The earthquake that devastated the city of Managua in 1972 changed the capital of Nicaragua forever. Many areas were so utterly destroyed, that they were abandoned for good. Even today, more than 40 years later, it still looks like a post-apocalyptic city, with the old colonial cathedral and entire neighborhoods abandoned and overgrown.
Managua was therefore a surprisingly small city when the Sandinistas took control in 1979 to start their liberation theology utopia in Latin America.
The Sandinista revolution, in fact, was not only the defeat of one bloody dictatorship. It was the dawn of another, this one hostile to the United States and friendly to the Soviet Union. It also represented the dream of liberation theologians, for it was their opportunity to put their theology into action.
These theologians really were in control. It is well known that the Sandinistas, against the explicit wishes of Pope John Paul II, appointed three liberationist Catholic priests – Ernesto Cardenal, Miguel D'Escoto and Fernando Cardenal – as ministers in the Sandinista government.
Less known was that la crème de la crème of liberation theology in Latin America – Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, Juan Luis Segundo, Jon Sobrino, Pablo Richard, Ignacio Ellacuría and many others – became a de facto advisory board of the Sandinista government. Their constant presence in Nicaragua was not accidental: at the end of the day, the Sandinista Revolution was their revolution, the opportunity not only to create a new type of government and a new type of society, but also their dreamed of a new “popular church.”
The Sandinistas – followers of the alleged KGB agent “GIDROLOG” (Carlos Fonseca) (1) – quickly got into bed with the Soviets, who assigned East Germany as the country's guardian angel. Already feared and hated in Europe, the Stasi set out to replicate itself in Nicaragua.
Nicaragua had a government run by liberation theology priests, and guided by a liberation theology braintrust. It was a government that sent all its high level – and many of its mid-level officials – to East Berlin for Communist indoctrination and other training, and allowed the Stasi to build for Nicaragua a secret police network. Totally dependent as they were on East German money, aid, and education, and on Czechoslovakian and Bulgarian bullets, guns and truncheons (8,000 of them), are we to believe the theologians didn't know, or is it that they didn’t care what it took to build their utopia? (2)
The question is now especially relevant 25 years after the Soviet bloc lost the Cold War. Last week, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest ranking defector from the Eastern bloc, told Catholic News Agency that the KGB “created” liberation theology. (3)
Some have howled in protest, but with heated opinions – not evidence. (4) But Pacepa's assertion has also been made by Western intelligence sources going back to 1981. (5) He is not alone in this shocking claim.
It's abundantly clear that even the best case scenario for Pacepa’s detractors is a situation like that in Nicaragua – where KGB and Stasi “advisors” funded and supplied material support for their friends, the liberation theologians, who were all too willing to take it.
If the Soviet bloc wasn't the mother of liberation theology, it was certainly a sinister stepmother, enlisting Catholics in a geopolitical cause and inviting them to sell their souls for funding and support.
Only the naïve can disregard the mountain of evidence connecting liberation theology with Soviet action in the region.
This evidence points to two worrisome realities: one, that the disinformation about the nature of this theology still continues; and second, that the extent of the success – or one might say, damage – caused by liberation theologians could have never been accomplished without direct Soviet assistance.
But, for the ideologically motivated, the past is forgotten as a new narrative takes hold, built, as in the Cold War, on disinformation. How else is it possible for a movement long considered passé to suddenly claim not just victory and new influence, but Pope Francis as their champion?
Of course some of the media are giddy over the prospect, running headlines like “Liberation theology finds new welcome in Pope Francis' Vatican” and “Pope declares Oscar Romero, hero to Liberation Theology, a martyr.” (4)
I personally got to know Archbishop Romero, and I nearly wrote a biography of him. So I am not anti-Romero – precisely because such headlines don’t do him justice.
But for someone like me who knew in the 1970s of this theology's Marxist roots, it is déjà vu.
Former advocates of overt Marxist revolution now claim that liberation theology was never Marxist – and then they claim the support of Pope Francis. The wishful thinking results in these claims being reported – unquestioned – by the media.
