Every time you open it, the instant messaging service called WhatsApp makes a promise: “Messages and calls are end-to-end encrypted. No one outside of this chat, not even WhatsApp, can read or listen to them.” But while this app is popular throughout Latin America, in Nicaragua some people won’t risk using it to talk politics. In one of the most policed and surveilled countries in the world, silence is always the safer bet. A Nicaraguan living in the United States describes conversations with family in the capital city of Managua: “We don’t talk about anything that’s happening via WhatsApp. Even though it’s encrypted and a U.S.-run app, folks are concerned that the government hacks message data.” Most are afraid to speak. One Nicaraguan living in the United States describes the lives of her parents back home: “They don’t socialize anymore. They don’t expose themselves to any kind of social contact in which they would be forced to disguise their views.” An American source, recently arrived from Managua, tells me: “I would be happy to speak to you. I must maintain anonymity because I communicated with a number of religious orders when I was in Nicaragua and do not want to jeopardize their ministries.” Another says: “People are afraid to even think differently.”
During the past four years, the authoritarian duo of President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, has terrorized the Nicaraguan people. There is a popular debate as to which of them is really in charge. But regardless of who is pulling the levers, the regime’s goals are easy to see: uproot democracy, silence dissent, render the citizens hopeless. Its tactics include dotting the neighborhoods of its cities with informants who roam public spaces, eavesdropping and taking notes. They include confiscating the land of farmers and Indigenous people for the enrichment of the privileged few. They include “cybercrime” laws against “misinformation” that have effectively made any form of independent journalism impossible. Most reliable news comes from brave anonymous sources, journalists exiled in countries like Costa Rica, Spain, or the United States, and foreign correspondents who sneak into the country.
The Ortega-Murillo dictatorship has also suppressed its political opponents. A group of six political parties exists as a puppet opposition—the so-called satélites or zancudos (“mosquitos”), which exist only to provide elections with a veneer of democracy. One priest described the zancudos to me as “politicians who don’t want problems.” In contrast, before the latest presidential elections held last November, when Ortega ran for a fourth consecutive term, a different group of politicians did run into trouble: seven opposing presidential candidates were arrested on dubious charges, along with various activists, journalists, and business leaders. Three political parties were shuttered. There is only one party with any power in Nicaragua, and that is the FSLN—the long-reigning Sandinista National Liberation Front, which triumphed over the right-wing dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in the revolution of 1979. Today, the FSLN is a different beast: it has been retooled to serve the interests and whims of the Ortega regime, which deploys classic revolutionary slogans for violent ends. After the municipal elections of November 8, the FSLN claimed victory in every single one of Nicaragua’s 153 municipalities—a farce of an election that Murillo called “an exemplary, marvelous, formidable day in which we confirm our calling for peace.”
The Ortega-Murillo regime has shown no signs of having “a calling for peace.” In recent years, state violence has reached a new level of intensity, as the regime focuses on its last viable foe: the Catholic Church. The vast majority of Nicaraguans are Christian, and at least half are Catholic. In early August, the regime placed Rolando Álvarez, bishop of the central city of Matagalpa, under house arrest. For years, Bishop Álvarez had been a public critic of the regime; now, he would walk up to the very edge of the episcopal palace grounds—as far as he was allowed to go—and preach the Word of God from there. The front row of his audience was always the same: police in riot gear. By Friday, August 19, the security forces had had enough of the bishop’s provocations. They arrested Álvarez, along with five priests, two seminarians, and a photographer. The national police then released a public statement, an exemplary piece of police-state boilerplate written in the passive voice:
This morning, in the installations of the Curial House of Matagalpa, an operation was realized that allowed the recuperation of normality for the citizens and families of Matagalpa.… For several days, a positive communication from the Diocese of Matagalpa was awaited with great patience, prudence, and a sense of responsibility, which never came to pass and which, as the destabilizing and provocative activities persisted, made the aforementioned operation necessary for [the maintenance of] public order.
Álvarez was taken to Managua where, as of this writing, he remains under house arrest. His friends were not so lucky: they were taken to a notorious prison nicknamed El Chipote (the name of a mountaintop important in Sandinista lore), where thirty-six leading members of the opposition are jailed.
Bishop Álvarez’s arrest was only the latest episode of the Ortega regime’s persecution of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. In 2019, at a time when Ortega was regularly denouncing priests as evil traitors, Msgr. Silvio José Báez, auxiliary bishop of Managua and a vocal critic of the regime, received so many death threats that Pope Francis asked him to leave Nicaragua for his safety. Báez now lives in what he calls “forced exile” in Miami, and continues to publish his criticisms of the Nicaraguan government via Facebook. Later in 2019, police arrested several lay Catholics and a priest who had engaged in a hunger strike. In October 2020, two foreign priests serving in the northern city of Estelí—one from Colombia, the other from El Salvador—were expelled from the country for criticizing the regime. In March of this year, Archbishop Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag, the apostolic nuncio and advocate for the humane treatment of political prisoners, was deported. In July the regime outlawed the Missionaries of Charity—the religious order founded by Mother Teresa—and kicked all eighteen of its members out of Nicaragua, along with the NGO associated with the order. (The sisters’ subversive activities included operating a nursery, a home for abused and abandoned girls, and a nursing home.) In August, just before Álvarez’s arrest, seven Catholic radio stations, which aired views critical of the regime, were closed by the state telecommunications agency for failing to meet unspecified “technical requirements.” In the past few weeks, priests who have offered Masses and prayers for Álvarez have been arrested. In the city of Masaya, police surrounded parishes to prevent the faithful from performing processions on the local saint’s feast day. Ortega has called the Catholic Church a “perfect dictatorship” and the Nicaraguan bishops “murderers.”