NicaNotes: “We’re not going to mass.” – How the Nicaraguan People Are Punishing Their Coup-Mongering Priests

By Becca Mohally Renk

(Becca Renk is part of the Jubilee House Community and its project in Ciudad Sandino, the Center for Development in Central America and has lived in Nicaragua since 2001.)

In early December there are traditionally more than 7,500 altars to the Virgin Mary set up around the city of Ciudad Sandino for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

“I’m Catholic. I still pray in my house every day. I just don’t go to mass anymore.”

We’re sitting in a swept dirt yard outside of Managua talking with community leaders when the topic veers suddenly to Nicaragua’s Catholic priests.

“I didn’t hear this from somebody else, I saw it with my own eyes,” says Marisol,* a no-nonsense woman in her sixties. The fervor of the words pouring out demonstrates the depth of emotions: her hurt, and her anger.

“I couldn’t believe it. But there was my parish priest, standing in the back of a pickup truck with a megaphone, encouraging a group of people to burn the Sandinista party headquarters. I stepped back into the shadows so he wouldn’t see me, but I saw him.

Marisol is referring to events that took place on Saturday, 21 April 2018, in Ciudad Sandino, a city of 180,000 just outside Managua. A few days earlier in the capital, protests had begun; protests ostensibly against proposed reforms to the social security system. It quickly became obvious, however, that the protests were about something else: an attempt to overthrow the democratically-elected Sandinista government.

After burning the FSLN party headquarters that day, the priest and his people went on to the city’s social security (INSS) building. It was the first INSS office in Ciudad Sandino, having been finished only a few months before: a multistory building with air conditioning, equipped with modern furniture and stocked with powdered milk which is given free to new mothers during their babies’ first months.

“They were supposedly protesting on behalf of the old people, but if that’s true, why did they loot our INSS?” Asks Marisol. “I say ‘ours’ because I’m retired, I have a small pension, and that INSS building belongs to all of us retired people. It was brand new, and they broke in and destroyed it. They took everything…. Can you imagine? So if they were protesting to support us, why would they ruin our building?”

She raises one finger defiantly, eyes blazing, “I would expect anything from a politician, but not from a priest.”

Marisol is not the only devout Nicaraguan Catholic eschewing mass and the Church these days – far from it. She and her neighbors say that the same four or five people are the only ones showing up for Sunday mass. I’ve talked to Catholics of all political backgrounds who haven’t been to mass since April 2018, and while they continue celebrating their sacraments and Holy Days, they aren’t celebrating within the Church. My daughters are 14 and 16, and although we have attended many quinceaños (the important 15th birthdays, usually celebrated by Catholics with a special Church mass) in the past three years, not one of them has been celebrated in the Church.

“We don’t yet know where we’ll have it,” a friend tells me as she’s inviting me to her daughter’s baptism on her first birthday. “I mean, I’m Catholic, but I’m just not in agreement with the priests, and the…situation…with the Church.” She says, waving her hands expansively as if to encompass the whole complicated state of affairs.

The “situation” began with the INSS protests nearly four years ago. After false reports that students were killed by police on April 18, the protests turned violent and the next day three people were killed – a police officer, a Sandinista supporter and a bystander.

Although the government rescinded its proposed reforms to the INSS system, protests continued and the opposition demanded that police be taken off the streets. With no police presence, armed opposition groups quickly set up hundreds of roadblocks which paralyzed the country and became epicenters of violence. The roadblocks lasted for nearly three months, some 253 people were killed, and many more injured. The economy was crippled – 250 buildings were burned down or ransacked, public sector property losses were over $230 million, and 300,000 jobs were lost; all of which was catastrophic for Nicaragua.

The opposition and its media apparatus blamed the government for the violence, but police and Sandinistas were specific targets of the violence – more than two dozen police officers were killed – and now ongoing investigations are showing who was funding this violence in Nicaragua: the U.S. government through USAID, NED, IRI – all “soft arms” of the CIA.

Although the U.S. was funding the attempted ousting of Nicaragua’s democratically elected Sandinista government, the Catholic Church hierarchy in Nicaragua was instigating it. While the Bishop’s conference was ostensibly “mediating” a national dialogue, its own priests were calling for violence. At these “roadblocks of death,” as they came to be known, Sandinista supporters were identified, beaten, raped, tortured and murdered – with priests watching and sometimes participating in the violence.

video taken in León shows Catholic priest Father Berrios and evangelical pastor Carlos Figueroa present and doing nothing to stop torture of a young Sandinista, Sander Francisco Bonilla Zapata, which included dousing him with gasoline. One of them can be heard saying, “Take the photo but don’t post it.”

