NicaNotes: Money under the Cassock

By Fabrizio Casari

[Fabrizio Casari is an Italian journalist who writes frequently about Nicaragua. This article was first published in Spanish on the webpage of Radio La Primerisima, June 4, 2023. Translation by Nan McCurdy]

It is difficult to believe that the $500,000 found in sacks in a Church property as part of a money laundering operation was intended for the purchase of candles for the faithful.

This Nicaraguan story that can be read in European or Latin American newspapers speaks of sacks full of money found in several dioceses. It is, however, partial information, which tends to present the detail in order to hide the background, which is much more serious and disturbing. The sacks, which contained the not inconsiderable sum of US$500,000, were found by the Nicaraguan National Police in an operation carried out as part of a vast money laundering investigation. But these are only a small part of the evidentiary findings, disturbing as they are in themselves. The investigation by the Nicaraguan Public Ministry is much broader and deeper; it investigates the transit of several million dollars through diocesan accounts in the name of several priests and bishops.

Millions of dollars entered the country illegally, and it is still unclear what responsibility the banks or individual bank functionaries have in the operation; the investigation will find out. In the meantime, however, the discovery has resulted in the competent authorities blocking the operation of the mentioned accounts because there is clear evidence of money laundering for the financing of terrorist activities and personal gain.

There is also another related line of investigation – no less important – about land and other real estate in the name of bishops, priests and front men that were first acquired and then illegally transferred. It involves tens of thousands of hectares located in rural, urban and semi-urban areas throughout the country.

One could, keeping within the story, relate this matter to any police operation aimed at stopping crimes; but what is certain is that when it is about the Church and when the crime scene is Nicaragua, the chronicle becomes the visible tip of the political iceberg.

The questions that arise are several: how is it that Nicaraguan bishops and priests happen to be the owners of such wealth? It is hard to imagine that it is a modern version of the vow of poverty. It is wealth that has never been reported and that can only have two origins: either it was sent from abroad through unofficial channels, or it was the property of the Nicaraguan oligarchy transferred to friendly priests to then be exported to the foreign accounts of stateless persons. An attempt to keep the booty safe on the part of those who, ceasing to have Nicaraguan nationality and citizenship, seek to put their wealth in friendly hands to recover what they consider their possessions.

As for the US$500,000 found in the sacks: what is the use of a sum of that magnitude, considering the scant pastoral activity and the minimal costs of its operation? It is difficult to be convinced that it was intended for the purchase of candles for the faithful; implausible to imagine such a sum for the purchase of hosts and bad wine; ridiculous, finally, to pretend that it was intended for charity. And so, one cannot fail to notice the incompatibility between the total amount and the publicly claimable needs related to the exercise of pastoral activity.

In 2018 [during the coup attempt] dioceses were used as logistical centers of coup terrorism, warehouses where horror found shelter, where the deception of the humanitarian and pacifying mission concealed the political direction of the coup. Now we find the underworld of the dioceses as money warehouses, counters of financial liquidity ready to be used. For illegal political use, certainly, not for charity.

The dust under the carpet

The first results show how the investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office uncovers heavy and disturbing truths, bringing to public light a traffic of money and goods attributable to illegal activities. It weaves alliances and intersections between coup activity, ecclesiastical hierarchies, and criminal activities that cannot be reduced to the phenomena of creative and circumscribed finances. It reminds us of the repurposing of the Church for a subversive role, different from that of serving God.

It is credible to hypothesize that the choice of priests and dioceses was based on the presumed greater agility of priests and bishops, considered somehow safeguarded by diplomacy and political expediency. The clergy were considered the only navigable channel for illegal operations. It is likely that an illegal operation was put in place to recover confiscated or forfeitable goods, and ditto for cash, probably useful to cover the immediate organizational needs, both domestic and foreign, of the coup families.

As in 2018, it is conceivable that funds would have been channeled partly to the oligarchy and partly to the enlisted criminal organizations. But to have mounted these operations and expect to succeed in them is yet another demonstration of how little is known about the Nicaraguan Police, its investigative units, and its intelligence organs. Sandinista Nicaragua, unwilling to back down in the face of crime, knows how to defend itself.

Nicaragua has accustomed us to the unusual, to that kind of scenario where you have to go deep into the substratum to see the important layer, where what happens always has a reason and often an unmentionable reason. If one does not want to believe the fable of the persecution of the Church or the innocence of the priests, it is enough to go deep into the substratum to discover how everything has a common thread. The criminal activity is both the cause and consequence of a political action aimed at the permanent destabilization of Nicaragua.

