Few Nicaraguans could argue when President Daniel Ortega, in conferring a decoration on the cardinal in 2012, called him “one of the most important personalities in modern Nicaraguan history.”
Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who was caught up in the turbulent politics that consumed Nicaragua for much of his adult life, at one time opposing Sandinista leaders and later defending them, died on Sunday at his home in Managua, the country’s capital. He was 92.
The cause was a heart attack, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church said.
Few Nicaraguans could argue when President Daniel Ortega, in conferring a decoration on Obando in 2012, called him “one of the most important personalities in modern Nicaraguan history.”
He rose from poverty to great political and ecclesiastical power and made waves of enemies as he swept back and forth across the political spectrum. Many Nicaraguans loved him at some points in his career and detested him at others.
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“Obando was a typical product of our society, which is still rural in its culture of power,” said the novelist Sergio Ramírez, who was vice president of Nicaragua in the 1980s.
Miguel Obando y Bravo was born on Feb. 2, 1926, the son of a prospector and an Indian peasant woman, in a mining camp near the Nicaraguan town of La Libertad. The cemetery there holds the remains of one of his sisters, who died in infancy.
He was ordained a priest in 1958 after attending seminaries in nearby countries and became archbishop of Managua in 1970. President Anastasio Somoza Debayle called him “my little Indian” and presumed he would be easy to control. But the new archbishop criticized human rights abuses and official corruption under Somoza, especially when the president diverted relief supplies that had been sent from abroad to help rebuild Managua after it had been devastated by an earthquake in 1972.
An anti-Somoza insurgency gained force during the 1970s. In December 1974 a squad of Sandinista guerrillas stormed a high-society Christmas party in Managua, took the guests hostage and demanded freedom for their imprisoned comrades. Obando served as mediator. The episode ended without bloodshed and the release of the imprisoned guerrillas, who soon renewed their insurrectionary war.
In 1979, when the war was at its peak, Obando wrote a pastoral letter urging Nicaraguans not to fear socialism and seeming to endorse the use of revolutionary violence in some circumstances. Supporters of the Somoza government suggested that the archbishop had become a revolutionary and scorned him as “Comandante Miguel.”
For a time after the Somoza regime fell in July 1979, Obando supported the Sandinista junta that replaced it. Soon, however, as the Sandinistas revealed their socialist convictions, he became their enemy.
When the U.S.-backed “Contras” launched their anti-Sandinista rebellion, he encouraged them and emerged as their unofficial spiritual guide. As the rebellion intensified, he denounced Sandinista excesses ceaselessly but rarely condemned the Contras. And he directly confronted the priests and brothers Fernando and Ernesto Cardenal when they joined the Sandinista government; he encouraged the Vatican to sanction them, which it did.
Pope John Paul II made Obando a cardinal in 1985, evidently in part as a reward for his defiance of a pro-Marxist regime. A year later Obando traveled to Washington, condemned the Sandinistas and spoke well of the Contras. This outraged Sandinista leaders.
“Cardinal Obando,” the government said in a statement, “who has not said a single word about the mercenary aggression, which has cost us more than 11,000 lives, including women, children, and old people, has gone to accuse us before our aggressors, thereby joining a campaign unworthy of his high office and priestly mission.”
A drumbeat of opposition to the cardinal continued for several years. One Sandinista radio broadcast called him “the intellectual director of the counter-revolution” and accused him of responsibility for “crimes and assassinations.”
Obando served as a mediator and “witness” at several rounds of peace talks between the Sandinistas and the Contras. He was on a stage in the village of Sapoá when, before dawn on Feb. 24, 1989, the two sides signed a peace treaty.
The most astonishing twist in Obando’s career was yet to come. In 2004 he announced his reconciliation with Ortega, the Sandinista leader he had long reviled. Ortega had returned to power and established an electoral system that critics say virtually guaranteed him dictatorial powers indefinitely.
That year, Obando presided over a Mass celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 1979 Sandinista revolution. In 2005 he officiated at Ortega’s marriage to his longtime companion, Rosario Murillo, effectively his co-president. She is now the country’s vice president.
Soon afterward, Ortega reversed his permissive position on abortion and led Nicaragua to adopt one of Latin America’s most restrictive abortion laws.
Even after retiring from active church life in 2005, Obando remained one of Ortega’s most prominent supporters. According to cables released in the WikiLeaks trove, the Vatican was unhappy with his partisanship.
In a cable from 2011, the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli, reported that the Vatican believed that Ortega “clearly maintains some sort of hold over Obando y Bravo.”
Days before Nicaraguans cast ballots in the 2011 presidential election, Obando preached a sermon suggesting that they re-elect Ortega.
“I wish to congratulate Mr. President, Daniel Ortega, and his wife, Madam Rosario Murillo, for the work they have done during the five-year governing period, during which they have developed programs favoring the poor,” he said. “It is not easy to work for peace, but those who do so day after day deserve our praise.”
After the election, which Ortega won, the Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops denounced “the lack of transparency and honesty with which the elections were administered.” Obando, however, defended the result. It was certified by the Supreme Electoral Council, whose chairman, Roberto Rivas, is the son of Obando’s secretary.
The country has been in a state of political chaos for the last six weeks. A movement that began as a student protest against Social Security reform blew up into a nationwide rebellion against Ortega’s rule. Dozens of road blocks have paralyzed traffic, as protesters have taken over college campuses and burned government radio stations and other buildings.
The bishops had been mediating national dialogue talks, but canceled them last week when more than 15 people were killed at a march. At least 100 people have died since the crisis began in April. Human rights organizations have accused the authorities of using disproportionate force against protesters who have been armed with homemade mortars and slingshots.
When, in 2012, a Nicaraguan interviewer asked the conservative Catholic scholar Humberto Belli, one of Obando’s longtime friends and defenders, to explain the cardinal’s improbable political journey, he replied, “It’s a mystery.”
“I have doubts about his proximity to Ortega,” Belli said. “I see that it could have some positive result, but I regret that a member of the church, who should distance himself from power and especially from powers that disrespect the constitution and commit fraud, is continually blessing them.”
Many Nicaraguans saw Obando’s alliance with Ortega as a betrayal, and noted that the current church hierarchy had returned to the anti-Sandinista position the cardinal took in the 1980s.
Obando brushed off suggestions that he had become too close to Ortega. The church, he said, should always be ready to embrace a “prodigal son.”