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How a Nicaraguan Priest Made a Deal With the Devil
Catholic clerics have been on the frontlines protesting Daniel Ortega's bloody crackdown—but one of them also helped fuel his rise.
The role of Catholic elites in Latin American politics typically mirrors the expected role of their equivalents on a chess board. Oblique and cautious, famously difficult to pin down or box in, the bishop is expected to focus on supporting stronger allies, ideally from a safe distance. If, ever so often, it emerges to menace an errant or exposed monarch, it should do so to force movement in a certain direction—rather than actually taking the king down. In return, it is rewarded with the highest survival rate among the minor pieces regardless of who wins.
Nicaragua’s bishops, however, have historically played by different rules. Against a backdrop of a political carousel of civil wars, foreign coercion, and oppressive dictatorships of all ideological stripes, the first estate in Latin America’s poorest country has consistently risked itself to protect its fellow citizens. During the 1970s and 1980s, when Nicaragua became a Cold War battlefield pitting Soviet-backed Sandinista rebel Marxist movement and the West aligned klepto-military dynasty of the Somoza family, at the cost of at least 50,000 lives, played a prominent role mediating and promoting peace throughout.
Now, as Nicaragua’s most recent political crisis has become increasingly unhinged these past weeks, and the death and disappearances toll has spiked into the low thousands, the Catholic Church’s role as humanitarian martyr and active target of persecution has again taken center stage. In recent weeks, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and forces loyal to him have targeted clergy, profaning and destroying Catholic churches, even killing those who seek refuge within them. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has joined the fray, calling out the Nicaraguan government over Twitter on July 30 for “virtually waging war on the Catholic Church and those calling for democracy and national dialogue.”
Any expression of solidarity with the victims of Ortega’s violence is of course commendable, especially at a time when Nicaragua, for years an outlier oasis of tranquility in a famously rough neighborhood, seems increasingly to be becoming Central America’s abattoir. Even so, the matter of the Catholic Church’s role during the lead-up to the present tragedy in Nicaragua is more complex than such talking points suggest. Ortega’s war on the church did not occur in a vacuum. And powerful political actors like presidents and Catholic cardinals, unlike chess pieces, rarely come in black and white.
Ortega is often bundled in with Latin America’s shrinking pool of revolutionary anti-imperialist left-wing strongmen—a kind of off-brand Nicolás Maduro, worse mustache, no oil. This perception has been actively cultivated by Ortega’s government, but the legitimacy of his claim has less to do with his governance than with his geopolitical friend group—he fostered close diplomatic ties to left-wing leaders such as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Hugo Chávez—and nostalgia for his earlier career. Ortega led the Sandinista revolution in the late 1970s against the military dynasty of the Somozas, which was long the regional gold standard for U.S.-supported crony capitalist dictatorships. During his first turn at the presidential helm, Ortega had come in promising a five-point government plan composed of free speech, human rights, respect for private property, a mixed economy (state and free enterprise), and nonpolitical alignment.
In this ambition, he ultimately went 0-for-5. Nicaragua’s decade as a de facto Soviet satellite proved as bad or worse as what had come before. Speech was heavily censored and controlled by the government. Over 700,000 hectares of farmland were confiscated along with over 2,000 private businesses. The economy became primarily state-owned and controlled as war was actively waged against its ideological Marxist enemies: the “opiate” Church and the private sector. Human rights abuses were rampant, with torture commonplace, and some 60,000 more lives were lost in a new civil war pitting the U.S.-backed Contras against an increasingly authoritarian Ortega administration. By the time Ortega was ultimately voted out by a landslide in 1990, he left behind a country with a public debt 1,000 percent greater than GDP, nearly 50 percent unemployment, and per capita incomes almost 70 percent below where it had been in 1978. Ortega insisted these were all consequences of U.S. meddling alone rather than of his own policies.
Ortega’s return to presidential power in 2007, buoyed by the leftist “pink tide” then engulfing the region and financed in part by Venezuelan petro-largesse, was paradoxically achieved because he ran democratically as the antithesis of his former communist self: He presented himself during the campaign as both a rarefied crony capitalist as well as a passionately avowed Christian. The political coalition that brought Ortega to power the second time and kept him there comfortably until recently included not only traditionally ideologically aligned interests such as the rural poor, but also archetypal counterrevolutionary bogeymen such as the business elite and the Catholic Church. And while left-wing populist rhetoric, alongside his aging revolutionary bona fides, largely sufficed to keep the former on board, maintaining the support of the latter required results.
Lucrative business opportunities were created behind closed doors through the umbrella chamber of commerce, COSEP, which acted as a private conduit between Ortega and his loyal captains of industry. Nicaragua’s economic elites had openly waged war with Ortega during his first stint as president, but this time they proved easily seduced by promises of corrupt advantages, including access to misappropriated Venezuelan aid funds, national champion status, and access to money laundering through Ortega’s complex web of political patronage. The president also steered clear of the nationalizations, protectionism, and currency meddling then quite fashionable among his regional allies. In return, much of the private sector celebrated Ortega as he steamrolled over institutional checks and balances, imprisoned political opponents, and brazenly consolidated absolute authority. (His wife is currently his vice president.)
Securing the church’s erstwhile support, or at least its acquiescence, to his return proved a bit more complicated. The fact that Ortega cut hard to the conservative right on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, often in stark contrast to increasingly progressive regional norms, and to his own reputation as a self-proclaimed socialist helped buy him time. His increasingly heavy reliance on religious rhetoric to underpin his populist message and frequent proclamations of a late-life conversion to Catholicism (ostentatiously marketing the fact at a time when the church had been losing ground to evangelical converts) also likely helped.
The beating heart of this rapprochement, however, was always the unholy alliance Ortega formed with his former nemesis, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the former archbishop of Managua from 1970 to 2005 and Nicaragua’s most prominent ecclesiastical voice. Once co-opted, Obando would become a key partner in Ortega’s second stint as president, assuming ministry-level positions including the highly symbolic presidency of the Verification, Reconciliation, Peace, and Justice Commission. Ortega’s strategy for keeping his pet cleric onside would also require a medieval dose of nepotism. Roberto Rivas, born to the cardinal’s personal assistant and widely rumored to be the cardinal’s biological son, was made head of the Supreme Electoral Council and charged with running Nicaragua’s increasingly one-sided elections. As Rivas consolidated Ortega’s power, he amassed a personal fortune and a publicly opulent lifestyle and fostered corrupt ties that would ultimately lead to his sanctioning by the U.S. Treasury under the Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
Nicaragua’s extreme inequality, rampant corruption, and deeply religious society would form the pillars of Ortega’s political control, and they continue to do so. The resultant coalition, unusually heterogenous in a region where class divisions and Marxist dichotomies remain unusually strong, was long Ortega’s greatest source of strength—until it became impossible to sustain.
As Venezuelan-funded corruption dried up following the collapse of oil prices in the last quarter of 2014, Ortega and his private-sector partners began to increasingly misappropriate public funds from the national pension system to fund private projects and maintain support. To combat the inevitable bankruptcy of the pension system, Ortega raised taxes and reduced pension payments to retirees, which triggered the first protests in mid-April. These were swiftly and brutally suppressed by state security authorities, with even worse atrocities committed by Ortega’s government-sponsored gangs drawn from the ruling party’s youth wing, the Juventud Sandinista. The crackdown precipitated a mass uprising in the following months, with millions taking to the streets to march against the government—only to be repressed anew. The situation is fast descending into the pattern of internecine civil strife familiar to the region from the late 20th century.
Ortega’s preferred modus operandi as president—namely the involvement of his partners in corruption—has allowed him to hold the threat of blackmail and threat of persecution by his increasingly controlled judiciary against potential adversaries. The tactic has proved to be especially effective with politicians and leaders of the Nicaraguan private sector, who have largely remained silent amid the crackdowns.
By contrast, a growing number of church leaders have pronounced themselves firmly against state-sponsored violence and oppression, offering to act as mediators between the opposition and the state, even as the latter increasingly escalates its war against them. The recent death of Cardinal Obando in June has deprived Ortega of his kingside bishop, and with it any residual goodwill or tolerance he may have once held toward the church. Catholic clergymen have grown increasingly vocal against him, often risking their lives to provide shelter to the students prosecuted by state-sponsored terrorists. Of these, perhaps the most vocal leader within the Catholic Church has been Managua’s Bishop Silvio Báez, who proclaimed back in April that the students marching against oppression were the country’s “moral reserve” and urged them to “not fall to intimidation or yield to the violence.” The church has not only provided a voice and legitimized the protest movement, but also opened its doors to protect citizens from violence and initiated a dialogue while insisting on a cease-fire, keeping Ortega in constant check.
Facing mounting criticism internationally, Ortega the compassionate Christian conservative has reverted to Ortega the violent anti-clerical Cold War relic. He now accuses the church of actively instigating unrest to perpetrate a coup at the behest of the CIA and other shadowy imperialist cabals. He has escalated the violence against his foes in the church, with the vitriol of a lover spurned rather than an established enemy.
Openly attacking the church in a country as religious as Nicaragua usually doesn’t pay off politically in the long term, but Ortega seems willing to do whatever is necessary to retain power today. He has calculated that, given his government’s myriad crimes against his country’s democracy and its population, his retirement options are likely to be quite limited. Better then to bunker down and shoot on sight, buying time for some miracle reprieve to take place before you are physically dragged out of power.
Nicaragua’s Catholic Church will, for its part, survive Ortega’s downfall, even as the tyrant himself may not. The fact that, long before this current crisis, a wayward church leader was able to hijack its reputation and institutional legitimacy to cut a lucrative deal with the devil does nothing to minimize its heroic defense of the lives and rights of Nicaraguans before and since against the worst kind of government brutality. The church’s longstanding national reputation for humanitarianism and decency should emerge intact, perhaps even strengthened.
But somewhere within its arcane system of ecclesiastical checks and balances, something did in fact go wrong. A toxic fusion of church and state was allowed to occur, reminiscent of Latin America’s darker colonial past. How this happened, and why it was not actively resisted at the time, must be carefully studied lest it someday happen again.