NicaNotes: What was the Catholic Church’s role in the coup?

By Chuck Kaufman

This week NicaNotes returns to serializing portions of the electronic book that Alliance for Global Justice published this year, with A Lot of help from our friends. Live from Nicaragua: Uprising or Coup? is the true story of the failed US-funded 2018 coup in Nicaragua. You can download the book in pdf or two types of e-book formats on our web page.

I first met chapter author, Coleen Littlejohn, in 1987 on my first coffee picking delegation. She was the Nicaragua Network in-country coordinator and handled our logistics and introduction to Nicaragua Libre. Coleen came to Nicaragua from Chile in the first week of January, 1980 to help Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) transition from emergency to post war development financing. From 1982-1984 she served as CRS representative for International Reconstruction Fund until she moved to Atlanta to work with the solidarity movement for Nicaragua, coordinated with the anti-apartheid movement. She also worked with Haitian refugees. Coleen returned to Nicaragua in early 1986 to open the office of the Nicaragua Network which she headed until late 1988 when she founded a local NGO, CAPRI. She later worked for Save the Children Canada in Nicaragua and Toronto until 2004 when she went to work for the World Bank in Nicaragua and subsequently in Liberia. Her final 18 months with the World Bank were spent in Washington, DC until her December, 2015 retirement and return to live in Nicaragua. 

Following is the first part of Coleen’s well-documented study of the active role of some members of the Catholic Church hierarchy in last year’s failed coup. We will complete the chapter in upcoming editions of NicaNotes.


The Catholic Church Hierarchy and Its Role in the

Current Political Crisis in Nicaragua

By Coleen Littlejohn


Roman Catholic bishops in Nicaragua, organized as the Catholic Bishops’ Conference (CEN in Spanish), traditionally have been expected to lend their authority to important state occasions, including being called on to mediate between contending parties at moments of political crisis.     Nicaraguan constitutions since 1939 have provided for a secular state and guaranteed freedom of religion, but the Roman Catholic Church has retained a special status in Nicaraguan society.

Recently-deceased Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo played a key role in supporting the political negotiations that brought an end to overt US military intervention via the Contras in 1989.   Both Sandinista and Contra leaders have, over the years, expressed their appreciation for his role as peacemaker, a role supported by the then Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, Cardinal Leonel Brenes, head of the CEN today.

It was not unexpected, then, that the President of Nicaragua would solicit their services to try to restore peace to the country after the protests about moderate changes in the social security system immediately evolved into a situation of extreme violence and upheaval in an attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government of Nicaragua.

The events from mid-April, 2018 to the present, however, have stained the legitimacy, whether deserved or not, that the CEN has enjoyed in the past, for two reasons.   The first is that the Roman Catholic Church no longer represents most Nicaraguans, due to the growth of the evangelical churches in the last 40 years. Most of the population in Nicaragua consider themselves to be Christian, but no longer does the Roman Catholic Church have a monopoly on that word.   In 1963, 96 percent of Nicaraguans considered themselves to be Roman Catholic. That number dropped to 72.9 percent in 1995 and to 58.5% in 2005, the last year sources such as the US Library of Congress Country Studies website reported this type of data. In 2005, 25.7 percent were Protestant /Evangelical and 15.7 professed no religion at all. Nevertheless, a poll released in the second week of April (2019) by the well-regarded M&R Consultants revealed that 44.3% of Nicaraguans considered themselves Catholic, 55.4 % not Catholic and 0.3 % atheists.

Those who do consider themselves Catholic also have distinct perspectives on the role of the Church.  The 1970s and ’80s were years of religious ferment in Nicaragua, often coupled with political conflict.  A new generation of priests, nuns and lay activists tried to make the Catholic Church more democratic and more sensitive to issues of social justice and the widespread poverty of most Nicaraguans.  They were motivated by the spirit of the “theology of liberation and preferential option for the poor” that was inspiring the base of the Church in Latin America, although not too many of the hierarchy. In the ‘70s, this new generation in Nicaragua, committed to social change, organized community development projects, education programs and Christian base communities.   Many developed links with the FSLN, and participated in the insurrection that overthrew the Somoza regime.  

The number of active Christian base communities decreased dramatically in the early 1980s in part because the Bishops’ Conference had systematically restricted the church-based activities of liberation theology inspired by priests, nuns and laity.  One of the few communities that has remained relatively active over the years is Saint John the Apostle in one of the eastern neighborhoods of Managua, even though the Archdiocese of Managua replaced the parish priest of the Church the community had constructed with someone much more conservative.

