we shouldn’t forget that the Church remains deeply committed to social and political stability in Poland, that it is not interested in the downfall of the government there, and that, as was fairly obvious from the Pope’s recent visit to Poland, his commitment to Solidarity is not as wholehearted as some might have wished or believed. The common factor is surely the Church’s need to survive in turbulent circumstances with minimum adaptation. If that means allying with Walesa in one place and with the Monsignor in the other, so be it.

On the other hand, it may be the case that there are factions in the Vatican who see in the People’s Church the way to ensure the survival of the Catholic Church in the Third World during a time of revolutionary nationalism. It is, after all, possible that the priests and nuns of the People’s Church are best equipped to defend the Church and the faith in such turbulent conditions.