Background: According to official statements by the Puebla Institute, the organization was established in l982 by Humberto Belli, a native Nicaraguan and former Marxist who was a member of the Sandinista movement before becoming a Christian in l977. In these statements, the institute is described as a nonprofit, nonpartisan lay Catholic organization which promotes a Christian perspective on theological and sociopolitical issues, especially those concerning religious freedom and human rights. By documenting and publicizing restrictions on religious freedoms and other human rights, and by mobilizing public support for those who suffer religious persecution, the institute hopes to stop religious repression. In order to accomplish this, according to institute sources, the organization conducts research, provides analysis, and publishes information on issues in Latin America and other regions. (5,16,22)
Other reports, however, notably those of former Nicaraguan contra leader Edgar Chamorro, indicate more suspicious origins and purposes for the organization. Chamorro says that working relationships between Humberto Belli and the contra leadership were prompted by conversations with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recommending that the Nicaraguan rebels exploit religious factors in their fight against the Sandinistas. Several members of the CIA-organized contra Directorate–on which Chamorro served–suggested working with Belli, a Catholic intellectual who had quarrels with the Nicaraguan government. Alfonso Callejas, a member of the first contra Directorate, worked with Belli to coordinate the book that was eventually titled Nicaragua: Christians Under Fire.
According to Chamorro, the project was written into the contract between the contras and their CIA-recommended public relations firm, Woody Kepner Associates, Inc. The CIA gave the Directorate money to pay for Belli’s trips to Miami to meet with contra leaders while the book was being written, and, Chamorro says, Belli was paid by the CIA for his work on the volume. Belli suggested using the name Puebla Institute under which to publish the book. This was to serve two purposes. First, it would disguise links between the contras and Belli. This would give the volume more apparent legitimacy and permit its distribution through the FDN and ARDE (the two most influential rebel coalitions) and similar channels. Second, it would implicitly associate the book with the second major Catholic Bishop’s conference in Latin America, held in Puebla, Mexico. Chamorro observes that the Puebla conference carries the connotation of a conservative readjustment in the Catholic Church despite the fact that it did not end up repudiating the liberation theology orientations promoted by the previous such conference held in Medellin, Colombia in l968. (10)
Investigative reporter Russ Bellant asserts that Puebla is a front, or "action center," for the Sword of the Spirit, an offshoot of the Word of God cult-like charismatic group. (23)
Funding: According to Edgar Chamorro (see Background), the CIA paid Humberto Belli for his work on the first Puebla Institute publication, Christians Under Fire. Chamorro notes that the CIA told both the FDN and Humberto Belli to say that the money for the book and the Institute was from private individuals. (10,12) Puebla sources indicate that the organization is privately funded. (22) It also raises money through sales of its publications. (5,6) The (John M. ) Olin Foundation has provided funding for the Puebla Institute as well. A l986 Olin Foundation grant for $40,000 supported the Institute’s activities with the Nicaraguan Human Rights Commission. (13)
Activities: The Puebla Institute produces publications on theological and sociopolitical issues in Latin America. It also conducts projects which evaluate the human rights performance of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. (5,6,l0) The organization has voiced repeated attacks against the Sandinista government concerning religion, freedom, and human rights. (1) According to Edgar Chamorro, however, the group’s human rights work "is neither thorough nor accurate."(10)
The Institute copublished Humberto Belli’s book, Breaking Faith, with the evangelical publishing company, Crossway Books. That book, like its predecessor, Nicaragua: Christians Under Fire, makes repeated charges against the Sandinistas. (3) Belli is currently under contract to Puebla to write the Spanish translation of Breaking Faith. (18)
Nina Shea has written articles on religious conditions in Nicaragua, both under the auspices of the Puebla Institute and of the Intl League for Human Rights (see Private Connections). These are severely critical of Sandinista policies–accusing them of persecution and torture of religious opponents–but acknowledge that the Nicaraguan government has not pursued the methods of death squad killings and disappearances common to El Salvador and Guatemala. She contends that the Sandinista government’s stance toward Christians is one of manipulation of revolutionary sympathizers and restriction of opponents. She also notes that the Nicaraguan regime has been responsive to international pressure regarding religious persecution and suggests that such pressure be maintained. (16,17,27)
