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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De-escalating Violence

New Orleans   Getting more experience in hospital emergency and waiting rooms is on no one’s top ten list, but, trust me, you do the time and this comes with the territory.  If you can call it luck, it’s not you personally, though the anger and aggravation when it is family is every bit as bad. People are unhappy, scared, nervous and more.  Voices are raised.  Fists are slammed on counters.  Guards are around.  Sometime police are in and out.  Sirens are blaring outside.  Receptionists know little and say less.  Medical personnel are over worked and understaffed.  Come to think of it, the possibility, if not the prospect, of violence breaking out is ever present.  Reading a piece in The New York Times by Douglas Starr on the ways that medical personnel have learned to de-escalate volatile situations and what police can learn from them and vice versa suddenly resonated with me as an, “Oh, yeah!” moment, because it seemed so obvious and so right.

Let’s admit though from the very beginning that there are big differences from the streets to hospital sheets.  The biggest is that not everyone on one side is armed and possibly everyone on both sides are fully strapped.  That fear and uncertainty undoubtedly moves many a trigger finger.

Nonetheless, if medical staff who unarmed and are not allowed to “attack, shoot or otherwise harm patients” can learn techniques to defuse tense situations, so can police.  Compared to other professions they “report nonfatal violence-related injuries at many times the rate of other occupations including law enforcement” even though police have higher rates of fatalities which is another way of saying that they find themselves in tense and potentially violent situations but have been trained and have created a culture to contain violence.

Ironically, Starr’s examples come from tips they gained from police themselves as well as veterans hospitals that deal with the military in often traumatic situations.  Part of it is reading “body language” and creating a “reactionary space” that allows the health worker to respond, but a lot of it starts with taking a step back to realistically assess the situation in a “tactical pause” without firing first, so to speak, as many policemen seem prone to do.  The rules matter, but so does the person’s humanity. Makes sense.

Other common sense tips were helpful.  Never say “calm down” or “its policy” or refer to something as their “problem,” but to look for a collective solution.  Never point a finger was another great tip.  One that would help all doorknockers on home visits in dealing with a situation that turns uncomfortable or frightening by teaching a person to say, “Let me get right back to you because I need to go get a Form 9.”  There was no Form 9.  Substitute a flyer or survey or petition or anything that changes the space.

The piece notes that seventeen states passed laws mandating de-escalation training for police and some city police shops have acted on their own, some in response to the Ferguson shootings.  Change could be hard, he notes, with 18,000 police departments and no centralized policy making body for police, but Starr ends with the revolutionary notion that police, like doctors, should adopt a policy of doing “no harm.”

What a relief it would be for the rest of us if our dealings with police could be based on an assumption that they meant us no harm, so that we could unlearn the reality now which is an expectation of the opposite.

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