Nicaragua and the Catholic Church

Michael Hendricks

“Posesión de Daniel Ortega como presidente de Nicaragua” by Cancillería del Ecuador, 2012. (CC BY-SA 2.0).

In recent years, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has been accused of authoritarianism, repression, and human rights abuses. His government has also targeted the Catholic Church, which has historically been an important institution in Nicaragua and a source of opposition to Ortega’s government and the Frente Sandinista Liberación Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN) Party. As a result, numerous people, including priests, nuns, seminarians, and church workers, have been exiled, imprisoned, or executed. However, the situation escalates this year as the Ortega regime further extinguishes the oppositional voices of Church leaders, Catholics, and other political opponents. 

In February 2023, the Nicaraguan government stripped the citizenship of 94 political opponents and sent 222 political leaders, priests, and other dissidents to the U.S. In the same month, Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez, a prominent critic of Nicaragua’s government and its human rights abuses, received a 26-year prison sentence and lost his Nicaraguan citizenship. Álvarez has taken a stand against the Ortega regime’s attempts to silence dissent and promote its political agenda. Despite facing threats and persecution, Álvarez had previously refused to go into exile. International human rights groups and religious leaders have condemned the government’s treatment of Álvarez, and the U.S., the European Union, and other countries have called for his release. 

Álvarez’s case is just one of many examples of the government’s repressive efforts on the Church and voices of opposition. For instance, five Catholic priests recently received 10-year prison sentences after being convicted of conspiracy. The government also expelled foreign priests and religious workers, confiscated church property, attacked its charitable organizations, raided and shut down several of its institutions, and passed laws restricting the Church’s ability to operate. The actions of the Nicaraguan government have sparked outrage from various groups worldwide, and European bishops have demanded the immediate release of Nicaraguan clergy.

Ortega’s government has cracked down on opposition parties, independent media, and civil society groups by using harassment, intimidation, and legal action.

Additionally, in March, the Vatican announced it would close its embassy after the Nicaraguan government proposed suspending diplomatic relations in regards to comments Pope Francis made comparing Ortega’s administration to a communist or Nazi dictatorship. The Vatican’s closure of its embassy demonstrates its growing frustration with the Nicaraguan government’s policies. It is an effort to protest against the government’s crackdown on political opposition and civil society groups. Moreover, in April, the government restricted celebrations of Holy Week — a significant religious observance in Nicaragua, with large processions and other events usually held in public spaces. The government’s objective is to further oppress political dissidents, especially church leaders — actions that have led to a mass exodus of Nicaraguans fleeing the country, facing exile, receiving lengthy prison terms, and even being executed. Overall, Ortega’s government has had a chilling effect on Nicaragua, and many citizens are concerned about the country’s future. As one Nicaraguan activist said, “The country is slipping into darkness.” 

What accounts for the estranged and hostile relationship between Daniel Ortega and the Catholic Church that contributed to these recent events? This long-standing dispute dates to the 1980s, and today, the Church remains a trusted institution and an outspoken watchdog against Ortega’s history of disregarding human rights, democracy, and the rule of law as he attempts to consolidate power. Essentially, the Church remains a thorn to Ortega’s power, and he has recently increased efforts to extinguish any opposition that severely threatens his regime and legitimacy. This essay describes some critical historical events in relation to the Church challenging Ortega’s power and questioning his leadership. In analyzing these events, I show that Ortega likely has an ingrained animosity toward the Church, leading to the recent surge in its oppressive and repressive efforts as he attempts to eliminate any final control the Church has over his power.  

The 1980s: A Tumultuous Decade

The 1980s marked Ortega’s first rise to power. In 1981, he consolidated his role as coordinator of the Junta’s National Reconstruction Government. In 1984, Ortega won the democratic election to serve as president, primarily continuing the Junta’s mixed economic policies with connections to Marxist ideology. During this time, the relationship between the Church and Ortega’s Sandinista government was complex and often tense. While some members of the Church supported the Sandinistas, others opposed them. Many priests and laypeople supported their efforts to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship. One key factor was the influence of Liberation Theology, a movement that sought to link Catholic theology with social justice and political activism. Many Nicaraguan Catholics, particularly the poor and marginalized, were inspired by Liberation Theology and its message of social justice. This helped unite some in the Church with the Sandinistas’ Marxist-leaning ideology, as both shared a commitment to social justice and human rights. For instance, the Sandinistas undertook large-scale efforts to alter existing economic and political relationships. Their policies led to significant social progress in healthcare, education, housing, labor, agriculture, and access to credit for small producers thanks to the nationalization of the banking system.

