Church-State Relations A Chronology – Part I
Over two years have passed since envío published its last chronology on the Church in Nicaragua (No. 50, August 1985). Since that time, there has been decisive development: from an escalation to peak tension in mid-1986, relations between Church and State have moved to a solid and prolonged stage of detente.
With the war as a constant backdrop to our chronology, we now summarize and analyze Church-State relations and the life of the Catholic Church in general in Nicaragua from August 1985 to the present. Because of the unusual length of this article, we must print it in two installments. In this first one, we analyze the period of greatest tension: from August 1985 to July 1986, that is, from the evangelical insurrection to the deportation of Bishop Vega. Next month's article will deal with the stage of detente. For more details, interested readers may consult envío's "The Month" articles, where Church-State relations have been regularly covered.
The evangelical insurrection:When Father Miguel D'Escoto, Nicaragua's foreign minister, began a 40-day fast on July 7, 1985, he was responding in an original, dramatic and Christian way to the counterrevolutionary war.* The fasting and prayer "for peace, in defense of life and against terrorism" had considerable impact among groups of believers in many other countries as well as on the Nicaraguan people, many of whom made pilgrimages to Managua to join the fast for briefer periods. These days were meant to touch off an "evangelical insurrection" and open a "theological battlefront," in the struggle against Reagan's war.
*envío treated this fast and its historical, political and religious significance extensively in issues 49 and 50 (July and August 1985). The best detailed coverage and analysis of this event is found in Teófilo Cabestrero's book, A Cry to God and the World (San José, Costa Rica: DEI, 1986).
The foreign minister's fast lasted until August 6, a date chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. On that day what D'Escoto called the "first stage of the evangelical insurrection" came to a close with a Mass in the Monseñor Lezcano parish church in Managua, the site of the fast.
The following were some of the key moments during the fast:
* The Christian celebration of the sixth anniversary of the revolution in the city of León on July 14. Six thousand Christians from all over the country came together and took the "spark" of the evangelical insurrection back to their communities. This large gathering had an important multiplier effect, publicizing D'Escoto's act of denouncing the war on the national level. It also served as proof that such an act could successfully appeal to the religious conscience of Christians.
* The national celebration of the sixth anniversary of the revolution in Managua on July 19, where Father. Miguel's message, the central theme of President Ortega's speech to the nation, was heard and applauded by 300,000 people. It was an historic moment, demonstrating once again the power of religion within the ideological mosaic that is the Sandinista revolution.
* The celebration of a National Day of Fasting on July 26, which had a great impact on a wide range of social and ideological sectors throughout the country.
* The July 28 arrival of the Brazilian bishop, Dom Pedro Casaldáliga, and of the personal delegate of Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns of Sao Paulo, who brought an important message from the cardinal. This event gave the greatest international impact to the days of fasting and placed them squarely in the broader context of the "church of the poor" in Latin America.
During the fast Father D'Escoto issued several public messages stressing that Christians have a responsibility to respond to the war of aggression with specifically Christian signs, such as fasting and prayer. This first stage of the evangelical insurrection drove the following themes home to the nation and the Church: prayer to hasten the arrival of peace; the personal sacrifice of fasting in communion with those who are suffering most in the war; denunciation of the root causes of the US conflict with Nicaragua; and the vision of a world without violence "where guns are turned into ploughshares." These points had a strong effect despite Catholic hierarchy efforts to ignore the fast and deprive it of legitimacy in a communiqué referring to it indirectly as an initiative directed "to Catholics by private individuals."
The idea of the fast came out of an awareness of the pain and the complex situation brought about by the unequal war Nicaragua is facing. As Foreign Minister D'Escoto explained in a letter to President Ortega just days before starting his fast: “I am in a position to know better than anyone else the extraordinary efforts our government has made and continues to make to bring about normal relations with the United States and achieve an end to the aggression. Nevertheless, I’m more and more convinced that the kind of phenomenon we are facing is such that conventional defense methods are insufficient and should be augmented by methods that the Christian community can and should begin to use at once.”
In his message on July 7, 1985, at the start of his fast, D'Escoto said, “As a Nicaraguan and from the depth of my commitment as a priest, I am fasting and praying to accompany my people in their pain as they suffer the consequences of the aggression. My purpose is also to accompany our heroic soldiers who are risking their lives in defense of their country, and I want to pray for all my sisters and brothers who are bearing the cross that has been put on their shoulders by those who try to deny us the right to life.”
In a message to the Armed Forces of Nicaragua five days latter, he added, “The aggression we’re suffering is the consequence of our demand for a new kind of relationship with the United States. [Those who govern that country] are troubled and feel offended by our unyielding struggle for peace, justice and a society of brotherhood. They don’t want to be our brothers. They want to go on forever controlling us and telling us what to do. Since we don’t give up, they attack us. Since we don’t surrender, they escalate their attacks even more. We’re forced to defend ourselves and do it with the only means the world knows, which countries have always used, and are justified in law as well as in Christian theology. And I’m not referring to "the just war," because Nicaragua has not declared war on any country. We’re simply making use of the right to legitimate defense against an empire that is attacking us through its mercenaries.
