Nicaragua’s dictator Daniel Ortega used a nationally televised statement on Wednesday (28) to define the Catholic Church as a dictatorship.
After decades of a relationship that has mixed periods of collaboration and friction, the politician is experiencing an escalation of tensions with the Vatican. The most recent trigger was the arrest of Bishop Rolando Álvarez, which prompted an appeal by Pope Francis for an open and sincere dialogue with Managua.
“All [na igreja] is tax. It is a perfect dictatorship, a perfect tyranny. Who elects the priests, the bishops, who elects the pope? With how many votes, from whom? “, said the dictator, in his speech. “If you want to be democratic, let them start electing the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, with the vote of all Catholics.”
Ortega once again labeled religious as murderers and coup plotters for the support that was allegedly given from the temples to opposition protests in 2018. “Protesters came out of churches — not all — armed, to launch attacks on police stations.”
Ortega doesn’t exactly have the best credentials to demand democracy. The politician has been in power uninterruptedly since 2007, winning sham elections. In the six months before the last vote last November, the regime arrested seven opposing candidates on charges of money laundering and treason.
There are still more than 30 other politicians behind bars and more than 100 union and student leaders, journalists and activists, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Many have been convicted in similarly sham trials.
In recent years, Ortega has unregistered the two main opposition blocs, coming to dominate the legislature, and appointed new Supreme Court justices, making it possible to pass laws that extend pretrial detention and the scope of treason charges.
The persecution extends to academic production and the press; Nicaragua’s main newspaper was recently forced to clandestinely withdraw all its employees from the country. At the same time, seven Catholic radio stations linked to a bishop critical of the dictator were closed.
Relations between the regime and the church have been deteriorating since 2018, when a wave of protests ended with more than 300 protesters killed in clashes with security forces and regime-aligned paramilitary groups. 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.
At the beginning of the Sandinista Revolution, in 1979, Catholic leaders joined the movement, in opposition to the dictatorship of the Somoza clan, which had ruled since 1937. Among them, priests linked to Liberation Theology stood out. In the first government junta, which included Ortega, there were four priests, among them the poet Ernesto Cardenal.
With the dissolution of the group, religious support for the current leader of the regime was divided — Miguel Obando y Bravo, who was archbishop of Managua and died in 2018, has become a scathing critic. Ortega, who at the time as a revolutionary was linked to the 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 reports of bombs in temples, arrests of priests and the closing of churches.
The siege of institutions is repudiated by other nations and international organizations. The movement has been mentioned by Jair Bolsonaro (PL), in debates and even in his most recent speech at the UN General Assembly. Under the argument of religious protection, the context is mainly electoral, as a way of reaching Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT) — the party’s wings maintain a certain level of proximity to the Managua regime.
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