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Religion and Politics in Nicaragua: What Difference Does a Revolution Make?

By Berntzen, Einar | Ibero-americana, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Religion and Politics in Nicaragua: What Difference Does a Revolution Make?


Berntzen, Einar, Ibero-americana


I. INTRODUCTION

The aim of this article is to analyse the relationship between religion and politics in Nicaragua with a special emphasis on the power relations between the Catholic Church and the State. In spite of the fact that the Republic of Nicaragua constitutionally has been, and according to the 1987 Constitution still is, a secular state since the Liberal José Santos Zelaya came to power in 1893, Church and State have used one another in their respective struggles for power. In Nicaragua, the Church-State relationship has broken down twice in the last quarter of the twentieth century: in the 1970s under Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and in the 1980s under the Sandinistas. In the late 1970s, the Catholic hierarchy gradually distanced itself from the State to become an open advocate of change. However, although it realized the need for social reform, revolution could well undermine the Church's powerbase and position in society, and constitute a challenge to the role of the institutional hierarchy in both the spiritual and temporal spheres. Hence, the Church sought to introduce itself as a mediator, bringing the various opposing factions together for dialogue. When dialogue was no longer possible due to Somoza' s intransigence, the Catholic Church endorsed armed revolution. During the first year of the revolution (1979-80) there was practically no opposition. However, the resignation of Alfonso Róbelo and Violeta Chamorro from the ruling Junta in April 1980, amid growing bourgeois disenchantment with the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, FSLN) set the stage for a new phase in Church-State relations. The Church hierarchy came to play a role as political opposition to the Sandinista government. The 'Popular Church' threatened to split the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. The Sandinista electoral defeat in 1990 sharply altered Church-State relations in Nicaragua. The electoral victory of Chamorro in 1990 signalled a Catholic restoration or a return to the old model of Church-State relations in Nicaragua: an alliance with wealthy, conservative elites that could support the ecclesiastical hierarchy and its organization financially and protect the Church's corporate interests in exchange for church blessing of the government.

Ever since the electoral defeat in 1990, Daniel Ortega's number one priority has been to regain power. In the end, Ortega's strategy to pave the way for his reconquest of power involved democracy-constraining pactmaking. First, a political power pact with Amoldo Alemán, which made a travesty of the nascent Nicaraguan democracy, and finally an unholy alliance with Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo. The latter pact was sealed by the FSLN, tightly controlled by Ortega, voting for the abolition of therapeutic abortion weeks before the November 2006 elections. In this article I will argue that the abolition of therapeutic abortion is a product of the democracy-constraining pacted character of Ortega's strategy of regaining the presidency.

The methodological approach of the analysis is that of an interpretative case study, the aim of which is to provide an historically and comparatively grounded synthesis of the democracy-constraining pacted character of Ortega's strategy of regaining power, of which the unholy alliance with the Catholic Church represented the successful culmination. Based on a wide range of different sources the present study attempts to trace the processes that ended with Ortega's successful return to power by embracing the institutional interests as well as the moral policy preferences of the Catholic Church in a theoretically informed way.

With regard to the theoretical frameworks that have guided the study of religion and politics in Latin America, the old institutionalist perspective perceives the Catholic Church as just another bureaucratic organization that will act to defend its interests and privileges vis-à-vis the State.

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