More than 4,000km and an ideological abyss separate the capitals of Nicaragua and Brazil, where an acrimonious race for the presidency is under way.
But the Central American country has found itself at the centre of Brazil’s election debate as its far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro seeks to weaponise Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian crackdown on the Catholic church to attack his leftist challenger, the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly cited Ortega’s anti-clergy offensive in the run-up to Brazil’s 2 October vote, hoping to convince God-fearing voters Lula’s return to power would result in similar persecution.
On Tuesday Bolsonaro hammered home his message at the UN general assembly, declaring: “I want to announce that Brazil will open its doors to receive the Catholic priests and nuns who have suffered persecution under Nicaragua’s dictatorial regime.”
Experts describe the Bolsonarian allegation that Lula – a moderate two-term president from 2003 to 2010 who enjoyed good relations with both Catholic and Protestant leaders – would close churches and jail clergy as ludicrous.
“There is just zero evidence in his governing that he would ever behave like dictators in Nicaragua and Venezuela. I just find it a ridiculous argument,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University Latin America specialist and the author of How Democracies Die.
“Do these guys really believe that, having lived in Brazil for eight years under Lula, that Lula would suddenly turn Brazil into Nicaragua?” Levitsky wondered. “Maybe, but I don’t think they are that stupid. I think they’re just saying that because they want to legitimise or justify authoritarian behaviour.”
However dubious the claim, it is one Bolsonaro and his allies continue to peddle, primarily in the hope of winning over evangelical voters, who represent almost a third of Brazil’s 156 million-strong electorate.
In one recent television interview Bolsonaro appeared with the word Nicaragua written on the palm of his hand.
His politician sons, Eduardo and Flávio Bolsonaro, have been warning millions of social media followers over the supposed threat of a Nicaragua-style future under Lula. “If Jair Bolsonaro leaves power, Brazil won’t become an Argentina or a Venezuela – it’ll go straight to Nicaragua,” congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro tweeted last month.
“Don’t forget, he’s a friend of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega,” Flávio Bolsonaro, a senator for Rio, wrote of Lula. “Have a look on Google to see what he’s been doing to priests and nuns.”
On Tuesday, Silas Malafaia, the radical televangelist who Bolsonaro took to London for the Queen’s funeral, shared his ally’s offer to shelter Nicaragua’s embattled clerics on Twitter, claiming Nicaragua “was supported by Lula”.
The weaponisation of Nicaragua is a rehash of Bolsonaro’s 2018 campaign when he used the collapse of Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela to make spurious claims about what might happen were Lula’s Worker’s party (PT) to win power.
Lula has sought to neutralize Bolsonaro’s attacks by distancing himself from Ortega, a revolutionary hero turned authoritarian who has governed continuously since 2007 and secured a fourth consecutive term last year through elections opponents called a sham.
Ortega’s re-election followed a six-month crackdown on Nicaragua’s opposition which saw all of the former rebel’s main challengers detained or forced into exile.
“It’s been 10 years since I last had contact with Nicaragua. I don’t know what’s happening in Nicaragua. But I’ve heard things aren’t going well there,” Lula said last year, urging Ortega not to “abandon democracy”.
Lula has been facing groundless allegations that he would attack Christianity since the first of his six presidential campaigns in 1989.
More than three decades later such scare tactics have been turbo-charged by social media. Together, Bolsonaro and his three sons boast nearly 16 million followers on Twitter and 20 million on Facebook.
So far the scaremongering appears to be failing, however, with Lula launching a charm offensive to reassure Brazilian Christians.
“I don’t think anyone has ever taken such care and ensured the freedom to open churches and practice one’s faith as I did,” Lula told a rally of evangelical supporters earlier this month.
The latest polls suggest support for Lula is actually increasing among Catholic voters, rising from 52% to 53% this week according to the pollster Ipec. Evangelicals still prefer Bolsonaro, with 48% of them supporting his presidential bid. But Lula’s evangelical vote share this week rose from 31% to 32%. Overall, the leftist boasts a 16-point lead over Bolsonaro with less than two weeks until the election.