ROME – While there’s always a debate in Catholicism about how much priests should get involved in politics, lately some Nicaraguan bishops have opted to throw caution to the wind, bluntly urging people to take to the streets in response to perceived repression under President Daniel Ortega.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of Nicaraguans of all walks of life took part in a “Peace and Justice” rally called by the Catholic Church. It was the second massive demonstration in recent days, following a wave of protests that ended last weekend with dozens killed in clashes between protesters and government forces.
The government has yet to confirm or deny the number of casualties from the social convulsion, but Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights has said that at least 63 people were killed, 15 are still missing and more than 160 were wounded by gunfire.
The protests began as a reaction to Ortega’s decision to reform the social security system. The government measures, that have now been backtracked, would have raised the contribution of workers and employers while reducing future pensions.
Ortega, a former guerrilla fighter, began his third five-year term in office last year, with his wife, Rosario Murillo, as vice-president. He had previously ruled the country from 1979 to 1990.
Managua’s Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes told demonstrators on Saturday that the Catholic Church, currently mediating in the crisis, would give Ortega a month to reach agreements that satisfy society’s demands.
“The government has just one month to come through. If it doesn’t, the people will be told that it couldn’t,” Brenes said.
The cardinal revealed on Saturday that the bishops had been invited to coordinate a dialogue on Sunday. He convoked an extraordinary assembly of the bishops’ conference for Tuesday, and “after over two hours,” the prelates agreed together to take part.
The day before the rally, National Assembly president Gustavo Porras had announced the creation of a truth commission that would look into the deaths and violence during the clashes.
Saturday’s march, called by the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, brought in students, representatives of the private sector, feminist organizations, and farmers who oppose the construction of a canal to link the Caribbean Sea (and thus the Atlantic Ocean) with the Pacific Ocean.
Brenes held nothing back, defining the Ortega administration as “demonic, based on envy and every kind of evil.”
“Blessed are those who thirst for justice, for they will be filled,” Brenes said. “The devil is always astute and always intervenes when we say the truth. The devil would want for us to remain in the dark,” he said, just as the electricity suddenly went off, shortly preventing him from speaking.
The speeches were often interrupted by the crowd that cheered calling for “justicia,” (justice). Pictures of the demonstration show no flags with political connotations. Instead, the Nicaraguan flag and Vatican flags dominate, as a reminder that the assembly was called by the Catholic Church.
The rally processed to the local cathedral, where a rosary was prayed for all those killed, and where Managua’s auxiliary Bishop Silvio Báez consecrated those present to the Virgin.
Sources told Crux that some Nicaraguan bishops are still sympathetic to the Ortega regime, but not Báez, who’s become a strong voice protesting the government.
“We’re in a painful valley of tears, for exclusion, for poverty, for young people murdered and tortured,” Báez said on Saturday. “Tears of fathers and mothers as a result of irrational violence. Tears of the farmers who fear they’re going to lose their lands.”
The previous day, the bishop was seen crying in an interview that went viral on social media. In it, he says that he’s “cried because so many young people died for no reason, in an unfair way, with a cruelty that knows no limits.”
“I’ve cried because many were tortured in inhuman ways. Last night I learned about three young people of our youth ministry who had the nails of their hands ripped out,” he said, breaking down in tears.
The journalist conducting the interview was crying too, acknowledging that during her coverage of the rallies she’d found herself incapable of stopping the flow of tears for the young men and women who “were rallying for their ideals, with their university backpacks, and they [government forces] shot to kill.”
Báez also spoke about the “women victims of violence,” in a country where, according to Amnesty International, murders of women are becoming increasingly brutal, and about what he called the “presumption and irresponsibility” with which the Nicaraguan jungle is treated.
A fire that destroyed over 12,000 acres of jungle sparked protests, setting the stage for those seen the week before last against the reforms of the social system.
On Thursday, the bishop went to Twitter to say that dialogue was a “risk,” and that it’s plausible it’s a strategy by the government to return to the status quo.
“But we bishops want the truth, we will not be used and we’ll only look for what’s best for Nicaragua. We’ll run the risk!”
What’s happened so far, and what will happen now?
Brian Strassburger, an American Jesuit seminarian who’s been in Nicaragua for the past two years, spoke to Crux about the ongoing crisis.
“Negotiations are currently being arranged between various parties: private business, the government, the universities, and the student protesters, with the Catholic Church asked to mediate the dialogue,” he said. “The president is unlikely to step down willingly, so there is a lot of uncertainty over what will unfold in the negotiations and what compromises might be made for a better future in Nicaragua.”
Street violence has made those negotiations critical.
Police in riot gear were deployed to break up student protesters. Groups of the Juventud Sandinista, aligned with Ortega, also clashed with the students. Students took to throwing stones and building barricades while they tried to repel attempts to disperse them with rubber bullets, tear gas, and, according to doctors on the ground, real bullets.
By Saturday, April 21, protesters began calling into question the legitimacy of the current government. A major rally took place on Monday, organized by the council of private business. Thousands participated, and the police stayed away.
Similarly this Saturday’s rally was without incident.
“The pilgrimage was a remarkable event,” Strassburger said. “Thousands of people gathered together wearing the blue and white of the Nicaraguan flag. It was an event filled with hope while being rooted in prayer. Many parishes organized groups of pilgrims. I walked with members of Santo Domingo parish, the Jesuit parish in Managua.”
“The event proved the ability of the Catholic Church to reach out to thousands, showing its continued importance and influence. Gives me the chills just to read about it!” Strassburger said.
Afraid to speak up because of the ongoing repression of what he described as a “dictatorship with the façade of democracy,” a second Church source told Crux that the government will try to delay the dialogue for as long as they can, in the hopes that public pressure subsides.
“The more things return to ‘normal,’ the more power the government will have to maintain their control,” the source said, adding that “corruption is rampant and impunity is total.”