Monsignor Rolando Alvarez, bishop of Matagalpa, speaks of a Church that’s been persecuted by the state and accused of trying to promote a coup d’etat, while carrying the message of parishioners. Despite the accusations, the Catholic church continues to be the institution that inspires the greatest trust and credibility among Nicaraguans.
“I don’t see any contradiction between Christianity and love for one’s country,” states Monsignor Alvarez, in reference to members of his congregation who manifest their demands for freedom and justice, under the auspices of church celebrations and the religious processions. His conclusion about the state of the country, 18 months after the April 2018 Rebellion, is emphatic: “In Nicaragua, the people have lost their fear. The people are already creating a change,” he asserts.
In April of last year, Bishop Alvarez formed part of a delegation from the Episcopal Conference that, at the request of President Daniel Ortega, organized the first National Dialogue and contributed to elaborating an agenda for democratization with justice. When he agreed to this interview for the internet news program Esta Semana, he advised that he also wanted to speak about a proactive vision for the Church, of the Bishop’s proposals to determine a way out of the crisis, and the principles that should guide Nicaragua’s reconstruction.
Monsignor, for several months, the government’s official discourse maintains that the country is living in complete normality. How do you see this, and what do the people in your diocese say?
We all know that Nicaragua is experiencing a severe and drastic social, political, and economic situation. We are in direct contact with the poor, the rural residents, the workers. People who say that if they pay the tuition for their children [in the private religious schools], they won’t have enough to pay for food…
In Matagalpa, for example, we’ve made a quick study and we’ve found that some 70% of the parents whose children are in our schools are behind in their payments, up to eight and ten months behind, because they don’t have the resources to pay. People who can’t even buy a pair of socks or shoes. In my Cathedral, where before we would give a small basic food basket to 15 families, now we’re giving them to 82 families in need.
I’m talking about people who I ran into one day, and when I went to pay them a visit, they were eating a little fruit, some unripe mangos. I asked them if this was a snack, and they said no, that was their dinner. That, plus tension, is the situation in Nicaragua.
Persecution of the Church
The Matagalpa Cathedral has been surrounded on several occasions by the police and Ortega sympathizers. How have the worshippers experienced these situations?
We’ve had regrettable situations, ones we hope never to see happen again. During the procession of the Virgin of Rosario in Esteli, an armed man entered the crowd and began insulting them, in full view and tolerance of those [the Police] who could have detained him. In the procession of La Merced, in Matagalpa, a group of people also shouted offensive comments, with many vulgarities, at our people. Churches in different parts of the country have been under siege; and we’ve seen situations, I repeat, that are painful and regrettable and make for a tense environment. This is a long way from trying to calm the tension and look for channels of pacification in our country.
During certain masses and processions, the worshippers in Matagalpa and in other dioceses have expressed their discontent about the lack of freedom by taking out their blue and white flags to demand justice. What’s your position as a bishop, when the congregation expresses themselves that way?
I believe that demonstration and expression of faith goes together with demonstration and expression of love for the nation. When it’s done with respect for the (religious) fervor and the devotion, and the same people who are in the processions are doing this out of faith, I can’t see any contradiction between Christianity and love of country. In the end, both are part of our identity and our culture.
To what to you attribute the hostility and the persecution of the authorities against the Catholic Church?
I can’t answer for something that the government would need to respond to. The only thing that I can say is that we’ve assumed a humanitarian attitude precisely because we’re men and women of faith, because we’re believers. We can’t assume any other attitude, because the Gospel is superlatively humanistic. Here, since the beginning of this crisis, the bishops, the priests, the religious men and women, the lay figures, we’ve all placed ourselves on the side where we had to be; that is, on the side of those who suffer.
President Ortega told some US journalists a short while ago: “In Nicaragua, there’s complete religious freedom.” What do the Bishops think about this assertion?
My personal opinion is that you must differentiate formal discourse from practice and the daily reality.
The Bishops’ proposals
In 2014, the Episcopal Conference presented a very complete diagnostic study of the national reality to President Ortega, but those proposals were dismissed by the government. Does the agenda the Episcopal Conference presented at this time have any validity today?
Effectively, at that time – May 2014 – we held a frank dialogue with the president and presented him with our vision as Nicaraguan pastors. Essentially, we proposed the need for an inclusive national dialogue with all the social, political and economic sectors of the country, precisely to avoid the catastrophic situation we eventually arrived at. Unfortunately, we were ignored.
Now, on May first of this year, we offered the Nicaraguan people a message. In five points, we outlined the Nicaragua that we must build: a Nicaragua with a vision towards qualitative transformation; a Nicaragua that puts the dignity of each person, as a child of God, in the center; a Nicaragua where democracy and the rule of law is strengthened; a Nicaragua where there’s unrestricted respect for freedom of expression; and a Nicaragua where truth goes hand in hand with justice, and seeds peace.
In a country where there’s no freedom of expression, all of the other freedoms end up perishing. So of course, we also advocate for independent state powers; for an independent, impartial and ethical Judicial branch; for a transparent Electoral Power that guarantees free elections with national and international observation; for an equal division of powers, where neither the executive nor any other of the powers place itself above the rest. As we say in that message, we advocate for a functional, modern, and institutional State.
When the crisis broke out in April of last year, the bishops served as mediators for the first National Dialogue. Later, they also sustained an encounter with President Ortega. These Bishops presented the president with an agenda for the democratization of the country, but it was not considered. Is there any way out of this crisis when the principal cause of the problem refuses to attend to demands?
