Nicaragua: the unexpected eruption

Domingo 29 de abril de 2018 - What is happening in Nicaragua have many people confused. This is a great story to understand what is happening.

Por Tania Montenegro*

Nobody saw it coming. Much has happened in the past 9 days, it has been enough to establish that Nicaragua will never be the same. The country is still in shock from the news of the 39 dead (24 are still unverified), mostly young, a result of the first four days of a protest fostered by the young that has awoken the whole country. 500 youngsters remained entrenched in a university campus by mobilizing huge support nets from the general public and forcing national dialogue with various participants. They have posed a serious threat to the regime led by the presidential pair composed of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.

Since it sent armed forces against youngsters who battled only with stones and indignation, the Frente Sandinista, which had been the Left’s hope, is compared globally with the dictatorship it overthrew.

What started as a peaceful protest against the Nicaraguan Institute for Social Security (NISS) this past 18th of April, has turned into a unified cry that demands that the “Ortega-Murillo dictatorship” abandons power, stops its repression, that those responsible for these murders are indicted and that justice is made. They want a real change. Now. Leading these cries for reform are the student body and the general public united in rebellion, with the support from the Catholic church, social organizations and even private companies, which until recently were allied with the Government.

These past weeks were the prelude to the creation of what is now know as the “National Movement of the University Youth 19th April”, a space created by young women and men of various identities and backgrounds who are all younger than 30 years of age. Nicaragua is once more transformed into a laboratory for social change because of a youth movement that has broken with all previous organizational models: this is a movement without political parties or defined leadership at the head of the struggle. With their actions, they have managed to rally large sectors of society under the blue and white national flag. A notion which is difficult to grasp for older generations. They operate throughout the country under the mantra: “We are not part of the left or the right, we are an arrecha (angry) Nicaragua”.

They are various movements and only one at the same time. It has taken them seldom hours to evolve. No survey or national inquiry had foreseen this unravelling of events that has stunned a society, which has qualified the protestors as a Millennial generation. New faces have emerged and young women and men have had an equal role in leading the struggle.

The repression of the juvenile protests against the Governments’ negligence in dealing with the 10-day long fire in the Maíz biological reserve, in the southeast frontier with Costa Rica, and considered by the Unesco as a Biosphere Reserve was the catalyst. This is a generation that has grown up under this Government and that is known for having an environmental conscience. They are aware of recent history through their grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and fathers, as is the case of Paula, a young ex member of the Sandinist Youth, for whom the current situation is evidently comparable with the events that motivated the fight against Somoza. She contends that: “I left the party because I saw things I did not like, rampant manipulation and corruption, they are using the young. It is not clear where the power lies and many youths have left them as a result.”

The reforms announced on the 16th of April implied a rise in contribution rates for both employees and employers, including a 5% tax on retirement pensions justified as payment for medicines. This was the turning point. These measures attempted to capitalize the NISS, due to the fact, amongst other things, that its funds have been a “caja chica” [pocket money] for the Government and that there have been various failed real estate investments that have not rendered profits.


The repression

The social reaction began when youths from the Sandinist Youth hit pensioners who were protesting on the streets, reenacting the same mistreatment against the elderly that occurred in 2013 when they were asking for reduced pensions (protest known as #OcupaINSS). These new aggressions and the disrespect for the right to protest sparked rage, which was worsened when youths from both sexes, primarily university students, were brutally mistreated when they took to the streets to support the fight in several parts of the country.

The street battles started in the streets nearest to the capital’s universities and other public spaces, when members of the Sandinist Youth and paramilitary groups financed by the Government, hit and attacked those who were protesting, aided by the riot police who practically took on a bodyguard role for the “turbas orteguistas”. They even brought out the military. Journalists and protesters were assaulted and robbed. To avoid the proliferation of news of the repression, they stopped four independent media sources from broadcasting.

The repression began with teargas, rubber balls, beating, illegal arrests with an excess of violence and torture, and, finally, with bullets. Too many coincidences with the operating manner of the Somoza National Guard furthered the people’s indignation, who did not expect to have to live through such events. As a result, the general public joined the struggle in different parts of the country.

