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‘So many people are not listening’: an interview with Cardinal Brenes

Cardinal Brenes (Andrew Sutton)

Nicaragua’s state media portray him as a rabble-rouser. But Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes says he places his trust in dialogue

In Granada, a city in western Nicaragua, vast colonial houses with peeling pastel façades stand in the searing sun. Horses and carts bounce over cobbled streets and potholes. There are smart hotels and friendly hostels. International cuisine is readily available and there is plenty of street action to watch.

Over the last 10 years there has been a rise in the number of Americans choosing to retire to this tranquil city. Until recently, travel guides described Nicaragua as a must-see destination. Travellers gravitated to the country, to surf and to explore the countryside. In 2017, the Spanish airline Iberia announced a new flight to the capital Managua, starting in October 2018. But it cancelled the service before its inaugural flight.

To understand why Nicaragua is no longer such a coveted destination today, we must go back to April 2018. That was when the president, Daniel Ortega, passed reforms increasing taxes on the pensions of the elderly and disabled people. The tax contributions of employers and employees also increased. Young people led a revolt against these reforms, taking part in peaceful street demonstrations across the country. The police responded with a brutal crackdown. More than 500 people are estimated to have died over the next five months before Ortega declared political demonstrations illegal.

Masaya, eight miles west of Granada, was at the heart of the anti-government protests. This city that was once the stronghold of the governing Sandinista party has now become a symbol of resistance to the party and Ortega, its leader. A friend, Marbell, tells me that Masaya was like a “ghost town” in April when the troubles started: “We were stuck in our home for one month unable to travel anywhere, only on foot to try and find some food. The prices escalated as road blocks were placed to restrict movement.”

Not far from Masaya, I meet Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the country’s most senior Catholic. The cardinal is celebrating Mass at La Purísima church in Pacayita. As I approach, I see that the church is throbbing with activity. Makeshift refreshment stalls are set up at the main entrance, selling tajadas (fried plantain slices) and pinolillo (a sweet cornmeal and cocoa-based drink).

I greet Cardinal Brenes as he swoops into the sacristy, a dignified figure in his red robes and biretta. As he swiftly changes, he recalls a previous interview he granted the Catholic Herald (published in July 2014). We settle into some traditional Nicaraguan rocking chairs to talk.

Outside the room, the hubbub of the congregation leaving the church is overwhelming, so we lean in to hear one another. I ask him why the Church decided to become part of a national dialogue when the crisis began last April. He calmly responds that the bishops sat down to discuss how they could best serve the country and all its people. They agreed that they had to intervene: they had no choice but to help their people.

“At the start of the social and political crisis, I wondered how the Church could understand how to enter into the national dialogue,” he says. “But after many conversations, we came to the right conclusions about how we could intervene.”

The Church had some initial success in mediating a dialogue between President Ortega and his critics, but the process stalled last summer. Efforts are still being made to reopen the talks.

I was curious about how the Church, despite all the negative publicity it receives from the organs of the Ortega government, still retains a firm place in the people’s affections. The cardinal explains that Nicaragua has been through a similar experience before, in the 1980s, when the country was extremely tense politically and the bishops had to sit down together and consider the options. And this time he feels the situation is not so bad.

“We have to plant a seed of wheat and to see what fruit it yields,” he says. “I strongly believe that discussion is the only solution. Bad situations can even bring good things as well.”

He smiles and his eyes fill with mirth as he recalls that he was recently accused of being a golpista, or coup leader, by the government. “I had to read what a golpista actually is and I said to myself: ‘No, I am not!’ ”

Maybe rather foolishly, I ask him how long he thinks it will be until Nicaragua heals again. Of course, he cannot say, but he hopes that the healing will be quicker than it was after the unrest in the 1980s.

Government media frequently criticised the cardinal during last year’s crisis. One outlet described him as “hesitant” and “erratic”. And when he passes regime supporters in the street, they sometimes shout “terrorist” or “coup organiser” at him.

But such opposition does not appear to disturb him. “The most important way to act in the circumstances is to clean your heart and keep your mind open,” he says. “The answers will come.” But this can only happen when all parties respect each other enough to listen to opposing views. The cardinal quotes Pope Francis, who said that we must stay silent in order to listen. “So many people are not listening to the question but planning their answer,” he says.

Cardinal Brenes asks me if I understand, and I do. Not listening carefully to others is not just a Nicaraguan problem.

“This is the true culture of dialogue,” the cardinal says. “And Pope Francis has encouraged me to carry on.”

A few days after our interview Mass-goers in Catarina, a nearby town, were harassed by Sandinistas. Locals celebrate the New Year with an outdoor procession with a statue of St Sylvester, accompanied by music and fireworks. The Sandinistas tried to grab the statue while screaming obscenities. Following the incident, a Mass authorised by Cardinal Brenes had to be held indoors for safety reasons.

The cardinal believes that the Nicaraguan people will eventually overcome all such ordeals in their struggle for freedom and fairness. “The drop of water does not break the rock by force but by perseverance,” he says.

With that, he strides out of church to his next appointment, confident that, little by little, justice for the people of Nicaragua will be achieved.

Rachel Collingwood is a freelance writer