Nicaraguan families who fled their country because of repression by the Ortega administration speak about their ordeals.
By Sean Gallagher, Catholic News Service
INDIANAPOLIS — Lucia has known turmoil and unrest in her home country of Nicaragua from the time she was a toddler in the late 1970s when Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista party first came to power there. Her family was opposed to them, and three of her older brothers died as a result.
“My family suffered at their hands,” said Lucia — not her real name — who moved to Indianapolis from Nicaragua in July, in an interview with The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
The initial rule of Ortega, whom Lucia called a “bandido,” came to an end in 1990, but he was reelected as president in 2006 and has ruled ever since. The legitimacy of the elections that have kept him in office have been increasingly questioned by international observers.
Nearly 40 years after Lucia’s family was scarred forever by Ortega’s government, its violence touched her again — this time through her then-young adult son.
In spring 2018, students across Nicaragua took to the streets to protest against government corruption and political repression. More than 100 students died in the violent suppression of the protests. At the time, Lucia’s son was assisting an uncle who ran a radio program that was opposed to the Ortega regime.
Members of a government-affiliated paramilitary unit tracked the uncle and Lucia’s son. The uncle escaped, but Lucia’s son did not. He was shot and killed in the streets.
“My son didn’t provoke anything. It’s really hard and really difficult,” said Lucia through tears. “God is the one who strengthens us in times of anguish.”
Felix and Paholla Navarrete remember those protests well. It spurred them to leave the country. They, too, wound up in Indianapolis.
“Our churches had wide open doors,” Felix said of the response of the church in Nicaragua to the protests. “They helped the people who needed a safe place to stay. All the priests that I knew were working very closely with their parishioners. It was so inspiring seeing that our church was very close to the people who were suffering.”
During the time of the protests, Felix and Paholla started to experience pressure to publicly support the government.
“The political secretary would try to trap employees,” Paholla said. “They’d say that if you want to keep your job, you have to do whatever needs to be done at the protests against citizens who are marching.”
Felix and Paholla faced a life-changing choice: stay in Nicaragua with their well-established life? Or leave it all behind with no going back? “We got to the point where we were thinking about what would be better,” said Paholla. “To stay for a position with a salary, or to show your children what was the right thing to do?”
With such a momentous decision looming, the family went to God in prayer. “We prayed together as a family, and we asked God to guide us to take the right steps,” Paholla said.
“We took a step of faith,” said Felix. “It was the hand of God that was working in every step. We saw it. We felt it.”
They left in early June of this year for Costa Rica for what appeared to be a vacation. Only their family knew of their plans. Felix and Paholla didn’t quit their jobs at the supreme court or do anything with their home to make it appear that they were leaving permanently.
“If we had done that, we would have been in trouble,” Felix said. “If we had stayed, we’d probably have become political prisoners,” Paholla said. “We would not have given up our faith for anything. We’d have been considered traitors by the government.”
In Costa Rica, they were surprised by being able to quickly secure visas for the family from the U.S. Embassy there to travel to the U.S. By the end of June, they had arrived in Indianapolis, where Paholla’s mother lives.
“I have always been confident in what God has planned for me and my family,” Felix said. “So, even when I thought that I would be in terrible danger if I stayed in my country, I always saw that God was acting in my life.”
Lucia, meanwhile, is concerned for her daughter who still lives in Nicaragua with her husband and children. She also is saddened by the suffering the church in Nicaragua is undergoing.
In recent months, the apostolic nuncio and members of the Missionaries of Charity have been expelled from the country, priests have been arrested, Catholic radio stations have been shut down and outdoor religious processions have been banned.
In early August, members of the national police in riot gear surrounded the home of Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, after the government had accused him of fomenting violent opposition to the Ortega regime. On Aug. 19, police officers in a predawn raid seized Bishop Álvarez and the priests, seminarians and lay Catholics living with him and took them to Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. Bishop Álvarez has been kept there under house arrest while the others seized with him were sent to Chipote Prison, notorious as a place where political prisoners have been tortured.
In a recent address, Ortega described the country’s Catholic leaders as “a gang of murderers” who operate with Pope Francis “a perfect dictatorship.”
“The hardness of hearts of those in government is why they are doing this (to Bishop Álvarez),” said Lucia.
Despite the suffering that Lucia, her family and the church in Nicaragua have experienced, she has remained close to Christ. “He helps heal our hearts, and he gives us forgiving hearts,” Lucia said, noting that she has forgiven the men who killed her son.
“I would love to return to Nicaragua to be with my family,” she said. “I am on the path right now that God has me on. The persecution there is so bad, and I am concerned about my family still there. I am afraid for them.”
Sean Gallagher is a staff writer for The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
Featured image: Husband and wife Felix and Paholla Navarrete kneel in prayer Sept. 1, 2022, in Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis. The couple were saddened but not surprised by the images coming out of their home country of Nicaragua in early August when members of the national police under President Daniel Ortega arrested a Catholic bishop, priests, seminarians and lay Catholics. (CNS photo/Sean Gallagher, The Criterion)