On the 19th of April, the fist students and a policemen were murdered, which is why the Movement chose this date as the emblem of the fight. Tears gave way to action: that same night the people took to the streets and the protests multiplied in various sectors, adding to the number of deaths, injured, arrested and missing to the list. Monimbó, the indigenous neighborhood of Masaya, León and Estelí, icons of the sandinist insurrection, burst in protest.

Meanwhile, Rosario Murillo, vice-president of the country and wife of the president, disqualified the protesters as “minuscule Right Wing groups” (she later on blamed them on the CIA and the Movement for the Sandinist Renewal). Her insults contrasted with the overused rhetoric of love and peace calling protesters “small souls”, “toxic”, “vampires”, “bloodthirsty” and “delinquent vandals”, as well as justifying the aggressions committed by her party in the name of “self defense”.

There were to many witnesses against her claims: social media was filled with crude testaments of the turbas and of police brutality, namely stealing and indiscriminately hitting elderly people, women, young men, children, journalists and people who circulated through the protest sites. Ángel Gahona, journalist for Caribe Sur, who was transmitting live, was murdered on the 22nd of April.


In Managua there was a very popular 6 kilometer march, the most relevant in recent decades, that culminated in the symbolic barracks of the revolution, the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua (Upoli). It is apparent that the people are not afraid anymore. 

These images are already in the collective memory of the people and will not be forgotten: kids missing an eye, the dead in pools of blood, the youth being savagely beaten, hospitals denying entry to the injured due to Government orders, mothers and fathers defeated searching for their children , people looting whilst others defended supermarket and local shops, police units acting as accomplices to the pillage; youths and teenagers tortured without food or water under the authority of the penal system, who were then left shaven, naked and barefoot in secondary roads near the country’s maximum security prison....

Revolutionary chants have remerged as a backdrop of the struggle. These include “The people united will never be defeated” (el pueblo unido jamás será vencido), “Free nation or death” (patria libre o morir), “Let your mother surrender” (que se rinda tu madre) (famous last words of the poet Leonel Rugama before being assassinated by the National Guard), and other more recent ones such as “Ortega and Somoza are the same thing” (Ortega y Somoza son la misma cosa), “Democracy yes, dictatorship no” (democracia sí, dictadura no), “Sir, Madam, do not be indiferent, they are killing us students in front of the people” (señor, señora, no sea indiferente, nos matan estudiantes en la cara de la gente), and “We are not afraid” (No tenemos miedo), amongst others.

Protests have also repurposed the emblematic song “Que vivan los estudiantes”  (Los Guaraguao) (Let students live), the music by the Mejía Godoy brothers, and even the national hymn- almost forgotten-, in many marches and protest.

The creation of support networks to all those who are taking a part in the protests has been impressive. Medicine students set up improvised first aid stands inside the Polytechnic University and and in places near the protests in every part of the country, medical personnel in many hospitals refused to follow the order not to send ambulances or treat the injured. Churches opened their doors. People have shared water, food, medicine, clothes, masks, money and everything that they had handy, and even documented the mistreatment of those arrested and deprived of their liberties. Solidarity lives on as a value amongst the people.

A change in tone

As a result of the magnitude of the social mobilization, the Government took two steps back: it called for dialogue with the Supreme Council of the Private Company, and in view of its refusal to participate if other sectors were not considered, the student body included, the next day president Ortega announced the revocation of the decree.

At this point the agenda of the struggle does not only pertain to the NISS, but it has transformed into a struggle against the murders and the repression, the criminalization of social movements that fight against the interoceanic channel in indigenous and peasant land, the mining concessions, the crimes and violence against women, the massacres of the civil body, the state wide corruption, the political favoritism, the fraudulent elections and a long list that continues. The establishment of a national dialogue with the Catholic Church as a mediator and witness is not enough if those responsible for the killings are not brought to justice first.

Even though machineguns are no longer on the streets, the Government continues the media manipulation to criminalize and defame this fight, as well as to divide this burgeoning movement. Many events and emotions have accumulated and the future is unsure. Nicaragua wants to turn a page so that the past does not repeat itself. The chavalero [young people], who is also up against pressure from infiltrators who attempt to disturb its unity, is a great hope. Moreover, it is important to remember an idea that feminist protesters were chanting in the northern city of Matagalpa, which many people agree on: “A free nation, to live in!” (patria libre, ¡para vivir!). The eruption continues.

* Independent Nicaraguan journalist