A Grassroots Report on the Current Protests in Nicaragua

New Orleans   Several years ago the Organizers Forum visited Managua and several other cities in Nicaragua to assess the status of the country and its civil society in the years since the revolution.  Now the government is undergoing fierce street protests led by students.  We received this report forwarded from friends to friends offering a street level view of the protests from the ground up, and I thought it was worth sharing.

Our companero began his email saying, “…the situation [is] changing on a daily basis, and with more time spent in meetings and in the streets and roads than in front of a computer, am just now getting around to send this . . . Since writing on [April] 24th, the death toll (assassinations by the police and paramilitary forces) has risen to more than 60 . . . and rising (lots of “disappeared”) . . . two massive opposition mobilizations (23rd and 28th April), preparations for a national dialogue . . . with the government continuing to put on a public face of “everything is normal” . . . Very similar to the behavior of Somoza in 1978-1979, shortly before he fled the country,. For obvious reasons, I´ve left out many “details” of the uprising.  Just trying to give a general picture of the situation here.

His report followed as an attachment:

For more than a decade Nicaragua has been living in an “Ortega-Murillo Family” dictatorship that centralized all power (and wealth) in the very limited circle that surrounded the presidential couple….Every effort was made to win over youth by downplaying the importance of a good education and offering a steady diet of “bread and circus”.

 

For more than a decade, Nicaraguan youth, in the absence of credible institutional support, have been left, for the most part, to their own resources to grow, mature, and try to take responsibility for their lives.  Many have done this through “social media”, forming circles of friends with whom they can communicate, and become more aware of what is happening.  These “cybernetic relationships” have helped in some way to deal with the alienation, frustration, and isolation they have experienced in a society in which everything is concentrated “above”, with little, if any, space for them.

 

This all changed the night of April 17th of this year.  The previous weekend the presidential couple, with no consultation, announced a series of “reforms” to the Social Security System—a system that has been decimated over the years by governments using the system as a source of petty cash, lending millions to political friends, a bank of “phantom” employees—political party members—who did no work but received a monthly salary (in fact, 14 monthly salaries a year!), and not contributing their share to the ongoing needs of the system.  The imposed reforms raised the monthly quota that workers and employers would have to pay in to the system on a monthly basis, and cut the retirement benefits by 5%.  The reforms basically were an economic blow for just about everybody:  minimum-wage workers, sweatshop workers, teachers, health workers, construction workers, small businesses . . . up to the “big guys”.

 

For 48 hours there were VERBAL protests by business leaders, representatives of retired workers, a few independent unions, and some business representatives.  The night of Tuesday, April 17th, a group of college students gathered in front of the Jesuit university in Managua to protest against the reforms.  Pro-government groups passed by, trying to intimidate the students, but no violence resulted.  The following night, again in front of the Jesuit university, students gathered for another protest.  This time, under cover of darkness, pro-government forces began to attack the students with stones and rocks; result: a few minor injuries and all the glass portion of the entrance to the university destroyed.  Police present did nothing.

 

The following night (Thursday), the student protest moved to the Polytechnic University (UPOLI).  The police attacked the students . . . resulting in three student deaths.  Friday night, there were student mobilizations, marches, and demonstrations around the country.  Police reaction resulted in seven more deaths.  During the weekend, mobilizations increased and became massive.  Police violence also increased.  The death toll rose to 31; that is, in four days, 31 deaths.

 

Monday, April 23, there was an extraordinary mobilization in Managua, in which the business community joined students marching from the center of the city to the gates of Polytechnic University where the police have hundreds of students surrounded within the university.  The estimated number of participants in the mobilization is 500,000 . . . in the history of Nicaragua, only less than the number of participants in the pre-electoral march of February 21, 1990.

 

As a result of the student mobilizations (and the support received by the students from the Catholic hierarchy and business community), Ortega announced Sunday that he was “cancelling” the reforms, and was willing to “dialogue” with the business community.  Instead of offering condolences to the families of the more than thirty students killed, he referred to them as violent law-breakers and students who don’t understand the history of Nicaragua(?) . . . The students, Catholic hierarchy, and business leaders all insist that, in the face of continuing government violence, it is no time for dialogue, and that if there is to be dialogue, it has to be with ALL SECTORS of Nicaragua society, most importantly the students.