“Our revolution is not violent. There is a tenderness and a fraternal quality about it; it struggles for life and for peace; it hates violence. Christ demands that in our efforts and work for the coming of God's Kingdom we develop new methods of struggle which eventually must replace the conventional methods.”
And on the National Day of Fasting, July 26, 1985, he said in his message, “We are fasting today as a sign that we’re struggling for a tomorrow in which we may be able to live in peace and justly distribute the goods of the earth, education, health, bread and celebration among all.”
Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga'sDom Pedro Casaldáliga, bishop of Sao Félix do Araguaia in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil, arrived on July 28 to spend two months in Nicaragua. He came to express the solidarity of the Church of Brazil with the Church of Nicaragua and to join Fr. D'Escoto in the fast, thus creating, in his words, a "Contadora of the spirit."
"Contadora of the spirit"
The bishop soon realized that the war Nicaragua was living through and the strained relationship between the Nicaraguan church of the poor and its bishops made other activities more pressing. He set forth on a round of mission visits to the interior of the country, visiting every diocese except the Atlantic Coast in what he called a "ministry of consolation." This meant that as a pastor he would share, if only briefly, the experience of the Christian and revolutionary people of Nicaragua, especially those most affected by the war.
Just one day after his arrival, Pedro Casaldáliga was in León presiding at the funeral of eight women, mothers of young men in military service, who had been killed in a contra ambush. Fourteen other women were wounded on that occasion. That same day, in La Trinidad, Estelí, Casaldáliga buried 12 young Sandinista soldiers, victims of another contra ambush. "This has been my baptism by blood," he said, deeply moved by a reality that until then he knew only from afar. Later, in an extensive report on his visit, he would say: "There’s a war in Nicaragua. People outside the country don't know that. And perhaps even within Nicaragua it’s not always kept in mind."
On his visits, which were brief but full of pastoral activity, the bishop celebrated the Eucharist in more than 20 cities, towns or small settlements. He also met with delegates of the word, catechists, members of religious congregations, priests and other pastoral workers. For peasants in the isolated war zones, one of the most striking things was to see a bishop who looked so unassuming, dressed so simply and poorly, showed no outward signs of being a bishop, and was approachable and kindly.
Bishop Casaldáliga's pastoral activity met with the displeasure of the Nicaraguan hierarchy which, through the daily paper La Prensa, described it as "interference." The hierarchy of Managua stated several times that Casaldáliga was celebrating Mass in the diocese without previously asking permission of Church authorities. Upon his arrival in Nicaragua the bishop had indeed made known to Cardinal Obando and the bishops' conference his intention to spend a certain amount of time in the country. Afterwards he tried to make personal contact with the bishops of Estelí and of León, the first dioceses he visited. In Estelí he got a brief and unplanned greeting from Bishop López Ardón. In León Bishop Barni was un willing to receive him. In fact, he did not succeed in his attempts to be received by any other bishop in Nicaragua.
Some days after Casaldáliga's arrival, Bishop Bosco Vivas, secretary of the Nicaraguan bishops' conference, sent a communiqué to the Brazilian bishops' conference in which he questioned Bishop Casaldáliga's presence in Nicaragua. In response the Brazilian bishops expressed their respect for the Nicaraguan bishops as well as for Bishop Casaldáliga himself and for his decision to go to Nicaragua.
Dom Pedro Casaldáliga's activity in Nicaragua was the start of the second stage of the evangelical insurrection launched with the fast for peace. Also part of this second stage was the International Week for Peace in Central America, in which representatives of 14 churches devoted eight days to reflection and prayer in order to strengthen their bonds of solidarity with Nicaragua. The Church of Brazil took further part in this event through the participation of Clodovis and Leonardo Boff and Frei Betto.
Casaldáliga's journey through Nicaragua had an important impact on practically all the pastoral workers and Christian communities organized in the church of the poor. The catechesis (teaching) that the bishop presented in the most remote locations of the country attempted to explain the meaning of the conflicts within the Church and discuss the attitude Christians should have regarding them. Many of those with whom Casaldáliga talked were peasants living in the mountainous interior who had worked with the FSLN when it was a guerrilla movement, and since the triumph had been involved in various tasks of the revolution—health, education, cooperatives, defense—as an expression of their Christian faith. For them it was a truly major event to hear a bishop expressing a clear, critical, yet hopeful vision of the meaning of the tensions in the Church. Casaldáliga's impact was even greater because after six years of revolution,the bishops' jealousies, prejudices and confrontations with the revolutionary process had made these committed revolutionary Christians feel isolated and abandoned.
"Nowhere have I found anyone," said Dom Pedro, "who is thinking of creating `another' Church. I tell the peasants that we don't want to create a parallel Church, but it is true that we’ll have to work in a parallel way, living with hope in the midst of conflict."
On the weekend of August 17-18, 1985, while the bishop was on his pastoral journey in the north, he witnessed the suffering of peasants caused by the war. Cooperative members in Achuapa (Chinandega) were burying 11 of their fellow members, all of whom belonging to Christian communities, who had been kidnapped and murdered by the contras. Some of the bodies the bishop blessed had been stabbed repeatedly; others pelted with rocks. One of the victims was Eligio Rocha, founder of the Christian communities in the area and a highly respected peasant leader. FDN propaganda leaflets proclaiming "the Pope is with us" and "Long live Reagan" were found near the bodies.