Government Connections: As described above, Edgar Chamorro asserts that the Puebla Institute–through its founder Humberto Belli-has worked closely with the CIA in anti-Sandinista activities. (2,10) In addition to financial support, Chamorro contends that the CIA provided documents from sources like La Prensa and the Rev. Bismarck Carballo to Belli for inclusion in Christians Under Fire. On the other hand, Joseph Davis denies any CIA connection, financial or otherwise. (10,3)
The CIA liaison between the FDN and Washington was Tomas Castillo, who was also the Costa Rican CIA station chief revealed as Joseph Fernandez during the Iran-Contra hearings. According to Chamorro, Castillo met with the contra leadership in January l983 and enthusiastically approved the idea of working with Belli. He suggested that the FDN leaders bring Belli to Miami and pay him for his work. (4)
Belli began receiving grants from the U.S. Agency for Intl Development as early as l977, according to his curriculum vitae. (23)
Weigel is an adviser to the U.S. Information Agency. He also provides a course on the origins, beliefs, and activities of U.S. political movements for the State Department’s Senior Seminar program. (24)
Private Connections: At the time of the Institute’s founding, Joseph Davis and Humberto Belli, along with the three directors of the new organization, were associated with the Word of God, a charismatic group which has numerous churches in the U.S. and Central America. (4,23) Crossway Books is a division of Good News Publishers. (3,5)
Belli worked as editorial page editor of the Managua-based opposition paper La Prensa, a major opponent of the Sandinista government which has received funding from the U.S. government through the Natl Endowment for Democracy (NED). The NED grants were channeled in part through a private organization known as the Friends of the Democratic Center in Central America, or PRODEMCA. (5,6,7,8,11) PRODEMCA was later found to have received funds for pro-contra media work through the National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty, a conduit for funds in the contra supply network coordinated by Oliver North. (28) According to Bob Woodward’s book, Veil, the CIA began funding La Prensa in l980. That was the same year that Belli took over as editorial page editor. (23)
William E. Simon, treasury secretary under Richard Nixon, wason the national council of PRODEMCA until it folded and is president of the board of officers of the John M. Olin Foundation, a source of funding for the Puebla Institute. (19,20)
In l987, a new organization, the Central American Peace and Democracy Watch (CAPDW), was formed to monitor activities in Central America, especially in Nicaragua. Sponsors of the new group were Charles S. Robb, former Democratic governor of Virginia, and John T. Joyce, president of the AFL-CIO’s Bricklayers Union. The CAPDW was designed to coordinate the activities of a number of existing organizations interested in democracy in Central America. In addition to the Puebla Institute, other member organizations were Freedom House, PRODEMCA, and member unions of the AFL-CIO. (9)
Nina Shea wrote a human rights report on the Sandinistas for the Intl League for Human Rights. The Intl League report was based mainly on the uninvestigated charges of the Nicaraguan Permanent Commission on Human Rights, an organization which has received funding from the U.S. government through U.S. private groups, including PRODEMCA. (14,29) Shea’s husband, Adam Meyerson, edits the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review. (14)
Belli’s views on the Sandinistas received coverage by the Open Doors News Service, an offshoot of the evangelical group, Open Doors with Brother Andrew. One of Open Doors most common projects is the smuggling of Bibles into communist countries. (15)
Contra leader Alfonso Robelo printed two editions of Belli’s first book, as acknowledged by Belli himself. Alfonso Calejas, another contra leader, has said that he also provided contacts with individuals and organizations which helped Belli with the publication of the book. (23)
Belli arranged for Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, Managua’s Catholic leader, to offer Mass for contra leaders in Miami. In l982, Obando had Belli appointed to the Vatican Secretariat for Non-Believers. He was one of only five lay consultants on the secretariat. Both Belli and Obando have been associated with the Managuan branch of the Sword of the Spirit, known as the Ciudad de Dios, an organization founded in l978. (23) A July l982 memo circulated to important Sword of the Spirit leaders called for joint efforts with other Nicaraguan groups in mobilizing against the Sandinista government. Other members of Ciudad de Dios included leaders of such opposition groups as COSEP (an umbrella for business organizations), the Nicaraguan Permanent Commission on Human Rights, and the La Prensa newspaper. They included Jaime Chamorro, the news daily’s editor and theologian Roberto Cardenal, also of La Prensa. (23)
James Finn, Thomas Melady, and George Weigel are contributing editors of Crisis, a conservative journal of lay Catholic opinion. The editorial and publication committees of the magazine include other New Right notables including Michael Novak (American Enterprise Institute, Institute on Religion and Democracy, Nicaraguan Freedom Fund, PRODEMCA), Zbigniew Brzezinski (former National Security Adviser, Freedom House, National Endowment for Democracy, AmeriCares), Edwin Feulner (Heritage Foundation) J. Peter Grace (Knights of Malta, AmeriCares, PRODEMCA), Alexander Haig (former Secretary of State, Knights of Malta), William E. Simon (Knights of Malta, AmeriCares, Nicaraguan Freedom Fund, PRODEMCA), and Paul Weyrich (Free Congress Foundation). (11,25)
