Andres Oppenheimer

Pope Francis must break his shameful silence about Nicaragua’s brutality against protesters and priests

Paramedics carry away a demonstrator shot in the head after clashes erupted during a march against Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega in May.
Paramedics carry away a demonstrator shot in the head after clashes erupted during a march against Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega in May. AP

Pope Francis has remained inexplicably silent about the Nicaraguan regime’s brutal repression of Roman Catholic priests and the killings of at least 322 people in anti-government protests during the past four months.

His behavior can be described in one word: shameful.

There are few countries where the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis command more respect than in Nicaragua. Even radical leftist President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, claim to be fervent Catholics, and lace their speeches with quotes from the New Testament.

But Francis hasn’t said a word about Nicaragua since he made an anemic call for peace on July 1. And his two previous references to the crisis weeks were unfortunate: He had called for “an end to all violence,” rather than demanding — like Nicaragua’s hurch leaders have — that the Ortega government end its brutality against its citizens.

According to the Organization of American States’ Human Rights Commission, more than 90 percent of those killed in the Nicaraguan conflict have been unarmed anti-government protesters.

Several priests have been attacked by pro-government mobs and masked paramilitaries after anti-government protesters sought refuge in churches.

Managua’s auxiliary bishop Silvio José Baez, who was himself pushed in one of these scuffles, tweeted that, “The Nicaraguan government crosses the limit,” and that “the international community cannot be indifferent.”

But Pope Francis and the Vatican responded with caution. Rather than condemning the attacks, they called for peace and reconciliation.

Oscar Arias, Costa Rica’s former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, told me that he laments the pope’s silence.

“In 1987, a Polish pope courageously supported my government’s peace plan without any hesitation,” Arias said. “That’s in sharp contrast with what’s happening now, especially considering that we have a Latin American pope who obviously knows very well what is happening in countries such as Nicaragua and Venezuela.”

Arias added, “We miss the Holy Father’s voice condemning what’s happening in these two countries. In Nicaragua, they have reached the extreme of attacking Roman Catholic bishops!”

Some critics in Latin America and the United States accuse Francis of having a soft spot for leftist leaders. He met frequently and used to pose, smiling, in pictures with former Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a leftist populist who now is being investigated on charges of receiving up to $200 million in bags full of cash at her private residences while in office.

Sources close to Nicaraguan church leaders tell me that the Vatican’s silence may be part of an effort not to break ties with the Ortega regime, so that it can be a mediator in the crisis.

Nicaragua’s church was mediating the now-suspended talks between the Ortega regime and the opposition’s Civic Alliance coalition. Ortega suspended the dialogue on July 19, accusing the mediating bishops of siding with the opposition.

In a July 28 interview, Ortega told me that he now wants to “strengthen” the dialogue by adding new mediators, and that he’s talking with the United Nations and the European Union to invite them to the negotiating table alongside the bishops. However, Ortega likely is trying to weaken the bishops’ role by adding other mediators who would be more sympathetic to his regime as.

The pope’s supporters say that he has been very supportive of the Nicaraguan bishops in private meetings in the Vatican.

Rejecting the criticism that Francis has been too soft on Ortega, they add that neither the pope nor Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin received Nicaraguan foreign minister Denis Moncada during his recent visit to the Vatican. Instead, Moncada was received by a lower-level official.

Maybe Francis is silent about Nicaragua because he’s working behind the scenes to resurrect the dialogue between Ortega and the opposition.

But if that’s the case, Francis should publicly call for an immediate resumption of the church-mediated peace talks and help draw international attention onto Nicaragua’s bloodbath.

That’s the least the pope can — and must — do.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 8 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera