In Nicaragua, the Ortega regime steps up efforts to silence civil society—especially the Catholic Church
Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern over “the dramatic reduction in civic space” in Nicaragua over the last three months in an update to the U.N. Human Rights Council on June 16. The High Commissioner noted increasing harassment of Catholic priests by the national police, a government seizure of private universities and the “appalling conditions” experienced by political detainees.
The clampdown has been provoked by continuing resistance to the effectively one-party government led by former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. In November 2021 Mr. Ortega won a fourth consecutive term as president of Nicaragua, and Rosario Murillo, Mr. Ortega’s wife, was re-elected vice president. The election was characterized by the U.S. State Department as a “sham.” The State Department charges that the Ortega-Murillo regime denied Nicaraguans free and fair elections by dissolving opposing political parties and imprisoning all the major opposition candidates.
Human rights in Nicaragua have deteriorated significantly since a political crisis in 2018 pitted the increasingly authoritarian Ortega government against democracy and political reform advocates.
In her report Ms. Bachelet warned that human rights in Nicaragua have deteriorated significantly since a political crisis in 2018 pitted the increasingly authoritarian Ortega government against democracy and political reform advocates. That year, student demonstrations were joined by thousands of average Nicaraguans demanding political reforms. The government responded violently and 355 people were killed, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
A fear that set in among the public since then persists. Most of the people interviewed for this report asked to remain anonymous, worried about reprisals from the government or its unofficial enforcers among Sandinista Party supporters. Many recall two incidents especially that have had a chilling effect on public resistance to the Ortega-Murillo regime.
Alvaro Conrado was a 15-year-old student at the Loyola Institute, a Jesuit high school in Managua, who was killed while protesting peacefully on April 20, 2018. Local media reported that he had been shot in the throat while taking water to protestors. His last moments as he struggled to breathe were shared widely on social media. Alvaro was denied medical care at a public hospital.
A source, who asked to be called Pedro, said the bullet that killed Alvaro came from a sniper positioned at the Managua baseball stadium, a place he has since refused to visit.
Other Managuans recall a protest on Nicaragua’s Mother’s Day, May 30, 2018. A source, who asked to be called Luna, said many protesters marched in solidarity with the mothers of students who had been killed by the government. Luna, her mom, grandma and aunt attended the march, carrying the Nicaraguan flag. They wanted to show that their loyalty was to their country, rather than with a political party, she recalled.
Monsignor Silvio Fonseca: “The church cannot negotiate principles. The church cannot negotiate fundamentals. That is what is at the heart of the matter.”
Nicaraguan police and armed pro-government groups, described as “Sandinista mobs,” attacked protesters, according to Amnesty International. Luna remembered that officials at the University of Central America, the Jesuit university of Managua, opened the campus to allow protestors to take shelter from snipers firing from the baseball stadium. “We never thought they would kill people that day,” she said. “But the U.C.A. did what a Jesuit university should do; it protected human rights.” Luna is a U.C.A. graduate.
Attacks against the Catholic Church
In May Nicaraguan police blocked access to the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Masaya for nine days. The police set up checkpoints at the intersections of the streets surrounding the church and prevented parishioners from approaching it. The Rev. Harving Padilla, St. John’s pastor, was trapped inside with a limited food supply and without access to his medications.
One of Father Padilla’s parishioners, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that this was not the first time police had harassed the pastor and parishioners at St. John the Baptist.
In November 2019, she said, “Sandinista and paramilitary mobs” attempted to force their way into the church during Mass. The altar servers and the people inside closed the doors and prevented the mob from entering. “My mom was among them. People, including children, were locked inside until the mob left,” the parishioner said.
The Nicaraguan Congress released a report accusing church figures of supporting an “attempted coup” in 2018 and recommending the prosecution of priests who supported protestors.
When protests broke out in 2018, Father Padilla “really tried to help the youth of the resistance, those who were fighting in Masaya,” the parishioner said. “He did not hesitate. He gave shelter to those being persecuted by the government and he has been outspoken against the treatment of political prisoners.”
Father Padilla was finally able to leave his church escorted by a group of other priests on May 24 and is now at an undisclosed location in Nicaragua.
Father Padilla’s case is just one example of the government’s persecution of the Catholic Church. A study “Nicaragua: A Persecuted Church?” by Martha Patricia Molina Montenegro documents 190 attacks and desecrations against church sites since 2018, including a fire in the cathedral of Managua, as well as police harassment and persecution of bishops and priests by the Nicaraguan government.
In early May the Nicaraguan Congress released a report accusing church figures of supporting an “attempted coup” in 2018, which is how the Ortega-Murillo regime describes the mass peaceful protests that year. The report recommends the prosecution of priests who supported protestors.
In an interview with the Nicaraguan news outlet Confidencial, Monsignor Silvio Fonseca, Vicar for the Family at the Archdiocese of Managua, said that the government is pressuring the church into silence, but, he added, the church in Nicaragua would continue to denounce human rights violations.
“The persecution of the Catholic Church is part of Ortega’s logic of repression.”
