In an interview with one of Spain’s largest Catholic newspapers, Silvio José Báez, O.C.D., the Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, fielded questions ranging from the prophetic challenges facing the Church in Nicaragua to the coronavirus health crisis, all set against the backdrop of the two-year anniversary of civic rebellion against dictator Daniel Ortega and one year since Pope Francis called Bishop Báez to safety in Rome. We present a translation of his 16 April 2020 interview with Alfa y Omega, a publication of the Archdiocese of Madrid.
In his homily on 7 October 2018, Bishop Báez preached: “Jesus doesn’t accept a law where men dominate women and a macho norm that gives men all the rights. Like so many other occasions, Jesus takes the side of the weakest and most abandoned: in this case, women. Jesus sided with women. In no way are they of less value than men. Jesus always takes the side of those without rights, of those who account for less. His disciples should do the same.“
AyO: It’s been a year since you had to leave Nicaragua. How are you coping?
+SJB: The most difficult thing in these months outside of Nicaragua has been not being physically next to the people. I have missed listening to the people, being able to embrace the people giving comfort and hope, preaching the Gospel and celebrating the faith with the faithful. What this time has taught me is that physical distance is not necessarily an absence, but another way of being present. My ministry as a bishop in Nicaragua has acquired a new approach, which is exercised through the media and social networks and, above all, through pastoral care and prayer, which create an extraordinary communion among believers, overcoming distances and time.
AyO: What’s your current situation? Do you talk to the Pope?
+SJB: My ministry as a bishop has matured a great deal during this time, through the spiritual dynamism that faith, obedience, and apostolic communion impart. Almost a year has passed, but I’ve been neither immobile nor passive. My pastoral horizons have broadened; the experiences that I’ve had have strengthened me in my vocation and in my pastoral style; and, my fidelity to the Church and my love for the Nicaraguan people has grown. Pope Francis has been extremely affectionate and close. In the last few months, I have met him three times in private and we have spoken in a very beautiful atmosphere of warmth and fraternal closeness. He has been discerning with me, making me an active participant in the discernment. For the time being, given the conditions of the country, the Pope has recommended that it is prudent to wait a little longer for a possible return to Nicaragua. During this time I have learned to live without rushing or worrying, with infinite trust in God.
AyO: Is there a way out of Daniel Ortega’s entrenchment?
+SJB: After the 2018 civic rebellion in Nicaragua, and the ruthless wave of repression that left hundreds dead, injured, imprisoned and exiled, Nicaragua has not been the same as before. The people discovered for the first time, after a long time, their responsibility to achieve the democratization of the country and, at the same time, the criminal face of the regime was exposed. The problem has become worse because, after two years, the dictatorship has become increasingly closed in on itself, refusing any democratic opening. With its narrative of a forced “normality”, it wants to lead us to accept life in a kidnapped country without freedom as being perfectly normal. What we have to do now is not to lose sight of the model of society we want to achieve: a society where the dignity and rights of every person are respected, where individual interests are renounced in order to share goods and interests in peace and justice, and where dissent from power is not a crime. We must nourish the hope that this different kind of society is possible, and we must lay the foundations to achieve it. On the other hand, I believe that we mustn’t forget the demands of justice. In Nicaragua, very serious crimes against humanity have been committed by the dictatorship, and the guilty parties sooner or later have to be brought to justice and prosecuted. The new Nicaragua cannot be built on impunity. We cannot simply turn the page and move forward. We must strengthen the bonds of unity among the people who do not accept the dictatorship and maintain criticism and social pressure to bring about change. It is up to the politicians to decide how to do this concretely and to carry it forward.
“I believe that we mustn’t forget the demands of justice. In Nicaragua (…) we cannot simply turn the page and move forward.” -Bishop Silvio José Báez, O.C.D.Tweet
AyO: Is the Church-sponsored dialogue deadlocked between the government and the opposition?
+SJB: A dialogue like the previous ones is not only impossible at this point, but it would be futile. I believe that right now the dialogue isn’t the issue, even less so with the format that was used previously. These two years have clearly shown the total lack of willingness of this regime to engage in dialogue. Now it’s a matter of forcing social change on a political level, without arrangements under the table and without selfishly seeking one’s own interests. It requires firmness, courage, and creativity. It’s not impossible.
AyO: In May 2014, the bishops presented the document In Search of New Horizons for a Better Nicaragua where they asked the Ortega Government for a democratizing process for the 2016 general elections. In that electoral process, there were allegations of fraud by the opposition. Taking this background into account, how does the Church in Nicaragua view the presidential elections of 2021? Are the elections the best way to solve the crisis in the country?
+SJB: In the country’s current conditions, where there are still many political prisoners, the violent repression continues and citizens’ freedoms aren’t respected, it’s impossible to think about elections. If we reach 2021 in these conditions, the elections would be meaningless. We bishops have always said that elections are the best way out of the crisis, in a peaceful and democratic way, but this requires first of all the release of all political prisoners and the restitution of liberties and civil rights. Only then should the Supreme Electoral Council be completely renewed, making possible free, monitored and honest elections. Ideally, national resistance and international pressure should force the regime to accept these changes. I still believe in a non-violent political solution. That’s not the easiest way out, but it’s the one that can guarantee that the socio-political changes will be lasting.
