By Becca Renk
(Becca Renk has lived and worked in sustainable community development in Nicaragua since 2001 with the Jubilee House Community and its project, the Center for Development in Central America. The JHC-CDCA also works to educate visitors to Nicaragua, including through their hospitality and solidarity cultural center at Casa Benjamin Linder. The article was originally published in English and Spanish at https://www.casabenjaminlinder.org/navigatingnicaragua/catholic-church-and-nicaragua)
Recently a deluge of headlines about the Catholic Church in Nicaragua has appeared in international media – but not one of the articles has accurately explained what is happening. Below I’ll break down Nicaragua’s relationship with the Catholic Church and recent events; all links are to excellent articles for those who want to delve deeper.
BACKGROUND – JUST HOW FAR BACK DOES THIS GO?
Colonization: The Catholic Church first came to Nicaragua with the Spanish colonizers and, as elsewhere in the world, the hierarchy and much of the clergy facilitated colonial conquest through conversion. In Nicaragua, the Indigenous population was utterly decimated: most of the population were killed, died of disease, or were abducted and sold into slavery. With the notable exceptions of some individual priests like Bishop Antonio Valdivieso, the Church was not only complicit but actively participated in the horrors of colonization.
Insurrection: Post independence, the Church hierarchy and Nicaragua’s wealthy elite ran the country together; for generations, each powerful family had a son who became a priest. In the 20th century, the Catholic hierarchy supported the bloody Somoza dictatorship during the almost 45 years of their rule, and only at the very end did some in the hierarchy support the people’s liberation.
Revolution: Unlike in Cuba, the Nicaraguan revolution was never secular – in fact, Nicaragua’s Revolution was so influenced by liberation theology that in the 1980s there was a popular saying was “Between Christianity and revolution there is no contradiction.” There were priests in the government – several Ministers – but they were not the priests of the Church hierarchy. They were working to improve the lives of the poor majority. The Catholic hierarchy was openly opposed to the Sandinista Revolution. Pope John Paul II came to Nicaragua and chastised the priests in government; the Vatican later censored them.
Government of Reconciliation and National Unity
When the Sandinista Party came back into power in 2007, they formed the Government of Reconciliation and National Unity and sought not only to work with former enemies from the war – the Contra’s political wing joined the Sandinista alliance and nominated the vice-president for that term from within their ranks – but also included the Church, big business, and trade unions in the planning and management of government programs – the Church was given a place at the governing table. But big business and the Catholic Church effectively ended that model when they conspired to overthrow the elected government in 2018 and used their role in society to try to turn the people against the government.
2018 Coup Attempt
In April 2018, protests began that were ostensibly against proposed reforms to the social security system. It quickly became obvious, however, that the protests were about something else: an attempt to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. Armed opposition groups set up hundreds of roadblocks which paralyzed the country and became epicenters of violence. The roadblocks lasted for nearly three months, some 253 people were killed, and many more injured. While opposition sources blamed the government for nearly all deaths, a careful study by the Nicaraguan Truth, Justice and Peace Commission showed otherwise. Journalist’s investigations have shown that the U.S. government was funding the violence through USAID, NED, IRI – all “soft arms” of the CIA.
Although the U.S. was funding the attempted ousting of Nicaragua’s democratically elected Sandinista government, the Catholic Church hierarchy in Nicaragua was instigating it. You can read first-hand accounts of priests initiating violence, including in neighborhoods of Ciudad Sandino, here. While the Bishop’s conference was supposedly “mediating” a national dialogue, its own priests were calling for violence. At these “roadblocks of death,” as they came to be known, Sandinista supporters were identified, beaten, raped, tortured and murdered – with priests watching and sometimes participating in the violence.
Although hundreds were arrested and convicted of violent crimes in 2018, opposition leaders demanded the release of what they called “political prisoners.” In the interests of peace and reconciliation, the Nicaraguan government declared a general amnesty and freed everyone who had been charged in conjunction the attempted coup, including known murderers, on the condition that they not reoffend.
The hierarchy’s participation in the failed coup attempt in 2018 has had consequences for the Catholic Church: the Nicaraguan government has reduced by half its financial support for cathedrals, churches and maintenance of the Bishops’ Conference facilities. But the Church has also lost its people: I’ve talked to many Catholics who no longer go to mass because their priests continue to promote violence and seek political ends from the pulpit. These people have not lost their faith – they continue to pray at home and take part in religious celebrations outside the Church – but they no longer attend mass. This sentiment is widespread – recent polls show that only 37% of Nicaraguans today identify as Catholics, as opposed to 50% only a few years ago.
So, what’s going on now that has caused so many inaccurate headlines? The first week of August, Nicaraguan authorities dismantled the network of communication outlets (five radio stations and a local television channel) owned by Rolando Alvarez. Alvarez is Bishop of Matagalpa and Estelí, but he is also a political actor, one of the leaders involved in the violent coup attempt in 2018 and his discourse has created a climate of confrontation, perhaps in an attempt to destabilize Nicaragua’s government in the run up to November’s municipal elections.
