ROME – A Catholic bishop has condemned Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s crackdown on opposition leaders after the authoritarian leader arrested several figures that played a role in the 2018 protests that shook his regime.
“I condemn the kidnapping of youth leaders Lesther Alemán and Max Jerez, pre-candidate Medardo Mairena and other rural movement leaders,” tweeted Bishop Silvio Jose Baez, auxiliary of Managua, on Tuesday. “Let’s pray for them and demand their freedom. It’s time for unity and solidarity! Let’s not get used to the criminal actions of the dictatorship!”
“I pray to God as well for all the other people kidnapped by the dictatorship,” he said. “May their dignity and physical safety be respected and may they be released immediately. To their families I express my closeness and my prayers. Let’s not lose hope!”
The situation in the country has been precarious ever since a civil uprising in April 2018. In December of that year, Baez went into exile at Pope Francis’s explicit request after the bishop and his family received death threats.
News broke overnight that Ortega had jailed Mairena, the sixth-presidential candidate incarcerated by the regime since June.
Monday’s raids add to the list of over a dozen senior opposition figures that have been arrested as part of what critics say is a crackdown ahead of the next presidential elections, scheduled for November 7.
Most have been charged with “treason against the fatherland” and in connection with an alleged money laundering case against opposition leader Cristiana Chamorro. Chamorro says the accusation is politically motivated.
Ortega, 75, has been in power since 2007, but first ruled the country as the coordinator of a communist junta between 1979 and 1984, and then as president between 1985 and 1990.
Nicaraguan police have charged the presidential hopefuls with inciting foreign interference in Nicaragua’s affairs, among other crimes.
Many fear that Catholic bishops and priests might soon be added to the list of people incarcerated by Ortega for political reasons.
Though the bishops and the president were never really close – at least, not since he came back to power in 2007 – the relationship broke completely after a failed dialogue in July 2018, when the president labeled members of the hierarchy as opposition leaders and even “coup mongers.”
On Sunday, Cardinal Leopold Brenes, archbishop of Managua, said there are people in Nicaragua who “want to take away the strength of the Church.”
Though he gave no names, the message was clear: “Today we feel, at many moments, people attacking us, attacking the pope, who in one way or another, want to take away strength from the Church: Insulting us, persecuting us, slandering us, but all that remains empty when we have our fervent hope and trust in the Lord.”
“We live in the midst of difficulties, insults, deprivations, persecutions, slander,” Brenes added.
“We have difficulties,” said the cardinal, who serves as president of the bishops’ conference, referring to the situation of all Nicaraguans. “We have problems, we have problems of the [COVID-19] pandemic that make us desperate, we have our political, social, economic problems, families who suffer because many of their relatives are deprived of their freedom.”
Baez also referred to the Nicaraguan political crisis, saying that Jesus teaches the Church to be “free and firm in its prophetic mission, without wanting to appease to everyone and without being frightened by threats and persecution.”
Meanwhile, Baez — currently in Florida — used his Sunday homily to say the Church and society both “need prophets.”
“A Church without prophets stagnates and becomes indifferent and fearful. A society without prophets becomes unjust, cruel and inhuman,” Baez said in his homily from the Agatha Church in Miami.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma