‘The last free space’: protesters find escape from Nicaraguan repression in church

Catholic church has provided sanctuary since the earliest days of the uprising in the country, in which hundreds have been killed

Catholic church has provided sanctuary since the earliest days of the uprising in the country, in which hundreds have been killed

As mass concluded in Managua’s Metropolitan Cathedral, chants of “liberty!” and “justice!” broke out among the congregation. Outside, protesters unfurled a giant Nicaraguan flag – a prohibited symbol of the country’s recent uprising – from the building’s roof.

A man holds a national flag after a mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua, to demand the release of demonstrators detained during protests against the government. Photograph: Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

Blue and white balloons rose into the sky as demonstrators in the church grounds planted wooden crosses – each inscribed with the name of someone killed in the past six months of rebellion and repression.

- payin the bills -

Protest is outlawed in Nicaragua, as President Daniel Ortega seeks to stamp out any trace of the civil revolt that threatened to bring down his government earlier this year.

Street demonstrations are brutally quashed. More than 550 protesters languish in jail. Human rights groups have documented widespread use of torture.

Facing such repression, protesters have retreated to the one place where police and paramilitary forces won’t pursue them.

“The church has become the last space where citizens can freely express themselves, and demand their rights,” said lawyer Martha Molina.

- paying the bills -

Crosses are placed at a memorial for victims killed in recent protests against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government. Photograph: Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

The Catholic church has provided sanctuary since the earliest days of the crisis, in which hundreds have been killed.

Protests began in April, triggered by welfare cuts but rooted in deeper anger over Ortega’s growing authoritarianism.

On 21 April, with the death toll already climbing, bishops rescued students besieged by police and militants in the Metropolitan Cathedral. “I want to thank you in the name of the church, because you are our country’s moral reserve,” the auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Baez, told them.

As the uprising spread, Nicaragua’s Episcopal Conference persuaded Ortega to let it mediate talks. But negotiations repeatedly collapsed. In July – after a church harboring students was riddled with gunfire – bishops accused state representatives of “distorting” the process.

Days later, on the 39th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, Ortega turned on the church. “The bishops are committed to the coup-mongers,” the former guerrilla leader told supporters, accusing clerics of stockpiling weapons.

- paying the bills --

This rhetorical assault marked the end of Ortega’s efforts to maintain ties with the church, an alliance that was key to his return to power in 2007.

In 2006, as elections approached, the one-time revolutionary rebranded himself a reverent Catholic. Weeks before the vote, legislation imposing a total ban on abortion passed the National Assembly – thanks to the unanimous support of Ortega’s FSLN delegates.

Now, however, Ortega has turned on his former allies. “The bishops have been extraordinary in defense of human rights, and the government wants to silence that voice,” said Ana Margarita Vigil, a prominent feminist and opposition activist.

The most virulent abuse has been directed at Silvio Baez, who studied scripture in Rome for 30 years before returning to Nicaragua in 2009. His arrival reoriented the church towards a more critical stance, culminating in a prescient letter, published in 2014, warning that the erosion of democracy endangered Nicaragua’s future “in a very alarming way”.

“Baez is an intellectual, the most qualified bishop in Nicaragua,” said Israel Gonzalez, the Nicaragua correspondent for Catholic news service Religión Digital. “His return was a measure taken to strengthen the church, at a time when an authoritarian government was appropriating the symbolic force of Catholic piety for its own ends.”

People hold candles during mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral to demand release of detained demonstrators. Photograph: Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

At the end of October, state media targeted Baez with fresh accusations. Secret recordings purported to catch him plotting against the government. Reports described him as a “terrorist” and “fascist”, insisting he should “leave Nicaragua”.

Baez – already granted protective measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – dismissed the recordings as “manipulated”. (Independent analysis supports this.) But the smear campaign was followed by a barrage of death threats.

The threats carried particular resonance, coming just days after the canonization of Salvadoran priest Óscar Romero, gunned down in a hospital chapel in 1980 for speaking out against the country’s dictatorship.