Upon his departure from Nicaragua, Pedro Casaldáliga said: "I am taking the whole length and breadth of Nicaragua with me in my heart," making a public commitment to come again in event of a US invasion. The Church of Nicaragua, and especially the war victims, drew much hope from its experience of his ministry of consolation.*
*Based on his Nicaraguan experience, Bishop Casaldáliga wrote Nicaragua: Combate y Profecía (Costa Rica: DEI, 1986).
Message from the "Cardinal of Peace":In the second half of 1985, as the Nicaraguan army gained the upper hand in the war against the US-financed contras, the ideological and political struggle once again became paramount. And Miguel Obando, named a cardinal in 1985, took center stage.
Dialogue with the contras
On his way home from Rome after being named cardinal, Obando stopped off in Miami, where he celebrated a Mass for Nicaraguan exiles, including contra leaders. After his arrival in Managua, the Cardinal set off on a marathon pastoral tour of the country, with massive public events and parades that showed signs of a strong personality cult developing around him. Between June 1985, when he started the tour, and October 15, when the state of emergency was renewed, the cardinal made more than 70 visits to neighborhoods, towns and cities of the Archdiocese of Managua and to departmental capitals throughout the country. Most of these visits took place at the same time as the major local feasts in the places he visited—days when tradition already calls for organizing public marches or processions in the streets. Obando inserted himself into these massive celebrations, making the most of all the symbols of his new authority (dressed completely in red, seated atop his flower-bedecked "cardinal-mobile").
Obando's visits to all the dioceses of the country, not a traditional action for a new cardinal, projected him even more strongly as the national Catholic Church authority, going beyond the limits of his own archdiocesan jurisdiction. On October 3 he was elected president of the bishops' conference, taking Bishop Pablo Vega’s place; this reinforced his importance, but also brought forth some signs of displeasure from other bishops.
On his visits, speaking in guarded language, the cardinal offered a solution to the nation's principal problems, the war and the economic crisis: the idea of dialogue between the government and the armed contras. He was repeating the message put forth by the bishops in a controversial pastoral letter of April 1984, which presented the US war of aggression against Nicaragua as a civil war, a war "between brothers."
Cardinal Obando was greeted as the "Cardinal of Peace" and the "Cardinal of Youth" by La Prensa and by reception committees, often headed by leading anti-government figures, in the places he visited. The FDN radio station "15th of September," based in Honduras, announced every one of the cardinal's visits as if it were part of their program of counterrevolutionary activities.
The state of emergency law, which had been applied quite flexibly since the 1984 electoral campaign, was applied more strictly with its renewal on October 15, 1985. This was a response to the complex situation inside Nicaragua, where the government judged it necessary to tighten political controls in order to insure continued success in the military arena. Many interpreted the renewal of the state of emergency as a legal mechanism aimed mainly at controlling and containing the cardinal, who seemed to be a focus for the contras' efforts to strengthen their hand by way of the religiosity of the masses. This was an old strategy but the counterrevolution seemed to be stressing it more, given their waning success in the battlefield and their inability to unite their civilian leadership.
The renewed state of emergency put some limits on the cardinal's feverish activity. If a visit included an open-air Mass or procession, the local parish priest had to ask for prior permission from the authorities. On some occasions this was granted, on others it was denied, depending on the political character of the event. With the renewal of the state of emergency, Radio Católica was prohibited from broadcasting the cardinal's homilies on his journeys.
Confiscation of the first edition of the bulletin “Iglesia,” just a few days before renewal of the state of emergency, was another sign that the increasingly strict application of emergency provisions had quite a bit to do with reining in the political campaign that seemed to be hiding behind the cardinal's red cape. Since September the archdiocese's Sunday flyer and La Prensa had been announcing the advent of this new biweekly church bulletin. The Ministry of Interior informed Father Carballo, archdiocesan director of communications, of the legal requirements for a new publication: according to a 1981 law: it would have to be registered officially, and as a requirement of the state of emergency in effect since March 1982 would have to be submitted for prior censorship. Carballo repeatedly turned a deaf ear to this legal advice, finally declaring that such requirements did not apply to the Church.*
*According to the Ministry of the Interior, Father Carballo never filled out the legal paperwork for the bulletin. In a press conference in Milan in July 1986, nearly a year afterward, Carballo insisted he had registered the bulletin but the Ministry of the Interior had later invalidated it.
The first run of 10,000 copies, out of a projected total of 20,000, came off the press on October 12. The government seized the whole run, a decision it justified by saying that the publication was illegal. It also took over the facilities of COPROSA (Archdiocesan Commission for Social Promotion), where the publication was printed, for the purposes of conducting an audit.* COPROSA was a cooperative that had never applied for legal status, yet received foreign funds, made loans as a financial institution and developed a whole series of activities parallel to those of the state in the fields of health, housing, teaching, food distribution, etc. The authorities, who knew about this, had previously turned a blind eye. The incident with the Church bulletin put an end to the government's tolerance and offered an opportunity for a legal investigation. Naturally, this worsened already tense relations between the government and the cardinal.
*In the July 1986 press conference in Milan, Carballo said that the government had notified the Church on April 9, 1986, that the installation and belongings of COPROSAL had been confiscated and were now the property of the state.
