A story published this week by the Daily Beast about the nine months Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine spent working as a volunteer in a Jesuit community in Honduras in 1980 and 1981 has been making the conservative rounds. The Beast’s tabloid headline is a cheap exercise in red-baiting: “Tim Kaine’s Time with a Marxist Priest.”
That priest, Fr. James Carney, was indeed a revolutionary and, as a practitioner of liberation theology in Latin America during a period marked by populist movements fighting against death squads and murderous regimes backed by the U.S., an avid student of Marxist theory.
After years spent among the poor and oppressed in Latin America, Carney renounced his U.S. citizenship and joined the armed guerrilla struggle against U.S.-backed death squads and governments. He also left the Jesuits because, he explained, the order would not condone his involvement in an armed struggle. Whatever one thinks of that decision, Carney sacrificed his privilege and status to join the people he was ministering to as a priest. In the eyes of the Reagan administration, that made him a terrorist. In the eyes of the peasants and revolutionaries Carney joined in struggle, he was a hero. (For a look at the roots of Jesuits joining indigenous struggle in Latin America, check out the film “The Mission.”)
The scandal that the Beast claims “may cause trouble” for Kaine is that he once met Fr. Carney, 35 years ago. The right-wing group Catholic Vote has done its best Joe McCarthy imitation on the issue. “That Kaine made the effort to seek out and spend time with Carney is troubling,” according to a memo published by the group with the headline “Tim Kaine’s Radical Roots in Honduras.” It claimed that “the Soviets created liberation theology to undermine the Church and advance the Soviet cause against the United States. In Honduras, the phony Marxist-tinged theology was planted to manipulate poor Catholics, instigate terrorism, and stir up a violent revolution in Honduras — then the key ally of the United States opposing Communism in the region.”
“There’s some serious questions here,” Catholic Vote’s spokesperson told the Beast, speaking about the one meeting Kaine had with Carney 35 years ago. “What was your relationship to this guy when you were down there? What did he teach you?”
What is entirely absent from Catholic Vote’s “history” is the context of what was happening in Latin America during the 1980s — particularly to Catholics. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated by graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas as he performed mass. Catholic nuns and laywomen, including four from the U.S., were raped and murdered. Jesuit priests were executed by death squads. The U.S.-backed Honduran army’s secret police unit, Battalion 316, committed systematic massacres — all while John Negroponte was the U.S. ambassador to Honduras. Negroponte was very close to 316’s commander, Gen. Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, and met with him frequently.
Declassified cables from Negroponte’s time in Honduras reveal no evidence Negroponte ever expressed even a mild objection to Battalion 316’s systematic murders and human rights abuses. According to the National Security Archives: “The Honduran human rights ombudsman later found that more than 50 people disappeared at the hands of the military during those years. But Negroponte’s cables reflect no protest, or even discussion of these issues during his many meetings with Gen. Álvarez, his deputies and Honduran President Robert Suazo. Nor do the released cables contain any reporting to Washington on the human rights abuses that were taking place.”
And what became of Father Carney?
He was thrown from a helicopter in 1983. A whistleblower who deserted Battalion 316 reported that Carney “was executed by order of the battalion’s commander, Gen. Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, who along with several other members of 316 had received training in counterintelligence from U.S. forces at the School of the Americas.” The deserter also asserted that “Álvarez Martínez gave the order for Carney’s execution in the presence of a CIA officer, known as ‘Mister Mike.’” The Los Angeles Times reported that Negroponte failed to report a “U.S.-backed operation that resulted in the execution of nine prisoners and the disappearance of an American priest.” The year Carney was murdered, Negroponte praised Gen. Álvarez Martínez’s “dedication to democracy.”
Catholic Vote’s justification for Fr. Carney’s death: “Carney died during an invasion of Honduras with a group of approximately 100 fellow communist insurgents, trained by communists in Nicaragua and Cuba.” That is how Ronald Reagan and Negroponte preferred for these events to be publicly explained. That propaganda is necessary for Kaine’s meeting with Fr. Carney 35 years ago to be manufactured into a controversy.
John Negroponte, who went on to become George W. Bush’s director of national intelligence, has endorsed Kaine’s running mate, Hillary Clinton — a fact the campaign has proudly promoted. Perhaps that should be the focus of any scandal involving Fr. Carney and the Clinton campaign — and not some meeting Tim Kaine had as a law student three decades ago.
That may be difficult for Clinton. She engaged in the same kind of red baiting against Bernie Sanders over comments Sanders made about the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, who fought the Contra death squads passionately supported by Clinton’s endorser Negroponte.