Thoughts and emotions behind the April insurrection
April’s clap of thunder didn’t happen in a clear sky
Accumulated discontent and diverse political activism
had already been gathering force among the youth.
The spark was empathy; excessive repression did the rest.
Testimonies from some of the first protagonists
explain how objective and subjective conditions,
thoughts and emotions forged this national event,
which has not yet reached its end.
José Luis Rocha
The April 2018 uprising was not, as has been said about the fall of the Bastille, “a clap of thunder in a serene sky.” The political protests against electoral frauds, the women’s protests against the law banning abortion no matter the circumstances, the peasant movement against the interoceanic canal and the youth movement #OcupaINSS of 2013 were precedents that channeled the expression of more widespread but less focused discontent with the policies, autocracy and clinging to power of Daniel Ortega and his followers. However, these sectoral struggles, while engendering a certain amount of non-active support from the wider population, were sporadic and isolated, snuffed out by repression each time.
The April 2018 uprising has lasted more than six months, has been massive and non-sectoral, and its geographic extent has been almost nationwide at different moments. Moreover, the repression, crueler and bloodier by far than that applied to the previous protests, hasn’t been able to crush it. Even though it didn’t happen under a clear sky, no one could forecast amid those dark clouds what we’ve now become used to.
On the knife’s edge of the events
I’m writing amidst the virtue and the defect of doing so right on the knife’s edge of the events, without the distance of hindsight. I gathered several testimonies before those who shared them were imprisoned, sought political asylum outside or, in the case of the mothers of detained youth, weeks before their children were sentenced in trials similar to Stalinist operettas worthy of addition to the annals of legalistic infamy.
The virtue is that life and rebellion are still freshly aroused within these testimonies. The defect is that the smoke from the events doesn’t allow for clarity about their direction and some of their meanings. In moments like these, US political philosophy and social theory professor Susan Buck-Morss’ conclusions about the elusive nature of the meaning and truth of history become clear: “Truth is singular, but it is a continuous process of inquiry because it builds on a present that is moving ground. History keeps running away from us, going places we mere humans cannot predict.” Nevertheless, though it’s too soon to sum up this fleeting history, it’s a good time to examine the origins of April’s civil insurrection.
The voices of several protagonists
The subjective conditions of the uprising were created out of the perceptions and actions of the revolt’s first protagonists: the university students.
Highlighting their role goes against the current of the history of great episodes and of Weberian sociology, which find explanations to some events in subjects gifted with charisma. The university students were not charismatic leaders. The most visible faces of those in the uprising, those who participated in the Civic Alliance, have deliberately dodged the title of leader and the role of vanguard.
I turn the floor over to the university students and the mothers of two of them. Their vision and actions are our window to history and are the way ordinary people explain the events. From this vantage point the subjectivities of several protagonists will allow us to understand some aspects of the origin of the rebellion and ponder to what point we can speak of change through this keyhole glimpse into the mindset of those whose testimonies I gathered.
Usually, studies of social movements don’t spend time on the individuals who blend into the crowd and whose reputation as heroes—much less heroines—hasn’t been endorsed with the passing of time. History only rescues a few from anonymity and does so with criteria linked to the social distribution of power. The information era breaks with this dynamic and allows—imposes—the visibility of other actors.
Sociologists tend to contrast macro with micro. The approach I propose is a fusion of the two. Norbert Elias proposed to link biographical micro-processes with historical macro-processes. In the brief oral autobiographies of those who were protagonists in the uprising that point to the subjective conditions that fostered them, I found signs of macro-processes.
Sandinista families; disillusioned militancy
The first trait that sticks out in the profiles of the most visible youth in the uprising is their Sandinista roots or even militancy. The Sandinista origins of a part of the rebelling youth and their disillusion with the FSLN party are important facts.
The result of following those faces most visible in public appearances, especially those who actively participated in the Civic Alliance, was the same: Sandinistas of different types rose up against their own party after unkept promises, abuses of both human rights and the country’s institutionality and a clientelism widely perceived as demeaning manipulation eroded its power.
Hansel Vásquez was raised in a family with a solid Sandinista tradition. The path to his rupture was strewn with obstacles, but he received an accelerated push during the last few years. His mother, Liliam Ruiz tells of the many difficulties he faced, such as when he confronted his family, still loyal to the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), with his disillusioned vision.
According to information gathered by Argentinean journalist Martín Caparrós, Lesther Alemán, the unknown university student catapulted to fame by his riveting outburst in the inauguration of the national dialogue, comes from a Sandinista ideological tradition, where he’d read a lot about Sandinista ideals: “The FSLN founder and hero, Carlos Fonseca, is his hero. Lesther began to build his own ideals based on books, videos, songs. His hymn is ‘Nicaragua Nicaraguita,’ his favorite songs are testimonial ones.” But, Lesther Alemán was never a member of the Sandinista Youth or any other organized group.
Victor Cuadra’s involvement in the FSLN went farther: “I’m Sandinista, I’m from the Left. In 2014 I joined my barrio’s Sandinista Youth cadres and that’s where I began my political formation. If you were to ask me what party I want to belong to and what party I’d want to recover and renew, it would be the FSLN, the party where I was politically formed. I don’t believe the FSLN has to disappear. It’s a party with a great trajectory, a well-established party.” Another article claims Victor grew up hearing stories about the FSLN, and his father participated in the Sandinista Army, in fact was wounded in the war and retired from the institution in 1989.
Jeancarlo López, from the April 19 University Students Movement, also shares Cuadra’s Sandinista sympathies, which are the basis of many of his original ideals. But he stresses that they are those of “pure Sandinismo, not the Sandinismo Ortega promotes.”
“This government has died for me”
In 2011, 26-year-old feminist activist Dolly Mora and a transsexual friend founded the Group of Trans and Cultural Women (AMTC) and is the best known female face of the Nicaraguan University Students Alliance (AUN). She stated that she grew up in a Sandinista family. “My uncles were in the revolution and so were my grandparents, but Daniel Ortega has played with the memory of the revolution.”
Juanita Paz (a pseudonym), a León activist, also spoke about her Sandinista roots: “My family has always been Sandinista. They’re people who historically have been involved in the party and who, when everything started on April 18, when they saw everything they were doing, how they attacked those young activists, told me: ‘This government has died for me.’