Immaculate Conception and ChristmasThe celebration of the Immaculate Conception (Purísima) begins at the end of November with novenas in many houses and culminates with massive evening mobilizations in the streets. The renewal of the state of emergency gave rise to rampant rumors that this celebration would be prohibited that year. Some priests helped spread the rumors while some government officials acted in such a way as to reinforce them.
In a November 23 communiqué from the Interior Ministry, the government made clear that the celebrations would take place just like every other year, without restrictions. And so they did. Fireworks were set off and the streets were filled with people celebrating and singing to the Virgin Mary. The only incident was on December 4, provoked by some anti-Sandinista individuals who, wanting to prove the rumors true, threw a bomb into a procession in Rivas, injuring 14 people, most of them children.
That December Cardinal Obando went to Rome with other Central American bishops, returning with a letter from the Pope. In it John Paul II urged the Nicaraguan bishops to fulfill their mission of reconciliation, alluding to the pastoral letter in which they had proposed dialogue with the contras as the "only way" to reconciliation. Implying that the Nicaraguan Church was being persecuted, the Pope stated that there had been growing "difficulties in pastoral work." Recalling the deportation of ten priests in July 1984, he said, "There has still been no reparation for this act."
He also spoke of "different forms of intimidation and humiliation against liturgical ministers and the Catholic faithful." This was surely a reference to numerous warnings issued by Ministry of the Interior authorities during those months to some Church officials and faithful who were carrying out religious activities with clear anti-revolutionary political content. They were told of the illegality of their conduct, especially in the wake of the renewal and tightening of the state of emergency.
The Pope ambiguously referred to the war as a "painful reality that you have been experiencing on a daily basis for some time now, with suffering and deprivation, pain and uncertainty." Recalling his letter of June 1982, the Pope underlined the importance of unity and cohesion in the Church. But in spite of its content, the letter had a relatively mild impact—nothing comparable, for instance, to the political and religious impact of his 1982 letter.
In the midst of all this, Bishop Pablo Vega of the Juigalpa diocese gave a surprising and hopeful sign of detente. During the Christmas season the bishop, who has always been very critical of the law requiring military service, celebrated a Mass in his cathedral for young men who had finished their military duty after two years of fighting the contras. After he spoke, the mothers of the young men also spoke from the pulpit, as did one of the young men. At the end of the Mass, Bishop Vega embraced them, saying: "Nicaragua needs these men."
On December 30 the bishop celebrated Mass for the prisoners in Region V. In his homily he said hat he had been exchanging points of view with Agustín Lara, the President's delegate in the area. "In spite of our obvious and clear ideological differences," Bishop Vega said, "we have always looked for openings and common ground."
But this detente proved short-lived. With the closing of Radio Católica in January 1986 for refusing to carry the President's year-end message, a period of renewed and even sharper tensions set in. They were played out against the backdrop of Reagan's campaign for $100 million for his counterrevolutionary war.
Cardinal goes to bat for $100 millionIn early 1986, as the battle for the $100 million in contra aid was heating up, Cardinal Obando made several visits in the United States. In January he talked in Washington with Pérez de Cuellar and Baena Soares, secretaries general of the United Nations and the Organization of American States, respectively, and told them about the persecution that, according to him, the Nicaraguan Church was experiencing. The cardinal asked Pérez de Cuellar to step in to improve Church-State relations, but the UN secretary general rejected the proposal as inappropriate for someone in his position.
In New York the cardinal made a number of very critical statements about the Nicaraguan government, without referring to the suffering caused by the US-financed counterrevolutionary violence. "We will not take any measures regarding the cardinal," said President Ortega in a "De Cara al Pueblo" session at the time, "but we do think he should correct his political position." Although a writer in one Nicaraguan newspaper referred to the cardinal as the "ambassador of the counterrevolution," criticism of him in the papers was generally more subdued than on other occasions of conflict.
On his return from the United States, the cardinal stopped in Honduras, where he celebrated Mass for the members of the Honduran Armed Forces at the sanctuary of Suyapa. There he insisted that he was not a politician and that his struggle was only "against sin." On his return to Nicaragua, La Prensa's headline proclaimed: "Thousands and thousands of Nicaraguans await him," although in fact only some 100 people were at the airport.
The Way of the Cross for Life and Peace, launched in mid-February by Father Miguel D'Escoto, must be understood within this context: the start of the military defeat of the contras, the most sustained political campaign by Reagan to date for funds for the contras, and the new stage of ideological convergence between Reagan Administration rhetoric and statements issued by the cardinal and certain other church leaders.
Jalapa to Managua for Peace and LifeAt dawn on the first Friday of Lent (February 14), 100 Christians set forth from Jalapa with Father D'Escoto. The march was led by an image of Jesus carrying the cross and by a banner proclaiming: "We are marching from Jalapa with the God of Peace and Life." Their goal was to cover more than 300 kilometers in 15 days, arriving in Managua on the 28th. Each day they would reflect on one station of the Way of the Cross, a very popular religious practice in Nicaragua.
Joining the procession along the way, more than 100,000 Nicaraguans took part, although only 70 actually made the entire journey. The most notable participant was Gregorio Martínez, a 76-year-old veteran of Sandino's army who had lost eight of his twelve grandchildren to contra bullets. He walked the whole way.