On the one hand, I believe that we must be men of hope, but of hope with our eyes open. That’s a hope which keeps its feet on the ground while keeping our eyes on the heavens. In that sense, I recall a very famous letter from the French bishops entitled “Rehabilitating politics.” …. They state that politics should be the art of unifying all the country, with all its diversity of thought. That’s a challenge for all Nicaraguans.
I also think that the social conscience of this people, of all of us, has been growing and strengthening, trying to bring together the basic criteria to make our politics, as Pope Francis says, the most elevated form of charity, viewed with common sense. In that sense, I think that the Nicaraguan people are the protagonists of our own story, and that it’s the job of all Nicaraguans to continue building the Nicaragua of the present and future, the Nicaragua that we all desire and need.
In this demand for a democratic Nicaragua, a broad sector of the population is demanding equal opportunities, equity and social justice and an end to exclusion. There’s also a proposal that the country needs an economic model that allows us to grow. Can you combine both things?
Certainly. Pope Francis never speaks about economic growth. In fact, economic growth is the growth of small groups and elites, to the detriment of the immense majority who continue being poor. Pope Francis speaks of an economic progress that contains a model of an equitable, just, fraternal and supportive economy.
Pope Benedict XVI, spoke of two logics at work in the market economy: the logic of acquiring wealth and the logic of sustainable human development. He says that these are different, but they must be harmonized. That profit is necessary because those who have wealth also control the productive apparatus. However, when the logic of obtaining wealth prevails over the logic of sustainable human development, that terrible gap between the few who have practically everything and the majority that have almost nothing continues opening and widening. When the logic of sustainable human development prevails, then the production apparatus and the wealth are equitably distributed, and the integral human advance of the person is achieved.
The demand for truth and justice without impunity that emerged following the repression seems to have been postponed in this national agenda. Everyone speaks of democracy and elections, but they take as a given that justice must wait. How does the Church see this?
In that message from May first, when we speak of truth, justice, peace, we say that the principle of justice is effectively the truth of the drama of history, and the truth of the victim’s pain. In this sense, I believe that that’s the first thing that must be recognized: the reality and the truth of [the victims’] stories and their pain.
The official narrative up until now continues to classify the bishops as coup supporters. Do the Bishops hope that at some moment the government will rectify this opinion? Is there any possibility for a dialogue with the authorities?
We’re always open to dialogue. By its nature, the Church is a dialogue, and as Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes insists greatly, we continue our work amid the difficulties… We continue with catechisms, spreading the gospel, working to elevate people, the social promotion that we’ve always done in our communities… I’d say that we do this now with greater strength, since the reality of the country has forced us to redouble our efforts.
The dialogue and people’s freedoms
How do you see the results of this second national dialogue [in which the bishops declined to participate]?
Among the many results that the first National Dialogue obtained, was the fact that almost all the international human rights organizations came to Nicaragua, and it raised the topic of human rights in Nicaragua to the highest levels. Among the many fruits that the second dialogue obtained was the liberation of many of those who had been deprived of their freedom.
However, in that second dialogue there was also an agreement to reestablish the public freedoms, and up until today the government maintains a police state in the country. In other words, the agreements of that dialogue weren’t fulfilled.
I’ve heard from some of the figures in the Civic Alliance, which has been the most organized participant in this process of dialogue. The Alliance is now more inclusive, and they’ve restructured and reorganized, especially, as one of them says, to become a force for unity. [They] maintain the effort and the struggle, so that in Nicaragua all the public liberties can be enjoyed… This isn’t only a Constitutional right, but also a human right. And before being a human right, I like to note, it’s a natural right of all people.
How does the Church view the situation in the country whereby without a formal State of Emergency … in practice, the constitutional rights can’t be exercised and we’re living in a de facto state of siege?
I think that the best way to exercise our pastoral role at this time is by accompanying the people… These are questions that we live with, since we’re in permanent communication with the people who are suffering. I could offer you many examples that aren’t taken from a story book nor from people in fables, but that are realities for many people. These people approach us and tell us about the hardships and raw realities with which they ’re living and which all of our people are living day to day.
The national human rights organizations have denounced violence and extra-judicial executions in the northern zone of the country. Also, a little while ago, in the city of Matagalpa a paramilitary killed a woman who was a US citizen. Does the Church have any documented information about these events?
The family of the citizen you refer to spoke tearfully with me, sobbing with indignation and suffering. That’s a form of living documentation, not one of ink on paper. More than that, it’s a documentation from the heart of what that family has experienced.
Do you fear for your personal safety, given this climate of violence, of hostility against the priests and bishops and the discourse of hatred from those in power?
I move around with the freedom given to God’s children. I’m in God’s hands, I don’t live with fear. If I did, I wouldn’t be giving you this interview. If I lived with fear, I wouldn’t visit my communities, my parishes, I wouldn’t meet with my priests, I wouldn’t meet with the other religious figures; I wouldn’t hold missions with all our living forces. You can’t live with fear, it paralyzes you. In fact, I’m fully convinced that the people of Nicaragua aren’t afraid anymore, here in Nicaragua, we’ve lost our fear. … Yes, the Nicaraguan people are noble and prudent, but the people aren’t afraid anymore.
Do you have hope that this people can create a change?
The people are bringing about a change.