The Church also faced pressure from conservative factions within its hierarchy that aligned themselves with the Contras, a group of armed rebels opposed to the Sandinistas. These factions were critical of Liberation Theology and saw the Sandinistas’ Marxist ideological leaning as threatening the Church’s power, influence, and traditional values and beliefs. In particular, the relationship between Church leadership in Nicaragua and the Sandinistas deteriorated after Pope John Paul II — an enemy of Liberation Theology — visited the country in 1983. Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, who opposed the Sandinista government, became the internal opposition leader by 1984 and repeatedly criticized the government’s policies. Despite some attempts to establish dialogue, the government occasionally closed Catholic Radio and expelled foreign priests involved in opposition politics. The Sandinistas also criticized the Church’s wealth and power, and accused it of complicity in the Somoza dictatorship. In 1986, the government even exiled Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega after he supported U.S. aid to the Contras.

On March 23, 1988, the Sandinista government and the Contras signed the Sapoa Accord: a peace agreement establishing a ceasefire, the release of political prisoners, and free and fair elections. Church leaders played a significant role in the 1990 Nicaraguan election, because many viewed it as their opportunity to remove the Sandinistas from power. As such, the Church supported the National Opposition Union, led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. The Church saw them as a viable alternative to the Sandinistas and believed that Chamorro would more likely uphold Nicaraguan democracy and human rights. The Church actively participated in the election by organizing voter education campaigns encouraging citizens to participate in the democratic process by promoting dialogue, peaceful cooperation, and an environment of transparency and trust in the electoral process. Finally, the Church also monitored the election by sending observers, including Obando y Bravo, to polling stations nationwide to ensure it remained free and fair. On February 25, 1990, Chamorro beat Ortega with 55% of the vote, while Ortega only gained 41%. Obando y Bravo was instrumental in persuading the Sandinistas to agree to the election results and transfer power peacefully to the newly elected government. 

Forming an Unholy Alliance

Although the Church was integral in defeating Ortega and the FSLN in the 1990 election, Ortega developed a more cooperative relationship with the Church and its leaders. For instance, the Sandinistas officially apologized for their treatment of the Church during the Contra War, and Ortega began to attend Mass regularly. Furthermore, Ortega and the Sandinistas worked with the Church as it continued to contribute significantly to the national dialogue process, bringing political leaders, civil society groups, and other stakeholders together to discuss poverty, human rights, and governance issues. 

By the mid-2000s, Ortega continued this conciliatory relationship with the Church and demonstrated a new political approach. He made several overtures with right-wing establishment figures in the country. Notably, in 2005, Ortega began reconciling with Obando y Bravo by officially converting to Catholicism and having him officiate his marriage to Rosario Murillo. By converting to Catholicism and allying with Obando y Bravo, Ortega likely hoped to win Catholic voters and improve his image with Church leaders. Despite his political motivations, Ortega’s conversion to Catholicism was seen as a significant development in Nicaraguan politics. To deepen this newfound relationship, in 2006, Ortega worked with his FSLN colleagues to abandon their support for abortion and endorsed a law that completely banned it. This shift in their policy preference solidified Obando y Bravo’s political endorsement of the Sandinistas. With his support, in 2006, Ortega claimed the presidency (with 38% of the vote), and the FSLN won 30 seats in the National Assembly. However, this was an “unholy alliance,” as Ortega was determined never to lose power again. 

The Church Stands Up to Ortega’s Assault on Democracy and Human Rights

The Ortega regime has taken numerous steps to undermine Nicaragua’s democracy to consolidate power since the election of 2006. Levitsky and Way’s (2022) book, Revolution and Dictatorship and Sánchez González and Osorio Mercado’s (2020) article discuss Nicaragua’s democratic breakdown under Ortega’s rule. In summary, Ortega has combined constitutional changes, control of institutions, suppression of opposition, economic policies, and alliances with other countries to consolidate his power. These tactics have allowed him to control the government, limit the authority of opposition groups, and suppress dissent — even in the face of widespread international criticism. With these efforts, Nicaragua remains among the bottom 10% of countries on the liberal democracy index, according to V-Dem.

Despite the risks to its members, the Church has been one of the most influential resistance groups to Ortega’s power and his assault on human rights and democracy, primarily because of the Church’s influence among the Nicaraguan people and its moral authority to speak out against government abuses.

