Obituaries

Miguel Obando y Bravo, 92, key figure in Nicaraguan turmoil

Cardinal Obando at different times opposed and backed Sandinista leaders.
Anita Baca/Associated Press/1996
Cardinal Obando at different times opposed and backed Sandinista leaders.

NEW YORK — 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 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 Cardinal Obando in 2012, called him “one of the most important personalities in modern Nicaraguan history.”

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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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He 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.

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. Cardinal 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, Cardinal 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.”

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For a time after the Somoza regime fell in July 1979, Cardinal Obando supported the Sandinista junta that replaced it. Soon, however, as the Sandinistas revealed their socialist convictions, he became their enemy. When the US-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.

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 Cardinal Obando traveled to Washington, condemned the Sandinistas, and spoke well of the Contras. This outraged Sandinista leaders.

Cardinal 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 his 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.

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Soon afterward, Ortega reversed his permissive position on abortion and led Nicaragua to adopt one of Latin America’s most restrictive abortion laws.