Pope Francis’ call last Sunday (21) for open and sincere dialogue in Nicaragua did little to calm tempers in the latest siege by Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship against the Catholic Church. Two days earlier, at dawn on Friday (19), the regime arrested the Bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, and seven other people — four priests, two seminarians and a diocesan official.
“Francisco’s words were vague and ambiguous, insufficient to press for the release of the detainees”, he evaluates to the Sheet journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro. “He asks for dialogue; how can there be dialogue without freedom and democracy, with people unjustly deprived of their liberty?”
Son of former president Violeta Chamorro, Carlos has two brothers who are also in prison — one of them former presidential candidate Cristiana Chamorro. He edits his newspaper, El Confidencial, in Costa Rica, where he is exiled, as are many of the press professionals and persecuted opponents. This Tuesday (23), the La Prensa office was taken over by the regime to be “converted into a cultural center”, days after the vehicle removed its professionals from the country.
“After arresting opponents, forcing others to leave the country and taking newspapers to close down or go into exile, Ortega now targets the religious, those who serve the population more directly.”
According to the Pro-Transparency and Anti-Corruption Observatory, between April 2018 and May 2022 there were at least 190 attacks against the Catholic Church in Nicaragua.
Rolando Álvarez and the other religious detained in the last week are in El Chipote, a penitentiary where other political prisoners are held. The authorities began negotiations, with the intermediation of Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, archbishop of Managua and an ally of Ortega, for them to agree to leave the country.
For former education minister Humberto Belli, the move is not appropriate. “Nobody can be pressured to leave the country, especially without having been convicted of any crime. The only possible negotiation is for them to be released.”
Martha Patricia Molina, author of research on the Ortega dictatorship’s attacks on the Church, sees the attempt to use a religious ally as illegal. “This should have a response worthy of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua,” she says. It would not be the Vatican’s first intervention in matters involving sieges of Ortega. In 2019, Francis asked for the release of the then auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio José Báez, who had acted as a mediator for protesters with the regime and ended up being accused of plotting a coup – he is now in exile.
According to the police, Álvarez and the other religious are accused of organizing violent groups, fomenting hatred and carrying out destabilizing and provocative activities. Since the 2018 protests, when thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate against Ortega, members of the Catholic Church have come to be in the regime’s sights, for having helped and given refuge to young people who participated in the protests. In the repression, more than 300 people were murdered.
The current split marks yet another chapter in a historical relationship of collaboration and friction that began with the Sandinista Revolution in 1979. Among them, priests linked to Liberation Theology stood out, which at the time was displeasing to the Vatican.
Such was the proximity that, in the first government junta after the end of the regime, there were four priests, among them the poet Ernesto Cardenal. Ortega was part of the group, as well as Violeta Chamorro and others who would later go on to oppose the dictator.
With the dissolution of the junta, the support of the religious to the current leader of the regime was divided, with the right to very strong critics of the regime, such as Miguel Obando y Bravo, who was archbishop of Managua and died in 2018. linked to Liberation Theology also continued, and in 1983, when he was in Nicaragua, then-Pope John Paul II publicly admonished Cardenal for his ties to the group.
Ortega, who at the time as a revolutionary was linked to this more progressive group, has recently tried to get closer to the more conservative sector, but he never managed to join as a block.
The latest wave of persecution began in March, with the expulsion from the country of foreign leaders such as the Polish Apostolic Nuncio Waldemar Sommertag and a group of missionaries of the order of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, accused of being terrorists.
Then came the suspension of Catholic radio stations, reports of bombs in temples and the arrest of priests. There was also the closing of churches, forcing priests to offer the Eucharist behind bars or through the window.
The siege of institutions promoted by the Ortega dictatorship is repudiated by other nations and international organizations. In the current Brazilian election, the country was cited by Jair Bolsonaro (PL) and Ciro Gomes (PDT) as a way to reach Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT) — wings of the party maintain a certain level of proximity to the Managua regime.
Regarding the situation involving the religious, António Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, said that Álvarez’s arrest is a “serious obstruction of democratic and civic space in Nicaragua”. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also condemned the “escalation of repression against church members” and called for the release of two other religious, Uriel Vallejos and Óscar Danilo Benavidez.