Exiled Nicaraguan Bishop: Ortega Regime Has Turned Our Country Into a Prison

Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Jose Baez Ortega decries the persecution of the Catholic Church under the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega.

Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Jose Baez Ortega of Managua arrives to celebrate Easter Mass, his last Mass at the Santo Cristo de Esquipulas Church in Managua, on April 21, 2019. Since then, the bishop has lived in exile in Miami.
Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Jose Baez Ortega of Managua arrives to celebrate Easter Mass, his last Mass at the Santo Cristo de Esquipulas Church in Managua, on April 21, 2019. Since then, the bishop has lived in exile in Miami. (photo: Inti Ocon / AFP via Getty Images)

MIAMI — When the Biden administration announced that the Summit on the Americas, held in Los Angeles, would exclude countries like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba that faced international condemnation for their autocratic policies, the president of Mexico refused to participate in the gathering and called out Washington’s legacy of interference in the region.

But even as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had a bone to pick with the White House, another voice applauded the exclusion of Nicaragua from the summit, held June 6-10.

“The current U.S. administration said it would not invite dictatorships” to the summit, Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez Ortega of Managua, now living in exile in Miami, told the Register in a June 20 interview.

“As a bishop, I can say that the current regime in Nicaragua has made our country into a jail, a prison.”

“It is a dictatorship in every sense of the word,” he stated in an interview that examined the treatment of the Catholic Church and the manipulation of popular religion by Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader who rose to power in the heady days of the 1979 revolution and has governed continuously since 2007, with his wife, Rosario Murillo, as vice president.

When Pope Francis ordered Bishop Báez to leave his native land in April 2019, the papal directive didn’t sit well with the outspoken prelate, who was committed to defending his flock amid growing religious and political persecution and appeared destined for a showdown with a government. 

But Bishop Báez complied with Francis’ decision to remove him from harm’s way, and he now ministers in Miami to  a growing number of his countrymen who have also found safe harbor, fearing imprisonment or death if they stayed behind.

In 2018, a political crisis ignited by the Nicaraguan government’s economic policies resulted in mass protests and a brutal response from the regime. At least 328 people died, and some 2,000 people were injured.

Since then, a wave of political and religious persecution has struck fear in this predominantly Catholic country. The campaign of state-sanctioned harassment of all its perceived opponents has often been carried out by extrajudicial forces directed or tolerated by the government, according to human-rights groups.

At present count,190 churches have been attacked and desecrated, while bishops, priests and laypeople are frequently harassed, according to a new report, “Nicaragua: A Persecuted Church? (2018-2022),” compiled by attorney Martha Patricia Molina Montenegro, a member of the Pro-Transparency and Anti-Corruption Observatory. “The report … reflects a broad panorama of the persecution and criminalization suffered by the Catholic Church in Nicaragua,” Molina told the Register in an email message.

Church-state tensions reached a critical juncture in March 2022, when the regime expelled the Vatican’s ambassador to Nicaragua, Polish Archbishop Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag. The Vatican expressed its “sorrow” at the regime’s actions, while noting the nuncio’s role in the stalled “National Dialogue” designed to promote “reconciliation” between the Ortega government and opposition groups.

For now, Pope Francis has opted to work behind the scenes as the regime’s repressive policies provoke public condemnation from human-rights groups and international organizations like the OAS

Bishop Báez, for his part, has defended the Pope’s public silence, telling a Nicaraguan media outlet in April that he provided documents on the plight of Nicaraguan political prisoners to the Pope during a November 2021 papal audience and was sure Francis would help secure justice for the prisoners. 

During that meeting, he told the Register, he also broached the topic of his own “uncertain” future.

“The Holy Father said, ‘Do not worry about your future,’ and this has occasioned in me a great confidence: God will provide,” said the bishop.

At present, he teaches at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida. On Sundays he ministers to Nicaraguan refugees, many of whom are suffering from the trauma of political exile, even as they search for legal counsel to help them regularize their immigration status. 

Throughout his painful three-year exile, the bishop has maintained a razor-sharp focus on the unfolding crisis in his own country, analyzing the shifting tactics that the government has employed to tap the power of faith in a deeply pious nation.

The regime also sought to “present itself as Christian, socialist and in solidarity” with the people, he reported.

“It invokes the name of Christ, uses Catholic terminology, and couches many of its statements in religious language.” 

As he sees it, Ortega hopes to tap the vitality and credibility of the faith to strengthen the power of the state. The bishop believes that these tactics also serve a secondary purpose: They sow division within the Church, with the regime’s supporters initiating religious activities that compete with parish-based efforts.

This approach, he said, “was especially marked during the pandemic, when the Church had prohibited large-scale gatherings, and the government didn’t limit its own gatherings.”

The early years of the Sandinista revolution coincided with the creation of small base communities supported by liberation theologians and others seeking a new model, a Church of the poor that defended and sustained the oppressed. But even as the first Sandinista-led government included three priests in cabinet positions, tensions between the Church and the new government steadily mounted during the final decade of the Cold War. 

The Sandinista-backed “popular church” was “openly attacking the Nicaraguan Church,” said Bishop Báez. 

Today, however, the regime no longer attracts support from theologians. And the Sandinistas are now “appropriating religion to serve their political ends in a more subtle way,” while professing “respect for Pope Francis and his teaching.”

