MANAGUA – Retired shoe shiner Juan Arbaez sleeps on a piece of cardboard on the dirt with a dozen other people around him in the lot across from the Metrocentro rotunda. Above the depressing scene, a big white marquee broadcasts the Sandinista party’s campaign slogan: “Citizen Power.”
When it’s available, he makes coffee in a tin pot on chilly mornings before beginning his day, during which he and a dozen others stand on the side of the road waving Nicaraguan flags, wearing government T-shirts emblazoned with messages reading “love is stronger than hate,” and praying against hatred.
“We’re here voluntarily praying for peace in Nicaragua,” said Arbaez, 61, as cars pass in front of him around the downtown rotunda.
Arbaez is one of hundreds of so-called “rezadores” – or public prayers – who have been occupying nine rotundas in the capital around the clock over the past six months in a curious government-sanctioned prayer campaign that has employed impoverished Nicaraguans to “pray against hatred.”
But the Sandinista-sponsored campaign has recently come under fire from former participants who filed complaints with the government’s human rights Ombudsman office alleging that Sandinista party leaders didn’t follow through on promises to give them food and housing in exchange for their permanent presence at the traffic intersections.
Neither President Daniel Ortega nor First Lady Rosario Murillo have said a word publicly about the rezadores campaign, which was launched last year along with a deluge of bright-pink billboards featuring Ortega’s face and a message saying “To Comply With the People is to Comply with God.”
The prayer campaign is said to be the Ortega government’s attempt to promote peace and reconciliation. But critics say it is really a ploy to maintain control of the streets by taking advantage of Nicaragua’s most destitute population (see separate story, N1).
“They’ve taken the rotundas as a mechanism to impede opposition protests,” said opposition leader Edmundo Jarquin. Jarquin says it’s no coincidence that the rezadores first appeared on the rotundas in the weeks following the first anti-Ortega protests last year, which were sparked by the Supreme Election Council’s decision in June to ban two opposition parties from participating in the November elections.
The Metrocentro rotunda, where Arbaez and a dozen others have been living for the past six months, was where former–guerrilla leader and ex-Sandinista Health Minister Dora María Tellez held a hunger strike last year to protest the ban against her Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
Shortly afterwards, the rezadores appeared at the rotundas, which are traditional stages of popular protest in Nicaragua.
Jarquin, president of the MRS, says the government organized the prayer groups and offered them banners, T-shirts and three daily meals for the “exclusive purpose” of suppressing opposition protests.
Arbaez said he was even offered a house, though he denies it had anything to do with his public displays of piety.
“They haven’t given me a house yet, but they promised me one,” he said, flashing a crooked-toothed smile. “It’s not because I’m a Sandinista, but because the government is giving to the people.”
He denies reports that rezadores are paid $50 a month to pray at the rotundas.
Nemagon Victims Involved
Further clouding the campaign are reports that participants have been recruited from groups of ex-banana workers left sterile or ill from the effects of the hazardous pesticide known as nemagon.
Hundreds of the workers who alleged environmental and labor abuses by U.S. banana companies have been occupying a lot across the street from the National Assembly for four years now, promising to remain in their shanty village until the government helps them get compensation from the U.S. companies.
“We’re desperate,” said 50-year-old former banana worker Tomás Rey, who suffers from kidney defects.
Standing in his dirt-floored hut made of sticks draped with dusty ad banners and trash bags, Rey explains that he joined the Sandinista public prayer groups and received three daily meals to participate.
But in recent months, Rey and many others stopped showing up to the rotundas, as the groups have whittled from 30 to less than 10 in recent weeks.
Some of the rezadores reportedly got respiratory problems from the dust, while others just “got bored,” Arbaez explained. Still others reportedly grew tired of being the source of scandal and mockery, Arbaez said. Passing motorists often insult them and throw objects at the rezadores, accusing them of “dying of hunger,” he said.
“They don’t know our goals. They just think we’re Sandinistas, but it’s not true,” Arbaez said. Liberals are also involved in the prayer groups, though none happened to be present on a recent afternoon.
Father Rolando Alvarez, spokesman for the Archbishop of Managua, has been an outspoken critic of the Sandinista prayer campaign. He recently called for the campaign’s coordinators to “show their faces” and to stop “playing with hunger.”
Catholic church leaders have expressed outrage at the Sandinista government’s “political manipulation” of Catholic faith. “We cannot passively watch the signs and language of the Catholic religion be used with political ends, and totally against values the religion represents,” Alvarez told The Nica Times.
Statues of Virgin Mary that were anonymously placed at the rotundas during last November’s post-electoral violence have since been taken down after the Episcopal Conference complained.
Ortega, who now routinely quotes Popes and the Bible in speeches, has been trying to restore relations with the church upon his reelection. But apparently the prayer groups haven’t helped.
Alvarez said he is confused by signs that say the groups are “praying against hate,” because he only sees participants waving Nicaraguan flags.
“We never saw any of these groups praying,” the priest said.
Exploiting the Poor?
Liberal lawmaker Wilfredo Navarro said the Sandinista government should provide poor with employment–instead of exploiting them at rotundas in their efforts to undermine the opposition.
“The government should try to get them jobs instead of having them there in such an immoral way,” Navarro told The Nica Times.
But Arbaez, who was drafted by the Sandinista government in the 1980s to fight U.S.-backed contras, says there’s nothing immoral about his faith. Though Jarquin calls the rezadores “paid mercenaries,” Arbaez says he and the government are trying to send a message of peace.
“Some people just close their eyes to good,” Arbaez said, standing beneath the shade of a tree on the rotunda. “They don’t see the positive things the government is doing.”
As for former participants of the praying campaign who say the government lured them into the rotunda prayer groups with false promises, Arbaez says they’re just resentful whiners who “want to have everything their own way.”
“The government has its plans. It doesn’t have to always (do things) your way,” he said.