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Nicaragua: Ortega wants a submissive church

Persecution of priests, NGOs and educators stepped up


The Church is divided in how to respond to revolutionary president turned fervent Christian Daniel Ortega’s attempt to suppress opposition to his authoritarian rule.

This article, by LAB author Francis McDonagh, first appeared in the International Catholic News Weekly The Tablet on 1 September 2022. You can read the original here.

Main image: Havana Times

The persecution of the Church in Nicaragua intensified in the small hours of Friday 19 August when police broke into the residence of Mgr Rolando Álvarez, Bishop of Matagalpa in northern Nicaragua, and took him away with the other clergy and laity who had been blockaded with him for two weeks. Mgr Álvarez was placed under house arrest in his relatives’ home in Managua while others were taken to the city’s El Chipote prison, where they are reportedly confined in one cell and denied contact with relatives and friends.

Video: Rome Reports, a19 August 2022

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According to the lawyer Yader Morazán, they were brought before a secret remand hearing on 22 August. The Church authorities are reported as saying: “We don’t know how they are, we know nothing. The situation is lamentable.”

The sight of Mgr Álvarez kneeling in prayer on the pavement outside his residence has been a dramatic symbol of the brutal treatment inflicted on several members of the clergy, which may have been a reason for his removal to a less public site in Managua.

Álvarez, 55, head of the Nicaraguan bishops’ communications department, has been a public critic of the authoritarian regime headed by President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president Rosario Murillo. He is accused by the authorities of trying to “organise violent groups in order to destabilise the state of Nicaragua and attack the constitutional authorities”, although no evidence has been offered.

Police claimed they had waited “for several days with great patience, prudence and a sense of responsibility for a message from the Diocese of Matagalpa, which never came, and the continuing destabilising and provocative activities made the operation necessary”.

Lawyers say that such a raid on a residence during the night is illegal. In Managua, Mgr Álvarez was visited by the archbishop, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, who said he was in good spirits but that his physical condition “had deteriorated”, which may be a result of police refusal to allow food or medical supplies to enter his residence during his detention.

Mgr Álvarez is popular in his diocese, and there are videos of him dancing and playing football in community celebrations. He has also never been shy of speaking out against what he believed to be injustices. In 2013 he successfully supported the protests of the rural communities of Rancho Grande in the north-east of Matagalpa against a proposed gold mine. He was also part of the bishops’ conference mediation team that negotiated with the government after the bloody repression of protests in April 2018, although the government vetoed his participation in subsequent talks.

Mgr Álvarez is not the only bishop to have been targeted by Ortega. In April 2019, Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Báez, another critic of Ortega, was told by Pope Francis to leave Nicaragua for his own safety. Several priests have been arrested, Catholic radio stations and a Catholic university shut down; earlier this year the authorities forced Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity to leave; and in March the apostolic nuncio to Nicaragua was hounded out of the country. But the persecution of the Church is only the latest stage in the repression of opposition.

In March this year, Nicaragua’s ambassador to the Organisation of American States, Arturo McFields, dramatically broke with the regime, labelling it a “dictatorship” and asserting that there were more than 177 political prisoners in the country, and that 350 people had lost their lives in protests since 2018. Among the prisoners is Dora María Téllez, famously known as “Comandante 2”, who was one of the leaders of the assault on the Nicaraguan national assembly in 1978 that helped to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship the following year and was once Ortega’s comrade-in-arms. Another former Sandinista leader, retired general Hugo Torres, who helped to secure Ortega’s release from prison in 1974, was one of several opposition leaders jailed in June 2021 in the lead-up to national elections; he died in prison in February this year.

The wider background to the pres­ent situation is the degeneration o­f the Sandinista movement. The initial revolutionary impulse attracted broad support, including intellectuals such as Sergio Ramírez, the novelist, who was Ortega’s vice president in the first Sandinista government from 1985 to 1990. The initial Junta of National Reconstruction, formed after the victory of the revolution in 1979, also included Violeta Chamorro, who led the successful opposition to the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections and became president herself.

In the current climate it is easy to forget that four priests served in the early Sandinista government: Miguel D’Escoto as foreign minister; Fernando Cardenal as education minister; his brother, the poet Ernesto Cardenal, as minister of culture; and Edgard Parrales as social welfare minister. Their involvement resulted in suspension from their priestly functions, and Ernesto Cardenal received a public finger-wagging rebuke when he tried to greet Pope John Paul II at the start of his visit to Nicaragua in 1983.

The revolutionary government launched a literacy campaign that drastically reduced illiteracy in the country, and a health programme that reduced infant mortality by half. The US saw the Sandinistas as part of the worldwide Communist threat and imposed an economic embargo, and from 1981 supported a rebel army known as the “Contras”. These two factors contributed to the defeat of the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections, which in turn exacerbated divisions within the movement.

A blow to the reputation of the Sandinistas was dealt by the so-called piñata when, in the interval between the 1990 elections and the inauguration of the Chamorro government, some leading Sandinistas seized estates, vehicles and other property confiscated from the previous elite. Others in the movement, including Ernesto Cardenal, were appalled. In 1994 Ortega removed Sergio Ramírez from his leadership roles. In the same year Ernesto Cardenal resigned from the Sandinistas, saying: “My resignation from the FSLN has been caused by the kidnapping of the party carried out by Daniel Ortega and the group he heads.”

Re-elected as president in 2006 – after running unsuccessfully in 1996 and 2001 – Ortega reinvented himself as a Catholic. He had had his marriage solemnised by the previously hostile Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo in 2005 and went on to introduce a strict ban on abortion. The Supreme Court, dominated by Sandinista appointees, changed the law to allow him to be re-elected, and the National Assembly changed the law to allow indefinite re-election. Before the 2021 elections the regime detained seven opposition presidential candidates. The government has also shut more than 1,600 NGOs.

There is speculation that the government wants Mgr Álvarez to leave the country, which would be less embarrassing than having him in detention. Commentators argue that the bishops’ conference should be more forceful in his defence. According to former education minister Humberto Belli: “It would be a surrender to the government to agree that the bishop should leave Nicaragua.” Pope Francis spoke for the first time about the situation in Nicaragua at the Angelus on 21 August, but did not mention Mgr Álvarez – or even the Church. “I am following closely, with concern and sorrow, the situation in Nicaragua, which involves both people and institutions,” the Pope declared. “I would like to express my conviction and my hope that, through open and sincere dialogue, the basis for a respectful and peaceful coexistence can still be found.”

It would appear that the Pope is following the cautious line of the bishops’ conference. The conference is divided. While Mgr Álvarez was blockaded in his residence, the Bishop of León, Mgr René Sándigo, was taking part in ceremonies alongside the local Sandinista mayor. Meanwhile, the exiled Mgr Silvio Báez insisted in a sermon the same day in Miami: “For Mgr Rolando Álvarez, for the priests of Matagalpa … and for all the political prisoners, we have to ask for their release. There can be no negotiation about these ­people because they are innocent.” Cardinal Brenes did not attend the consistory that began in Rome on 27 August. No reason was given for his absence.

According to analyst Elvira Cuadra, Ortega wants “a submissive Church”. This evidently means a Church that limits its statements to religious matters and avoids outdoor gatherings that might allow people to discuss freely; on the Feast of the Assumption, the authorities tried to prevent processions in honour of Our Lady. It is to be hoped that the church authorities, in Nicaragua and Rome, have weighed carefully the cost of accepting such restrictions. The record of previous attempts at dialogue between civil society and the Ortega government gives few grounds for optimism. The price paid by a submissive Church may well be high.

Francis McDonagh writes for The Tablet on Latin American affairs.