Editor’s Note: On July 3, 1986 Nicaragua’s Sandinista Government expelled from the country Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega, vice president of the Nicaraguan bishops’ conference, for criticizing the Sandinistas and, allegedly, for statements supporting the contras. The expulsion was condemned by John Paul II and the U.S. Catholic Conference. In a statement to the press in Rome on August 4, Bishop Vega responded to the Government’s allegations against him, discussed the persecution of the Church in Nicaragua, and described his expulsion.
In a telex sent by President Ortega to the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences worldwide on July 25th, 1986, we may find well known fallacies of the ideological framework which the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional) attempts to impose on the Nicaraguan people with disturbing repercussions throughout the Central American region.
President Ortega wants to make us believe that the confrontation between his Government and the attitudes of alertness and suspicion would be the result of whatever the Bishops denounce in Nicaragua or abroad.
Nevertheless, he does not contradict the fact on which we base our denunciations. He really does not try to open paths respectful of the freedom of conscience and of the individual and of the collective rights of the Nicaraguan people as well; he does not show respect for the sovereign rights of other peoples either. His warmongering language constantly invites to “crush and terminate” all opponents. It cannot be said that one wants peace who insults his own people and others as if they were his most despicable enemies.
The Nicaraguan people have their own Christian and historic identity. They refuse to have imposed on them, through force and deceit, a materialistic model which disregards that identity and the fundamental rights in-alienable to every man and national community. It is in view of such materialistic ideas and abuses against human rights and values, that the Church cannot but raise her voice, in fulfillment of her redeeming and liberating mission.
It is well known that there exists an opposition between a totalitarian, materialistic worldview and the Christian revelation, and that such a conflict has an unavoidable impact on the concrete states of life in history. The totalitarian, materialistic worldview attempts to organize everything through use of force, disregarding spiritual values. Totalitarian materialism seeks to wipe out the unpredictability of the expressions originating in a free consciousness and a free critical spirit, both of which make every man a responsible actor of his own personal and collective history. Hence my own position vis-à-vis the FSLN: not for the traditional opposition “per se,” by way of power groups, the being “anti” whatever; I have emphasized that those pendular confrontations are neither the proper Christian path nor the path towards a truly humane revolution for the benefit of our peoples.
I have wanted to search for a path conducive to economic, political, and social change through a dialectic between material and spirit. As I understand, it is for this that Christ told his Apostles: “Go, then, to all peoples everywhere”; as if he were telling us that it is not enough to awake man to the mystery of his individual dimension, but also to the duty to organize social coexistence. Our Latin American peoples, and all those of the Third World as well, show the common human fault of not having spiritually assumed their own historic fulfillment. The Gospel has not been sufficiently preached in its historic social dimension; we have preferred to emphasize doctrinal abstraction — undoubtedly necessary but insufficient. Faith is not submission to a culture or a system of domination, it is to enter into an effective, free, and responsible participation of the sovereign kingdom of the Divine Spirit.
Still, religious persons and tourists who appear to limit their concept of justice to the mere material aspects of life, continue to arrive in Nicaragua. There is a “material justice” that if separated from its human integrity may result in serious human injustice — if the food is poisoned, a dish is not made good just by being appetizing or filling. The campaign of alphabetization was viewed with suspicion not because it taught people to read and write, or because it stimulated contacts between students from the cities and people in the countryside, but for its materialistic indoctrination and the class hatred that was spread.
Shortly after the “revolutionary victory,” one of the nine commanders was telling the bishops how the Church could greatly contribute to the revolution by taking charge of feeding a significant number of political prisoners and impoverished guardsmen, whom they did not know what to do with. There was a moment of silence among the bishops, and I came forward to answer: “It is not a bad idea! But, it seems to me that the mission and presence of the Church should go deeper. The Nicaraguan revolution was made for us to live in freedom and fraternity, not to make life more bearable in the prisons. The Church has been in this revolution as a liberating sign. Your idea seems to be a humane one, but we would rather have less prisoners and more free men.” He, then, moved the discussion to another subject.
I bring up these examples for the sake of a better understanding of the first and indispensable role of the Church in human liberation. The economic and social factors are part of the historic dimensions of life, but they are not enough for a man to preserve his freedom and dignity as a son of God; it is not justifiable to keep a man in prison because he may be well fed, it is more important to evaluate whether or not he deserves to be in prison instead of in full possession of his freedom.
This is a brief summary of some points which I have emphasized in my talks with the faithful, and in public statements made outside of Nicaragua.
(1) No party or group, whatever its ideology, has the right to impose its ideological framework, therefore violating the rights and legitimate fundamental freedoms of its fellow citizens.
(2) The Nicaraguan people have the right to defend themselves from any abuse of totalitarian nature by those in power.
(3) As a Church, we have always asked from the FSLN a civil alternative that may enable the Nicaraguan citizenry to elect its own form of government, free of either internal or external military oppression.
I have said that the different pressures and intimidations that seek to push the Christian faithful away from their pastors and their religious education are detrimental to freedom of conscience. Church workers are threatened with being labeled as contras if they refuse to serve as “informers” or as activists to form cadres of political action, and thus pressure is put on them to separate them from their duties with the Church. Those who resist this pressure are labeled contras, supposedly deserving prison and threatened with death; evidently, not all of this is followed to its bitter end, but the intimidations remain. In my diocese there have been at least three people killed after receiving these types of threats.
Alfonso Galeano. Regardless of the fact that we had been facilitating the use of chapels for the campaign of alphabetization in the countryside, once the peasants became aware of the repeated abuses by Cuban teachers, who used the chapel for political meetings and other questionable purposes, it was necessary to discontinue the practice. Alfonso Galeano, a layman leader of an ecclesial community, refused to allow the chapel of his region to be used as a school for alphabetization. He received many threats; on June 10, 1982, at 4 P.M., while visiting his father, he was killed, allegedly during a robbery. Later, it was known that the “robbers” were draftees in the Army, but it was not possible to obtain any further clarification.
Daniel Sierra-Ocon. He was an active member of the movement of Encuentros Matrimoniales; he visited the peasants’ communities together with his wife who worked in my office as secretary. Accused of allegedly listening to clandestine radio broadcasts, he was labeled a contra and arrested. Although Daniel was publicly cleared of guilt, his wife was informed that he had “committed suicide” in prison on December 21, 1982. We never knew the true cause of his death. I saw his dead body. It had a bullet wound in the left temple and blood at the right of the nape of the neck where the bullet exited; it appeared evident that the bullet penetrated the upper left temple, following a downward trajectory to exit at the right side. All those who were arrested with him for similar reason were later freed; but the talk remains that Daniel Sierra-Ocon had been killed for refusing to sign a statement against the Church. Others active in the work of the Church have had the experience of being coerced to sign documents which they are not allowed to read; some have been forced to sign a blank paper.
Yamilet Sequeira de Lorío She had informed me of her fears. She was under pressure to become a member of State Security, probably in view of her influence with lay ministers in the countryside, where she was in charge of evangelization in the small town of San Miguelito. She was arrested at her home on July 19, 1983, at 2:00 A.M.; her husband and a neighbor who happened to witness the arrest were also taken in the same car, driven by the local Chief of Security. We assumed that they were in jail, but later their bodies appeared on the shoulder of a road in construction, the three corpses half burned and partly covered with dirt.
These occurrences in three separate locations within the territory of a certain diocese created fear in people active in the pastoral work organized through our ecclesial base communities. It is alleged that these assassinations were politically motivated, but I am a witness that the threats were religiously motivated.
We bishops are being accused of complicity by silence with the alleged crimes of the contras and the policy of Reagan. However, it is forgotten that the silence was imposed on us by the FSLN itself. Firstly, we cannot accept at face value the news spread by the media outlets under the control of the FSLN; secondly, we are not allowed to express publicly our own opinion; we are under pressure to side unconditionally with the FSLN.
A typical case was that of the reported assassination of Msgr. Salvador Schlaefer, Bishop of Bluefields. At that time, I was president of the Bishops’ Conference, when the Secretary of the Government Junta informed me officially of the news of Msgr. Schlaefer’s assassination, which he attributed to a group of Misquito Indians who were in the contras forces. He said that the bishop’s destroyed car had been found, but not his body.
Afterwards, he asked me immediately to call the bishops so that we might get together and make a strong statement against such crimes and those who were sponsoring them with their aggressive policy. I suggested that it would be better if he could inform each bishop. I assured him that I would call a meeting, and begged him to confirm the news, and if possible provide more precise details. When the bishops got together early the next morning, we tried to confirm the official news; however, it developed into what we now know, that Msgr. Schlaefer had not been killed and that the Misquitos were instead protecting him. Msgr. Schlaefer has suffered other attacks, none of which have been fully clarified.
Cardinal Obando y Bravo, Bishop Bosco Vivas, and myself have been victims of aggression by groups claiming to be members of the so-called “popular church,” and by those known as “divine goons” as well. Curiously, we have verified that in all those groups there were “visiting internationalists” mixed with known police agents and state security plainclothesmen. My car was stoned after Christmas Mass. Those who did it shouted that I was not siding with the poor; they were recognized as young Army draftees. However, the news was biased against me, and religious men and nuns thought that I had been the agent provocateur, and occasionally I received an insulting letter from Holland and other places — “If they do these things in the green wood, what will happen in the dry?” Nobody seems either to know about or to comment on whatever is done to the poor and the peasants in the mountains.
In the previous regime, if somebody was tortured by the National Guard, that person would ask me to denounce the violation. Today, on the contrary, after telling me of their torture they ask me to keep it a secret of the confessional for the sake of their personal safety and that of their families. Silence is, therefore, imposed on us by the regime, not because we want it or because we are against every form of military or police violence, but because we cannot approve such procedures which blame the oppressed people for the faults of the ruling system.
Dynamic Presence of the Church for Social and Political Changes
The Church in Nicaragua was present with her moral authority throughout the process of change to stimulate civil responsibilities among the citizenry, to improve the living conditions, personal and collective, of our people. The Church articulated her position via Pastoral Letters.
In 1974, we said that there will be social unrest “as long as the authorities seek to ban and/or repress fundamental rights instead of guaranteeing and regulating the exercise of such rights. War against man is rooted in the disregard of his rights.” And we added, “There is only one way to avoid war, and that is to recognize human rights by implementing their full exercise.”
Later, we addressed ourselves, as bishops, to the issue of dissent. We said. “When, as a result of ideological and physical power, the citizens find themselves civilly, morally, and politically abused, then the right to dissent becomes a duty of moral resistance.” We also emphasized that ” . . the Church promotes political duty, but it is not linked to political power; therefore, it is not our mission to support those in political power.” We qualified our position as follows: “Political parties exist for the common good, not for their own good nor to dominate the citizens. Nobody can be forced to vote against his conscience. Elections that use the vote to demand submission simply do not elect.- Based on these principles, we acted during the previous regime.
On the occasion of the inauguration of President Ortega, on January 10, 1985, I gave the invocation and explained the rationale for our presence in the event:
The Church — expert in humanity, in the words of Pope Paul VI — must be present in the anguish and the hopes of the people, which reflect the creative dynamism of the Spirit. At this moment, we do not want to disguise nor deepen our confrontations. By the path of dialogue we want to say No to war, No to violence, repression, and arrogant absolutisms. Dialogue means that we all should be actively, critically, dialectically, and freely present in implementing the aspirations, needs, and values of our own people.
Nevertheless, the FSLN has assumed the publicity- seeking strategies of the so-called “popular church,” and has persisted in its campaign to discredit the Catholic Church. In this regard, the FSLN attempts to substitute for the saints political heroes; it seeks to appropriate for itself the most sacred symbols of real faith in the true and living God. Today the FSLN likes to repeat that “the one who is not a son of Sandino is a son of Reagan.” To those who have tried to identify us with such alternatives, I respond: Happily, we Christians are neither sons of Sandino nor of Reagan, we are sons of God. Therefore, we seek the sovereignty of our people above partisan preferences.
