The Imprisoned Nicaraguan Bishop

Author and former vice president of Nicaragua, Sergio Ramirez. Photo: Angel Medina EFE/Confidencial

They accused him of “destabilizing the Nicaraguan State and attacking the constitutional authorities.” His words rang out like exorcisms…

By Sergio Ramirez (La Prensa)

HAVANA TIMES – In August of last year, when the wall of police pursuit began closing around Monsignor Rolando Alvarez, bishop of the Matagalpa diocese, but his message still reached the social networks, his voice could be heard – desolate but entirely composed – in a prayer that begins: “Lord, Lord… I come from a long night; I’m emerging from the salt waters. Have mercy. Solitude is a high wall that has closed me off from all horizons. I lift my eyes and I see nothing. My brothers turned their backs on me and left. All have left…”

The street in front of the Matagalpa curia was occupied by dozens of police; the corners were closed off and guarded by other police squads. They weren’t letting anyone bring food; they had cut off the electricity. In the company of a small group that had remained with him, Monsignor Alvarez waited for the moment when they would come in and take him prisoner. Within a short time, this indeed happened, and they took him as a prisoner to Managua. All this time, his fellow bishops from the Episcopal Conference remained silent.

By then, the parish priests from churches belonging to the Matagalpa diocese, and those of the Esteli diocese – also under Monsignor Alvarez’ authority due to a temporary vacancy – found themselves under persecution. Several would also be taken prisoner, while others fled into exile. The small radio and television stations administered by the churches in the rural regions, were dismantled.

Bishop Rolando Alvarez back in August 2022 in Matagalpa, Nicaragua

They accused him of “destabilizing the Nicaraguan State and attacking the constitutional authorities.” His words from the pulpit rang out like exorcisms: “At the sound of prayer, the devil trembles! At the prayer of a united people, the devil trembles!… Evil is there, suffocating, shaken by the prayer of a people.” His preaching had become intolerable to the regime. His was the only prophetic voice still resonating in the country after Monsignor Silvio Jose Baez, assistant bishop of Managua, was sent into exile, in a concession from the Vatican intended to placate the dictatorship’s rage against the church, but that merely exacerbated it. The Apostolic Nuncio was expelled, religious processions are now forbidden, foreign priests have been deported, and entire religious orders, among them the Sisters of Charity founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, have also been deported.

Thin and agile at 56, [Bishop Alvarez] is capable of summoning great youthful energy: riding horseback over the mountain roads, or a canoe down the rivers, in order to reach the most distant communities in his apostolic visits. He can kick a soccer ball with the youth, or dance at festivals of the faithful in the countryside, a charisma he doesn’t waste.

In October 2015, the regime awarded the Canadian mining company B2Gold a concession to establish an open pit mine in the municipality of Rancho Grande, part of the Matagalpa diocese. The population rebelled, denouncing the impending environmental catastrophe. Monsignor Alvarez put himself at the head of that protest and accompanied the population in a march of over 15 thousand people. The regime then organized a countermarch with public employees, that turned out to be a disaster.

Ortega had to make a telephone call to the bishop to announce that the concession had been annulled. But it was all noted down in the regime’s ledger. When the massacres of 2018 began against the civil population that had risen up on the streets, Ortega found himself forced to open a national dialogue. He encountered Monsignor Alvarez sitting on the other side of the table, demanding an end to the witch-hunts of the youth, and to the “clean-up” operations in the neighborhoods; and warning that the only way to silence the protests was to return the country to freedom and democracy. This, too was noted in the invisible ledger.

From that time on, there was a prison cell waiting for him. When the dictatorship decided to banish 222 of the political prisoners to the United States in February of this year, that uncomfortable prisoner – who had appeared upright and defiant at his court hearings, far removed from the chitchat of the prosecutors and judges – was right at the top of the list. Yet, he refused to get on the airplane. “Let them be free, I’ll serve their sentences,” was his entire response.

From the airport, he was sent directly to the El Modelo prison. “He doesn’t accept being put in a cell where there are hundreds of prisoners,” Ortega complained during a national television and radio broadcast. He accused the bishop of arrogance. Why? Ortega wondered, since it’s only a matter of “a common, everyday man.” Serious mistake.

Far from being a common, ordinary man, Monsignor Alvarez is a symbol, even in his prison uniform. The most powerful symbol in the country. Almost immediately – because acts of vengeance are carried out with great speed in Nicaragua – a docile tribunal sentenced him to 26 years in prison for treason to the homeland, suspended his citizens’ rights forever, and stripped him of his Nicaraguan nationality.

He now spends his days in an isolation cell, and no one has been allowed to see him, not even his relatives. Nothing is known about him. That prayer of his I quoted at the beginning will continue on his lips: “Fear and night surround me like fierce beasts, and only you are left as my sole defense and bastion.” Plus, an entire nation that accompanies him.

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