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  Number 304 | Noviembre 2006
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Nicaragua

A Dramatic Change and A Cultural Tragedy

In the days following the FSLN’s electoral triumph, Daniel Ortega’s assurances to bankers and foreign investors that there would be no “dramatic change” in macroeconomic policy earned him the “benefit of the doubt.” from analysts and business leaders. But his electoral campaign, laced with a constant manipulation of Christian culture, topped by the dramatic criminalizing of therapeutic abortion right before the elections, thanks mainly to the votes of the Sandinista legislative bench,earned him mistrust, concern and doubts about the benefit from other quarters.

María López Vigil

On October l6, Nicaragua’s Catholic bishops, accompanied by the leaders of some evangelical denominations, held a march against abortion in the streets of Managua. It included people from all over the country who had been organized in their parishes and churches. Students in both Catholic and public schools, even the little ones, were encouraged to attend the march, which would count as a school activity for which they would receive grade points. The FSLN and the ALN financed the transportation from towns outside Managua. The FSLN asked to participate in the march with a pink carriage, the color of their electoral campaign, but the bishops rejected the request arguing that they didn’t want “partisan colors,” even though by that time the march was tinted with the colors of four of the five campaigning parties.

Thousands of people—no one knew or wanted to give a definite number; the media used the word “multitude”—ended up in front of the National Assembly that morning. They carried posters with photographs of destroyed fetuses and banners displaying a Jesus in tearful prayer, holding a fetus in his hand. With their white celebratory cassocks and red calottes, the prelates were received by the Assembly’s leadership council in a formal ceremony never previously offered to any social group. They delivered 290,000 signatures to the legislators, petitioning the elimination of therapeutic abortion from Nicaragua’s Penal Code, where it had existed for 110 years. On October 26, in the fastest legislative process in recent political history, the Assembly gave them what they wanted. And on November 17, in a closed-door ceremony, several bishops accompanied President Bolaños as he ratified the criminalizing of therapeutic abortion with his signature.

An irresponsible carelessness

The issue of abortion, specifically therapeutic abortion, had found its opening to piggy-back the electoral debate two months earlier, in August, when MRS candidate Edmundo Jarquín told a journalist who approached him in the middle of the street that he was “naturally” in favor of interrupting a pregnancy when the mother’s life was at risk. He added that he respected the constitutional principle of a secular state. The candidates of the other four parties immediately decided to get political mileage out of Jarquin’s statements. Also for political reasons, Jarquín insisted on various occasions in the following days that he considered the topic a “closed case” and would speak no more about it, although he did not renege on his statement.

The FSLN took the driver’s seat. While Ortega was silent—he never referred to the issue in his interminable speeches to captive audiences—his wife and campaign chief, Rosario Murillo, surprised everyone with a wrought-up Catholic panegyric that circulated on the internet. Those in the FSLN leadership circles were delighted, commenting that since Jarquín “had pitched the ball, the FSLN would hit a home run.” A topic so delicate precisely because it is so essential, a matter of one’s own conscience and freedom, of medical practice, public health and human rights, in fact a matter of nothing less than life and death, fell into the hands of campaigning politicians. For the FSLN it was simply a perfect way to score more points in its policy of “reconciliation” with the Catholic hierarchy.

By that time the bishops were already organizing their march against abortion, on Vatican orders. The Vatican promotes this type of activity in all Latin American countries, the only ones on the planet that still have a Catholic majority and religious hierarchies with political power in all the governments, whether left, right, or center. When this topic became part of the campaign, the new pro-fetus object of worship originating in Cleveland, Ohio, had already arrived in Managua and banners with “Abortion Is Murder” were put up in the Catholic parishes and even in supermarkets and stores.

The Catholic catechism teaches that there are four cardinal virtues, which underpin all the others. Prudence is one of them. The bishops, displaying an irresponsible lack of prudence, didn’t cancel the march despite its bad timing only weeks before the elections and the known opportunistic profiles of some of the legislative leaders who would receive the petition.

A new debate on a taboo topic

In a televised debate in Managua organized by CNN on September 12, all the presidential candidates—except Ortega, who never attended a single debate—were asked what they thought about abortion. It had the effect of an on-button for the media and organized groups in the country, who didn’t stop discussing the causes, consequences, circumstances and pros and cons almost daily. The activist groups that call themselves “pro-life,” which now include FSLN members “converted” to this new fanaticism, intentionally confused people by talking about abortion in general instead of specifically about therapeutic abortion to save the life or health of the mother, for congenital illnesses of the fetus or because of rape, reasons that have long been considered valid in Nicaraguan medical practice. Fabricating a “graphic, emotional statistic,” they made the baseless claim, displaying a photograph of a recently born full-term baby, that “100 children like this one are murdered every day in Nicaragua.” The same message with the same photo appeared in backlit ads along major avenues in Managua.

