A famous leftist revolutionary, hoping to shore up electoral support, backs a strict pro-life law. A government minister genuflects in front of the Pope. A radio station is punished for replacing a presidential address with the rosary. Welcome to the politics of Nicaragua, where Catholicism and revolutionary socialism have clashed amid a national tragedy.
That drama has thrilled and horrified the world, as the archives of this magazine can attest. From 1979, when Daniel Ortega’s socialist Sandinistas seized power from the oligarchic Somoza regime, our coverage, along with that of other publications, grew and grew. In 1979, we were reporting that “the bishops were particularly concerned by reports that some followers of the Somoza government had been executed or were missing, that private property was being nationalised indiscriminately and that the system of relief distribution did not help the most needy”. The bishops believed the Sandinistas were trying to suborn the Church to political ends.
But some clergy were right behind the government. Liberation theologians took part in Ortega’s revolution. In breach of Church law, four priests became ministers, including the hirsute poet Fr Ernesto Cardenal. In 1983, when St John Paul II stepped off the plane, Fr Cardenal greeted him reverently, theatrically removing his beret and genuflecting. John Paul gently told him: “Regularise your position with the Church.”
The Pope’s visit confirmed his fears about the Sandinistas. At an open-air Mass, the crucifix was replaced by banners of Marx and Nicaraguan revolutionaries. Militants disrupted the Mass with political slogans.
John Paul II’s opposition to liberation theology helped to exacerbate tensions between the bishops and the Sandinista government. In 1984, the government claimed that one priest was conspiring to overthrow Ortega’s regime. The priest said the video allegedly proving the claim was a fabrication, and in scenes redolent of current events, Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo of Managua led a protest march. In response, the government threw 10 foreign priests out of the country. Later a bishop was expelled for his vocal opposition.
That was a microcosm of a bigger, bloodier conflict. A loose coalition of rebels (the “Contras”), heavily backed by the Reagan administration, took up arms. The cost of warfare, combined with US sanctions and the Sandinistas’ botched economic reforms, drove the country to its knees.
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