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How talks to free Nicaragua’s Bishop Álvarez failed

On July 4, rumors spread on social media in Nicaragua that the imprisoned Bishop Rolando Álvarez had been freed.

Bishop Rolando Álvarez. Ramírez 22 nic via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

A day later, the rumors appeared to be confirmed. Reputable local and international media reported that the bishop was no longer in the Modelo prison, where he had been held since Feb. 10. Some reports even suggested that he had been put on a plane to Rome, where the pope was expecting him.

But hours went by and no confirmation came. Both the Nicaraguan bishops’ conference and the Ortega regime remained silent.

Eventually, the reason became clear: Álvarez had refused to go into exile and was sent back to prison. 

But why did negotiations surrounding his release seem to collapse?


The rumors

A little after midnight on July 4, Félix Maradiaga — a former political prisoner and candidate for the Nicaraguan presidency — tweeted¡Gloria a Dios!” (“Glory to God!”).

He followed the message with a tweet explaining that “unofficially it has been mentioned, by credible and well-informed sources, that Bishop Rolando Álvarez could be sent out of Nicaragua in the next few hours, probably tomorrow. It is confirmed that he is no longer in the Modelo detention center.”

In the morning, the local outlet Confidencial reported that since the evening of July 3, Bishop Rolando (Nicaraguans typically call their bishops by their first name instead of their surname) was not in the Modelo prison but in a diocesan building in the capital, Managua. Some said he was at the episcopal palace, others at the seminary.

The Confidencial report, which cited unnamed Church and diplomatic sources, indicated that negotiations were ongoing between the government, the bishops’ conference, and the Vatican to send Álvarez into exile. 

Bianca Jagger, a Nicaraguan human rights activist, suggested that Álvarez would be sent to Rome shortly.

Catholic and secular human rights activists throughout the world started celebrating Álvarez’s release.

Yet sources in Managua told The Pillar that Álvarez was still in the city, and the negotiations were proving more complicated than the media indicated.

In the afternoon, Reuters reported that Álvarez had indeed been released from prison. Negotiations were still underway regarding his future, it said, but nothing was certain.

The collapse

The first to indicate that the negotiations to release him had collapsed was Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, who has served since 2005 as the Archbishop of Managua.

“It’s just speculation,” he said when asked if Álvarez was in a diocesan facility. 

“He is in [Modelo], his family has visited him,” he told journalists after a Mass at the cathedral.

Asked about the media reports indicating the bishop’s release, Brenes said: “They have published unconfirmed news and created a scandal, they were wrong.” 

He explained that the last time he saw or spoke with Álvarez was before a group of 222 political prisoners was sent to the U.S. in February and Álvarez was sentenced to 26 years in prison the day after.

Asked if he would petition the Nicaraguan regime for Álvarez’s release, Brenes replied: “No, [they] take their decisions, I don’t have anything to do with that.”

Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega expelled the country’s apostolic nuncio in March 2022, which means that the Holy See has no official diplomatic representation in the country. 

Brenes, who is known to be close to Pope Francis, has since taken on an outsized diplomatic and political role dealing with the regime, while the Church in Nicaragua suffers heavy persecution from the country’s dictatorship. The cardinal’s critics have accused him of being too close to the regime.

Media reports indicated that Álvarez had been sent back to prison on the morning of July 5. A representative of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State who took part in the negotiations with the government via video call reportedly tried to persuade Álvarez to accept exile without directly ordering him to do so. But the bishop did not accept the terms of his release.

Since the beginning of Álvarez’s detention in August 2022, the Nicaraguan regime has tried to negotiate his exile. But the Bishop of Matagalpa has repeatedly refused. He will only leave prison if he is allowed to stay in Nicaragua. 

According to media reports, he also added as a condition the release of the five other jailed priests in Nicaragua and the unfreezing of bank accounts of Catholic institutions throughout the country.

The regime flatly refused.

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Bishop Silvio Báez, an auxiliary of Managua who was exiled in 2019, first in Rome and then in Miami, said that the only circumstance in which Álvarez would accept being exiled was if Pope Francis himself requested it. 

“He said it was a decision of his conscience before God,” Báez commented.

“There is nothing to negotiate. I know Rolando and he will never negotiate [with] a decision he took in conscience, and I fully understand him. In 2019, I would have done the same as he did. I would have never left the country. I left obeying the pope because he commanded me to do it,” he said.

“A pastor bishop would not leave his people because a dictatorship wants him to. I would have done the same, even if I had to pay with my pain.”

Between a rock and a hard place

Álvarez’s stance has put the Ortega dictatorship in an awkward position. Seeking to reduce international pressure and eliminate some sanctions in February, Ortega freed 222 political prisoners to leave the country, including most jailed Catholic priests and collaborators, and all high-profile political prisoners. 

But Álvarez was noticeably absent from the list because he preferred jail in Nicaragua to freedom in exile. A day later, he was sentenced to 26 years in prison for conspiracy by a kangaroo court.

This presents a quandary for Ortega. He seems to have underestimated Álvarez, assuming that he would readily accept going into exile or Pope Francis would directly ask him to, as happened with Bishop Báez. But this does not seem to be the case this time.

An exiled Nicaraguan priest who knows Álvarez well told The Pillar: “Bishop Rolando has a clear conscience. He knows he did not commit any treason or was part of any conspiracy, so he does not need to accept going into exile.” 

“He’s bravely facing the darkest side of the dictatorship. It is about his conscience, and I think the pope will respect his conscience and not request him to obey and go to the Vatican.”

“If Bishop Rolando says that, in good conscience, he cannot go into exile, the pope must respect that, and I think he will, because he understands that for Álvarez, his conscience goes first.” 

Local reports indicate that Ortega wants to get rid of Álvarez. His prison term is costing Ortega legitimacy among the few allies he still has. Brazil’s left-wing President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has cordial relationships with the three dictatorships in Latin America: Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. But when da Silva met with Pope Francis at the Vatican two weeks ago, he called Álvarez’s imprisonment a “mistake” and told the pope he would press Ortega to release the bishop.

If Álvarez continues to refuse exile, Ortega does not appear to have any options that would not make him seem weak. 

As with all the exiled former political prisoners, Álvarez was sentenced not only to prison but also civil death, officially known as “perpetual loss of citizen rights.” Civil death is a penalty in which the condemned loses their right to Nicaraguan nationality, including the possession of an ID card, passport, work permit, bank account, driver’s license, and even civil rights such as free speech and association. 

Freeing Álvarez in Nicaragua would mean that his “civil death” would have to be revoked too, which would undermine Ortega’s implacable image.

Ortega seems to have decided to respond by heightening the persecution of the Church, with the aim of forcing Pope Francis’ hand and making him order Álvarez to leave the country.

Recently, the regime accused the Church of taking part in a money-laundering scheme. It froze the bank accounts of hundreds of Catholic institutions, including schools, parishes, hospitals, nurseries, and even some of the country’s dioceses. It also jailed two priests and some lay collaborators. 

Four Brazilian nuns of the Sisters Poor of Jesus Christ were kicked out of the country last week. The sisters’ apostolate centered mostly on serving homeless people.

Ortega is also pressuring Francis through Álvarez’s health. Some reports indicate that the bishop suffers from high blood pressure and that, for some time, he was jailed in a cell known as “the little hell”: A six-by-six-foot room without ventilation that only has a bunk bed and a hole in the floor. 

Álvarez has looked noticeably thinner the only two times he has been seen publicly since he was imprisoned. The dictatorship might think that if Álvarez’s health worsens, Francis will feel compelled to order him into exile instead of dying in prison.

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