After spending a year in an itinerant exile, the Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, Silvio Baez, is in Miami at the home of his family where he has been confined these days by the coronavirus pandemic. Pope Francis has not assigned him any specific mission, but neither does he permit him to return to his homeland: “I don’t want you to be exposed, I don’t want another martyred bishop in Nicaragua,” he told him.
In this interview with the television program Esta Semana, Bishop Báez champions the cause of the exiles, the political prisoners and the families of the victims of repression who are demanding justice, and he recalls the meeting with President Daniel Ortega on June 7, 2018, when the ruler asked for “two or three days” to respond to the bishops’ proposal regarding the timetable for free elections. Two years after the civic insurrection, the bishop says: “We live between fear and freedom; one of the great challenges we have is to overcome the fear and know that a different Nicaragua is possible, where we will run the greatest risk, which is that of freedom and the fear of taking risks.”
Bishop, two years have passed since the protest broke out in April 2018, and a year of exile for you. How have you experienced this year outside the country as Auxiliary Bishop of Managua?
The two years since April’s civic insurrection have been an occasion to look back and thank God for having been able to live the Gospel at the side of our people, proclaiming the demands of freedom and justice, which are part of the plan for the kingdom of God. I’ve been very coherent in my experience, demonstrating what I carry in my heart, living before God and His people.
How did you spend this year in exile? You have been in Italy, in different countries, but as far as we know the Holy Father did not assign you a specific mission.
Since I left Nicaragua I’ve had at least three or four very close, very affectionate meetings with the Pope. He’s always told me: “I don’t want you to be exposed, I don’t want another martyred bishop in Nicaragua.”
During this year basically I’ve been without any concrete mission on behalf of the Church, and I haven’t been stationed in Rome, so I’ve spent several months in Ireland, in Spain, I was also in Peru, as well as in Rome for a few months. Right now I’m always at the disposal of the Holy Father, who has told me that what he wants is that I shouldn’t arrive in Nicaragua at this time because he doesn’t see the proper conditions for me to be able to develop my ministry without running risks.
Nicaraguan in exile and political prisoners
The Pope refers to you as an “exiled bishop.” What does a bishop in exile mean?
I never wanted to use that adjective, especially since at the beginning I thought it was going to be a prompt return, but it was Pope Francis himself who, perhaps half-jokingly, told me, “well, a bishop in exile.” At that time I became more aware of what my condition meant, being away from Nicaragua. Living in exile isn’t just a painful experience, it’s also an extremely enriching one, and I feel very honored to be able to share the insecurity and uncertainty that many of our brothers and sisters outside the country are experiencing.
There are more than 100,000 Nicaraguan refugees in Costa Rica, Spain, Panama, the United States, Italy, and other countries. How do you assess the conditions so that they can return to the country safely?
It seems to me that the problem of the Nicaraguan exiles, together with the political prisoners, are two humanitarian problems of incredible magnitude that we can’t ignore, and we have to put them on the political agenda in the first place.
As a believer, I feel the pain of the exiles very deeply, above all because in the Christian faith the exile—whom the Bible calls the stranger, the foreigner, precisely because of his or her condition of vulnerability in a land that isn’t their own—enjoys God’s favor, and we have to come to their aid and protect their lives and their rights.
The situation that many of our brothers and sisters are experiencing is very painful, not only because of the uprooting of the family, the land, the nation—which already are very great in terms of pain and insecurity—but also because of the economic and social conditions in which they find themselves.
I believe that this is a point that the Church must place at the center of its concerns, and any future political agreement in Nicaragua also has to put it at the top of the agenda.
What do the Pope and the Vatican say about the persecution that the Nicaraguan government has unleashed against the Catholic Church? There have been attacks on churches, persecution of priests, you yourself have been a victim of this. And people say, but why don’t you hear a statement of solidarity from the Holy Father or the Vatican, a denunciation against the Nicaraguan government to stop these attacks against the Church?
On the occasions when I have met the Pope, we have spoken about the situation in Nicaragua and about the risks that the Church, the bishops, the priests, and the Christian communities are facing. What I can tell you is that he listens, asks the occasional question, takes notes, and keeps it as a background to put together the mosaic of the situation in Nicaragua. Why he doesn’t express himself openly and clearly as many would like, I couldn’t give you the reason. What I can tell you is that the Pope is aware of the situation in Nicaragua, and of the situation of risk that the Church, and specifically the Christian communities, are experiencing.
How do you evaluate the situation in which the bishops in Nicaragua and the Church find themselves as a result of this year that you’ve spent living in exile? For example, recently Bishop Rolando Álvarez in Matagalpa called for a plan to prevent coronavirus, and the Ministry of Health prohibited it. Can the State of Nicaragua prevent the Church from practicing a function of solidarity as part of its own social doctrine?
Relations between the Church’s hierarchy and the regime in Nicaragua have been badly damaged since the middle and end of 2018. I haven’t been there, I don’t have much first-hand information, but I think relations have chilled and grown distant. One of the dimensions of the Church’s mission—besides announcing the Gospel and celebrating the sacraments in memory of Jesus Christ—is social: charity, solidarity, and doing good. Because human promotion is part of evangelization, that’s another dimension and I believe that a regime doesn’t have the right to prohibit and avoid the good being done. Not only does it go against human logic, but it also goes against religious freedom because human promotion, attention to the most disadvantaged, and works of charity are part of the Church’s mission. In fact, Caritas exists for this purpose. Each diocese is organized in these three dimensions: the proclamation of the word; sacramental celebrations; and charity, solidarity, and works of human promotion. This, although it may not seem so, is an attack on religious freedom in Nicaragua.
