Panem et circenses, or “bread and circus,” is a Latin phrase always used pejoratively to describe the practice of a government keeping its population contently distracted by providing food and low-quality entertainment for the masses.
Originally, it described the custom of the Roman emperors giving away wheat and circus games—chariot races, gladiator battles, and watching Christians torn by wild beasts—as a way to keep the people disengaged from politics. Julius Cesar would distribute wheat for free or at subsidized prices to about 200,000 poor plebeians.
In Nicaragua, ever since the current government has continued in power, there have been an increasing number of diversions brought from abroad. Clearly, these shows are aimed at working class people who are capable of paying the price of admission. I’m not trying to curse such forms of entertainment, but I think we should stop and think about how politically convenient it is that these spectacles coincide with the interests of the ruling class. If we know the historical and political context in which we live, we know very well that nothing that happens here is mere coincidence.
Over the past six years we have seen an increase in the number of amusement parks and official piñata parties for children. We’ve seen busloads of people conveyed to the central square to hear speeches on days like July 19 and for other events considered worthy to “celebrate” in exchange for food and liquor. Likewise, to do honor to the concept of bread and circuses of the Roman era, we cannot fail to mention the “virtual soccer stadiums” sponsored by the Sandinista Youth to project Spanish league soccer games on large screens in arena-type venues.
Let’s also remember the government-sponsored prayer groups of people who gather at traffic roundabouts in Managua with large speakers blaring, and the public school students who are forced to attend. These same students are also used for political campaigning during election season, proving the government is not interested in educating young people but conditioning them and entertaining them to mask their nonexistent popularity.
The Catholic Church has also spoken on this subject. According to the Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Báez, religious manipulation by the government is constant. The government’s use of symbols, religious holidays, and religious talk for political purposes are abusive and interfering. We can see how they use and rely on the Catholic faith and traditions to present a ridiculous spectacle (circus) and give away the basic foods (bread) to the needy. They know very well that those who receive these alms don’t realize it’s the same government that has raised the cost of living to almost unattainable levels for most people and then “sympathize” publicly with the neediest.
Without objective thinking and a lack of clear vision, we are destined to witness the slow and inevitable destruction of the country. We allow the sequester of reason by political interests, or because of fear of true freedom of expression and thought. We fall into a voluntary servility and develop a need for permanent spectacle.
Commercial and political advertising constantly bombard us with images and messages that distort our sad reality. When citizens allow others to insult our intelligence by participating in vulgar spectacles put on by liars who manipulate media according to their interests, we are allowing ourselves to be treated as stupid subjects when in fact we are citizens. When we give in to spectacle and abandon our ethics and critical thinking, we lose all dignity, contributing to the moral decay of our country.
We must see clearly that the trend in politics is to offer insulting theater and “nice” slogans to trick people into trusting a group that is thirsty for power and money, and a leader who is once again leading us to the precipice.
Cristiana Guevara-Mena is a lawyer and young blogger living in Managua. A version of this article ran on the author’s blog, Ensayos Politicos, a bilingual blog on national politics and youth issues.