In the early ‘90s, though most Nicaraguans still considered themselves Roman Catholic, many had little contact with their church, and the Protestant minority began to expand rapidly.  City dwellers, women and members of the upper and middle classes, even today, are most likely to be practicing Roman Catholics. (Again, according to US Library of Congress statistics.)  The Protestant churches continued their rapid growth among the poor, challenging the Roman Catholic Church’s traditional religious monopoly. With respect to today’s view (as reported by the M&R survey mentioned above) less than 3% of all who profess a Christian faith believe that their church should be involved in politics.

The second reason that the CEN may have lost some of its legitimacy as “peacemaker” is that some of its members, and other clergy and religious at a parish level, were incapable of mediating and promoting peace, given that they were active members of the opposition themselves, as evidenced by their activities even before negotiations began in May (2018). In addition to their attempt at “mediation”, some Bishops and other clergy were also involved in psychological intimidation, logistical support for the opposition and, in some cases, participation in or failure to intervene to pacify violent activities against Sandinista supporters and the general population held hostage by weeks of uncontrolled violence and pillaging. Some were involved, and continue to be involved in international false news campaigns.  For that reason, many Catholics who are Sandinistas have decided that they can no longer attend services in which prayers for peace and reconciliation were and still are, substituted for the exact opposite.  

One of those who feel that the clergy no longer represents her is a woman named Ligia Arana, whom I met in early June of last year.  The following are excerpts of letters provided by Ligia, who for eight years was vice-rector of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN), and then, for twenty-seven years, a professor and later vice-rector of the Central American University (UCA) in Managua.  The UCA was the first Jesuit University in the region, founded on July 23, 1960. The first rector was a cousin of the dictator ousted in 1979, Anastasio Somoza. After Ligia’s husband died of cancer in 2016, she retired.  

On May 27 of last year, Ligia sent an email to her former colleague, Padre Jose Idiaquez,  S.J., the rector of the UCA. In the message line to him she wrote: “You could make a difference to avoid a blood bath.” She continued: “Dear Father, I am so upset about what has been happening in our country over the past five weeks.”  After lamenting the deaths of both Sandinistas and non-Sandinistas – noting that, as usual, the poor represented the majority of victims, she goes on to say that the culture of peace that had reigned in Nicaragua for many years was now heading for extinction, and that the Church was not fulfilling its role as mediator, given their total partiality towards the opposition at the negotiation table. She also wrote that the lives of her children were being constantly threatened. “A cropped photo of my son has appeared in social media with a bullet in his head, all covered with blood, with our address on the bottom of the photo entitled: ‘located’.  On May 1, a car with dark windows parked in front of our house, and someone with a gun came out and used it to beat on our car – we turned on the lights and the person ran off.”    

Arana continued, “The words of Bishops Báez and Mata (Bishop of Estelí) are not prophetic- they are political, and they do not represent me as a Catholic.”  She then asked the rector about “what is happening with our priests,” citing that, just the day before – May 26, the parish priest of Altagracia on the island of Ometepe was trying restore peace when protesters were trying to burn down the offices of the FSLN – but the protesters started throwing rocks at him – and then they finished burning the building. Ligia also cited a video of the parish priest in Nueva Guinea urging his parishioners to join the demonstrations.

She ends her message begging the rector to be an instrument of peace, and that he write her to say he received her message, since he has not responded to an article that she wrote on May 1 in which she first mentioned that her family had been repeatedly threatened.  She is still waiting for a response. Ligia has not lost her faith — she is still a member of the Church — made up of the people and not just the hierarchy.      


The Role of the Hierarchy in the Mediation Processes

Initially, it was hoped that Cardinal Brenes, the head of the Bishops Conference, could and would build on his peace-making role of the late 1980s. On the night of April 19, he sent a message to the Nicaragua people: “I want to invite all to always use dialogue as the best way to find solutions to our problems. Violence never solves problems; violence generates more problems.” He was joined by the Bishop of Leon, Bosco Vivas Robelo, who, in a TV interview, called on the protesters in Leon, Managua, Granada and other municipalities to “protest peacefully and calm down,” saying that, “when the heart is full of violence, when the mind is confused with the desire to get rid of an adversary, when there is hate, there are no adequate solutions to the problem at hand.”  Bishops Brenes and Bosco Vivas were joined by several evangelical leaders, such as Rev. Miguel Angel Casco, in insisting on peace and dialogue rather than violence.

