King's Evangelical Divinity School

5 March 2010

Excerpt 5, Pentecostalism and Politics in Latin America

For previous excerpts click here.


On 19 July 1979 Sandinista guerrillas entered Managua, capital of Nicaragua, thus bringing to an end the dynastic, despotic Somoza dictatorship. At the height of an insurrection costing thousands of lives, Somoza fled Nicaragua and guerrillas of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (known as the Sandinistas) seized power.

This was a truly popular revolution, counting various sectors of society among its numbers. The Nicaraguan revolution was also significant for another reason: the central role religion played within it. During the insurrection, liberation theology Christians had aided the guerrillas in various ways, helping the guerrillas to secure victory, and the role of revolutionary Catholics was later recognised when four priests were given roles in the new Sandinista government.

Aside from this, the people of Nicaragua are deeply religious. Therefore, it is not surprising that religion played not only a significant role in the insurrection, but also during the ensuing civil war between the Sandinistas and Contras. During a Cold War in which Nicaragua represented an ideological battlefield, a bitter propaganda war broke out as each side sought to secure the moral high ground. Just as religion had played such an important role in the revolution, once again Christianity found itself at the heart of this new conflict, with Catholic Archbishop Obando y Bravo and Washington on one side, portraying Nicaraguan Christians as victims of a tyrannical regime, while on the other, Sandinistas and their liberation theology allies projected an image of full religious freedom and Christian support for the revolution. It was not long before Nicaragua’s Pentecostals became involved, not least because they were already suspicious of the Sandinistas, which they regarded as communists.

The deeply religious nature of Nicaraguans, the existence of two diametrically-opposed religious blocs in the country (Pentecostalism and liberation theology), a revolutionary government that demanded participation by all (neutrality was not an option), and the explosion of Pentecostal growth during the Sandinista regime, all make Nicaragua an interesting and important case study for exploring Pentecostal politics in Latin America.

A. Historical Background to the Sandinista Revolution

The period following Nicaraguan independence in 1838 was marked by instability and violence as two rival political groups, Liberals and Conservatives, struggled for power. After a bitter civil war in the 1850s, the Conservatives went on to dominate Nicaraguan politics until 1893, when Liberal strongman Jose Santos Zelaya came to power. Zelaya set about modernising Nicaragua and encouraged foreign investment. But by the early 1900s U.S. companies controlled much of the economy. This led Zelaya, an outspoken nationalist, to end concessions to North American companies and reject U.S. intervention in the region. Washington subsequently sided with Zelaya’s Conservative opponents, and as a result of the gunboat diplomacy that followed he was forced to resign in 1909. U.S. Marines then occupied Nicaragua during most of 1909-1933. With North American backing the Conservatives held power until 1926, and in 1925, with the help of U.S. military instructors, set up the National Guard.

A rebel Liberal General, Augusto Sandino, established a peasant army and began a nationalist guerrilla movement to oust the Conservatives and U.S. forces. With mounting casualties, the U.S. trained the National Guard to contain the rebels before turning over control of the security force to the Nicaraguans. At this time, a rising star within the Liberal party, Anastasio 'Tacho' Somoza Garcia, became leader of the National Guard. In 1933, the U.S. withdrew from Nicaragua for good. Sandino now agreed to a truce, but insisted that the National Guard should be dissolved. Somoza had Sandino assassinated, wiped out his army, and over the following years succeeded in taking over Nicaragua. He would rule Nicaragua, either as President or through puppet leaders, during 1937-56. The Somoza dynasty controlled the country until 1979, during which time the family amassed huge wealth and practiced widespread corruption.

Anastasio Somoza Debayle took over the presidency in 1967, while also retaining control of the National Guard. A major earthquake in 1972 destroyed Managua city centre and killed 10,000 people, making a further 50,000 homeless. Somoza grew rich from his appropriation of the large amounts of international aid sent to Nicaragua, and this corruption led to widespread resentment. Around this time the Sandinista guerrillas were beginning to achieve some success. The murder of an anti-Somoza newspaper editor (presumably on Somoza’s orders), a string of publicity coups by the Sandinistas, and the increasing brutality of the National Guard, all contributed to an insurrection that cost as many as 50,000 lives and brought the Sandinista revolutionaries to power.

B. Protestant-Somoza Relations

The majority of Nicaraguan Pentecostals from that era believe that, on the whole, they enjoyed more freedom and suffered less harassment under the regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle than under the Sandinistas. Even Protestants who supported the Sandinistas and hated Somoza had to admit that, under Somoza, whatever else his faults, he did not mistreat Protestants or Pentecostals. When considering these opinions, it is important not to interpret them as support for the old regime. Most Pentecostals, as with most Nicaraguans, were glad to see Somoza go. Yet the fact remains that practically all Pentecostals believed they enjoyed more religious freedom under Somoza than the Sandinistas.

