After years of making unanswered calls for a “great national dialogue,” the Catholic Conference of Bishops this week settled for the next best thing: the opportunity to drink coffee and eat rosquillas with President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo.
During a private, four-hour meeting on Wednesday, the leadership of the Catholic Church delivered a 46-point list of observations and concerns, including stinging criticisms and recommendations that are alternately erudite and backwards. The bishops concluded their declaration with a renewed call for an inclusive national dialogue involving all sectors of society — something that’s been talked about for years to no effect.
Wednesday’s closed-door meeting between church and state is being hailed by some as a democratic opening by the government. More likely it will turn out to be the start of a private political negotiation.
In it’s letter to Ortega, the bishops stated the Catholic Church’s primary agenda for Nicaragua: anti-choice, anti-marriage equality, anti-sexual and reproductive rights. Church leaders made it clear that maintaining a good relationship with the government is contingent on the administration meeting those demands, which it already has.
“For the Church, the family is an issue of fundamental importance,” the bishops wrote at the top of their letter. In the next paragraph, the bishops congratulate the Sandinista government for maintaining a strong conservative stance against abortion and marriage equality. (Viva la revolución!)
So by the Church’s own definition, everything else that follows on their lengthy wish list — issues about institutional democracy, government corruption, problems with education, inadequate healthcare, environmental destruction and indigenous rights — are secondary and tertiary concerns to its retrograde social agenda.
While it’s not clear how the presidential couple will respond to being handed a to-do list (the only public reaction from Ortega and Murillo was a series of photos of the two leaving the meeting in the smooth-handling comfort of their Mercedes SUV), the implications of this week’s dialogue are dangerous. The bishops’ letter, taken selectively by the government, could be used as an excuse to double down on backwards social policies while ignoring all the other concerns related to political, economic and environmental issues (the same issues that have been raised and ignored repeatedly over the years). By meeting the church on it’s conservative social agenda, the government can say it was receptive to the bishops’ top concerns without giving up anything it wouldn’t — or hasn’t— already.
The bishops’ letter
Wednesday’s powwow wasn’t democratic, inclusive or transparent. Even calling the meeting a “dialogue” is a bit of a stretch. The sit-down did, however, produce an important document that offers an interesting snapshot of the myriad problems facing present day Nicaragua.
The bishops’ letter to Ortega details many concerns that are rarely addressed publicly in a country that’s been hypnotized by mind-numbing levels of government propaganda. But here’s the rub: the letter could have negative consequences for Nicaragua’s struggling democracy. By appeasing the Catholic Church on its “family” agenda, the Sandinista government could effectively silence one of the last institutional voices of opposition in Nicaragua.
The church hierarchy, like the business sector, has its own hierarchy of concerns. When its primary interests are protected, it’s willing to overlook a lot of other abuses with the disclaimer “we are not a political party in opposition to the government; that’s someone else’s job.”
And they’re right. The problem is Nicaragua’s political opposition has failed miserably, and the Catholic Church is one of the only remaining voices of opposition to the government, albeit weak and occasional. But like the business sector, the Catholic Church is a poor substitute for an organized political opposition (see ‘Nicaragua’s new pacto’)
Many Nicaraguans still expect the private sector and church to take the lead on confronting the abuses of the government. Nicaraguans remember the antagonist role that both groups played to the Sandinista government in the 1980s, and many still look to the business and church leaders as weathervanes to determine which way the political winds are blowing. When everyone’s noses are pointing the same way, people assume that means the country is heading in the right direction (53% the population thinks that, according to a recent CID Gallup poll).
But just because the church, business leaders and the president have managed to protect their primary interests and profit margins, doesn’t mean everything is fine and dandy. The concerns raised in the second half of the bishops’ letter is proof of that.
In Nicaraguan politics, there are many sectors of the population that have never been given a seat at the table or a voice in the conversation. Worse yet, many groups— feminists, indigenous, disabled people, homosexuals, labor, and the elderly, to name a few — have had their voices ignored or silenced by pro-government goons or police who beat people down when their try to make themselves heard without permission.
It’s wrong to celebrate the meeting between Ortega and the bishops as a positive step for Nicaraguan democracy. In fact, it’s just the opposite; it enforces a twisted culture where some are privileged enough to be give a stake in society, while others are excluded entirely.