In launching the Way of the Cross, Fr. Miguel said, "We have become convinced that this is the time to act, to carry out profoundly significant prophetic actions against the war imposed on Nicaragua." The Way of the Cross thus became a powerfully symbolic denunciation of the war and a pastoral work to give Christian encouragement, a "ministry of consolation" to those who live in the northern war zones through which the procession passed.
The history of those days is rich in picturesque, moving and revealing episodes: those disabled by the war, always at the head of the march in their wheelchairs;* the generosity of the residents of the most isolated settlements, who welcomed the pilgrims into their homes and shared their food with them; the prayers and community reflections in the countryside; the meetings of Sandinista soldiers with Fr. Miguel; and also the rejection of the Way of the Cross by some parishes that closed their doors to the pilgrims.
*At the ninth station, 26-year-old Ricardo Pérez Olivares, said from his wheelchair: "Before the revolution there was polio and there were wheelchairs. Now we have completely eradicated the polio virus, but regrettably we now have the Reagan virus, his bullets, which every day disable humble people fighting for peace and life."
On the second day, at a settlement of people displaced by the war, Fr. D'Escoto called on the contras to accept the amnesty provisions in effect since January 1985: "We’re keeping the contras in all our prayers, and we say to them that they should return to Nicaragua, that something is being achieved here that is really winning the world's admiration and respect. This project is for them, too." In Ocotal he repeated this call, referring to the contras as brothers who left "because they were kidnapped or deceived" and offering them pardon.
On February 17 the pilgrims, now in Ocotal, received word that contras had murdered Swiss volunteer Maurice Demierre and three peasant women the night before as they were returning home from participating in the Way of the Cross for Peace in Somotillo. Demierre, a committed Christian, had worked for three years with the area’s peasant cooperatives. His body, riddled with bullets, is buried in the park in Somotillo, near the people he served.
On the 18th, their ranks now swollen to 15,000, they walked into Palacaguina, where a young man who had just finished his military service told them: "I have finished my two years not just because of the law, but for peace. I spent two years dreaming of peace."
In Condega Fr. D’Escoto introduced a theme into the pilgrimage that would come to be a central message of the march—a dramatic call to the bishops of Nicaragua:
“I would say that the evangelical insurrection has been touched off. That fire has now been sparked in the hearts of Nicaraguans. But the problem is that the hearts of some religious leaders are neutral, lukewarm. With the authority of a son of God, I say to the bishops that they should reconcile themselves with their people and ask forgiveness for having remained quiet about the crimes. They have gone to Washington and Miami, and here among their people they have said nothing. Some of our bishops are a scandal. We know the history of the Church of Nicaragua; we do not want history later to condemn them. No, they have a leadership role and we want to have them at our side.... It is terrible that the enemy finds some misdirected bishops among its principal allies.... We make a call to the [bishops'] conference.... And the call is this: have no fear of Obando. Have fear only of God, who one day will judge us.”
These are strong words, but not unlike those we have read in a biblical prophet like Amos or Isaiah. In a more meditative tone, Father D'Escoto continued on this theme:
“At this moment, the Church in Nicaragua is in some way a leaderless church, where we find ourselves abandoned by our pastors. ... There’s division, there are people who say, "This is not Obando’s line." But what they must ask themselves is if perhaps it is the line of Christ, of the gospel.... We have to pray for our bishops, for the bishops' conference, so it may find the courage to do what it must do, so that each bishop speak as he must speak, independent of whether it pleases Obando and whether the Holy Father understands it or not. And we must also pray for our cardinal of Managua, that he may come to understand the situation, that he not continue acting like an enemy of the people, that he may condemn the aggression. And would to God that when we are barely in the Archdiocese of Managua he will join this march, heading it up and celebrating the peasant Mass there in Managua.”
As they approached Estelí, the diocese in which Father D’Escoto is registered as a priest, his call became insistent, directed especially to the bishop there, Rubén López Ardón:
“If this is not the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church, where is that Church? This isn't any parallel church, this is the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church, which is seeking its bishops, which wants and needs its bishops at this hour of pain. But to speak sincerely, which feels that its bishops have abandoned it. The Church is not abandoning its bishops. We hope the bishops will not abandon the Church.”
Responding to Fr. D’Escoto’s insistence and the pilgrims of the Way of the Cross, Bishop López blessed them and prayed with them for peace, an encouraging gesture in the generally tense Church atmosphere at that moment. "May our country finally be free of all its bonds and of all that impedes its free self-determination," said López Ardón.
Arriving at Sébaco on the 23rd, groups that made other Way of the Cross pilgrimages from Bocana de Paiwas, Matiguás and San Dionisio joined the river of pilgrims that had started in the north. At Puertas Viejas, 50 evangelicals, who had walked 250 kilometers from Nueva Guinea, in the center of the country, united with the Jalapa Way of the Cross. At its head walked the pastor José Miguel Torres, who said, "We have been dreaming of this moment of encounter. You come from the north, doing the long plank of the cross, while we came across, from the Atlantic, and here we join the cross itself."
Noting that his group had taken a calculated total of 25 million steps, Torres said, "These steps are not a metric measure. For us each one signifies a step of decision, will and love, of identification with the youth who are defending us the length and breadth of the country so we may adore God in peace."