Ortega asked for two or three days to respond
Let’s talk about what happened on June 7, 2018, when there was great hope in the country that the crisis and the repression could be resolved politically, and this was probably one of the moments of maximum tension between the Church and the Government, as we learned later.
The bishops met for a dialogue with President Ortega, but a few weeks later, on July 19, the president said he had been presented with an ultimatum in a plan for a coup d’état. What happened at that meeting? What did President Ortega say at that time?
At the beginning of June, the bishops already realized that the dialogue that began on May 16 was a dead end and we weren’t going to get anywhere; the repression was increasing, political prisoners were starting to be detained, the people were still being persecuted, and the murders were continuing. At that point, the bishops made a decision: to speak face to face with those who are at the top of this regime. We decided to ask for an audience with Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo and they received us at the Casa de los Pueblos. The bishops asked me to make a presentation regarding the situation and it was my turn, in front of the two of them [Ortega and Murillo], to tell them what was happening in the streets, what the people were saying, and the judgment that we bishops ourselves had made: that if they had reacted to the first protests in a manner that was more rational, more open to dialogue and listening, perhaps we wouldn’t have reached the point we already were complaining about at that moment, with an immense number of people murdered in the streets. So I dared to say “you are the only ones responsible; we’re Nicaraguans here and we know very well that those who are currently in the streets taking action against unarmed people are your paramilitaries.” I even told them about the torture that already was taking place in the prisons, because I had first-hand information about kids from our parishes whose nails were being pulled out, suffering other atrocious punishments.
They listened to me very carefully, with a slight interruption at some point. Afterward, Bishop Rolando Alvarez presented a paper—it was not one of our own documents [from the episcopal conference]—but we were capturing the sense of the national dialogue and it was a roadmap towards the elections. At no point do we ask for Daniel Ortega’s resignation, therefore it cannot be considered an institutional coup d’état. What we presented was an outline with concrete dates for a peaceful, constitutional solution.
At that moment Ortega’s answer was, “let me think about it—you’re presenting me with this, all of a sudden—let me think about it and in two or three days I’ll give you the answer.” And that’s what we said to the press when we left that meeting. Already by July 19 things had gone off course and their false narrative about the coup d’état began; they attributed actions to us bishops that we never committed.
Then came “Operation Clean-Up” and the demand for justice by the victims of repression. During these days, you sent a message of solidarity to the Madres de Abril [surviving mothers of murdered protesters], who to this day continue to demand accountability for the murders of their relatives. How can justice be done in the face of these crimes, these crimes that have been classified as crimes against humanity?
I think it’s important not to forget that one of the fundamental demands with which the first dialogue began—and it reflected the people’s feelings because at that point many crimes indeed had been committed—was the demand for justice: authentic justice where the truth is clear, where those responsible are prosecuted, where the victims’ dignity is restored, and where it can be assured that the crimes won’t be repeated. This demand was part of the agenda of the first dialogue in May 2018.
When one considers the pain of the mothers and family members who lost their relatives in this violent repression, this immediately comes to mind: it can’t stay this way! This is a process of social transformation that has cost a lot of blood, where many lives have been sacrificed. So building a new society in Nicaragua isn’t simply a matter of turning the page; I believe that we must recover the civic rebellion’s demand for justice that began in April 2018. The tears of the mothers, the wives, and the relatives of the victims of repression can’t be forgotten. Already many times in Nicaragua we’ve turned the page without establishing the truth and making the guilty pay for their crimes. I believe this is a demand that can’t be ignored.
Between fear and freedom
Is this demand for justice a matter of consensus within the Nicaraguan Catholic Church, or is it something that eventually could be the subject of political negotiation?
I believe that justice is a non-negotiable; the truth must be established and we mustn’t build on impunity, but instead on the responsibility of each and every individual. Sometimes we’re afraid to talk about justice because it sounds like revenge, but justice isn’t revenge. Deep down it’s about giving an opportunity, even to the aggressor, to the guilty party, so that by recognizing his guilt he can become more human. It’s also an expression of mercy and it’s not at odds with forgiveness; because the pinnacle of justice is when the aggressor, the guilty party, is given the opportunity to come forward and repent, yet he isn’t offered a punishment that’s violent like the one he committed, instead he’s offered a pardon, an opportunity to make amends in some way, to pay for the crimes he committed.
Where do the people of Nicaragua stand today, two years after the April protests? What did that civic rebellion leave the people? Many people today say the country is dominated by fear, others speak of the prevalence of hope. Which way does the balance lean?
The experience of the April 2018 civic rebellion made us rediscover something very important: that the people are the subject of history. When people organize themselves and decide the course of history, they can achieve it. Undoubtedly, in the face of a monstrous regime and its military as well as its economic capabilities, it would seem that the experience was thwarted—it would seem that there’s nothing that can be done now.
I believe that, first of all, we must keep alive the spirit of April 2018, where there was no violence and there was a national consensus, beyond ideologies, beyond social classes, beyond the personal egoism of each individual. We were all united in pursuit of the dream of a different Nicaragua, where justice reigns, and human rights are respected. So, that spirit is the one we have to recover.
Now, facing the future, it’s true that in 2018 people lost their fear, but fear isn’t lost just once; this is an experience that must be renewed continually because some fears die and others are born. We continually live between fear and freedom, and at this point, although we lost many fears in 2018, others have surfaced; the great challenge we face at this moment is to overcome the new fears that have emerged. So, one of the great challenges we have right now is to overcome fear and know that a different Nicaragua is possible, where we’re going to run the greatest risk, which is freedom. Deep down, that’s the great fear we have: risking—risking our possessions, our relationships, our future, risking our lives—this is scary; but to the extent that we’re entering the future and perceiving it as ‘possibility’, we’re also losing the fear.
Translation by Carmelite Quotes