Nicaragua has become a hot topic on Brazilian social media in recent days, after President Jair Bolsonaro (PL), members of his party and some of his supporters linked the authoritarian government of Daniel Ortega and cases of religious persecution in the country to the campaign of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT).
At an event with religious and evangelical believers in Juiz de Fora (MG) on Tuesday (16/8), Bolsonaro said that Ortega is an “ally” of the PT and has been persecuting Christians in Nicaragua. The president even referred to Lula as “uncondemned”.
“We are following what is happening in other South American countries, such as Nicaragua, where Catholic radio stations were closed, processions prevented,” he said.
This Thursday (18/8), the son of president and senator Flávio Bolsonaro (PL) shared a post on his Twitter profile that also mentioned the South American country. “A warning to Catholics and Evangelicals: In Nicaragua, Lula’s friend is arresting priests and closing churches! Watchman!”, he wrote.
On his Twitter page, Lula stated that he intends to treat “all religions with respect.” “Religion is for taking care of the faith, not for doing politics. I campaign respecting religion, and I don’t use God’s name in vain,” she wrote.
These are not the first times Bolsonaro and his allies have used the Daniel Ortega administration as an example of an undemocratic left.
Mentions of the government of the former Sandinista revolutionary have been increasingly present among supporters of the current president’s campaign to attack opponents.
But, after all, who is Ortega and what is his role in the current wave of repression in Nicaragua?
The oldest leader in the Americas
Short in stature and with big square glasses, Daniel Ortega didn’t look like a typical military man when he first caught the world’s attention in the 1980s.
However, as the leader of Nicaragua’s left-wing Sandinista revolution, he was credited with overthrowing a dictator and later US-sponsored rebels, who tried to block his quest for legitimate power.
Now in 2022, four decades later, Ortega has been sworn in for his fourth consecutive term as president after winning elections in November last year.
The electoral process was harshly criticized by the international community, which classified it as “undemocratic”, “illegitimate” and “without credibility”. More than 30 opposition leaders were arrested, including seven presidential candidates who were unable to run.
At the end of his current term, Ortega has been in power for 20 consecutive years. If we count other terms, he has held the chair of President of Nicaragua for a total of 29 years and is the longest-serving leader in the Americas.
To his supporters, he remains a true patriot. They call him Commander Daniel, in a mixture of reverence and affection.
His critics, who include many former allies, say he has become a corrupt and authoritarian ruler who has turned his back on his revolutionary ideals and is increasingly looking like the dictator he helped to depose.
The son of a shoemaker, Ortega was still a teenager when he joined the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
The group fought against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, whose family had ruled the country since 1936.
In the 1960s, the young man dropped out of law school to fully commit to the cause. When he was still in his 20s, he robbed a bank branch in the capital, Managua, with a machine gun in an attempt to raise funds. He was arrested and severely tortured for seven years in prison.
In 1974, he won early release — along with other Sandinistas — in a hostage exchange. The agreement called for his dispatch to Cuba and he used the opportunity to specialize in guerrilla tactics and then returned to his homeland, where the peasant-led uprising was about to escalate into a full-scale civil war.
The Sandinistas seized power in 1979, forcing President Somoza into exile. Ortega was elected his successor in 1984 after serving on the Sandinistas’ five-member “national reconstruction” council.
Most international observers recognized the 1984 election as free and fair, despite opposition complaints.
However, then US President Ronald Reagan called the election a “sham” and stepped up his support for counterrevolutionary armed groups known as the Contras.
This was at the height of the Cold War, when Washington saw the Sandinistas as a front for Soviet and Cuban communism, and a threat to US-backed governments across Central America.
Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans died in the Contra war and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) later ruled that the US violated international law in its intervention.
the first fall
Despite having made important gains, mainly in health, education and agrarian reform, the first Sandinista government was criticized for its economic failures.
The impact of the war with the Contras and US sanctions made economic reconstruction impossible.
In the 1990 presidential elections, Ortega was defeated by the liberal opposition candidate Violeta Chamorro, a former collaborator who broke with the increasingly radical Sandinistas and who formally ended the war.
A combination of corruption allegations and deep divisions within the Sandinista movement led Ortega to suffer two more electoral defeats in 1995 and 2001.
Between the two campaigns, his stepdaughter Zoilamérica Narváez accused him of repeatedly raping her as a child.
Ortega denied and avoided trial invoking his immunity as a member of Congress. His wife Rosario Murillo — a poet he met in prison — supported him, saying her daughter’s accusations were “shameful”.
Ortega and Murillo’s personal reputations were badly damaged by the scandal.
In 2006, Ortega made an unexpected comeback for that year’s presidential election campaign by moving away from his strong communist roots, saying he would seek foreign investment to alleviate widespread poverty — Forbes ranks Nicaragua as the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. .
In a campaign planned by his wife, the black and red Sandinista flags were largely replaced by pink campaign posters; the olive green military uniform was exchanged for white collarless shirts, and the Marxist slogans were exchanged for a vague commitment to “Christianity, Socialism and Solidarity.”
“Jesus Christ is my hero now,” he said, in an attempt at dialogue with the more religious population.
Days before he was elected, he sparked even more controversy by indicating that he would not be against a total ban on abortion. The move won praise from Catholic and evangelical leaders but angered liberal voters and human rights groups.
In 2009, Nicaragua’s Supreme Court removed constitutional obstacles to allowing Ortega to run for another term — a move the opposition condemned as illegal.
Other constitutional changes were made to allow him to run for a third consecutive term in 2016.
Many boycotted the vote, saying it was unfair as the opposition had been overruled. However, Ortega insisted that the changes were necessary for the country’s stability.
He chose his wife as his running mate in 2016. As vice president, Murillo is the more eloquent of the couple, often delivering lengthy speeches on television.
The uprising of 2018
In April 2018, pro-government groups violently repressed a small demonstration against reforms to Nicaragua’s pension system.
The outcry among Ortega’s critics turned the movement into a popular call for his resignation.
As the violence continued, a college student rose to prominence for calling Ortega a murderer in a televised debate.
In July, human rights groups said the number of people killed in protest-related violence had surpassed 300.
Ortega resisted calls to resign or call for elections. Murillo attributed the crisis to “an invasion of evil spirits who want evil to reign in Nicaragua.”
More recently, accusations of persecution against the Catholic Church in the country have multiplied.
Tension between Daniel Ortega’s government and the institution has grown since clergy provided shelter to students involved in the 2018 protests.
According to a survey sent to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and published in July, the Catholic Church in Nicaragua has suffered more than 190 attacks and desecrations in less than four years.
In 2019, the auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez, left the country after receiving several death threats.
In March of this year, the government expelled the Apostolic Nuncio — the Catholic Church’s equivalent of an ambassador — in a move the Vatican called an “unjustified unilateral move.”
In July, Missionary Nuns of Charity of Santa Teresa, an order founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, were forced to leave the country after their organization was ruled illegal.
In addition, according to the official Vatican news agency, the bishop of the Diocese of Matagalpa (north of the country), Archbishop Álvarez, and six priests, have since August 4 been prevented from leaving the bishopric where they live, which is surrounded by special forces. from the police.
President Ortega himself accused the Catholic clergy of being “coupists” and called them “demons in cassock”.
The presidency of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) said it had sent a letter to the president of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, Archbishop Carlos Enrique Herrera Gutiérrez, to express its solidarity with the current situation of the Catholic Church in the country.
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“We feel deeply united with our brother bishops and with the entire Nicaraguan people,” said the CNBB in the released letter.