Elías Rodríguez, 21, came to Miami from Nicaragua with his family three months ago.
"We have a regime that unjustly jails people just for taking out (in public) the blue and white flag from our country," he said, referring to the Nicaraguan flag, which first became a symbol of dissent in the massive protests of 2018 against the Daniel Ortega regime.
Rodríguez participated in the 2018 protests, which is why agents of the Ortega regime shot at his house and ransacked his family business, he said. Rodríguez's family did not leave the country for economic reasons, he indicated.
"For thinking differently from the government, they persecute us. To all those who speak ill of the dictator (Daniel Ortega), because he is not a president, he is a dictator, they put us in prison or kill us," said Rodríguez, adding that from Miami he wants to be the voice of the six million Nicaraguans -- the country's entire population -- who are prisoners of the regime.
"Today, we come to support our Nicaraguan brothers, those who have just come into exile because they were kicked out of their own country, and to support our priest [Bishop] Álvarez, because we hope that he will be released very soon," said Rodríguez, referring to the bishop of Matagalpa who was recently sentenced to 26 years in prison for opposing the regime.
Rodríguez spoke with La Voz Católica, the Spanish-language newspaper for the Archdiocese Miami diocese, after a Thanksgiving Mass for the surprise release of more than 200 Nicaraguan political prisoners who arrived in Washington on Feb. 9.
The Feb. 12 Mass was presided by Nicaraguan Bishop Silvio Báez, auxiliary bishop of Managua, and concelebrated by two priests who were among the 222 Nicaraguans released: Father José Luis Díaz and Father Benito Martínez Gamboa, from the dioceses of Matagalpa and León respectively. It took place at St. Agatha Parish, west of Miami, where one of the largest communities of Nicaraguans in the United States congregates.
"Today we give thanks to the Lord because they are out of prison and a new stage full of grace and light opens for them, in which neither we, their brothers, nor the Lord will abandon them," Bishop Báez said during his homily.
"Criminals are those who put just people in jail and banish citizens from their own country," said Bishop Báez, who has lived in exile since 2019.
In 2018, massive demonstrations against the Ortega-Murillo regime began in Nicaragua. The protests were met with extreme violence, and have caused more than 300 deaths, around 800 arrests and more than 100,000 exiles, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Since then, the regime has outlawed opposition parties, shut down independent and religious media outlets, closed private universities, persecuted priests, and expelled men and women religious from the country.
In a forceful message to the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, Bishop Báez pointed out that "to offend with rage, defame with a vengeance, imprison unjustly, torture viciously and condemn to exile are authentic crimes. And those who act in this way are criminals who will have to be brought to justice sooner or later."
He also expressed his sorrow for the imprisonment of Bishop Rolando Álvarez, bishop of Matagalpa, who, after refusing to leave Nicaragua with the other 222 political prisoners, was sentenced to 26 years in prison, on Feb. 10, for alleged crimes of "conspiracy and propagation of false news" and transferred from his house arrest to La Modelo prison.
Bishop Álvarez was arrested in August 2022 along with six churchmen and a layman when a police contingent violently entered a diocesan building in Matagalpa. He was arrested because he strongly criticized the abuses of the Nicaraguan regime against the population during his homilies.
Speaking about the release of Nicaragua's political prisoners, Bishop Báez told La Voz Católica that he felt great joy "to see the freedom of innocent people who had been imprisoned, tortured, mistreated simply for fighting for justice and for a new society in Nicaragua. And a deep pain for the vulgar humiliation they have wanted to subject Monsignor Álvarez to."
He mentioned that Bishop Álvarez had told him when he was under house arrest "that he would never leave, that he had discerned it before the Lord and the Virgin."
"I knew that Rolando was not going to be broken," Bishop Báez said. "He is a man of such great ethical height, such a profound prophetic coherence, that in reality, he has subdued them. And as I said on social networks: they have not condemned it; they have condemned themselves."
Bishop Báez mentioned the support Pope Francis gave before praying the Angelus in Rome Feb. 12. "In his heart, there has been a space for Rolando, for the exiles who arrived in the United States on Thursday, for all of Nicaragua. May the words and prayers of the Holy Father encourage us and give us hope. We have also received solidarity from many episcopates around the world," he said.
He asked to continue praying for Bishop Álvarez to have strength and for the Lord Jesus Christ to give him health, hope and wisdom.
"What has happened in Nicaragua, and all those released agree, has been a miracle. It has been the work of God, the power of the Church's prayer. It is like the dawn of a new day and of a new historical stage of freedom and justice that is opening," said Bishop Báez.
He explained that now the entire world has turned its eyes to Nicaragua, and asked "not to feel discouraged or weak. Let us boldly denounce the crimes of the tyrants, let us not remain silent, because there are silences that kill."
At the end of the Mass, a group of former political prisoners who arrived in Miami, wrapped in Nicaraguan flags, received the blessing of Bishop Báez and the applause of the entire congregation.
"We live in a historical moment in which violent and criminal tyrants have already crossed the line of what is rational and what is human. But let us not fool ourselves. They are not showing themselves to be strong. They are showing their weakness and their fear," added Bishop Báez.
Father Marcos Somarriba, St. Agatha's pastor who is also of Nicaraguan origin, said that it is an immense joy that two of the recently released priests have chosen this parish, "where they come to breathe and feel at home. Because we have lost ours -- even me 42 years ago. But St. Agatha, with an open heart, receives them. The Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan communities (here) receive them."
Father Somarriba said he was moved when the priests told him "that when they were transferred from one cell to another, the prisoners knelt down when they saw them go by, and they, wanting to give a blessing, and the guards would hit their hands down."
"Perhaps the Holy One did not pass by, but it was Alter Cristus, the priest who celebrates the Eucharist. It was a way of telling them, we recognize in you the face of God," said Father Somarriba.
He said to his parishioners: "Pray for the priests. Let us continue to pray for Bishop Álvarez because each one of them is a Christ carrying the cross on the road to Calvary and they cannot be alone."
Bishop Báez thanked Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami for having so generously opened the archdiocese and the seminary for the priests and seminarians who came from Nicaragua.
"I’m offering them the hospitality of the seminary as well as the opportunity to get acclimated, acculturated and see what the next steps would be after that," Archbishop Wenski said in a Feb. 11 interview with the Florida Catholic.
The archbishop also offered them the support of Catholic Charities and Catholic Legal Services of the Archdiocese of Miami to help them with their immigration paperwork.