“It was incredible. And I believe that was the push, the strength they gave me to be able to say: ‘Yes, we can do it, Nicaragua can change; people aren’t blind and we really are going to tell them what many organizations, many feminist women, many young people have been wanting to say for all these years.’ And people are seeing it and will go on seeing it, and this whole struggle will be stronger. I believe that’s what we’ve achieved, because we see so many people rising up and saying ‘I’m not in favor of this.’ That’s been incredible.”
“I grew up with stories
about the revolution”
Madelaine Caracas acknowledges her Sandinista roots even though her most intimate involvement in politics has been linked more to her participation in feminist and art groups—as a painter she has sought to “denounce violence towards women through art”: “My father was in the revolution. He was a guerrilla fighter. I grew up with those stories, but I also grew up having political debates with my parents. None of them remained active. Only my father stayed in some FSLN arenas.”
Valeska Valle’s parents weren’t Sandinista, but other relatives—her uncles and a brother—were. Their experiences in the FSLN had an influence on her.
Harley Morales mentioned Alfredo, another young activist, a member of Generational Dialogue: “He’s a kid who was from Ciudad Darío’s Sandinista Youth. He’s Sandinista and comes from a Sandinista family. He’s been in this insurrection from the start, from the time things blew up in the UNI right up to now. They’ve taken reprisals against him and his family for being involved.”
“I’ve liked all this stuff
about politics since I was little”
Of all the people I interviewed, the one who introduced himself as Carlos Herrera, in memory of a companion killed in the struggle, was the one most immersed in the Sandinista world, both through family tradition and directly.
His testimony shows how his spirit of rebellion, born out of that same revolutionary self-image and values, turned against Sandinismo: “My line was always political. I did a diploma course in political formation and citizenship. I also took a course in Marxist philosophy taught by a Cuban professor from the University of Havana.”
“I was a card-carrying part of the FSLN. My father was a guerrilla fighter and he fought in the war against the counterrevolutionaries during the 1980s. He and my mother were also involved in projects, in the literacy campaign.
“In the 1990s, the period I lived through, you know, you grew up with songs, with all those stories. I grew up in that environment and I liked it a lot. I was very interested in history. In high school I was part of the Sandinista Youth. The FSLN wasn’t in power, but we were organized in school. We would organize clean-up campaigns at school. I’ve liked all of this since I was little. I even read all of Fidel’s speeches because I liked to see how he structured them, then I’d do the same with mine.”
“I preferred to stay
outside of politics”
Rodrigo Espinoza, Edwin Carcache and Harley Morales are exceptions. Brenda Gutiérrez, Rodrigo’s mother, explained to me that their family had always been apolitical. Edwin had ethical reservations about politics, probably based on a religious discourse.
Before he was caught, Edwin Carcache spoke to me about how he resisted the Sandinista siren songs: “I’m 27 years old and have a 4-year-old baby. I graduated from the UCA, with a degree in social communication. Now I’m studying business administration.
“When I entered the 2008 class at the UCA, I remember it was election time and many of my classmates belonged to the Sandinista Youth’s communication network. All those kids we see today on state television channels were my classmates. Many times they tried to get me involved with the government, but I always rejected it. My thing was pastoral, in leadership programs.
“I didn’t think politics was serving the people. I always thought of myself as being of service, with a social approach to helping my neighbor through concrete actions. Many times these kids tried to get me into their ranks, but they didn’t succeed because I know what politics is about and I decided to stay with my line as a social communicator.
“During one’s student years, one thinks about ethics, about those aspects fundamental to one’s profession. That’s why I decided to stay outside of politics and not get wrapped up in a political party.”
“My son was always very
critical and I argued with him”
The electoral frauds and clientelism, strategies the FSLN decided to use to ensure its permanence in power were stoking unrest within its own base. The very mechanisms used to strengthen the FSLN’s control and seduce the masses have had a boomerang effect, eroding both its member and support bases.
Testimonies I gathered reveal the tension caused by a collision of values: loyalty to a party that still embodies for a segment of Nicaraguans the ideals of social equality and equal opportunities for workers and peasants vs. direct loyalty to those ideals without any institutional intermediation or interpretation.
Liliam Ruiz, Hansel Vásquez’s mother, talks about how he experienced that collision: “Hansel always perceived the FSLN’s corruption. And I would argue with him. ‘Oh mother,’ he’d say, ‘you have blinders on towards this government. Do you think Daniel provides those shoes, that backpack they hand out to kids at school? Daniel doesn’t give anything; it all comes from foreign cooperation. And they hand out the crumbs, because they keep the bulk of it for themselves.’ He’d say that when he was in the university.
“He always was very critical and he’d always let me know. On one occasion he got a job working with the FSLN at one of the electoral tables during elections. After he saw what was happening he said to me: ‘Like an idiot I worked for them and even got them a win at that table by doing what they said, because they didn’t really win it.’ That was during a municipal election. He did it out of economic need. ‘Look mom,’ he’d say, ‘I damn the moment I did that. Those sons of a so-and-so!’
“After that he developed a visceral hatred towards them. But because of our needs he had to go work for channel 8, swallowing a lot of things. That’s where he discovered even more.”
“Your President steals elections”
Valeska Valle narrates a similar experience about the electoral fraud as a starting point of her disillusion with unkept promises, clientelism and other manipulations, after she infiltrated a voting center to gather proof that would open the eyes of others.
“My family isn’t Sandinista. But I have uncles who are, and it’s due to them that I became critical because I saw how the FSLN was using them. When they were no longer useful for the regime, they were simply discarded. I remember that my brother participated in the 2006 elections. They promised him all kinds of things. He was studying in the National Engineering University (UNI) at the time. He entered the electoral network and did their dirty work and afterward they didn’t give him all those scholarships, all those opportunities they had told him about.
Back in high school, I was super critical and was the one who would stir things up in the classroom. I would explode when they talked about politics. The conformity of people who never said anything due to their precarious situation really irritated me, because I felt the regime was taking advantage of that ignorance. It would give them food provisions or a little house that wouldn’t even survive a hurricane or earthquake, and they were so grateful for it they put up with everything.
