Church leaders, Catholics, and other political adversaries are being targeted by the Ortega regime as it intensifies its suppression of dissenting voices amidst the escalating situation this year. Nonetheless, a significant number of individuals, including priests, nuns, seminarians, and church workers, have been banished, incarcerated, or executed as a consequence. Ortega’s administration and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) Party have historically held significant influence in Nicaragua, serving as a counterforce to the Catholic Church, which has also faced persecution. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has faced allegations of authoritarianism, oppression, and violations of human rights in recent times.
Other countries, the European Union, and the United States have been urged to intervene in Álvarez’s case, as his release has sparked concerns about the treatment he has received. The government’s condemnation of Álvarez has been met with criticism from religious leaders and human rights groups. Despite facing persecution, threats, and political agenda-driven attempts to promote silence and dissent, Álvarez has taken a stand against the Ortega regime. As a result, he has lost his Nicaraguan citizenship and received a 26-year prison sentence for his outspoken criticism of the government’s human rights abuses. In the same month, the Catholic Bishop Álvarez, along with 222 other dissidents, priests, and political leaders, had their Nicaraguan citizenship stripped by the government, bringing the total to 94 opponents of the regime by February 2023.
The actions of the Nicaraguan government have sparked outrage from various European bishops and worldwide groups, who have demanded the immediate release of clergy. The government has passed laws that restrict the Church’s ability to operate, shut down and raided several of its institutions, confiscated church property, and attacked charitable organizations. Additionally, the government has expelled foreign priests and religious workers. For example, recently, five Catholic priests received 10-year prison sentences after being convicted of conspiracy. This is just one of the many examples of the government’s repressive efforts against the Church and opposition voices.
“One Nicaraguan activist expressed concern that the country is descending into darkness. The actions of Ortega’s government have had a chilling effect on Nicaragua, causing many citizens to worry about the future. Nicaraguans have faced exile, received lengthy prison sentences, and even been executed, leading to a mass exodus. The government’s objective is to further oppress political dissidents, particularly church leaders, by imposing restrictions on the celebrations of Holy Week in April. These festivities, which typically involve large processions and other public events, have been limited. Furthermore, the closure of the Vatican’s embassy is a clear indication of their growing frustration with the policies of the Nicaraguan government. It serves as a protest against the government’s crackdown on political opposition and civil society groups. Additionally, in March, the Vatican announced its intention to close the embassy in response to the Nicaraguan government’s proposal to suspend diplomatic relations. This proposal was made following Pope Francis’ comments, in which he compared Ortega’s administration to a communist or Nazi dictatorship.”
Recently, Ortega has made increased efforts to extinguish any opposition and eliminate the final control the Church has over his power. Analyzing these events, it is likely that Ortega’s leadership is leading the Church towards ingrained animosity, questioning his power and challenging the Church’s relation to him. This essay describes some critical historical events in the Church’s relationship to Ortega, which severely threaten his regime’s legitimacy and power. Essentially, the Church remains an outspoken watchdog against Ortega’s history of disregarding the rule of law and human rights, and it continues to be a trusted institution and a thorn in his side. This long-standing dispute dates back to the 1980s, as he seeks to consolidate his power by disregarding the rule of law and human rights.
The 1980s: A Chaotic Decade.
The banking system’s nationalization, facilitated by the provision of credit to small producers, agriculture, labor, housing, education, and healthcare, resulted in significant advancements in society. The policies implemented by the government involved extensive efforts to transform existing economic and political dynamics, which fostered a convergence between certain members of the Church and the Sandinistas’ Marxist-leaning ideology. Both groups were dedicated to promoting social justice and upholding human rights. The concept of Liberation Theology played a crucial role in this process, as it aimed to connect Catholic theology with the pursuit of social justice and political activism. Many priests and laypeople supported the movement’s endeavors to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship, although there were differing opinions within the Church regarding the Sandinistas. The relationship between the Church and Ortega’s Sandinista government during this period was intricate and often strained. Ortega secured the presidency through a democratic election in 1984, and his administration largely continued the mixed economic policies of the Junta, which were influenced by Marxist ideology. By assuming the role of coordinator for the Junta’s National Reconstruction Government in 1981, Ortega experienced his initial ascent to power in the 1980s.