On April 24th, the CEN accepted the government’s request to mediate the National Dialogue, but they did not, despite the urgency of the situation, set a date for the talks to begin until 20 days later. On May 16, the government installed the first session of the “National Dialogue” with the mediation of the CEN.  Unfortunately, evangelical leaders were not invited to participate either by the CEN or by the government. It was soon clear from the initial session of the Dialogue that, with few exceptions, most of the CEN openly or tacitly, supported the opposition, both at the negotiating table and in the protests, even before the Dialogue had started.  

Days before the Dialogue began, at least three members of the CEN were giving interviews critical of the government on local and international media, and the opposition began to use church facilities for logistical support. For example, on April 21, protesters began to take “refuge” in the Cathedral of Managua, and use church installations to store supplies for other protesters at the Jesuit-run UCA, as well as those who had occupied the installations of the National Engineering University (UNI – the public engineering university not far from the UCA). This use of church facilities to store provisions, medicine, and arms became common practice, especially after the Dialogue was suspended.  

Right before the suspension, government mediators and advisors, met privately, at the suggestion of the Bishop of Leon, and what was agreed in that session was that the use of violence from both sides would be halted.  The opposition would concentrate on the removal of all roadblocks, where most of the violence was concentrated. In return, the Government would order the police to return to their barracks and stay there. Though there was an agreement at that session, the opposition refused to comply, and the Dialogue was suspended by Cardinal Brenes on May 23, citing a “lack of progress.”   

Thus, a chance to restore peace and avoid more violence and economic devastation was tragically lost. The  CEN lost credibility with the government when, a few weeks later in June, Cardenal Brenes accompanied by a few of his colleagues, met with President Ortega and presented a letter demanding his resignation and the call for early elections.

A second round of mediations began in March 2019 and is supposed to end by June 18, 2019.   The opposition has boycotted the majority of the sessions despite having reached some preliminary agreements in the first sessions. The CEN decided not to participate, either as mediators or witnesses, a decision that has been criticized by many, but the presence of the CEN, without substantial changes in their representation, would have guaranteed the same results as the earlier attempts.   

One difference in the current attempts to communicate is the presence of the Papal Nuncio, together with a representative of the Organization of American States (OAS) who is a specialist in elections, and the participation of the International Red Cross.  The Evangelical community was also invited, but their representatives were a little late getting to the table. 

The three new additions to the peace-seeking negotiations have thus far played positive, neutral roles which, at times, has been disturbing to the opposition, who enjoyed their position of loaded dice at the table during the first round.   Their manner of playing so disturbed the Papal Nuncio that he was quite critical of them during a recent televised interview.  For that he received a barrage of hate mail and insulting caricatures in opposition media such as the daily newspaper, La Prensa, which eventually found itself pressured to apologize to him. 

[NicaNotes will conclude the serialization of this chapter next week unless there are pressing current events. Check out the full book and share the recently translated edition with your Spanish-reading friends.]



By Chuck Kaufman

A Million and a Half Students Participate in Independence Parades
More than 1.5 million students participated along with their parents and teachers in the national parades held in 152 municipalities across the country this Saturday, September 14. The students demonstrated their love of their country after months of preparation to participate in the commemoration of the 198th anniversary of Central American Independence and the 163rd anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto to expel the US invader William Walker who usurped the presidency in 1856, reinstated slavery and declared English the national language. In each municipality thousands of Nicaraguans participated in the patriotic parades. See photos:

Majestuoso desfile patrio en todo el país (fotos) (Radiolaprimerisima, 9/16/19)

Nicaragua Refuses OAS “Peace Mission”
On Aug. 30 the Organization of American States with barely a plurality approved a “peace commission” to report back in 75 days on Nicaragua. Nicaragua rejected the commission as an illegitimate interference in its internal affairs in violation of the OAS Charter. The commission, made up of the United States, Canada, Argentina, Paraguay, and Jamaica announced it would travel to Nicaragua Sept. 16-17. Reuters reported that the Nicaragua government informed all airlines that the delegation would not be allowed to enter the country. The so-called crisis in Nicaragua ended over a year ago. Nicaragua has been calm and the economy, including tourism, has been recovering rapidly. The only place the crisis still exists is in the minds of the corporate media and institutions controlled by the US government which funded the failed coup. (Reuters, Sept. 15)

