Fear and Loathing II: Liberation Theology

Sell what you own and give the money to the poor

Mark 10: 21

The “Peace-Love” counter-culture of the American Sixties can be considered a revolutionary period that was met by Old Power with a “Fear and Loathing” Counter-Revolution based upon instilling fear in the masses while implementing harsh policies of repression and exploitation (reflecting a systemic devaluing of human life). It was suggested that a corollary precipitating factor was the ending of colonialism, in the traditional sense, with the post-war wave of newly independent nations that henceforth constituted the “Third World.” It was further argued that the Counter-Revolution is ongoing and in important ways increasingly authoritarian.

It would be remiss in this context not to touch upon the critical role of liberation theology in spurring the Counter-Revolution abroad and pushing it to depths of barbarity beyond comparison without invoking the most extreme examples of humankind’s inhumanity to one another.

Western expansion in the Age of Empire involved, for better and worse, the imposition of the West’s dominant religion, Christianity, upon the peoples of the New World, generally not with their consent. The Church concerned itself not just with conferring spiritual blessings upon its new subjects but with ministering to their worldly plight in “Christian charity.” Given the vast disparities in wealth and power between the impoverished masses and the landed gentry—El Salvador said to be ruled by fourteen families, Jamaica by twenty-one, Honduras eight and Nicaragua, well, there were the Somozas and not a lot more—a great number of people in Latin America, dark-skinned in particular, led and continue to lead a relatively bleak existence. The Church’s charity was a bandage when major surgery was required in order to effect meaningful improvement in people’s lives.

Beginning with the Papacy of John XXIII, the Catholic Church ventured upon a radical new path, emphasizing the Church’s obligation – let’s say opportunity – to advocate for social justice, i.e., a more equitable sharing of wealth and power between rich and poor. It has been said to be the most extreme shift in Church doctrine in centuries, “going back to the Gospels,” as Noam Chomsky has pointed out. The movement was met by extreme resistance in all quarters of authority, within the Church itself, the entrenched oligarchies of Latin America and not least of all, in the hallowed halls and executive offices of Old Power in the United States.

Liberation theology and its “preferential option for the poor” grew out of the Second Vatican Council, convened in 1962 under John XXIII. The United States interpreted it as a threat to its internal security and immediately stepped up aid to right-wing military governments and opposition parties in Latin America, joining with the “boys in Brazil” to overthrow the democratically-elected Goulart government – and from there it was off to the races. The CIA allied with conservative elements within the Catholic Church and dictatorial regimes that formed Operation Condor, their officers trained at the US Army School of the Americas in Panama and, later, Ft. Benning, Georgia, since renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Jimmy Carter came into office in 1977 as the “human rights president,” a platform seemingly consistent with liberation theology in spirit – but not, as it turned out, in practice. Carter was equivocal in his opposition to Somoza’s disgraceful regime in Nicaragua and attempted to preserve the murderous National Guard in a “Somocismo without Somoza” gambit when it became clear Somoza had to go. Next door in El Salvador, Archbishop Romero pleaded “Christian to Christian” to Carter to stop funding the death squads that were savaging the country; Carter turned a deaf ear and Romero paid with his life, gunned down while giving Mass. Many more would die equally gruesome deaths.

Carter’s wish to improve human rights was constrained by deeply ingrained allegiance to the system, leading to the excusing of transgressions on the part of friends of the US (including the Shah of Iran, a severe human rights abuser) while condemning those of our “enemies” (who, historically, have often wanted to establish friendly relations, e.g., Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro). This two-tiered morality placed Carter squarely within the camp of the Counter-Revolutionaries.

In 1978, Karol Jozef Wotja assumed the Papacy as John Paul II. Despite speaking out against poverty in places like Haiti, John Paul II, hardened by his experience under Nazis and Communists in his native Poland, strongly opposed liberation theology. He found a strong ally in Ronald Reagan, under whom US-backed terror in Latin America escalated to horrific levels.

Across a swath of Central America including Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, a region that couldn’t have had more than about twenty-five million people, hundreds of thousands would die – perhaps 1% of the combined population. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua fought for decades to overthrow the Somozas and once in power were commended by the World Bank and human rights groups for marked progress in an astonishingly short period in several areas, including literacy, housing, health and education – despite having been left virtually bankrupt and saddled with a crippling debt by the fleeing Somoza.

Rather than praised for these remarkable achievements and welcomed into the community of nations, Nicaragua was vilified by the ideological fanatic Reagan as a socialist hell. The Sandinistas ran a mixed economy rather than a strict Marxist agenda, but facts were irrelevant. To the elite of the Counter-Revolution, it mattered only that the Sandinistas were not playing by the rules, i.e., American-style capitalism straight down the line. Reagan worked through the Nicaraguan Church as well as the press and business and labor organizations to destabilize the fledgling government of Daniel Ortega.

As the lives of Nicaraguans didn’t matter, Reagan soon turned to bloodshed, unleashing the Contras on a war of terror and slaughter of nurses, nuns, teachers, anybody striving to make a new Nicaragua that would serve the needs of the people; one of the dead was an idealistic young American named Ben Linder, a volunteer helping to build a micro-dam to supply energy in a poor rural district. Though Reagan lionized the Contras as freedom-fighters, the “moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers,” reports of their brutality sank to depths of psychopathic depravity. Tens of thousands would die in Reagan’s Contra War.

Liberation theology and its concern for social justice abroad heightened paranoia about social movements at home. Reagan utilized the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover to undermine student activists, leftist professors and black radicals. The Fear and Loathing Counter-Revolution was gaining momentum and gains even now, a runaway train careening toward ultimate destruction and threatening to take everyone else down with it. All to protect the rich against the tyranny of the poor, crying out for a decent job, affordable education, healthcare, a clean environment, a functioning society that would “promote the common welfare,” heresies all, their voices unheard, squelched, exterminated. Making things right would appear to require nothing short of a miracle—the people re-awakening the heroic spirit of the martyred and dispossessed and rising up, breathing new life into the struggle for social justice. It seems an insurmountable task, but then, one small step does lead to another.