In the late 1970s, Daniel Ortega led a ragtag group of leftist Sandinista guerrillas in an overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza. Today, President Ortega’s crackdown on protesters in Nicaragua shows he has become a dictator himself. Along with his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is vice president, the couple seeks to install dynastic family rule much like the regime they overthrew, using violent means to repress dissent. In the absence of meaningful political opposition, the Catholic Church is at the forefront of these protests — not as an ally of old-fashioned Latin American authoritarianism but as a voice for oppressed Nicaraguans and as a sanctuary for the persecuted.
The duo’s response to any who dare challenge their rule has been ruthless and unrelenting. The couple count at their disposal the national police force and directly arm thousands of roving paramilitary groups. Their war against civil society shuttered famed news outlets and severely curtailed reporting on human-rights violations. Prosecutors fabricate evidence against protesters, police arrest citizens arbitrarily, and Human Rights Watch reports the existence of grisly torture centers. This is not the Nicaragua of the 1980s, an era of battles between leftist nationalists and right-wing counterrevolutionaries, with U.S. and Soviet fingers stuck in the pie. Today’s conflict is a bitter struggle between an erstwhile “man of the people” turned oppressive dictator and the citizens he had pledged to lead — who now engage in nonviolent resistance for democracy and freedom.
The Church is at the tip of the spear in the fight for the restoration of democracy in Nicaragua. Nicaragua’s bishops, working tirelessly to find a solution to the crisis, have brokered dialogue between the opposition and the regime on multiple occasions. Rectories have morphed into informal clinics for the thousands wounded in the protests, many of whom are denied access to state-run medical care due to their participation. The Ortega-Murillo regime responded to the Church’s activism by surgically targeting members of the clergy, slandering them as “coup-plotters.”
Yet, with the Church under siege in Nicaragua, the silence from Rome is deafening.
The Catholic Church’s support for the country’s democratic movement has been met with regime attempts to infiltrate and entrap priests under an enlarged definition of “terrorism.” When these tactics fail, the Ortega-Murillo regime resorts to strong-arming and intimidating members of the clergy. Security forces manhandle priests at the cathedral in Managua and surround churches during Mass. Recently, mothers and wives of political prisoners went on a hunger strike in a church in Masaya to protest the illegal detention of their loved ones. The government responded by cutting water and electricity and surrounding the church with police and paramilitaries. The Reverend Edwin Román, who permitted the hunger strike and subsequently became imprisoned inside without food for over a week, said of the Ortega strongmen, “They left us like rats in a hole.”
In a particularly egregious example, Bishop Silvio José Báez, a beloved Catholic leader and one of the most outspoken critics of the regime, was the target of a regime-planned assassination attempt. For several months, plainclothes police officers tailed him, drones constantly hovered over his home, and ominous motorcycle gangs waited on his doorstep. He survived a knife attack by regime supporters in the city of Diriamba. After the U.S. embassy in Managua tipped Báez off, Pope Francis transferred him to Rome, where he remains insulated from the brutalities of the Ortega regime. While his move may have been for his own safety, the timing fueled theories that the Vatican made the decision based on reports of “friction” between Báez and the Nicaraguan government.
Pope Francis has spoken only sparingly on the protests in Nicaragua, quiescent in the face of persistent reports of violence by the regime. Indeed, when the pope issued his most direct public statement on the matter — vague calls for a “peaceful resolution” to the crisis — 20 former Latin American presidents issued a statement criticizing him for minimizing the oppression of Nicaraguans at the hands of their government. Vatican representatives have issued lukewarm endorsement of the protesters, recommending a renewed commitment to reconciliation and electoral reform. Absent from these statements were any mention of the defense of protesters by representatives of the Catholic Church — much less any demand that government officials ensure the security of the clergy in the country.
Last year, Vice President Mike Pence condemned the Ortega government’s crackdown on religious freedom, declaring it was “waging war on the Catholic Church and those calling for democracy and national dialogue.” And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met recently with Nicaraguan refugees forced into exile in Costa Rica, bearing witness to the regime’s systematic human-rights violations. But still nothing from the pope.
Ortega managed to hoodwink the Catholic Church before — professing a love of Jesus, supporting some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world, and even creating a kind of parallel (pro-government) church by co-opting members of the clergy into his Sandinista political movement. Now, the Church is on the front lines in Nicaragua’s battle for democracy, with clergy and parishioners almost uniformly rejecting Ortega’s cruel policies. Yet the Church’s leader remains largely on the sidelines, silent in the face of attacks on members of his clergy and Catholic protesters, who deserve support from their leader in Rome.
Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow for Latin America at the American Enterprise Institute. Frances Tilney Burke is a visiting research fellow in foreign and defense policy at AEI.