MANAGUA – On Aug. 25, 2008, Managua woke up to find Leopoldo Casiano Mendoza and 224 other impoverished and elderly campesinos camped out at all the traffic roundabouts throughout the capital, wearing new Sandinista t-shirts reading “Love is Stronger Than Hate” and allegedly praying for peace in Nicaragua.
The group, whose origins and motives were unclear, immediately excited curiosity throughout the city. The alleged prayer group sat and stood in the traffic roundabouts 24 hours of each day, holding Nicaraguan flags and battling the intense afternoon sun, rain and car exhaust.
The group – dubbed “rezadores” for their prayer vigil – always remained tight-lipped and seemingly nervous when asked who they were and what they were doing. In very few words, they would say they were voluntarily praying for peace, and then shuffle away to avoid further questioning.
Most people, however, speculated that they were sent by the Sandinista Front, as indicated by their matching t-shirts and signs written in the unmistakable Sandinista pastel colors and Courier font.
Many doubted that the rezadores were there to pray, and even church leaders criticized their alleged vigil as a mockery.
For eight months the mysterious group remained at the roundabouts. A total of 450 rezadores worked in two continuous shifts of 24 hours each.
Only after the group finally started to dwindle and eventually disappear from the traffic circles in April did former participants confirm what many had suspected: they are all former banana workers who were recruited by the Sandinista Front from the nemagon shanty village to occupy the traffic circles and prevent opposition protests. Each was promised 200 córdobas ($10) a day if they didn’t tell anyone who had hired them.
But their pay never came. And now their vigil has moved to the street outside of President Daniel Ortega’s house.
For nearly a month, a dwindling group of impoverished and desperate former rezadores have been camped out several blocks from Ortega’s headquarters (as close as police will let them get) demanding their eight months of back pay, or roughly $2,400 each.
Leopoldo Casiano Mendoza, who worked for the banana companies in Chinandega for more than 30 years, said his group feels it has been used by the transnational fruit company, the lawyers involved in the nemagon poisoning case, and now the government of the Sandinista Front – their own political party.
“The government never paid us anything; they just kept saying they were going to pay us all at once. And since we were all in need, we had to work,” said Mendoza, who remains a card-carrying Sandinista since the 1980s.
“Then, after two or three months, they told us we were going to get paid at the traffic circles so we had to stay there or we’d miss our pay.
They kept saying the pay was coming.” But the pay never came. So as a final show of protest, Mendoza and 23 other people have declared a hunger strike on the quiet residential street near Ortega’s walled compound.
Lying on cardboard and wrapped in clothing, they sit on the curb all day and night, rain or shine, under the watch of police and mostly unnoticed by the rest of the population.
Of the 37 people who started the protest in the beginning of June, only 24 are left. The Red Cross took the others to the hospital because of dehydration or other health complications.
“We don’t have a bathroom or anywhere to wash ourselves. We don’t have a roof over our heads. We have nothing, we’re here in the street,” said Mendoza, the 52-year-old protest leader, one of the youngest in the group. “They are still saying they are about to pay, but that’s a lie. This has been going on for a long time now. It’s always tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. But it never happens, so here we are.”
Mendoza said he will always be a Sandinista, but feels deceived by his government. In all, he said, the Sandinista Front made 10 promises to them in exchange for their participation in the eight-month vigil.
But now they just want their money.
“They promised us houses, medical attention and a bunch of other things, but we knew they were false promises of the campaign,” he said. “So we are only charging them the pay they owe us, and we won’t bother the government with anything else.”
Mendoza said he knows the nemagon case is a lost cause. For four years, thousands of former banana workers have tried to bring a class action suit against the transnational companies for a series of health complications resulting from the use of nemagon, a hazardous pesticide banned in the United States. Mendoza says all the lawyers involved in the case have taken advantage of the former banana workers, and now “there is no one there we can trust.”
A California judge last week accused lawyer Juan Dominguez, who was representing a large group of Nicaraguan former banana workers, of orchestrating a massive fraudulent case against Dole. The judge ordered the nemagon case be dismissed and Dominguez investigated.
At this point, Mendoza says, he has given up on the nemagon case and just wants his pay as a rezador so he can go home to see his family in Chinandega. He hasn’t been home in more than two years, he says.
Several groups have tried to advocate on behalf of the “ex-rezadores,” but so far the Sandinista government hasn’t responded to requests to resolve the issue.
Carla Sequeira, a lawyer for Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights, sent two letters to the Ortega administration asking it to respond to the demands of the elderly protesters, for moral if not legal reasons. Her letters have been ignored.
“Unfortunately, the Sandinista Front has used these people who already come from the traumatic situation of nemagon,” Sequiera said. “They trusted the government and were unfortunately turned out again. They’ve been used by everyone, and now they are old and really need the money for medicines and other treatment.”
Sandinista Ombudsman Omar Cabezas, charged with defending the human rights of all Nicaraguans, said he is not going to get involved in the case because he thinks it’s “a conflict between two private parties.” He said it’s up to “the Sandinistas who hired them” to resolve the issue.
Plus, he said, he’s concerned that if he were to get involved in the issue he could “end up looking like a fool.”?