The rest of society needs to claim ownership of its concerns and demands — the ones listed on the second half of the bishops’ letter. The church, like the business sector, might acknowledge those concerns, but it has its own priorities.
There may be no word for “accountability” in Spanish, but that doesn’t mean there’s no way for Nicaraguans to demand it of their government. If there’s any lesson to be learned from this week’s meeting between the bishops and the presidential couple, it’s that if people organize and push hard enough against the closed door of government, it will eventually open.
Excerpts from the bishops’ letter to Ortega. Read the full document here.
On poverty/ inequality
“A great part of our population lives in misery; unemployment is alarming, and the cost of living and poverty grow continually while at the same there are, as always in the history of our country, a few individuals and groups in power who continue to get rich without controls.
“In many regions and cities in this country there is a general lack of quality medical attention in hospitals and health centers, and a lack of adequate medicine for many illnesses. Is the government concerned about the this painful problem that affects so many people who suffer, both in the countryside and in the city? What will happen if the aid that is provided by organizations like the Church and NGOs stops coming for these vulnerable sectors of the population? We urge more effective and coordinated public health policies to help to resolve this serious problem.”
“We are concerned that many [medical] donations, such as foreign donations of medicines and surgical instruments for hospitals and public health centers, are getting stuck in customs.”
“It pains us that the number of Nicaraguans, youths and adults, continue to abandon the country in search of work, exposing themselves to different types of exploitation, from violations of their rights to falling into the hands of organized crime and sexual tourism. We are convinced that the government could do much more to protect migrants by creating ties and collaboration to the church and other institutions that work with migrants in the border areas.”
On the environment
“We are very worried and alarmed about the deterioration and destruction of our natural resources, which represent for the country not only an ecological benefit, but also tourism and economy. We ask ourselves, ‘What happened to the the laws to protect our natural resources and protected areas, and why are they not being applied?’”
On freedom of expression
“Many times the [government] doesn’t respect freedom of expression, due to the growth of the monopoly of media by groups that don’t favor a plurality of information, and the discrimination face by a large sector of media companies and professional journalists.”
On the Nicaraguan Canal
“We have information that there are already a great number of Chinese people along the Río Punta Gorda the Río Rama where they are placing markers and looking for possible routes for the canal, so they say. As pastors we are very worried about this situation and we think it is urgent to have real and precise information about this big project so we can prepare ourselves for the future. This project will radically alter our culture, way of life and the work of our people now and for future generations. It is urgent that we know the canal route as soon as possible, but also where new cities will be built, the duration of the construction, how much (the canal authority) will pay the legitimate owners the land (who are appropriated to build the canal), how many workers will be employed, and many other details. It is urgent that we discuss this project in greater detail, listen to the opinion of national scientists and foreign experts about legal issues, geological issues, tectonic and environmental issues, and seriously weigh the risks of this mega project so we can protect our environment and natural resources.
The government needs to attend to the serious problem of providing cédulas (state ID cards) to people in the Atlantic region…Many of the people in our churches don’t have cédulas. The problem is extreme in Nueva Guinea where there are some 10,000 people without cédulas.
On the government slogan ‘Christian, Socialist and in Solidarity’
“The political manipulation of religious symbols for the sake of politics is not convenient for anyone, nor is the arbitrary appropriation of religious terminology and catholic values incorporated into party slogans, thereby stripping them of their real virtue.”
On Church-State relations
“It is our serious concern that the government continues to give ‘gifts’ to certain pastors in an attempt to buy them…the support of the state to church needs to happen through proper legal channels.”
“It worries us that (the government) continues to use the strategy and dependence of fear to get people to participate against their will in party rallies for the government.”
On Institutional democracy
“…unfortunately we are a country with a political culture defined by ambitions for power, the myth of a messianic caudillo and fraudulent elections. We can’t forget our own history.”
“…The Supreme Electoral Council has not known how to carry out its functions with responsibility or honesty and their dishonest actions in 2011 were not only ethically wrong, but also a sin…”
“…Since the election results of 2011, the concentration of power, government corruption, the confusion of state and party, the subjugation of state branches to the will of the president, disrespect for the law, the lack of judicial security, the trafficking of influences, the political intolerance, the domination of almost all mayorships in the country, and the recent constitutional reforms have aggravated in a truly alarming way the current situation of the country and its future.”
“We think that the actual institutional and political structure of the country will not bring any midterm or longterm benefits to the current government, members of the ruling party, or any Nicaraguan.”