“The church cannot negotiate principles,” he told Confidencial. “The church cannot negotiate fundamentals. That is what is at the heart of the matter.”
Elvira Cuadra, director of the Center for Transdisciplinary Studies of Central America and one of an increasing number of Nicaraguans who have been forced into exile for opposing the Ortega family, believes the government seeks to punish the church.
“Daniel Ortega was hoping to turn the page with the 2021 elections, but the 81 percent [voter] absenteeism gave him little legitimacy,” Ms. Cuadra said. “To govern the country, he needs some modicum of legitimacy, and the Catholic Church is an actor that could give it to him. But since he doesn’t have its support, Ortega has increased the repression against it.”
“The persecution of the Catholic Church is part of Ortega’s logic of repression,” said Manuel Orozco, the director of the Migration, Remittances, and Development Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S.-based think tank on global affairs. “He had already gone after social leaders, political parties, the private sector and civil society. Going after the church is part of the government’s attempt for total control of citizens.”
The government is also cracking down on universities. An analysis by the media outlet Divergentes describes Nicaragua as the Latin American country suffering the worst erosion of academic freedom since 2018. Earlier this year the government took control of eight private universities, and in February a Congress member from the Sandinista Party threatened to close down the Jesuit-administered University of Central America in Managua, charging that it acted as a “center of terrorism [and] disinformation.”
Autonomy and academic freedom are important aspects of the intellectual life at any university, “so that universities can speak truth to power…so students and faculty can look at the topics they want.”
According to another report in Divergentes, the Ortega government has taken other steps to undermine the independence of both public and private universities, centralizing control over academic hiring, curriculum design and budget allocation to the National Universities Council, a government body controlled by the Sandinista Party. Universities that belong to the council are entitled to receive 6 percent of the national budget. Public universities use the funds to finance their operations, and private universities use the funds to offer scholarships to students.
Government authorities removed the University of Central America from the National Universities Council, depriving the Jesuit university of government support for student tuition. The decision was widely viewed as retaliation for the university’s role in assisting students during the 2018 demonstrations.
Serena Cosgrove, faculty coordinator of Seattle University’s Central America Initiative, views the move as an attempt to limit free discourse in Nicaragua. Autonomy and academic freedom are important aspects of the intellectual life at any university, she explained, “so that universities can speak truth to power…so students and faculty can look at the topics they want.”
“Both are important for a democratic society; they have been extremely limited in Nicaragua.”
Dr. Cosgrove recalled the massacre of six Jesuits and two of their collaborators at the University of Central America in El Salvador by government forces in 1989. “When you hold those in power accountable, it can bring severe consequences,” she said. “This is what the U.C.A. in El Salvador did and that’s why the government killed [the Jesuits] in November 1989—because their pedagogy, research and social outreach were at the service of those excluded in society, and that was seen as a threat by the government.”
In 2020 the government enacted laws to ensure total control of the country, including a law that criminalizes social media posts deemed hostile to the government and another that makes it easy for the government to prosecute dissidents on charges of undermining the country’s national integrity. According to Mr. Orozco, that level of control is driving people out of Nicaragua.
The widespread public boycott of the 2021 elections as the people’s way of protesting against the government since public demonstrations have been prohibited since 2018.
“The government has three instruments for social control: economic populism, the criminalization of democracy and the use of violence,” Mr. Orozco said. “The result is total impunity, which is fueling massive migration.” More than 250,000 people have left Nicaragua since the current political crisis began in 2018.
Abel Martínez is one of the people who decided to immigrate to the United States after harassment by the police and government sympathizers.
“I was a farmer in Nicaragua,” he said. “In 2018 I carried the Nicaraguan flag and joined the protests against the government. Before the 2021 elections, the party leaders in the community where I lived threatened my wife and me. They said they would report us to the local police if we didn’t support the government.
“We moved to a different town, but we faced the same problem,” he said. “The police were going to arrest us because they said we were traitors to the country. We had nowhere left to hide, and that’s when we decided to leave and come to the United States.”
Abigail Hernández, the Nicaraguan journalist who runs Galería News, a photojournalism and investigative media platform, also had to leave because of government persecution. “In Nicaragua you live under constant anxiety,” she said. “Every day is more difficult to breathe freely. You can’t plan for tomorrow. The regime has hijacked the country in every possible way.
“That’s why there’s so much migration,” Ms. Hernández said. “There is no rule of law anymore in Nicaragua.”
Ms. Hernández still holds out hope for a peaceful democratic restoration in Nicaragua. She sees the widespread public boycott of the 2021 elections as the people’s way of protesting against the government since public demonstrations have been prohibited since 2018. “We know about the costs of a civil war,” Ms. Hernández said. “That is why we are resisting peacefully and are seeking a civic solution. We want peace for Nicaragua.”
The commitment to peaceful resistance demonstrated by the Nicaraguan people demands a stronger response from the international community, she said, which cannot remain “indifferent” to the repression orchestrated by the Ortega-Murillo regime.