Latin America

Pope Francis' diplomacy in Nicaragua

Pope Francis has explained that in Nicaragua there are problems for the Church, but there is also dialogue. Pontifical diplomacy does not remain inactive, and has been adapting its approach according to the situations. As a principle, its approach is to guide local bishops, rather than intervene head-on.

Andrea Gagliarducci-January 27, 2023-Reading time: 5 minutes
Nicaragua church

There seems to be a sentence already written for the bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Alvarez, arrested last August at the height of a series of activities that led the Nicaraguan government presided over by Daniel Ortega to forcibly close down various Church media activities as well. And it seems that this sentence could be avoided if Bishop Alvarez decides to leave the country. A self-exile would be the third expulsion of a bishop from Nicaragua since Daniel Ortega has been in power.

Last year, in fact, the affected was Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag, apostolic nuncio, who was expelled from the country in March 2022 in a decision that the Holy See described in a communiqué as "inexplicable". Inexplicable, but not unexpected, considering that in the previous months Ortega had already given a strong diplomatic signal. Indeed, the representative of the Holy See is always, by international convention, the dean of the Diplomatic Corps accredited in a country. But Ortega had decided that no, there would no longer be a dean, effectively marginalizing the diplomat of the Holy See.

Earlier, it was the auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez, who was called upon by the Pope Francis to Rome in 2019, in a sudden decision amid an upsurge in violence.

But there was an even more distant precedent: in 1986, Pablo Antonio Vega, bishop-prelate of Juigalpa and vice-president of the Bishops' Conference of Nicaraguahad been exiled from Nicaragua. The same fate had befallen that year Monsignor Bismarck Carballo, who was spokesman for the archbishop of Managua.

Therefore, there would be the possibility of Bishop Alvarez's self-exile. Who, on the other hand, would be willing to face imprisonment rather than accept to leave his homeland. A choice that, however, could also create problems for the diplomatic line chosen by Pope Francis.

The Pope and Nicaragua

The Pope has devoted several appeals to Nicaragua since the crisis erupted in 2018. There was a precise reason. At the beginning of the crisis, arising from a pension reform by the Ortega government but symptomatic of broader discontent among the population, there seemed to be a space for the Church to mediate in the so-called national dialogue. 

The bishops had been called as "mediators and witnesses". But their role had become impossible when the clashes between the Nicaraguan authorities and the protesters resumed. The Church, in June 2018, had suspended its presence in the so-called national dialogue. In response, it had been singled out by the government as a pro-opposition force, with an escalation that had even led to an aggression, on July 9, 2018, against Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, Archbishop of Managua, his auxiliary Baez and Nuncio Sommertag.

Nevertheless, the Holy See's intent was still to establish a dialogue, believing that at least an interlocution between the parties would be useful. In time, it would become disillusioned.

Pope Francis then changed his approach. He began to space out public appeals, called Bishop Baez to Rome and tried to calm things down. The principle was not to go against the government, but rather to find ways of collaboration. Nuncio Sommertag had also been successful in some situations, even negotiating the release of some political prisoners.

The Pope's practical diplomacy

This is the practical diplomacy of Pope Francis, applied also in other situations, and often precisely on the Latin American continent. In Venezuela, for example, where participation in dialogue was maintained only until the will was felt to involve the Holy See, and where the Holy See has never opposed President Nicolás Maduro; in fact, there has been a new contact during the recent visit to Caracas of Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, substitute Secretary of State.

Public appeals have been distanced, and Nicaragua has not even been mentioned in Pope Francis' Christmas message "Urbi et Orbi". On that occasion, the Pope limited himself to asking that Jesus inspire "the political authorities and all people of good will on the American continent in the effort to pacify the political and social tensions affecting several countries". He made no direct reference, except for the later mention of the Haitian people. 

In short, the last time the Pope spoke publicly about the situation in Nicaragua was on August 21, following the arrest of Bishop Alvarez.

The Pope had made another reference on September 15, at the press conference on the return flight from Kazakhstan. "On Nicaragua," the Pope said, "the news is clear, all of it. There is dialogue, at this moment there is dialogue. There has been talk with the government, there is dialogue. This does not mean that everything the government does is approved or everything is disapproved. No. There is dialogue, and when there is dialogue it is because there is a need to solve problems. At this moment there are problems. At least I hope that Mother Teresa of Calcutta's nuns will return. These women are good revolutionaries, but of the Gospel! They do not make war on anyone. On the contrary, we all need these women. But let's hope they will come back and it will be resolved. But continue the dialogue. Never, never stop the dialogue. There are things that are not understood. Putting a nuncio on the border is a serious thing diplomatically, and the nuncio is a good guy, who has now been appointed elsewhere. These things are difficult to understand and also to swallow."

Signals from the Holy See 

Although the Pope had thus shown his displeasure at the dismissal of the nuncio, he preferred not to continue with formal protests and wall against wall. Dialogue, indeed. Thus, Archbishop Sommertag has been assigned another nunciature, that of Senegal, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau and Mauritania, and there is still no new "ambassador of the Pope" in Managua.

The decision to transfer the nuncio is not only a concession to Ortega's pressures. It is also a way of giving a signal. Because by vacating the nunciature, which is now headed by the chargé d'affaires, a clear signal is given that the Holy See is not legitimizing, through dialogue, the actions of the government. 

It is a protest that has strong diplomatic language, and indicates that the Holy See in no way wants to legitimize Ortega's actions. But the signal appears to be one of surrender, and understandably so.

The accusations against the bishop

Among other things, because it encounters a difficult situation, which is that of Bishop Alvarez. He was arrested along with 18 other priests in the episcopate of Matagalpa on August 19, 2022. Since then he has remained under arrest, and is now being tried on charges of subversion and attacking democratic principles. The news reports speak of clandestine hearings, held in secret and without the possibility for the bishop - who is also administrator of Esteli - to appoint a lawyer. 

Therefore, two alternatives remain: either the bishop serves a harsh sentence for "criminal conspiracy aimed at harming national integrity and disseminating false news to the detriment of the State and society", or the bishop leaves the country, going into self-exile. The latter solution would allow the Ortega presidency to get out of the affair, which has provoked widespread international protests.

Alvarez's arrest was the culmination of a series of activities against the Church and human rights in general. Among the highlights: some Mother Teresa missionaries have been expelled within hours, accused of aiding terrorism and other things; local Church magazines, newspapers and television channels have been shut down with administrative orders; hundreds of political prisoners and presidential candidates are in jail.

Pontifical diplomacy

Pope Francis, however, has decided not to tackle the situation head-on, but rather to guide the local bishops towards a dialogue that could also have its drawbacks, but which nevertheless keeps contact with the local reality alive. 

There have been diplomatic contacts, even at a high level - in August 2018, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, had a phone call with the then Vice President of the United States, Peter Pence, on the issue - but, in general, the Pope prefers to leave the decision in the hands of the local Churches, which are accompanied by papal diplomacy and on which he only intervenes on rare occasions.

It is a common policy, which is also applied in Nicaragua. It remains to be seen to what extent it will be successful.

The authorAndrea Gagliarducci

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