Following the game plan of his Cuban communist mentor Fidel Castro, Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega is violently cracking down on the church, and Papa Che apparently doesn’t care. For a pope so vocal about “injustice” in free nations, he seems to lose his voice when it comes to injustice in leftist dictatorships.
While Nicaragua Burns, Rome Fiddles
Pope Francis stands back while dictator Daniel Ortega persecutes the faith.
Welcome to the world of arbitrary justice under the military dictatorship of Daniel Ortega. The defendants, arrested more than three months ago, face the possibility of long jail sentences for the crime of exercising freedom of conscience against the atrocities of the regime—their moral responsibility.
Meantime, Rolando Álvarez, bishop of Matagalpa, branded a dissident for his witnessing of the faith, has been detained since August. He’s the second bishop to be targeted. In 2018 Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Báez of Managua was assaulted by the Ortega paramilitary.
It’s no surprise that Mr. Ortega is desperate to silence the church. The Castro acolyte recognizes the threat it presents to his rule, not unlike the church in Poland during Soviet times.
Harder to fathom is the failure of Pope Francis to demand protection for his Nicaraguan flock and their local shepherds. In 2019 as attacks on Bishop Báez escalated, Rome pulled him out of the country. It was a move that smacked of abandonment in a time of crisis. In August Francis tweeted his “concern” about the persecution and desire for “peaceful coexistence.” Mush. Similar to their brethren in China, Venezuela and Cuba, who also have been left to fend for themselves, Nicaraguan Catholics are bewildered by Vatican timidity.
Mr. Ortega ruled the country with an iron fist in the 1980s, after his Sandinista army toppled another dictator, Anastasio Somoza.
Comandante Ortega mouthed concern for the poor but it soon became clear that he was interested only in power and money. He was as ruthless with the highland peasants and coastal Miskito Indians as he was with the urban elite. Confiscated property was promptly divided among the top rebel leadership in what became known as the infamous “piñata.”
Mr. Ortega agreed to a 1990 election with international observers, convinced he would win. He lost in a landslide. If not for the corruption of former President Arnoldo Alemán, Mr. Ortega might never have returned to power in 2006. Mr. Alemán’s political faction in the legislature agreed to lower the threshold for a first-round presidential-election victory to 35% in exchange for prosecutorial protection from the Sandinistas. Once back in the executive office, Mr. Ortega used Venezuelan largess to consolidate his power and destroy Nicaraguan democracy.
Nicaraguan clerics have spoken out for years against Ortega tyranny, which has been getting worse since the spring of 2018. That’s when student protests against the government’s failure to contain a fire in a national park spread among the wider population.
Sources of popular discontent included a proposed social-security tax increase and cuts to benefits. His assault on the press and refusal to let go of power after more than a decade added to the outrage against the modern-day Somoza. In battling the uprising, Ortega police, military and paramilitary killed 355demonstrators over three months.
Last year, as Mr. Ortega prepared for his fourth run for the presidency, he locked up dozens of political opponents. The regime reported he “won” the election with 75% of the vote.
Dozens of Ortega adversaries, including seven who had declared their intention to run for president, are serving lengthy sentences. Arturo Cruz, who was Mr. Ortega’s ambassador to Washington from 2007-09, got nine years and is under house arrest. Cristiana Chamorro, a daughter of former President Violeta Chamorro, is serving an eight-year sentence at home.
Economist Juan Chamorro, also a member of the former president’s family, and political scientist Felix Maradiaga, both aspiring candidates, each received 13-year sentences. They are held in El Chipote, as are lesser-known regime critics like Lesther Alemán—no relation to the former president—a 24-year-old student leader who got 13 years. Dora María Téllez, one of many former anti-Somoza rebels who have been jailed, received eight years. Human-rights groups say the dictatorship currently holds 235 political prisoners.
In testimony before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in November, Christopher Ljungquist, an adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, described the repression against Nicaragua’s Catholic priests and bishops. An “incendiary device” detonated inside the Managua Cathedral in 2020, he said, was one of some 200 attacks on the church since 2018.
“This year the Sisters of Charity were expelled from the country; scores of priests have been either exiled or have fled, and many face major obstacles in entering and leaving Nicaragua,” Mr. Ljungquist said. Catholic radio stations have been shut down after criticizing the government’s abuses. In the past six months, 11 priests have been “kidnapped” by the regime—taken away with no due process. Pope Francis is missing in action.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.