Nicaragua’s Catholic Church: A Nuanced Conflict

Antonio Castillo, PhD
4 min readSep 2, 2022


Orlando Valenzuela/Getty Images

The Catholic priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal was a moral figure of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, FLSN, the left-wing political party and guerrilla movement that ended the US-backed Somoza dictatorship in 1979.

In 1990 Ernesto Cardenal resigned from the FLSN. Father Cardenal, who died in 2020, charged Daniel Ortega — the current dictatorial president — with betraying the revolution’s ideals. ‘Those who now govern calling themselves Sandinistas are not,’ Cardenal declared.

Unlike Cuba, the Nicaraguan revolution was never secular. Liberation Theology highly influenced the Nicaraguan Revolution. Many priests joined the guerrilla fight and the post-revolution period — this was the case of Miguel D’Escoto, Edgard Parrales, Uriel Molina, Gaspar García Laviana and Fernando Cardenal, brother of Ernesto Cardenal

‘Between Christianity and revolution, there is no contradiction’ was a popular 1980s belief. And yet, the Sandinistas and Nicaragua’s Catholic Church have had, to say the least, a patchy historical relationship.

The ideological contradictions between the Sandinistas and the Catholic Church are fundamental to this fickle historical relationship. In the 1980s, the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, led by archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, adopted the US view of the Sandinistas as a communist expansion threat.

Catholic leaders have often backed the country’s conservative elite. In 1985, Pope John Paul II named Obando y Bravo as Cardenal, who became the standard bearer of the fight against the Sandinistas and exponents of the Liberation Theology. In the 1996 elections, Obando y Bravo called to vote against Ortega. Defeated and infuriated, Ortega began a systematic campaign against the Catholic hierarchy.

After three failed attempts, Ortega returned to power in 2007. In another turn of events, Ortega’s victory was due to the support received from Cardenal Obando y Bravo. In the campaign, Ortega made an offer the conservative Catholic hierarchy couldn’t refuse. He championed an unforgiving law that placed Nicaragua among a tiny group of nations that criminalise abortion under any circumstances.

To ingratiate himself even further with the Catholic Church, Ortega renewed the wedding vows with Rosario Murillo, now his vice-president, in a mass officiated by Cardenal Miguel Obando y Bravo. Between 2007 to 2018, Ortega disbursed nearly US$20 million in donations to Catholic and Evangelical churches. An investigation by Connectas, an independent digital media, of the almost 20 million, 44.21 per cent was directed to the Catholic Church and 12.50 per cent to protestants.

The rest, 43.29 per cent, went to the Catholic University Redemptoris Mater, a private university founded in 1992 by Cardenal Miguel Obando y Bravo. The first Central American native-born Cardinal, Obando y Bravo, died in 2018. Ortega was left without a formidable Catholic ally in the worst year of his fourth consecutive term.

On April 18, 2018, Nicaragua exploded into nationwide protests in reaction to Ortega’s social security reforms — reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund, IMF. In Latin America, street protests can quickly oust a government.

Hence, Ortega’s repression has been brutal. Paramilitary groups are doing the dirty work. Leading political leaders, including many Sandinistas, are now in prison. Newspapers and radio stations have been shut down. Since 2018, Ortega has outlawed 267 NGOs, including women’s groups serving vulnerable communities.

The regime maintains over 190 people locked up for political reasons. Data from the monthly lists of the Mechanism for the Recognition of Political Prisoners, at least 34 of these prisoners are in the cells of the El Chipote, the heinous Managua jail. It was here, in El Chipote, where former Sandinista guerrilla Hugo Torres Jimenez, one of 46 opposition figures jailed since last year, died last February at 73.

The Catholic Church has played a crucial role in Nicaragua’s social explosion. Since the protests broke out, priests have called for marches and hunger strikes. Managua’s cathedral has sheltered student demonstrators and has been a place for collecting food and money to support them. The Managua Jesuit-run Central American University provided refuge for student protesters.

Catholic priests and institutions are under siege. Rosario Murillo, the wife of Ortega and the country’s vice-president, has been vitriolic — ‘ sons of the devil,’ she has called Catholic priests. In less than four years, the Catholic Church has suffered 190 attacks and desecrations, including a fire in the Cathedral of Managua. Not even the nuns from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity have been spared — last July, the nuns were expelled, and the organisation was stripped of its legal status.

In the last five months, the Ortega regime has increased its persecution of the Church, accusing them of being ‘terrorists.’ The conflict has been further exacerbated by the detention of Bishop Rolando Álvarez, the most outspoken critic of Ortega. Álvarez is the Bishop of Matagalpa, Nicaragua’s seventh largest city. The government has shut eight Matagalpa province radio stations, seven of them run by Álvarez.

Managua and Vatican City are separated by almost 10,000 kilometres. The long wait for a reaction from Pope Francis to the crisis in Nicaragua finally came about on August 21. ‘I follow closely with concern and pain the situation created in Nicaragua, which involves people and institutions,’ the pontiff said after the Sunday angelus in St. Peter’s Square.

However, Francis didn’t mention the detention of clerics or condemn Daniel Ortega’s despotism. Pope Francis is from the Global South — a Latin American. He knows Latin American conflicts are far more nuanced than the unnuanced binary, good vs evil, constructed by commentators of the Global North. The crisis in Nicaragua is not clear-cut.

Originally published at



Antonio Castillo, PhD

Latin American journalist and senior academic at RMIT University, Melbourne — Australia