Pentecostals were permitted to organise large-scale evangelistic activity and campaigns without interference by the authorities. Major efforts included the Latin American Mission’s Evangelism in Depth (1960), and Luis Palau’s Continente ’75, held at the National Baseball Stadium in Managua. Palau, a Hispanic version of Billy Graham who organised mass crusades throughout Latin America, spared no expense in purchasing radio and television time, and Continente `75 represented one of his most spectacular efforts, with some 138,000 attendees over a twenty-two day period. The campaign was also linked by television and satellite and radio for viewing throughout Latin and even North America.

Aside from this religious freedom, it appears some Protestants also enjoyed actual links with the regime, while several Pentecostals (mainly from the Church of God) were allegedly members of the National Guard. During the 1980s, it was sometimes claimed that some of the North American missionaries who fled when the Sandinistas came to power were closely associated with the Somoza regime.

A Useful Social Prop?

Few commentators dispute an absence of tense Pentecostal-Somoza relations throughout most of the Somoza dynasty. However, several pro-Sandinista commentators suggest this was because Protestants (and especially Pentecostals) were puppets of the Somoza regime and, by contributing to the fragmentation of Nicaraguan society, helped to keep the Somozas in power. But the argument is taken further, arguing that Pentecostals actually became willing tools of the Somoza regime. Thus, it is argued, Pentecostals represented a useful prop for the existing social order. (30  They supported, or at the very least did nothing about, a social order and regime that allowed the Somoza dynasty to function unhindered (and for which the Somoza regime was grateful). Meanwhile, the argument goes, Pentecostals also refused to speak out against the regime’s abuses and corruption, while their non-revolutionary worldview and an individualistic theology totally prohibited any involvement in social concerns. Finally, close relations between Nicaragua’s Pentecostals and their anti-communist counterparts in the U.S. ensured they were nothing less than tools of North American imperialism. Why else would they remain apolitical on the basis of Romans 13:1, and thus assist Somoza to retain power, and yet suddenly become fiercely political and anti-Sandinista after the revolution in the face of a government which rejected American hegemony? (31)  This imperialist collaboration by Pentecostals is totally at odds, it is argued, with how progressive Protestants in Nicaragua came to support the struggle of the masses through the Sandinistas.

There are several major flaws with this interpretation, which I highlight in my book. The most obvious problem is that the Somoza regime did not intervene to help Pentecostals when they were persecuted by Catholic mobs. This anti-Protestant mood pervaded throughout much of the Somoza period, and persecution did not really begin to abate until some time after the effects of Vatican II (1962-5) began to trickle down among grassroots Catholics. It was only then that Pentecostals became less fearful, feeling they could attend campaigns unhindered and without losing their jobs.

So if indeed Somoza regarded Pentecostals as a useful social dividing force which helped prop his regime, why did he not lend them support against Catholic persecutors? It is clear that during the dictatorships of Anastasio and Luis Somoza at least, far from colluding with Pentecostals, the Somozas expressed disinterest to the extent that the authorities offered little in the way of protection for those besieged by Catholic persecutors. Encouraging Protestantism in order to curb the power of the Catholic Church as a societal actor is one thing. But to suggest that the Somozas used Pentecostals as a social prop simply in order to retain power in the face of their own illegitimate and corrupt power, and that they in some way supported him in this aim, is quite another. If this was so, then Pentecostals had a raw deal as they seem to have received very little in return.

It seems much more likely that Pentecostals preferred a Liberal over a Conservative government, simply because the latter was the party of traditional Catholics at whose hands they had suffered a great deal of harassment and persecution. On the whole, relations with the Somozas were unproblematic, but hardly collusive. Pentecostals respected the authorities, but generally remained apolitical, concerned with their earthly mission to propagate the gospel and preach an imminent parousia. As long as the Somoza regime permitted them to do so, their political participation was minimal.

C. Nature of Pentecostal Sandinista Relations

Sandinista-Pentecostal relations between 1979 and 1990 fall into three discernible stages: 1979-1980, when the Sandinistas enjoyed a honeymoon period among most sectors of Nicaraguan society; late 1980 through to 1986-7, which was marked by great tension between the two; and finally, 1987 onwards, when the implementation of a peace process to end the civil war helped ease tensions. During the honeymoon period, there were some isolated instances of Sandinista hostility and repression of Pentecostals, but these are often considered to be isolated, the product of ignorance by young hothead Sandinistas. On the whole, aside from these isolated incidents it appears many Nicaraguans, including Pentecostals, were willing to give the Sandinistas a chance.

Within a year or so, however, things clearly began to change. Pentecostal leaders I interviewed felt the Sandinistas had a plan to limit religious freedom and create another Cuba. Repression intensified in 1982 when the Sandinista official newspaper denounced Protestant `sects’ and some churches were seized. Later that year the government denounced Pentecostals who it said were working with the CIA to destabilise the revolution. This led Sandinista mobs to seize yet more churches. At this time, the Sandinistas were also in conflict with Catholic leaders who did not support liberation theology.