To understand it all, it is worth looking at how the post-2018 period marked a turning point in the activity of the ecclesiastical hierarchies. They are undergoing a process of transformation to become key political actors, resituating themselves within civil society in the role of catalyzing agent of the coup opposition.

Changes of attire

The defeat of the coup attempt brought with it the total disarticulation of the political and media structure on which the coup was based, while the religious structure remained to sustain its function and also took on the media-political one.

The Catholic Church is today the catalyst of the opposition. In part, this is an internal option due to the fact that the Church is trying to fill the space left vacant by the end of the coup parties, whose last remnants flew out of Managua months ago. To this end, some priests developed an intense political activity: abandoning their apparent hypocritical neutrality, they incited destabilization against the government from every pulpit, transforming their mission of recovering souls into enlisting bodies.

But its definitive transformation into a political subject was decided by the White House, which wanted to confirm and reinforce what had already been established during the attempted coup: the church must exercise the leadership of anti-Sandinismo. Because only the church has a minimal social base and only the church still enjoys a benevolent name at the international level, given the total discredit of the coup plotters even by western governments that also detest Sandinismo.

After all, this attitude of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church has always been there, given the historical imprint of the CEN (Nicaraguan Bishops Conference), which was always the blanket that covered Somocismo, trying to whitewash its horror. Until 1979 there was a communion of intentions between the clergy and the Somoza family; equally evident was the support for the Contra in the 80s and the Church backing of the 17 years of neo-liberal horror [three pro-US governments], with which it expressed a genuine sentimental connection. Then came the role of leading terrorism in 2018. In short, never, not even for a short period of history, has the CEN been neutral, consistent with the fascist fervor of the Bishops Conferences throughout Latin America.

Today, the Church does not hide its new disguise. However, the shameless and unbridled use of the ecclesiastical pulpit in a political function cannot fail to find a political response, just as every criminal action in violation of the law cannot fail to find a response from law enforcement structures. Cassocks are not enough to protect against [paying for] crimes: this is true everywhere in the world and even more so in Nicaragua, given the toll of blood and suffering it has paid to achieve peace and coexistence.

The questions, each and every one of them, digress in the examination of facts and circumstances, of characters and places; but where and by how much they digress, like tributaries of a river they only find an answer at the mouth: the construction of the conditions for a new coup attempt is the political program of the Church. Coup subversivism is the only way in which the right wing feels it can relate to the country, and the money needed for the operations must come in any way it can.

They know it well in the President’s office, where patience has ended and officials respond blow by blow to the supposed untouchability of a sect that has traded faith for hate, prayers for terror, pastoral mission for subversion.

The political leadership of the country knows that the defeat of the subversive attempt does not mean the end of the coup project, so there will be no underestimation. The fact that it enjoys a powerful international support changes little, the accounts are drawn up in Nicaragua and not elsewhere.

It is well known that peace is not a lasting good; if you don’t defend it, you lose it. So, on the part of Sandinismo there will be no uncertainty or hesitation, no indulgence or timidity in acting. There will be no mistakes in the defense of peace. Because whoever lets his guard down, sooner or later lets his head down.

By Nan McCurdy

Opportunity, Inclusion at the University in the Countryside
The programs offered by UNICAM (University in the Countryside) in three locations, Juigalpa, Estelí and Masaya, provide opportunity with inclusion for hundreds of people from rural areas. Currently 729 people, from more than 80 municipalities, are enrolled in the areas of Advanced Technician in Agroindustry, and in Irrigation, to prepare young people in their regions. The University in the Countryside program allows adolescents, young people, and adults from the most remote areas to continue their higher education, completely free, in coordination with the municipalities. It guarantees transportation, breakfast, lunch and snacks, digital and physical material, in addition to an economic bonus for academic excellence.

