A jailed bishop is 'Gandhi' for Nicaraguans against their dictatorship
Last week, Nicaraguan media tied to Daniel Ortega's dictatorship released a video of Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando Alvarez. It was taken at La Modelo, a Managua prison notorious for torture and other human rights abuses — the penitentiary where Alvarez last month was sentenced to serve 26 years for being a “traitor to the homeland” because he opposes Ortega’s brutal regime.
In the video, Alvarez says he’s being treated OK — but then somewhat impishly asks his interviewer: “Do I look healthy to you? How does my face look?”
The health of Alvarez — who is the bishop of Matagalpa, Nicaragua — matters a lot these days to Nicaraguans at home and abroad. Last month, Ortega exiled 222 political prisoners to the U.S. He also wanted to send Alvarez out of Nicaragua, as he's done with several other Catholic clerics in recent months. But the bishop refused to leave his jail cell until all of the almost 40 political prisoners who still remain behind bars in the country are freed.
That’s made Alvarez arguably the most important and popular symbol of democratic resistance left in Nicaragua — even for non-Catholics like Carla Rosalina Mendoza.
“He is absolutely the hero of Nicaragua," says Mendoza, a Nicaraguan exile democracy activist and construction sales manager in Miami.
"There is nobody at this point more inspiring, more of a patriot, than Monsignor Alvarez.”
Mendoza — who held a poster of Alvarez at a musical event in Costa Rica last month in support of Nicaragua's political prisoners called "Grito de Libertad" (Shout of Freedom) — says she was raised Catholic but today is an Evangelical. Nonetheless, she knows how important it is in Nicaragua to see a Catholic leader stand up to Ortega the way Alvarez is.
That's especially important this week — Semana Santa, or Holy Week, the week before Easter — which is a sacred time for people in heavily Catholic Nicaragua. This year, Semana Santa is politically charged because of Alvarez's defiance — but also, Mendoza points out, because his plight has gotten Pope Francis to finally confront Ortega more seriously.
The Church and Ortega, in fact, are in a showdown at the moment. Francis recently said Nicaragua’s regime reminds him of the Soviet and Nazi dictatorships of the 20th century — the sort of slam that has the Vatican and the regime these days looking close to severing diplomatic ties. (The Vatican, in fact, closed its embassy in Managua last month.)
“Nobody’s surprised the Ortega regime is trying to overthrow the Catholic Church," says Mendoza, "because [the regime knows] that the people are not with [Ortega] — because Monsignor Alvarez can see the needs of the people.”
Those who know him say it’s his ability to communicate with the people that makes Alvarez, the son of a working-class family, more of a threat to the leftist Ortega.
One woman who worked with Alvarez and recently fled to Miami told me he’s “an unusually good listener for a Catholic bishop.”
"For example," said the woman (whom WLRN is not naming to protect her family in Nicaragua), "when Ortega started his corrupt gold mining efforts several years ago in Matagalpa province, it was Bishop Alvarez who led the processions against the environmental harm it was doing there."
In his resistance, Alvarez is acting in the perfect Gandhian way. He's really showing the Church the ethical and, in fact, the Christian way of doing things.Francisco Larios
Here in Miami, at St. Agatha Catholic Church near the Nicaraguan enclave of Sweetwater, Sunday masses now make regular mention of Alvarez. Exiled Bishop Silvio Báez opened one recent service extolling him:
“Bishop Alvarez,” Báez said, “is a just man, a just pastor, who’s showing the world how a just people act.”
But many Nicaraguans hope Alvarez’s example will teach the Catholic hierarchy itself how to act. He may have the Church looking heroic right now — but its relationship with Ortega is far more complicated.
“The Church was partly responsible for Ortega’s return to power," says Nicaraguan exile democracy activist Francisco Larios.
Larios is a Miami-Dade College economics professor who last month published the book Contra el Poder: Nicaragua y la Lucha por la Libertad en América Latina (Against Power: Nicaragua and the Fight for Freedom in Latin America). He points out Ortega was first president of Nicaragua in the 1980s — and that, as a left-wing revolutionary leader then, Ortega regularly butted heads with the Catholic Church and conservative Pope John Paul II.
That helped get Ortega defeated in his 1990 re-election bid. But he won the presidency again in 2006 — this time in no small part because he cozied up to the Church, particularly by supporting the total ban on abortion the bishops wanted (and got).
As a result, Larios argues too many Nicaraguan bishops in return got too cozy with Ortega, in spite of his authoritarian bent. He says many Catholic leaders since have been reluctant to challenge him — including Pope Francis, who is often criticized for being soft on leftist regimes in Latin America.
But Alvarez, Larios feels, is a crucial exception.
“In his resistance he is acting in the perfect Gandhian way," Larios says, referring to the 20th-century Indian independence hero and non-violent resistance legend Mahatma Gandhi.
"Alvarez is really showing the Church the ethical and, in fact, the Christian way of doing things.”
Nicaraguan Catholic leaders, including the top prelate there, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, insist they're acting as brokers pushing Ortega toward the restoration of democracy. But critics like Larios insist that's a pipe dream — Ortega, for example, jailed every one of the dozen candidates who opposed his presidential re-election bid in 2021 in order to ensure his victory — and argue Alvarez's aura isn't meant to foster negotiation but to galvanize broader resistance at home and more pressure on the regime from abroad.
If so, however, that's partly why there's still a fear Ortega may expel the Catholic Church — like communist Cuba did in the 1960s — if only to neutralize Alvarez's magnetic standing among Nicaraguans. One gauge, some suggest, will be whether Ortega allows Semana Santa processions this week, especially the largest on Good Friday, or prohibits them to keep them from morphing into anti-government demonstrations.
Either way, if Ortega does cast the Church out of Nicaragua, he'd be rid of arguably the last real institutional defense against his regime’s cruelties. (Human rights groups say his security forces were responsible for killing more than 300 protesters during nationwide demonstrations in 2018.)
“Nicaragua is in the eye of a human rights hurricane,” says Marcos Carmona, head of the Miami office of the Permanent Commission on Human Rights in Nicaragua (CPDH), who says he came to Miami last year after his own family suffered regime persecution and violence.
“If Ortega gets rid of the Church, that will be the gravest sign yet that the storm is just going to get darker.”