The scorched earth campaign of Nicaragua’s authoritarian regime, led by President Daniel Ortega and first lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo, has a new target. After jailing seven leading opposition candidates in last year’s sham presidential campaign, shuttering several top-tier universities and dissolving thousands of civil society organizations, the regime has taken aim at the Catholic Church. The message, it seems, is that there is room for only one church in this majority-Catholic country: the one that worships Ortega and Murillo.
The ruling couple’s latest crackdown produced one of the most iconic images of the long struggle for democracy in Nicaragua. Bishop Rolando Alvarez, the head of the diocese of Matagalpa, a city in the North, had already been holed up under house arrest since mid-August after authorities accused him of “organizing violent groups.” On Aug. 4, he was led out of Matagalpa’s Episcopal rectory at gunpoint and forced on his knees—not to genuflect, but to beg for his life. The image has become symbolic of the regime’s broader crackdown on Catholic leaders, which has intensified in recent weeks. The Ortega regime has arrested nearly a dozen men of the cloth in similar situations, accusing them of attempting to “destabilize” the country.
Ortega’s regime was not always at odds with the church. In 2006, Ortega found himself on the verge of returning to power, after spending 16 years in opposition following his loss in the 1990 presidential election. As a leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN, a guerilla movement that overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979, Ortega had been atheist to his core. But in his 2006 presidential campaign, he professed a love of Jesus and refashioned himself as an observant Catholic. Once inaugurated, Ortega supported some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world. His subsequent reelection campaigns featured a strong dose of religious symbolism, propaganda and the invention of new Catholic backstories for Ortega and his wife, Murillo. Ortega’s conversion was so convincing that he even managed to hoodwink the Catholic Church itself, erecting a kind of parallel, pro-government church and co-opting members of the clergy—which has a long history of activism in Nicaraguan politics—into supporting the FSLN’s political party.