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Miguel Obando y Bravo: The Comandante’s National Hero

After losing the 1996 elections, Ortega called him “Chaplain of Somoza sympathizers”



HAVANA TIMES – Daniel Ortega called him “The Somocista chaplain” after Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo’s “parable of the snake” homily, pronounced in the Metropolitan Cathedral on October 17, 1996. Just three days later, Ortega would lose the presidential election to Arnoldo Alemán.

In the months following the defeat, Ortega also referred to Obando as a “Pharisee” and accused him of “dirtying” Christ’s word. In turn, the former Archbishop of Managua referred to Ortega as “not pacified,” adding that such people are like “a serpent that lives, kills and dies spitting venom.”

This week, twenty years after those verbal duels, Nicaragua has declared the cardinal a “national hero of reconciliation and peace” via a legal initiative presented by that same Comandante Ortega and approved with 65 votes from FSLN deputies and their allies.

Praise overflows, and the snake speech lies forgotten

“President Daniel Ortega recognizes him as a dedicated man who has demonstrated great love for his nation, always at the service of the nation’s poorest people, and who has always fought for the right causes,” assured Sandinista deputy Maritza Espinales in the reading of the favorable decision drafted in the Commission for Education, Culture, Sports and the Media.

Espinales spent almost twenty minutes reading the extensive document, reviewing the life and qualities of Obando Y Bravo with an abundance of anecdotes. Following this, nineteen deputies spoke in support of the declaration before the plenary session, with still more praise for the cardinal’s figure. No one mentioned the homily pronounced by Obando y Bravo that Thursday afternoon that was considered decisive in sealing Ortega’s second consecutive defeat in the voting booths.

“Today is a day of duty fulfilled,” assured legislator Edwin Castro assured, after adding that he felt “delighted” with the declaration that puts Obando y Bravo on a par with sponsors of Central American independence such as Miguel de Larreynaga (1772-1847) and Tomás Ruiz (1777-1819).

The FSLN deputies approved the initiative together with Wilfredo Navarro and Jorge Castillo Quant of the Liberal Constitutionalist party (PLC), and the Miskito deputy Eveling Taylor.

The Commission’s declaration termed Obando y Bravo a “man of dialogue”, “another Christ in his dedication to others”, “a mediator”, “of great moral energy”, and “a man of open doors”. It was noted that he had the “full backing” of the commission in awarding him a recognition that was “more than merited.”

Nonetheless, the twenty-three deputies from the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) didn’t attend the session, in an expression of their rejection of the document.

The Cardinal’s “conversion”

In the eighties, even before the “snake” incident, relations between the then Archbishop of Managua – later Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo – and Comandante Daniel Ortega were already poor. The Catholic Church, led by Obando, maintained a position that was extremely critical of the revolutionary government that had expelled and harassed priests, as well as accusing Obando of defending the United States’ military support of the counterrevolution. They called him “the arch enemy” and nicknamed him “the dark stallion.”

Cardinal Obando y Bravo kissing Pope John Paull II’s papal ring. Photo courtesy of the presidency.

The confrontation came to an end in 2002, in the era of the pact between Arnoldo Alemán and Ortega. At that time, Supreme Electoral Council magistrate Roberto Rivas Reyes, a close protégé of Cardinal Obando, was implicated in a fraud involving millions in the Commission for Archdiocesan Promotion (Coprosa), which Rivas had been managing for Obando for twenty years.

Obando approached Ortega, the charges of corruption against Rivas were rescinded, and in addition he was reelected as a magistrate and named President of the Supreme Electoral Council where he remains today.

The new closeness between Obando and Ortega became evident when the Cardinal was seen giving communion to Ortega and his partner Rosario Murillo, who he claimed had been married in a private ceremony. And for the 2006 campaign there were no more snake metaphors, merely Obando’s exhortations to work “for the common good”, “reconciliation” and

Obando, who was proclaimed Cardinal in May of 1985 and had been Archbishop of Managua since 1970, separated from the Archdiocese in 2005 when Pope Juan Pablo II – one day before that Pope’s death – accepted his resignation due to age, a request he had submitted four years previously. When Ortega returned to power, Obando was named president of the Truth, Reconciliation, Peace and Justice Commission, which in addition bears his name.

Ortega called Obando “a reddened sepulcher”

A note signed by AP from mid-November 1996 recalls some of the commentaries that Ortega and Obando used to hurl against each other in those days.

At that time, Ortega accused Obando of “polarizing himself on the side of the liberal Somocista alliance”, as he called Arnoldo Aleman’s Liberal Alliance party.