AyO: What do you think of the broad coalition that the Nicaraguan opposition has formed?
+SJB: The formation of this coalition is something very significant and hopeful, especially after living for many years with a fragmented and practically non-existent political opposition. I believe that attempts at unity must always be valued, but it must also be recognized that, in the socio-political context of Nicaragua, the unity achieved is very fragile. There’s a long way to go. The plus side is that the existence of unity in opposition to the regime guarantees democratic plurality; the risk is that this coalition will become so institutionalized and bureaucratic that it will lose its grass-roots base and charismatic strength. This coalition will have real political significance if it succeeds in keeping alive the spirit of April 2018, when Nicaraguans protested without thinking of partisan interests, motivated only by the desire to end a despotic and criminal power, clamoring for a new society based on justice, freedom and the participation of all citizens. The biggest challenge for the Coalition is to obtain more and more popular legitimacy, to act with transparency in front of the people and not to lose sight of the objective that was at the root of the April insurrection: the democratization of the country and the demands for justice in relation to the crimes against humanity committed by the regime.
The spirit of April 2018
Only eight weeks after Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega unleashed violent, repressive police action against student protestors in April 2018, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, Apostolic Nuncio Waldemar Sommertag, and Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez traveled from Managua to the city of Masaya on 21 June 2018 to attempt to prevent a bloodbath. From the steps of a local church in his hometown, Bishop Báez delivered an impassioned plea for a halt to the violence and an end to the assassinations and murders, acts by the Ortega regime that a commission of international experts described as crimes against humanity.
“From here, from this heroic church of Saint Sebastian, I want to recall one of the commandments of God’s law: You shall not kill! From here, with all my heart, suffering for my city, as a believer who believes in life and in peace and never has promoted violence—to the contrary—I want to issue a call to those who have come to kill in this city, I want to issue a call to those who are even snipers, to those in the Las Flores roundabout who still want to kill—I want to issue a call to Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo: Not one more death in Masaya! Not one more death!”
AyO: What is the current state of relations between the regime and the Church? Does the conflict, the siege of churches, and the manipulation of religious symbols by the state still exist?
+SJB: Relations between the Church, pastors and the rest of God’s people, and the regime have been damaged since 2018, when the latter, without any foundation, accused the Church of having organized a coup d’état and accused bishops and priests of being terrorists. From this moment on, the temples have been continuously besieged by the police and fanatics of the dictatorship; at the same time, many Catholic leaders, including some bishops, have suffered persecution and have been victims of slander and denigrating attacks. This has been a consequence of the closeness and solidarity of the Church with the sufferings of the people, in particular, with the victims of injustice and repression. To this, we should add another more subtle type of persecution that goes back to a long time before 2018, that which is carried out through the manipulation of religious symbols, language and festivals proper to the Catholic Church, as an attempt to give religious and ideological support to a totalitarian regime and to be able to gain acceptance in the face of a deeply religious people. The Church must continue to be less and less diplomatic and more prophetic. Just like Jesus, she must stand by the victims at all times, who are the least and the forgotten members of society, by defending their lives and their rights and by promoting their dignity, in the name of God.
AyO: Despite the worldwide crisis of the coronavirus, the Ortega-Murillo regime has called for mass demonstrations. What do you think of this attitude by the government?
+SJB: This action by the regime in Nicaragua is incomprehensible. Encouraging behavior and forms of coexistence that favor an eventual spread of the virus is irrational and shows great disrespect for the Nicaraguan people. In an exemplary manner, it is the people themselves who have decided to take care of themselves, deciding to practice a healthy quarantine to avoid transmission. The efforts of both business and civil society in publicizing hygiene standards and creating a common fund to tackle the crisis also deserve to be recognized. The people of Nicaragua are at great risk at the moment, because we are a very poor country with very limited medical resources. A diocese in the country presented a project of preventive medical clinics to help the population and was prevented by the Ministry of Health. These decisions are beyond comprehension, as are the regime’s constant invitations to participate in parties, marathons, stadiums, trips to the beach, etc., thus seriously compromising the health of the poorest members of society. Faced with a regime that behaves in such an irresponsible way and that handles the cases of infection and the number of tests carried out with absolute secrecy, the Church and the forces of democracy are insisting on inviting the population to take measures of hygiene and social distancing themselves in order to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic.
AyO: What would be your message as a pastor to the Nicaraguans who are in their own country and those who have gone out into the diaspora two years after the beginning of the socio-political crisis?
+SJB: Two years after the civic rebellion of April 2018, I invite Nicaraguans, at home and abroad, not to lose hope of being able to build a new society, where reason, goodness and social justice prevail. Let’s not forget, as Pope Francis said, that “the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders (…). It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change” (Speech to Second World Meeting of Popular Movements, 9 July 2015). In order to transform Nicaragua, three deadly verbs must be eliminated from personal, social and political life: to have, to climb and to command, and instead to cultivate three verbs that give life and do good: to give, to descend and to serve.
“The Church must continue to be less and less diplomatic and more prophetic.” -Bishop Silvio José Báez, O.C.D.Tweet
Authors: José Calderero de Aldecoa @jcalderero and Israel González Espinoza @israeldej94
Translated and published with the kind permission of José Calderero de Aldecoa on behalf of Alfa y Omega newsweekly. Read the original article in Spanish here.