245. Telegram 3285 From the Embassy in Nicaragua to the Department of State1

3285. Subject: Elections 1974: Bishops Issue Pastoral Letter. Ref: Managua 3185.

1. The Episcopal Conference, composed of Nicaragua’s seven bishops including the Archbishop of Nicaragua, released a Pastoral Letter on August 17 which contained heavy political overtones. With national elections only two weeks away, there had been some speculation that in order to avoid creating controversy the Church would put off issuing such a statement for more tranquil times. However, those among the bishops who favor an activist role for the Church in national life obviously prevailed.

2. Composed after the bishops held lengthy sessions with various political leaders, the Pastoral Letter strongly emphasizes the importance of preserving the rights of citizens and allowing dissent. The Conference met not only with General Anastasio Somoza, the Liberal Party (PLN) Presidential candidate, and his official opponent, Conservative (PCN–P) Edmundo Paguaga, but also with representatives of the Twenty-Seven, an aggregation of prominent opposition leaders recently ordered deprived of their constitutional right by a Managua police judge for advocating abstention from the current elections.

3. Both candidates for the Presidency have lightly embraced the Pastoral. General Somoza, speaking to a campaign rally August 19, declared that quote in its fundamental concept end quote the Pastoral coincided with his personal political philosophy. In a speech made the same day, Edmundo Paguaga hailed the Pastoral’s reference to voting as a moral responsibility as supportive of the PCN’s position.

4. Indicative, however, that the Somoza camp was not entirely happy with the Pastoral was Somoza-owned newspaper Novedades’s stony silence regarding it until August 20 when it published the text on [Page 666] the center page without commentary, side by side with the Liberal Party’s (PLN) Declaration of Principles under the headline quote we are in agreement with the bishop end quote. The PLN Declaration is a very broad statement of principles which in essence endorses the Constitution with only passing relevance to the main thrust of the bishops’ Pastoral. In contrast, opposition La Prensa, whose director, Pedro Joaquin Chaorro, is one of the Twenty-Seven, has from the date it was issued given the Pastoral extensive front-page coverage with lengthy and very favorable commentary.

5. It is easy to see why the Twenty-Seven would take heart from the Pastoral Letter. In the context of current Nicaraguan politics, when the issue of suspending the rights of the Twenty-Seven dominates the scene, the Pastoral gives every appearance of, if not defending their initiative for abstention, at least raising strong objection to the suspension of their rights. The Pastoral’s word quote constitutions are principles and norms for regulating the exercise of rights, not for abolishing them end quote could hardly be more pointed since the Twenty-Seven’s rights were suspended under Article 35 Section 6 of the Constitution itself—a procedure heatedly denounced as illegal by attorneys defending the Twenty-Seven. In another portion of the Pastoral, the use of quote legal weapons end quote for depriving citizens of their rights is forcefully denounced as quote legal war end quote amounting to quote the absurd destruction of man with the law end quote.

6. The bishops’ Pastoral Letter also debates the right of dissent to the level of a moral responsibility, and sees the preservation of that right as the best means of avoiding a resort to violence which it deplores. Emphasizing this theme, the bishops end their statement with a phrase from their Pastoral of 1972 quote to systematically close the door on access to political participation by other groups leads to intensified political tension among those thus marginalized with a resultant risk to peace end quote.

7. Comment: The bishops’ willingness to put out a controversial statement of this kind on the eve of the election is further indication of their drift toward increased social and political activism. The Embassy has been closely following this trend and we expect it to continue. One immediate effect of the Pastoral is to put additional pressure on General Somoza’s government to abandon the imposition of harsh sentences on the Twenty-Seven. However, having pursued its legal case against these opponents so tenaciously, it is doubtful that the GON can gracefully abandon the field without a harsh sentence. Meanwhile the Twenty-Seven’s appeal for a reversal of the suspension of rights sentence is still pending before Managua’s political chief. In view of the Pastoral Letter, one course the government may yet opt for is to delay a final decision until after the elections when emotions will presumedly be at a more relaxed level. End comment.

  1. Summary: The Embassy reported that Nicaragua’s Catholic bishops had issued a Pastoral Letter emphasizing the importance of preserving citizens’ rights and allowing dissent. The Embassy concluded that the release of the letter a short time before national elections was evidence of a move by the Church towards increased social and political activism.

    Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D740231–0025. Confidential. Repeated to Guatemala City, San José, Tegucigalpa, San Salvador, and USCINCSO for POLAD. In telegram 2798 from Managua, July 17, the Embassy reported that during a meeting with Warner, Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo expressed the church’s intention to maintain a dialogue with Somoza and to avoid being used for political purposes, while adding that there would “be times when in its defense of the poor and its pursuit of social justice the church will criticize the government.” (Ibid., D740192–0871)