The bishop perceives “an element of syncretism” in the regime’s use of religious themes and symbols.

“To captivate the religious imagination, they combine Catholic prayers with prayers to the cosmic powers, Christian symbols with pentagrams. It is designed to infuse religion into their criminal enterprise.”

And though hardline Marxists within the Sandinistas’ ranks once sought the promotion and inculcation of a new kind of human being liberated from the opiate of religion, present-day government officials in Nicaragua are not wedded to leftist ideologies, said the bishop. 

They prefer to “improvise as they go,” he said. “They are not metaphysicians. They want a religion that is purely utilitarian, divested of all ethics, to serve their criminal enterprise.” 

Since his departure from Nicaragua, the government has ratcheted up its campaign to suppress threats to its power. 

In 2020, it passed a law that essentially defined criticism of the regime as an offense akin to treason.

Bishop Báez has kept abreast of these troubling developments, meeting with the grieving families of political prisoners, including those who were detained during the run-up to the 2021 elections and now face lengthy prison sentences.

“Whatever popular legitimacy Ortega might have had pretty much evaporated” after government forces fired on protesters during the mass demonstrations in 2018, said Jared Genser, an international human-rights lawyer who represents imprisoned opposition leaders Félix Maradiaga  and Juan Sebastián Chamorro

In the months ahead of the 2021 presidential election, the  two men, both Catholic, were among a group of seven presidential hopefuls who mounted a strong challenge to the Ortega regime and  pressed for political reforms in both national and international forums.

Maradiaga is a member of the Political Council of Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco (UNAB, Blue and White National Unity), the largest umbrella organization for the political opposition in Nicaragua, and a former cabinet member. An academic and entrepreneur, he is an important thought leader in the region. In 2016, Forbes magazine named him one of Central America’s most influential people.

Juan Sebastián Chamorro is an economist and businessman who served in a number of government posts prior to Ortega’s return to power in 2007.  

The executive director of an economic think tank FUNIDES, Chamorro served as a  leader of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy (ACJD), an opposition group that gained traction after the 2018 crackdown, and represented the business sector in the 2018 National Dialogue.  He is the nephew of the late Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the editor of the country’s storied newspaper La Prensa, a thorn in the side of both the Ortega regime and the country’s previous dictator, the late Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who lost power to the Sandinistas in 1979. 

“It was clear that if there was a free election Ortega would not win,” Genser told the Register.

In contrast to prior presidential elections, he noted, “the opposition came together” and decided “they would support the candidate who won the most votes.”

Early polling suggested that Juan Chamorro would likely capture the most votes, said Genser. 

Instead, Chamorro and other would-be presidential contenders were detained, and Ortega won the election. 

The subsequent trials and convictions of the seven one-time presidential candidates on what critics call patently trumped-up charges have been widely viewed as a brutal move to secure his grip on power.

Earlier this year, both of Genser’s clients were convicted of conspiracy to undermine national integrity and have received 13-year prison sentences. Their families have strongly protested their trial and sentences, as well as their brutal treatment in prison. 

The two men have not been able to see their wives since their arrest last year and have experienced significant weight loss after allegedly facing lengthy interrogations and “psychological torture.” Their lawyer said that even requests for a Bible have been denied.

Chamorro’s wife, Victoria Cárdenas, told CBS’ 60 Minutes this month that the regime’s actions constituted a “violation of basic human rights.” 

“It’s not only my family who is suffering; it’s more than 140 families who have political prisoners who are innocent and are living this awful situation,” said Cárdenas.

Genser believes that “Ortega wanted to send out” a strong message designed to quash any resistance: “If you spoke out against him,” he said, “there would be serious consequences.”

Bishop Báez issued his own sweeping indictment of Ortega’s legacy: “Under this regime, the value of a human life is directly proportionate to the value it has to this criminal enterprise and the extent to which it has submitted to the regime. If a person doesn’t contribute to the dictatorship, they have no value.” 

Pressed to explain why he characterized the Ortega regime as a “criminal enterprise,” Bishop Báez acknowledged that his language sounded “harsh” but that this judgment was not fundamentally political. Rather, it was the fruit of his pastoral accompaniment of his suffering flock.

“This is a brutal regime that does not respect liberty and life,” he said. “It is a regime that has killed people peacefully protesting in the streets. People have been condemned unjustly and tortured.”

And now the Missionaries of Charity have been expelled. As Bishop Báez tweeted June 28, “#Nicaragua. I am very sad that the dictatorship has forced the Sisters. Missionaries of Charity of Teresa of Calcutta to leave the country. Nothing justifies depriving the poor of charitable care. I am a witness to the loving service of the sisters. God bless you.”

Bishop Báez, like most Nicaraguans, is well aware that the world’s attention has been taken up with other more urgent matters, especially the protracted military battle to defend Ukraine against unprovoked Russian aggression.

But a prophetic Church that looks to the peripheries, he said, must also stand with a “small, poor” nation like his own. 

“As a pastor, I believe in the power of the Resurrection,” he said. “Every Sunday, I exhort the people not to grow accustomed to the injustice that they are living, and I pray that the Resurrection will enliven the aspirations and hope of the Nicaraguan people to work for the common good of their country.

“The regime wants them to consider this the new normal,” the bishop concluded. “It is not.”

This story was updated June 29 to include information about the Missionaries of Charity.