Exiled Nicaraguan bishop calls presidential election 'illegitimate'

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- An exiled Nicaraguan bishop denounced elections in the Central American country as "illegitimate," but called on citizens to continue building a better society in the face of cruelty and authoritarianism.

President Daniel Ortega won reelection Nov. 7 with roughly 75% of the vote. Seven presidential candidates were arrested in the prelude to the election; many in the opposition were either imprisoned or exiled, and foreign journalists were mostly forced to report from outside the country.

"Today is not a victory day for anyone in Nicaragua," Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez of Managua said in his Nov. 7 homily at Mass celebrated in Washington's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

"Today, the dark ambitions of power of those who have shattered our country seem to have prevailed," Bishop Báez continued.

"Today is one day more of the painful road of tears and death that our country has experienced and which has left so many innocent victims, who we cannot nor must not forget," said Bishop Báez, who left Nicaragua in 2019 after threats were made to his life.

Bishop Báez called on Nicaraguans to not lose hope and to "sow seeds of kindness and compassion, although being subjected to cruelty," and warned: "We can simply turn the page on our history, ignoring the truth and mocking justice. The future will be demanding."

The November elections were but the latest stage in Nicaragua's descent into dictatorship and tyranny -- a process the Catholic Church, which had checkered relationship with Ortega in past decades, staunchly opposed.

Ortega crushed protests in 2018 and later, after fruitless talks mediated by the Nicaraguan bishops' conference, rejected calls for free elections as a solution. The president and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have called Nicaraguan bishops "terrorists," and churches have been besieged by progovernment militias for supporting the families of political prisoners.

More than two dozen countries have refused to recognize the election results. U.S. President Joe Biden called the process "a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic.

"They shuttered independent media, locked up journalists and members of the private sector, and bullied civil society organizations into closing their doors. ... (the) Ortega and Murillo family now rule(s) Nicaragua as autocrats, no different from the Somoza family that Ortega and the Sandinistas fought four decades ago."

Ortega first claimed power in 1979 after leading the Sandinistas to power in a revolution against the dictatorial regime of Anastasio Somoza.

He was voted out of office in 1990, but returned after elections in 2006 and steadily dismantled democracy, according to analysts and critics. Only five parties aligned with Ortega were allowed to field candidates; Urnas Abiertas, a civil society group, estimated the abstention rate at 81.5%, according to the Wall Street Journal.