Abortion is a taboo subject, sometimes not even spoken of within families. There hasn’t been so much talk about it since the case of Rosa, the Nicaraguan girl who was raped and made pregnant in Costa Rica at age nine. In 2003, this emblematic case of therapeutic abortion unleashed an important reflection. The drama of that girl and her parents opened the way to a compassionate and intelligent understanding of the healthy, legitimate, respectful and in fact Christian option represented by abortion in such cases. Women’s organizations placed stickers along the bishops’ October 16 march route that read “All little girls who are pregnant were raped. Therapeutic abortion is their right.”

Breaking silences

For days and weeks we heard medical, ethical, legal, human rights and feminist arguments. There were also misogynist arguments, encased in religious ones, based not on compassion and love, but on dogma, orders and doctrines monopolized for centuries by the “sacred men.”

When something is not discussed for fear and shame or because it’s painful, it’s hard to provide the most appropriate channels for the first words that break the dykes of accumulated silence. The passion of the debate didn’t clarify the topic for many people; in fact it may have even confused a lot of them. It was painful to see so many women listening submissively to priests who camouflaged their own ignorance with religion. Like the cleric with a top post in the Managua archdiocese who claimed on one of the most-watched opinion programs on television that if a child was raped and became pregnant, her body’s response in becoming receptive to the male sperm was proof that she was ready to be a mother and that this was God’s will.

The debate, while conflictive, disseminated a lot of knowledge and obliged people to take a position. This may mean that it had positive results, but only time will tell. The terrible part was that it fell into the electoral campaign’s black hole, allowing unscrupulous politicians allied with the Catholic hierarchy to do grave damage to women and the country.

Without listening to doctors or to women

The Penal Code reform to criminalize therapeutic abortion was approved on October 26 while hundreds of women were holding a 24-hour vigil in front of the National Assembly demanding to be heard and warning: “Representative: if you don’t respect my life, I won’t obey your law”.

It was approved following three weeks of messages from all over the world urging Nicaraguan representatives to reflect and halt the reform. The European Union countries that cooperate with Nicaragua, the World Health Organization, the Pan American Health Organization, the UN Population Fund, the UN Development Program, UNICEF and human rights and women’s organizations from many countries all expressed their concern.

On October 20, 19 Nicaraguan medical associations and organizations, headed by the 300-plus member Society of Gynecology and Obstetrics (SONIGOB), issued a statement. The physicians reminded the politicians that “it has been demonstrated internationally that criminalizing therapeutic abortion will increase by 30% the risk of death for women with prior illnesses and/or those aggravated by pregnancy, maternal mortality will increase by up to 65% and mortality among children under 5 years old orphaned by mothers who die from pregnancy will increase 50%.”

At no point did the National Assembly agree to SONIGOB’s request to present its criteria. The Health Ministry, which was also not consulted, backed the medical societies. It announced that its records showed 144 pregnancy-related deaths annually, that—in one of the clearest examples of the desperate need for therapeutic abortion—400 ectopic pregnancies are treated each year, and that physicians in the public health system treated 1,800 abortion cases in 2005.

Rejecting any qualified voice, but listening to agitated religious speeches against diplomats and feminists, 59 Sandinistas and Liberals among the 90 National Assembly representatives voted in favor of the reform to criminalize therapeutic abortion. Of those 59, 26 were FSLN representatives, 10 of whom were women, all obeying direct orders from Rosario Murillo. Not a single representative voted against; there were only absences, including a number of full Sandinista representatives, who let their alternates take the fall. The legislators made one “concession,” keeping the same punishments as existed in the old code for non-therapeutic abortions: 4-8 years in prison. They rejected the 20-year prison term for both the woman and the doctor performing the abortion requested by the Catholic hierarchy and the 30 years called for by President Bolaños in his request for fast-track approval as a gesture of support to the bishops.

Some good news?

On November 3, Bishop Juan Abelardo Mata, the president of the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference and a member of the committee defending Arnoldo Alemán’s innocence, issued a statement in which he said he had fulfilled his “obligation to thank Our Creator and the Holy Virgin Mary for the good news that has been lavished on the Nicaraguan people by enlightening its highest authorities to end therapeutic abortion, a legal excuse for the unrestricted practice of abortion.”

