Monsignor Silvio Báez: “Nobody should think that they are more important than Nicaragua”

Monsignor Silvio Báez: ”Nobody should think that they are more important than Nicaragua”.

By Fabian Medina

Published 5 July 2020 in La Prensa

Monsignor Silvio Báez hopes that the opposition coalition will get closer to the people: “I mean, getting the shoes dirty. Being present in the neighborhoods, in the markets, in the farmhouses, in the countryside. Listening to people. More than statements, the people need to be heard”.

On 8 March, Monsignor Silvio Báez arrived in Miami to visit relatives and, since then, he has stayed in this city in the US. In the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic, he was trapped there when the borders closed down in the world, and the quarantine and the ‘stay at home’ policies were introduced. 

Báez left Nicaragua on 23 April 2019 following a decision by Pope Francis and since then he has been living with his religious family, the Carmelites and moved between Italy, Ireland, Peru and Spain. He insists that he does not speak as a politician.

In this interview, he tells us about the origin of the current opposition organization, the Civic Alliance, which a group of bishops from Nicaragua selected “to place an opposition in front of Ortega, on the other side of the table” for the national dialogue that began on 16 May 2018. “The opposition was completely destroyed”, Báez says. “It was a dictatorship, which asked to have a dialogue with an opposition when there were no opposition. We had to make an emergency opposition because it did not exist”.

Although his abrupt departure took place more than a year ago, he explains that he has never worked in the Vatican, as insistently reported, and he has never seized to be the auxiliary bishop of Managua.

There were those who interpreted your departure from Nicaragua as if the regime had twisted the Vatican’s arm around. You were a stone in the Ortega’s shoes and he got Pope Francis to get you out of the country.

I, personally, have not been met by any conditioning at all, because, although I have not been physically present in Nicaragua, I have still been present with my heart, my mind and my voice. The Pope has never asked me to keep silent, nor has he ever made a single correction to my ministry. I would have considered it a straitjacket if he had pulled me out and said: “Listen, I pulled you out, but do not speak, do not get involved”.

What do you do in the Vatican?

I would like to clarify something. The Holy Father asked me to leave Nicaragua to save my life, because there were explicit death threats, which were more than proven. He asked me, he almost begged me, to leave the country. He did not want another martyr bishop in Central America. This is the reason that I left the country. The pope never offered me an alternative mission, nor did he ask me to go to the Vatican. He simply asked me to get out of Nicaragua. The alternative that came to me was to live in a community composed of my religious family, the Carmelites. I have not seized to be the auxiliary bishop of Managua. The pope has never wanted me to leave that title and the position behind me. Therefore, he has not given me another position or another mission.

Have you talked to the pope about Nicaragua?  What does he say about what happens here?

I talked to him 3 days ago, on the phone from here in Miami. He is conscious that the situation in Nicaragua is risky, not only for me as a pastor, but also for the vast majority of the people. He has asked me some questions that were not entirely clear to him. Moreover, he has clearly told me: “I do not want you to go back to Nicaragua while this regime is still there. You would expose yourself. They might finish you off morally through slander and smear campaigns or they might finish you off physically, by murdering you.” I think that what he says is that “They would do the first because with the second option, they would make you a hero”.

There is no date for your possible return to Nicaragua? Have you evaluated that possibility?

There is no fixed date. The last thing I remember asking the holy Pope about is if my return depends on the fall of the Ortega regime. “At least until this regime has been quite weakened”, he told me. He thinks that this will not take a long time. 

What has been your experience during these months of the pandemic?

I am in Miami. On March 8, I came to visit relatives and I could no longer return to Italy. From the beginning, I was shocked and irritated by the response in Nicaragua. Marches like ‘Love in the times of COVID’ and such crazy things. It should not surprise us how this dictatorship has faced the pandemic. They have faced it with the same political style as always. Politicize everything in your favor. Ideological fanaticism, even disregarding science. Arrogance. Irrationality. Irresponsibility. Secrecy and lies.

What would be your diagnosis of the regime of Daniel Ortega right now?

I see it as desperate to survive. The regimen has progressively lost legitimacy, moral authority and respect. I think it is a regime that has nothing to offer. The only thing they can offer is lies and repression. This implies that it is a delicate moment, because when you are struggling to survive you are capable of anything.

You continue to be mentioned as a presidential candidate to run against Ortega in possible elections. Is there a possibility that Monsignor Silvio at some point will take off the cassock and take on such a commitment?

Not at all. I do not see it as a possibility nor do I feel called to do it, nor do I think I am capable of doing it. It is an option that is totally ruled out. Nicaragua has enough people prepared to face the change. I do not see it possible for very personal reasons. What is at stake is my commitment to God. The Lord called me to be a pastor for the people, as a witness to the Gospel and I am not going to renounce that grace that God has granted me.

Technically, it is possible. It has happened before.

One would have to leave the ministry. It has happened, yes. There was a bishop in Paraguay (Fernando Lugo) who resigned, ran for the presidency of the Republic and won. I respect those decisions, but in my case, I do not contemplate it at all.

In Nicaragua, the opposition has not yet managed to unite itself to confront Ortega.

One of the great deficiencies of Nicaragua at the moment, is the lack of leadership. There is a great void. We need leaders who suffer the pain of the people. Who instead of speaking to the media, speak to the people. Who speak truthfully, with compassion and affection. I see Nicaragua in a very powerful phrase in the Gospel: “Jesus looked at the crowd. He felt compassion for it because they were sheep without a shepherd”.