Alvarez’ private media outlets were closed because they are alleged to have been used to launder money to pay for street violence to feed destabilization attempts. Following the closure of his media outlets, Alvarez was placed under house arrest while he is under investigation for a series of crimes. Even following his arrest, however, Alvarez continued to foment violence which threatened the safety of the population of Matagalpa. Last week he was moved to house arrest in Managua where he will remain while he is being investigated; he is receiving visits from his family and from the Cardinal with whom he has spoken at length.
Other priests arrested
Alvarez isn’t the only priest to be arrested in Nicaragua in recent months – Nicaraguan authorities have arrested, tried and convicted a priest who raped a 12 year old girl and another who beat his partner (the Nicaraguan public didn’t blink an eye at the fact that the priest had a partner, but they were outraged that he beat her). Interestingly, we have not seen international media using the cases of the rapist and wife-beating priests of Nicaragua to claim religious persecution the way that they are for Alvarez, but all three are cases of Nicaraguan authorities holding Catholic priests accountable for their individual actions, just as they would anyone else.
IS THERE RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION IN NICARAGUA?
Religious persecution is defined as societal or institutional attacks on people specifically for their religious beliefs. What we have seen in Nicaragua’s recent events is the investigation and arrest of individuals who have broken the law, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Religious persecution can also be defined as attacks on religious institutions, of which the international press also accuses the Nicaraguan government. Few concrete examples are given – most are alleged defacements of churches that cannot be attributed to the government or its institutions. The most often cited incident is a fire in July 2020 in the Managua Cathedral which destroyed the image of the Blood of Christ. Church authorities claim it was caused by a firebomb attack on the Cathedral. In their investigation, however, the Nicaraguan police and the fire department found no evidence of a firebomb and concluded that the fire was caused by a spray bottle of alcohol used for sanitizing hands which was left too close to an open flame in the poorly ventilated chapel. Eyewitnesses saw no suspicious activity; there were only two people in the cathedral at the time of the fire. Regardless of the results of the investigation, the Church hierarchy maintains their claim of “persecution” and has left the chapel as it was following the fire, encouraging visitors to pray in front of the charred crucifix.
Not only is there no religious persecution in Nicaragua, but there is an atmosphere of thriving religious expression. For proof of this, one just has to look out a window in Nicaragua right now – August is patron saint festival season in this country. While international media has been printing tales of religious persecution, dozens of Nicaraguan cities and towns have been busy celebrating their Catholic saints in festivals supported economically and logistically by municipal governments. Our own village is celebrating the Virgin of the Nancite this weekend and in Ciudad Sandino we celebrated Little Santo Domingo last weekend. But the largest celebration of all was tens of thousands of people who walked and danced freely through Managua’s streets on two separate public holidays dedicated to Santo Domingo. In Nicaragua, the Church hierarchy may be sequestered inside walls, but the church of the people is in the street joyfully celebrating its faith.
By Nan McCurdy
The Fight Against Poverty
The official report from the Treasury Ministry to the President highlights the fight against poverty with social investment that has remained consistent despite the onslaught of the 2018 attempted coup, the COVID-19 pandemic and hurricanes Eta and Iota. During the past year, a retention rate of 94.4% was achieved in early education, 94.9% in primary and 93.8% in secondary education. In addition, permanent social investment was maintained, including technical education, with 342,233 students enrolled and receiving scholarships. Likewise, in health, constant efforts are made to reduce maternal mortality rates and nearly 35 million specialized examinations have been carried out: 110,263 high-tech examinations, 30 million medical consultations, 40,000 health fairs for remote communities, 533,251 hospitalized patients, and more than 400,000 surgeries. (Informe Pastran, 24 August 2022)
PAHO: Nicaragua with Highest Covid Vaccination Rate
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) reported this week that with 89.4% of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Nicaragua is the country in the Central American region with the highest percentage of fully vaccinated people followed by Costa Rica (81.6%); Panama (71.6%); El Salvador (66.2%); Honduras (54.9%); Guatemala (36.9%). (Nicaragua News, 25 August 2022)
Oxygen Plant Begins Operation
The Ministry of Health now has a medical oxygen production plant to provide oxygen for people with respiratory diseases who require this product. The equipment is currently being calibrated and the final tests are being carried out so that this first plant can start producing medicinal oxygen in the next few days. The Sandinista government invested more than US$4 million in infrastructure and equipment. The oxygen produced will be distributed to different hospitals. (Radio La Primerisima, 28 August 2022)
Exports Continue to Grow
The Central Bank published its Foreign Trade Statistics Report, corresponding to the second quarter of 2022. The report states that exports totaled US$2.1 billion between April and June this year, a 20.8% growth compared to the same period in 2021. The economic sectors that registered the most growth during this period were agriculture (25.7%), free trade zones (21.3%), manufacturing (21.3%), and mining (15.6%). (Nicaragua News, 30 August 2022)
Two Women’s Police Stations Inaugurated
On August 25 the National Police will inaugurate the Women’s Police Station No. 141 in the municipality of Niquinohomo and the Women’s Police Station No. 142 on August 26, in El Realejo, Chinandega. (Informe Pastran 24 August 2022)
93% of Population Has Drinking Water
The Sandinista government, through ENACAL, has invested millions of dollars in potable water and sanitary sewerage for 73 municipalities since 2007 and plans another 23 projects up to 2026, improving the quality of life of thousands of Nicaraguans, the executive president of ENACAL, Ervin Barreda, told INFORME PASTRAN. He noted that, contrary to the intention of the neo-liberal governments between 1990 and 2006 to privatize the drinking water service, the Sandinista government with a well-determined political will has achieved the financing to bring more and better-quality water to homes and create adequate sanitation. Barreda said that between 2006 and 2021 they developed projects and investments totaling US$979.2 million and currently have in execution another portfolio for US$388.5 million for the period 2022-2026. “We are meeting and exceeding the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. From 2006 to 2021 we reached 93% of the population with drinking water. And with the political will of this government, whose priority is the poor and the reduction of poverty, we will reach 98% of families with drinking water by 2006 and 80% of the population with sanitary sewerage.” (Informe Pastran, 24 August 2022)
Ecological Battalion at Work in Bosawas Reserve
The Nicaragua Army presented a report on the operations carried out by the Bosawas Ecological Battalion during the first semester of 2022. The report states that the environmental unit carried out 1,737 missions, seizing 12,199 board feet of illegally obtained lumber from the Bosawas Reserve. The Battalion Chief Colonel José Román Espinoza stated that “The work of this unit is to guarantee security, protect natural resources, fight against drug trafficking and provide support to the population in the face of natural disasters and colonization of communal land in the Bosawas Reserve.” (Nicaragua News, 25 August 2022)
New Bridge in Mateare
The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MTI) inaugurated the new “Miraflores” bridge in Mateare municipality, Managua Department. The bridge benefits 60,000 people. MTI Minister, Oscar Mojica said, “construction of the bridge is in response to the needs of the population who experience isolation and precariousness due to increase in the flow from the Miraflores basin. (Nicaragua News, 25 August 2022)
More Solar Electricity in Nueva Guinea
A 95-panel solar electrical system in the Carlos Delgado Community of Nueva Guinea municipality, Southern Caribbean Autonomous Region, was inaugurated benefiting 497 people. The US$198,777 funding was provided by the General Budget, with support from the Export and Import Bank of South Korea and is part of the Supply and Installation of Solar Panels in Rural Areas Project of the National Program for Sustainable Electrification and Renewable Energy that the Government is implementing. (Nicaragua News, 25 August 2022)
4G Cell Service in the North Caribbean
The government installed seven antennas that facilitate telephone and internet communication for at least 35,000 people in 34 communities in the Northern Caribbean Autonomous Region. The municipalities with 4G telephone service are Waspam, Rosita, Siuna and Waslala; where producers can now make their transactions more easily. Teachers, students, health personnel and the entire community in Madriguera, Kaskita, Floripón, Tignitara, Saupuka, Kururia and Susun, will no longer have to climb hills or travel long distances to find a cell phone signal. Coffee growers in Kaskita, a Waslala village, now call the truckers to take their coffee to market. Health workers in these villages now request ambulances by phone and send their reports by WhatsApp; they no longer have to travel to the city to deliver them. Fatima Portocarrero, from the village of Madriguera in Siuna, said that malaria tests are sent instantly to MINSA; and to take a sick person out of the community they now just make a cell phone call for an ambulance. Students now have WhatsApp groups and do their research from their cell phones, improving communication and the learning processes. (Radio La Primerisima, 26 August 2022)
China Will Build More than 900 Houses
China will begin the first phase of a housing program in Nicaragua, strengthening the ties of friendship and cooperation between the two countries. The project will build 920 two-bedroom homes in the capital. A confirmation note was signed this week to start the execution of the works. The vice president of China’s International Development Cooperation Agency, Zhao Fengtao, said: “Beyond the signing of the note on this first phase of the social housing project, we are also gathered here to address the future development of bilateral relations, with a view to creating a better future for both countries.” (Radio La Primerisima, 29 August 2022)
Mora, Chamorro, Alemán, Healy and Mairena All in Good Health at Hearing
Judge Octavio Rothschuh, head of Criminal Chamber One of the Court of Appeals of Managua, informed seven inmates, all of whom appeared in optimal health conditions, that their appeals are being processed. The inmates were notified that their lawyers have filed the last appeal, which is that of cassation, before the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court. Rothschuh stated that some are in the processing stage and others are under review. Cassation is the last remaining legal recourse to reverse a sentence based on a review of the law. At the hearing were: Pedro Vásquez Cortedano, Marco Antonio Fletes Casco and Walter Gómez Silva, Miguel Mora Barberena and Juan Sebastián Chamorro, José Antonio Pereza, Max Jerez Meza, Lesther Alemán, Medardo Mairena and Michael Healy. See photos: https://radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias-generales/destacado/tranqueros-mora-peraza-y-chamorro-rosaditos-y-lozanos-ante-el-juez/ (Radio La Primerisima, 30 August 2022)