The assault on the church has had an effect. Baez has lowered his profile, giving his homilies in a secluded seminary on the outskirts of Managua – though he continues to condemn the “disgrace” of authoritarian power, and told the Guardian he would stay in Nicaragua.

In the Metropolitan Cathedral, too, priests have sought to pull back from the frontline of the crisis. During a recent Sunday mass, the church’s rector, Luis Herrera, told worshippers: “temples are for praying, not protesting”.

But protesters – many of whom have seen friends and relatives killed or jailed by Ortega’s forces – are reluctant to comply.

“We have to raise our voices for justice for those killed and freedom for the hundreds in prison,” said Karla Villalta, 49, standing among the wooden crosses. “The revolution was something beautiful, but Ortega and his wife have buried it.”

Article originally appeared at The Guardian

Related Articles

Ortega Murillo forutne “injured” after devastating blows by US sanctions

TODAY NICARAGUA - In less than two years, the sanctions issued...

Nicaragua Adopts the Cuban – Venezuelan Model

In early October 2018, Daniel Ortega’s regime installed a state of siege via a Police decree prohibiting civic marches. The OAS Inter-American Commission for Human Rights warned at the time that Ortega instituted a de facto State of Emergency. He had essentially suspended constitutional rights such as the freedom of assembly and mobilization, free speech, and a free press.

The goal of the state of siege was to wipe out the independent civic protest and to suppress and divide the opposition. Further, they aimed to impose a false normality through repression. With this, they hoped to coopt the large business leaders and reestablish the regime’s political and economic alliances.

Nevertheless, looking at the facts, Ortega instead deepened his national and international isolation. In addition, for two consecutive years he aggravated the economic recession and the social crisis. This continued until the negligent management of the Coronavirus health crisis brought him an unexpected political invoice. The mismanaged public health crisis wore down the credibility of his leadership, even among the members of his own party.

The regime now announces the imposition of new punitive laws. There’s a push to allow the use of life sentences for certain crimes. There’s a new law to regulate supposed “foreign agents”, and a “cybercrimes” law, better known as the “Gag law”. With these, the regime is recognizing the failure of the police state. The repression never succeeded in squashing the civic protests. Even without massive demonstrations, the spirit of the resistance remains intact.  Despite the National Coalition’s stumbles and the lack of a united national front, today the resistance is greater and better organized. It now has a presence in all of the country’s municipalities.

In the next two weeks, the regime’s parliamentary steamroller will assure the approval of that combo of punitive laws. These impose severe jail sentences for any and all opposition, a majority who represent over three-fourths of the electorate.

However, in reality, the regime has never needed legal pretexts to repress and imprison. Almost two years ago, the police assaulted the offices of Confidencial and Esta Semana and executed a de facto confiscationThis was done without the backing of any judicial orders. Yet, despite the television censorship, they never silenced us. We continue our truth-based journalism. Meanwhile the independent press – persecuted, harassed and sometimes exiled – now enjoys much more credibility and influence than the official machinery.

The latest Cid-Gallup polls confirm that the majority of the population no longer believes the government’s lies about COVID-19. The express burials and the Ministry of Health statistics on pneumonia fatalities and COVID-19 tests speak for themselves. These facts refute the daily monologues of Vice President Rosario Murillo.  Because of that deception, every day political support for Ortega and the FSLN shrinks still more. His backing among the public employees, both civilian and military, continues eroding.

In reality, the “Gag Law” is aimed at threatening the honest and professional public servants. It is meant to keep them from leaking information to the press and the public regarding acts of political corruption.  Such acts are occurrences that the regime wishes to hide.

The “Cybercrimes Law” also threatens users of social media with jail time. However, the dictatorship will continue losing the battle for the truth in social media. They can’t control the massive exercise of free speech and the use of new information technologies now at the service of citizens.

These punitive laws aren’t a symptom of strength, but rather of the political and moral defeat of a minority regime. Why, then, does Ortega need to impose them against wind and tides?  There are at least three hypotheses to explain this imperious political necessity.  All are based on the regime’s urgency to adapt the Cuban and Venezuelan “model” of repressive authoritarianism to Nicaragua.