Masaya parish priest Harvin Padilla directed the terrorist gang that tortured police officer Gabriel de Jesus Vado Ruiz and set him on fire while he was still alive. Messages to the terrorists were found on his phone, identifying himself and saying, “Hide these *$%, even in the bottom of a latrine…try to get people not to upload photos and videos to Facebook of the one you are burning, so there won’t be a problem.”

In Diriamba, a young Sandinista man was tortured for three days inside the Basilica de San Sebastian there. He described how he was beaten frequently by Father César Castillo, and how snipers shot at Sandinistas from the church tower.  When he told his story, the people of Diriamba stormed the church and found weapons stored inside, as well as supplies that had been stolen from a nearby health center. The angry parishioners demanded that the priest turn the church over to the community, chanting, “Take out the weapons; the Father must leave; we want the church.” (Voz de Sandino July 9, 2018)

After being ordered to stay in their stations in April and May, in late June and early July 2018, the Nicaraguan police went back onto the streets and managed to remove the roadblocks. Police arrival in each city was treated as a liberation by the people, who had effectively been held hostage for months by the thugs running the “road blocks of death.”

The most prominent and vociferously anti-Sandinista member of the clergy in Nicaragua was Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Managua, Monsignor Silvio Baez. In October of 2018, Baez met with a group of peasants in an attempt to rekindle the violence. Recordings of the meeting were leaked by the Saint Paul Apostle Christian Base Community – a lay Catholic group rooted in liberation theology. In the recordings – which he later admitted to – Monsignor Baez implied that the violent roadblocks were the Church’s idea, he acknowledged that the bishops opposed the government, that they had alliances with drug traffickers and criminal organizations, and that they were plotting a second wave of violence to “get rid of” the FSLN. Speaking about President Daniel Ortega, Baez said, “We have every desire to take him before a firing squad.

After leaking the recordings, the Saint Paul Apostle Community collected 586,000 signatures from Nicaraguans on a petition which was sent to the Pope to request the removal of Baez for his role in supporting the attempted coup and his continued hate speech and calls for violence. In April 2019, Pope Francis recalled Baez to Rome. After Rome, Baez went to Miami and remains close to opposition groups there that continue to plot the overthrow of the Nicaraguan government.

Meanwhile, in Nicaragua, Catholics continue to feel at odds with Church leadership.

“Despite all the problems, I kept going to mass for a while,” Rosa, a small business owner from the urban center of Ciudad Sandino tells me. “About a year later we were at a procession for Holy Week. As we were preparing to leave the church, the priest pulled out a Nicaraguan flag and flew it upside down. I was absolutely shocked at that. But I told my family, ‘Let’s just keep going and get through this procession.’” A few blocks down the street the priest started shouting opposition political slogans, trying to get the parishioners to take up the chant.

“I told my family, ‘No, that’s it. We’re done,’” says Rosa. “We walked away from that procession and we haven’t been to mass since.”

This week is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Purisima, Nicaragua’s biggest holiday. Catholics celebrate the conception of Mary without original sin in order to be the mother of Jesus by setting up altars to the Virgin Mary in their homes and lighting fireworks. Neighbors come to sing to the Virgin and the singers are given candies, fruit, toys, food, and household items. In Ciudad Sandino there are traditionally more than 7,500 altars set up around the city. Rosa’s mother is devoted to the Virgin Mary and always has an elaborate altar on her porch; she receives 5,000 visitors each year, most from Ciudad Sandino’s poorest neighborhoods.

“Now with the pandemic, the priests have been telling people to stay home and not celebrate Purisima,” says Rosa. “That doesn’t seem right. They should be telling people to celebrate, but helping them to do it safely.”

In Managua, tens of thousands of the faithful have been turning out each night to see the government-sponsored altars in the city center. Back in her yard outside the city, Marisol tells us she will still celebrate Purisima as usual.

“I still have my faith, I will still put up my altar to the Virgin.” We ask Marisol another question.

“We’ve heard so much about repression in Nicaragua. So how are these priests being punished for their violent actions?” Everyone in the yard laughs.

“They’re not being punished at all!” Says Marisol. Jairo, a quiet older man who is a member of an opposition party speaks up.

“Oh yes they are,” he declares. “The government isn’t punishing them, and the church isn’t punishing them. We, the people, are punishing the priests by not going to mass.”

*Names have been changed.