“In the university I infiltrated the system during my second year of studies because in one of the debates I started, one of my Sandinista friends said to me: ‘You can’t say Daniel Ortega steals the elections if you haven’t been there.’ So I said to myself, he’s right. The CPC [Council of Citizen’s Power] from our barrio had offered me a chance to work in the electoral network, but since I wasn’t interested, I’d turned it down. So one day I went to this CPC woman’s house and said: ‘I’ve thought it over, and I want in.’ I did all the paperwork, got my membership card and began faithfully attending the meetings. I started to see the grassroots work they were doing, and the brainwashing. I even became president of a voting table [each of which are defined as having no more than 400 voters]. Once there, they told me to write down that we were sent only 400 ballots, even if we received more. The rest were to play around with the votes. And the truth is they almost killed me that day because I refused to sign the names on that table’s list of other people who hadn’t come to vote.
“I had to fight with several of them. The vice president of the table, who lived close to my house, said I was distorting things and was infiltrated from another party. Obviously, what I did at our table wasn’t all that important, because if they did it at ours, they did it in all of them, because the people who were supposedly table monitors for other parties were in reality all their own people. When that ended, I went back to the classroom and told my friend: ‘Now I’ve seen it. Your President does steal the elections!’ He even stopped being a Sandinista. He felt betrayed. I don’t understand why, because he was even closer to all of this than I was. From then on I became even more critical.”
“The youth aren’t
tainted by any party”
The electoral frauds had their weight on the Sandinista segment, but they weren’t the only events that ignited discomfort. Illicit enrichment, clientelism, killings, blackmailing of government workers, annulling participation, blatant partisan favoritism by the State and the abuse of institutionality and human rights added to the accumulating disillusionment and confirmations that were increasing the discontent among Sandinistas as well as non-Sandinistas.
Liliam Ruiz spoke about the disappointments that were undermining Hansel Vásquez and his family’s loyalty to the FSLN, the same ones the opposition had been denouncing since the FSLN came into power. “The reality was that these men were sick with power. It was greed. Imagine how they were lining their pockets. And not satisfied with that, they want even more money, more power. They forgot that the people who put them there are the same ones now demanding that they leave. They’ve had enough. The people will remove them. They always proclaimed ‘the people president.’ But where then are the people presiding? The people president has decided it’s tired of so many deaths that have been discovered; for example, when they killed the children and their family in Esquipulas. What happened to all those people they’ve killed, the land they’ve taken? What happened with the fire in Indio-Maiz? The youth finally woke up to defend their nation. I always say: it was the youth who led us to stand up and accompany them in their struggle because this youth aren’t tainted by any party.
“It’s rare to find a young person who’s tainted. The only tainted youth now are the supporters of the FSLN, who in some way are also being deceived because they’re given perks, told they’ll be given scholarships, ‘we’re going to give you 300 córdobas, we are going to give you a bag of rice’… Because that happens: here you can’t work without political approval or aren’t the neighbor or a relative of the coordinator. And that’s if you’re lucky and they give you the job. I know this because it happened to me. I put in thousands of requests about 15 years ago to be able to work, back when I could work. And doors were closed on me everywhere. Once I went to the General Tax Directorate and took all my papers, documents that proved I was a Sandinista. You know what the director said to me? ‘Those could’ve been scanned.’ What humiliation! And if you don’t go to their marches you get fired. If you don’t go to their sit-ins, you get fired. That’s all manipulation and subjugation. People exploded with the accumulation of all of those things and Hansel was one of them. All those things had an influence, and people got tired of all the mistreatment. Here, changes were even made in the Constitution and the people had no participation; it was all done by the Assembly. Laws were passed and the people weren’t taken into account. They said we were being represented by the FSLN, that no other party could compete. The democracy they’d always proclaimed didn’t exist. What happened was that with a dumbed-down mind like ours, we saw such things as normal.”
Liliam Ruiz confirms another sign: “Another thing that characterizes the FSLN now, which it never had before, is its crassness. It’s one thing to support a party and it’s another to be nasty and rude. We have our blue and white marches and you don’t see vulgarity there. There you’ll find harmony, peace, unity, love… That’s the Nicaraguan people. They aren’t going to win anything by confronting us.”
and women’s rights
Other militants, such as Carlos Herrera, were more impacted by the party’s internal degradation: “I spent time around the older crowd. I didn’t share much with the Sandinista Youth. I always felt like it needed another kind of formation. I saw the FSLN turning into just a party of masses, with no political line. I saw that the kids had no political formation. There were virtually no cadre schools, which were essential to the FSLN before.
“That happened because when it came back into power, the FSLN’s hardcore vote was only 30-32%, and with that it campaigned to get back into power. It was no longer interested in political formation; it only wanted votes, to win over the people. That’s the reason for their populist charity projects in such an impoverished country. Giving handouts is how you attract a grassroots base of mostly poor behind you. I did see that there was some ongoing formation, but only for a very small group I was involved with. In the space I moved around in, the youth got political formation, we went to cadre schools and they would take us to camps. But, in general, when we went into the barrios, the youth would come around only because we’d hand out something like a tee-shirt or throw a party. I was loyal to the FSLN for several years, but I left it in 2013.”
Feminists whose main motivation to participate in the rebellion was the defense of women’s rights also expressed indignation about the electoral frauds, among them Juanita Paz, who had this to say: “I’m outraged by the violation of women’s and girls’ rights, but I’ve also been very aware of all the frauds they’ve pulled off, especially electoral. When I was very young I was close, and could see how they stole some elections, how they let a lot of people who weren’t actually voting mark ballots. Becoming aware of all this is what allowed me to figure out what position to take and what direction I wanted to go.”
“We’re seeking other
ways of doing politics”
Different organizing initiatives began to proliferate in this breeding ground of unrest. Many young people were formed and trained within such groups and were able to vent. They took their first steps in politics there then later got involved in the rebellion.
Harley Morales’ testimony helps us understand those politics, which weren’t visible when youth’s apathy was mentioned: “I’m an industrial engineer and sociology is my second major. When I studied engineering, I got involved in some organizations that became a kind of political school for me, since my family isn’t political and these organi¬zations had a very political tinge. We were doing politics in a different way, we’d always say.
