MANAGUA, Nicaragua – For the past five months, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes has seemed an unwilling leader in the Church’s attempts to help the country regain peace after a civil uprising that began on April 18 leaving hundreds dead and an even greater number imprisoned or “disappeared.”
Despite the hardships he’s gone through, and watched his people endure, he hasn’t lost his smile or his sense of humor. He maintains his wild tufts of white hair, which, under a red skull cap, resemble more the wig of a clown than the usual careful coif of a member of the Church’s most exclusive club.
“I’ve been accused of leading a coup. The dictionary defines a coup leader as someone who brings down a government to take power for himself. Well, I’m not interested in power, so I can’t be a coup leader!” Brenes told Crux Nov. 17.
Jokes aside – which often include his elderly mother, as the cardinal still lives with her – Brenes is a man who can’t disguise his concern for the future of Nicaragua, a country that has seen enough revolutions to know that lofty ideas that convince the masses sooner or later end up shipwrecked by abuses of the few who end up in power, their families and some of their closest friends.
Many people consulted by Crux agree that while the protests that erupted April 18 were the “match that lit the fire,” the conflict had been building for years.
One of the challenges Nicaragua faces now is that there’s no “leader who can convoke the opposition,” Brenes said. “No one wants to take the risk” of challenging President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, who many believe is the one actually running the show.
“We’re here providing a service, we’re not looking for any kind of power, but to accompany the dialogue efforts without expecting any benefits,” Brenes said of the Church’s role. “When the attacks came, which went from April until August, we protected everyone, both those who were protesting and the police.”
Brenes himself had to help the government negotiate with a barricade of young men and women who had taken seven policemen hostage, released them and hid in a church until it was safe to leave. The cathedral, which at times functioned as a field hospital, was treating wounded people from both sides: “We never asked them who were they fighting for, we just helped anyone who asked for our help.”
The cardinal does acknowledge that the bishops need to offer a mea culpa because they didn’t speak out when policemen were being tortured, beaten, stripped naked and painted with aerosol in light blue and white, resembling the Nicaraguan flag in barricades set up by the people.
“Violence was present on both sides, but the government used disproportionate violence,” Brenes insisted. “The anti-riot police had rifles, while the young people had a slingshot and home-made explosives.”
When the government realized protests were getting out of hand, they called Brenes to ask to mediate a dialogue. He said that he wouldn’t do it, but the bishops’ conference might. He brought it up to the other nine bishops of Nicaragua, and although some were more eager than others, they decided to try.
“I didn’t want the attention, I wanted for us all to be united,” Brenes said.
When the dialogue went south, the government blamed the bishops, accusing them of leading a coup and claiming priests were hiding weapons in churches. To this day, Brenes said, when he’s out in the street, people scream insults such as “terrorist” or “coup organizer.”
Despite this, Brenes says he’s not afraid. He told the story of going to a church to rescue a group of students that had barricaded themselves inside and who were being shot at by the police. When he got there, he asked the police if they wanted to pray with him, and they did.
“After I gave them the blessing, they went back to calling me terrorist!” he said, cracking a belly laugh.
The priority now, according to Brenes, is to work for reconciliation, something he doesn’t expect to see in his lifetime, “but we have to set the basis for it.” That includes the clergy, he said, saying he’s heard some priests being unfairly critical of their brother priests.
“There can’t be reconciliation without healing, and that only happens by embracing the other,” he said. “We all look at each other with distrust now.”
Despite the uphill road, Brenes is far from losing hope. He’s becoming convinced of a phrase of Pope Pius X, who said, “Give me an army that prays the rosary every day, and we’ll change the world.”
“I pray every day. The first mystery, for Nicaragua; the second, for the ruling couple [and their conversion]; the third for mothers who’ve lost their children or who have them in prison; the fourth for political prisoners; and the fifth for the clergy,” he said.
When he asks his own priests to do the same, Brenes said he finds reticence on the second mystery.
“But if we believe faith can move mountains,” he argued, “I have the hope that praying the rosary can move the heart of the people towards a true reconciliation, one that heals the country and that’s best for everyone, not a few.”