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PONTIFF WAS BANE OF DESPOTS

On his many evangelical trips across Latin America and the Caribbean, Pope John Paul II rattled leftist and rightist dictators, cracked down on liberation theology and condemned human rights abuses.

John Paul set the tone for his approach to the region in his first trip after his election as pope, going to Mexico in 1979 to deliver a score of sermons on peace, love and faith before an unprecedented outpouring of millions of Mexicans.

However, he also spoke strongly and clearly about the need to respect the hierarchy of the church -- a scolding aimed at liberation theology, a then-surging belief whose followers at times argued that the world's oppressed had the moral right to resort to armed violence.

The pope's clash with liberation theology and priests who had joined the political left came to a turbulent head during his 1983 tour of Central America and the Caribbean that included a stop in Nicaragua, then ruled by the leftist Sandinista Front.

On his arrival on the runway of Managua's airport, he wagged an admonishing finger at the Rev. Ernesto Cardenal, a Jesuit priest who had refused the pontiff's order to resign as minister of culture in the Sandinista government.

And during John Paul's final Mass in Managua, Sandinista sympathizers who were disappointed that he never condemned the anti-Sandinista (CIA-backed fighters known as contras), disrupted the gathering of 500,000 with revolutionary slogans. "Silencio," the pope shouted three times, raising his pastoral staff toward the crowd in an almost threatening manner.

Days later in Haiti, the pope made one of his strongest statements at an altar at the airport in Port-au-Prince, where he addressed a multitude of people, including dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. "Something must change here," the pope said in slow, careful French. "Christians . . . have witnessed division, injustice, excessive inequality, degradation of the quality of life, misery, hunger and the fear of a great many people."

John Paul's visits to Haiti in 1983, Chile in 1987 and Paraguay in 1988 were filled with sharp messages against dictators.

On a separate trip to Latin America five years later, the pope condemned human rights abuses in Chile and admonished Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the rightist strongman who had ruled since 1973. In his welcoming speech, Pinochet told John Paul of his regime's need to fight a "materialistic and atheistic . . . subversive threat." The pope responded that he had come to preach love and reconciliation. "I'm here to encourage your hopes," he said. "I'm here to proclaim the inalienable dignity of the human being."

The trip was marred by violence at a Mass of Reconciliation when anti-Pinochet demonstrators threw rocks at police and were repelled with gunfire, water cannons and tear gas. The pope, his cheeks wet from the effects of tear gas, put his hands to his head in a gesture of despair.

In a 1988 visit to Paraguay, John Paul lectured authoritarian President Alfredo Stroessner on human rights and political freedoms. "You can't corner the church in its temples, as you can't corner God in the conscience of man," he said.

Duvalier, Pinochet and Stroessner all surrendered power within three years of each of the papal visits.

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