Ortega's Jesuit ban hardens the crucifixion of Nicaraguan democracy
COMMENTARY Outlawing the Jesuits isn't just a final gut punch to Nicaragua's democracy — it's an epic betrayal that seals Daniel Ortega's place in Latin American history as a power-poisoned snake.
Dictators often end up confirming they’re dictators not so much by persecuting their opponents — but by turning on their allies.
So it is with Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega and his assault on the Jesuits.
If there was any doubt that the leftist Ortega is cut from the same brutish cloth of the right-wing tyranny he fought as a guerrilla a half century ago, it has now vanished like fog clearing over Lake Managua.
Not because he and his equally bruto security forces killed or jailed more dissidents — although they’re perfectly, sinisterly capable of doing so at the drop of a red beret — but because they’ve suddenly outlawed the Roman Catholic Jesuits from Nicaragua and seized the Jesuit-run Central American University, or UCA, ludicrously branding it a “center of terrorism.”
The moves, begun last week, feel like a final gut punch to any hope of restoring democracy in Nicaragua, since the UCA was widely regarded as the country’s last sanctuary of independent intellectual activity. But it’s also an epic piece of two-faced betrayal that seals Ortega’s place in Latin American history as a power-poisoned snake.
Nicaragua’s Jesuits — part of the order of priests that Pope Francis belongs to — were once clerics Ortega could count on for help.
They supported him and his left-wing Sandinista rebel army when they overthrew Nicaragua’s brutal Somoza dictatorship in 1979. The UCA director at the time, a Jesuit priest named Juan Bautista Arrién, publicly sided with students demonstrating against the Somoza regime. In 1990, the UCA even conferred an honorary doctorate on Ortega.
In fact, when Ortega governed Nicaragua in the 1980s, a Jesuit priest, the late Fernando Cardenal, joined his cabinet, albeit naively, as education minister. The conservative Pope John Paul II had Cardenal booted out of the Jesuits as a result. (He was later let back in.) But it pointed up the order’s more progressive leanings, especially in Latin America.
So did its martyrdoms — especially the cold-blooded murders of six Jesuit priests (and their housekeeper and her daughter) in nearby El Salvador in 1989 by the military there. El Salvador’s right-wing government considered them partners of that country’s leftist guerrillas because of their commitment to aiding the poor.
Ortega has strangled any civic or moral value he's ever claimed to stand for, while Jesuits have largely continued to defend Nicaraguans' rights and welfare.
It’s chilling to recall that those Jesuits taught and lived at El Salvador’s own Central American University — its own UCA — given what's happening now in Nicaragua. Even though Ortega, so far, hasn’t committed any violence against the Jesuits who ran Nicaragua’s UCA, over the weekend he did have them evicted from their order residences there.
And here's why: while Ortega has strangled every civic and moral value he at least claims he once stood for, the Jesuits have largely continued to stand up for Nicaraguans’ rights and welfare.
After winning Nicaragua’s presidency again in 2006, Ortega mounted a ruthless caudillo crusade to ensure he’d never give it up again. By 2018, Nicaraguans had decided he was their new Somoza — and the Jesuits no longer had his back. Jesuit and UCA rector José Idiáquez, like Arrién, did side with students — but this time against Ortega and his vicious response to their street protests, a regime crackdown that killed more than 300 people.
Since then, a vengeful Ortega has gone to war with the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. Last year he even kicked Mother Teresa’s order of nuns out of the country and imprisoned the Bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Alvarez, sentencing him to 26 years for “treason.”
And now he’s crushing the one institution that, in the minds of many Nicaraguans, stood between them and dictadura total.
It’s of course reminiscent of when Cuba’s communist dictator, the Jesuit-educated Fidel Castro, all but expelled the Catholic Church from the island in the early 1960s — despite the fact that even he admitted it had given his revolution “very substantial assistance.”
But there’s something even more disturbing about Ortega banishing the Jesuits.
They have their faults, for sure. But when I once taught at a Jesuit-run Fe y Alegría elementary school in a Caracas slum, I observed first-hand the critical role they’ve played for centuries in Latin America as champions and educators of the poor and disenfranchised.
Those are the people we now know Daniel Ortega has never championed more than he champions himself.