Positive Work of Red Cross and the Government
The Coordinator of the International Red Cross Committee (ICRC), Laura Schneeberger, said the work with the Nicaragua Government in recent months has been positive. The ICRC official explained that “the Ministry of Governance (MIGOB) has provided all the facilities for the staff of our organization to make regular visits to all detention centers in the country, where we have been able to assess the conditions of prisoners serving time and make our recommendations to the Ministry of Government (MIGOB).” Schneeberger added that in agreement with the Government, the ICRC is following up on the release of persons arrested and convicted of violent crimes during the 2018 failed coup. The ICRC had reconciled and confirmed the names that were on the list that was agreed to during the negotiating process. The government has released all the agreed to prisoners. (Nicaragua News, Sept. 11)

Promoting Sports in all Municipalities
Last week, the Nicaragua Ministry of Education (MINED) and the National Sports Institute (IND) organized the National School Sports Congress to promote sporting activities in schools throughout the country. One hundred and eighty Municipal Sports Councils covering more than 5,000 athletes of all sporting disciplines, sports federations, government institutions and municipal officials were created during the congress. The Municipal Sports Councils will prepare a diagnosis of all municipal sports infrastructure to ensure proper maintenance and proper use by students in the Primary and Secondary levels. (Nicaragua News, Sept. 13)

Expanding Electricity in Indigenous Communities
The President of the National Electricity Transmission Company (ENATREL) Salvador Mansell, said installing of a solar panel system on the banks of the Prinzapolka River, Nicaragua Northern Caribbean Autonomous Region began this week. Mansell explained that 100 solar panels will be installed, benefiting 32 communities in the Prinzu Awala indigenous territory. The US$22 million investment is part of the National Program for Sustainable Electrification and Renewable Energy (PNESER), being implemented by the Nicaragua Government in all 153 municipalities. (Nicaragua News, Sept. 13)

Growth in Textile and Cocoa Exports
The Export Procedures Center (CETREX) reported that in the first half of 2019, textile and clothing exports registered 16.4% growth over the same period of last year, representing more than US$1 billion in sales. The Nicaragua Export Procedures Center (CETREX) reported that cocoa exports registered 30% growth in the first half of 2019 compared to the same cycle in 2018, representing more than US$3 million in sales. The cocoa sector is projected to grow even more by the end of the current year, with 35,000 hectares in production and good international market prices.  (Nicaragua News, Sept. 10, 11)

Daniel Calls to Defend the Principles of Non-interference and Intervention
At a celebration of the 163rd anniversary of the battle of San Jacinto in which the armies of Central America defeated the US filibusterer William Walker, President Daniel Ortega called for defense of non-intervention and non-interference which he called rights “immanent to the human species.” He asserted the right to confront and defeat them, criticizing the Organization of American States and the United States for invoking the OAS “Democratic Charter” as an excuse to intervene in Venezuela. He criticized OAS Member States which voted with the US to make themselves “instruments of the empire, just as those who brought Walker.” Ortega recalled the failure of the United States government to comply with environmental protection agreements. “That is to say, there is no law that they respect, they act as Walker acted, just like Walker acted, they act as outlaws without law, more than with the strength that comes from being a military and economic force,” he said. Ortega insisted that Latin America and the Caribbean will overcome this moment in history and not allow itself to be blackmailed and frightened. (Radio La Primerisimo, Sept. 13)

National Assembly Pays Tribute to Fr. Uriel Molina
Fr. Uriel Molina was recognized by the National Assembly on Sept. 13 for his leadership of the Liberation Theology movement in the Catholic Church and its role in the defeat of the Somoza dictatorship. He was a childhood friend of Tomas Borge and spiritual teacher of several Sandinista leaders including Luis Carrion and former Army General Joaquin Cuadra. On the 163rd anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto and the 198th anniversary of independence for Central America, National Assembly President Gustavo Porras presented Fr. Molina with the Order “General Jose Dolores Estrada, Battle of San Jacinto in Grado Gran Cruz.” The 87 year old priest said he was proud of the honor and the previous awards of the Order of Augusto C. Sandino in 2018 and the Order of Ruben Diario in 2007. Assembly Second Secretary Wilfredo Navarro said, “Today more than ever the key to our true independence is the sincere unity of Nicaraguans. We must be convinced that a true patriot loves his homeland and does not want foreigners to harm it.” (Radio La Primerisima, Sept. 13)