There is a lot of disqualification among the opponents. Sometimes, you get the impression that it is Daniel Ortega, who is pulling the strings.

I think the time has come to not only change a government but to radically change the way of exercising power and the way of practicing party politics. However, this is accompanied by another change in the sense that it is up to the population to exercise the right to citizenship. Leaders have to learn to exercise politics differently but the population also has to learn to exercise their rights and duties. I am concerned, like all Nicaraguans, with that kind of reciprocal suspicion that exists among the various leaders of the opposition.

However, the curious thing – and this is serious – is that this reciprocal suspicion, this fierce mistrust, is not because of ideological projects, not because of different plans for the nation. Instead, these fights are about electoral boxes, about who to elect as the first runner, and about who takes the decisions.

After April 2018, the Catholic Church was asked to manage a dialogue between the Government and the non-conformists. You did not find any organized opposition and chose the group who were to be the counterpart. This is how the Civic Alliance was born. Based upon which criteria did you choose these people?

You first have to understand the difficult context in which this decision was to be taken. The idea of a dialogue came from the dictatorship. When we accepted the proposal, we had to commit to placing someone in front of them so they could dialogue. The opposition was absolutely destroyed! A dictatorship asked to dialogue with the opposition when there was no opposition. We had to build an emergency opposition because it did not exist. At that time, while people were dying, everything had to be done as quickly as possible, without the possibilities of making many consultations. The bishops, without much political experience, the best we could do was to create a group of a sectoral nature to face the Government. The group had to be somewhat representative of the sectors in the country. There were peasants, students – and they were the main protagonists -, universities, the private sector, civil society organizations, different sectors. The curious thing is that it did not occur to us to think about political parties, because we were clear that the existing political parties had been complices to the dictatorship. At that moment in time, we had to choose an authentic opposition. And this is how the Civic Alliance was born.

Do you recognize in the current Civic Alliance, the group that you formed?

No. The group that we formed to be placed on the other side of the table of the dictatorship, is not the current group called the Civic Alliance. I think it has been dismembered a lot. It has lost its charismatic spirit, its national representativeness. I no longer see all the sectors represented that were there at the time. It has changed. I do not judge if it is better or worse. However, the current Civic Alliance is not the one of May 2018.

Do you see the possibility of the National Coalition to successfully run against Daniel Ortega?

The coalition is an historic event. This should not be minimized. It must be valued in the context in which we are, with all its limitations, but also with the possibilities it brings with it. However, the excessive importance that they have given to the signing of the statutes, this kind of bureaucratic concern, is striking. We must go one step further, where the concern is for the good of the people, social projects that imply a radical change in how we build this country. The book of Exodus from the Bible is the story of the liberation of a people subjected to repression, slavery, forced labor, the will of a pharaoh who is almost a god who is imposed on people. The great leader of the exodus is Moses, and Moses not only gains the trust of the people but also works to make the people more confident. This is something that the leaders in Nicaragua, should have on their agenda. Give people the lead roles. It seems to me that many leaders see people only as a mass of voters. 

What would Monsignor Silvio Báez expect from an opposition coalition?

One priority should be to get closer to people. I mean, getting the shoes dirty. Being present in the neighborhoods, in the markets, in the farmhouses, in the countryside. Listening to people. More than statements, the people need to be heard. The future of the coalition is not to impose a path and a strategy on the people, but to listen to the people, and based on that, to pave the way. They have to forget about sterile discussions that only cause popular resentment now: Electoral boxes (: parties with a legal status), electoral alliances, candidates… They should all resign from using the current electoral boxes. I do not see a current electoral box that does not have a turbulent history. I do not see a current electoral box that is safe for future elections.

There is also mistrust in the elections.

There is an often-repeated phrase in Nicaragua: “The basic conditions for elections in 2021 are not there”. And I think we all agree on that. The great job for a coalition that wants to be the spokesperson for the people’s longings is to create those conditions. Demand them. Make a way for fair and transparent elections. Overcome the reciprocal suspicion, the desire to play the lead roles. Nobody should think that they are more important than Nicaragua. They should also work to overcome a kind of inferiority complex against the dictatorship. They have to realize that the dictatorship is a project that is in the process of decomposing. There is no need to have an inferiority complex in the face of a political project that is about to die.

Do you see an electoral solution for the crisis in Nicaragua?

I find it very difficult. For the dictatorship, power means surviving. Gambling with the power means surrendering to death. To hand over power is to stand unprotected before justice. I do not see this dictatorship granting free, honest and democratic elections. I think the way out should be the following: We have to pave the way, make the necessary reforms to save democracy in Nicaragua and, above all, to ensure a constitutional and peaceful solution. These are the lasting solutions.

So, what would be the point of promoting fair elections that we know will not take place because the Ortega regime knows that this would be its ending? 

An opposition along these lines, facing the situation that you mention, would be an opposition with authority to demand new measures at the international level. An opposition that would not be content with the little crumbs that they can get, an opposition that is set on changing the country and not taking second place. Right now, the great dilemma is this: It is either Nicaragua or the dictatorship. It is not an economic, social or political problem. It is not even about winning the elections. It is about saving Nicaragua. A people has been kidnapped and disrespected, left helpless. The worst that can happen is that we get used to it. That we accept that kind of normality that they want to impose on us, with their lies and their weapons.

Follow Silvio José Báez on Twitter: @silviojbaez