In February, 222 political dissidents who had been either in prison or house arrest in Nicaragua arrived in the United States, having accepted exile as a condition of their release. One opponent of President Daniel Ortega’s regime refused the deal: Rolando Álvarez, the 56-year-old bishop of Matagalpa, a large town 80 miles northeast of Managua, who had been under house arrest since August. The government promptly declared him guilty of treason and sentenced him to 26 years. He also was stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship.
History records many instances in which religious leaders, including those of the Roman Catholic Church, have resisted the abuses of temporal authority, and have been persecuted for it. Not since Communist Hungary tortured and jailed Cardinal József Mindszenty in the early Cold War, however, has a dictatorship borne down on a single cleric with something like the ferocity Mr. Ortega is visiting upon Bishop Álvarez, whose activism began by opposing ecologically destructive mining projects and expanded to include protests against the government’s human rights violations in general.
The persecution of Bishop Álvarez is part of a systematic campaign of repression against the Nicaraguan church, whose leaders have often tried to protect pro-democracy activists and mediate between them and the Ortega regime. An estimated 50 religious leaders have fled the country since nationwide protests, and a retaliatory government crackdown, in 2018. Just last year, two congregations of nuns, including Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, were expelled. Repression of the church is of a piece with the regime’s efforts to crush secular civil society organizations, including 40 shut down since December, according to a March 3 United Nations report. That same report, by Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Ilze Brands Kehris, accuses Nicaragua of other “serious human rights violations,” including holding 37 political prisoners and summarily stripping 94 “traitors to the homeland” of their nationality and assets.
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A positive result of Bishop Álvarez’s imprisonment was to shock Pope Francis out of his reluctance to speak forthrightly about the Ortega regime. Perhaps out of an abundance of diplomatic caution, the pope had previously limited himself to vague expressions of concern even after another senior bishop and the Vatican ambassador were ousted last year. After Mr. Ortega referred to the Vatican as a “mafia,” and imprisoned Bishop Álvarez, the Holy Father blasted Managua as “a communist dictatorship in 1917 or a Hitlerian one in 1935.” Thereafter, the regime suspended diplomatic relations with the Vatican, which, on March 18, closed its embassy in Managua.
Though an improvement over appeasement, the pope’s confrontational posture is not necessarily more likely to bring about change in Managua, where the regime continues to enjoy the backing of its own police and military, as well as Cuba, Venezuela and Russia. To be sure, the prisoner release in February probably showed that U.S. economic pressure was having some effect, but it’s unclear that stronger measures would get more results without inflicting collateral damage on the second-poorest population in the Western Hemisphere. A March 22 joint hearing of two House Foreign Affairs subcommittees included strong bipartisan denunciation of the regime, especially its treatment of Bishop Álvarez. Keeping this brave man’s name before the public may not be sufficient to liberate Nicaragua, but it is necessary.
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