Following his endorsement of U.S. Assistance to the Contras, Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega was even banished by the government in 1986. The Sandinistas also condemned the Church’s wealth and authority, accusing it of being complicit in the Somoza dictatorship. Despite some efforts to initiate dialogue, the government would occasionally shut down Catholic Radio and expel foreign priests engaged in opposition politics. Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, who opposed the Sandinista government, emerged as the leader of the internal opposition by 1984 and consistently criticized the government’s policies. Specifically, the relationship between Church leadership in Nicaragua and the Sandinistas deteriorated after Pope John Paul II’s visit to the country in 1983, as he was an adversary of Liberation Theology. These factions were highly critical of Liberation Theology and perceived the Sandinistas’ Marxist ideological inclination as a threat to the Church’s authority, influence, and traditional values and principles. Additionally, the Church faced pressure from conservative factions within its hierarchy that aligned themselves with the Contras, an armed rebel group in opposition to the Sandinistas.
Bravo y Obando played a key role in persuading the Sandinistas to agree to a peaceful power transfer and accept the results of the election. Ortega only gained 41% of the vote, while Chamorro beat him with 55%. The Church also monitored the election, ensuring nationwide polling stations and sending observers to maintain a fair and free process. The Church actively participated in the democratic process by organizing voter education campaigns and encouraging citizens to participate. They saw Chamorro and the National Opposition Union, led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, as a viable alternative to uphold human rights and democracy in Nicaragua. Many leaders viewed the 1990 Nicaraguan election as an opportunity to remove power from the Sandinistas. The Contras and the Sandinista government signed the Sapoa Accord, which included the release of political prisoners and the establishment of a ceasefire.
Creating a Sinister Coalition.
The Church worked together with the Sandinistas and Ortega to significantly contribute to the national dialogue process, discussing issues of human rights, poverty, and governance with other stakeholders and civil society groups. Additionally, Ortega and the Sandinistas began regularly attending Mass and officially apologized for their treatment of the Church during the Contra War. As a result, Ortega developed a more cooperative relationship with the Church, and the FSLN and Ortega were integral in defeating the Church in the 1990 election, although the Church remained an important part of the process.
Once again, Ortega’s “unholy alliance” was never determined as a power loss. In the National Assembly, the FSLN won 30 seats and claimed the presidency with 38% of the vote in 2006. With the political endorsement of the Sandinistas, Ortega solidified his preference for Bravo’s and Obando’s policy shift. In order to improve his image with Church leaders and win over Catholic voters, Ortega worked with his FSLN colleagues to completely ban and abandon their support for abortion. By allying with Obando and converting to Catholicism, Ortega hoped to deepen this newfound relationship and secure the support of Catholic voters. Despite the political motivations behind Ortega’s conversion to Catholicism, his conciliatory relationship with Church leaders continued throughout the mid-2000s.
The Church Resists Ortega’s Attack on Democracy and Human Rights.
According to V-Dem, Nicaragua remains in the lowest 10% of countries on the liberal democracy index. Through these efforts, Nicaragua has enabled him to dominate the government, restrict the authority of opposing groups, and stifle disagreement — even in the face of widespread international criticism. These strategies have combined alterations to the constitution, control over institutions, suppression of opposition, economic policies, and alliances with other nations to solidify his authority. Levitsky and Way’s (2022) book, Revolution and Dictatorship, as well as Sánchez González and Osorio Mercado’s (2020) article, explore Nicaragua’s decline in democracy under Ortega’s leadership. The Ortega regime has taken numerous actions to undermine Nicaragua’s democracy and consolidate power since the 2006 election.
