Catholic Priests Are At The Forefront Of Nicaragua's Protests

One Catholic cardinal has called the Ortega government “demonic, based on envy and every kind of evil.”

Two weeks of protests against the government in Nicaragua have led to an estimated 60 people killed and more than 400 injured.

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But with many leaders in the country's Catholic Church backing the demonstrators, and the government quick to use the church as an enemy, the protests look unlikely to stop anytime soon.

The protests first swelled in numbers as Nicaraguans reacted to a proposed change in the country's pension system.

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Under the proposed plan, the government would raise income and payroll taxes while still cutting pension payments by 5%. That may not seem like a lot, but in a country where 30% of people live on $2 a day, that's a serious dip in available cash for many people.

The protests mark one of the biggest challenges to President Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista party's rule since he came into office for his most recent stretch in power in 2006.

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Ortega is actually on his second run as president, having seized power from the country's dictatorship in 1979. Once in power, the Sandinistas declared themselves a Marxist regime, staying in control of the country until Ortega lost the presidency in the 1990 election.

During the 1980s, the Sandinistas had a fraught relationship with the Catholic Church, which had supported the leftists during their battle to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship but quickly grew disillusioned with the party once it took power.


By 1983, when Ortega met Pope John Paul II (pictured above), Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo's fight with the Sandinistas had grown so great that the pope was actually interrupted repeatedly while trying to conduct mass during a visit to the country.

When running for election in 2006, Ortega promised that his time as a leftist was over, pledging to work closely with his former enemies in business and the church — an important concession in a country that's about 58% Catholic.

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But since returning to office, Ortega has steadily consolidated power, positioning allies throughout the legislative and judicial branches of government. He's won reelection twice since coming back — in 2011 and 2016 — after managing in 2014 to do away with term limits for the presidency entirely.

Ortega's governing style is also a family affair: His wife, Rosario Murillo, serves as his vice president. His children in turn "run the family’s business empire via a web of public-relations firms and media companies that functions as the government’s communications department."

But the pension fund scheme was a bridge too far for many Nicaraguans. Small protests in the capital, Managua, picked up soon after the announcement, leading to clashes between demonstrators and the police on Apr. 18.

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Police opened fire on the demonstrators with live bullets. At least 10 people were reported killed within the first four days of the marches.

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Initially, the repression only provoked more outrage and violence on the streets, as civilians began to arm themselves with makeshift weapons and shields to face down the police.

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Angering Nicaraguans further, Murillo reportedly referred to those killed as “vampires, needing blood to feed their political agendas,” in an Apr. 19 national radio address.

On Apr. 22, Ortega announced that he would no longer be promoting the pension reform plan — but that didn't prevent even more people from marching the next day.

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The United States and the United Nations both issued statements of concern about the death toll, and Pope Francis said he was “very worried over what’s happening these days in Nicaragua," adding that every “useless spilling of blood must be stopped.”

Nicaraguan Attorney General Inés Miranda on Thursday said that his office would be investigating the deaths that have occurred during the protests. "A responsible and formal investigation was started regarding the following acts: the loss of life of students, police and civilians; the injuries sustained by students, police, and civilians; looting and property damage, both public and private," Miranda said.

On Saturday, the Catholic Church broke a four-day lull in the protests with a massive march drawing people to the main cathedral in Managua.

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Much like during the 1980s, high-ranking members of the clergy haven't been shy about making their feelings known. During the rally, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes told protestors that Ortega had a month to reach a deal that would satisfy the people's demands. “The government has just one month to come through. If it doesn’t, the people will be told that it couldn’t,” Brenes said.

Brenes went on to call the Ortega government “demonic, based on envy and every kind of evil.”

“Blessed are those who thirst for justice, for they will be filled,” Brenes said. “The devil is always astute and always intervenes when we say the truth. The devil would want for us to remain in the dark.”

It was a message that resonated during the "march for peace and justice," as it was called, with many in the streets demanding changes beyond the pension deal.

Rodrigo Arangua / AFP / Getty Images

Unlike the previous demonstrations, Saturday's rally was entirely peaceful — either due to the massive size of the crowd or the religious overtone it held.

"The changes in social security were just the last straw," one woman told the Miami Herald on Saturday. "But they were doing so many things before — stealing elections, stealing government money, so much corruption."

Ortega and the Sandinistas held a rally of their own on Monday, with the president urging his supporters to stand by him against the Catholic Church.

Alfredo Zuniga / AP

“The love and care that we have for our undisputed leader, the commander-president, has to be expressed by a sea of people, to defeat that religious-political march of the right-wing church," a Sandinista communique announcing the rally read, according to the Miami Herald.

Tuesday is a national holiday in Nicaragua, with citizens taking the day off to celebrate the workers movement. But after that, the protests could take off again.

Jose Cabezas / Reuters

The 19th of April Student Movement, which has organized the student groups under one umbrella and issued a list of demands to the government, called for a halt in protests until Wednesday. But after that, Ortega will face another squeeze of pressure, one he may not be able to withstand.



A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.