The arrival in Managua at dusk on Friday the 28th was unforgettable. With torches aflame, some 50,000 people surrounded the ruins of the Managua Cathedral to receive the pilgrims. In the atrium, 72 priests from all over the country, 20% of all the clergy that work in Nicaragua, celebrated the Mass together. Father Miguel D'Escoto’s words were a dramatic culmination of all the calls and reflections made along the road:
“The entire world has contemplated with horror, dear brothers and sisters, the martyrdom of the people of Nicaragua by the US government. It has heard all the pretexts given to justify the crime, the systematic killing, the systematic kidnapping, the systematic torture and the systematic destruction of our country by this terrorist government of the United States. We have been able to see how, despite their innumerable white papers, the United States has not persuaded anybody. We see the pathetic role they played when they ran from the International Court of Justice, since they had no arguments to present to this tribunal to justify their policy. In this situation, this poor mortal Reagan, possessed by the demon of intervention, by the demon of death, invents and proclaims to the world that what he is doing in Nicaragua, he does to save the Christian faith. The assassin, suddenly converted into the defender of faith.
“In the face of this it is understandable that everyone would turn their faces and ears to Nicaragua and wait, and wait and continue waiting, to see what the representatives of the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church of Nicaragua will do. And now, the scandal is greater because they aren’t saying anything. And not only do they say nothing, but some among them have taken on the task of complying with the wishes of the God of death, aggression and foreign intervention in Nicaragua, of going to the United States and calming the conscience of the legislators, many of whom have said that this policy of Reagan is not only illegal but immoral. But this poor person born in Nicaragua and ordained to the priesthood, Miguel Obando, arrives, and tells the legislators: ‘Don't worry, since I am the cardinal, and I cannot condemn the aggression.’ Have you ever seen in the history of humanity a more abominable sin! I believe, dear brothers and sisters, that in the human vocabulary there is no adjective one could use to really describe the horror, the repugnance of this brother's attitude....”
The people in front of the cathedral applauded emotionally and listened trembling to Fr. D'Escoto’s words:
“But now the people of God, who have been making their statement along this road sprinkled with the holy blood of those who spilled it defending their homeland, these people of God say to Reagan and the US congress people: ‘We, not this cardinal, represent the believers in Nicaragua. And we condemn the war as diabolical and we say to you, Señor Reagan, your days are numbered and you cannot avoid forever the wrath of God. Repent now! Stop your assassin's hand and let our people live!’ That is what the people of God are saying.
“We invited Cardinal Obando to be here and with his applause to say the same, but he remains obstinate and has not wanted to come because he is not of the people of God. Brother Miguel Obando, brother in the priesthood who has betrayed your people, you have sold yourself, but you are a brother also because we are sons of the same Father. Listen! If you are near a television or radio, don't turn it off. No, don't turn it off, Miguel Obando! God, through his humble people, the peasants who are suffering the aggression of which you have been the principal accomplice, this God, the God of life, the God of love and justice, but also of mercy, Miguel Obando, has had mercy on you and for this reason has called on this people at this moment. You’re still alive, and there’s still time for you to repent. God and our entire people want your repentance, they want you to return to take up your place in our Church. No one wants you replaced. We desire that when you speak, you speak in the name of the God of life, of love and of peace, and not of the deceitful and charlatan God of death, aggression and foreign domination.
“God, therefore, is giving you an opportunity. Meanwhile—and listen well—in the name of God and with the authority that comes from God, we are telling you to abstain immediately from celebrating the holy sacrifice of the Mass, because the sacrifice celebrated by one who is an accomplice in the murder of his people is a sacrilegious sacrifice and profoundly offends the faith of our people.”
One would have to go many centuries back in the history of the Church to find moments like the one that Friday during Lent in Managua, in which a priest sanctioned by the Vatican said such words, with prophetic authority, to the highest religious authority of his country. It was hard to understand outside Nicaragua, but what occurred that day cannot be silenced, both because it is part of the history of this Church and because it will be engraved in people’s memory for a long time to come.
The Way of the Cross for Peace and Life, in its totality, was a religious event of the first order, the major Christian symbol of commitment to peace in all those years. It was unquestionably the most massive and inspiring initiative of those who, from the perspective of their faith, struggled to stop the war.
Tensions peak: Bishop Vega expelledThe war continued. And so did the complicity denounced during the Way of the Cross. Reagan's high-powered drive to win the $100 million made the counterrevolution appear strong, even though it was already on its way to defeat. "Some in Nicaragua seem to be betting on the most powerful, because it is greater, because they think it’s going to win. And here who is going to win is God," Fr. D’Escoto had noted during the Way of the Cross.
At the beginning of March 1986, it was Bishop Vega who traveled to Washington, invited to a seminar of the rightwing Heritage Foundation, an event tied to the contra aid campaign. On that occasion, the bishop appeared publicly alongside counterrevolutionary leaders Calero, Cruz and Bermúdez, the latter a form National Guard colonel with a known criminal record. In his US trip, the bishop of Juigalpa spoke of the "persecution of the Church of Nicaragua," even claiming as proof that the Sandinista government had assassinated three priests from his diocese. That charge, which had never been mentioned before, caused a considerable stir both in the United States and in Nicaragua. In another key statement, Bishop Vega declared that "in Nicaragua the fundamental problem before the revolutionary triumph was underdevelopment. Now it is how to escape from the Soviet bloc."
