Nicaragua: Ortega Cracks Down on the Catholic Church

When Daniel Ortega came back to power in 2007, he promised not to make again the same mistakes he had made in his previous tenure (1979–1990). Back then, he had lashed out against the Catholic church, its bishops, and priests. He had expelled the Chontales province bishop Pablo Vega out of Nicaragua, had shown on TV Monsignor Bismarck Carballo being naked for allegedly having had an affair with a woman who had called him for confession (this priest was a close aide to Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo). And after having had four priests serving as ministers in the Sandinista government, Ortega pushed for a reform to establish a parallel Popular Church in line with the Sandinista ideology—against the will of the Vatican. But when he lost the presidential elections to Violeta Chamorro in 1990, he ended up asking for pardon from the church and promised, during his whole political campaign, that he would be respectful of the opinions of the Catholic church.

It seems, though, his memory is not serving him well. For he is back, fighting the Catholic church with the same rancor and hatred he has let out in all his public statements and speeches. The Catholic Agency of Press (ACI), based in Lima, Perú, issued a report signed by David Ramos on 9 June 2022, about the current situation of the Catholic church in Nicaragua. The report points out that in Nicaragua, 193 attacks have been perpetrated by the Sandinista government against the Nicaraguan Catholic church in only four years—from 2018 to 2022. In 2018: 46 attacks, in 2019: 48 attacks, in 2020: 40 attacks, in 2021: 35 attacks and in 2022: 24 attacks.

Ortega’s dictatorial hand has dealt many blows to the religious institutions in Nicaragua. Apparently, he is trying to show that his absolutist ruling is undisputable, and that tolerance, pluralism and dissidence are not to be allowed while he remains in power. Ortega adopted this fierce tone since 2018.

In the ACI-Prensa report a detailed account is presented. For example, in 2018, a mob of Sandinista followers entered the Catholic cathedral in Managua. The priests who were in charge over there received death threats and suffered physical aggressions. So did nuns, too. In that occasion, as the civil revolts were in full swing, other Catholic temples were desecrated. In Diriamba, province of Carazo, a mob of Sandinistas entered the Basilica of San Sebastian and beat up Archbishop Leopoldo Brenes and his adjoint Bishop Silvio Báez.

In 2019, the auxiliary Bishop of Managua, Silvio Jose Baez, received many death threats through the Sandinista media. He had to go into exile after a while. Baez was always regarded as a prominent voice for denouncing human rights abuses committed by the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship.

In 2020, more churches were desecrated. A chapel inside the Managua cathedral was set on fire. Consequently, a huge crucifix got in flames and burned down. The Sandinista police stated that it was all due to the many candles within the chapel. However, a few people praying over there saw an unknown man who walked in and threw a Molotov bomb into the chapel.

In 2021, vandalizing kept going and more desecrations took place in several temples across Nicaragua. Many sacred objects were stolen from some churches in Leon, Managua, Granada, Masaya and Carazo. Daniel Ortega’s incendiary speeches also stepped up the tone and he began saying that the bishops and priests of the Catholic church were “Terrorists”, “Pharisees”, “demons in cassocks”, “putschists”, “criminals”, and “allies of the internal and external enemies of the regime”.

In 2022, the Catholic TV station’s (Canal 51) license was suspended by the Sandinista government; now it broadcasts only on the internet. Father Harvin Padilla, a priest from a humble church in Masaya said that he was being chased and harassed for several days by Sandinista police officers and para-militares. Two priests were detained by the police: One in the city of Nandaime (Province of Granada) by the name of Father Manuel Salvador García Rodríguez. He was accused of physical aggressions against a woman. Most citizens say this is a fabrication of the local Sandinista authorities. The second priest came from the city of Boaco, (Province of Boaco). Father José Leonardo Urbina Rodríguez was put in jail for molesting a girl. Most people in Boaco reject such accusations.

On 19 July 2022, in a national celebration of the 23rd anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution, Ortega showed no mercy nor good will for healing wounds. One more time, he justified all his doings against the Catholic church by saying that José Santos Zelaya (a liberal dictator who ran Nicaragua from 1893 to 1909), was right when he confiscated church properties and expelled many priests out of the country. “He did that”—he remarked—“because he was a nationalist”.

Indeed, the Sandinista dictatorship feels uncomfortable after so many sanctions have been imposed by the international community on Ortega and his family. Thus, the ruling elite wants to raise their stakes so that Washington eventually sits down with Ortega in Managua for negotiations. He knows that if that should happen, he would trade priests and political prisoners for the removal of sanctions. On the other hand, he wants to get rid of all his potential adversaries or those who dare to openly criticize him. And he has lost respect for all of them: businesspeople, opposition leaders, civic leaders, priests, and bishops.

As municipal elections across Nicaragua are around the corner–scheduled for early November 2022—Ortega is not running any risk of giving up political power. In his mind his idea of a one-party system implanted in Nicaragua is a must-do-now task that cannot wait any longer. A perfect dictatorship is not complete until all obstacles are fully removed from the political scene. And all laws and rules are meant for not exposing the dictator to losing power under any circumstance.

Haydee Marin, Vice President of ISHR Latin America and Coordinator of the ISHR Latin America Committee