Pope Francis, the CIA and the ‘Death Squads’
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Instead of leading the charge for real economic and political change in Latin America, John Paul II denounced “liberation theology.” During a 1983 trip to Nicaragua – then ruled by the leftist Sandinistas – the Pope condemned what he called the “popular Church” and would not let Ernesto Cardenal, a priest and a minister in the Sandinista government, kiss the papal ring. He also elevated clerics like Bergoglio who didn’t protest right-wing repression.
John Paul II appears to have gone even further, allowing the Catholic Church in Nicaragua to be used by the CIA and Ronald Reagan’s administration to finance and organize internal disruptions while the violent Nicaraguan Contras terrorized northern Nicaraguan towns with raids notorious for rape, torture and extrajudicial executions.
The Contras were originally organized by an Argentine intelligence unit that emerged from the country’s domestic “dirty war” and was taking its “anticommunist” crusade of terror across borders. After Reagan took office in 1981, he authorized the CIA to join with Argentine intelligence in expanding the Contras and their counterrevolutionary war.
A key part of Reagan’s Contra strategy was to persuade the American people and Congress that the Sandinistas represented a repressive communist dictatorship that persecuted the Catholic Church, aimed to create a “totalitarian dungeon,” and thus deserved violent overthrow.
A special office inside the National Security Council, headed by longtime CIA disinformation specialist Walter Raymond Jr., pushed these propaganda “themes” domestically. Raymond’s campaign exploited examples of tensions between the Catholic hierarchy and the Sandinista government as well as with La Prensa, the leading opposition newspaper.
To make the propaganda work with Americans, it was important to conceal the fact that elements of the Catholic hierarchy and La Prensa were being financed by the CIA and were coordinating with the Reagan administration’s destabilization strategies. [See Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
Evidence of Payments
In 1988, I discovered evidence of this reality while working as a correspondent for Newsweek magazine. At the time, the Iran-Contra scandal had undermined the case for spending more U.S. money to arm the Contras. But the Reagan administration continued to beat the propaganda drums by highlighting the supposed persecution of Nicaragua’s internal opposition.
To fend off U.S. hostility, which also included a harsh economic embargo, the Sandinistas announced increased political freedoms. But that represented only a new opportunity for Washington to orchestrate more political disruptions, which would either destabilize the government further or force a crackdown that could then be cited in seeking more Contra aid.
Putting the Sandinistas in this “inside-outside” vise had always been part of the CIA strategy, but with a crumbling economy and more U.S. money pouring into the opposition groups, the gambit was beginning to work.
Yet, it was crucial to the plan that the CIA’s covert relationship with Nicaragua’s internal opposition remain secret, not so much from the Sandinistas, who had detailed intelligence about this thoroughly penetrated operation, but from the American people. The U.S. public would get outraged at Sandinista reprisals against these “independent” groups only if the CIA’s hand were kept hidden.
A rich opportunity for the Reagan administration presented itself in summer 1988 when a new spasm of Contra ambushes killed 17 Nicaraguans and the anti-Sandinista internal opposition staged a violent demonstration in the town of Nandaime, a protest that Sandinista police dispersed with tear gas.
Reacting to the renewed violence, the Sandinistas closed down La Prensa and the Catholic Church’s radio station – both prime vehicles for anti-Sandinista propaganda. The Nicaraguan government also expelled U.S. Ambassador Richard Melton and seven other U.S. Embassy personnel for allegedly coordinating the disorders.