During the Cold War’s earliest years, right-wing governments and oligarchic elites in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua fostered closer relationships with the Catholic Church. Dictatorial leaders like Guatemala’s Carlos Castillo Armas and dynastic regimes like Nicaragua’s Somoza family regarded the Church as an ally against supposed Marxist influence in the region. Those ties began to fray in the late 1960s, as the Second Vatican Council’s foundational reforms moved Catholicism farther to the political and social left around the globe. This shift was especially prominent in Central America, where Catholics like El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero and Guatemala’s Father Stanley Rother were among Central America’s most visible critics and reformers as political violence increased across the region during the 1970s. Relatedly, evangelical Protestants, particularly Pentecostal groups based in the United States, flooded Central America throughout that decade. Their staunch anticommunism and established ties to influential policymakers and political lobbyists in the United States, among other factors, gave evangelical Protestants greater influence in US-Central American relations. Their influence was strongest during the early 1980s, when José Efraín Ríos Montt, an ordained Pentecostal minister with Eureka, California’s Verbo Ministries, seized Guatemala’s presidency via a coup in March 1982. Notable US evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson praised Ríos Montt’s regime for its rabid anticommunist ideology, while President Ronald Reagan claimed that the dictator had received a “bum rap” in the global press. Concurrently, some US evangelical missioners and pastors also foregrounded the Sandinista government’s anti-Protestant activities as additional justification for US support for Nicaragua’s Contra forces. Religious actors were also instrumental to Central America’s peace processes after the Cold War, as Catholic and Protestant leaders alike worked closely with regional governments and the United States to end decades of political violence and enact meaningful socioeconomic reforms for the region’s citizens.
Stephen J. C. Andes
Vatican foreign relations with Latin America comprise both bilateral diplomatic negotiations with states and the Holy See’s spiritual leadership of national Catholic Churches in the region. Apostolic nuncios—papal diplomatic representatives—are the principal intermediaries of Vatican foreign relations. Since the early 19th century, Vatican diplomacy has been the purview of the Papal Secretariat of State, the “foreign relations” branch of the Roman curia.
The beginning of modern Vatican foreign relations with Latin America should be dated to the Napoleonic wars in Europe and the movements for home rule in Spain’s colonies. From 1810–1820, the papacy stood unwavering in its defense of Spanish absolutist claims to the peninsula and to its colonies. Latin American Independence shattered Spanish Royal Patronage and left a legacy of regalism in the region, with which the ultramontane papacy of the 19th century would contend. The professionalization of the Vatican diplomatic corps (1889–1914) conformed papal diplomacy to the norms of the international state system, incrementally increasing the political and spiritual legitimacy of the Holy See after its loss of temporal power to the Italian state, sparking the so-called “Roman Question” (1870–1929).
During the interwar period, Vatican policy centered on concordats and Catholic Action, evincing both a pragmatic approach to diplomacy and a highly regimented and non-party political model of lay activism. Mexico’s Cristero Rebellion (1926–1929) represented the most strident conflict in the period, where Rome’s concordat/Catholic Action policy neither negotiated a durable modus vivendi nor managed to pacify radical lay Catholics until the 1940s. During the pontificate of Pius XII (1939–1958), a strident anti-communism marked the policy of the Holy See, aligning the Catholic Church in Latin America with conservatives and authoritarian leaders. After the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the policy of Ostpolitik guided diplomats towards rapprochement with communist and revolutionary states such as Cuba and Nicaragua.
The end of the Cold War temporized the relationship between progressive sectors in the Latin American Church, which had been influenced by Liberation Theology, and the Vatican under John Paul II (1978–2005). A “New Evangelization” campaign was heralded by Pope Benedict XVI (2005–2013). Argentine Jesuit and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio crafted many of the seminal documents for the New Evangelization. Bergoglio, elected Pope Francis in 2013, emphasized the socio-economic and the spiritual aspects of Vatican policy, bring issues of poverty, economic inequality, and justice to center stage, fostering a diplomacy of piccoli passi (small steps) and brokering improved relations between the United States and Cuba.