George Weigel is president of the James Madison Foundation, the Washington DC project of the World Without War Council (WWWC). Both he and James Finn are board members of the WWWC. (24) The WWWC has been involved in collecting information on U.S. peace groups under the guise of building a directory of activist organizations involved in anti-war activities. It has also arranged speaking tours for Arturo Cruz (former political official with the Nicaraguan contras) and Humberto Belli. The WWWC has promoted Belli’s books criticizing the Nicaraguan government. (24)
Weigel’s James Madison Foundation received a grant from the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) to survey the activities of groups involved in peace, security, and world affairs issues. Weigel and James Billington also received a USIP grant for an academic project of some sort. The project received $91,400 from USIP. (24) The USIP is a nonprofit corporation established and funded by Congress which is supposed to "promote peaceful resolution of international conflicts." Its establishing legislation, however, authorizes the director of Central Intelligence to assign officers and employees of the CIA to work with the USIP. That legislation also permits the USIP to use and disseminate "classified materials from the intelligence community."(24)
Weigel signed an advertisement sponsored by PRODEMCA which called for the passage of military aid to the contras in March 1986. (26) He and Robert Pickus, president of the WWWC, provided a draft speech proposal supportive of the Strategic Defense Initiative to Max Kampelman (a principal of Freedom House then on leave as a chief arms control negotiator in Geneva). The proposed speech was to be delivered by President Reagan. In a memo attached to the draft, Weigel and Pickus noted that they would "shortly be sending [Kampelman] two further (and briefer) memoranda on the public diplomacy side of things."(24)
Misc: When questioned about Edgar Chamorro’s charges, Joseph Davis–then executive director of the institute–said,"We don’t even support the damn contras."(3) Edgar Chamorro: "When we, the FDN and the CIA, decided to use the church in Nicaragua, it was a conscious action to exploit the feeling of religious people to dislike the Sandinista revolution. We printed flyers, bulletins, and other propaganda using the images and names of the Pope, bishops, and Christ, portraying them as pro-FDN. It was part of our fight to gain the sympathy of the deeply religious Christian population of Nicaragua."(3)
Humberto Belli is no longer directly associated with the Puebla Institute. He continues to do contract work for the institute, but does not have a permanent position with them. (18)
Principals: Board of Directors: Nina Shea, president. (18,21) Humberto Belli, founder and chairman. (5,18,21) Joseph Davis, James Finn, Thomas Melady, Jean Ogden, George Weigel. (21) Anna D. Tapay, program director; Mark Whitters, research associate. (21)
2. Alexander Cockburn’s reply to Jerome Shestack, The Nation, Jan 31, 1987.
3. Niki Amarantides, The Other Side, April, 1987.
4. Alexander Cockburn’s reply to Joseph Davis, The Nation, Nov 7, 1987.
5. Humberto Belli, Breaking Faith: The Sandinista Revolution and Its Impact on Freedom and Christian Faith in Nicaragua (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, l985).
6. Humberto Belli, Nicaragua Christians Under Fire (Puebla Institute, l984).
7. NED 1985 Annual Report.
8. John Spicer Nichols,"La Prensa: The CIA Connection," Columbia Journalism Review, July/Aug l988, pp34-35.
9."AFL-CIO: Which Side Are You On?" Village Voice, Oct 20, l987.
l0. Edgar Chamorro, Packaging the Contras: A Case of CIA Disinformation (New York, NY: Institute for Media Analysis, l987).
ll. The New Right Humanitarians, the Resource Center, l986.
12. Robert Parry and Peter Kornbluh,"Iran-Contra’s Untold Story," Foreign Policy, #72, Fall l988.
l3. Foundation Grants Index, l7th Edition, l988.
l4. Alexander Cockburn,"Beat the Devil," The Nation, June l3, l987.
15. David Stoll, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? Studies in the Politics of Evangelical Growth, forthcoming, University of California, l988.
l6. Nina Hope Shea,"The Systematic Destruction of Faith in Nicaragua," Wall Street Journal, May 22, l987, pl9.
l7. Nina H. Shea,"Human Rights in Nicaragua," The New Republic, Sep 1, l986, pp21-23.
18. Phone conversation with Puebla Institute, Dec 2, l988.
19. Mission to Chile & Paraguay: A PRODEMCA Report, l987.
20. Foundation Center Source Book Profile on the Olin Foundation, l988.
21. Letter from Renee McCullough, Dec 8, l988.
22. The First Freedom, Puebla Institute newsletter, Sep/Oct l988.
23. Russ Bellant,"Secretive Puebla Institute has Ties to CIA, Contras, Conservative Bishops," National Catholic Reporter, Nov l8, l988.
24. Richard Hatch and Sara Diamond,"The World Without War Council," Covert Action Information Bulletin, #31, Winter 1989.
25. Crisis masthead, Apr 1989.
26. PRODEMCA ad, New York Times, March 15, 1986.
27. Robin Andersen,"Reagan’s `Public Diplomacy,’" Covert Action Information Bulletin, Winter 1989.
28. National Security Archive, The Chronology (New York, NY: Warner Books, 1987).
29. National Endowment for Democracy annual report, 1985.
The underlying cites for this profile are now kept at Political Research Associates, (617) 666-5300. www.irc-online.org.