He claimed that the legislative representatives, “motivated by the common good, gave an ineffable show of patriotism and civic love for the most defenseless human beings, those found in the maternal womb, also protecting their mothers from the physical, psychological and moral damage caused by intentional abortion…. We laud the National Assembly members, who courageously defended Nicaragua’s constitutional sovereignty against pressures from other countries and from national and international organizations that arrogantly wanted to impose the continuation of legal therapeutic abortion.”

Ninety eight percent of the world’s countries have legalized therapeutic abortion to save the woman’s life and more than 60% accept it to preserve the woman’s physical or mental health. With humanity increasing its consciousness of the seriousness of sexual abuse, more and more countries are also accepting it in cases of rape or incest. During the march, the bishop of Juigalpa, René Sándigo, said without hesitation about this phenomenon that “it’s a blessing from God that Nicaragua is a country apart, one that’s on the road to life, because the rest of the world’s countries are walking towards death.”

What development can there be?

During the electoral campaign, all the candidates spoke daily about the urgency of eradicating poverty and about their commitment to move Nicaragua forward, to develop it. But a country doesn’t only develop with foreign investors offering jobs, or with highways and streets, or with cheap energy. It’s developed by its people.

How children are born and why they are born in a country is also a transcendental indicator for measuring development. The why and how of one’s entry into this world is an indicator within the foundations of a society and is in the profound memory of each person. Maybe because it’s hidden and in the origins of each life history, this point isn’t taken into account enough.

What development can one hope for in a country where a third of the children are born of girls and young teenagers? Where so many are conceived as the fruit of one form or another of brutal violence: of sexual violence either in marriage—the most silent form—or outside it, surrounded by silence and impunity; or worse, the terrible plague of incest, which, when it causes a pregnancy, will typically produce babies with genetic problems, a topic still not investigated in our country? What development can take place in a country where for many malnourished and poor women giving birth means risking their life or dying?

Although therapeutic abortion is a public health and human rights issue, and also a human development issue, in which the first and last word belongs to women and to physicians, politicians and religious authorities placed the debate in the terrain of dogma-based beliefs, manipulated emotions and electoral calculus. A genuine cultural tragedy.

Criminalization of therapeutic abortion, based on non-Christian ecclesiastical opinion, violated the constitutional principle of the secular state, which no one seems to be ready to respect in Nicaragua. FSLN representatives contributed 26 votes to this parliamentary decision, one of the last chapters of the Catholic- Providentialist electoral campaign of Daniel Ortega and his wife, and maybe the most serious one given the consequences for the lives of women and girls.

Towards a “spiritual revolution”

The weekly investigative bulletin Confidencial published an unsigned, undated document in September that said the following with respect to a poll done by the FSLN before designing and launching its electoral campaign: “It’s surprising. In the same proportion as the lack of confidence, lack of belief and lack of hope in the political sector, there is confidence and hope in divine intervention to solve problems. When asked who could resolve the problems that make life hard for people, [those surveyed] repeatedly looked upwards and said, ‘God’.” For that reason, the document “proposed,” Daniel Ortega “must be a door that opens onto hope, a light at the end of the tunnel, someone in whom to trust.” That is, a god.

Besides being costly and imperial, the FSLN campaign dedicated itself to reinforcing a superficial and false religiosity, promoting a non-conflictive vision of politics based on a non-conflictive vision of Christianity, thus betraying a country that is unequal because of its mountain of injustices and unresolved conflicts. And betraying Jesus of Nazareth, who challenged the powerful, censured the rich, established the crucial dilemma of “either God or money” and dared us to love our enemies, but never said we wouldn’t have them. He had them, he called them by name, he provoked them with his passionate words for justice and in the end he was assassinated by them.

Day after day, the central themes in the campaign designed by Murillo were God, God’s will, mentions of Pope John Paul II and love. She came to announce that the Great United Nicaragua Triumphs Alliance, organized around Ortega, “would know how to govern with eternal light.”

“The FSLN is initiating a spiritual revolution in the center of the Americas today,” a revved-up Daniel Ortega told a fervent crowd in his first speech following confirmation of his electoral victory. In that same speech, he thanked God for the “spiritual strength” given him during the campaign and during all the years he aspired to govern, claiming that Nicaragua was “full of God”—plenitude due to his victory—that day. First he gave thanks for his win to Cardinal Obando, whom he described as “the cardinal of peace and reconciliation,” then lauded Nicaragua’s Bishops’ Conference; spoke of “the preferential option for the poor,” a slogan that appeared on every page of his voluminous and widely distributed plan for governing; enthusiastically applauded the arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth; asked his voters to pray for the media that slander him and recommended that they practice the model St. Francis of Assisi’s patience in the coming period.

