In October, the government of Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo imposed a sweeping ban on civil protest in Nicaragua, which critics saw as an effort to snuff out a spontaneous protest movement that almost brought them down earlier this year.
As is almost always the case here in this heavily Catholic nation, the Church was at the center of the action, asked by the government to mediate but also protecting the young people leading the protests.
At times, the signals have seemed mixed - Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes at one point asked people to stop using the cathedral of Managua as a protest base, while Monsignor Miguel Mantica, a parish priest in Managua, has called on those same people not to be “paralyzed by fear.”
“Injustice in Nicaragua is centuries old; there has been an inability to dialogue, to recognize the other, we always go back to this deathly cycle of violence, of crushing one another, to make my word count and ignore that of others,” Mantica, who leads the Parish of St. Francis of Assisi in Managua, told a local newspaper.
The priest insisted that dialogue is the only way for Nicaragua to have justice and democracy almost seven months since the civil insurgence began.
“Do not be afraid,” he said, addressing those who’ve been victims of the repression. “Fear cannot paralyze us, and I speak especially about the government,” claiming that the disproportionate reaction by the Nicaraguan army to what began as a peaceful civil uprising is an example of that fear.
“Society is full of fear,” he said. “The people who’ve protested are also afraid because they’ve been quieted through repression. Fear is what’s paralyzing our society.”
Speaking with La Prensa, one of the few newspapers in Nicaragua that remain independent, he said that there’s an ample sector of society that has suffered a lot, warning that fear goes hand-in-hand with anger, and both have to be addressed.
“You can’t cover them with an invisibility cloth,” because if not addressed, “these feelings simmer and then explode. There are deep wounds and hurts, but the path to reconciliation is a transparent dialogue.”
Mantica also defended the bishops, saying that many criticize them for having a “political agenda, and they even accuse them of organizing a coup,” but this “isn’t so. The only agenda of the bishops is the interest of the nation, so we can have democracy, justice and freedom.”
The Church mediated dialogue attempts that began on May 16, but those talks have been suspended due to Ortega’s inability to end what many see as repressive measures. Though the bishops had representatives, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes decided that they wouldn’t participate without the agreement of the 10 bishops in the country, which eventually he received.
The papal representative in the country, Polish Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, like most diplomats, is a man who chooses his words carefully, but speaking with Crux and other reporters in mid-November, he couldn’t hide the pain he’s experiencing for this country he first lived in over a decade ago, as secretary of the nunciature.
“There are needs that are not only material needs,” he said. “However, people who weren’t poor seven months ago, are poor today. Many have lost their jobs.”
When it comes to the Church’s position in the conflict, he said that “the Church suffers because its members are suffering. We can no longer have Masses in the afternoon because people are afraid to go out at night.”
Father Jairo Mercado of the parish of the Medalla Milagrosa in Camoapa, a small town belonging to the southern diocese of Granada, said he’s been forced to change the schedule of the patronal feast. Last year, the vigil ended well after midnight, but today people are afraid to roam the streets after dusk.
A young man from the diocese of Juigalpa told Crux that youth in his parish are afraid to gather, because they are often followed by people wearing hoods and carrying machine guns.
“We were once going to Mass at the cathedral on a Sunday morning, but seeing that they were following us, we decided not to go,” he said. “Some of us can’t even go to Mass!”
Despite the government’s accusation- and that of some faithful Catholics aligned with the party- that the Church has taken a political position, Sommertag argued that the Church has organized itself on the “field of charity, the Church has a social role.”
“Our action was humanitarian,” he insisted. “For instance, when we went to Masaya, a city under siege, we were welcomed with a lot of enthusiasm. I can still close my eyes and see the old ladies crying and saying, ‘Blessed are your feet that have come in our support’.”
“They were crying, they carried their images of Our Lady … having lost all hope, they were clinging onto the divine,” he said. “One of the women kept screaming that her son had been killed. They were very dramatic moments.”
“I always say that it was like a Tabor mountain and the Calvary mountain at the same time,” Sommertag added. “We brought comfort, and then we were attacked by the police and the paramilitary, with the church full of people under siege.”
When they entered the church, they did so amidst a choir of insults, with people calling them terrorists.
“Some armed people infiltrated with us, and they began looking for weapons, accusing those inside of inciting a coup. We tried to find a peaceful way out, but it was a very risky situation. For a time, I thought we’d end up burned inside the church.”
Yet, seeing that he’s a foreign ambassador, he demanded the government protect his physical safety, which they did.
“Fifteen minutes after I placed the call, the police were inside the church and they protected us all as we came out, young people and bishops.”
Though no one attacked him physically, Baez still has two scars on his arm from the attack he suffered that day.
“We went there to bring spiritual comfort, and our presence was something positive,” Sommertag argued. “If it helped in any way, the humiliation we received is welcomed.”
He’s convinced that the violence he saw that day, is not “natural” which is something Crux heard over and over during 12 days in Nicaragua.