Note: To read Benjamin Waddell’s April 23 article on the developing situation in Nicaragua, click here.
I am a Sociologist by training. I write about development, international migration, and crime. I moved to Nicaragua in January of 2016 to direct the School for International Training’s program: Nicaragua: Youth Culture, Literacy, and Media. Ironically, the program’s current focus was created following the Arab Spring, which began in 2010 and was defined by the role of youth protesters and media in contributing to regime change in countries like Libya and Egypt. Over the last week we have been witnessing, at an unbelievably fast pace, a similar movement in Nicaragua. Although it’s unclear where it will lead, it’s undeniable that Nicaragua is being changed by the events currently unfolding on the ground. What follows are a series of notes I’ve taken since the protests erupted.
10:42pm, Friday, April 20, 2018: Granada, Nicaragua
My eyes are still burning from the tear gas and my mind is racing. I can hear the piercing sound of bullets flying through the air, followed by the dull thud of adobe walls absorbing the force of lead. In the distance, somewhere to the west, I hear the echo of mortars, and just beyond the thick wooden doors of the home where we are staying, there are young men and women with masks pulled over their faces. There are 40 or 50 of them, perhaps more, and they are using the poles from stop signs to break apart concrete from a nearby curb. They duck in and out of alleys, intermittently launching chunks of the street at their adversaries, La Juventud Sandinista or the JS 19, who are organized by the government to defend the revolution. Their friends are pulling up paver stones from the street, creating barricades to protect themselves from gunfire by the anti-riot police, who are just up the block. As I watch this, I can’t help but marvel at the speed with which these individuals rip apart the very street upon which I’d been walking just a few hours earlier.
As the riot squad moves in, the protesters abandon their post, springing off into the poorly lit streets of Granada. These are the same youth I was with earlier in the day. As I took photos and ducked in and out of the colonial pillars that line the main plaza, I asked the masked men what they were fighting for.
“For freedom to protest! We have the right to speak out against this corrupt government!” one of the young men declared.
“The people have had enough of their lies!” another shirtless man screamed over his shoulder.
Later that night, I spoke with a close friend of mine who grew up in Granada.
“Do you think this could lead to war?” she asked, fighting back tears.
I didn’t know how to answer but what was clear to me in that moment was that if the young people just beyond my door had guns in their hands, they wouldn’t have thought twice before firing them.
Eventually the police moved in and the conflicts shifted south, toward the neighborhoods that lie in the shadow of Mombacho, a dormant volcano that watches over the town like the portrait of an ancestor in the living room. My five-year-old daughter, who fell asleep crying from fear, is at my side. Her pulse has returned to normal. My wife is asleep too, and our two young boys are spread out on a mattress. Silence takes back the night and I’m left to contemplate how the country got to this point.
3:56pm, Saturday, April 21, 2018: Granada, Nicaragua
I called Don Pedro early in the morning. He and I’ve worked together for years. In the 1980s, Pedro was plucked off the streets by the Sandinistas at the age of 14, sent to the frontlines, and told to defend his motherland from the Contras. He survived, but the experience left him with a deep-seeded distrust for Daniel Ortega and his followers.
“They are no different than Somoza, [the former dictator]” I’ve heard him say on multiple occasions. “They may have fought in the revolution but their ambition for power has corrupted their ideals. I’m a Sandinista but I’m not a Danielista.”
“This isn’t about INSS anymore,” Pedro tells me. “This is about years of deception. This is about falsified elections. This is about a nation fed up with its government. Nicaragua has a history of war, you know. We are willing to put up with a lot but when the people rise up, it’s impossible to turn back the clock. The youth will be heard. They will assert themselves.”
Former guerrilla warrior and longtime Ortega critic and opposition leader, Dora María Tellez, voiced a similar opinion on her Facebook feed:
“Do Ortega and his wife think that we’re going to turn the page on 8 deaths, dozens of injuries, destruction, injuries, and aggressions without holding someone accountable? No. This has reached its end. The people are demanding #TheyMustGo [#QueSeVayan] to live in peace, with democracy, and opportunities.”