For instance, Ortega and the FSLN have used their control of the National Assembly to make changes to the Nicaraguan Constitution, including eliminating presidential term limits in 2014, thereby allowing Ortega to remain in power for longer than possible under the previous constitutional framework. Moreover, they have manipulated the electoral commission to ensure victorious elections. In addition, they have stacked the Supreme Court with FSLN loyalists, giving them control over the country’s legal system. They have also taken control of the military and the police, allowing them to use force to suppress dissent. As such, Ortega’s government has cracked down on opposition parties, independent media, and civil society groups by using harassment, intimidation, and legal action. They have used the courts to prosecute opposition leaders and journalists on trumped-up charges and used the police and paramilitary groups to suppress protests violently. The Church has voiced its opposition at every turn in Ortega’s assault on Nicaragua. 

In 2018, protests erupted across the country in response to changes to the social security system, and the government responded with force, killing over 300 people and imprisoning thousands more. During the protests, Nicaragua’s Catholic leaders acted as mediators in the national dialogue to resolve the crisis. Additionally, the Church provided humanitarian aid and shelter to victims of violence and repression. The Church’s support for the opposition groups and calls for a peaceful resolution to the crisis helped mobilize the public to pressure the government to negotiate. Yet, the Church’s involvement also made it a target of government repression. Despite this repression, the Church remained committed to its role as a defender of the country’s human rights and social justice.

Furthermore, Ortega has implemented economic policies that benefit him, his political allies, and his family. For example, he has given loyalists government contracts and other perks and taken control of critical industries, allowing him to reward supporters and limit the power of opposition business interests. This has given him significant control over the country’s economy and has allowed him to maintain the loyalty of influential business people. Finally, Ortega has forged alliances with other countries, including Venezuela, Russia, and China, which have provided him with political and economic support. These alliances have given him a buffer against international criticism and have allowed him to maintain his grip on power in the face of widespread opposition at home and abroad.

The Nicaraguan Interoceanic Grand Canal provides a relevant example of these last two points. In 2013, the National Assembly granted a 50-year concession to the Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Group (HKND), a private Chinese company, to study, design, build, and operate a proposed 172-mile canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through Nicaragua. Following the concession, the Church supported citizens’ concerns over the project related to the environmental, social, and economic impacts the canal could have on the country and its people. For example, in 2015, the Conference of Bishops of Nicaragua wrote a letter to Ortega highlighting the potential negative impacts of the canal on indigenous communities, natural resources, and the environment. Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the Archbishop of Managua, also spoke out against the project. In a statement to the press, he expressed concerns about the potential displacement of rural communities and the destruction of forests and wildlife habitats. Overall, the Church acted as a vocal opponent of the project, highlighting its potential negative impacts on the environment, indigenous communities, and the country as a whole. Once again, the Church helped stall Ortega’s objectives with this project, as no significant progress has been made on the canal. 

Since his return to office, Ortega has also been a strong supporter of the mining sector in Nicaragua and has implemented policies to attract foreign investment. His regime granted concessions to multinational mining companies, often without the free, prior, and informed consent of communities, and implemented a mining law that prioritizes the mining industry’s interests over those of local communities. In The Roots of Engagement: Understanding Opposition and Support for Resource Extraction, Arce, Hendricks, and Polizzi (2022) demonstrate how Church leaders helped shape individual attitudes toward mining in the Rancho Grande community. The Church has a long history in Rancho Grande, and citizens view it as a legitimate representative of local interests. In the mining context, the Church and its leaders have actively opposed extractive projects in the region. They resisted these projects based on their religious beliefs and commitment to social and environmental justice. They have spoken out against the negative impacts of mining on the environment, water sources, and the community’s health. They have also worked closely with other community organizations to mobilize against mining projects and successfully stopped proposed mining projects in the region in 2015. A primary organizer of the opposition in Rancho Grande was Bishop Álvarez, who the Ortega regime recently sentenced to 26 years in prison.


Despite the risks to its members, the Church has been one of the most influential resistance groups to Ortega’s power and his assault on human rights and democracy, primarily because of the Church’s influence among the Nicaraguan people and its moral authority to speak out against government abuses. For instance, Sánchez González and Osorio Mercado (2020) demonstrate that the Church has the highest level of trust among Nicaraguans than any government institution at 69% (e.g., the army received the next highest level with 22%). Given Ortega’s tumultuous and antagonistic relationship with the Church and its ability to still challenge his legitimacy and absolute control of Nicaragua, he is likely ramping up his efforts to eliminate it as a source of opposition and a trusted institution. Still, there is optimism. Nicaragua’s political future may emerge from the courage and resilience of those who continue to stand up for what is right, people like Álvare and the ex-political prisoners who remain committed to fighting for change and promoting freedom in Nicaragua.♦

Michael Hendricks is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University. His primary research focuses on community resistance to resource extractive projects in Latin America, particularly in Nicaragua, where he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2011-2013.

Recommended Citation

Hendricks, Michael. “Nicaragua and the Catholic Church.” Canopy Forum, May 17, 2023.