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U.S. supporters hope Nicaraguan bishop who chose prison over exile won't be forgotten

Bishop Rolando Álvarez refused to board a plane for the U.S. with 222 other political prisoners. He was sentenced to 26 years in prison and stripped of his citizenship.
Rolando Alvarez
Nicaraguan Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez in Managua on May 20, 2022. AFP via Getty Images / AFP via Getty Images

MIAMI — Nicaraguan Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez's supporters are rallying behind him, saying they're not surprised he refused to leave his country and instead chose to remain in prison.

“His response did not surprise me much because that is how Rolando is, a man who is firm in his decisions,” said a Nicaraguan priest living in exile in Miami, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals against his relatives in Nicaragua.

A day after a flight left for the United States carrying 222 opponents of the increasingly authoritarian left-wing President Daniel Ortega, Álvarez, who had been held under house arrest, was taken to the La Modelo prison near Managua, the country's capital.

The outspoken government critic was sentenced to 26 years in prison and stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship. He was charged with treason, undermining national integrity and spreading false news, among other charges.

Álvarez, 56, is the bishop of the diocese in Matagalpa, about 80 miles north of Managua.

He was one of the most vocal religious figures in Nicaragua and had been a key voice in discussions around the country's future since 2018, when anti-government protests ended with a brutal crackdown by Ortega's regime.

In Miami, the exiled priest who spoke to NBC News said he and Álvarez had attended the seminary together in Nicaragua and later in Rome.

"Since he was young, he was very tenacious and intelligent. He was a person of conviction and very sure of what he wanted and his goals — it doesn't surprise me 'que no se doblegó (that he didn't bend)," the exiled priest said. "I am sure Rolando has not experienced fear because he knows what he is doing is correct."

Ortega said the sudden decision to free 222 political prisoners and put them on a plane to Washington, D.C., was the idea of his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.

The couple called the prisoners “terrorists” who were sponsored by the U.S. government and were trying to destabilize their regime.

The political prisoners included priests, political leaders, students and activists. Like Álvarez, they were stripped of their Nicaraguan citizenship, a move that has drawn international condemnation. An additional 94 political opponents had their citizenship canceled Wednesday.

Ortega called Álvarez’s refusal to board the flight “an absurd thing.”

Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla, has had a tense relationship with the Catholic Church. The church is one of the last independent institutions trusted by many in Nicaragua, a country whose people are deeply Catholic.

In recent years, Ortega's attacks against the Catholic Church have intensified. Last year, the papal nuncio, the Vatican’s top diplomat, was expelled. The government seized several radio stations owned by the diocese in Matagalpa. Álvarez and several other priests and lay people had been previously arrested in August.

“The war against the church, against the priests has hardened and terrible injustices are being committed,” the exiled priest in Miami said.

Pope Francis spoke of the situation in Nicaragua and expressed concern during his traditional Sunday blessing Feb. 12.

“The news that arrived from Nicaragua has saddened me no little,’’ he said to those gathered in St. Peter's Square in Rome, and called on people to pray for the politicians responsible “to open their hearts.”

'Worse and worse by the minute'

In Miami, Nicaraguans are worried about the deteriorating human rights situation and Álvarez's imprisonment.

“He has always been humble, simple, intelligent, and a person of a lot of faith, entregado a Dios y su pueblo," (devoted to God and to his people), said Muñeca Fuentes, a Nicaraguan activist and Miami resident who knows Álvarez from the frequent trips she made to Nicaragua until 2018, when authorities cracked down on protesters. 

She said the situation in her home country is getting "worse and worse by the minute."

"They handle Nicaragua as if it was their own private farm and the people their servants," Fuentes said.

The number of Nicaraguans fleeing their country and arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has increased in recent years. They are now part of a parole program the Biden administration rolled out in January.

The U.S. has called for Álvarez's release.

In an emailed statement, a State Department spokesperson said, “the United States and members of the international community have taken steps to promote accountability for the Ortega-Murillo regime’s actions and will continue to do so. We call for the immediate, unconditional release of Bishop Alvarez.” 

The statement went on to say that “the United States, together with our allies and partners, believes that a return to democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Nicaragua is essential. We will use diplomatic and economic tools available to promote accountability for the Ortega-Murillo regime, reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners, and urge the restoration of civic space for the people of Nicaragua.”