University struggles in Nicaragua (part 2) The April students: More challenges and new possibilities
April’s university students face
greater demands than those of the past.
They carry four hundred dead on their back
and are up against a dictatorship now proven
to be bloodier than that of the Somozas.
But they’ve proven they have courage.
Their instrument is the social networks,
which their predecessors didn’t have.
These networks expand and magnify
events and the horizon of possibilities.
Could they also accelerate the processes?
José Luis Rocha
British historian Christopher Hill firmly believed that “Hhstory has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change, the present does; each generation asks new questions of the past and finds new areas of sympathy as it relives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors.”
Leaving aside the third Somoza, who uniquely faced an experienced guerrilla organization and an armed insurrection, the past student rebellions against the first two—Anastasio Somoza García and his son Luis Somoza Debayle—could shed some light on today’s university students who, to a large extent, led the unarmed April revolt.
The premise of this review of history is that today’s university students are reliving some aspects of their predecessors’ experience and the similarities and differences could help us characterize what’s happening now.
The university wasn’t for studying
The birth of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) changed the course of university struggles in Nicaragua. Some of the youth in the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN) withdrew from it when it decided to struggle for representative democracy, and formed the FSLN over a gestation process that went on four years (1960-1964). The acronym didn’t appear until 1963.
The way the FSLN conceived the struggle impacted university organizing. Its members saw the university above all as a platform for social struggle. In fact, it was the platform from which the FSLN projected its work toward the barrios.
For the youth organized in the FSLN, the university wasn’t a study center, but a setting for agitation and protest. Omar Cabezas has written that the university was so identified with subversive outbreaks that the parents of youths going off to study in León would tell them not to get involved in politics because it was for adults, not immature kids without a penny to their name and would only lead to prison and cemeteries. The youths were particularly warned not to get involved with the Revolutionary Student Front (FER) or the University Centre for National Unity (CUUN) because “they sympathize with the Russians and Fidel Castro.”
The emerging FSLN created the FER in 1962 to work exclusively among university students, specifically in the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) and in the Central American University (UCA), founded only two years before. In 1963 the Christian Democratic Front (FDC) emerged, influenced by the Social Christian Party. In a weak attempt by Somocistas to recover ground on university campuses, the fleeting Liberal Students Youth (JEL) was created in 1960 and Liberal Students Front (FEL) five years later.
The FEL’s objective was to counteract the FER. It painted walls with writings that broadcasted their position and said a lot about the regime’s perspective on student organizations: “FER out! We want to study.” The FEL also organized Civic Committees of Liberal students in high schools, but it was all in vain. The youth was massively anti-Somocista. By 1969, FEL was nothing but an acronym.
The universities were
a trench for the struggle
Part of the FER membership wasn’t rebelling students, but rebels studying to improve their rebellion and recruit more adversaries of the regime. Omar Cabezas, for example, joined the FSLN before entering the university. Víctor Hugo Tinoco recalls learning very little about medicine because going to med school was just a cover. At the end of the day it was also a cover against repression.
Leonel Rugama also joined the FSLN before going into the university and only went to do his work as a revolutionary. He wrote to his father about his plan: “I must warn you that I’m registering in the university not with the purpose of achieving a profession, but to do this unity work with the students…” Rogelio Ramírez, who got a summer job in 1969 in the registration office of UNAN-León, received his high school degree dirty and wrinkled, and signed it as Francisco L. Rugama.
Some entered the university with organizational experience already acquired while in high school. Among many others, that was the case of FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca Amador, and of Antenor Rosales, who had been in the high school student movement since age 12, so brought years of experience to the university struggle.
were also recruited
Organizing work also included high schools, teacher training schools and business schools. It had to be that way to reach a wider audience than was possible through the universities. In 1958, when university autonomy was won, the National University only had about 1,000 students, 600 of whom came from outside of León. A decade later there were still only 5,000 students, whereas there were more than 20 thousand high school students. That’s why Fonseca also directed his message to those in middle-level studies.
Such trans-student organizing preceded the organizing in each university center. Hugo Mejía Briceño, CUUN president during 1968-1969, referred to the Ramírez Goyena National Institute as a seedbed that strengthened the FER in the universities, presumably because it contributed a good percentage of the high school graduates who later registered in the universities. This common root made work among former Goyena students possible in the different universities. Such previously organized students used the FER platform to take over the CUUN. Their main adversary was the Christian Democratic Front (FDC), which saw itself as competing against the “Marxist Left” for control of the student centers. The FDC controlled the CUUN from 1964 to 1968, precisely when Carlos Fonseca sent his message to reverse the correlation of forces in the FER’s favor.
A single anti-Somocista movement
with different approaches and methods
Both the FER and FDC were anti-Somoza and both included Christian students. Sometimes the division was marked largely by the careers they were studying, in that the Social Christians were predominately in the Economics department. However, what mainly distinguished them was their mind-frame: the FER was Marxist and the FDC was Social Christian. The FER emphasized class struggle and the FDC religious identity. Hugo Mejía sustains that the differences were their forms of struggle, with their agendas defined by their type of opposition. The Social Christians engaged only in declarative opposition, through speeches, while the FER demanded belligerence. To the degree that this was true, Fonseca’s message implied a condemnation of the FDC’s approach and methods.