“Those organizations showed me a path. First I got involved in Techo (roof). Then we tried to form something we called Student Advocacy Platform, an attempt to organize students in the UCA. But it didn’t last long. Around 2011 we wanted to dialogue with some movements such as Nicaragua 2.0 and the No Movement, which at that moment were at their peak. I later became involved in a project called Prendo, which was a popular education project in which we took up Paulo Freire’s philosophy to try to raise awareness in a rural community through literacy. That was in Santa Julia, in El Crucero. Interesting enough, the leader from that community had a seat on the government’s side at the National Dialogue table.
“That’s what got me involved in sociology, but I wasn’t in any organization while I was studying sociology. I began to relate to politics in a more contemplative way, like a sociologist who keeps his distance. I stopped being an activist and having a practical relationship with politics. However, the Center for Social Cultural Analysis at the UCA, where I was, had a radio program called De Kriterio, where we interviewed a bunch of people, including candidates for mayor of Managua. That politicized me.
“I always was critical of the government, but we looked for other ways of doing politics. For example, I never got involved in the Wednesday protests in front of the Supreme Electoral Council because we were disillusioned with institutional politics. We said political parties didn’t represent us and the whole political oligarchy was a corrupt political system. We believed we had to form or wait for the formation of a new youth that would confront all those political elite whose spearhead was the FSLN.”
“I felt we needed to
organize this discontent”
As Harley Morales described it, “That’s where we were when everything exploded and it caught us all off guard. The discontent was already being felt though, people in the classrooms were starting to speak out.
“On April 17, I published an article in Managua Furiosa called ‘Don’t go from struggle to struggle; come together,’ where I tried to say I was afraid the young people protesting Indio-Maiz would move on to protest the social security reforms and soon the other struggle would be forgotten. The protest had to organize in a way that defined itself within a larger, broader narrative, not just protest bad governmental management during the forest fire in Indio-Maiz, or social security reforms, or other ‘mistakes’…
“The struggle should be defined as one opposing an enemy and that enemy is the regime. I remember that the night of April 17 I began meeting with people who were leaders during the protest around Indio-Maiz. Then after the repression in Camino de Oriente on April 18, I began to contact other peopl and started forming groups. The first one was called Paro [Strike]. We’ve been considering a national strike since then.”
“I started contacting kids I knew from other platforms, like Generational Dialogue, a radio program for reflecting on historical memory. I wasn’t part of it, but they always invited us because we were like allies. We would invite them to De Kriterio and they would invite us to Dialogue.”
“We saw this generation
wanting to be part of something”
Karla Lara, a Communication Sciences professor, confirmed and tracked the evolution of this upheaval of political initiatives and adds others: “The moment I mark as the awakening, so to speak, also has to do with the amount of criticism that existed towards today’s generation; that began more or less around 2013 with #OcupaINSS [the occupation of the Social Security Institute (INSS) building by pensioners who weren’t receiving what they believed was due them by law]. Publications started coming out about the lost generation and all kinds of negative comments, which unfortunately came from journalists.
“Many criticized the students’ public passivity. Why do I call it public passivity? Because we inside the university had many projects showing that the students were concerned about felt issues that were having some influence on society.
“Those kids felt the awakening of #OcupaINSS. That movement came from them, not from us professors, although a group of professors helped them with communication and security. Later, in debates and academic activities we began to delve into the issue of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, the illegal cutting down of so many trees in it. Violence in the northern Caribbean Coast was also intensifying at that moment over land issues. The kids started getting more interested in very specific issues.
“Bosawás and social security were both issues that moved them. They were immersed in them and I think that’s where everything started, organizing as a movement by specific issues. We also began to see how much the students were interested in issues linked to politics in their final research projects.
“We went from one moment just monitoring the media’s yellow journalism to touching upon issues of gender equality, migration, violence, sexual abuse… These were issues the kids saw as going beyond the subject as such, which in this case was communication. We saw students taking steps and showing that they were in favor of a moment of reflection, of becoming interested in issues that had national repercussions and in the end are social benefits. It also helped the environment that we had several discussion groups with intellectuals; for example, with Oscar René Vargas. I took a class called ‘Inter¬disciplinary issues in communication.’ I remember us faculty members saying: ‘This generation has something special.’ One could feel a yearning in them to be part of something, participate in something, be in it. We noticed that and said it at the time.
“It’s a generation that demanded a lot of space in conferences, to be invited, for example, when they were speaking about communication and politics. And even though it was the law school’s event, they wanted to be in those spaces. There was a series of clues telling us that something was different here. Later we studied the Pope’s ‘Laudato Si’ and right then the Indio-Maiz forest fire happened. A time had come to take action around what we had been teaching, for knowledge to be translated into a concrete action, and they felt it was to go protest.”
“I’ve been organized
for 18 years in Matagalpa”
This same environment of a diversity of initiatives spread to the departments and proliferated in them thanks to civil society’s vigorous participation in local politics.
Alfredo Ocampo, a leader in Matagalpa, shared his experience: “I’ve been organized for about 18 years in social movements of youth, women, environmentalists and the LGBT community. I’ve been involved in communication during those years, because I’m a communicator and also a sociologist and I do research related to social issues. I’ve taken graduate courses linked to social approaches to democracy and equal rights for all of Nicaragua’s different populations. I got to this April thing way earlier. I contributed for several days in #OcupaINSS and when the fire started in Indio-Maiz, I began to move people in Matagalpa, to organize sit-ins on April 12. That’s how we began. When the earlier social security reform law was passed, I as a professional and a contributor to social security was outraged. I protested and haven’t stopped since.
“It moved me to realize there was a chronological history since this government came into power, of wanting to censor citizen participation spaces. It’s why they eliminated town hall meetings and other spaces in which the youth was involved at some point. I was part of the youth and children’s commission in Matagalpa during the neoliberal governments and during the first Sandinista municipal governments. But when the central Sandinista government came in, all those spaces were abolished. Since then the indignation has been permanent.”
