When I left Nicaragua in April last year, the killings had already started, but I had no idea the extent of the human suffering that the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship would inflict on its own people.
In a year that Nicaraguans refer to as the “eternal April”, an estimated 500 peaceful, unarmed protesters, including 20 children and adolescents, have been murdered by police and paramilitary forces loyal to a government that ironically proclaims to foster “Socialism, Solidarity and Christianity”. Thousands more have been injured, around 800 political prisoners are held in squalid jails and up to 60,000 Nicaraguans have fled, mostly to neighbouring Costa Rica.
Human rights groups, women’s organisations and independent media outlets have been ransacked and stripped of their legal status. Several priests and bishops have been attacked, vilified and their lives threatened. Bishop Silvio Baez of Managua, a fearless ally of the people’s right to protest and to demand freedom, justice and democracy, has been transferred to Rome by petition of the Pope, out of fear for his safety.
One year later, I am back in Nicaragua for the first anniversary of the self-convened civic insurrection that poignantly coincides with Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, in Masaya, the annual Procession of the Captives is led by children in chains dressed in blue uniforms – a harrowing allusion to the plight of the hundreds of political prisoners that continue to be held in degrading conditions, where they are subject to physical and psychological torture and sexual violence.
On Good Friday, thousands of Catholics take part in the Way of the Cross Procession in Managua led by Cardenal Brenes, many carrying black crosses bearing the names of those massacred during the 2018 protests. Others wave blue and white Nicaraguan and Vatican flags and pray for the immediate liberation of all political prisoners and an end to State violence. As the procession ends, a group of mostly young people hold a spontaneous protest. Still inside the Cathedral grounds, police attack with tear gas and rubber bullets. Arbitrary detentions and further police repression are deterred by the intervention of the Papal Nuncio and leaders of the Civic Alliance.
Nicaragua is under siege, kidnapped by a morally corrupt government that has lost all respect for the rule of law and human rights. All recent citizens’ attempts to hold protests (outlawed since last year) are quashed by repressive policing. During Holy Week, around 150 people were arrested; many were beaten before being released. Their crimes? Waving the Nicaraguan flag, releasing blue and white balloons, singing the national anthem, demanding freedom for political prisoners and calling for free and fair elections as soon as possible.
At the end of March, under intense internal and international pressure, the Nicaraguan Government signed agreements with the Civic Alliance to liberate all political prisoners, restore constitutional rights, including the right to public protest, freedom of expression and an end to the police repression. Only 200 prisoners have been released under house arrest and the unrelenting repression continues and intensifies. The population feels duped, as frustration, anger and an insatiable thirst for justice grow. It feels like a pressure cooker…
Before leaving for Rome, Bishop Silvio Baez said, “A crucified people is always resurrected. The only thing I ask of you is not to let anyone take away your hope. Nicaragua must be resurrected, just as the one crucified on Calvary rose again. Live your faith in Christ intimately, deeply, with all the seriousness it demands, without ever letting yourself be drawn into violence, without letting sadness darken your heart, without bargaining with the liberty and dignity of human beings, without being ambitious or being an idolater of anything or anybody.”