It’s not that simple.
Writing the preface for a book in 2005, Cardinal Bergoglio wrote of Liberation Theology: “After the collapse of 'real socialism,' these currents of thought were plunged into confusion. Incapable of either radical reformulation or new creativity, they survived by inertia, even if there are still some today who, anachronistically, would like to propose it again.” (6)
Hardly a ringing endorsement.
Nevertheless, liberation theologians have seized on the Pope’s concern for the poor to try to clear themselves and rise from the dustbin of history. But history is not on their side. And mercifully neither is the money and support they once had from the Eastern bloc. As for the history, Pacepa is not the only one who says that the Soviet Union saw a weapon in liberation theology that they believed would turn the tide in Latin America against the United States and the West. His version of events is supported – in whole or in part – by many other sources.
The infiltration of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and establishment and control of the Christian Peace Conference (CPC), for instance, is documented conclusively among other places in the Mitrokhin Archive, a wealth of material smuggled to the West by KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, and published by Cambridge University Professor Christopher Andrew. (7)
Memos from the archives of the Soviet Union and East Germany have also revealed clear Soviet-bloc support of liberation theology – and rage at the opposition it encountered from John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger.
This isn't fiction, it was Soviet policy, now available for anyone interested to read for themselves.
There is a 1984 Soviet memo to this effect published by Prof. Andrew, (7) as well as similar documentation from the Stasi archives compiled by John Koehler, former AP bureau chief in both Bonn and Berlin. (7) The memos undeniably indicate a protective interest in liberation theology's success and lay out a retaliatory campaign to do everything possible to undermine John Paul II's Vatican for his opposition to the communist program – including liberation theology.
Western intelligence also saw this pattern. Former NSA Director Lt. Gen. William Odom wrote in his book On Internal War that “tactical approaches to religion and churches have also appeared in the Soviet pattern. Liberation theology in Latin America and the Philippines is an example.” (9)
And supporting Pacepa's thesis is an article in the 2009 International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence by former CIA agent Robert Chapman, assigned to Latin America during the Cold War.
Like Pacepa, he says the Soviets created and disseminated liberation theology through the WCC. (10)
Pacepa's claims about Soviet infiltration of the Medellin conference are also plausible. It was not the majority of bishops at Medellin who pushed this type of theology. It was primarily two (11) – both well-known socialists.
One was Brazilian Bishop Helder Camara of Olinda and Recife (whose process of beatification has been recently opened in his Brazilian diocese). Known as “Camara the Red,” he was a hero of the Soviet press, who famously supported socialism. (12)
The other earned his own entry in FBI's Terrorist Photo Album. He was Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo and his file (as quoted by a detractor of the FBI's methods) noted:
“He runs from his diocese a network of nuns and priests and lay people that are friendly to the FDR-FMLN of El Salvador and the FLSN of Nicaragua. They collect intelligence, buy and sell guns and serve as couriers for the communist guerrillas of El Salvador. Mendez Arceo has participated in [several conferences] in which the Catholic bishops proposed the Liberation Theology option for the poor. This new theology proposes a merging of Christianity and Marxism-Leninism. CIA Mexico reports contacts between Arceo and KGB-DGI agents. … Money collected at meetings is sent to Mendez Arceo for guns for the FDR-FMLN…” (13)
Far from being non-Marxist, this theology was cozy with communism and can only be resurrected by erasing its direct connection to the violent and bloody organizations with whom it worked: the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Shining Path in Peru, or the National Liberation Army in Colombia.
Only the partisan or ignorant could deny that the Soviets and liberation theology were closely connected. To say that the connection is irrelevant because this theology would have developed anyway due to non-Soviet related, “endogenous” reasons; is historically irresponsible.
Whatever one may believe about the specifics, it is undeniable that the Soviets saw liberation theology as something politically useful to their cause – and that they promoted and defended it as if it were their own.
Furthermore, it is not irrelevant that prominent liberation theologians were connected to the WCC and CPC.
