Nicaraguan cardinal who defied two governments was symbol of political resistance

Obando y Bravo
Obando y Bravo

Roman Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who became a potent symbol of Nicaraguan resistance first to right-wing tyranny and then to Marxist totalitarianism, died of a heart attack early Sunday morning at the age of 92.

Obando played a key role in the turbulent political struggles that dominated the last third of the 20th century in Nicaragua: first the overthrow of the country’s autocratic Somoza political dynasty, then the counterrevolution against the left-wing Sandinista government that followed.

His death in the predawn hours in Managua Saturday, after a long period of semi-retirement and ill health, was somewhat ironically overshadowed by new developments in the latest chapter of Nicaragua political instability, which has taken more than 100 lives in bloody battles between President Daniel Ortega’s police and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators demanded his resignation.

Five more people were killed Saturday night during anti-Ortega demonstrations in Masaya, a suburb of Managua. And U.S. citizen died early Saturday morning in a firebomb-and-gun attack on his vehicle as he drove down one of the capitol’s major thoroughfares, the Masaya Highway.

Sixto Henry Vera, 48, was killed in an ambush after leaving the bar he owned to help a friend following an auto accident. Ambushed by gunmen, Vera crashed into a concrete divider on the highway his vehicle burst into flame. His naked body, with a bullet wound to the head, was found naked on the highway along side the burned-out hulk of his vehicle.

Vera reportedly had both U.S. and Ecuadoran passports (the U.S. embassy in Managua confirmed the death of a U.S. citizen without supplying a name) but had been living in Managua for nearly two decades, operating a sports bar.

Police blamed the murder on criminal gangs — the same culprits they say have committed most of the killings in and around anti-Ortega demonstrations — and by Sunday, no evidence had emerged of a political motive. But Nicaraguan Twitter and Facebook feeds crackled with speculation that Vera was the victim of political assassination.

“Managua has street gangs, but they’re not out there shooting up people and stripping them naked on the main road through the city’s most popular nighttime entertainment district,” one prominent Nicaraguan who didn’t want to be identified told the Miami Herald. “Literally nobody believes the government story.”

Obando’s death was hardly a surprise. In a video released on his birthday in February, he look old and feeble and spoke only with great difficulty. It was a sad decline from the old image of a vigorous Salesian priest who rose rapidly through the church hierarchy in the 1960s and 1970s.

The dark-skinned son of a miner and an Indian peasant woman, Obando was one of the first mestizo authority figures of any kind in Nicaragua, and even before he began confronting governments, his popularity among the country’s large peasant population was striking. The Masses he conducted were unusual agglomeration of old and new church customs.

He wore the white and gold robes that had lost appeal among many younger priests in poor parishes, and kept using incense long after it the rest of the church had abandoned it. But his Masses also included lively folk-rock music that didn’t sound so different from what his younger parishioners listened to on the radio.

But his popularity truly bloomed after he began defying the Somoza regime. He wrote pastoral letters critical of the government and controversially agreed to serve as mediator in 1974 when Sandinista guerrillas burst into an aristocratic holiday party in a pricey Managua neighborhood and took a number of wealthy guests — including some members of the Somoza family — as hostages. Government officials sneeringly referred to him privately as Commandante Miguel.

But when the Sandinistas took over in 1979, it wasn’t long before Obando was needling them, too. He attacked Sandinista treatment of their enemies long before it became popular among international human-rights groups, and he took a hard stance against liberation theology and the left-leaning priests who joined the Sandinista government. In 1985, famously anti-communist Pope John Paul II promoted him from archbishop of Managua to cardinal.

The promotion made Obando even bolder in his defiance of the Sandinistas, even as they escalated their attacks on his church allies. (One priest was chased naked through the streets in front of a jeering mob; another, stuffed in an army helicopter and dumped in bare feet onto a road in the middle of the Honduran jungle.) “He behaved like a combination of movie star and religious caudillo [strongman],” wrote Miami Herald reporter Shirley Christian in her book “Nicaragua: Revolution In The Family,” “a man who expected to be loved, honored respect, even sometimes feared.”

Eventually, Obando was even mediating peace talks between the Sandinista government and the U.S.-backed contra rebels who were fighting it.

The Sandinistas finally lost control of the government in internationally supervised elections in 1990. Six years later, when another election came around, Obando committed the most overt anti-Sandinista act of his life when, during a Mass held a few days before the vote, he recited a homily that came to be known as “the parable of the snake.”

In the parable, two men walking along the road encounter a half-frozen snake. One says, that’s a viper who’s already killed man. Let’s get away. The other replies, no time has passed and the snake has changed. I’m going to warm it up. He places the snake against his chest. “And when he had warmed it up, the viper bit him and killed it,” Obando finished the story. You didn’t have to be a theologian to recognize which party the snakes represented, and the Sandinistas lost in a landslide.

That, perhaps, was the peak of Obando’s influence and popularity. In 2002, his protege Robert Rivas — the son of his longtime secretary — was implicated in a financial scandal involving the tax-free importation of motor vehicles for church use. After Obando talked to Ortega, the charges were dropped. Rivas was named head of the Supreme Electoral Council, which polices election-law violations.

For years afterward, virtually all of the tribunal’s rulings favored the Sandinistas. And Obando gave Communion to Ortega and his wife (and now vice president) Rosario Murillo, who suddenly began professing a longtime devotion to Christianity that they’d never mentioned before. Ortega won the next presidential election, which included no snake metaphors or other political commentary by Obando.

“After that, Obando lost a lot of support, not only outside the church but inside as well,” said Alvaro Cruz, a Nicaraguan journalist who follows church affairs closely. “We haven’t heard much from him in years. And a lot of the tweets today about his death from church officials seemed awfully cold.”

Note: Miguel Obando y Bravo's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.