Cablegate: Catholic Church Leader in Nicaragua On Human

Published: Mon 13 Aug 2007 10:49 PM
DE RUEHMU #1904/01 2252249
P 132249Z AUG 07
C O N F I D E N T I A L MANAGUA 001904
E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/13/2017
Classified By: Ambassador Paul A. Trivelli for reasons 1.4 (b and d)
1. (C) SUMMARY: Monsignor Bernardo Hombach, Catholic
archbishop of the diocese of Granada offered his assessment
of the human rights situation in Nicaragua, citing a corrupt
judicial system, a government run on political patronage, and
illegal narcotics trafficking as the gravest challenges
facing the country. He also shared his views on former
president and convicted felon Arnoldo Aleman, who was one of
his parishioners when Aleman was mayor of Managua.
Acknowledging that some members of the Catholic Church had
succumbed to Aleman's temptations, Hombach is opposed to any
members of the church accepting government largesse and
professed his adherence to a strict separation of church and
state, no matter who is in power. Monsignor Hombach also
asserted that the United States had missed an opportunity to
demonstrate its commitment to human rights and the rule of
law by not bringing closure in the Nemagon case, in which
Nicaraguan banana workers employed by U.S. companies were
allegedly exposed to a dangerous pesticide that had been
banned in the United States. END SUMMARY
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Corruption, Cronyism, and Drugs
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2. (C) In a recent meeting with poloff to discuss human
rights, democracy, and religious freedom in Nicaragua,
Monsignor Hombach (a German citizen who has spent over 40
years in Latin America and 20 years in Nicaragua) shared his
primary concerns facing the country. Starting off on a
positive note, Hombach asserted that Nicaragua has made
greater strides than many of its neighbors in terms of
security, is a much safer place to live than other countries
in the region, and boasts a professionalized national police
force superior to many other developing countries he knew.
He lamented, however, that even with this progress, the
ineffective administration of justice--with the prevalence of
corrupt judges--is the weakest link in supporting human
rights in Nicaragua and an obstacle to progress in general.
Even when the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) is doing its
job, as soon as the "hands of justice" become involved, the
system breaks down. He made a point of noting that this is
not a problem that could be attributed to any government in
particular, but rather has been a chronic syndrome festering
for years. One reason, he offered, is that many of the judges
who entered the system during the 1990s were young when they
took the bench, and because they were products of or exposed
to a communist system during the 1980s, they had "no concept
of justice."
3. (C) He recalled that when he was bishop in the town of
Juigalpa (1987 to 1991), the human rights commissions
sponsored by USAID and the NGO Catholic Relief Services had a
very positive impact and were an effective means of
eradicating corruption by encouraging citizen participation.
Although normally people were too afraid to denounce public
officials out of fear of recrimination, the commissions
provided a space that allowed people to speak openly against
crooked judges in the same room as chiefs of police, army
leaders, mayors, and fellow members of the community. He
witnessed seeing one judge fleeing the scene in tears after
being accused before a commission of trying to solicit a
bribe. The archbishop held that these public commissions
were an important check on maintaining honesty and
transparency in the Courts, and provided an antidote to
corruption. Although the commissions were initially backed
by the Organization of American States (OAS), Monsignor
Hombach surmised that the Inter-American body had
subsequently "lost interest" in them, which he found
4. (C) Poloff solicited Hombach's views regarding the
administration of justice in the case of American citizen
Eric Volz who was found guilty of the brutal murder of his
Nicaraguan ex-girlfriend, sentenced to the maximum penalty of
30 years in prison, and currently awaiting an appeal in the
Granada Court (reftel). Monsignor Hombach voiced his
concerns about due process in the case, but did not appear to
have a thorough grasp of the details about the trial and was
unaware that the appeal trial would be held in Granada. He
confessed that his knowledge of the Volz case was limited to
what he read in the papers. Before the trial, Volz's mother
had visited Hombach to ask for his intervention and to meet
with Eric. Since Hombach was out of the country for medical
reasons during the trial and sentencing, he never did visit
him, which he now regretted. He reassured poloff that he was
going to try to visit Eric to hear "his side of the story."
(Note: As reported in reftel, Volz has been denied access to
one of his attorneys, private physician, the media, and
friends. Human rights organizations have also complained of
having restricted access to other prisoners during the last
three months. End Note.)
5. (C) Monsignor Hombach cited government firings as another
grave problem with human rights implications. Noting that it
is still to soon to tell in which direction the "ship of
state" was headed, Hombach disapproved of the Ortega
administration's tactic of replacing workers in various
government institutions with Sandinista loyalists, which he
regretted was sacrificing professionalism in favor of party
politics. He reported receiving complaints from parishioners
who felt intimidated and worried about losing their jobs,
saying that the government is "already going after them."
This was fueling a climate of instability, uncertainty, and
fear. He did not want to suggest that any previous parties
in power were "any different," but rather that partisan
cronyism is an unfortunate Nicaraguan tradition.
6. (C) The third major concern Hombach raised was the
scourge of narcotics trafficking which he regarded as a grave
threat to Nicaraguan society. (Note: The topic of illegal
drug trafficking as a societal threat was the central theme
of his homily during the Sunday mass following the meeting
with poloff. End Note.) The archbishop lamented that in
remote places like San Juan del Norte, communities of
fisherman and shrimpers were being corrupted by the more
lucrative trade in "white gold." Some mayors essentially
have been "bought" by the drug cartels, while others are
afraid to take any action, and have adopted a "see, hear, and
say no evil" stance. He observed that people are living in
fear of traffickers and that the lack of employment
opportunities is a contributing factor to the spread of the
drug trade. The high-level of corruption associated with
narcotics is further poisoning the judicial system. He also
found it difficult to believe that the corruption stopped at
the U.S. border, speculating that there must be officials
inside the U.S. who are complicit or "looking the other way;"
how else to explain the tons of drugs entering the U.S.
market with all the anti-narcotics controls and heightened
security in place. Hombach admitted to poloff that he is in
favor of legalizing drugs, reasoning that Prohibition in the
United States had done more to help the mafia and organized
crime than to end consumption of alcohol.
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Raising the Specter of Nemagon
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7. (C) Monsignor Hombach expressed his regret that the
United States had missed an opportunity to demonstrate
leadership on human rights by not acting on behalf of the
victims in the controversial ongoing Nemagon case, in which
Nicaraguan banana workers employed by U.S. companies were
exposed to a carcinogenic pesticide that had been banned by
the Environmental Protection Agency in 1979. Invoking the
German philosopher Immanual Kant, the archbishop asserted
that United States ought to show "justice is justice" and
bring resolution to this case.
8. (C) (Note: To date, Nicaraguan courts have ruled that,
under Special Law 364 passed in 2001, Dow, Shell, and Dole
must pay $886 million in claims to affected workers in
Chinandega. Another $32.5 billion in claims are pending.
A local court also ruled to revoke Dole's trademark in
Nicaragua, an issue that subsequently has been resolved.
Although the Embassy has been able to remain an effective
neutral party to this ongoing case, some human rights
and NGOs still have this issue on their agenda, and President
Ortega has cited the case as part of his anti-imperialist
harangues. In his speech early August announcing his
willingness to negotiate the destruction of SAM-7s in
exchange for
medical supplies, Ortega worked in a populist reference to
the Nemagon case. He admonished that the United States must
not send expired or obsolete medicines, but rather "the
latest generation of medicine to treat cancer...and send us a
good supply of medicine to treat those brothers (sick from
Nemagon), protesting before the National Assembly and victims
of pesticides produced in the U.S. that have come to poison
our people." End Note.) By raising this example in the
context of a discussion on human rights, Hombach
reminded us that the languishing Nemagon case is still a
politically charged issue.
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Reflections on Arnoldo
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9. (C) Given the archbishop's concerns about corruption and
his conviction about the separation of church and state,
poloff broached the subject of former Arnoldo Aleman and his
relations with the Catholic Church. Monsignor Hombach
recalled that when Aleman was mayor of Managua, he used to
attend mass at his parish in El Crucero and continued to
receive Hombach "with respect" when he became president.
Although he had felt a sense of pride when one of his own
parishioners was elected president, he believed that Aleman
subsequently had damaged the image and spiritual credibility
of the Catholic Church. He acknowledged that the Aleman
administration had attempted to "buy people" including from
within the Church, but made it clear that he disapproved of
what he termed "getting in bed with the government." Although
he himself was offered gifts, he always refused them.
Advocating a strict separation of Church and state, he
emphasized that the Church has no business accepting gifts
from politicians--whether on the right or the left. He
recalled that the Ministry of Transportation under Aleman
offered sweet deals on cement that had been requisitioned to
use for public road construction. Liberal Party members
loyal to Aleman purchased the cement at a fraction of the
market price and built enormous luxury houses at a deep
discount. Although he was offered the same deal on the
cement, he declined.
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Cardinal Obando y Bravo
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10. (C) Monsignor Hombach personally disapproves of former
Cardinal Obando y Bravo's acceptance of the position to head
the Ortega administration's Peace and Reconciliation Council,
which he regards as a violation of the separation of church
and state. Ultimately, however, he does not think the
Council will amount to anything and is more a symbolic
creation than a functioning entity. He finds it odd to see
this alliance between President Ortega and the Cardinal, and
is skeptical of the arrangement, but does not think it was
his place to question the sincerity of Ortega's religious
conversion, nor criticize Obando y Bravo.
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Relations with Evangelicals
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11. (C) Turning to the theme of freedom of religion and the
Catholic Church's relations with evangelicals, Hombach
confided that for the most part, the Catholic Church enjoys a
good relationship with evangelical leaders, but that some of
the more "militant" leaders openly attack the Catholic
Church. Although some evangelical leaders have complained to
the Embassy that the government gives the Catholic Church
preferential treatment, Hombach argued that it is difficult
for the government to know who the evangelicals are since
they represent so many different denominations. He also
argued that the evangelicals are more political than
Catholics as they have their own political party and are
represented in the National Assembly by elected deputies.
While there are Catholics in the National Assembly, they were
not elected to represent the Catholic Church. He mused
whether speaking out against the Catholic Church is the
evangelicals' "best way to serve God." He also disputed the
numbers of evangelicals, insisting they represented between
15 and 20 percent of the population, not the upwards of 30
percent that some evangelical leaders claim. This does not
suggest, however, that the remaining 75 to 80 percent are
Catholics. Wryly noting that, historically, the periods of
persecution are the "best times" for the Catholic Church, he
joked that when Aleman was his parishioner, all he asked for
was a little persecution against the Catholics "once in a
while." Hombach expressed concern that some evangelical
groups in Nicaragua and elsewhere throughout Latin America
are receiving encouragement from the United States
Government, which in his opinion, was regrettably helping to
"divide the Latin American people."
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12. (C) As an influential and respected leader of the
Catholic Church community in Granada, but also a foreigner,
Hombach offers an alternate perspective on life in Nicaragua
and its political intrigue. Contrary to some of our other
contacts in the Nicaraguan religious community who often tell
us what they think we want to hear, Hombach feels no such
obligation nor any compunction about speaking his mind, even
if critical of U.S. policies. While Hombach is skeptical of
some of the Ortega government's first moves, he seems to be
carefully staying above the fray by not casting judgment on
or favoring one political party over another.
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