The Church in Nicaragua has voiced its opposition to Ortega’s assault on every turn. The government has cracked down on civil society groups, independent media, and opposition parties using legal action, intimidation, and harassment. They have also used paramilitary groups and the police to violently suppress protests, and have prosecuted journalists and opposition leaders on trumped-up charges. In addition, they have stacked the Supreme Court with loyalists of the FSLN, giving them control over the country’s legal system. They have also manipulated the electoral commission to ensure victorious elections. FSLN and Ortega have used their control of the National Assembly to make changes to the Nicaraguan Constitution, including eliminating presidential term limits, thereby allowing Ortega to remain in power for longer than under the previous constitutional framework in 2014.
Despite the repression, the Church remained committed to its role as a defender of social justice and human rights in the country. The government targeted the Church’s involvement in the repression. The Church’s support for opposition groups and its calls for a peaceful resolution to the crisis helped mobilize public pressure on the government to negotiate. Additionally, the Church acted as mediators in the national dialogue to resolve the crisis and provided shelter and humanitarian aid. In 2018, protests erupted across the country in response to the government’s forceful response, resulting in the killing of over 300 people and demanding changes to the social security system.
These alliances, including China, Russia, and Venezuela, have allowed Ortega to maintain his grip on power both abroad and at home, facing widespread opposition. They have provided him with economic and political support. Ortega has forged alliances with other countries, allowing him to maintain the loyalty of influential business people and giving him significant control over the country’s economy. He has also taken control of critical industries and rewarded his supporters by giving them perks and government contracts. Furthermore, Ortega has implemented economic policies that benefit him, his family, and his political allies.
The progress of the canal has been minimal, as the Church played a role in hindering Ortega’s objectives for this undertaking. The Church served as a vocal adversary of the project, emphasizing its potential adverse effects on the environment, indigenous communities, and the nation as a whole. Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the Archbishop of Managua, expressed concerns about the potential displacement of rural communities and the destruction of forests and habitats for wildlife in a statement to the media. In 2015, the Conference of Bishops of Nicaragua penned a letter to Ortega, outlining the potential negative consequences of the canal on indigenous communities, natural resources, and the environment. Subsequent to the concession, the Church supported the concerns of citizens regarding the project’s environmental, social, and economic impacts on the country and its people. In 2013, the National Assembly granted a 50-year concession to the Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Group (HKND), a private Chinese company, to research, plan, construct, and operate a proposed 172-mile canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan Interoceanic Grand Canal serves as a relevant illustration of these latter two points.
Recently, the Ortega government sentenced Bishop Álvarez, a key organizer of the opposition in Rancho Grande, to 26 years in jail. In 2015, the Church and its leaders, in collaboration with other community groups, successfully halted proposed mining projects in the area. They have actively resisted extractive projects in the region, opposing them based on their religious beliefs and dedication to social and environmental justice. The local population sees the Church as a legitimate representative of their interests, given its long-standing presence in Rancho Grande. Arce, Hendricks, and Polizzi (2022) illustrate in their book, The Roots of Engagement: Understanding Opposition and Support for Resource Extraction, how Church leaders influenced individuals’ attitudes towards mining in the Rancho Grande community. The mining legislation implemented by Ortega’s government prioritizes the interests of the mining industry over those of local communities and granted concessions to multinational mining corporations without the communities’ free, prior, and informed consent. Ortega has introduced policies to attract foreign investment and has been a staunch advocate of the mining sector in Nicaragua since his return to power.
Nicaragua. The future political landscape of Nicaragua may emerge from the resilience and courage of those committed to fighting for freedom and change, such as political prisoners like Álvarez. Despite the challenges posed by Ortega’s absolute control and his efforts to eliminate trusted institutions and opposition sources, it is likely that he will ramp up his efforts to challenge the legitimacy of Nicaragua. Given the tumultuous and antagonistic relationship between Ortega and the Church, it is evident that the Church, which has the highest level of trust among Nicaraguans compared to any government institution (e.G., 69% trust level in 2020 according to Mercado Osorio and González Sánchez), has been one of the most influential and resistant forces against Ortega’s abuses of power and assault on democracy and human rights. However, the Church’s moral authority and influence among the Nicaraguan people also pose risks to its members, as they speak out against government abuses. Despite these risks, the Church remains a trusted and influential institution that continues to stand up for what is right in Nicaragua.