Cardinal Leopoldo José Brenes Solorzano of Managua believes the two month-long open conflict in Nicaragua will come to an end through genuine dialogue and by listening to the voice of the people, many of whom are calling for early elections.
Protests against president Daniel Ortega have resulted in 309 deaths, according to the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights. The country's bishops have mediated on-again, off-again peace talks between the government and opposition groups.
Protests began April 18 after Ortega announced social security and pension reforms. The changes were soon abandoned in the face of widespread, vocal opposition, but protests only intensified after more than 40 protestors were killed by security forces initially.
The Church in Nicaragua was quick to acknowledge the protestors' complaints. Barricades and roadblocks are now found throughout the country, and clashes frequently turn lethal. Bishops and priests across Nicaragua have worked to separate protesters and security forces, and have been threatened and shot.
While in Rome to brief Pope Francis on the situation in Nicaragua and to participate in the June 28 consistory, Cardinal Brenes spoke to ACI Prensa, CNA's Spanish-language sister agency, describing the
state of affairs as “very painful.”
“We bishops have said 'not one more death', but nevertheless they continue. The prophetic voice of the bishops on many occasions has not been listened to, but we will go on insisting. One death, two deaths, three deaths and already there are more than 300 deaths. I have always said that behind the death of every Nicarguan, the pain affects many more,” he said.
“One day I read a banner that a mother was carrying during a demonstration. It said, 'giving birth to a child is painful, but losing a child is much more painful.' When a mother gives birth, she suffers at that time, but when the child is born she is filled with joy. However, when that mother loses a child, especially when he is murdered, that sad expression on her face lasts a lifetime. And it just doesn't hurt her, but also the siblings, and if he is married, his wife, his children; but it also goes beyond the families, because it affects neighbors and friends.”
The cardinal described the bishops' relationship with Ortega's government as “one of pastors with president to whom we have said we are not enemies, and we don't want them to see us as enemies.”
“As pastors we are supporting a common cause. As pastors we don't want to form a political party; no one aspires to be president of the country or have a position in the government. We agreed to be part of the national dialogue as mediators and witnesses, and if tomorrow this gets resolved, we'll be happy.”
The Church's mediation of dialogue between the government and the opposition is “a service which we want to offer for the governability and democratization of our country,” he said.
Cardinal Brenes added that “we have felt the confidence of the people in the bishops' conference” and noted, “there's no bishop in particular who is setting the guidelines. Perhaps at some point they will want to make some bishop stand out, but in reality it's the entire bishops' conference. What's important is to see a bishops' conference that is very united.”
The cardinal believes the resolution of the conflict is going to take “both the civic alliance and the delegates from the government learning to dialogue, because with shouts, complaints, and insults, nothing gets done.”
“We have now entered into that process, but the first few days were really intense, and we had to call for a truce, and say: 'let's think this through.' But then they began to talk again.”
“We are organizing small working groups, in which there are usually six members from the government and another six from the alliance, and in another working group three and three, with their respective advisers, and a coordinator who represents us bishops,” Cardinal Brenes said, explaining the current configuration of the talks.
“The primary thing is to begin to learn how to speak and to have as a common goal the good of the country leading to its democratization. The people are calling for early elections and we as a bishops' conference have taken up that sentiment of the people and have presented the project, that route to take, to the president of the government. Everything is in his hands,” he stated.
The Church in Nicaragua “is an institution the people trust,” he said, “and that is a challenge for us, because it means we are answerable to that trust.”
Cardinal Brenes emphasized the importance of well-formed youth, citing their role in standing up to Ortega's government.
“This entire situation we're going through broke out because of them, because it was from that social commitment which they have that they began the protests, which then spread throughout the country,” he explained.
“We also have a great challenge: How to form young people so that come tomorrow, we don't fall back into the same errors of today. They are the ones who have in their hands the destiny of Nicaragua” and therefore it is important to ask ourselves “how to make a better Nicaragua.”
Anti-government protesters have been attacked by “combined forces” made up of regular police, riot police, paramilitaries, and pro-government vigilantes.
The Nicaraguan government has suggested that protestors are killing their own supporters so as to destabilize Ortega's administration.
The pension reforms which triggered the unrest were modest, but protests quickly turned to Ortega's authoritarian bent.
Ortega has been president of Nicaragua since 2007, and oversaw the abolition of presidential term limits in 2014.
He has shown resistance to calls for elections, which are not scheduled until 2021, to be held early.
Ortega was a leader in the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which had ousted the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and fought US-backed right-wing counterrevolutionaries during the 1980s. Ortega was also leader of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990.
This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.