In the 1985 state of emergency, the country’s leading Evangelical figures, most of them Pentecostals, were arrested and held in El Chipote, the infamous state security prison in Managua. The detentions ranged from a few hours to a few days, and some of the detainees describe brutal treatment. It was only during the late 1980s that Pentecostal-Sandinista tensions eased somewhat. In fact, tensions in general within Nicaragua eased as a peace process was implemented. Also, whereas in the past the Sandinista authorities had hassled visiting speakers to the country, this position was relaxed during the late 1980s. In the lead-up to the 1990 elections, it seems clear the Sandinistas were keen to woo Pentecostal voters.

For their part, throughout the 1980s the majority of Pentecostals were deeply suspicious of the Sandinistas. They rejected the regime’s ideology, revolutionary socialist rhetoric, links with Cuba and the East Bloc, and were deeply suspicious of the neighbourhood organisations at the square bloc level given the task of protecting the revolution. Some Pentecostals spoke out openly against the regime, but paid a price for doing so. Others expressed opposition through neutrality, while some were genuinely neutral. Approximately a third of Pentecostals supported the regime.

Nature of Abuses Faced by Pentecostals

There is plenty of evidence of human rights abuses and repression of Pentecostals during the Sandinista period. Much of it was in the form of general harassment, for example, being stopped in the street and questioned by state security, telephone tapping, being subject to arrest and questioning for no apparent reason, strict limitation on church activities (for example, open air services), having sermons monitored, being watched and reported on by the Sandinista neighbourhood committees, and so on. The Sandinista mobs also caused many problems for Pentecostals, and indeed Protestants who were generally unsupportive of the Sandinista revolution.

But it was especially in the rural areas where Pentecostals suffered the most. The northern highlands were where the movement enjoyed its greatest numerical strength. This region was also where the Contras were at their most active. Away from the cities, Pentecostals were often subject to the most atrocious human rights abuses. Some of the human rights reports are quite disturbing, which are detailed at length in my book. But perhaps the gravest incident aimed at Pentecostals was the mass killing in Murra, Nueva Segovia. The relevant human rights report explains what happened:

On April 10, 1982, 14 members of the evangelical group AoG were captured by members of a Sandinista military battalion after being called to a meeting supposedly to resolve a bank loan application. According to witnesses, they were taken to the El Doradito military base and then to Murra, where local authorities would not identify them. They were then taken toward Santo Domingo and executed along the way. Local residents heard machine gun fire and for two days were prohibited from transiting the zone. They later discovered a grave which had been partly disinterred by animals, but, because the zone was considered a military area and they were afraid, residents decided to keep quiet and did not rebury the bodies. Several of the bodies were identified through membership cards from the peasant union UNAG, others by clothing when an exhumation was carried out on August 16, 1990. (32)
Thus two different pictures emerge of Pentecostal-Sandinista relations in revolutionary Nicaragua. In the cities, Pentecostals faced constant harassment while their leaders were routinely questioned and interrogated, humiliated and watched. But there is little evidence of the exceptionally cruel treatment some of their fellow believers encountered in rural areas. It is clear that significant, widespread, systematic and brutal human rights abuses, mutilations and persecution took place throughout the northern and rural regions of Nicaragua, very often aimed specifically at Evangelicals, mainly Pentecostals.

These Pentecostals were specifically targeted because of their beliefs, which were deemed counterrevolutionary. Clearly, the Sandinistas were not prepared to allow religion to become a vehicle for political opposition, which Daniel Ortega made clear to a meeting of Protestants in September 1982:
Manipulation of religion is the last stand in the (propaganda) war against the Nicaraguan Revolution…“There is no confrontation between the state and religion.” [a revolutionary slogan] But what the state does oppose is the manipulation of religion. (33)
In a Ph.D. thesis, Kathleen Mahonney-Norris explores and compares patterns of political repression in Cuba and Nicaragua, concluding that the greater the perceived threat either of these two states faced, the more intense the repression of political opponents. (34)  Opposition groups in revolutionary Nicaragua certainly suffered a great deal of harassment and repression, which was reported widely by the U.S. Department of State, and later several human rights organisations. Her study sheds light on how Protestants were targeted because they were perceived as a political threat, part of the opposition.

In conclusion, Pentecostals were apolitical under Somoza, but increasingly politically-opposed to the Sandinistas. For their part, the Sandinistas regarded Pentecostals as ideological enemies. Reasons for both mindsets are explored in the next unit.


(30) Enrique Dominguez, 'The Great Commission', NACLA: Report on the Americas 18:1 (Jan/Feb 1984), 19.

(31) David Haslam, Faith in Struggle: The Protestant Churches in Nicaragua and Their Response to the Revolution (London: Epworth, 1987), 31.

(32) Americas Watch, Fitful Peace: Human Rights and Reconciliation in Nicaragua Under the Chamorro Government (New York: Americas Watch, 1991), 10.

(33) James Goff, 'Nicaraguans Protest Manipulation of Religion', Latinamerica Press 14:33, 16 September 1982.

(34) Kathleen Mahonney-Norris, An Inquiry Into Political Repression: Revolutionary Cuba and Nicaragua as Comparative Cases (University of Denver, Ph.D. thesis, 1996).

No comments: