AMERICA/NICARAGUA - Against the ‘Managua Wall’, the Holy See Can Rely on Traditional Diplomatic Tactics

Thursday, 21 September 2023

by Victor Gaetan

Nicaragua is a member of the Central American Common Market (CACM) including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. China is CACM's second largest global trade partner, after the United States.

Managua (Agenzia Fides) - The Society of Jesus is Nicaragua president Daniel Ortega’s latest Catholic target.

On August 15, the regime ordered the confiscation of Jesuit-run Central American University, a prestigious institution founded in 1960. It seized school property, buildings, and bank accounts, accusing the school of being a “center of terrorism.”

Fides has reported on escalating government mistreatment of the Catholic Church including the punitive treatment of Bishop Rolando José Álvarez Lagos of Matagalpa, sentenced to more than 26 years in jail for high treason; 18 Missionaries of Charity expelled; Catholic radio stations closed; and sacrilege committed against the Blessed Sacrament to intimidate the faithful.

As the Holy Father observed in an interview with Argentina’s Infobae news website, this oppressive regime is like a throwback to the 1917 Stalinist terror or Nazi violence in the 1930s — a comment that incited Ortega and his vice president/wife, Rosario María Murillo.

Within days, the Vatican’s last remaining diplomat in Managua, Monsignor Marcel Diouf, was expelled and the nunciature closed. Thus, the Holy See is left with no diplomatic representation in Nicaragua exactly when the local Church most needs help. Considering that nuncios typically remain at post through war—as in Iraq and Syria — the situation in Nicaragua is unusual.

Comparing this with the Holy See’s status in Cuba after Fidel Castro seized power, demonstrates what an anomaly Nicaragua is—and how much pressure is on Cardinal Archbishop Leopoldo Brenes of Nicaragua, the lone in-country mediator.

Brenes’ foremost mission must now be the preservation of the Church, her sacraments, and the apostolic succession.

Similarities and a Key Difference

Like Daniel Ortega, Fidel Castro was educated in a prestigious Jesuit high school. Both men grew up and took power in majority Catholic countries, promising better lives for the faithful.

Yet, as they consolidated power—Castro in the 1960s-1970s and Ortega over the last five years (at least)—they used similar tactics of repression against the Catholic Church.

Police round up opponents, who are sentenced to long jail sentences or forced into exile. Mobs are used to intimidate and beat up anyone who dares to protest, creating disorder that becomes an excuse for more state control. Church leaders are called “foreign agents” and demonized to make regular people fear even attending Mass.

Although most parish churches are not outright closed, police arbitrarily raid churches and even disrupt Communion.

In Cuba, in the first ten years after Castro’s rise to power, some 3,500 priests and nuns were jailed, killed, or pressured to leave the island—most foreign born, but many Cubans too. Seminaries, schools, and all other Catholic properties were confiscated. Cardinal Manuel Arteaga y Betancourt, archbishop of Havana (1941–1963), took refuge in the Argentinian embassy, where he died.

However, Fidel Cas¬tro never severed diplomatic relations with the Holy See the way Communist parties in Eastern Europe and China did. He kept an ambassador to the Holy See posted in Rome. Through the Vatican’s diplomatic presence in Cuba, the Church was gradually able to gain space. And three Popes visited the island nation to encourage the faithful.

Options in Nicaragua

Facing repression in Nicaragua, what endgame can we imagine? Many expect more violence. A day dream of rescue by Western institutions through pressure and sanctions. A third possibility is dialogue with the Ortega regime and mediation to save life and preserve the Church.

First, the aspirations of those oppressed by autocrats are noble. People (including bishops and religious and lay faithful) simply advocate freedom (political freedom, religious freedom, free speech, the right to assembly), an end to corruption, and an end to arbitrary taxation. Aren’t those goals worth fighting for? Of course, they are. But the state entirely controls military and security forces.

Could Western sanctions positively influence the situation? Probably not. Especially because Daniel Ortega has made a spectacular geo-political gambit: In 2021, after decades-long recognition of Taiwan, he established diplomatic relations with Beijing. He followed a trend in Central America: Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, and Honduras had already done the same thing.

After the US, China’s #2 trading partner is the Central American Common Market—which means Nicaragua has investment and trade options with no strings attached. It can resist any Western financial pressure and moral pressure.

Martyrdom of Patience
Here’s something Catholic diplomats assume about terrible people: a murderer today can experience Christ’s love and become a believer tomorrow. This attitude is right in the Bible, “Love your enemy,” and it informs the way the Church deals with political leaders—even those who are killing us and jailing our bishops.

To activate this possibility, Church leaders must be engaged in dialogue with the political leaders. That’s what Cardinal Jamie Ortega, Archbishop of Havana attempted for some 38 years. And this is what Cardinal Archbishop Brenes role is, not to further antagonize the regime.

A common Vatican strategy, es¬pecially under an autocratic regime, is to maintain a presence and resist being swallowed—quietly working to limit the state’s most aggressive tactics while seeking preservation of the sacraments and apostolic succession.

Often, Ortega was able to secure relief for the persecuted. For example, he negotiated more family access to political prisoners, and he coordinated humanitarian aid from abroad, including medicine, distributed through Cuba’s Caritas network.

Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Secretary of State under Pope John Paul II and an architect of Vatican diplomacy with Communist regimes, called this approach the “martyrdom of patience.”

Four Functions

Vatican diplomacy mainly falls into four functions: Representation, mediation, preservation, and evangelization.

Representation is the simple practice of sending envoys around the world to represent the Holy Father’s eyes and ears, perceiving national political reality and the state of local bishops in each country. That function was disabled in Nicaragua.

Polish-born Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag arrived in Managua in early 2018, to represent Pope Francis as nuncio, he was also supposed to help mediate between Government and Church leaders who joined the opposition in protests concerned suspicious fires in indigenous regions; taxes on social security; media suppression; and police brutality.

As the number of dead steadily increased, the government agreed to a National Dialogue held at the National Seminary of Our Lady of Fatima in Managua in May 2018. Archbishop Leopold Brenes was at the heart of negotiations, which collapsed when the sides couldn’t settle on an agenda.

Violence escalated within months. Sommertag, Brenes, and Managua Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Baez Ortega, OCD were among clergy physically beat up in the town of Diriamba as they tried to protect St. Sebastian Basilica from a government-incited mob—and protect faithful taking cover inside.

Death threats against Baez became so intense, the Holy See asked the Carmelite bishop to come to Rome in April 2019. (Baez is now living and pastoring in Miami, Florida encouraging the ever-increasing Nicaraguan exile community.)

Three years later, the Ortega-Murillo regime effectively expelled Sommertag by giving him a deadline to leave the country. His offense? Supposedly he used the term “political prisoners” to describe citizens unjustly jailed for challenging the government.

Managua Archbishop Stands Alone

Archbishop of Managua since 2004, Pope Francis appointed Brenes cardinal ten years later mainly in recognition for his humble pastoral dedication and closeness to the poor.

Over the last five years, he’s been criticized — even by anonymous seminarians in an open letter — for being timid in the face of Ortega’s tightening noose on the Church.

Yet, he stands alone: His most experienced auxiliary is in exile; his natural successor (the bishop of Matagalpa typically moves up to Managua, as Brenes did) is swallowed up in La Modelo prison, and the nunciature shuttered — limiting the Vatican’s ability to negotiate Alvarez’s release, for example.

Alvarez has said he will only leave the country if the Holy Father requests it. Pope John Paul II removed Arch¬bishop Francisco Ricardo Oves of Havana in 1980 and Pope Paul VI requested Hungarian Cardinal József Mindszenty come to Rome after he sheltered in the American legation for 15 years. All were sacrificed to the Vatican’s efforts to cope with Communist regimes and preserve the Church for the entire community of faithful.

Meanwhile, we must pray for Cardinal Brenes. In striving to preserve the Church, Cuba’s Archbishop Jamie Ortega always had discrete Vatican diplomats to lean on, but Brenes has little local support.

Behind the scenes, the Holy Father is always working. He activated Brazil’s president Luis Lula da Silva to help advocate for Alvarez through the president’s relationship with Ortega, we know.
Other efforts, we can’t know, but should pray are successful.

Come what may, the Holy Spirit is our advocate. (Agenzia Fides, 21/9/2023)