Nicaragua's Youthquake: The fight to halt Daniel Ortéga’s tacit family dictatorship.
In a country located atop the intersection of a cluster of tectonic plates, seismic and volcanic activity wouldn’t be far from the norm, but today, in the Central American nation of Nicaragua, it’s the tremors of youthquake that are convulsing the country and registering high on the societal Richter scale, holding potentially profound implications for the country's future landscape.
What started as a student-led revolt against the current government and its autocratic President Daniel Ortéga, has deteriorated into widescale civil unrest during which up to 200 people are reported to have been killed. Protesting began on April 18th 2018 and has escalated heavily to the point of the country now being in a state of terrified gridlock with ex-pats fleeing and foreign embassies implementing strong warnings against all but essential travel.
The protests began as reaction to the recent changes in the social security policies along with anger about recent forest fires in one of Nicaragua's most protected national parks which saw students take to the streets in Managua and six other cities in the country. Up to 25 people were killed in these first days including Angél Gahona, a 42-year-old journalist whose death was captured on Facebook live. In an effort to quell the protesting, Ortéga, who himself was the guerilla leader of the Sandinistas in the 70s and 80s, removed the pension reforms on 22nd of April, but this U-turn failed to pacify the protesters who took to the streets of Managua in their tens of thousands the following day demanding an end to repression and calling for Ortéga's resignation. The next day on April 24th the UN called for the "prompt, thorough, independent and transparent investigations into these deaths," saying that they may have been unlawful, which shone a light on the issue that no one appeared to heed.
Protests continued to intensify on the streets with the army distancing itself from the president on May 12th. Expressing solidarity with the families of those who have died in the protests, a statement from the army said: "We are the same uniformed people, working for their own benefit and, as a consequence, we call for stopping the violence and actions that destabilize us."
"We have no reason to repress anyone" for anti-government demonstrations, army spokesman Manuel Guevara said. The death toll had climbed to over fifty at this stage.
Shortly after this on May 16th the president entered into talks with the opposition mediated by the Catholic Church. One student representative, who has subsequently shaped up to be a leading voice of the movement, Lester Aleman, interrupted Ortega during the opening of the talks to tell him, "You can sleep easily, not us we are being persecuted," adding afterwards, "We’re not here to hold a dialogue. We are here to negotiate your departure.”
A week of fruitless talks ensued before the church called them off claiming there was "no consensus" between the parties. At this stage the death toll was at 76. The talks resumed on the 28th, but the following day, the business sector washed its hands of the president. The organisation COSEP (which translates to Superior Council of Private Enterprise) called on all its representatives to immediately resign positions it was holding in state bodies and enterprises.
On Nicaraguan Mother’s Day, May 30th , the mothers of those killed since the beginning of the protests took to the streets along with tens of thousands of others in support of them, once again calling for the end to the violence and Ortéga’s resignation. This ended in further bloodshed when Ortéga’s forces opened fire on the crowd, killing 11. Protesters armed with makeshift bottle rockets were also said to have returned fire in a further descent into bloody civil unrest. This spelled the absolute end of peace talks with Ortéga.
In weeks since the Mother’s Day march, young residents of the country spoke to YOUTH of their feelings of foreboding.
Tomás* a US born permanent resident in Nicaragua said, “Food, transportation and infrastructure have been severely impacted. Many local businesses close very early, or do not open at all. There is no fuel left. Mulukuku’s bridge is the main highway to the Atlantic side of Nicaragua, and with the roadblocks in place, and Nation Strike looming, food and supplies have already become scarce. In Mulukuku, the local distributors have already run out of basic grains (Beans, Rice & Corn), and I have heard from family members further east, the situation is worse. Buses that carry food and supplies from Managua have stopped running scheduled routes and leave when, and if, sufficient passengers board, and are delayed days at a time. Taxis still are running but have doubled their rates. Random acts of violence have begun taking place at the roadblocks in my areas but are due to desperation and not politics.”
The fall from grace has been steep given Ortéga’s previous incarnation as a liberator of the country from the Somoza Dictatorship in the seventies and the subsequent battle to fend off the US backed Contras throughout the 80s. He was leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front until 1985 at which point he began his first presidency until 1990. After a failed attempt at the presidency in 2001, he re-ascended to office in 2006 drawing suspicion from his liberal opposition in 2010 about Ortéga’s influence on the system that allowed him to run for office six times since 1984. Since the second presidency, he has slowly turned the government of the largest and (until now) most stable nation of Central America into an alleged family dictatorship. His brother Humberto is head of the military but it is his vice-president wife Rosario Murillo, for whom the nation appear to hold a particular dislike.
Mike*, an American living in Jiquilillo said, “Daniel Orgeta has gone from a Sandinista and helping this country to a terrible dictator that has no regard for his people or their lives. He is killing the university students and that is this country’s future. He has brought in military from Cuba, MS 13 thugs from El Salvador to stop the protest. The students don’t have guns and are shot dead in the head by Cuban snipers. The Junior Sandinistas work with the police, are paid 200 córdobas a day to incite problems, burn, loot and murder of the protestors.”
Despite the odds against them, it is unquestionably the youth who have spearheaded this revolt and are fighting the battle. Since May 7th, the country’s oldest university, the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) has been occupied by students protesting the government and demanding the elimination of the regime. Armando Telléz, a first-year economics student who leads one of three barricaded protest camps said, “The people have woken up – and there’s no way of putting them back to sleep.”
Presently, 500 students occupy the Managua campus of the currently defunct university. Barricades have been set up outside and the students within mask their faces and arm themselves with homemade mortars to ward off attack. They are routinely subjected to drive-bys where a vehicle will pass and empty a gun towards the interior of the university. One of these incidents tragically resulted in the death of a 19-year-old student Chester Javier Chavarría when an SUV stormed the campus and opened fire on the 7th of June.
This youthquake has rumbled relatively undocumented by global media since the first protests became violent on April 18th. Only in the days leading to a total national strike on 13th of June that there was a slight acceleration in interest. The strike, which was led by a “civil alliance” of Ortega critics including students, religious leaders and business people was intended to bring about “the peaceful exit” of the Ortéga and Murillo. However, Valeska Valle, a 22-year-old student leader said, “We know the national strike will not be decisive in overthrowing this regime, but it is a way of applying pressure.” She was right in this prediction as the strike ended and violence recommenced immediately.
Talks were re-entered on the 15th of June and a truce was reached but this was broken horrifically with a shoot-out and fire that killed eight more people, including a family of six. The fire was said to have been lit when the owner of a building refused to allow Ortéga forces to place snipers on the roof, a barbaric move that further distances the likelihood of the people’s retreat.
The talks continued up until the 20th of June but collapsed as the government moved to reclaim the town of Masaya, a historic Sandinista stronghold that has become a beacon of the resistance by being a stronghold of opposition to Ortéga since refusing to recognise the government and ruling itself.
At this point, the country is gripped by a cycle of violence that has seen over people killed, over 60 "disappeared" (feared abducted). Their aging depot looks increasingly isolated with his rogue military committing ever more atrocious crimes of violence against the countries people.
There is no way of knowing what the outcome of this movement will be, but the one thing that is certain is that the youth of Nicaragua have spoken up and they won’t be silenced without fundamental change. Their spirit is strong, and emboldened by determination, and hope that change is on the way.
*The people who spoke to YOUTH have asked to remain anonymous as it is reported that 60 people have disappeared since protests began and it is believed that social channels are being watched for those who are speaking out against the regime.