Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo are pressuring to have Monsignor Rolando Alvarez – bishop of Matagalpa – sent out of the country. That’s the scenario with the least political cost to the regime, agreed five experts on Nicaragua’s Church-State relations. An advisor to the pontifical curia has also indicated that there’s an ongoing “diplomatic operation” in play on the part of the Vatican, involving Cardenal Leopoldo Brenes, who serves as both Managua’s archbishop and the vice president of the Episcopal Conference.
The experts believe that the option of keeping Monsignor Alvarez illegally detained in his home is “inconvenient for the dictatorship”. Worse still would be to try and sentence this religious leader – whose charisma, prestige and ecclesiastical stature are indisputable – to serve time in the El Chipote jail.
Sociologist Humberto Belli doubts that Pope Francis’ will intervene and order Alvarez out of the country, as he did in 2019 with another religious leader highly critical of the government: Silvio Jose Baez, at the time Managua’s Assistant Bishop. Belli believes it’s unlikely this will reoccur, due to the criticisms that the Pontiff’s decision inspired in the latter case. “The Holy Father doesn’t want to repeat that experience, according to sources close to the Holy See I’ve spoken with,” Belli stated.
Belli, a former Minister of Education in the 1990s, says the current circumstances should compel Nicaragua’s Episcopal Conference to assume a more active role. “Agreeing to have the bishop leave Nicaragua would be surrendering to the government. What they must do is demand he be freed. It’s unjust for him to have to leave, it’s unjust to imprison him. They have no reason to be punishing him in any way.”
In the very early morning of August 19th, special police troops stormed Matagalpa’s Episcopal Curia where Alvarez was being held prisoner, together with five priests, two seminary students and a cameraman from the dioceses press team. Monsignor Alvarez is now under house arrest in Managua, the cameraman was freed, one priest was left in the Matagalpa Curia, and the rest were taken to the infamous El Chipote jail in Managua.
“The government is going to have to consider two alternatives: one – continue holding him prisoner, possibly under house arrest for a prolonged period, as has been the case with Cristiana Chamorro and some other political prisoners. Or, two – expel him from the country. That’s an action they have in their hands, since they can expel anyone form the country legally or illegally, and they’ve already done so. With that move, they’d get out from under the weight of having a prisoner in the country with the prestige and ecclesiastical stature that Alvarez has,” Belli affirmed.
In a press statement, the Police alleged they carried out the operation against Alvarez in order to recover the supposed “normality” for the Matagalpa citizens and families. They accused the religious leader of carrying out “destabilizing and provocative activities.”
On August 5, the authorities announced they’d opened an “investigation” on Alvarez, accusing him of “organizing violent groups” and “fomenting hate”. The Police had already surrounded the Episcopal Curia in Matagalpa and a large police contingent were preventing him from leaving, an occurrence that shook up everyday life in the city.
In the August 19 statement, the Police also said that those who’d been accompanying the bishop in the Curia at the time of the police assault had been transferred to the Managua jail, known as El Chipote. The facility has been denounced by national and international human rights organizations for torture and inhumane conditions.
The Police left only one parish priest in the Curia, without detaining him: Father Oscar Escoto from Matagalpa’s Santa Maria de Guadalupe Church. The authorities announced at the same time that Cardenal Leopoldo Brenes, Managua’s archbishop and the vice president of the Episcopal Conference, had been allowed to visit Alvarez, now under house arrest. In a later statement, the Managua church authorities confirmed the meeting, and noted that Alvarez was suffering some physical effects from his ordeal, but that his spirits remained strong.
A “diplomatic operation” on the part of the Vatican?
Rodrigo Guerra, Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, told the online Catholic news service Aleteia that the Vatican is conducting a “diplomatic operation” through Cardenal Leopoldo Brenes, in order to find “a way out” of the situation with Monsignor Alvarez.
There’s been some distrust expressed of the Cardenal’s possible role, with some lamenting his “lukewarm position” in the face of the continual national turbulence. Humberto Belli, for his part, thinks “it’s possible” that Brenes is asking the Pope to order Monsignor Alvarez out of the country, with Ortega’s blessing.
Attorney Martha Patricia Molina, author of an investigation of the regime’s attacks on the Catholic Church, affirmed that it’s possible the dictatorship has sought out Brenes – or vice versa – to send a message to Alvarez: that he needs to leave the country of his own free will. This, if it occurred, would amount to a banishment.
Molina also criticized the Nicaraguan Episcopal Council for their “absence and indifference to their responsibilities in the problems of the Church persecution.” “I wouldn’t know what the impact on them might be [of a possible departure of Alvarez]. But for the Church in general this would have a high cost, because he has a prophetic voice,” she declared regretfully.
At the time of the original detention, the Episcopal Conference issued a statement calling the occurrence, “a deep wound we’re suffering as the Church in Nicaragua”. The statement added: We’re praying for Alvarez and those accompanying him in the Curia.”
Fear of “popular discontent”
Sociologist Elvira Cuadra, director of the Center for Central American Transdisciplinary Studies [Centro de Estudios Transdisciplinarios de Centroamérica], believes the regime is pressuring to get Alvarez to leave the country, because keeping him locked up means generating more discontent among the population.
Cuadra feels that the Vatican’s choice of Brenes, instead of Monsignor Herrera, president of the Episcopal Council, corresponds to the official Church channels. The Cardenal is the head of the Managua Archdiocese and has maintained a certain level of communication with the authorities of the dictatorship.
She termed the negotiations that may be happening regarding Alvarez as “underground,” but foresees a political cost for the Episcopal Council, because there hasn’t been a firm statement from the bishops.
“For the government, the cost is very high, because people’s discontent is increasing, no matter what arrangement they make with the bishops. The people feel disrespected, and they’re not going to be able to change that.”
Another two analysts consulted by Confidencial under promise of anonymity added that the situation with Alvarez is “developing”. However, they both considered that what Ortega has done isn’t at all convenient for him, from a political point of view.
Of all the possible scenarios, these two interviewees thought that the least probable outcome was Alvarez’ ending up jailed in El Chipote, because in that case it would continue drawing attention nationally and internationally. They believe the dictatorship will incline towards the option of banishing him.
The bishop has become a symbol
One of those Confidencial spoke with stated that, if Alvarez’ departure becomes a fact, it’s true that internally Nicaragua would lose a prophetic and critical voice, but we’ve gained a “symbol of a brave and determined man of great integrity.”
“I have no doubt that the diplomatic mission involving Brenes is ‘to save Alvarez’ life’, and they’ll direct [Brenes] to get him out of the country, which is one of the regime’s objectives. Think of the other priests, though. What will be the ‘diplomatic operation’ for them? If it’s to get them all out, that’s a victory for the regime. The sheep will be left without shepherds,” the source insisted.
Another of those consulted added that Alvarez’ departure would be the most rational outcome for Ortega, but they regretted the very strong blow this strikes to the Catholic Church. If this occurs, the dictator would thus have won “another round”, and the impact on citizens will be yet further demoralization, and the loss of another valiant voice.
The police operation against Alvarez leaves the Matagalpa clergy headless. It also affects the Church faithful, who felt supported by the bishop. To one interviewee, it seemed possible that the religious leader’s collaborators were sent to El Chipote as a means of pressuring the Catholic hierarchy to accept the government’s conditions in an eventual negotiation. The other speculation is that the governing FSLN simply punishes people with no logic, because that strikes a blow to everyone. That’s their repressive style.