Church and State in Nicaragua

Letter From Managua

A bishop in Managua's Metropolitan Cathedral, May 2009. Oswaldo Rivas / REUTERS

Between 2013 and 2015, the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega spent roughly $3.2 million installing decorative metal trees in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. The “trees of life,” as they are called, weigh more than seven metric tons each. At dusk, the biblically inspired sculptures come alive with the glow of thousands of lightbulbs.

On NIC-4, Managua’s main north-south artery, the trees are flanked by campaign posters from the 2016 presidential election. Ortega appears next to the slogan of his party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), which won the election by a wide margin: “Christian, socialist, solidarity.” At Ortega’s side is Rosario Murillo, his wife and vice president.

The coincidence of the biblical sculptures and election posters is no mistake. Ortega, a former guerilla leader and atheist, has turned to religion to cement his power, passing laws to please the faithful and using priests as advocates of his policies. The Nicaraguan church, once an ally of the right-wing dictatorship Ortega helped overthrow, is again becoming a partner of the state.  

"Trees of Life" in Managua, Nicaragua, May 2017.
"Trees of Life" in Managua, Nicaragua, May 2017. IAN BATESON


There has never been a real separation of church and state in Nicaragua. Under the Somoza family, a dynasty of brutal U.S.-backed dictators who ruled the country from 1936 until 1979, gifts and favors flowed freely from the country’s rulers to its religious leadership, which rarely criticized the government. As late as 1977, as a revolution brewed against Anastasio Somoza, church leaders led masses across the country to pray for the ailing president’s health.

In 1978 and 1979, as the FSLN, then an armed left-wing insurgency, struggled to take control of the country, some reform-minded priests defied their superiors and joined the opposition. Others took up arms with the guerrillas. In July 1979, Somoza fled, and a number of priests joined the Sandinista-dominated Junta of National Construction as ministers. The Vatican defrocked them for their involvement in politics.

Ernesto Cardenal, one of Central America’s most celebrated poets, was one of those priests.

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