Panel Report: Religious Persecution and the Closing of Civic Space in Nicaragua

On Friday, September 2nd, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held a panel event regarding the Nicaraguan government’s crackdown on religious freedom in recent months, and more specifically, the treatment of the Catholic Church – which stands as the last nongovernmental vestige of power in the country. Though tensions have intensified of late, Nicaragua has increasingly become more authoritarian for years. The panel consisted of four members: Deborah Ullmer, Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean Programs; John Feeley, Former U.S. Ambassador; Jared Genser, Managing Director at Perseus Strategies; and Humberto Belli, Former Minister of Education of Nicaragua. Joining the panelists were keynote speaker Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Military Services and moderator Daniel F. Runde, Director of the Americas Program at CSIS.

Protests began in Nicaragua in early 2018, and weapons of war were used to kill and injure unarmed participants in anti-government rallies. Human rights violations increased significantly between May and September 2018. These violations were carried out with knowledge and on orders of the highest authorities in the government. The protesters called for President Ortega to step down from office, with Ortega refusing and alleging that the Catholic Church has been working to attempt a coup to remove him from office. The Nicaraguan regime has intensified its persecution of the Catholic Church as they stand against the government’s North Korean-style dictatorship and police state tactics. The Church has been the last power to actively state their aversion for the rising dictatorship, and this has resulted in harassment of bishops, with the president labeling them as “terrorists” and “devils in cassocks.” Some have been forced into exile and others have had their passports revoked, forcing them to stay.

In some of the most recent developments, the regime has refused to allow the Bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, to leave the chancery, going as far as stationing police officers at the door and around the premises. Church officials’ lives have been threatened and their safety is in constant jeopardy. Those who dare speak out against the regime face the risk of going to jail or being exiled. The Nicaraguan election was by all accounts a sham that was neither fair nor free, with opposing political candidates being imprisoned and the regime blocking certain parties from participating. Freedom of speech has been completely eradicated from the nation; independent media has been shuttered, and journalists and members of the private sector have been arrested. The regime holds nothing back and has even devolved into opening fire inside churches, as the outbreak of violence has forced tens of thousands to flee.

During the event remarks, Runde was careful to keep the panel focused on what practical steps the U.S. government, as well as others, can take to aid the Nicaraguan Catholic Church and those suffering under the Ortega-Murillo regime. The panel presented many ideas, almost all of which surrounded various types of economic sanctions. Feeley, for example, suggested that Nicaragua be suspended from the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and that the U.S. engage in talks with Japan and South Korea regarding economic sanctions on Nicaragua. Genser proposed that other countries cease to export or import meat to or from Nicaragua and that more USAID money begin to flow to countries similar to Nicaragua that may need it before they reach the point of democratic decline that Nicaragua has now reached. Other panelists seemed to agree that these were good options. Feeley went on to suggest that the U.S. examine any monetary connection between it and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), which lends 23% of its funds to Nicaragua, according to Feeley. Moreover, Feeley referred to the president of the organization, Dante Mossi, as a “banker of dictators.”

Non-economic suggestions included working with the Vatican to find a solution, calling a special session of the UN Security Council, and designating Nicaragua as a country of particular concern (CPC). A CPC is defined as a country that has abhorrently violated the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which the panelists seemed to agree that Ortega has done under the current Nicaraguan regime.

The only panelist who was wary of economic sanctions was Humberto Belli, a Nicaraguan native, who until recently, resided there. Belli revealed during the conversation that he fled to Costa Rica in fear that he was within the crosshairs of the government. A few days after he left, his home was in fact raided by the government. Belli was worried that economic sanctions would affect the citizens of Nicaragua just as much, if not more, than the government. However, he did indicate that money going only to the military should be blocked, a sentiment echoed by other panelists, who claimed that the Nicaraguan military has stock in the U.S. economy.