ROME – Almost a year since a political and social crisis exploded in Nicaragua, the government and opposition forces along with the local Catholic bishops are still trying to figure out how to sit down to work out a negotiated settlement.
President Daniel Ortega appears determined to remain in power, as he, together with his wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo, were reelected in 2016 to lead the country until 2021.
Yet after a student-led revolt that began in April 2018, both the opposition and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church have called for a series of measures that go from putting an end to violent repression to Ortega calling for early elections.
An earlier attempt at dialogue failed last May-June, and efforts recommenced with the new year.
The conditions set by the opposition Civil Alliance and the bishops included the release of political prisoners, as hundreds of protesters have “disappeared” since the start of the uprising. Many are believed to have been killed, others tortured and released half-naked in the streets of Managua, the country’s capital, and an estimated 700 are believed to be in jail with no outside contact.
Ortega released some 100 of those prisoners in late February, but the bishops deemed that gesture “insufficient.”
Despite the central role the Nicaraguan bishops’ conference played in dialogue negotiations last year, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua says it’s unclear if the bishops will be allowed as observers this time around.
“We hope that when the roadmap is approved, we will know something” about the prelates’ presence, Brenes said on Sunday. At this point, the only bishop participating is the papal representative in Nicaragua, Polish Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag.
In a statement released on Monday, Bishop Juan Abelardo Mata Guevara, secretary of the bishops conference, said that having received no formal invitation from either side, the bishops are presuming they’re not considered indispensable for the dialogue to go forth.
“We understand … that in this historic moment our biggest contribution as shepherds of this pilgrimage Church in Nicaragua will continue to be supporting the people in their suffering and pain, in their hopes and joys, and elevating our prayers of intercession so that Nicaragua finds civilized and just paths for a peaceful solution towards the common good,” the statement says.
Speaking with Crux and other reporters in mid-November, Sommertag couldn’t hide the pain he’s experiencing for this country he first lived in over a decade ago as secretary of the papal embassy.
“There are needs that are not only material needs,” he said. “However, people who weren’t poor seven months ago are poor today. Many have lost their jobs.”
When it comes to the Church’s position in the conflict, he said at the time that “the Church suffers because its members are suffering. We can no longer have Masses in the afternoon because people are afraid to go out at night.”
Little has changed since then. Sources in Nicaragua have confirmed to Crux that evening Masses are still out of the question, and that even though things are “relatively calm,” as one priest put it, “it feels like the calm before the storm.”
The role of the Church will depend on an agreement reached among the government, the Civil Alliance and Sommertag, who’s currently witnessing preliminary conversations. Brenes confirmed that he’d attended the first meeting, which consisted only of “a prayer,” but not the following two, and that he’s waiting for a final decision as to his participation.
Last year, eight bishops took part in a dialogue, but this time around the suggestion is that only three of them do so, chosen by the other bishops: Brenes; Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa and president of the bishops’ conference; and Bishop Cesar Bosco Vivas of Leon.
According to local newspaper La Prensa, Brenes and Bosco Vicas have been vetoed by the government, something the cardinal said he knew nothing about beyond rumors.
A second round of negotiations was set to recommence on Monday, but they’ve been stalled by the fact that the government refuses to accept the bishops as mediators. The Ortega regime also refuses to accept the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN).
Brenes believes both the OAS and the UN should be involved.
Even though the government has tried to label the bishops as “coup organizers,” the Catholic Church continues to be regarded as the most credible institution in the country.
The crisis that began mid-April 2018 has reopened the wounds of the revolution that first put Ortega in power back in the 1980s. In the words of one of the 10 Nicaraguan bishops, who asked to remain unnamed to avoid exacerbating tensions, the wounds today are “even deeper, we’re going to need a lot of time to find true reconciliation, and the role of the Church will be important.”
“We need to speak of a spiritual healing,” he told Crux. “Many people woke up one day and found that the enemy was sleeping in the next room: families and neighborhoods are divided, making the Capulets and Montagues [in reference to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet] look like petty fighting.”
Bishop Silvio Jose Baez, auxiliary of Managua, will stay out of the dialogue efforts this time around, at least officially. He rose last year as a strong voice against the Ortega, often going to Twitter to denounce the repression against protesters. He’s currently in Madrid, where he spoke on Sunday at a conference for the 75th anniversary of the magazine Vida Religiosa.
During his talk, available on YouTube, Baez said he comes from a country with a “very conflictive history, marked by caudillismo, corruption, electoral fraud. We go from conflict to conflict.”
Yet, he said, Nicaragua is once again trying to find a “peaceful and dialogic solution to the conflict. It’s the hardest one, but the only one that can guarantee a future of peace.”
On Thursday, during a press conference held in Madrid, Baez also claimed that he’s never wanted to become a leader of “anything,” but simply tried to “be as faithful as possible to Jesus and as close as possible to the people.”
He’s under a constant death threat, and his family has fled Nicaragua. But he’s remained outspoken: “Yes, I’m afraid, but I’ve learned to work around it despite the threats and persecution. It’s been fruitful fear because it’s helped me understand the fear of the people. But it hasn’t paralyzed me.”
Nicaragua today lives a “political crisis of dramatic humanitarian dimensions,” Baez said. “Human rights are not being respected and there’s a deep economic imbalance.”
Nevertheless, within this reality, Baez said on Thursday, “I’m thankful because I come from a Church that’s become the most credible institution in the country, because it’s had the opportunity to show its Samaritan face amidst the suffering. It’s been capable of not closing its eyes to reality.”