Lesther Alemán, 21, a Nicaraguan student and evangelical leader, became the youthful face of anti-government protests in the wake of the Daniel Ortega regime’s brutal crackdown on activists and citizens demanding social and political reforms last year. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have issued reports condemning the Nicaraguan government’s use of extra-judicial forces to target its critics, including Catholic bishops, and lay leaders. Hundreds have been killed and many more have been imprisoned. In April, Managua’s Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Báez fled his native land for the Vatican, after being assaulted by a pro-government mob and facing multiple death threats.
Now, like tens of thousands of other Nicaraguans, Alemán has been forced into exile. He is now living in the United States. He responded to questions from Register Senior Editor Joan Frawley Desmond about the situation in Nicaragua, his exile in the United States and his plan to attend the upcoming Department of State’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom July 16-17.
He hopes his active presence will embody the united response of Catholics and evangelicals against the intimidation, harassment and persecution of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua by the Ortega regime. If there is a “silver lining” in the crisis facing his native land, he said, it is that once polarized Christian groups have joined in solidarity against a despotic, anti-religious tyranny.
Why has the confrontation between the Ortega regime and anti-government protesters become a religious struggle?
The crisis in Nicaragua has been a socio-political crisis from the beginning. But Nicaraguans are a very religious people. To the extent that it is possible in this fallen world, we try to make Jesus Christ the Lord of the social realm in our country, by defending life and the dignity of the human person.
Naturally then, when the regime started brutally repressing our most basic rights, the bishops and many evangelical pastors, as shepherds of Christ’s flock, started forcefully denouncing the evil and brutal repression. The regime then turned against the Church, directing its mobs to attack priests, ministers, and bishops, as well as to desecrate churches. They threatened the Catholic Church’s leadership with murder.
How have Catholics and Protestants worked together to support the Nicaraguan people against attacks on their civil and religious liberties?
This struggle, which is for the very soul of Nicaragua, has made us transcend denominational boundaries between Nicaraguan Christians, denominations that for years have been bitterly divided. The bishops, as soon as the repression began, took up the human rights banner, and I, an Evangelical, was proud to follow them.
This is really the crux of the matter: all of civil society must, and does, support the Nicaraguan bishops.
I remember how, in the public marches, evangelical pastors were praying and walking alongside Catholics praying the Rosary. This is new in Nicaragua, and is certainly the silver lining on the whole tragedy. We are seeing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, sharing a common baptism and a common Lord.
I would also like to send out this message to the media: Do not be fooled by reports that evangelicals support Ortega and his regime.
The evangelicals supporting him are reduced to five mega-churches that have entrenched interests in keeping their relationship with the Ortegas. The vast majority of evangelicals stand alongside the Catholic bishops in their struggle for peace and justice in Nicaragua.
Why did you leave Nicaragua and seek shelter in the United States? What is your status now?
I didn’t leave Nicaragua voluntarily — I was forced into exile by the Ortega regime.
I am grateful for the help that I and my associates have been receiving from friends here in the U.S.
But my original plan was to remain in Nicaragua and continue to help lead my country’s student activists against the repressive and brutal dictatorship of the Ortega-Murillo family. The Nicaraguan people need opposition leaders in their country to keep morale high.
But after I stood up to Ortega in person and denounced him to his face, it was clear that I would not long survive in Nicaragua.
I’m 21 years old. I want to finish my college degree; I want to return to Nicaragua. But at this point it would mean surrendering to Ortega’s thugs for execution.
My body is here, but my heart and soul are with my people, who are suffering so much.
What do you hope to accomplish at the state department meeting this month?
I’m a Nicaraguan student leader, as well as a young evangelical leader. I will be at the ministerial to express my solidarity with my Catholic brothers and sisters in Nicaragua for they are the majority of the country, and are suffering the brunt of Ortega’s religious sacrilegious persecution.
I wish to convey to the Department of State and all others present at the ministerial that right now, Nicaragua continues to suffer under a regime that desecrates our shared faith and violates our most fundamental human rights.
It saddens me also that here in the United States we have encountered severe opposition from American leftist groups who supported the Sandinistas in the 1980s, and still imagine them as “freedom fighters.”
I and my associates are Nicaraguans. [We] are not engaged in an ideological struggle. [Our] struggle is for the survival of our country and for the respect of our people’s basic religious and human rights. My friends have been killed and beaten nearly to death.
Human Rights Watch’s report released June 19 outlined serious human rights violations in the wake of anti-government protests. Can you trace some of the key moments in these protests and the Ortega regime’s response?
April 20, 2018, and June 21, 201,8 loom over my mind like a dark cloud still. The regime’s armed and mobilized mobs, called turbas, viciously attacked Catholic priests, bishops, and even the apostolic nuncio.
I was present on both dates and saw the bravery of the Nicaraguan bishops firsthand. These are shepherds ready to lay down their lives for Christ’s flock.
Human Rights Watch recently urged the European Union to impose sanctions on high-level Nicaraguan leaders, in a bid to halt serious violations by police and other civil authorities. Do you support such measures?
Given that the Sandinistas are brutally violating my people’s religious and civil liberties with kidnappings, assassinations, and torture, of course I support these measures. I also support the measures that the U.S. has taken: sanctioning individuals responsible for the repression is extremely important. I am thankful that the U.S. has taken the lead in this effort, and I am hopeful that the EU will follow.
What should the United States do now?
The U.S. must continue its diplomatic efforts at the highest levels, and bring other countries around the world to pressure the Ortega regime into stopping the brutal repression. These efforts should be bilateral as well as multilateral, especially with the OAS and the EU. It is also imperative that the U.S. continue to forcefully sanction individuals who have taken part in the repression and are steeped in corruption.
How would you characterize the U.S. media’s coverage of the Nicaraguan protests at this time?
At first, the international media coverage during the height of the brutal repression was truly great. We are very thankful for that. Now there is precious little media coverage on the ongoing brutal human rights abuses by the Ortega-Murillo regime.
One thing I hope to accomplish, in this interview and with my presence at the ministerial, is for the media to again cover the abuses in Nicaragua. Catholic media has a special responsibly to spotlight the attacks on the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. I should also point out that the [government’s] freeing of political prisoners last month has conveyed a false sense of [a return to] normalcy. The repression continues, including kidnappings and torture. Right now, it is impossible to go to Mass without having pro-government thugs causing a ruckus during the service. It is intolerable.
How has your Christian faith sustained your sense of hope during your exile?
My faith is the bulwark sustaining me ever since the crisis began. If his presence and will had not accompanied me from Day 1, I wouldn’t have moved a finger. I wouldn’t have stood up and denounced Ortega, I wouldn’t continue the struggle. I would have given up a long time ago.