Dora Maria Tellez fought alongside the Sandinistas in the 1970s, and worked in the revolutionary government in the 1980s. However, after the Sandinistas ransacked the public sector in the infamous piñata that followed the party’s loss in the 1990 election, Tellez broke off from the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to form the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). Dora Maria Tellez has participated in the MRS for nearly 22 years, dedicating her life to defending the original social democratic ideals that emerged from the Sandinista movement of the 1970s —universal education, access to quality healthcare, and stable employment. These ideals, argue the MRS, have been corrupted by Ortega and his followers.
8:27pm, Monday, April 23, 2018: Granada, Nicaragua
Daniel Ortega gave a speech yesterday, urging Nicaraguans to continue peaceful protests while at the same time reminding the nation that the young people in the streets are pandilleros or gang members. In a strange, heavily orchestrated speech, Ortega also remind Nicaraguans of the devastating economic consequences of the ongoing protests.
To hammer home this point, he invited members of the country’s massive free-trade zone to sit at the table with him. A middle-aged White man from the US, who claimed to represent the group, read a statement from the “free-trade regime” [probably not the best name to use given the occasion!] that essentially thanked Ortega and his family for what they have done for the country and reminded Nicaraguans that continued protests would eventually result in a massive withdrawal of foreign direct investment. Ortega also temporarily retracted the reforms the government had announced earlier in the week to the national social security system. In over 30 minutes of meandering speech, he failed to mention the dead, the disappeared, and the sequestered.
For the outside viewer, the speech came across as further evidence for the unpredictable, dystopian rabbit hole that Mr. Ortega has led the country down over the last 10 years. Who could have imagined, in 1979, Daniel Ortega and his wife sitting down alongside foreign investors from the free trade zone, dialoging about the peace of the country?
The speech was well-received by older generations of Sandinistas who want, in their hearts, to believe in Ortega and the direction he has taken the country. Naturally, the conservative right saw the speech as an affront on their intelligence and called for continued protests. The most important reaction came from the young Nicaraguans occupying the streets and universities, who continue to convincingly argue that the protests were never really about INSS at all. Per their stance, the protests are about government mismanagement, exploitation of workers, corruption, and the innocent blood spilt in the streets of Nicaragua at the hand of a repressive government. On Sunday evening, in response to Mr. Ortega’s request for a national dialogue, youth protesters on the streets of Managua screamed in unison:
“The dead can’t dialogue!”
“We want them alive!”
As of this morning, it’s still too early to know what direction the situation will take. On April 23, 2018, “the U.S. government ordered the departure of U.S. government family members and authorized the departure of U.S. government personnel.” As they point out, the ability to purchase food and fuel is limited. Furthermore, as they acknowledge, access to Augusto Sandino International Airport is limited by communities who have set up barricadas or barricades with the same street paver stones that Sandinista guerilla warriors used to combat Somoza in the 1970s.
Although it is impossible to know what will happen in the hours and days to follow, it is clear that the rioting and looting over the last 48 hours has severely affected Nicaragua’s market system. Even if tensions miraculously subside this week, enough damage has been done that it is difficult to imagine the nation’s institutions and markets returning to normal in the short-run.
8:56pm, Monday, April 23, 2018: Granada, Nicaragua
Just before leaving Granada I spoke to some of the young people involved in the rioting on Friday and Saturday. They told me that the Juventud Sandinista had paid them to take to the streets and act as if they were violently trying to take down the Ortega regime.
A trusted contact in Granada confirmed this version. He told me that his aunt let some of the young men hide out from the riot squads on Friday night.
“She told me that the young men said the Sandinista Youth had paid them each 500 cordobas ($16 dollars) to go out and toss rocks and cause chaos. I didn’t believe it but she heard it from them. From the source,” he told me.
I’d heard this version from sources in Matagalpa and Managua as well and to a certain degree it makes sense because everything about the government’s response has felt like an organized show. We are left wondering what the truth is, and perhaps this, more than anything else, is reflective of situation at hand.