Briefs
By Nan McCurdy

Land Titles Given to 41,000 on Caribbean Coast
From 2007 to date, the Government, through the Attorney General’s Office (PGR), has handed over property titles to 41,000 families in 315 communities of the Caribbean Coast, according to Attorney General Wendy Morales. She indicated that this amount represents 30% of the titles that the institution has delivered nationwide, which are 533,068 in the last 14 years. Thirty-eight thousand square kilometers have been titled in the Caribbean Coast. During this process, a consensus was reached between some long-time occupants and the original ancestral ones, which allowed them to work in a better way. Morales said that for 2021 a goal of 30,000 new property titles had been programmed nationwide, but 60,316 were issued, mostly in rural areas. She said that titling is important because it reflects the compliance of the Sandinista Government with regard to its goal of restoring rights. (Radio La Primerisima, 6 Dec. 2021)

Jobs Recovered in Free Trade Zones
The Union Confederation of the Free Trade Zones reported on Nov. 30 that 130,000 workers in the Free Trade Zones have recovered their jobs. Secretary General of the Confederation Olga Valle stated that “the recovery of jobs is due in large part to the Tripartite Agreement between the National Free Trade Zones Commission, labor unions, and the companies that were able to guarantee workers 50% of their wages until contracts affected by the Covid-19 pandemic could be resumed with an 8.5% increase in minimum wage and timely access to COVID-19 vaccines guaranteeing the health of workers.” (Nicaragua News, 1 Dec. 2021)

Project to Modernize Hydroelectric Plants Finished
The National Electricity Transmission Company (ENATREL) and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) announced the conclusion of the Project to Rehabilitate and Modernize the Central America and Carlos Fonseca Hydroelectric Plants in Nicaragua. CABEI President Dante Mossi explained that “the remodeling of the plants that includes modernization of the electromechanical equipment and control centers, as well as installation of real-time monitoring systems will guarantee proper functioning of both plants, which combined have an annual nominal generating capacity of 100MW, representing a 12.5% annual electricity contribution to the National Electrical Interconnected System.” The US$25.4 million investment was provided by the General Budget with support from CABEI and is part of the National Program for Sustainable Electrification and Renewable Energy (PNESER). (Nicaragua News, 1 Dec. 2021)

Business Association Denounces OAS
The business association APRODESNI (Association for the Promotion of Development and Sustainability) composed of 17 business chambers, will resume the consensus building between the private sector, workers and the government as established in the Constitution and which worked very well until 2018, to maintain the momentum of economic growth for the next five years, according to the president of APRODEI, Leonardo Zacarías Corea. This sector expects Nicaragua to close this year with a GDP growth between 6 and 8% based on exports. “We are developing companies linked to the construction sector which are among those that energize the economy,” he added. Corea said that “We currently have developed agreements with businessmen from Mexico, people who are coordinating capacities of up to 35,000 small and medium-sized companies.” The APRODESNI president affirmed that they are targeting Asian markets such as South Korea and the People’s Republic of China. Recently, APRODESNI issued a statement supporting the government in the denunciation of the OAS Charter. “It is known by all that the OAS has permanently pressured for interventionism and we were pleased with the decision of the government to resign from that organization that does not bring us any benefit. Nicaragua has been permanently attacked,” commented Corea. (Radio La Primerisima, 1 Dec. 2021)

78% Over 30 Vaccinated and Booster Being Given
Vice President Rosario Murillo reported that beginning December 2, the booster against Covid-19 is being applied for all who received the second dose of Sputnik V or Covishield before September. She also reported that the population over 30 years of age is 78% covered with the vaccine. The Ministry of Health is also holding a national congress with workers and a congress on HIV. “We have 820 health fairs, mobile clinics; 97,000 people were attended this week with 59,000 medical consultations, 9,600 of them with specialists, 10,000 attended by a dentist, 6,000 with  natural medicine, plus ultrasounds, Pap smears, tests, thousands of electrocardiograms and health promotion through talks,” she said. (Radio La Primerisima, 2 Dec. 2021)

Muy Muy-Matiguás-Rio Blanco Highway Finished
The President of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), Dante Mossi, highlighted the construction of a highway in the north that will bring more economic development. “We are pleased with the completion of this important work that will improve the quality of life of hundreds of Nicaraguans through opportunities for their economic and social development.” The opening of the 58.5 kilometers of the Muy Muy-Matiguás-Río Blanco highway, located between the department of Matagalpa and the Northern Caribbean Coast promotes tourism, agricultural production and improves transportation benefitting about 100,000 people. This project received US$58.7 million from CABEI. (Radio La Primerisima, 2 Dec. 2021)

Number of Sports Facilities Doubled since 2007
Vice President Rosario Murillo said that there has been a 105% increase in sports facilities in recent years. In 2007 there were 1,015 sports facilities but she stated that “today we have 2,030 sports facilities. This year we inaugurated the Rufo Marín stadium in Esteli, a soccer stadium in Tuma-La Dalia, in Matagalpa the Carlos Fonseca soccer stadium, in Nindirí the municipal gymnasium, in Ciudad Sandino various ball courts, in El Rama and in Juigalpa the first stages of soccer stadiums.” She also specified that in Ocotal there are improvements to the soccer stadium, in Ciudad Darío ball courts, and in El Sauce, improvements to the soccer stadium, among others. In Masaya and Boaco new stadiums are being built. In Río Blanco a new soccer stadium is being built. (Radio La Primerisima, 3 Dec. 2021)