First, they intend to make full use of the Constitution and laws as one pillar of their repressive strategy. However, they don’t want these as guardians of rights, but as a means to criminalize democratic liberties and civic protest. Clearly, it’s not a carbon copy, but this strategy definitively reflects the Cuban and Venezuelan “model”. The regime is adapting that model to fit a dynastic family dictatorship with the aim of liquidating the democratic project in Nicaragua.

Expedited by the “Law” he’s mandating, Ortega will now be able to eliminate organizations of civil society. He will also control any eventual adversaries and political competitors, by criminalizing them as “foreign agents”. The Venezuelan experience demonstrates that despite high international political costs, the Cuban “model” can prove effective in giving the regime stability. Through this model, pure and harsh repression can be draped in a “legal” mantle. For Ortega, this translates into an incentive to accumulate political hostages and gain time.

Secondly, the regime intends to take over the agenda of justice and present itself as a punisher of “hate crimes”. The latter would now carry a sentence of life in prison. This, in the end, is merely a defensive act. It responds to the need to assure the Sandinista bases that they’re not the ones under the gaze of justice.

Those accused of true “hate crimes”, crimes against humanity, crimes with no statute of limitations, are in the regime’s inner circle. The finger points to members of the Ortega-Murillo regime who are most directly tied to the repression. However, as in the April killings and the failed official narrative of an attempted “Coup d’Etat”, Ortega will point the finger elsewhere. He’ll try to convince his followers that his own hate crimes can be attributed to the victims.

Thirdly, although the Nicaraguan Constitution proclaims political pluralism, this combo of punitive laws assures there’ll be no competitive elections. With these laws, Ortega has ratified his stance for the November 2021 elections. Given this, it’s illusory to expect some electoral opening from a regime that’s willing to play All or Nothing. Though they risk further international sanctions and a declaration of illegitimacy, they’ll be celebrating the elections with no competition and without transparency.

Will we arrive at the opening of the 2021 electoral campaign without a political reform?  The answer to this interrogative doesn’t depend on Ortega, but on the political opposition.  Ortega has already decided to radicalize his authoritarian model. Meanwhile, the opposition continues to be paralyzed. They’re discussing which electoral box is the safest, in imaginary elections in which they haven’t even been invited to participate.

Meanwhile, the national debate must center itself on determining the most effective strategy. The opposition must work on joining forces, weakening the regime, and altering the balance of power. They must thus force a political reform on the regime, one that results from national and international pressure. First, the reform, with or without Ortega, and later free elections.


Rosario Murillo: La Heredera (The Heiress)

Rosarion Murillo, the "eternally loyal" to her husband and political partner, Daniel Ortega. In a profile by Confidencial in October 2016, before her election as...

Better Air Connectivity Between Nicaragua and the US

The private companies' association is in talks with United Airlines to promote the opening of a route that connects Nicaragua with the east coast...

Nicaragua Unveils Central America’s Largest Baseball Stadium

Nicaragua has unveiled its long-awaited baseball stadium in Managua, replacing the former baseball field built in 1948. The new structure will hold up to...

Bianca Jagger Gets Into The Nicaragua Act Again

(American Thinker)  Remember Bianca Jagger? You know, the disco queen and former rock-star's wife turned leftwing "human rights activist" who was last seen mourning...

What Are Some of Nicaragua’s Popular Food?

TODAY NICARAGUA - Nicaragua is an interesting place, with a tumultuous history and a relatively peaceful present. and even if many things can be...

Nicaragua Praised by the IMF

The IMF noted the positive evolution of all the country's economic indicators, and the drastic fall in poverty, with an increase of 33% in...

Poll Shows Declining Expectations on a Nicaraguan Canal

According to the results of the most recent survey conducted by Cid Gallup, the Nicaraguan interoceanic canal project, a concession given to the Chinese...

Let's Keep This Going!

To be updated with all the latest news and information about Nicaragua and Latin America.

Log In

Forgot password?

Forgot password?

Enter your account data and we will send you a link to reset your password.

Your password reset link appears to be invalid or expired.

Log in

Privacy Policy

Add to Collection

No Collections

Here you'll find all collections you've created before.