“I’ve been an activist
in León for seven years”
Juanita Paz, very active in the April 19 Movement uprising in León, described her political participation: “I studied in the UNAN [Nicaraguan National Autonomous University]-Leon. I’m 28 years old and got my degree in 2011, but even before finishing I became an activist around young people’s rights. I’ve been an activist for seven years in different arenas, including with young people organizing and doing actions to strengthen different skills, be it in personal development or skills that help us take on something new. I’ve been more involved in spaces where the youth make decisions and we’ve started to improve our lives and become able to make something better for Nicaragua. We’ve worked in barrios and in the universities. We’ve tried to create a very broad public space.
“More recently my activism has been directed towards making more visible the Ortega-Murillo government’s human rights violations for so many years. I’m a feminist, a lesbian activist and I’ve obviously been abused constitutionally in different social arenas, not only governmental ones. That has motivated me to participate in organized groups. I’ve participated in many marches where we’ve been repressed: the March 8 one in 2018 and the November 25 ones [against violence toward women] in 2016 and 2017, all attacked by the anti-riot police.
“Knowing we’re up against a government that represses is nothing new to me. What’s new is this violence.”
An ebullient youth
As these anecdotes show, the April 2018 clap of thunder didn’t happen in a serene sky. There were multiple manifestations of discontent. The nature of these political activities is quite varied: promoting classroom discussions, inviting visiting speakers, infiltrating to investigate electoral frauds and gather convincing proof, broadcasting radio programs with interviews and political debates, conducting research with a political edge, becoming involved in feminist and LGBT groups and in community activism…
There were many dispersed forces in permanent ebullience. Ecological, gender equality, sexual diversity and machismo issues brought youth together to oppose the regime. As their proposals and protests mounted, the regime became more intolerant of them.
Indignation, powerlessness, sorrow, hope….
In all the stories, repression appears as an element that produced compassion and/or incited protest. In this regard, one could say that the repression was their motor force. Indignation is a fuel that dates many years back, according to Matagalpa activist Alfredo Ocampo: “Indignation has been permanent, but for me it became conclusive when they started attacking the elderly again in León and Managua. That pissed me off much more. But the last straw for me was when they killed the first students in UPOLI [the Polytechnic University in Managua]. I remember I was with some friends helping gather food and water to take to the people entrenched there. When we found out about those first deaths it was like saying ‘this is the drop that overflowed the glass; there’s no turning back now.’ And I haven’t stopped since then.”
Enrieth Martínez also highlights the emotional trigger: “It was the feeling of powerlessness. I think that even more than those events, which were very violent, was the thing about feeling attacked, vulnerable and powerless and at the same time feeling that anger, that rage.”
That was also the experience that drove Edwin Carcache, who is still in prison: “It was later, while at work, that I found out many people I knew in the UCA were getting beaten in the Camino de Oriente shopping center, the very first evening of the protests. I decided to leave work and go out to protest with them.”
Not only students but also many others resorted to that empathetic imagination that Susan Buck-Morss speculates could be “the best hope for humanity” and could help us “progress beyond the recurring cycle of victim and avenger.”
It is the sorrow and hope that Catalonian sociologist Manuel Castells pointed to as key elements of revolts. By sharing emotions, individuals form networks, join others on the same emotional frequency, independent of their personal points of view and organizational ties. They come together and help each other overcome fear and transform it into indignation. The sorrow—sometimes formulated as compassion—and hope that the situation can change are among the political emotions that moved so many young people in the April rebellion.
How the personal and
social explosion take shape
Despite his Sandinista militancy and his ideological distance from the opposition, Carlos Herrera began to have increasing doubts about what the party and government he supported were doing, but he wrestled with those doubts for quite a while. In the end he joined other rebels as did many of his neighbors in Diriamba when the police and paramilitary violence in that city filled them with sorrow and rage. They formed an ocean of people.
“I reached a point earlier on when I began to say to myself: ‘I don’t like what’s happening, how they have all the power,’ but I didn’t protest much back then, or go to marches against the government. At first I wasn’t even sure I opposed it. Also, I didn’t like demonstrating with people I didn’t like, political figures such as Eduardo Montealegre. As there was no other proposal, no figure who could effectively take the reins, I didn’t break away back then. But this this year my girlfriend said to me: ‘I’d like to go to one of those marches in Managua for Women’s Day on March 8.’ So we and a group of friends came to Managua that day.
“We were in the march when we came up against a super-big cordon of anti-riot police who prevented us from finishing the march. That cordon was three rows deep of anti-riot police with their shields, and behind them a line of patrol cars. I didn’t like that at all. What levels have we reached? I asked myself. The people I was marching with weren’t even aggressive. Then later I saw everything that happened with the Indio-Maiz fire.
“I believe the conditions had been taking shape for this to explode. But this year the marches were more frequent and the environment tenser. Then the thing with INSS happened. I saw in the news how they came and beat up reporters and the kids who were protesting there in Camino de Oriente on April 18. I saw kids I know who are students, and also saw kids who were active in political stuff, serious kids very interested in change. But then I saw some kids from a government institution where I worked, kids who were only there for political positions, because in reality they aren’t capable of doing the job they were hired to do. And they were the attackers. I knew about their violent attitude but when I saw them attack others I also know, it was very shocking.”
“When I saw what they
were doing, I just exploded”
Carlos Herrera continued watching the next day. “Then came April 19, and I saw one of the kids wounded. The police were shooting rubber bullets at them. I recognized one of the kids from my barrio, who’s studying veterinarian medicine. I saw right there on the news how he was hit. Then later I learned that they’d wounded the brother of one of my best friends, a kid I’ve known forever who’d just entered the university. That hit me hard, but I didn’t reach the full explosion point yet.
“I had a business in Diriamba in which I worked with the municipal government, the Police and the Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism, so I tried to stay on the sidelines, since I didn’t know where all this was heading. Then on April 21 there was a protest march in Diriamba that passed right in front of my business. I didn’t join it because I didn’t want them to retaliate against me, but since by then I knew how they operate, I had first aid kits all ready in bags and a couple of paramedic friends there in my business. I thought that could be my contribution, without getting involved. But then I saw a family, some older women who were passing the FSLN offices and saw some violent guys, super vulgar people, start yelling at them; they even smashed bottles at the feet of some young women. That shocked me. Then I saw some very well-mannered kids and saw how gangs started after them. They brought out mortars from the FSLN offices and started shooting at them. Those kids had no way of defending themselves.
