Earlier this month, Nicaragua closed seven radio stations belonging to the Catholic Church and opened an investigation into the Bishop of Matagalpa, Msgr. Rolando Álvarez, accusing him of inciting violent actors “to commit acts of hatred against the population”.
This is not the first time that President Daniel Ortega has taken aggressive steps to silence critics of his administration. In 2018, the government raided the headquarters of the Confidencial newspaper, run by journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, considered one of Ortega’s most prominent critics. Then, throughout 2021, authorities arrested seven potential presidential candidates for the November elections of that year.
Here’s a look at the strained relationship between church and government amid a political stalemate now in its fifth year, with no end in sight.
WHO IS DANIEL ORTEGA?
Ortega, 76, is a former guerrilla in the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front who helped overthrow dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 and served as president for the first time from 1985 until he left office in 1990 after being elected.
He lost three more elections thereafter before returning to power in 2007. He won a fourth consecutive term in the 2021 ballot, which is largely discredited as he faced no real opposition.
Ortega’s opponents regularly compare him to Somoza for his authoritarian tendencies, and also accuse him of dynastic ambitions. His wife, Rosario Murillo, is his powerful vice-president.
Under Ortega, Nicaragua has cultivated close ties with its allies Cuba and Venezuela, two ardent enemies of the US government.
HOW DID THE TROUBLE START?
A social security reform in 2018 sparked massive protests backed by businesspeople, Catholic leaders and other sectors. The government’s response was a crackdown by security forces and allied civilian militias in which at least 355 people were killed, around 2,000 injured and 1,600 imprisoned, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Political stability never fully returned.
Months before last year’s vote, a poll found support for five opposition candidates cast doubt on Ortega’s re-election. Within weeks, all five were arrested, along with two other potential candidates. Authorities blamed them for the 2018 unrest, saying it amounted to an attempted “terrorist coup” allegedly backed by Washington.
“Ortega decided to take away any possibility of losing. … And that meant arresting everyone,” political analyst Oscar Rene Vargas told The Associated Press at the time.
WHAT ROLE HAS THE CHURCH PLAYED?
Nicaragua is predominantly Catholic, and the church was close to the Somoza from the 1930s to the 1970s, when it distanced itself from politics after numerous abuses attributed to the dictatorship. The church initially supported the Sandinistas after Somoza was ousted, but this relationship frayed over time due to ideological differences. Under Ortega, Catholic leaders often supported the country’s conservative elite.
When the protests first broke out, Ortega asked the church to mediate the peace talks, though they ultimately fell through.
The Nicaraguan church has been particularly sympathetic to the protesters and their cause. In April 2018, the Cathedral of Managua housed student protesters and was a place to collect food and money to support them.
Figures such as Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and Auxiliary Bishop of Managua Silvio Báez have openly rejected the violence. Brenes called the protests justified and Báez rejected any political decision that would harm the people. Báez left the country in 2019 at the behest of the Vatican, a move lamented by the opposition and celebrated by the ruling Sandinistas.
Ortega responded by accusing some bishops of being part of a plot to overthrow him and calling them “terrorists.”
In March, the papal nuncio in Managua, Bishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, who participated as a mediator and pressed for the release of imprisoned government opponents, was forced by Ortega’s administration to leave the country in what the Vatican called it an “unwarranted decision”.
WHAT ABOUT THE LATEST CHURCH-STATE CONFLICT?
Church radio stations were shut down by the government on August 1, and police investigating Álvarez, the bishop of Matagalpa, accused him of “organizing violent groups”.
Álvarez called for deep electoral reform to “effectively achieve the democratization of the country” and also demanded the release of some 190 people he considers political prisoners. Last month, he held a fast to protest what he called the persecution against him.
Since August 3, authorities have confined Álvarez to the episcopal complex where he lives. After six days without making public statements, he reappeared Thursday in a live broadcast on social media during a mass, accompanied by six priests and four lay people who are also unable to leave the complex.
The Archdiocese of Managua has expressed support for Álvarez. The Latin American Catholic Bishops’ Conference denounced what it called a “siege” of priests and bishops, the expulsion of members of religious communities and the “constant harassment” of the people and Church of Nicaragua .
On Saturday, hundreds of Nicaraguans attended mass under a heavy police presence after the government banned a religious procession in Managua.
Church leaders announced a day earlier that the national police had banned the planned procession for Our Lady of Fatima for “internal security” reasons. Instead, the church called on worshipers to come peacefully to the cathedral.
WAS THERE A RESPONSE FROM THE VATICAN?
For nearly two weeks, the Vatican has remained publicly silent on the Álvarez investigation. The silence has drawn criticism from some Latin American human rights activists and intellectuals.
On Friday, Bishop Juan Antonio Cruz, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the Organization of American States, said he was concerned about the situation and asked the two sides to “seek ways to come to an understanding.”
Cruz’s remarks came during a special session of the OAS in which its Permanent Council approved a resolution condemning the Ortega government for the “harassment” and “arbitrary restrictions imposed on religious organizations and those who criticize the government”.
Cruz said the Holy See wants to “collaborate with those who are committed to dialogue as an indispensable instrument of democracy and guarantor of a more human and fraternal civilization.”
Associated Press writers Nicole Winfield in the Vatican and Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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