A fashion show was the event chosen to inaugurate the recently remodeled recreation site overlooking the “Las Peñitas” beach near Leon. The activity, which took place on March 18, was led by Camila Ortega Murillo, daughter of the presidential couple and director of the fashion-oriented Nicaragua Diseña [Nicaragua Designs] organization. Her style parade was one of nearly 9,000 activities the Ortega regime claims to have sponsored this past weekend, in an attempt to “impose their normality,” while at the same time prohibiting the traditional processions that mark Easter Week in the Catholic Churches and persecuting the Church itself.
Lawyer and opposition activist Juan Diego Barbarena sees this as the Nicaraguan dictatorship’s attempt to “impose a reality around their own orbit.” This is characterized by showcasing a population having fun in the run-up to Easter Week, a police force that guarantees their security, and an increase in tourism.
That perspective is clearly evident in the Ortega regime’s propaganda machinery, which has centered its coverage on upkeep of the highways leading to the Pacific beaches, the realization of summer festivals, gastronomic events and the inauguration of tourist attractions.
In contrast to previous years, the regime has been silent about the traditional religious processions that lead up to Easter Week (which falls on April 2 – 9 in 2023). Their silence extends to the Stations of the Cross processions that used to be emphasized by Vice President and first lady Rosario Murillo in her daily public monologues. On Friday, March 17, Murillo referred to “over 500 traditional religious activities centering around the patron saints” that are being held. She mentioned 24 bullfights, 23 festivals honoring different localities’ patron saints, and 14 equestrian parades.
For years now, the Saint’s Day celebrations of each municipality have been taken over by the Sandinista City Halls, who program activities that run parallel to the religious celebrations. Around the middle of 2022, the dictatorship began forbidding certain traditional Catholic processions, and at the beginning of this year they cancelled all public religious activities related to Easter Week and declared that the Catholic faithful would have to commemorate the death and resurrection of Christ within their Church walls.
In the regime’s program, which they’ve dubbed “Summer of love 2023”, each government entity creates their own plan. These separate plans likewise include no mention of religious activities, even though they’re one of the principal attractions for national and international tourism.
A new way of celebrating Easter Week
Forbidding the Church processions is one of the more recent attacks of the Ortega regime against the Catholic Church. Many of the Catholic faithful fear such attacks will intensify after Pope Francis called the Ortega regime a “Hitler-esque dictatorship.”
According to attorney and researcher Martha Patricia Molina, Catholics are called to practice their religious activities in a different way, without losing the essence of their faith and love of God. “The Stations of the Cross activities haven’t stopped being widely attended, just because the dictatorship forbade them to be public. People are going to the Churches to participate actively,” she stated.
“The dictatorship is trying to play with the faith of the Catholic population, a faith that at no time can be reduced to just the actions of popular piety,” Molina maintained. She added: “the dictatorship is focusing their hate only on the Catholic population,” since it’s still permitting and supporting the activities of the evangelical churches.
Police will be guarding the “processions”
During the official launch of the Summer Plan on March 3rd, Police Commissioner Pedro Rodriguez Argueta informed that 14,000 police would be on duty during Easter Week. He declared they’d be there to “guarantee the security of the religious processions, and guard the beaches and popular swimming sites.”
Considering past police behavior, for example in Masaya when they carried out a disproportionate operation to keep worshippers from proceeding with the traditional St. Sebastian procession, it’s likely the presence of uniformed men around the churches will serve the same objective: intimidating Catholics.
On repeated occasions, priests have confirmed that the Police are keeping watch over the temples and also on the priests themselves and the sermons they share with the population.
On the other hand, Molina doesn’t discount the possibility that in some communities the regime might usurp the role of the Catholic Church in holding supposedly religious activities. That became evident during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the Church decided to suspend processions to avoid massive contagion. At that time, the government – obsessed with maintaining the appearance of normalcy – sought replicas of the Church images to hold their own processions.
“They do that to provoke, and to make it appear as if Nicaragua were a country where normality reigns,” Molina said. She has documented 396 attacks of the Ortega regime against the Catholic Church in the last four years.
1.82 million tourists in 2023
In other areas, the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute is trying desperately to recover the tourism that was hit hard by Ortega’s repression of the 2018 Civic Rebellion and later by the effects of Covid-19.
This year’s announced goal is to receive 1.82 million tourists, even though from 2018 – 2022 the country received an average of 475,000 annually. The official targets have been questioned by tourism enterprises and economists, who see the official projections as exaggeratedly optimistic.
Easter Week, together with the September independence days and Christmas and New Year’s holidays, comprise the high season for tourism, which it’s hoped will experience an upsurge. However, the sector has requested more investment in order to recover the levels experienced in 2017. Full recovery would also imply the disappearance of the ongoing police state in the country, since few tourists want to be in a place where such restrictions exist.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times.