Pope John Paul II listens to the speech of Daniel Ortega, coordinator of the ruling junta in Nicaragua, March 4, 1983, in Managua (Bettmann Archives)

The airport of Managua, March 4, 1983. It’s nine o’clock. Nicaragua is preparing for a very special visit. In a few minutes, Pope John Paul II will land on an Alitalia plane, Since Costa Rica. A large sign greets the arrival of the pontiff: “Welcome to a free Nicaragua, thanks to God and to the revolution”.

Daniel Ortega Saavedra was then in government, under the title of “coordinator of the board of directors”. A euphemism that sought to give a collective tint to the Sandinista dictatorship inaugurated after the fall of the tyranny of Somosa (1936-1979).

Ortega is the same dictator who controls the country to this day. One who has mastered for twenty-seven of the last forty years.

The Polish pope came a country on the brink of civil war. The day before their arrival, 17 young Sandinistas had been murdered by the “contras”.

As soon as he got off the plane, Juan Pablo went to greet the ministers who accompanied Ortega to the reception. A strange situation then arose. Upon his arrival in front of Ernesto Cardenal, priest and militant of Marxist liberation theology and at the time Minister of Culture. Jean-Paul told him: “Regularize your position with the Church. Regularize your position with the Church.

An observer recalled that before the Minister of Culture, Juan Pablo had said: “Don’t kneel in front of me. I am a man like you.” In his book The Lost Revolution, Cardenal recounts how John Paul II rebuked him. “When he approached me, I did what I planned to do in that case. Take off my beret and bend the knee to kiss his ring. He didn’t allow me to kiss him and, brandishing his finger as if it were a stick, he said to me reproachfully: You must regularize your situation. When I didn’t answer, he repeated the abrupt warning again. As they pointed all the cameras in the world.

But the crucial moment of the visit came moments later, during the papal mass in a park in Managua that the Sandinistas used for “popular” gatherings. The place was littered with posters of Caesar Augusto Sandino, Marx, Lenin and other revolutionary heroes. A detail that made the papal entourage uncomfortable.

Pope John Paul II kisses the ground next to the airplane stairs after arriving in Managua, Nicaragua (Bettmann Archives)
Pope John Paul II kisses the ground next to the airplane stairs after arriving in Managua, Nicaragua (Bettmann Archives)

Juan Pablo, on the contrary, seemed to downplay the issue. He told the nuncio, Bishop Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, “not to get angry. When I’m on top with all the bishops, no one will pay attention to the posters.

But the Sandinista regime had in mind another way of manipulating the act. Amid the cries, Sandinista activists chant: “There is no contradiction between Christianity and the revolution”, “The power of the people”, “The united people will never be defeated”, “The popular Church” , “We want peace”, are some of the phrases they shouted.

The cries angered the pope, who asked for silence more than once and finally told them, “Silence. The first that wants peace is the Church”. Paul II also casually said, “Beware of false prophets. They come in sheep’s clothing, but inside they are fierce wolves.”

Juan Pablo knew the insults of communism. He had lived them in his native Poland, dominated under the control of the Soviet empire.

A correspondent has written that the Nicaragua ruled by the Sandinista regime was, perhaps like nowhere else in Latin America, a laboratory for the theories of various liberation theologies. At this level, the situation of the Church was even more conflictual than in other neighboring countries such as El Salvador. Two religious held ministerial posts. Miguel D’Escoto was the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Ernesto Cardenal, the Head of Culture.

Another recalled that the Sandinistas had cynically lied, explaining that the crowd’s efforts to drown out the pope’s voice had been a spontaneous reaction. According to his interpretation, the Sandinista attempt to desecrate the Papal Mass was a gunshot that backfired. The ceremony was broadcast throughout Central America and so millions of viewers were shocked by the vulgarity of Sandinista misconduct. He himself recalled that late in the day, when Juan Pablo returned to Costa Rica, he was received by a larger and warmer crowd than the day before.

In the years that followed, Nicaragua would experience another chapter of its harsh reality. The Sandinista Revolution failed to deliver on its promises and the overthrow of a right-wing dictatorship was followed by the installation of a socialist regime that sought to emulate that of Castro’s Cuba.

The Pope and Ortega minutes before the end of John Paul II's visit to Nicaragua
The Pope and Ortega minutes before the end of John Paul II’s visit to Nicaragua

The Sandinista revolution lasted until 1990, when in a decision he would regret for the rest of his life, Ortega allowed free elections, believing he would win them. Ignoring the advice of his admired Fidel Castro -who recommended that he suspend the elections- was defeated by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro on February 25 of the same year, opening a brief democratic period in the country.

Juan Pablo made a second trip to Nicaragua in 1996. Then he recalled his 1983 visit, recalling that the country had known “a great dark night”.

But the tireless Ortega did not give up. Because as all the communists of this world know, socialism is an irreversible path. Before whom there is an obligation – above all – never to cede power.

So Ortega tried to come back to power again and again, until he succeeded in 2006, by a timely change of discourse in which the slogans of the past were cast aside to make way for an appeal to the Christian values ​​so deeply rooted in Central America. The FSLN was now “Christian, socialist and united”.

But Ortega’s return to power would not have been possible without two other fundamental circumstances.: the abundant petrodollars of the extravagant Hugo Chávez Frías and a timely reform of the electoral system.

It is worth dwelling on this last point. The one that has been put into practice through the “sinister pact” between Ortega and former President Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002). And that it was an exercise in political expediency as effective as it was unscrupulous. In which the leader of the Liberal Party traded to facilitate the reduction of the constitutional requirement for the presidency from 45% to 35% in exchange for not being bothered by the causes of corruption that afflicted him.

This is how Ortega came back to power. Seventeen years out of government had taught him profound lessons. Desiring never to give it up again, he will engage in the systematic destruction of each and every republican institution in the country. Until reaching the current reality in which Nicaraguan democracy is only an illusion in a country plunged into the endless night of dictatorship.

*Mariano A. Caucino is a specialist in international relations. Former Ambassador to Israel and Costa Rica.

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