God’s will

In the final events of the campaign, which Murillo called a “pilgrimage,” Daniel Ortega’s refrain in all the political gatherings, even in his meeting with Chamber of Commerce businessmen just before election day, was this: “I ask you for the love of God to give me a chance to govern in peace”. In the purest messianic style, without calling for organization, participation, the building of citizenship, much less debate or constructive criticism, Ortega only asked for an opportunity: if you give it to me, he insisted, “we’ll climb out of poverty.” At his side, Rosario Murillo reiterated that “God’s will” for Nicaragua was “love,” the love that was going to be expressed in an Ortega government.

The FSLN’s part in the electoral maneuver to criminalize therapeutic abortion was a crass manipulation of religious sentiments to cater to the Catholic hierarchy. It’s a sorry and irresponsible thing on both of their parts., a deep-rooted providentialism.

A deep-rooted providentialism,
more and more alienation

Since Spanish colonization the majority of Nicaraguans have lived sunk in a religiosity based on the idea of Providence, which promotes the insensitivity of the rich to the misery of their neighbors and the fatalism of the miserable toward their own tragedies. It is a religious idea that keeps the rich from being humanistic and the poor from organizing themselves to live a human life.

In recent years Nicaraguans have suffered an avalanche of ever more alienating religious forms. Radios hammer away each day with conformist messages about accepting God’s will. Businessmen of the Complete Gospel dedicate lunches and dinners to the alchemy of transforming crimes that didn’t make it to court into sins that God forgives, contributing to the culture of impunity. Noisy evangelical services in neighborhoods put forward the idea of a deaf God who requires a constant stream of prayers. Miraculous proposals to “stop suffering” remove responsibility from a state that doesn’t treat the health of its poorest and favors the paternalistic charity of the daily tear-jerking televised pleas for handouts for the sick who don’t seem to have been cured by the “miracles” of their faith.

Preachers who are expert in biblical literalism and scientific ignorance come to Hosanna Tents to encourage not justice and social responsibility but fear and blame in both rich and poor, and the payment not of taxes but tithes. Spiritual caudillos surrounded by privilege, pomp and circumstance adore the golden calf. Nuns recount the most grotesque stories of piety on national television to an audience of the poorest and most gullible, echoing the daily broadcast of ETWN, the Catholic church’s channel for Latin America: they tell of miraculous wounds, apparitions of virgins, exorcisms of demons, bodies that don’t decompose, rosaries with tears that contain fetuses, miracles of the purse....

The FSLN campaign manager rooted the party’s message in this terrain, fertilized by this flood of conformism, fear and superstition.

What kind of “modernity” is this?

President Enrique Bolaños declared that he lit candles to the Virgin to ask for a Montealegre victory, and was sure it would come to pass because he had asked God for it. Then there were Ortega’s other political adversaries, losing candidates such as Montealegre who said he had named “the one on high” as his election monitor, as well as the opinion makers, the decision makers and the political and economic analysts, all of whom congratulated themselves and Daniel Ortega for having pledged to continue “responsible” economic policies that will allow Nicaragua to advance.

The progress of democracy in Nicaragua and the “modernization” referred to by all of them coexists with shamelessly exhibited archaic religiosity and ignorance of science. The “pro-life” proponents based their arguments on just such ignorance, and on public officials’ irresponsibility towards women’s lives, the dogmatism of the religious hierarchies opposed to both therapeutic abortion and family planning, and on the religious authoritarianism that imposes dogma on the whole population without listening to those who think differently and without concern about the cost to society’s healthy development. These “pro-lifers” are also evidently indifferent to the life of the poorest women, who unfortunately don’t realize that those who shouted “abortion is murder” in the streets don’t respect them and consider them predestined to maternity even if it means dying from conceiving children.

Modernizing the Nicaraguan state will mean dealing with the many irresponsible interpretations and manipulations of Christian doctrine. It will mean rediscovering Christian values crushed by dogma and empty rites. It will mean clarifying, placing in context, reflecting, debating. It could even mean that we women, who talk so much about self-esteem and empowerment, will empower ourselves with information and theology to break up the monopoly of ideas and religious convictions currently in the hands of male priests, pastors and politicians. Modernizing the state will mean fighting to create an educated secular consciousness in order to have a secular society and a secular state that find God where Jesus of Nazareth always found him: in human relations based on justice and equity, in service and in solidarity.

Modernizing our society’s religious ideas, which would mean authentically Christianizing it, is a task still to be taken up. With this electoral campaign, this new government and this new governing couple, it is more urgent than ever.

María López Vigil, a journalist and author of numerous books, is editor in chief of envío.

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