Nicaragua’s Cheerleaders

[The U.S. under Carter] tried very hard to build that new relationship [with the Sandinistas]. But the effort failed, principally, I believe, because the Sandinistas could not live with a positive image of the U.S. government. They did not try at all. And many in the United States cheered them on. (Lawrence E. Harrison, “We Tried Hard to Accept Nicaragua’s Revolution,” Washington Post, June 30, 1983. Mr. Harrison was director of US Development Assistance in Nicaragua under President Carter.

A new apologist for the Sandinistas has emerged recently in the U.S. Catholic press, namely, the Central American Historical Institute (CAHI). According to its letterhead. CAHI is “an independent institute affiliated with the Instituto Historico Centroamericano, Nicaragua” (IHCA). CAHI maintains a Georgetown University address but is not officially affiliated with the University.

CAHI was established in 1982 by Fr. Alvaro Arguello, S.J., director of IHCA in Managua. A frequent visitor to Georgetown University, Fr. Arguello asked Georgetown president Fr. Timothy Healy, S. J. , for help in establishing CAHI, which enjoys free office space in Georgetown’s newest academic building. CAHI has greatly expanded IHCA’s ability to influence American journalists. Its director refuses to reveal any information regarding its sources of income. So far as I can discover, CAHI is not even incorporated. The director admits that CAHI does not have tax-exempt status. This means it cannot legally receive funds from any church group, tax-exempt charity, or foundation. Nor have CAHI’s staff members registered as foreign agents of IHCA. Financially, it seems suspended in air.

In addition to performing research for what it calls “solidarity-like groups,” CAHI publishes a newsletter sent to some liberal congressmen, the national media, and others. The material is usually banal, but CAHI scrupulously avoids criticism of the Sandinistas and never forgets its mission in the revolution. One recent newsletter was devoted to accounts of how “daily life continues despite contra attacks.” It reports how “a woman whose son was killed by contras stressed that it is the Reagan administration . . . who launched this war against Nicaragua.”

CAHI publishes “open letters” to Reagan and the U.S. Congress written by Nicaraguan religious furious over U.S. policy in Central America. Nonetheless, Betsy Cohn, CAHI’s director, says she usually avoids reporting on Church affairs. She made the remark in a revealing context; after mentioning that someone had asked her for a copy of Archbishop Obano y Bravo’s famous Easter homily — which was critical of the Sandinistas — she said that “it wasn’t worth a Telex” to IHCA to request the sermon.

In response to the question of whether CAHI had even addressed the alleged Cuba-Nicaragua-El Salvador connection, Ms. Cohn said she avoided “controversial issues, because you just have to give one side or the other.” Yet CAHI has repeated allegations that Miskito Indians launched the so-called Red Christmas plot “to separate the Atlantic Coast from Nicaragua (Source: Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry).” In one CAHI publication on “The Military Situation in Nicaragua” three explicitly governmental sources were offered, including a speech by junta leader Daniel Ortega. The only other source given was “sources in Jalapa.”

As National Catholic Register reporter Joan Frawley has noted, and any reader may note, IHCA’s monthly magazine, Envio, quotes government sources almost exclusively. Indeed, IHCA personnel have such a friendly relationship with the government that they have even made their readers privy to Daniel Ortega’s personal meditations as he was drafting a decree.

When asked if IHCA, one of her largest suppliers of in-formation, could conduct whatever investigations it pleased, Ms. Cohn replied that any private, “independent” organization in Nicaragua could conduct research free from government control or censorship. Actually, everything written in Nicaragua is censored, often publicly, as in the case of La Prensa. Moreover, in 1981 the government issued Decree #888 forbidding any socio-economic research without prior governmental approval.

Ms. Cohn offered an example of Nicaragua’s freedom of expression. “For example, COSEP can print anything it wants,” she said. COSEP is an umbrella organization for the private sector. On October 20, 1981, the directors of COSEP were pictured on La Prensa’s front page signing a letter which asked the government not to continue its “Marxist-Leninist adventure.” At 1:00 that night the directors were rounded up, thrown in solitary confinement, and shortly sentenced to 7 months imprisonment, as was duly reported in Time, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal.

When a reporter called some of the best known left-wing organizations in the Central American field to see if they had heard of CAHI and if they could confirm Ms. Cohn’s statements, these organizations called CAHI to say that a reporter had been making inquiries. Ms. Cohn quickly sent an angry letter to the reporter’s employer protesting his actions. In the letter she wrote a fascinating sentence: “1 was angered to hear that [the reporter] was seeking information on our office from other organizations.”

Yet CAHI materials have appeared freely in the National Catholic Reporter, the Center of Concern’s Focus, and elsewhere. A year ago we found Our Sunday Visitor (July 18, 1982) discussing Nicaragua with the aid of IHCA director Fr. Arguello. Editor-in-chief Fr. Vincent Giese and Fr. Arguello reviewed “the main tenets of the government”: “a mixed economy, political pluralism, and a policy of non-alignment in foreign affairs.” With this perfunctory and outrageously inaccurate description delivered, the two priests added that the “logic of the poor” is “the key ideological principle underlying the popular and populist Sandinista governing process, now in the hands of a three-man ruling junta.”

Fr. Arguello admits that “there is a genuine fear on the part of the bishops that the Church will be persecuted under the socialist process of the FSLN,” despite the fact that “the FSLN has recognized over and over again the immense contribution of Christians in the revolution.”