Nonetheless, not even the most radical anti-Somocista groups ever totally identified with a project we would today call leftist. Tomás Borge started his struggle against the dictatorship from the Conservative ranks and when Rigoberto López Pérez executed Anastasio Somoza García he had ties with the Independent Liberal Party (PLI). Although several of the newly organized groups were moving towards a confluence between overthrowing the Somoza system and a transformation of the entire social economic order, a wide ideological spectrum remained.
Times of a multicolor
As the years passed and unrest with Somoza rule grew, other organizations started appearing: the University Students Struggle Committees (CLEU), linked to the Maoist-oriented Marxist Leninist Popular Action Movement (MAP-ML), the Nicaraguan Socialist Youth tied to the Democratic Student Union (UDE), and the Marxist-Leninist League. On the other side, the regime’s attempt to recover lost ground in the universities produced the Somocista Liberal Students’ Front, which later became the Revolutionary Nationalist Students’ Front (FERNA).
The organizational panorama increased still more when the FSLN split in the mid-1970s and two of its three currents presented their own candidates in the next CUUN elections. The break-up was considerable, extending all the way to the high school students’ organizations, giving the anti-Somoza movement a new array of colors. The tendency known as the Proletariats formed Revolutionary Workers’ Committees (COR) and the Prolonged Popular Struggle tendency created the Working People’s Trade Union Movement (MSPT).
The advantage of so many colors was that it increased the rebellious students’ possibility of getting support and collaboration from more professors than just those who supported the Sandinistas. The exception was the professors from the Law School, the Conservatives’ refuge. According to Omar Cabezas, himself a law student, the Law School was where the most reactionary and obscurantist university professors were. 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 else.
Having money meant
The FER had no easy task, as its presidential candidates couldn’t openly confess their membership in the FSLN. But Carlos Fonseca spurred them on.
The FER’s victory in the CUUN’s elections, according to Omar Cabezas, gave them a great push, as it granted them advantages to develop their political organizational work. The very fact that they were now entitled to the CUUN offices meant for starters that they had a place to meet that wasn’t their parents’ homes or rented student rooms. It also meant they had typewriters, photocopiers and mimeographs. And best yet, they had money. In other words, the FER’s control of the CUUN allowed them to use the university’s legal and public structures to do their work for the FSLN, FER and CUUN. Before then they had been paying FER’s expenses through weekly dues and it just too little.
Cabezas described how overjoyed they were when they received 200 córdobas. They bought ten spray-paint cams, with which they were able to make banners and posters and paint the walls of the university and others around the city.
Staying in power in the CUUN meant money for all of this. Having resources increased their work, their discussions and their influence. They made banners, posters, slogans and pamphlets until dawn. They would also hold rallies and take over university buildings. Cabezas recalled their feverish activity: “exploding rope-bombs, setting up speakers, sitting in the street in front of the university, speeches, songs, guitars, poems, dialogues with authorities, commissions for this and for that.”
The university students’
creativity and international work
They would take over the universities and also schools, churches and even the Cathedral to demand freedom for the political prisoners. They held protests to demand the bodies of their fellow protesters killed by the National Guard. If they didn’t get them, they would have symbolic funerals, which were subject to repression and would end in one or more additional deaths.
They were ingenious with their resources, entertaining or disconcerting people with, for example, a procession at 10 at night that culminated in the placing of 500 lit candles at the front door of the Law School’s dean, an extreme Catholic. They organized farcical carnivals where they would elect an “Ugly King” and ridicule Somoza and various state functionaries. Rolando Avendaña recalls that way back in 1958, a student named César Blandino ran as candidate for Ugly King using the name Nicolasa Primera to mock the infamous Nicolasa Sevilla,” who directed the Somoza “mobs.”
They held people’s trials in the barrios of León where residents would present their complaints about the public services. They used theater, trials and music strategically to reach a wide range of people, get them involved and inform them about the struggle. One of the first theater plays with itinerant presentations was titled “Attempted Murder,” and portrayed the truth the Somoza regime tried in vain to hide.
Gradually, university students began to venture into the international arena. Edgar Munguía traveled to New York in 1970 to represent the CUUN in the World Youth Congress, where he denounced the Somoza regime’s human rights violations. He went to Chile in 1973 and to Cuba later. His international trips were a point of dispute because some thought the most knowledgeable on the issues weren’t the ones traveling, but he had an impact.
This work also helped them get funding, which became the basis for the creation of a broader second-tier organization in the 1970s, the United Peoples’ Movement (MPU). This brought together different organizational forms, some linked to the FSLN, others to the Socialist Party and still others to then-independent grassroots organizations such as the Association of Women Concerned about the Nacional Crisis (AMPRONAC) and the National Educators’ Association of Nicaragua (ANDEN).