 

While this is going on in the cities, Francisca Ramirez, leader of the campesino community organizing against the plans of Ortega to build a canal through the country, is organizing a regional strike throughout the campesino community, in support of the students.

This is one perspective obviously, but what is happening in Nicaragua is worth our attention.  It may be a small country, but it matters.

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Nicaragua for My Father

1560550_10101026878658975_1626274147673135687_nNew Orleans       My father, much missed, used to ask me whenever I returned from a country “new” to both of us not to tell him so much about what I had done, but what I had seen that would surprise or interest him.   In many ways, Nicaragua surprised all of us from the Organizers’ Forum.  We knew we were going to Central America and one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and we had read the Lonely Planet notions of the country well enough to know that Managua was not going to be something that classified as a tourist destination, but none of that was really adequate preparation.

            In fact all of us found ourselves surprised and impressed with the urban infrastructure of Managua.  The buildings may have not been the tall towers of other Latin American capitols in the rebuilding from a revolution, boycott, and earthquake disasters, but it was solid.  The airport was amazingly efficient.  I have never been through customs and baggage pickup more quickly anywhere in the world, including the USA.  The airport was modern without being ostentatious, and clean as a whistle, so I had better add this on the front end of these notes, that I cannot remember a cleaner country from the city to the countryside than Nicaragua.  The bustle of Leon, when we visited there, and some trash on the side streets almost came as a relief, that these were people of our same species!

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            There aren’t that many main thoroughfares in Managua but they were smoothly paved with frequent roundabouts that kept traffic moving briskly even when we were navigating rush hours.  Visiting the barrio of Tipitapa, a lower income, working areas, where we might have expected more rutted and dirt roads, the streets were paved and many were curbed.  Without saying so, many of us were thinking, “if this is a slum, this is better than many of our neighborhoods!”  There were issues, but it was decent.  Our ACORN Honduras organizers marveled continually, as we all did, at the security of the centro and the barrios.  There was one guard at the hotel, but this was not a country where security was everywhere, armed and ready.  Government worked here at that very fundamental, and critical, level.

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            We were there during a multi-day Independence Day celebration.  Revolutionary Square though was relatively empty on the Sunday we went by, especially compared to the amusement and food area along the lake.  Government was ubiquitous, but not as suffocating as we found in Vietnam for example.  Though the President Daniel Ortega’s government is currently often labeled a kleptocracy, the party, the FSLN, is more prominently at the forefront than a cult of personality for the president.  They wisely embrace Augusto Sandino and his struggle predating the Sandinistas as their iconic image.

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            The food was standard fare, dominated by rice, beans, and plantains, though the pitahaya fruit, which is also called dragon fruit in Nicaragua, and grows from a cactus was a revelation, producing a rich purple drink that was simply delicious.  Excuse me, while I go get an importing license for ACORN International!

Throughout the neighborhoods pedicabs were everywhere, rivaling Indian bicycle rickshaws, but with a totally different design, less a frontloading basket design, than an efficient box with seating, which was very interesting and practical.  And, of course taxis were numerous as well as the kind of repurposed school bus designs called collectivos in Argentina. 

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Grenada and Leon were not the colonial cities we expected after Antigua, Guatemala or San Miguel del Allende, Mexico, but on the plus side, none of these were the ex-patriot, tourist centers creating English-speaking islands in those countries.  In fact interestingly, the only major signs of mass foreign tourism we saw were the surf boarders coming and going from the airport.

My grandfather’s name was Erdman, which means “man of the soil” in German, and that had been our family heritage forever in Germany and even in the United States until my father, so what would have interested my father the most would have been our visits to the farms or fincas outside of Matagalpa.  The lemon and orange trees would have reminded him of California, along with the chickens and roosters running in yard, which I remember well from my grandfather’s place in Orange County on our infrequent visits as well.  The rich, wet soil and the rows of well-tended coffee plants interspersed between fences of hibiscus or tall and straight cactus and the huge pride of the cooperative farmers, optimistic even in the grip of the roya epidemic, would have had my dad wondering if it were time to see about buying a hectare for himself, just as I have often debated every time I’ve walked under the shade of tall trees and held the green coffee plants in my hands, while adjusting my feet to the steep incline.

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