In the article Fr. Giese neglects to mention Fr. Arguello’s background. Fr. Arguello served on the Nicaraguan Council of State. His brother is head of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court (which court recently visited the Soviet Union to study its legal system). His Instituto distributes such publications as Marx for Beginners and Lenin for Beginners.

The Center of Concern’s Focus (May 1983) also uses IHCA, although they misidentified it as “The Historical Institute of the Jesuits of Nicaragua.” The Center was concerned that the Nicaraguan government’s image was tarnished by the events surrounding the papal visit: “The on-the-face-of-it irreverent behavior during the papal mass at Managua . . . serves only as further grist for the Administration’s mills.” “Given the general reliability of the Historical Institute it seems useful to let their voice be heard on this issue.” The main fault for the disturbance, according to IHCA — which the Center eagerly accepts — lies with John Paul II, who frustrated the common people by pursuing “his single theme,” “obedience to the hierarchy.”

After all, complains the Center author, did the Holy Father “talk about rights acquired in the revolution, of its successful literacy campaign, of land reforms experienced, of the external threats of destabilization? Would he refer to the seventeen youths killed the preceding day by ex-Somocista-led forces?” Since “Pope John Paul’s agenda was quite other . . . one can well imagine a reaction of disappointment.”

The Center author also repeats IHCA’s explanation of a “listless reaction” to an earlier papal speech: the crowd “found the address too remote from their interests and concerns, and, to their disappointment, wholly unrelated to their situation and their cries for peace.” John Paul had only spoken on “education in the faith.”

The Center author went on to criticize the Pope’s ecclesiology because it lacks respect for “legitimate pluralism” and “no room is accorded legitimate dissent.” The same author never mentions the Nicaraguan government’s policies on dissent.

The papal visit has proved troubling to IHCA and CAHI, and they have stayed busy excusing the Sandinistas’ reception of the Pope. Pat Hynds, a Maryknoll lay worker at IHCA in Managua, told the National Catholic Register (July 12, 1983) that “The Sandinistas have a lot of faults, but they’re not so stupid as to have done anything to deliberately insult the Pope.” CAHI’s contribution has been to distribute a letter from a few Central American journalists and academics who deny seeing any Sandinista impropriety.

These explanations were dealt a lethal blow recently when a middle-level agent of the Nicaraguan state police, Miguel Bolanos Hunter, reported that he and others in the state police did, indeed, “orchestrate” frustration to the extent of entrapping supporters of the Pope in churches and putting Sandinista mobs directly in front of the podium (Washington Post, June 19, 1983). Furthermore, when questioned about INCA specifically, Bolanos said that his superior in the state police, a familial relation of Fr. Arguello, weekly visited the priest at IHCA. Bolanos also said that he has recruited Sandinistas to work undercover at IHCA, where they could clandestinely censor the output of the Instituto. They were given detailed instructions of exactly how events should be reported with just the right touches of mild criticism to make IHCA seem “generally reliable.”

When asked whether she wanted to disseminate Bolanos’ revelation of state police involvement in the harassing of the Pope, Ms. Cohn answered simply, “no.”

IHCA’s Telexes to Europe and CAHI are paid for by the World Council of Churches. In fact, the WCC gave IHCA over $36,000 because “the government of Nicaragua does not have the necessary resources to meet this challenge,” the challenge, that is, of “being criticized by conservative circles throughout the world” and of having “news about the country . . . making the headlines of the world press” (WCC, 1983, Resource Sharing Book). The money established an “information center” at IHCA so that journalists visiting Nicaragua can, in the WCC’s words, avoid the trouble of “many persons visiting Nicaragua for the first time [who] find it difficult to understand the dynamic revolutionary process …”

These are troubled times for the vigorous defenders of the Nicaraguan government. After four years in power the illusions so carefully constructed by the Sandinistas and their allies are crumbling. Critics of the government now include a large number of former supporters of the Revolution. Ex-junta member Arturo Jose Cruz, says that the radicals “stubbornly insist on imposing a [political] system that is viscerally rejected by most Nicaraguans” (Foreign Affairs, Summer, 1983). Other myths, including those tenacious ones about the “freedom” of La Prensa, have fallen as an ex-editor has proclaimed that “La Prensa is undergoing the heaviest censorship of its 54-year history.” And how difficult it will be for Fr. Arguello to speak of the Sanidinistas’ respect for Christianity now that Miguel Bolanos has told not only of the harassment of the Pope but also how one of Archbishop Bravo’s priests was publicly humiliated by a Sandinista frame-up (Washington Post, June 19, 1983). In addition, La Prensa has printed a government memo outlining how Christmas must be given a new political meaning until it is possible to eliminate the Christmas tradition entirely (National Catholic Register, November 28, 1982). Nicaragua’s professed “non-alignment in foreign affairs” will be hard to defend in light of the Democratic-controlled House Committee on Intelligence’s reports of Nicaraguan military aid to El Salvador. And finally, how long can the left call for negotiations with Salvador rebels while spurning such negotiations from Nicaraguan contras?

The upcoming labors of Fr. Arguello, Cohn, and others at IHCA and CAHI will be arduous.


  • Scott Walter

    Scott Walter is executive vice president of the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C. He also heads Campion Consulting, which provides philanthropic consulting for donors in the fields of education, civic literacy, and aid to the underprivileged; and customized writing for nonprofits and businesses. A graduate of Georgetown University, Scott lives with his wife, Erica, and their four children in Maryland.

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