Nor is it impossible that the Soviet-infiltrated WCC could have been in a position to do what Pacepa and the others say it did. In fact, in the early 1960s, the Soviet-infiltrated WCC sponsored the development of “a theology of revolution” by ISAL, a Latin American Protestant group led by one of Gustavo Gutierrez’s future coauthors. Their work has been called a “trial run” for liberation theology.
In 1967 and 1968, this group changed their verbiage from theology of “revolution” to theology of “liberation.” (14)
Without overstating the case, it is a tantalizing clue that shows a direct connection between the WCC and the development of this line of thinking.
When I was taking my first steps as a Catholic journalist, I had a hard time understanding how Gutierrez, claiming to be at the forefront of the “church of the poor” could finance a month-long, all-expenses-paid training camp at the Colegio de Jesus in Lima for hundreds of militants from all over Latin America. He did this while the few vocations at the archdiocesan seminary in Lima languished in a decrepit building. Unlike most Latin American Catholic groups and dioceses in those days, liberation theologians always seemed to be able to have access to travel, large conferences, publications, and media.
True, there was money sent to liberation theologians from the West over the years. And apparently there still is some, as its theologians again take world tours.
But as in Nicaragua and Cuba, the momentum seemed to evaporate suddenly in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It probably wasn't a coincidence.
To say that the Soviet connection was – or is – irrelevant is to ignore the evidence and the tremendous damage it caused.
And there is something worse: lionizing as heroes and saints liberation theology’s proponents, who had no qualms in making pragmatic deals with the same atheistic world powers who were murdering their brothers and sisters in the gulags. I can think of many names for those who colluded with the Soviets' attempt to create such a system in this hemisphere, but neither saint nor hero is one of them.
Pacepa's statements are important. So is the evidence of so many others regarding the Soviet support for and manipulation of liberation theology. All of this is a reminder of the dangers of religion subordinated to a godless, rights-trampling ideology.
The Church has spent four decades rebuilding from the divisive, failed experiment of the liberation theology earthquake. Let’s hope the Church is spared from a repeat of this destructive movement.
[1] Andrew, Christopher and Mitrokhin, Vasili. The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB Battle for the Third World. 2005 (New York: Basic Books) p. 41 ff.
[2] For a detailed history of Soviet and East German intervention in Nicaragua, see Koehler, John, Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police. 1999 (New York: Westview Press) p. 298 ff. For more on Soviet involvement, see also Andrew and Mitrokhin (2005).
[5] Chapman, Robert D. “The Church in Revolution,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 23:1, 168.
[6] Carriquiry Lecour, Guzmán "Una Apuesta Por America Latina," (Sudamericana/2005).
Religion News Service headline 9/9/2013
Crux headline, 2/3/2015
[7] Andrew, Christoper and Mitrokhin, Vasili. The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB. (New York: Basic Books, 1999). p. 486 ff.
[7] Andrew, Christopher and Gordievsky, Oleg. More Instructions from the Centre. London: Frank Cass and Co. Ltd., 1992. p. 47-52.
[8] Koehler, John. Spies in the Vatican: The Soviet Union’s Cold War Against the Catholic Church. New York: Pegasus Books, 2009. pp. 225 ff.
[9] Odom, William, E. On Internal War: American and Soviet Approaches to Third World Clients and Insurgents. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992. p. 32.
[10] Chapman, Robert D. “The Church in Revolution,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 23:1, 166-175.
[11] González, Ondina E. and González, Justo L. Christianity in Latin America: A History. (New York: Cambridge University Press) 2008. p. 247.
[12] Prizel, Ilya. Latin America Through Soviet Eyes. (Cambridge Univ. Press) 1990, pp. 74-75.
[13] Gelbspan, Ross. Break-ins, Death Threats and the FBI: The Covert War Against the Central America Movement. (Boston: South End Press) 1991, p. 98.
[14] Smith, Christian. The Emergence of Liberation Theology. (Chicago: Chicago UP) 1991. p. 17 and 117 and ff.