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.
Saint Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez (b. Ciudad Barrios, San Miguel, El Salvador, August 15, 1915; d. San Salvador, El Salvador, March 24, 1980) was the seventh Archbishop of San Salvador. During his episcopate (February 22, 1977–March 24, 1980), Romero gained international renown for his human rights activism, advocacy for the poor, and denunciation of El Salvador’s political repression and violence. Romero was one of Latin America’s most influential political and social voices and routinely drew thousands of people to San Salvador’s Metropolitan Cathedral, while his homilies were broadcast across Central America on shortwave radio. In 1978, members of Britain’s Parliament, the United States Congress, and the US press supported Romero’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts to halt the economic, political, and social violence that plagued El Salvador and, more broadly, Central America, during the late 1970s. In his final homily, delivered on March 23, 1980, Romero directly addressed members of the Salvadoran military and police forces, “in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.” The following day, Romero was murdered by Salvadoran government forces while he celebrated Mass at the Church of Divine Providence in San Salvador. His assassination sent shockwaves through Central America, and over one hundred thousand people attended his funeral. In May 2015, Pope Francis beatified Romero and elevated him to sainthood on October 14, 2018.