“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt. 5:9)
On July 1, Pope Francis prayed and called for peace in various parts of the world, including Nicaragua. While acting as a mediator and protecting protesters from the government forces’ repressive tactics, the church there has had an important role in the Central American nation’s ongoing crisis.
Civil unrest started in Nicaragua on April 18 when the government passed (very) unpopular reforms to the country’s Social Security Institute (Instituto Nicaragüense de Seguridad Social, or INSS) that would have cut benefits to elderly pensioners by 5 percent. Protests led by university students erupted over these changes, and in response the government resorted to repressive tactics, like organizing paramilitary forces to fight protesters.
At the time of this writing, according to the local non-governmental organization the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANDPH), there have been 285 deaths related to the protests against President Daniel Ortega’s government. This number is worth stressing as the Central American country has not experienced a wave of violence so extreme since the internal war in the 1970s and 1980s, during which Ortega overthrew the Somoza dynasty in 1979. Those events prompted the United States to back the infamous counterrevolutionaries known as the Contras in an attempt to overthrow him.
While the social security law was the catalyst for the current violence, the protesters’ demands have increased to include regime change due to the head of state’s perpetuation in power. President Ortega returned to power in 2007 and was then re-elected in 2011 and 2016. Moreover, during the last election First Lady Rosario Murillo ran as her spouse’s running mate, so she is now (a very unpopular) vice president.
The author can personally attest to the protesters’ sentiment, at least regarding the Nicaraguan community in Washington, DC. Case in point, the Inter-American Dialogue, a Latin America-focused think tank in DC, held an event on June 4 about the country’s situation. The attendees carried Nicaraguan flags and during the question-and-answer section constantly talked about the impending end of the Ortega-Murillo regime: “de que se van, se van” (“they will leave yes or yes”) was mentioned more than once.
The Role of the Church
At a time when the behavior of the government and some of its forces disgusts the Nicaraguan population, the church is one of the remaining institutions that still enjoys popular support and legitimacy. Thus, the Nicaraguan church has attempted to utilize this credibility to find a peaceful solution to this crisis.
An early attempt occurred on April 28. When the protests were heating up, the church organized a massive peaceful protest in the streets of Managua. Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes even held a mass in the capital city’s cathedral. A similar peaceful demonstration took place in Matagalpa with Monsignor Rolando Álvarez at the helm.
Nevertheless, the protests and violence persisted, so the church switched tactics. In late April, Nicaragua’s Episcopal Council (Conferencia Episcopal de Nicaragua, or CEN) offered to act as a mediator between the government and the protesters. President Ortega accepted, reportedly stating in a letter that “we are grateful in name of the Nicaraguan families and the government for [the CEN’s] participation as mediators and witnesses to these important developments in Nicaragua.”
In spite of these meetings, the situation has unfortunately not improved as the violence continues. The general perception is that the Ortega regime wants to remain in power and is using the mediation to stall for time while using repressive and violent tactics to intimidate the population into submission. For example, a June 23 CEN press release urged President Ortega to respond to a request CEN presented to him on June 7 regarding early elections in 2019 to appease the protesters. The Nicaraguan leader has flip-flopped about this possibility.
Still, the Nicaraguan church continues its attempts to promote peace. The Nicaraguan media has reported that the aforementioned Cardinal Brenes and Monsignor Alvarez met with Pope Francis in the Vatican at the end of June, and the CEN remains committed to dialogue. The CEN is also involved in monitoring the release of protesters who were imprisoned.
Furthermore, there is footage of priests attending the protests and walking in front of the protesters to dissuade the police from violent, repressive tactics. For a religious nation, a robe-wearing priest is a very powerful image. But this is a dangerous path because it may erode the church’s current image of neutrality, and some individuals may be willing to physically attack the clergy—there have already been incidents of masked gunmen threatening priests at gunpoint.
It remains to be seen how successful the church will be as a mediator in Nicaragua, but there have been some noteworthy precedents in the region. For example, a war between Argentina and Chile almost occurred in 1978—a border dispute known as the Beagle Conflict—which was thankfully averted due to Vatican mediation (a peace treaty was signed in 1984). On the other hand, the church has called for peace and dialogue in Venezuela with little success.
Much has been written about the importance of the separation between church and state. However, there are times when the former should be involved in the affairs of the latter, as the church has the moral responsibility to stop unjust violence. For example, the Bible verse at the beginning of this essay highlights biblical support for peacemakers.
The church has pursued peacemaking in Nicaragua while in the past months protests have escalated and the Ortega government resorts to violence rather than sincere negotiation. In this crisis, Nicaragua’s Episcopal Council has emerged as a consequential actor, and hopefully its peacemaking activities will prove successful.
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.
Photo Credit: Catholic Church march in Granada, Nicaragua, on April 28. By Julio Vannini, via Flickr.