On his return to Managua, the bishop was met by a battery of journalists at the airport asking for explanations about his participation in an event with such clear political connotations as that of the Heritage seminar, and about his surprising declarations. Bishop Vega, clearly nervous, declared that he had gone to the United States to do a "personal poll" to learn "what projects they [the counterrevolutionary leaders] have for the salvation of Nicaragua." After much insistence by the journalists, he clarified that the "three assassinated priests" were three peasant delegates of the word who—as he himself recognized—had died in the days of confusion and lack of control immediately after the revolutionary triumph. "But I consider them martyrs," the bishop remarked.
The mass media campaign to underscore Obando and Vega's identification with Reagan Administration policy intensified. In this tense moment, the bishops' conference published an Easter pastoral letter, centered once more on the theme of "reconciliation," in which it again pressed the government to dialogue with the counterrevolutionaries. But it introduced a novel element: a condemnation of "all form of aid, whatever its source, that leads to the destruction, pain and death of our families or to hatred and division among Nicaraguans." For the first time, the bishops' statement contained an implicit criticism not only of the East but of dollars from the West. It is possible that the virulence that characterized the campaign for the $100 million, the growing international isolation of Reagan's military policy and pressure from some sectors of the Vatican pushed the bishops as a whole to take this first "neutral" step.
Nonetheless, Cardinal Obando continued to speak out harshly against the Sandinista government. On May 12 The Washington Post published an op-ed article by Obando referring to the Nicaraguan government as a "terrible dictatorship" in which there is "a continuous violation of human rights." He explained that the Nicaraguan Church was not coming out against financing to the counterrevolutionaries because such a pronouncement would be "manipulated" by the Sandinistas. A few weeks later, President Reagan cited sentences from this article to describe the Nicaraguan situation and justify his war.
On June 3, Bishop Vega returned to the United States, this time invited by the ultra-right PRODEMCA (Pro-Democracy in Central America). Although the bishop said his visit was "strictly Church-related," the US bishops' conference declared that they had not invited him. Bishop Vega this time introduced a new element in his discourse, calling the counterrevolutionaries' armed struggle a "human right":
“Each one in his own sphere. The Church has its specific function and cannot go further. But armed struggle is a human right. What remedy is left to a people that is repressed not only politically but militarily?”*
*In Bonn, West Germany, nine months earlier, Vega had justified US financing of the counterrevolutionaries, although he did not use this argument then. At that time, his declarations influenced the cutting of West German aid to Nicaragua.
In his last public appearance before the House vote on the $100 million, President Reagan, who had referred some weeks earlier to Cardinal Obando as the "good man" congressional representatives should hear before casting their vote, referred to Bishop Vega with these words: "Reverend Father, we have listened to you, because we in the United States believe, like you, that even the most humble peasant has a right to be free."
When the House of Representatives finally approved the $100 million in contra aid on June 25, the Nicaraguan government interpreted the decision as a declaration of war. Although the war had been going on for years, Reagan's aggressiveness in the face of the FDN's decline made clear that, once having gotten Congress' seal of approval, it would seriously heat up again.
The vote thus marked a watershed in the political debate inside Nicaragua, in which the government decided to "win the war with war." Putting stricter measures of the emergency law into effect, it closed the daily newspaper La Prensa the day following the House vote. For the Archdiocese of Managua it hit hard; La Prensa had served for years as a mouthpiece for Cardinal Obando.
Only 30 hours after the vote, the decision of the International Court at the Hague was made public, striking a blow against the legitimacy of US policy in Nicaragua. From Holland, Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto announced the news over the radio:
“It has been a victory for peace, a victory for the countries of the Third World, a victory for Latin America and also a victory for the North American people. It has been a triumph for all the people of Nicaragua, for all those who accompanied us in the Way of the Cross for Peace and Life. That sacrifice was a clamor that was not ignored by God.”
The measures taken against the Church under the state of emergency, the passage of the $100 million and the new feeling of victory won by the World Court decision only set off a chain of new tensions. On June 28, Nicaraguan priest Bismarck Carballo—the Archdiocese of Managua's spokesperson who in 1984 had the honorific title of "monsignor" bestowed on him by the cardinal, and the most virulently anti-Sandinista of all the priests in the capital—returned to Nicaragua from a trip through France, Italy, Holland and various cities of the United States. In his tour he had made multiple declarations against the government of Nicaragua. Boarding the plane in Miami, he found that the airline had orders from the Nicaraguan government not to let him deplane in Managua. As was afterwards explained to him, his right to live in his own homeland was temporarily suspended.
When he learned of the measure, State Department spokesman Charles Redman leapt to Carballo's defense, condemning the measure and noting that the priest was "an important symbol of the independent Church" who "enjoyed great popularity in Nicaragua"—a statement that greatly exaggerated his importance.
"La Prensa will come out again and Carballo will be able to return when the aggression ends," said FSLN National Directorate member Bayardo Arce, explaining to journalists that there would be no more flexibility toward those who, in the name of freedom of expression, supported the US government, a power that had declared war on Nicaragua.
