Even before the interview began, the priest warned that America couldn’t use his real name. âThey don’t like what I’m doing here,â he said. âI am on a list of people who have criticized the government. They’re constantly watching what I’m doing. It is not safe to speak publicly about what is going on in Nicaragua.
âFather Franciscoâ works in northern Nicaragua, where he supports poor rural communities near the border with Honduras. He spoke with America in mid-August while in San JerÃ³nimo. Members of the local community there, Afro-Nicaraguan miskitos, told him about illegal land grabs by settlers flocking to the area from other parts of the country.
âThey are driving out the indigenous population using violence against them,â he said. âBut there is nothing we can do, there is no one to turn to. The government won’t listen because these people, these invaders, they are the government.”
As Nicaragua prepares for general elections in November, Ortega has stepped up a broad crackdown on dissenting voices.
According to Father Francisco, those who force the miskitos to leave their lands are allied with a member of the Nicaraguan National Assembly from the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front. This party is led by President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. Criticizing this member of the Assembly, he said, means criticizing the regime, which has become an extremely dangerous activity in Nicaragua.
As Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the Americas, prepares for general elections in November, Mr. Ortega has stepped up a widespread crackdown on dissenting voices. Using an anti-treason law passed last December by a National Assembly full of political allies, Mr. Ortega’s regime has arrested as many as seven presidential or vice-presidential candidates in recent months. A guilty verdict could lead to 15 years in prison.
Another prominent presidential hopeful Christina Chamorro, the daughter of former president Violeta Chamorro, has been arrested on charges of money laundering. Some opposition political parties, such as the Citizens’ Alliance for Freedom, have been banned outright.
Press freedom and human rights groups warn that the persecution of activists and journalists is also on the rise. Ãlvaro Leiva, the executive secretary of the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights, said America that his organization believes that more than 140 people are currently in prison as political prisoners in Nicaragua. He believes that many regularly suffer physical abuse and endure appalling living conditions. Many more have fled to Costa Rica and the neighboring United States.
âWe still receive reports of threats, harassment, physical abuse every day,â said Leiva, speaking from the Costa Rican capital, San JosÃ©, where he currently resides. He himself fled Nicaragua in August 2018.
Now many, including Father Francisco, fear that Mr. Ortega is going after his last formidable adversary in Nicaraguan society: the Catholic Church.
On July 30, during a ceremony commemorating the founding of the Nicaraguan Air Force, Mr. Ortega attacked the church in a convoluted speech riddled with biblical references. âThey are the ones who went into exile, and every day they go into exile more. They were Pharisees, âMr. Ortega said, according to the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa. âChrist called them Pharisees when he found them in the temple and whipped them and the Pharisees did not disappear, there they walk in elegant clothes and speak as if they were saints, the Nicaraguan clergy . They have no respect for Christ, no respect for God.
Many fear that Mr. Ortega is attacking his last formidable adversary in Nicaraguan society: the Catholic Church.
The Archdiocese of Managua, in turn, strongly criticized the government in a press release published on August 10. The Archdiocesan Justice and Peace Commission accused the regime of restricting freedom of speech, imprisoning opponents, restricting visas for foreign priests in the country and making free and fair elections in November all but impossible. He also accused the Ortegas of mismanaging the Covid-19 pandemic and relief efforts following a series of devastating hurricanes that hit Central America last year. As a result, according to the letter, desperate Nicaraguans are leaving the country by the thousands.
âThe electoral process which should be a civic celebration was lived in fear and uncertainty as there are no conditions for democratic elections,â the archdiocese said in the statement, adding: âThis makes us bad to see a new wave of migration of Nicaraguans, the majority of them are young people, who feel compelled to leave their homeland because of insecurity, unemployment, uncertainty about the future of the country .
The church and Mr. Ortega had been allies for years. The former socialist guerrilla leader, leader of the Sandinista movement that overthrew US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, first led a socialist government until his resignation in 1990. He became president for the second time in 2007.
In return for church support, the longtime atheist Mr. Ortega moderated his leftist views, adopted strongly religious rhetoric, and banned abortion. In 2018, however, Mr. Ortega’s relationship with the church deteriorated after pro-government security forces and paramilitaries violently cracked down on mass protests against Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo. More than 300 people have been killed in the violence, according to Human Rights Watch, while many more have been arrested and tortured.
As America reported, the Catholic Church of Nicaragua criticized the crackdown as it tried to mediate between the regime and the political opposition. Some priests provided shelter and medical assistance to protesters and were themselves threatened.
âWe are the only sector of the country that the regime has not yet cracked down on. There have been more and more signs in recent years that they are also considering persecuting the church. “
In the aftermath of the crisis, as Mr. Ortega tightened his grip on the country, the church sometimes became the target of violence. In 2019, a pro-government mob attacked worshipers in Masaya and unidentified assailants torched a chapel in the cathedral in the capital Managua. Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, Silvio Baez, who became the face of the Church’s opposition during the 2018 crisis and a celebrity on Twitter, was called to the Vatican indefinitely by Pope Francis a year later.
“Yes, we are afraid, it is undeniable,” said Reverend Carlos AvilÃ©s, vicar of the Archdiocese of Managua. âWe are the only sector of the country that the regime has not yet cracked down on. There have been more and more signs in recent years that they are also considering persecuting the church. “
So far, the regime has not assaulted or imprisoned any priests or senior church officials, but many priests, like Father AvilÃ©s, believe it may only be a matter of time. Since last year, Mr. Ortega’s regime, with full control over the National Assembly, the Supreme Court and the vast majority of the country’s media, has passed a number of almost comically draconian laws aimed at curbing any dissent. .
In addition to the anti-treason law, the National Assembly made it illegal in October 2020 to publish âfake newsâ and banned foreign funding of non-profit agencies, politicians and journalists. The former has had a chilling effect on independent journalism, while the latter has forced a host of nonprofits to cease operations in the country. More recently, a presidential decree even made it officially illegal for foreign governments and organizations to present an award or honorary title to Nicaraguan citizens anywhere in the world without the consent of the Nicaraguan government.
America repeatedly tried to reach Nicaraguan Vice President Murillo, public relations officer in the Ortega government, for comment by email and phone, but received no response.
Authoritarian laws, arrests of political candidates and constant intimidation by opponents of the regime lead critics to believe that a free election in November is impossible and that tensions and repression in the country will continue to mount.
âI don’t think it’s possible to have an election at all. There is hardly any opposition, and the little that there is is divided on a whole series of issues, âsaid Fr AvilÃ©s. America. âSome people support abortion, others don’t; they can’t agree on how to deal with Ortega.
He added that despite fear of attacks on the church, Nicaraguan bishops and priests are broadly united in their opposition to the regime. “There are priests who have decided not to denounce the government any longer,” he said, explaining that some priests have remained silent after receiving money from the government for restoration work on the buildings of the church. “But the majority are united,” said Father AvilÃ©s. âWe won’t be leaving the country either. We are represented all over the country. We know what people want precisely because of this.
Father Francisco agrees. âWe have to continue our work, even if that means we have to assume a lower profile. “