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David Agren
David AgrenAugust 25, 2022
A parishioner prays the rosary as she kneels inside the Cathedral in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, Friday, Aug. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Inti Ocon)

Pope Francis broke his silence on Nicaragua on Sunday as he called for “open and sincere” dialogue amid the Ortega administration’s ongoing persecution of the Catholic Church. In his greetings after the Angelus prayer Sunday, he said, “I am following with concern and sorrow the situation created in Nicaragua,” while holding out hope that dialogue could “find the bases for respectful and peaceful co-existence.”

The pope’s intervention followed the arrest of Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, who was detained during a Friday raid on the diocesan curia where he had been holed up with other clergy and laity. He was placed under house arrest in Managua—where the Nicaraguan bishops noted in a statement that Bishop Álvarez was “physically deteriorated but spiritually strong”—while the others arrested in the raid were tossed into El Chipote, a notorious lock-up holding political prisoners.

The words failed to pacify the pope’s many critics in Nicaragua, however, who wondered aloud why he waited so long to intervene as the church endured escalating atrocities at the hands of the Sandinista regime—culminating in the arrest of a bishop, who may be forced into exile.

The words failed to pacify the pope’s many critics in Nicaragua who wondered aloud why he waited so long to intervene as the church endured escalating atrocities at the hands of the Sandinista regime.

It also failed to satisfy many conservatives in Latin America, who expressed exasperation with Pope Francis for not condemning the authoritarian regimes of Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba. In these countries, protests have been repressed, the church has been persecuted and millions have migrated.

The pope’s tweets with his comments were met with social media snark. Some called his response too little too late. Others said it was too weak. A few even referenced Pontius Pilate and used the word ponciopilatismo, which in Latin America has come to mean washing your hands of a situation and could be interpreted as “both sides-ism.”

Álvaro Vargas Llosa, a commentator and son of author and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa remarked, “After maintaining a deafening silence in the face of persecution suffered by the representatives of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, the pope, motivated by the complaints of almost everyone, finally decides to comment. And what he broadcasts is indifference and ponciopilatismo.”

Andrés Oppenheimer, whose column on Latin America is widely read in elite circles, wrote last week, “It’s hard to decide what is more outrageous: Nicaragua’s dictator Daniel Ortega’s decision to shut down seven Roman Catholic Church radio stations and hold a bishop and his aides under house arrest, or Pope Francis’ total silence about these attacks on his own people.”

It also failed to satisfy many conservatives in Latin America, who expressed exasperation with Pope Francis for not condemning the authoritarian regimes of Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba.

Human rights groups also questioned the pope.

“Considering Ortega’s record of repression, what else is needed for Pope Francis to pronounce forcefully on the abuses in Nicaragua?” tweeted Tamara Taraciuk, deputy Americas director for Human Rights Watch.

“It is time for Pope Francis to stand firmly on the side of the Nicaraguan people.”

Pope Francis told Univision’s ViX streaming service: “I love the Cuban people very much…. I also confess that I maintain a human relationship with Raúl Castro,” stoking further outrage.

The comments reflect lingering sympathies in Latin America for the Cuban revolution, along with suspicions of the United States, says José María Poirier, editor of the Argentine magazine Criterio.

“Considering Ortega’s record of repression, what else is needed for Pope Francis to pronounce forcefully on the abuses in Nicaragua?” tweeted Tamara Taraciuk,

“I think he’s always had sympathies with Cuba, not necessarily with [Fidel] Castro, but with the Cuban process,” said Mr. Poirier, who knew then-Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.

“In his mentality, the problem stopped being communism—the ghost of many years ago—and continues being liberalism, which he identifies with the United States.”

The clamor for Pope Francis to speak out comes as Latin America lurches leftward with self-declared leftist leaders winning elections since 2018 in Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Honduras, Chile and Colombia. Brazil is poised to follow later this year.

Proponents of Pope Francis’ approach say he is acting little different from his predecessors, when dealing with countries controlled by authoritarian governments or hostile to the Catholic Church. The pope also must play a diplomatic role, they say, while avoiding bellicose statements.