Jackson Ismael Pichardo Rojas, 28 years old, blind, originally from Santo Domingo, Chontales, is in the third year of the Advanced Technician in Agroindustry course. His disability has not been an impediment for him to aspire to a university degree. “It is a great opportunity for all the people who live in the countryside, I am very grateful for this. I acquired this disability at the age of 16 and this opportunity is a light in the midst of all my darkness, I have learned many things like how to give added value to a product, with various processes,” he said. Going to this university has been aided by his good friend Emiliano Zamora Torres, who has a motor disability and is also studying a career. “We have been friends for 10 years, we both support each other to learn our subject matter and when I finish, I want to work and be able to start my own company, to be my own boss,” said Zamora. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 1 June 2023)

Children’s Nutrition has Improved Dramatically since 2022
The Ministry of Health presented its report on the 2023 Nutritional Census, which studied the nutritional conditions of children ages of 0 to 14 in rural and urban areas. The report states that the study of “1,425,806 boys and girls surveyed in the census between January and May 2023 found that between 2022 and 2023, acute malnutrition of children between the ages of 0 to 6 years was reduced 9.3% compared to 2022 and chronic malnutrition fell 8.2%. Acute malnutrition between the ages of 6 and 14 fell 13% and chronic malnutrition was reduced by 4.3%.” MINSA Health Services Director General, Carlos Cruz stated that “We take note of the good results obtained during this twelve-month period; however, we must continue working towards the total eradication of malnutrition. With the data collected, programs like Zero Hunger, Family Gardens, School Lunches, Food Production Packages, and the Family Support Plan will be strengthened, enhancing the efforts to achieve these nutritional goals through adequate nutrition guidelines, vaccination and periodic weight and height monitoring of children.” (Nicaragua News, 6 June 2023)

National Assembly Creates the White Cross
On June 2 the National Assembly approved a law creating the White Cross, a humanitarian assistance institution attached to the Ministry of Health. In the explanatory memorandum, it says that in view of the needs of the population, it is important to have a decentralized institution for humanitarian assistance and relief that attends to the emergencies of individuals, families and communities. The Ministry of Health is the institution with the regulatory competencies and technical capacities to incorporate the White Cross as part of the model promoted by the government to guarantee the health of the population. The fundamental principles of The White Cross are universality, solidarity, comprehensiveness, social participation, efficiency, quality, equity, sustainability and responsibility of the citizens. Among its attributions is to respond to natural disasters and emergencies by providing relief and assistance. It can also serve to provide solidarity support and humanitarian assistance when requested by friendly governments. One of the articles of the law establishes that the patrimony of the White Cross will include the financial resources and property, registered or not, that have belonged to the Nicaraguan Red Cross. Likewise, it will have use of goods and resources acquired by contributions and donations made by public, private, national or foreign entities. (Radio La Primerisima, 2 June 2023)

Nicaragua’s Economy Evaluated as Positive
Fitch Ratings announced that the Long-Term Foreign Currency Issuer Default Rating for Nicaragua is reaffirmed at B- and the economic outlook of Nicaragua has been revised upward from stable to positive. The Fitch press release said “the revision of Nicaragua’s outlook to positive from stable reflects a broadly resilient economy based on a prudent policy mix that has strengthened fiscal and external buffers, better positioning the authorities to manage macroeconomic challenges related to international/geopolitical tensions; inflation that has been moderate at 9.5% since April 2023; reduction of the public debt and private consumption that fuels growth, supported by rising remittances, as well as greater access to credit from the private banking system.” (Nicaragua News, 6 June 2023)

Nicaragua’s International Loans Change from Libor to Sofr Rate
The financial agreements that Nicaragua has signed with the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, 44 in total, are in transition from Libor to Sofr. The Libor rate is determined by banks participating in the London market, and in 2008 about 16 international entities were involved in a major scandal, causing a worldwide scam of millions of users. On June 2, a decree was passed in the National Assembly that modifies the loans to the public sector. “The measure to migrate from this [discredited] rate (Libor), is correct and must be supported, we must always be on the lookout; because the banks do not rest in satisfying their voracious appetite, subjecting our Latin American, Caribbean and African people. Here it has been demonstrated that the main banks worldwide are a den of criminals, that is why our international loans are going to be regulated by the Sofr rate,” said Deputy Wálmaro Gutiérrez. The country’s move towards this measure protects it against future irregularities. Nicaragua joins the countries that have condemned those responsible for systematically causing great damage to humanity. “The transition process to replace the [Libor] interest rate is being implemented; it is based on the banks’ estimates of their borrowing costs,” said Gutiérrez. Nations are opting for mechanisms that are less vulnerable to manipulations. “A transparent and responsible government, which has complied with the reduction of poverty and extreme poverty, is carrying this out with all security and gallantry,” Gutiérrez concluded. (TN8TV, 2 June 2023)

New Medical Supply Storage Facility in Esteli
The Ministry of Health inaugurated the regional medical supply storage facility and epidemiological lab at the San Juan de Dios Hospital in Estelí on June 3. The new US$5.4 million project was financed by the General Budget with support from the Inter-American Development Bank. (Nicaragua News, 5 June 2023)

