On July 19, 1979, masses of the Nicaraguan people marched victorious into Managua, having toppled the regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, a dictator who had enjoyed the support of the United States. Since coming to power in 1936, the Somoza family had treated Nicaragua as a personal bursary, their government operating on the principles of a criminal syndicate. The cramped dungeons of Tiscapa, right beneath the presidential residence, were filled with political prisoners, subject to rape and beatings. In the mid-1970s, a special anti-terrorism squad patrolled the poorer barrios, snatching young activists. It shackled their hands behind their backs and tossed them down a high Managua hillside to their deaths. But after years of organizing, followed by two years of fighting, the Nicaraguan people were finally rid of the Somoza dynasty. Standing in the plaza between the National Palace and the Catedral de Santiago, whose wide aisles and embracing side chapels had provided shelter when students fled the brutality of Somoza’s police in the early years of protest, they declared the birth of a new nation.
The setting wasn’t incidental. Throughout Latin America the architecture and infrastructure of the Catholic Church has reflected its tight affiliation to state power since the days of Cortés and the Doctrine of Discovery. In Latin America the Catholic Church, landowners, and the military worked together for four hundred years to establish and maintain a system that occasionally shifted in detail but never in principle. A tiny elite held power. A pervasive military defended it. An acquiescent church sanctified it, promising the people succor for their suffering—but only after they died. All through these centuries, rebellions flared and were extinguished by this triumvirate. Somoza’s father, Anastasio Somoza García, declared the Virgin Mary patron of the nation in 1950; the church hosted a Eucharistic congress in celebration. When the Maryknoll sisters arrived in Nicaragua in 1946 to establish a school and a health clinic in a remote mining town, they met first with the Somoza family to ask for its permission. The superior of the sisters’ mission promised to stay out of politics. She said they’d be no trouble. (To their credit, they later proved to be a tremendous amount of trouble.) When Anastasio Somoza Debayle was installed as president in 1967, the Catholic bishops were all on board.
But by the time those jubilant crowds gathered in between the palace and the cathedral, much of the Nicaraguan church had changed sides. In little more than a decade, many of the laity and lower clergy had gone from understanding themselves as guardians of the established order to becoming keepers of the conscience of the revolution. Among those marching into the center of Managua for mass demonstrations were cadres of Catholic faithful, trained and radicalized by Catholic social teachings; members of base Christian communities that modeled themselves on the early church; nuns who’d served as medics to rebels; priests who’d written manifestos articulating a Christian response to tyranny. The Sandinista revolution couldn’t have happened without the Catholic Church. But this church was very different from the one that had propped up landowners and helped keep down the masses for centuries. This one was led from below, diffuse, democratic, and notably female. Forty years later, after so many compounding tragedies and movements that now smell like spoilt milk, it is difficult for us to appreciate the incandescent hope that animated that triumph over dictatorship.
The Christian side of the movement had emerged from market women and subsistence farmers, Catholics who’d studied the Bible and found in it a story of their own liberation, both eternal and temporal. Contrary to the expedient tale they’d long been told, their suffering was not ordained by God. A reading of the gospels and the church’s social teachings, informed by dialogue steeped in their own experience of poverty, state repression, torture, and injustice, led hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans to conclude that their faith required more of them than waiting patiently for the compensations of the world to come. It required them to participate in their own liberation in this world, to actively build the kingdom of God. By 1977 even the country’s bishops had been converted. That year they issued a letter that emphasized the duty of all Christians to be engaged in the political and social questions of the nation.
When it finally came, the July 1979 uprising carried a distinctly arrival-in-Jerusalem feel. During the last days of the insurrection, the faithful read the book of Revelation while bombs fell. The time was coming, they told themselves. A new order was being born.
After Somoza fled, the small Christian communities, called base communities, threw themselves into the work of establishing a new country. Church for many became dedication to the revolution. Fernando Cardenal, SJ, became minister of education in the new government and launched a highly successful literacy initiative that sent young people into the countryside to teach adults who’d never been in school how to read. His brother, Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, an acolyte of Thomas Merton and a poet, became minister of culture. Maryknoll Fr. Miguel d’Escoto was foreign minister, representing the fledgling government internationally. Fr. Edgard Parrales was ambassador to the Organization of American States. But don’t let this list of clergymen mislead you. The church was the laity. They supported the revolution because they were its parent.