Nicaragua’s demons

Protesters mount the barricades (CNS)

A Latin American cardinal recently denounced his government as “demonic, based on envy and every kind of evil”. Surely it must be Venezuela, where the regime of Nicolás Maduro has been repeatedly denounced by the country’s bishops?

Not this time. Those were the words of Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua, denouncing the regime of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega this past Saturday. Which suggests that there might be a new boldness from Latin American bishops in the face of bad governance and human rights violations.

Nicaragua has been engulfed by mass protests in recent weeks, put down by the government with lethal force. Dozens of protestors have been killed and there are reports of torture of dissidents.

In mid-April the Ortega administration announced reforms to the country’s pension system, raising contributions and limiting pensions. Mass protests followed which the army was deployed to control, resulting in some 27 deaths. Ortega backed down on the pension proposals, but the protests continued against the violent government reaction.

The Church has strongly encouraged the protestors, with Bishop Silvio José Baez Ortega, auxiliary bishop of Managua, emerging as a vocal leader of protest. On April 21, he addressed 2,000 students in Managua cathedral, praising them as the “moral reservoir” of the Church.

Fr Víctor Rivas Bustamante of the Nicaraguan bishops’ conference told Vatican News that pension reform is no longer the primary issue, but the bishops are supporting the people as they demand action on “other issues … democracy, freedom of expression and many other things.”

On April 28, the Church herself led a “Peace and Justice” protest that rallied tens of thousands. Protests had been growing since the previous weekend when, according to Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights, at least 63 people were killed and more than 160 wounded by gunfire from government forces.

In response, the already massive protests have escalated, with demands growing that Ortega himself step down. Ortega was the Sandinista junta leader of Nicaragua in the 1980s. He returned as elected president in 2007, and is now in his third five-year term in office, having abolished term limits in 2014. His wife, Rosario Murillo, is vice-president.

On Saturday, Cardinal Brenes was blistering in his denunciation of Ortega’s regime.

“Blessed are those who thirst for justice, for they will be filled,” Cardinal 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.”

At that moment, with great dramatic timing, the electricity cut out, preventing the cardinal from continuing his address.

“We’re in a painful valley of tears, for exclusion, for poverty, for young people murdered and tortured,” Bishop Báez said at the protest. “[I’ve] 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.”

Ortega’s deployment of lethal force has not secured his regime, but rather inflamed the protests. So he is attempting both force and dialogue at the same time, asking the Catholic bishops to serve as mediators with the protestors. It is a measure of how difficult matters have become for Ortega that he his asking for mediation from the same bishops who are protesting against him.

The bishops have accepted the mediation role, indicating though that the government only has 30 days in which to make significant concessions.

Does all this, combined with the courageous opposition to Maduro by the Venezuelan bishops, signal a new assertiveness in the Latin America Church?

For the past century, misrule, tyranny and brutality have marked Latin American politics as often as not. The Church has had to find her place. Does she challenge corrupt and dictatorial regimes? Does she encourage others to do so? Does she engage directly in politics? In protests? How is the priority of preaching the Gospel maintained, lest the Church become another political, partisan or lobby group?

This has been the challenge for decades in Latin America, with the Church both proving heroic in the face of persecution, but also at times being aloof from the struggle for justice.

Latin America’s heroic bishop and soon-to-be-saint, Oscar Romero, navigated that territory himself, moving toward the bolder opposition that led to his martyrdom. Is something similar underway in Venezuela and Nicaragua? If so, it might well signal a very different 21st century for Latin America.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the May 4th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here