SAN DIEGO — Almost three decades ago, Mary Hartman, an admittedly naive Roman Catholic nun with a master's degree in English literature, went to Nicaragua to teach and do missionary work in a part of the world she had never visited. Reared in a sheltered, working-class home in Altoona, Pa., Hartman spoke no Spanish and was ill-prepared for work in the Third World. Politics was the furthest thing from her mind.
"I didn't know anything about it," Hartman said in a recent interview in a church hall here shortly before giving a presentation on Nicaragua. "I just thought that the U.S. was the best and could do no wrong."
Things have changed. Today, the 59-year-old Hartman is a committed social reformer, an unabashed admirer of the Sandinista regime--on whose controversial human rights commission she serves--and a proud practitioner of so-called "liberation theology," the social activist philosophy that has come under criticism from the Vatican. She reserves her harshest criticism for Washington, which has branded the Sandinista regime as an outlaw totalitarian government that stands as a security menace to the United States.
"The problem is not Nicaragua or Costa Rica or El Salvador or Guatemala," Hartman told an audience of more than 100 mostly sympathetic listeners gathered recently in the church hall here. "The problem is our (U.S.) foreign policy. That is the crisis in Central America."
While Hartman maintains that the Sandinista government represents a "people's democracy," President Reagan has expressed a quite different point of view. "Nicaragua is a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship, a communist dictatorship, trying to consolidate power," a State Department spokesman said in a telephone interview from Washington.
Currently, Hartman is in the San Francisco Bay Area, concluding a whirlwind three-week speaking tour of California that has included weeklong stops here and in Los Angeles. Her air fare and expenses have been met by cultural, religious and other groups generally sympathetic to the Sandinista government.
Hartman's goal is to counter what she contends are the Reagan Administration's "propaganda"and "lies" about the Nicaraguan regime.
To her critics, Hartman, who is well-known in Managua, is no more than a zealous propagandist for a repressive communist regime.
"I think her remarks are totally superficial and she should stick to religious works," said Ernesto Palazio, a Nicaraguan who is the Washington representative for the contras, who are waging the U.S.-backed war against the Nicaraguan regime. "She is totally identified with the (Nicaraguan) government, and I think she has become a fanatic."
But some independent observers, while conceding that Hartman closely identifies with the Sandinista regime, describe her in less critical terms.
"I feel that she's a sincere person, but I also feel that she's very much a part of the government," said Juan Mendez, director of the Washington office of Americas Watch, the independent rights-monitoring group that has criticized abuses by both the Sandinista government and the contras. "She decided to take the side of the Sandinistas, and I think that choice is a legitimate (one). I don't see her as a propagandist."
Hartman's comments reflect the sharp divisions among Roman Catholics in Nicaragua, where some segments of the clergy, notably Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, have harshly criticized the Sandinista government, while other clerics have lent their strong support to the regime. Despite her political activities and her often-critical comments, Hartman retains the support of her religious congregation, the Sisters of St. Agnes, based in Fond du Lac, Wis.
"We are allowing her to follow her conscience," said a spokeswoman for the congregation. "I think that Mary Hartman truly believes that this is the way of living the Gospel in a country like Nicaragua."
A thin, almost frail woman who speaks in subdued tones, Hartman's schoolmarmish appearance belies the intensity--and provocativeness--of her comments about Nicaragua, the United States and the Roman Catholic Church.
A 'Yankee Sandinista'
She is one of the many church people in Latin America and elsewhere who have actively taken up the role of social reformers, sometimes blurring the distinctions between religion and politics. She is also one of the "Yankee Sandinistas" who have worked in Nicaragua and become proponents for the regime.
"Every time the people in Latin America have cried out for justice," Hartman told her audience at the First Unitarian Church in Hillcrest, "they have been dubbed as communists, they have been repressed and killed."
Describing official U.S. policy toward the region, she says: "No country, absolutely no country, no people in Latin America has a right to be free and sovereign. . . . What I am shouting about most is our (U.S.) foreign policy in Central America, because I see that it has brought nothing but death and destruction to these people."