Adelante Program Loaning $US15 Million in 2023
The Adelante program expects to place US$15 million in loans this year and expand to US$100 million in 2026, reported Finance Minister Iván Acosta on the program En Vivo of Channel 4. He pointed out that this amount seems small compared to a bank, but it is the first time that a program is announced with a sustained interest rate of around 15% while in most microfinance companies the interest is around 36%. Acosta indicated that this means that the government is making an effort to finance sectors that were for a long time excluded from accessible credit. He said that this program has evolved well in its first seven months. It is fundamentally directed to the agricultural and livestock sector. He added that if US$200 million could be mobilized by 2026 to the rural sector, production would multiply, productivity and yield would be more visible and export stocks in this segment of the economy would increase. (Radio La Primerisima, 5 June 2023)

Nicaragua Reports on Damages Caused by US Aggression
Nicaraguan activists and government representatives participated on June 3 in a hearing of the International Peoples’ Tribunal on Nicaragua, with the presentation of nine testimonies of victims of aggression by the United States. Testimony covered US support for the dictator Anastasio Somoza, Ronald Reagan’s Contra War in the 1980s, and the 2018 attempted coup. The testimony of eight of the nine persons took place from the Foreign Ministry of Nicaragua in Managua while the testimony of Camilo Mejía was from the United States. Nicaraguan activist Mejía spoke about the efforts financed by the United States to foment the 2018 coup attempt, in which they also financed false news on social networks and written media that were at the service of the coup plotters and the US empire.

The International Peoples’ Tribunal on US Imperialism: Sanctions, Blockades and Economic Coercive Measures (its full name) is holding a series of hearings on the impact of US sanctions on 16 countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Finance Minister Ivan Acosta described the great damage that US imperialism has caused to the people of Nicaragua. Denunciation of United States policies and actions is one of many ways to defeat the illegal and unethical policy of sanctions and coercive economic measures implemented principally by the United States and the European Union, Acosta said. He urged the building an international consensus on the illegality of these unilateral, bilateral and multilateral measures, as well as the taking of urgent legal action against this violation of international law and human dignity. “We close by insisting that the best attitude of the world’s peoples is to condemn, as in fact we are requesting before this tribunal, to condemn firmly and without any appeal, imperialism and its cronies for the damage caused by the policies, sanctions and coercive economic measures that they have implemented, demanding a just reparation for the damage caused,” he said.

Those who gave their testimonies were: unionist Amada Pineda, Supreme Electoral Council President Brenda Rocha, Supreme Electoral Council Magistrate Alma Nubia Baltodano, Supreme Court President Alba Luz Ramos, lawyer Orlando Tardencilla, National Assembly Deputy Wilfredo Navarro, Minister of Finance Iván Acosta, Presidential Advisor for Health Affairs Dr. Sonia Castro, and activist Camilo Mejia. To watch the tribunal in English:  (Radio La Primerisima, 4 June, 2023)

Nearly 500,000 Healthy Gardens Established
From 2012 to date, the Ministry of Family, Community and Cooperative Economy (MEFCCA) has supported the establishment of 479,000 Healthy Gardens with an equal number of families, of which 19,000 have been established so far in 2023. The Healthy Gardens program was started in May 2012 and consists of the establishment of small productive areas of fruit trees, vegetables, aromatic herbs, medicinal plants, roots, tubers, Musaceae [bananas and plantains], trellis crops, among others, to contribute to the nutritional security of families. Families are trained and provided with plants to establish their gardens. The plants that are delivered are produced in MEFCCA nurseries or obtained through partnerships with municipal governments or producers interested in contributing to the program. As part of the expansion of the program, Healthy Gardens have been established in maternity wait homes, homes for the elderly, child development centers, schools, and currently in fire stations. In these cases, each institution provides the space to establish the garden and the staff to maintain it, MEFCCA delivers the plants and ensures training with the methodology of “learning by doing,” so that the staff of the institution is involved from the beginning to ensure the care of the productive area. (Radio La Primerisima, 3 June 2023)

Nicaragua to Acquire 500 Buses from China
The government of Nicaragua and the company Yutong signed an agreement that will allow the acquisition of 500 new buses from the People’s Republic of China to meet the needs of the people. Finance Minister Iván Acosta recalled that President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo, a little more than a week ago in a public appearance, made a commitment to continue equipping, improving and transforming the country’s public transport model. Acosta stated that this is part of the improvement of public transportation for all municipalities. (Radio La Primerisima, 5 June 2023)