In June of the next year, as noted in the magazine Envío, Ortega made indirect reference to the prelate in affirming that he [Ortega] believed in Christ “and not in those who dirty his word,” since, in his opinion the cardinal was a “whitened sepulcher, and beyond that a reddened one,” (referring to the color red that the Liberals used).

In fact, the Cardinal did wear red in that 1996 Eucharist. Envío pointed out: “According to the liturgical calendar, green is worn for ordinary times; nevertheless [Obando] chose to celebrate the martyr San Ignatius of Antioquia, an unknown figure to pious Nicaraguans, in order to use red garments.”

“Cardinal Obando,” the article continues, closed his homily by urging the voters to be prudent at the hour of choosing the ideal man for the Presidency and illustrated this exhortation with a fable from his storehouse.”

In the fable – later baptized by the media as the “Snake attack parable” – Obando related: “Two men were walking in the country and saw a snake in the road. The snake appeared to be dying of cold. And one of those men said: ‘This snake is freezing to death, I think that we should give him a little warmth, so he won’t die.’ His companion replied: ‘Be careful. I think this snake has already killed someone, because it came out of that same hole and killed so-and-so.’ But the other one said, ‘Circumstances have changed, this snake won’t do anything to me and I’m going to warm it up.’ He bent down and held it against his chest to give it heat. And when he had warmed it up, the viper bit him and killed him.”

Just in case the fable wasn’t sufficiently clear, then presidential candidate Arnoldo Alemán was seated in the front row during that mass; he participated in one of the two liturgical readings and later bore the mantle that covered the image of Jesus Christ that the Cardinal led in procession to the interior of the cathedral. During his campaign appearances, Alemán had also compared the Sandinista Front to a coral snake that is red and black, as he described it, and “you have to cut off its head, since it’s a danger”.

Ortega, the “razor-bearing rooster” of the 1990 campaign who was defeated in the ballot box by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, lost another election.

In November of that same year, Obando y Bravo agreed to an interview with journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro. During this interview, he spoke of the church’s role in politics and even repeated part of his controversial fable, saying that it was “subject to each one’s interpretation.”

“We (the bishops) as a hierarchy feel that we can’t be active in party politics, but we are active in politics in the broader sense, and the broader sense means looking out for the people’s common good, trying to orient them. In the broad sense, we’re active, even as a hierarchy we’re active. Who isn’t active in politics in the broad sense? Everyone is! What we believe is that we shouldn’t be actively involved in party politics,” the cardinal emphasized.

Obando also affirmed: “I have no party. Frankly, if I were active in some party, maybe another rooster would crow.”

From the opposition: Obando has lost his merit

Despite the declaration of Obando y Bravo as a “national hero of reconciliation and peace”, PLI deputy Eliseo Nuñez Morales considers: “the only effective reconciliation Obando has presided over is his own with Ortega.”

“Obviously,” he says, “he’s had his moments of brilliance, but when you judge a person you have to look at both his lights and his shadows.”

Theologian Michelle Najlis shares the opinion that Obando doesn’t merit recognition as a national hero. She views the declaration as “a political maneuver.”

While the Cardinal has certainly had moments when he played a positive role, Najlis comments -referring to the mediation that Obando spearheaded in the seventies – she maintains: “In recent years, he’s played a regrettable role.”

MRS deputy Enrique Sáenz, a member of the Commission that ruled on the initiative, believes that “the regime has done Obando a very poor favor” with the decision to declare him a national hero.

He feels that the decision was “hasty”, because national heroes aren’t created through a declaration in the legislature but by the population’s recognition over a prolonged period of time. “We’re seeing a decision that was manifestly manipulative.”

“It’s only fair to recognize that the Cardinal played important roles in certain episodes of our history. But it’s also true that today his actions meet with disdain from an important segment of the population who disapprove of his dedication to a dictatorial regime that is once again leading the country towards confrontation,” Sáenz affirms. For him it’s “no coincidence that the declaration of Obando as a hero comes in the middle of an election year.”

Nonetheless, Nuñez Morales believes that “Ortega himself knows that Obando isn’t of use to him because he’ll pray for him, or because he can attract thousands of Catholics to his party.”

Rather, according to Nuñez, Obando serves as “a symbol that Ortega has been able to beat down all his enemies, and has even been capable of luring a cardinal to his side through perks, purchases, etc. – a cardinal who’s there beside him out of his own earthly interests.”

This article has been translated from Spanish by Havana Times