“Not even St. John Paul II chastised the Castros in Cuba,” said Rodolfo Soriano-Núñez, a Mexican sociologist, who studies the Catholic Church in Latin America. Nor did popes publicly criticize military dictatorships in countries like Chile and Argentina—where bishops and priests were murdered—or even condemn the Soviet Union, Mr. Soriano-Núñez says.

“I think he’s always had sympathies with Cuba, not necessarily with [Fidel] Castro, but with the Cuban process,” said Mr. Poirier, who knew then-Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.

“Popes are never going to go against specific governments because it never worked out” in the past, he said. “I do not see Pope Francis meddling in any specific country’s politics, not even Argentina.”

A Jesuit in South America, who did not wish to be named, added, “The pope cannot take confrontational positions without putting Catholics in those countries at risk, particularly when some of them are carrying out educational programs, such as in Nicaragua with universities and Cuba with the little pastoral work that is authorized.”

But the pope’s relative silence on Nicaragua has caused consternation in the Central American country, where the church came into conflict with the Ortega regime in 2018 after opening its parishes to the injured during protests and later accompanied the families of political prisoners.

Mr. Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, regularly brand priests “terrorists” and have amped up the repression in 2022. They expelled the apostolic nuncio, kicked the Missionaries of Charity out of the country and closed Catholic radio stations and health and education projects.

“In his mentality, the problem stopped being communism—the ghost of many years ago—and continues being liberalism, which he identifies with the United States.”

Bishop Álvarez has been the most outspoken prelate in Nicaragua after Bishop Silvio José Báez, who left the country in 2019 for his own safety.

A source in Nicaragua says many expect Bishop Álvarez to experience the same fate as Bishop Báez, unless Pope Francis intervenes. “We’ve felt as if we were suffocating and someone let us breathe just a little,” the source, who wished to remain anonymous, said after the pope’s comments.

Álvaro Leiva, the director of a human rights center who is now exiled in Costa Rica, sent a letter to Pope Francis in 2019 informing him of the situation in Nicaragua—and hoping the pope would publicly act.

“His raising this issue could have such an impact in the world that it might be decisive for the release of political prisoners,” Mr. Leiva said. “But he’s been blind, deaf and dumb in the face of the pain suffered by the victims of regime’s human rights violations.”

Supporters say Pope Francis is well-briefed on Latin America’s trouble spots. The pope is the first-ever pontiff from the region and previously prominent in the Latin American bishops’ conference. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin previously served as a diplomat in Venezuela, and Jesuit Superior General Arturo Sosa, S.J., is Venezuelan.

President Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, regularly brand priests “terrorists” and have amped up the repression in 2022.

“[Father Sosa] has a direct line with Francis, [and] I’m certain that they consult with him on the subject,” said the South American Jesuit.

Pope Francis has also become one of the region’s most prominent political figures.

He became pope as people across Latin America were abandoning the Catholic Church for Protestant congregations and, increasingly, no religion at all. He also was elected shortly after the death of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and as the region’s resource-fueled prosperity of the 2000s, which lifted many into the middle class, petered out.

Pope Francis has spoken out on regional ills while visiting the Americas: blasting drug cartels as “merchants of death,” offering an apology for the “so-called conquest of the Americas,” championing the cause of migrants, promoting ecological preservation of the Amazon and raising the plight of Indigenous populations.

“He continues being a figure of reference in the absence of other leaders,” Mr. Poirier said.

Pope Francis achieved an early diplomatic victory by participating in the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States in 2014. The Vatican’s attempts at mediating an agreement between the Venezuelan government and opposition in 2016 were less successful, however.

“The problem was that the Maduro side didn’t hold up its side of the bargain,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights think tank.

He says the Vatican has been reticent to reengage with the Venezuelan conflict, though it maintains significant “diplomatic muscle.” But deploying that diplomatic muscle may prove impossible.

“[The pope] is becoming aware of his own limitations in responding to the many urgent problems across the hemisphere,” Mr. Ramsey said.

“The power of the pope in many of these situations is more of a moral authority and offering diplomatic backchannels more than advancing meaningful political change on the ground.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report mistakenly linked to and cited a news report at TeleSUR for a quote from Pope Francis. The correct, original source was Univision’s ViX streaming service.

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