ESTELI, Nicaragua — An estimated 30 percent of people in Nicaragua support the government of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, though critics say only 10 percent are true believers and the rest have benefited from asistencialismo, meaning state subsidies, and feel they owe the regime.
Among Catholics, it’s hard to find people outside the bishops’ conference who are willing to talk politics on the record, either in favor of or against the Ortega regime, though a large majority off the record speak against the current government. Because hundreds of Nicaraguans have been killed or disappeared since a civil uprising began in April, those against the Ortegas don’t want to speak up because they’re afraid to end up in Managua’s infamous Chipote prison.
Those in favor of the regime also typically refuse to talk to the media because they haven’t been authorized to do so. Such is the tight control the ruling couple has on the country’s six million people, minus an estimated 30,000 who have fled in recent months to Costa Rica.
On Nov. 26, Crux spoke with two Catholics in favor of the regime who belong to a parish council in the diocese of Esteli: a 25-year old man who’ll be identified as “Alexis,” and a 45-year old mother of four who’ll be identified as “Veronica.”
“I support Don Daniel [Ortega] because I see the trajectory of progress his governments have provided to the country since 2006,” Veronica said. “We had 16 years of the opposition between his first government and the current ones, and we can see the difference.”
The opposition governments, she said, focused most on their projects in the cities, and in a country that is 80 percent rural, that means “leaving a lot of people out.”
“Yet Don Daniel has implemented many social projects that favor the poor,” Veronica said. “They’ve implemented many projects related to family economy, giving people chickens, pigs and a cow. They’ve helped a lot to reduce the poverty levels in the rural areas.”
Alexis agreed, though he’s quick to differentiate between being a “Revolutionary of the Sandinista Movement” and being a “Danielista,” meaning that he’s more willing to acknowledge that not everything is as good as Veronica paints it.
“It’s true, we now have free education while my mother had to pay for mine. They’ve improved many roads, and electricity has also gotten better,” he said. “Before 2006, we could be without electricity for three days.”
However, he did acknowledge that the ruling couple have been in power “for too long,” and have gotten used to it.
Despite this, both have a view of what’s happened since April that differs from what Crux heard from eight of ten bishops from Nicaragua who were interviewed, on and off the record, during a Nov. 16-28 trip to the country.
“I was afraid with the tranques at the beginning,” Veronica said, referring to popular anti-Ortega roadblocks erected during the uprising. “Before it happened, the country breathed tranquility. It
was safe. There was an atmosphere of joy. And in an opening and closing of our eyes, we lost that all.”
She also said that she was originally surprised by the “silence” of the “commandant,” because she was waiting for Ortega to “give the order and restore the peace.”
Yet Ortega didn’t react to the original protests, sparked by a reform to the social security system that would have had a heavy impact on the elderly. Protesters took to the streets during two massive protests in Managua on April 18 and 19.
Afterwards several more disturbances took place all over the country, with young people closing roads.
According to those in the tranques, they were peacefully protesting against the government and the fact that the country doesn’t have a traditional division of power, because every public institution has the flag of the ruling party.
Speaking with Crux, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua acknowledged that in some of the tranques things got out of hand and young people turned violent, kidnapping policemen and humiliating them, yet he also said that the government abused power by responding to home-made explosives with AK47s and 12-caliber shotguns.
However, according to Veronica and Alexis, the police were “doing their job,” protecting the people of Nicaragua so that “peace could return.”
Both are convinced the uprising in April was not peaceful. They also question the number of people who were killed by the police, military and paramilitary forces, which according to some human rights watch groups is over 500 people.
“Some 150 people died, but they weren’t peaceful protesters,” Alexis said. “I was more afraid of being kidnapped by them than by the police. Since April, I can’t go out at night and feel safe, and for months, I couldn’t go to Managua because of the tranques blocking the roads.”
Veronica also said that the people who were in the protests were “paid off” by the opposition, and that they were “drunk and drugged, so they behaved violently.”
She also described the protesters as “people who had nothing to lose, who were always violent, and were there to receive a daily paycheck.”
Those who were in the tranques make a similar argument, saying that paramilitaries were paid off by the government, as are the public employees who now gather almost daily for pro-Ortega rallies in the afternoon in Nicaragua’s major cities.
Asked about their reaction to the way the local Church behaved, both Veronica and Alexis distinguished between “the Church” and “certain bishops,” who, they said, were in favor “of the coup.”
When the government asked the Nicaraguan bishops’ conference to mediate, they said, they felt “hopeful,” but according to Veronica, the prelates never meant to dialogue as from the start “they called for the commander to resign.”
Alexis today is more hopeful with the Church’s attitude as bishops are calling people to come together in prayer, saying it is necessary as the country is divided and there’s mistrust among people on both sides.
“But some bishops were calling for people to go out to the streets and not be afraid,” he said. “When what they should have done is let’s pray for the people to convert.”
Several priests with whom Crux spoke complained that the government is using popular piety to try to sway Catholics. One example many gave is that Ortega is painting images of the Virgin Mary in black and red, the colors of the party, ahead of the feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, marked Dec. 8 and which is a major celebration in Nicaragua.
“I have a see-to-believe attitude regarding that,” Alexis said, adding that he hasn’t yet seen these images outside of social media, “and you can do that with Photoshop. I seriously doubt they’re using Our Lady to do politics.”
“We have to work and pray to regain the trust we lost,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to see people in favor and against the government, but we’re all Nicaraguans, and we all must love and respect each other. It’s one of the commandments.”