In my recent visits to the United States, such as that of March 5, 1986 to Washington, I said that to stop international armed aggression it is necessary to stop the internal oppression thrust upon the Nicaraguan people. I also said that it wasn’t enough to substitute one dictatorship with another dictatorship, one imperialism with another imperialism, one “class” with another “class.” The wrongdoing is in the attitudes of arrogance and oppression detrimental to the necessary respect for individual and collective human rights.
In my subsequent visit to New York and Washington, on June 4 and 5 of this year, I said that in view of the worsening increase of armed international pressure and of internal repression as well, the Church had to serve as a bridge to promote dialogue, candidly and realistically, in order to avoid a holocaust for the Nicaraguan people. War-fare by itself does not bring a solution. As Christians, we support neither regimes of the extreme left nor of the extreme right. Under the lights of our faith, we are for a social order based on the inalienable rights of man and society. Any form of external support, including military assistance, should be directed to promote the common good, not to promote de facto regimes.
It is inappropriate for the FSLN to pretend to dictate to us whom we should speak with, or how we should address ourselves to our many questioners. When I had the opportunity to talk to President Fidel Castro, the FSLN praised me unabashedly. But when I talked to groups on the right, they condemned me as if I were the most despicable contra chieftain.
We do not make mediations, we favor and promote them, and if allowed to do so, we help to implement a mediation. But it is up to the groups in conflict to decide; they are supposed to be mature enough to make their own decisions. There can be no dialogue without the mutual acceptance and recognition of the parties concerned.
On Thursday, July 3, 1986, at approximately 9:00 P.M., I received a phone call from Mr. Agustin Lara, Political Chief of the Region. He told me that he wanted to see me urgently, if possible that night. I said I did not feel well, but that I would be pleased to go see him the next morning. We agreed to hold the meeting at 8:00 A.M.
I arrived at approximately 8:05 A.M. at the residence of the Political Chief of the Fifth Region. The Chief of Security of the Fifth Region was also there, joined by other officers and plainclothesmen, and a TV cameraman; all of them came forward to meet me.
As we shook hands, Mr. Lara told me: “I have summoned you to inform you that you are under arrest by order of the Government. This is the officer who will be in charge of your custody.” I greeted the Chief of Security, Mr. Fernando Caldera, and then I was introduced to a medical doctor who would assist me if needed. Immediately, two plainclothesmen ushered me into a double cabin pick-up truck, the officer took a seat next to the driver, and we sped up a dirt road, avoiding the main highway where people could see me or recognize me. They drove me to a prison called “Sistema Penitenciario”; I thought they would keep me there, but they didn’t. Instead, I was asked to board one of two large helicopters stationed on the sports field. We lifted off immediately.
We flew over the highway towards Managua, but soon I realized we had changed course towards the north, over the mountains. I did not ask questions. Finally, at about 10:00 A.M., we landed at what I thought was a military base; there were many soldiers on alert surrounding the place. Two officers asked me to go with them. We got into a jeep, followed by an entourage of six or eight cars with military guards, and drove to the old Casa de Aduana (Customs House) near the border with Honduras, also known as El Espino, but today renamed La Fraternidad.
Only then did they inform me that I was expelled from the country, that I should look for another motherland among the contras or with Reagan, because they no longer admitted me in Nicaragua. I replied that the motherland can be neither given nor taken away, that it is something one carries deep in one’s soul, that someday they would understand the meaning of true love for their motherland. They repeated that I was only interested in Reagan and the contras. I said that there was no need to argue anymore. They gave me a new regular passport without a visa to enter Honduras.
I was asked to wait for a vehicle to take me to the border itself. It was a tractor-trailer. The military ordered it to stop and asked me to step into the cabin next to the driver, which I did. I gave them the Blessing — some of them looked on smiling, while others seemed to accept it with surprise. The truck driver, a Guatemalan citizen, was puzzled and later disapproved of the proceeding when he understood what it was all about.
When we arrived at the border, the soldiers on the Honduran side were mystified that my passport did not have a visa. A soldier from the Nicaraguan side told them that I was being expelled, that it was up to them to receive me.
What was the legality (if any) of this expulsion? Were there any laws recalled to carry it out? If so, I was not informed.