“There were these guys shooting at them and the police in the mayor’s office did nothing. That was the moment I exploded: I went and put on a hoodie and a bandana over my face and made a Molotov bomb in the house. I went out with other friends to fight those guys in that unequal struggle because they were shooting mortars and even bullets. At the beginning the march had been small, but we saw how people kept on coming out of their houses and joining the march until there was a bunch of people.”
The repression in Tlatelolco
constructed that rebellion
The indignation emanated from the repression, just as it had during the revolt and repression that ended in Mexico’s 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. In the book of testimonies gathered by Elena Poniatowska titled The night of Tlatelolco, actress Margarita Isabel described how she joined the student movement because one day, with no warning, anti-riot police showed up at the School of Fine Arts with police dogs and chains and took everyone off to jail…. “I think the strength and the importance of the student movement came from its repression,” she said. “More than a political discourse, the repression politicized people and managed to get a majority involved actively in the assemblies.” Many people joined the students in a more serious way, not just going to rallies, linking arms and shouting slogans.
The repression forced them to make decisions and, in a way, built the rebellion, causing isolated and sometimes feeble protests to morph into a strong nationwide movement. Nonetheless, while that movement’s massiveness and importance emanated from the repression, it didn’t determine the form or the tools of the struggle. The repression was armed and cruel, while the rebellion predominantly remained nonviolent, just as it has in Nicaragua. Carolina Perez Cicero, a student from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, interviewed by Poniatowska, also believed the strength and importance of the Student Movement was a product of the repression.
The rupture came on April 13
If resistance to repression is one of the characteristics of social movements, it wasn’t a prevailing reaction during the decade of Ortega’s government. For defiance to grow, there also needs to be an event or events that lead people to break from the fear and hegemonic control that allow power to be based not only on coercion but also on authority.
Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek described this rupture in the shah’s Iran in these terms: “Ryszard Kapuciski, in Shah of Shahs, his account of the Khomeini revolution, located the precise moment of this rupture: at a Tehran crossroad, a single demonstrator refused to budge when a policeman shouted at him to move, and the embarrassed policeman withdrew. Within a couple of hours, all Tehran had heard about the incident, and although the street fighting carried on for weeks, everyone somehow knew it was all over.”
This rupture happened in Nicaragua on April 13, 2018, when a group of university students organized as #SOSIndioMaiz barged into a classroom in the Legal Sciences Department of the Central American University (UCA), considered partial to the regime in much the same way as UNAN’s Law School in León was in the 1960s and 70s.
Now they say “conservative, anti-cool.” Back then they would say as did Omar Cabezas, a student in those times, “it was where the most reactionary and obscurantist university professors took refuge. They taught through individualist study programs that defended Somoza’s political Constitution and justified his representative democracy, and instructed the students to respect the Civil Code above all.”
Youth’s first daring
defiance of authority
That day in April the students burst into the classroom of constitutional law professor Edwin Castro—also the Sandinista party’s legislative bench chief—to read a protest statement regarding the government’s negligent management of a forest fire in the Indio-Maiz nature reserve, where more than 5,000 hectares of forest had already been lost. It was also a reaction to legislator Castro’s statements the day before, when he accused them of being “computer environmentalists trying to profit from misfortune” for proposing the opening of a bank account to raise funds to finance activities to save the forest the government showed no signs of protecting.
Edwin Castro was the same man who in an interview with Mónica Baltodano recalled the rebellion against the first of the three Somozas with these words: “This passage of history really started in 1954, when the founder of the Somoza dictatorship, Anastasio Somoza García, expressed his intention to get reelected and started his political campaign. Faced with this situation, an anti-reelection committee was formed in the León university headed by Aquiles Centeno Perez, Tomás Borge Maríinez and Edwin Castro Rodríguez [this Edwin Castro’s father].” Sixty years after Edwin Castro Sr. started his subversive anti-reelection activities in the university, his son was heading the Sandinista bench in the National Assembly when it changed the Constitution to allow for Daniel Ortega’s indefinite reelection.
It’s impossible to weigh the subjective repercussions of the students’ daring defiance of barging into his classroom. Two of the videos on YouTube that document the act respectively tallied 17,127 and 6,259 visits. Beyond the quantitative values, the event should be valued for being the first in which a high official of the regime was publicly defied by students who didn’t hide their identity and justified their act through a pronouncement and other statements.
Four organizations are
born in several universities
Some of the youth involved in the April rebellion already belonged to either formal or informal organizations. However, those organizations, which ranged from being a small group that gathered around a radio program to more solid national women’s organizations, weren’t adequate for channeling the efforts and public promotion required by the April movement.
The youth replicated the formula that had previously been successful. #OcupaINSS in 2013 and later #SOSIndioMaiz in 2018 had assembled around very specific issues. In April they formed groups around events. In both cases the calls were based on a snowball effect generated through invitations to networks of friends in the social media.
The April 19 Student Movement and the April 19 University Students’ Movement were born as a single organization during the occupation of UPOLI. They later split while the youth were still entrenched in that university. There are different opinions about which was the original one and which came out of the split. According to spokespeople of the April 19 University Students’ Movement, the first meeting with the yet-to-be-formed movement took place on April 20, while occupying the National Engineering University (UNI).
The University Coordinator for Democracy and Justice was born out of an invitation to thematic work tables. When they were then invited to a televised interview, they decided to become an organization.
The Nicaraguan University Alliance (AUN) appeared on April 20, the result of a group of university students involved in occupying the Managua Cathedral that day.
Each of these four organizations included youth from different universities. Only the Committee of the Nacional Agrarian University (UNA), which arose out of the occupation of that university, is made up exclusively of youth from the UNA.
“We never imagined what
happened would happen”
Harley Morales shares a very detailed story about the leap from small group initiatives to the university coalition: “Organizations were emerging due to the centers of resistance and struggle. We at that moment were seeing three. First there were those from the university area [the Central American University and the UNI], who took refuge together in the nearby Cathedral on April 20. Shortly after that came the UPOLI students. Legitimacy, representation and leadership started emerging day by day as the result of certain events happening in the struggle. Some leaders were consecrated during the struggle, in the heat of combat, while those from the UNA held elections; they were very stand-up people who formed a National Agrarian University Committee.
