Ever since April 23, legitimate peaceful demonstrations both for and against Nicaragua's Sandinista government have taken place in the shadow of murderous violence and extortion by opposition paramilitaries allied with organized crime. To date, over 110 people have been killed and more than 1,100 injured, the great majority government supporters, police officers or bystanders. But opposition media and human rights NGOs systematically misrepresent their paramilitaries' murderous anti-democratic violence and falsely accuse the Sandinista government of unprovoked attacks and repression.
Even Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, has denounced the lies of Nicaragua's political opposition. The OAS has declared support for Nicaragua, recognizing the contribution of the government to a peaceful resolution of the current crisis. In that somber context, Nicaraguans of all political opinions were deeply saddened by the death of Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo on June 3 at the age of 92.
Cardinal Obando was archbishop of Managua all though the 1970s insurrection against the Somoza dictatorship, serving as a mediator to resolve stand-offs between Sandinista guerrillas and the Somoza regime, one of which led to the liberation of Daniel Ortega from prison in 1974. But during the 1980s, Archbishop Obando became a strong critic of the Sandinista revolutionary government, in the end openly supporting the Contra fighters supported by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The anti-Communist Pope John Paul II made Miguel Obando y Bravo Nicaragua's first ever cardinal in 1985.
Later, Cardinal Obando was a key figure facilitating the peace negotiations that ended the Nicaraguan war in 1989, making possible elections in February 1990 and a peaceful transfer of power in April that year. But it took another decade before Cardinal Obando reconciled with the Sandinista National Liberation Front and its leader Daniel Ortega, to the point where he accepted in 2007 the new Sandinista government's request to preside over the country's Peace and Reconciliation commission. The commission worked to finally overcome the bitter divisions and hatreds left over from the time of Somoza and the U.S. government-supported 1980s terrorist war against the Sandinista Revolution.
From 2007 right up until his death, Cardinal Obando constantly promoted reconciliation at every level of Nicaraguan society. His unifying role as peacemaker and mediator gave prestige to the Catholic church in Nicaragua and moderated the divisive sectarianism of the country's more extreme right-wing bishops. Cardinal Obando died just a few days before the first anniversary of the death in June 2017 of his long-time antagonist Father Miguel d'Escoto, the liberation theology Maryknoll priest who served as Nicaragua's foreign minister all through the 1980s.
Cardinal Obando was very critical of Sandinista priests like Miguel d'Escoto for serving in Nicaragua's revolutionary government.
Obando and Father Miguel only really reconciled once the vindictive ban imposed by Pope John Paul II on Miguel d'Escoto's priestly office was lifted in August 2014 by Pope Francis, after 30 years of what amounted to relentless psychological abuse of Miguel d'Escoto by the Catholic church hierarchy. However, beyond their ideological and theological differences, both men shared an uncompromising commitment to peace and an ineradicable love for Nicaragua.
Cardinal Obando was committed to peace and reconciliation, but also passionately concerned about the future of the Catholic church in a time of increasing secularism and the growing challenge from evangelical churches. He clearly came to believe that both the future of his church and true national reconciliation necessarily required the kind of economic democratization embodied in the policies of President Daniel Ortega's Sandinista government. Perhaps that was his version of the liberation theology option for the poor concept, which inspired Miguel d'Escoto's vocation ever since his days as a priest in the most impoverished barrios of Santiago de Chile in the 1960s.
In Father d'Escoto's case, his uncompromising spirituality, advocacy of non-violence and practice of solidarity marked a lifetime of tireless public service and internationally recognized diplomatic achievements. The paths taken by both men ran parallel before converging at the very end of their lives. Cardinal Obando's death one year after Miguel d'Escoto signals the end of an era in Nicaraguan political and religious life. No one among Nicaragua's religious leaders, certainly among the Catholic bishops, begins to compare in terms of either achievement or prestige or moral and spiritual vision.
Nothing bears that out more clearly than the categorical failure of leadership by Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes in the current crisis provoked by the country's minority right-wing opposition. When President Daniel Ortega requested Nicaragua's Catholic bishops to mediate a dialogue process between the government and the opposition, he surely had in mind the role played by Cardinal Obando y Bravo ending the war of the 1980s. But Leopoldo Brenes and the country's Catholic bishops have neither the necessary political acumen, nor sufficient moral will and spiritual vision, nor an unambiguous commitment to peace.
So although Cardinal Brenes accepted the role of mediator, the dialogue itself was broken from the start because Brenes allowed the most right-wing bishops to dictate the agenda and the process. Bishop Abelardo Mata of Esteli directly attacked President Ortega the day the dialogue began. Bishop Rolando Alvarez of Matagalpa blatantly favored the minority opposition Civic Alliance agenda of regime change. Bishop Silvio Baez of Managua openly encouraged the protests and roadblocks to continue. Neither Leopoldo Brenes nor his bishops ever clearly condemned the violence by the Civic Alliance paramilitaries and their associated delinquent gangs.
Nor have they ever clearly called for an end to the roadblocks that have devastated Nicaragua's economy; caused hardship and death to Nicaraguans trying to get medical care, and thrown tens of thousands of Nicaraguans into unemployment. In just a matter of weeks, thanks to Cardinal Brenes' ineffectual leadership, he and his right-wing bishops have destroyed the prestigious role of the Catholic church so carefully nurtured by Cardinal Obando over his lifetime. An undeniable sign of that failure was an unprecedented declaration by Nicaragua's leading evangelical churches on June 5, stating:
"We propose to the government that if the Catholic bishops cannot agree among themselves to continue as mediators and given that the dialogue for peace cannot be allowed to expire or be delayed, then the OAS should be asked to mediate a broad National Dialogue incorporating representatives of political parties and the Evangelical church since the current structure of the dialogue is more sectoral than national and does not represent the 50 percent of the country's population that is evangelical." For the main evangelical churches to rebuke Nicaragua's Catholic bishops in those terms is unprecedented and shows how badly damaged Cardinal Brenes' credibility now is.
War of Attrition
In the current war of attrition for public opinion in Nicaragua, a growing majority of people increasingly see through the endless lies of the Civic Alliance opposition media and the hypocrisy of the Catholic hierarchy. On the other hand, President Daniel Ortega's unflinching commitment to reaching a non-violent resolution of the crisis via dialogue free of opposition paramilitary violence and roadblocks has overwhelming national support. Faced with the perverse violent onslaught of Nicaragua's U.S.-backed right-wing opposition, the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo has inherited and made its own the legacy of peace, reconciliation and non-violence left by Cardinal Miguel Obando and Father Miguel d'Escoto.