40 years after the visit of John Paul II to Managua: the endless Nicaraguan night

Pope John Paul II listens to the speech of Daniel Ortega, coordinator of the ruling junta of Nicaragua, on March 4, 1983, in Managua (Bettmann Archive) (Bettmann/)

The airport of Managua, March 4, 1983. It’s nine o’clock. Nicaragua is preparing for a very special visit. In minutes Pope John Paul II will land on an Alitalia plane, from Costa Rica. A large sign greets the arrival of the pontiff: “Welcome to a free Nicaragua, thanks to God and to the revolution.”

Daniel Ortega Saavedra was then in government, under the title of “coordinator of the Governing Board”. A euphemism that sought to give a collective tint to the Sandinista dictatorship inaugurated after the fall of the tyranny of the Somoza (1936-1979).

Ortega is the same dictator who controls the country to this day. The one that has subdued for twenty-seven of the last forty years.

The Polish Pope came to a country that was on the brink of civil war. The day before his arrival, 17 young Sandinistas had been assassinated by the “contras.”

As soon as he got off the plane, Juan Pablo went to greet the ministers who accompanied Ortega at the reception. A singular situation took place then. When he arrived in front of Ernesto Cardenal, priest and activist of the Marxist theology of liberation and at the time Minister of Culture. John Paul told him: “Regularize your position with the Church. Regularize your position with the Church.”

An observer recalled that before the Minister of Culture, Juan Pablo had said: “Don’t kneel before me. I am a man like you.” In his book The Lost Revolution, Cardenal narrates how John Paul II reprimanded him. “When he approached me, I did what in this case he had planned to do. Take off my beret and bend the knee to kiss his ring. He did not allow me to kiss it, and brandishing his finger as if it were a stick, he told me reproachfully: You must regularize your situation. As I made no reply, he repeated the brusque admonition again. While they focused all the cameras in the world.

But the crucial moment of the visit took place moments later, during the papal mass in a park in Managua that the Sandinistas used for “popular” gatherings. The place was littered with posters of César Augusto Sandino, Marx, Lenin and other revolutionary heroes. A detail that made the papal entourage uncomfortable.

Pope John Paul II kisses the ground next to the plane’s stairs after arriving in Managua, Nicaragua (Bettmann Archive) (Bettmann /)

Juan Pablo, on the contrary, seemed to downplay the matter. He told the Nuncio, Archbishop Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, “not to get angry. When I’m on top with all the bishops, no one will pay attention to the posters.”

But the Sandinista regime had another way to manipulate the act in mind. Amid shouts, the Sandinista militants chanted: “There is no contradiction between Christianity and revolution,” “People’s power,” “The united people will never be defeated,” “The popular Church,” “We want peace,” were some of the the phrases they shouted.

The shouting angered the Pope, who asked for silence more than once and finally told them: “Silence. The first one that wants peace is the Church”. Paul II also said offhand: “Beware of false prophets. They present themselves in sheep’s clothing, but inside they are ferocious wolves.”

Juan Pablo knew the insults of communism. He had lived them in his native Poland, dominated under the control of the Soviet empire.

One correspondent wrote that Nicaragua ruled by the Sandinista regime was, perhaps like nowhere else in Latin America, a laboratory for the theories of various liberation theologies. On this level, the situation of the Church was even more conflictive than in other neighboring countries such as El Salvador. Two religious held cabinet posts. Miguel D’Escoto was the Foreign Minister, and Ernesto Cardenal, the head of Culture.

Another recalled that the Sandinistas cynically lied, explaining that the crowd’s efforts to drown out the pope’s voice had been a spontaneous reaction. According to his interpretation, the Sandinista attempt to desecrate the papal Mass was a shot that backfired on them. The ceremony was broadcast throughout Central America and thus millions of viewers were shocked by the vulgarity of the Sandinista misconduct. He himself recalled that late that day, when Juan Pablo returned to Costa Rica, he was received by a larger and warmer crowd than the day before.

In the years that followed, Nicaragua would experience another chapter of its harsh reality. The Sandinista Revolution would not fulfill its promises and the overthrow of a right-wing dictatorship was followed by the installation of a socialist regime that sought to emulate that of Castro’s Cuba.

The Pope and Ortega minutes before the end of the visit of John Paul II to Nicaragua (Bettmann /)

The Sandinista revolution lasted until 1990, when in a decision he would regret for the rest of his life, Ortega allowed free elections, believing he would win them. Ignoring the advice of his admired Fidel Castro -who recommended that he suspend the elections- was defeated by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro on February 25 of that year, opening a brief democratic period in the country.

Juan Pablo made a second trip to Nicaragua in 1996. Then, he referred to his 1983 visit, recalling that the country had experienced “a great dark night.”

But the tireless Ortega did not give up. Because as all the communists of this world know, socialism is an irreversible path. Before whom there is an obligation -above all- never to cede power.

Thus, Ortega tried to return to power over and over again, until achieving it in 2006, through a timely change of discourse in which the slogans of the past were put aside to make way for an appeal to Christian values ​​so deeply rooted in Central America. The FSLN was now “Christian, socialist and supportive.”

But Ortega’s return to power would not have been possible had it not been for two other fundamental circumstances.: the abundant petrodollars of the extravagant Hugo Chávez Frías and a convenient reform of the electoral system.

It is worth dwelling on this last point. The one that was put into practice through the “sinister pact” between Ortega and former president Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002). And that it consisted of an exercise in political opportunism as effective as it was unscrupulous. In which the leader of the Liberal Party exchanged to facilitate the reduction of the constitutional requirement to access the Presidency from 45 to 35 percent in exchange for not being bothered by the causes of corruption that afflicted him.

That was how Ortega returned to power. Seventeen years out of government had taught him profound lessons. Willing to never give it up again, he would give himself up to the systematic destruction of one and every one of the country’s republican institutions. Until reaching the current reality in which Nicaraguan democracy is a mere illusion in a country plunged into the endless night of dictatorship.

*Mariano A. Caucino is a specialist in international relations. Former ambassador to Israel and Costa Rica.

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