“After the first repression at the Camino de Oriente, I started to contact people, to form groups. The first group was called Paro (Strike). I started contacting kids I knew from other platforms like Generational Dialogue. Those meetings began on April 19-20. The first one was with the Indio-Maiz group. Our fear was that, as a self-convened protest with many focal points, many different sit-ins, we were very dispersed and could break up, fade away. It was a fear we’d worried about for some time.
“We’d never imagined this was going to happen the way it did: that it would be such a big explosion and people would rise up the way they did. That’s when we began to share the idea that we had to raise the stakes. There already was an accumulation of demands and I felt the moment was right for our enemy to be clearly marked. I argued that we should establish a counter-position: us against a clearly defined them, which was the regime. But the kids just sat there, like saying ‘What are you talking about? Tomorrow we’re going to stage a sit-in; we should be discussing the logistics of it.’
“On the 20th we started meeting in the offices of a foundation. Among those in the meeting was one of the kids who had yelled at Edwin Castro. At that point we formed something we called Junta Confronting the National Crisis, borrowing a little from AMPRONAC [the Association of Women Confronting the National Problem, formed in the 1970s to work on the Somoza dictatorship’s human rights abuses]. In the statement we said a committee with sectoral representation was needed with participation from all sectors. We left the meeting on April 21 having decided to hold a press conference, which was very risky since many of the kids had participated in different struggles.
“At that point we realized eight other collectives were doing the same thing we were, so we met with them all. During that first attempt when I was there, there were kids from the UAM [American University], UNAN and the UCA. Joining together those eight collectives meant more people, a kind of coalition made up of more than just university students, and this became known as the Self-Convened People. At that moment we weren’t seeking to represent universities, because the issue of organizing as a university wasn’t there yet. The uprising was too recent.”
The first declaration
from the self-convened
“So we formed the Self-Convened People,” Harley Morales continued, “and put out our first declaration. We did it in Bahia del Contil, a barrio close to UPOLI. It was a press conference in a barrio. There were already barricades in the barrios by then and UPOLI itself was full of barricades. Dolly, who worked in the barrios, read the communique, in which we demanded basic things: an end to repression, freedom for political prisoners, a cessation of the reprisals against television stations…
“Then the thing about dialogue began and we started to link up with other movements. There was no clear leadership, no clear organization; instead there were several organizations, like what happened in the UNAN, where there was no one set organization but several, one at each gate. That’s where Valeska and Victor’s organization came from. And we began to meet with Victor, from the April 19 University Movement. Those with the most legitimacy were the ones from UPOLI, the April 19 Student Movement: Jeancarlo, Edwin Carcache… They were occupying their own campus. But not all were from UPOLI: Jeancarlo was from the UNAN.
“Those of us from the Self-Convened People were more in line with UPOLI because we felt it was the focal point of the resistance. The rural roadblocks weren’t up yet and Masaya was still calm. In less than a week the people felt UPOLI had become the symbolic bastion of the struggle. Those were the first moments.
“Later we began to join up with the Coalition. We were all fighting for legitimacy within the student movement: to be the legitimate representatives of such and such university campus. In UPOLI three groups were competing for leadership, but we were all clear that there were things that bound all of us together: justice for the killings and the demand for Ortega’s departure, which did and still do represent the cry of the people. Later, even before the coalition was formed, we started meeting with certain sectors—unions, NGOs, businesses—to find out what people were thinking, how they were reading what was happening. That was the hardest part.
Where discontent was brewing
These interviews show that the youth with the most active role in April’s movement had started to organize years before, some of them between 5 and 11 years earlier, mostly in ecological and feminist movements. Some had national influence while others were local, communal or municipal organizations or university groups.
This questions the thesis of political apathy, but doesn’t totally invalidate it considering the “unusual” interest in social issues professor Lara and her colleagues perceived in the generation responsible for the rebellion, which was evident in their research topics, organizing of debates and desire to participate in political conferences. The convergence of a general environment adverse to the Ortega regime—because of economic problems and its international image—with the youth’s interest in politics is the hinge where objective and subjective conditions join to produce the possibility of a university movement that defied the regime. The disruption of Edwin Castro’s class was one of the benchmrks of the breaking down of the FSLN’s authority.
The youth’s testimonies show that not only was discontent brewing, but so was a political life in the form of small groups for debates and radio programs. While those events had no projection on the most visible fields of the public sphere, they dwelled in the platforms that—valued in retrospect—served as incubators of the organizations that emerged during the rebellion. They weren’t large groups, but the youth interested in politics during the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship in the 1960s and 70s weren’t a majority either.
Why university students?
In the small sample of interviewees for this study and their references to other participants in the rebellion, one notices a strong presence of lower-class university students with the potential to move up the social ladder by having a university degree. The parents of several of those students hadn’t had access to higher education and were hoping for upward family mobility through their children’s insertion into the labor market as professionals.
In the microcosm observed when looking at the personal experiences of some of those involved in the revolt, a notable presence of disillusioned youth from Sandinista families is another of the first things perceived. Youth whose parents are or were Sandinistas and even those who were themselves militants in the FSLN or its Sandinista Youth predominated. The testimonies of some grassroots Sandinistas show a progressive disillusionment due to the clash with both the party’s original principles and the limitations—and decline—of the clientelist model, including job opportunities, on which the FSLN based its widespread growth.
Notwithstanding the increase in the number of workers in the FSLN government’s public sector, i.e. the provision of jobs (objective condition), it was below expectations (subjective condition). If we calculate that at least a third of those entering the economically active population between 2006 and 2015 had some kind of ties with the FSLN that justified their expectation of obtaining a job in the State—be it through their own party membership, that of relatives, or perhaps their voluntary work in a CPC or other types of services—it would mean around 140,000 people who saw their dreams frustrated and in a fair number of cases no retribution for their services. The State didn’t increase its staff at the same rate as the growth of the economically active population. The conflict emerged because the FSLN underpinned its legitimacy in part on State paternalism which encouraged such expectations then didn’t or couldn’t deliver.