On July 2, the day after these declarations, Bishop Vega held a two-hour press conference. In his characteristically rambling style, he made three basic assertions. The first was that US aggression against Nicaragua, even a direct invasion, is justified by Nicaragua's supposedly pro-Soviet alignment.
“I cannot criticize only the $100 million, when there are other billions being given from the other side as well. Thus one cannot speak of one while saying nothing about the other.... We really would not like to see these cases [the $100 million] happen, because there are no reasons in Nicaragua why we must come to this. Both powers would have to consider the costs that this brings, an unnecessary holocaust of the people.... The invasion from one side ha s its basis in the invasion being made from the other side. And in not taking the decision of the Nicaraguan people into account. Those who are to blame for this... are those who have taken these decisions to rely on and take support from one bloc so that, as some say, it provokes the other.”
The second was that the war contains, in its origins, the peasants' defense of their rights against Sandinista aggression.
“This is the Sandinista army's military aggression. That is what is making the people decide.... These people are defending their human rights. And it is an ideological system's aggression, snatching, as they say, their children from them, wanting to impose on them things that are not their own, that has led them to that decision. If a people is tormented, if a people is crushed, their human rights eliminated..., if [they are left without] a homeland..., no other remedy remains to this person....”
Finally, Vega insisted that the World Court's decision is not acceptable:
“A Court can have the concrete facts within its reach or it can have only half of them. And then, its judgment can become partial, depending on how the news comes to it. I’m not a specialist in this field, I don't know much, but it concerns me that a court of this international character doesn’t have a broader mandate. It should see things from the angle of what the rights of man are and not simply the rights of governments. I believe it would also be worthwhile to study the fact that the aggression we are suffering is thanks to militaristic imperialism in the East as well.... Thus if we see the one we see the other. If not, we aren’t making a judgment, we’re taking sides. A judgment is not to be partial, but to seek justice and not... the hegemony of one bloc over another....”
The state media's criticism of Bishop Vega the following day included little about his concrete statements. Attitudes had become impassioned as that same day 32 peasants, among them several children, died when the civilian vehicle they were traveling in drove over a mine planted by the contras.
On July 4, the government escorted Vega from his offices in Juigalpa to the Honduran border, suspending indefinitely his right to remain in the country. The government explained this measure, undoubtedly the most drastic it had taken toward the Church in the whole revolutionary process, in the following impassioned text:
“Bishop Vega has carried out criminal work that makes him an accomplice of the policy of terror and crime that has meant the suffering, death and pain of the thousands of children, women, old people and youth in our country who are victims of the US government's terrorist policy. As a consequence, given the reiterated antipatriotic and criminal attitude assumed by Bishop Vega, disrespecting the laws of the Republic and the people of Nicaragua, the decision has been made to indefinitely suspend the right to remain in the country of one who, like Bishop Vega, does not deserve to be Nicaraguan and whose place is alongside Reagan and the mercenary bands, child killers. This decision will be effective as long as the government of the United States maintains its aggression against Nicaragua.”
As in the case of the expulsion of 10 foreign priests in July 1984, the decisions about Bishop Vega and Father Carballo—both Nicaraguan citizens—have a political explanation but not a legal justification, given the human rights declarations that the revolutionary government of Nicaragua has signed.
On July 5, Daniel Ortega went to La Libertad, Chontales, the town where he was born and an area under Bishop Vega's jurisdiction. There he said that the bishop could "win the right to return by working for peace and demanding the cessation of the aggression."
The fact that the bishop's expulsion barely caused a ripple in the religious consciousness of Nicaraguans at this moment of maximum tension in Church-State relations, was an important signal. It implied that grassroots religiosity in Nicaragua is not tied as much to ecclesiastical authority as to images and traditional celebrations. The "expulsion" of a venerated image would have caused explosions of political discontent, but they did not occur when a member of the Church hierarchy was expelled. The lack of reaction may also have been a product of weariness after years of the "pastoral of confrontation" embarked upon by some bishops.
If there was little internal political cost, there certainly was a cost to the government's image abroad. The Pope, in the course of his pastoral visit to Colombia, called the measure "inconceivable" and the Vatican newspaper described it as a "serious act of persecution." Bishops' conferences from all over the world wrote to President Ortega criticizing the decision, asking that it be rectified.
The President of Nicaragua replied to all the bishops' conferences that had written asking for a "clarification" of the situation. But the most important part of his letter was neither his explanation of the facts nor the judgment about Bishop Vega’s illegal attitudes. It was his proposed solution to the situation: "The road of understanding [between the hierarchy and the state] has not been made easy. Nonetheless, we believe not only that dialogue is possible but that we must take steps to make it reality."
Only a few weeks later, this dialogue would begin. So would a detente which, despite its ups and downs, has lasted until today and even deepened notably in the framework of the Central American peace accords.
Key to interpreting the escalation of tensions between mid-1985 and mid-1986—which we have retraced only through the major crises—is the counterrevolutionary war. In the same period, the Nicaraguan government was making major strides in defeating the contras, and while one sector of the Church struggled to avoid this defeat, the majority of the Nicaraguan people, most of them Christians, fought to defend their revolution. This explains this period's dramatic polarization, a polarization in the final analysis between different images of God and Caesar.