ENACAL Reforests 115 Hectares
ENACAL, the national water and sewage company, has invested over US$268,000 in reforesting areas in 13 cities according to Alina Lagos, director of the project. The project is in support of the National Reforestation Crusade in areas of ENACAL infrastructure projects. She explained that reforestation education days have been held in the cities of Chinandega, Chichigalpa, Malpaisillo, Jalapa, Bilwi, Bluefields, Masaya, Santo Tomás, Acoyapa, Juigalpa, Cárdenas, Condega, and La Trinidad. (Radio La Primerisima, Sept. 12)

Producers will have seeds for the third planting next week
Sector representative Javier Pasquier affirmed that the INTA and MEFCCA seed banks have sufficient seeds to supply the 3,000 agricultural producers in the areas of the country that are able to do a third annual planting, known is Spanish as the postrera. Expected rains in the coming week will enable the producers in Matagalpa, Jinotega, Nueva Segovia, and Leon to plant their third crops of the year. (Radio La Primerisima, Sept. 14)

Vatican Calls for Electoral Reform, Negotiations to Resume in Nicaragua
In a Sept. 10 UN discussion about Nicaragua, a Vatican representative called for an immediate return to negotiations and a rollout of reforms necessary to hold “free and transparent elections” there. The Nicaraguan opposition abandoned reconciliation talks months ago and the Nicaraguan government is far along the process of implementing electoral reforms recommended by the OAS after the most recent presidential election. “The Holy See has been following with great attention the sociopolitical situation in Nicaragua and believes that the unsettled disputes should be solved as soon as possible,” said Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, the Vatican observer to U.N. agencies in Geneva. The Vatican recommended that all “political and social stakeholders” come together in a “renewed spirit of responsibility and reconciliation” in order to find a solution “that respects the truth, reestablishes justice and promotes the common good,” he said during a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council on the situation in Nicaragua. (Sept. 10, National Catholic Reporter)


President Daniel Ortega condemns OAS attack on Venezuela

Managua. Radio La Primerísima | September 11, 2019 at 18:37

President Daniel Ortega expressed his solidarity with the people of Venezuela on September 11 after a new attack by the Organization of American States when they debated the application of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (TIAR), which seeks military intervention in Venezuela. TIAR was introduced by the US after WWII supposedly to unite the hemisphere against outside military intervention but which was subsequently used to justify US military intervention in Latin America.

“It is a shame that when more peace, more security and more tranquility is demanded by humanity, it is a shame that today there has been a meeting in Washington at the OAS of what they call the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, a treaty that was invented after the Second World War when it was supposed that this treaty served to unite all of America, from Canada to Chile, the Caribbean, against any aggression that came from another region,” said President Ortega.

The president explained that at that time the treaty was justifiable but that it lost its importance when England held power over the Malvinas Islands in Argentina and was supported by the United States and Canada so that England would retain that colony. 

“It is a disgrace that today in the OAS this treaty was spoken of to apply it to the sister republic of Venezuela, a vote where unfortunately some governments did not abide by what is in their own constitution and laws; and under pressure from the United States voted in favor of war against a brother people, the Venezuelan people who want peace,” said President Ortega.

President Ortega stressed that other peoples were very clear in establishing their position against the intervention in Venezuela and highlighted the role of Mexico in that meeting, denouncing and demonstrating against an intervention in Venezuela.

“We have expressed once again our solidarity with the Venezuelan people in their struggle for peace, the way is dialogue, dialogue between workers, peasants, families to continue developing the economy, to improve living conditions. That is what families want; no people want war,” he added.

During the ceremony to receive the Torch of Independence, President Ortega said that the youth of Nicaragua, Central America, Latin America and the Peoples of the World only want peace.

“Today we want to express to the youth and in the heart of the Nicaraguan youth, before the Central American and Caribbean youth, before the peoples of the world, that the peoples want peace, because we want well-being for our families, we want peace and respect for the sovereignty of our peoples,” he said.

He added that we are fraternal peoples and we have demonstrated our love for peace, and today, commemorating the 198th anniversary of Central American independence, we Central American peoples say that we want peace.

The president also recalled the terrorist attacks perpetrated on Chile on September 11, 1973 and the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York, United States.