Government Has Restored almost 270,000 Hectares of Forests
The executive director of INAFOR, Indiana Fuentes, highlighted the work that this institution has developed, such as the restoration of 269,243 hectares (665,000 acres) of forest, thus contributing to the economy and entrepreneurship of some 10,000 families nationwide.  INAFOR held the National Forestry Congress to promote the exchange of experiences between the different actors in the forestry sector who work, transform and market timber and non-timber products sustainably. The Congress was attended by 50 forest sector protagonists in person and 400 virtual protagonists, including forest sector users, managers, nursery owners, reforesters, entrepreneurs, forest owners and more. “I want to thank those who made the efforts this year in the National Reforestation Crusade to restore, conserve and protect our forests. This year 23 million plants were produced by families so that others can plant,” said Fuentes. (Radio La Primerisima, 4 Dec. 2021)

Second Quarter Official Cooperation
The Central Bank (BCN) published a report on Dec. 1 titled: the “2021 Second Quarter Official External Cooperation Report.” It states that official cooperation to Nicaragua reached US$855.3 million dollars in the second quarter of 2021, of which US$207 million went to the public sector and US$648.3 million for the private sector. Multilateral sources contributed US$612.3 million representing 71.6% of the total; the remaining US$242.9 million (28.4%) came from bilateral sources. (Nicaragua News, 3 Dec. 2021)

Construction of La Orilla Bridge in Nandaime Completed
The 60 meter long La Orilla Bridge in Nandaime, department of Granada was inaugurated on Dec. 9. The concrete bridge was built in response to the needs of the families in that area, since during the rainy season the rainfall caused strong currents that made it impossible to cross. The bridge will help 21,256 inhabitants. (Radio La Primerisima, 9 Dec. 2021)

UK Unions and Activists Call for End to US Interference
The Latin America 2021 Conference organized by British trade unions and solidarity organizations began on Dec. 4 calling on the United States to end to its destabilizing attempts in that region. Sanctions against Nicaragua and Venezuela and the illegal and inhumane blockade against Cuba must stop immediately, said Adrian Weir, head of the trade union Unite, at the opening of the event at the House of Friendship in London. Academic Kate Hudson, general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, denounced Washington’s efforts to overthrow progressive government projects in Latin America that have never stopped. She recalled the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras and a similar one in Bolivia 10 years later. She pointed out that this hostile policy has intensified in recent months with the imposition of new sanctions against Nicaragua, the refusal to recognize the electoral results in Venezuela and the attempts to undermine Cuba. The conference is being attended by about a hundred British, European and Latin American experts, academics, trade unionists and politicians. (Radio La Primerisima, 5 Dec. 2021)

MEFFCA Project Receives IFAD Gender Award 2021
The Sustainable Development of Rural Families’ Livelihoods Project (NICAVIDA), co-financed by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and implemented in coordination with the Ministry of Cooperative and Associative Community and Family Economy (MEFCCA), was recently awarded the IFAD Gender Award 2021. Karen Laguna is the owner of a small business that sells traditional foods such as nacatamales in León. She said, “We are very grateful for the support received from the NICAVIDA Project, which has enabled us to support our families by backing our businesses, increasing sales, properly managing profits and improving the infrastructure of our premises. This is an example of the impact gender empowerment policies and promotion of agents of change has and that were recognized by IFAD.”

This initiative obtained the highest score in the gender equality category (6 points) in Latin America and the Caribbean, and includes capacity building and planning, family, territorial and business investments, and project management. It also provides for increasing the income of the beneficiaries, improving their nutritional quality and strengthening their capacity to adapt to climate change, particularly by facilitating access to water. Currently, 25,239 families participate in the program, of which 15,670 are women heads of household and of the total number of families headed by women, 73.1% belong to Indigenous peoples. In addition, 158,626 people receive support for the sustainable development of coffee and cocoa productivity as well as access to markets, and their productive capacities are strengthened, thus impacting 65,199 women. The NICAVIDA Project is implemented by MEFCCA and benefits vulnerable households in the Dry Corridor, including eight departments: Madriz, Nueva Segovia, Estelí, Matagalpa, Boaco, León, Chinandega and Managua. CABEI is co-financing this initiative with US$15 million in conjunction with IFAD, a specialized international financial organization of the United Nations (UN) whose goal is to transform rural economies to make them more inclusive, productive, resilient and sustainable. In terms of training, 95,731 people received orientation in natural resource management and climate change. (Radio La Primerisima, 7 Dec. 2021)