That clash between the limits of employment growth in the public sector and the expectations mark a point where the objective and subjective conditions merged and become grounds for loss of loyalty and even a rebellion. We have, in the first place, dissatisfied Sandinistas because of unkept promises, which were not only programmatic offers launched to the public at large, but also particular offers of very specific benefits to collaborators.
The subjects most sensitive to this collision were the university students and professionals “newly entering” the labor market. The result was that the FSLN had already lost young grassroots militants during its time in power. In explaining that militancy is not an issue of the masses, Carlos Herrera made clear in our interview that for various reasons clientelism and hardcore membership aren’t compatible.
Disillusioned and rebellious
The young Sandinistas also expressed their repulsion of their own participation in the electoral frauds, which summarizes the hesitation towards collaborating with a regime that no longer represents—because it doesn’t practice—the original Sandinista values. Susan Buck-Morss wrote about how “political guilt has its own ambivalence, because refusing to do your socially prescribed duty in order to do right entails being a traitor to the collective that claims you (through nation or class, religion or race) and risking the loss of the collective’s protection as a consequence.”
This frequently happens in youth gangs and works as a cultural bond that’s very hard to dissolve. It also occurs with political parties or religious confessions, but above all with organizations that function as if they were both.
When subjects decide to break lose, they do so because they’re pushed by another feeling, another type of guilt, as Buck-Morss explains: “Such guilt has its source in the gap between reality and social fantasy, rather than between reality and individual fantasy.” It’s not an individual guilt, but a social guilt because its roots are sunk into the subject’s relationship with the political collective, “breaking the official silence that sanctions the wrong state of things.”
We can interpret the anti-FSLN conduct of disillusioned and rebellious Sandinistas based on this guilt she speaks of. It can also be associated with the anomie the US sociologist Robert K Merton spoke of when referring to the tension individuals experience when they find themselves exposed to the conflict between norms and social reality.
In the case of disillusioned Sandinistas, it’s the product of tension between the ideals the FSLN advocates and its actual practice. Faced with that tension, Sandinistas basically have three different reactions not unlike those of most people in a similar context: conformity, ritualism and innovation.
In the FSLN there are all three
Conformist Sandinistas are those who accept not only whatever means the FSLN proposes to achieve the values or goals it proclaims but also accepts the values or goals themselves at face value. No conflict exists between the two for them because they have convinced themselves—or been convinced—that the end justifies the means, and they question neither. They are the disciplined and unconditional militants who work convinced that what’s good for the FSLN is good for the country or at least for the poor. Fraud, for example, is legitimate because it’s the means to perpetuate the FSLN in power and thus allow it to continue implementing its social programs.
Ritualist Sandinistas are very similar, differing mainly in that they have lost sight of the values that originally inspired their ties to the FSLN so act merely by compulsion.
Innovator Sandinistas still embrace the values the FSLN proclaims, but use means to achieve them that provoke a rupture with the FSLN: i.e. the rebellion against the FSLN is the way to achieve the values of Sandinismo.
Until the “us against
them” factor is reached
Another hypothesis is that the current objective conditions were favorable enough that some Sandinistas found the divergence between ideas and practices even more evident and loathsome. That’s not to say that most elements of the protest come from disillusioned Sandinistas, but rather that the divergence has been a determining factor, without which it would be impossible to explain the revolt.
In any case, there’s no doubt that the increasing distance between practice and ideals is the main narrative that triggered the rupture between numerous Sandinistas and the FSLN. That rupture was a watershed moment in their lives and a condition that made it possible for them to participate in the April rebellion. Carlos Herrera exploded upon watching the violence, Hansel Vásquez’s participation in the electoral fraud disgusted him, and Lilliam Ruiz couldn’t avoid the contrast between the harmony in the blue and white marches and the vulgarity and violence of the Sandinista masses. Their testimonies are a sign of the historical division in the subjectivities of many individuals.
The leap to the coalition
In a context of objective conditions not very favorable for the regime and subjective conditions where the loss of authority has deepened, the repressive reaction to protests against the negligent management of the fire in the Indio-Maiz reserve and the social security reform had the effect of inciting the demands and granting conditions for a much more polarized narrative— an “us against them” one as Harley Morales defined it—that served as a unifying force. The moment that narrative spread, the student organizations started taking shape and later started joining the Coalition.
It was a leap bristling with obstacles—Harley Morales recalls it as being the hardest part—because it required moving from the comfortable networks constructed according to certain affinities to a very mixed plurality of self-convened youth.
Reason and emotions shook hands
That trajectory is incomplete if we don’t consider another condition that made possible the revolt, the organizing into groups and most importantly the possibility of defeating fear, which Castells defines as the most paralyzing factor in political initiatives. That condition was empathetic imagination.
All those interviewed cited emotional motivations to join the protest and all pointed to their own key moment: the beating of the elderly; the mistreatment of people, sometimes personally known people; someone’s death… The witnessing of several events of exceedingly unfair repression transformed the accumulated discomfort into profound indignation in very short order, and from there into an impulse for rebellion when it fed upon empathetic imagination.
While the revolt was led in part by disillusioned Sandinista-inspired youth, it was updated and made more complex by feminist, ecological and “other” struggles. That complexity reveals the failure of traditional Sandinismo to have assimilated those newer expressions of struggle as its own. The young rebels, in contrast, were comfortable with them, thanks again to empathetic imagination.
Possessing the empathetic imagination to be indignant at the repression, to knowingly face labor precariousness and to feel frustrated with one’s political and labor expectations serve as a good synthesis and a crucible in which the rebellion’s objective and subjective conditions are fused. A similar convergence was the rebellious spirit cocktail in Mexico in 1968. According to the late Mexican writer and political activist Carlos Monsivais, the first rebellion comes from polytechnics, the ability to combine rage with other elements in response to police arbitrariness, social resentment and the impulse of a marginalized citizenry that no longer wants be.
Beyond analysis and research, what we continue seeing in Nicaragua as this unforgettable year comes to an end is that reasons and emotions shook hands in the April insurrection.
José Luis Rocha is an associate researcher at the Institute for Research and Social Projection on Global and Territorial Dynamics of both the Rafael Landívar University of Guatemala and the José Simeón Cañas Central American University of El Salvador.