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Vatican-Nicaragua relations: Strained or broken?

Gabriel Gonzalez
March 15, 2023

Diplomatic relations between Managua and the Holy See seem to be in a dramatic state, with media reports saying they are over. Yet neither the Vatican nor the Nicaraguan government interpret the news that way.

Opposition members praying in a church in Managua, Nicaragua
Critics of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega pray for the release of imprisoned Bishop Rolando Alvarez Image: OSWALDO RIVAS/AFP

"The Holy See never leaves. It is thrown out," said Pope Francis in an interview with the Spanish newspaper ABC a few months ago. In light of the news coming from Nicaragua, one could certainly say the church is being thrown out of the Central American country.

On Monday, the Vatican's news portal, Vatican News, confirmed the Nicaraguan government's desire to "suspend diplomatic relations." In concrete terms, that means the closure of the apostolic nunciature, the Vatican's diplomatic mission in Nicaragua.

Vatican diplomats forced to leave Nicaragua

One year ago, on March 12, 2022, the Nicaraguan government ordered Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, the apostolic nunciate in Managua, to leave the country. Since then, Monsignor Marcel Mbaye Diouf, secretary of the nunciate, has acted as the Vatican's charge d'affaires. Diouf was now reportedly given one week to leave the country.

Nicaragua hasn't had an ambassador to the Vatican since September 2021. Currently, Yara Suhyen Perez Calero, a minister in the Nicaraguan government, serves as Managua's representative to the Holy See

Technically, these developments do not yet represent a break in relations, says Ludwig Ring-Eifel, who heads the Centrum Informationis Catholicum (CIC) in Rome. Ring-Eifel was chief editor of the KNA Catholic News Agency in Germany from 2005-2022 and now holds that post at CIC, which oversees reporting from KNA and its German-speaking partners Kathpress in Austria and KIPA in Switzerland.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega seated in front of flags wearing a casual blue jacket and baseball cap, holds a microphone.
President Daniel Ortega does not tolerate opposition — Pope Francis compared his regime to Hitler's dictatorshipImage: CANAL 6 NICARAGUA/AFP

Severed, or suspended?

"The Vatican has made clear its view that this is not a complete severance of diplomatic relations but rather a suspension or temporary pause. That means one final escalation exists, namely a formal and final termination," says the Vatican expert.

Ring-Eifel admits the need to look far back in history to find a similar case: "Even after the Cuban Revolution, Havana and the Vatican maintained diplomatic relations, despite most staff being ordered out of the country."

In fact, international law does not recognize the terms "suspend" or "pause" when it comes to diplomatic ties — either they exist or they do not.

"Those are just word games," as exiled Nicaraguan economist and political analyst Enrique Saenz told DW from Costa Rica. He says diplomatic relations may not have been formally severed, but on a practical political level they have.

Years of drifting apart

Ties between the church and the Nicaraguan government have been continually deteriorating since 2018. At the time, authorities came down brutally hard on nationwide anti-government protests.

Catholic churches offered many demonstrators shelter and later acted as a mediator between Managua and the opposition. President Daniel Ortega, however, increasingly branded Catholic representatives as opposition sympathizers and "terrorists" bent on toppling him.

"Ortega turned up the heat and has repeatedly bullied the church. Authorities even went so far as to forbid Catholics from holding traditional Lenten and Holy Week processions this year. Ortega's behavior really exhibits pathological traits," said Saenz.

Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, wearing a coronavirus mask and bishop's mitre blessing onlookers at Lenten processions in 2022
In 2022, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes led Lenten processions — this year they have been bannedImage: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Is Ortega mentally 'unbalanced'?

The final break came with this February's conviction and sentencing of Catholic Bishop Rolando Alvarez to 26 years in prison for "conspiracy and the distribution of false information." In March, Pope Francis gave an interview to the Argentine media outlet Infobae.

A priest, Catholic Bishop Rolando Alvarez of the Matagalpa Diocese, photographed on the street
Sentenced to 26 years in prison: Catholic Bishop Rolando Alvarez of the Matagalpa Diocese Image: Maynor Valenzuela/REUTERS

During the interview Pope Francis referred to Ortega as mentally "unbalanced." He went on to compare Ortega's Sandinista regime to the "communist dictatorship in 1917 or a Hitlerian one in 1935." 

"The pope certainly contributed to the escalation," admits Ludwig Ring-Eifel of the CIC in Rome. The Vatican expert says the situation has reached an impasse and needs to cool. Ultimately, time will play an important role, says Ring-Eifel, and history has shown that the Vatican has much more of that.

This article was translated from German by Jon Shelton