The power of public
speaking and music
The abundance of rallies required cultivating and mastering public speaking, an art in which the FER trained its members. Public speaking contests organized by schools generalized and institutionalized the appreciation for public speaking, but for the FER leaders it was a tool to convince and win over more supporters for the cause.
As they viewed it as an essential requirement, the leaders generally had good public speaking skills, but some were outstanding. The poet Fernando Gordillo, a Sandinista militant, won public speaking contests in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico. When Sergio Ramírez met him in April 1959, he was already the Central American public speaking champion.
There was space for women among the public speakers and outstanding ones included Brenda Ortega from the FDR and Michelle Najlis from the FER. They competed against each other during the 1966-1967 elections: Social Christian words against Marxist words. Hugo Mejía recalls Michelle Najlis favoring soapbox speeches. She would climb onto anything. Her leadership was based on her words.
They would also resort to what they called “words of the wind”: sung words. Carlos and Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy’s musical accompaniment of the university movement was very important. Hugo Mejía calls their music “a decisive factor because it would lift up spirits and had that human touch, that loving expression, I would call it, between the students and the revolutionaries and all the people.”
The mimeograph as a weapon
before the armed option
Hugo Mejía recalls also that back when he was a student in the Ramíirez Goyena Institute, Carlos Fonseca and other students published an ephemeral mimeographed bulletin called “Diriangén.”
When he became a university student in León, Fonseca was given the job of editor-in-chief of the University Center’s newspaper El Universitario (The University Student). According to Tomás Borge, Fonseca immediately started publishing terse denunciations, without metaphors: “250,000 school-age children without schools or teachers… only 5% taxes for the gold exported by the mining companies, and tax exceptions for them to purchase agricultural and mining machinery, automobiles, electric appliances, etc. Numbers: our country pays foreigners to exploit the subsoil so they can take the gold and leave us the cough.” Fonseca also participated in rallies and put out propaganda flyers. The mimeograph was the main weapon during the whole stage before they opted for armed confrontation with the National Guard.
UNAN had another student publication between 1960 and 1963 called Ventana (Window). It was a political and literary magazine, encouraged by UNAN’s rector, Mariano Fiallos and directed by Sergio Ramírez and Fernando Gordillo. In its 19 issues, university students Sergio Ramirez, Fernando Gordillo, Napoleín Chow, Octavio Robleto, Luis Rocha, Fanor Téllez and Alejandro Serrano Caldera all became known as writers. So did Michelle Najlis, who back then was still a high school student in La Asunción school.
According to Ramírez, “those of us working with Ventana demanded a social commitment as a writer, even though its pages were open to all kind of artistic expressions, without dogmatism, sectarianism or censorship. It was a political commitment we already had and took to the magazine as part of a whole that was expressed in our militancy for a cause we were mapping out then and would definitely be the FSLN’s cause. When Carlos Fonseca came to León clandestinely in 1962, half a dozen of us students met with him in Sergio and Octavio Martínez’s house. He mentioned Ventana and its importance as an instrument of combat.”
Formation was very
important to the FER
Once the FSLN was created, its leaders extolled the value of the written word and the media. In 1963 the FER founded the magazine El Estudiante and put Fernando Gordillo at the helm. He tended to call it his informative and agitation organism. Years later, he sent Leonel Rugama to the university to straighten out the magazine, which had fallen into a bit of neglect.
Carlos Fonseca proposed that they think about using strictly academic means, such as publishing pamphlets to deepen the study of national problems, debates and seminars about those same problems and the like. They did that, making the mimeograph roller spin. They studied The Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism by Marta Harnecker and went out to the barrios of Sutiava in León to teach the Communist Manifesto. Formation, especially in history and public speaking, were very important to the FER.
The armed university students…
The 1960s in León was a decade in which there were sporadic outbreaks of students setting “door bombs” to explode at the front doors of the homes of Somocista military officers and politicians. The next generation had a more warlike character because students who belonged to the FSLN, received military training.
Irving Larios explains that “we didn’t go out on the streets armed with homemade mortars, because we already knew the National Guard’s repressive characteristics. It would have annihilated us during the first march. But we did go to the barrio with student theater and flyers. We would mobilize the people, then they would light up their own bonfires. Those were the methods we used because creativity is in the methods of struggle.” Other student leaders of that time remember, however, that the student leaders frequently carried arms, including grenades.
The memories of Leonel Rugama’s friend, Oscar Gutiérrez, coincide with that vision. “I saw Leonel with a paper bag on his way to the Institute with the university students, to bring the students from Estelí for a symbolic funeral. A coffin had been acquired and was placed in the hall with the FSLN flag and the Nicaraguan flag. People would come and there were speakers… At about 7 or 8 at night, the people went out on the streets with the coffin. I heard the Guard shoot; they killed René Barrantes, his cousin, then a Molotov bomb exploded. Leonel had it in the paper bag all that time and he threw it at the Guard when they opened fire.”
On several occasions Sandinista members collected money from assaults they called “recoveries,” like the one they pulled off at the central offices of the Santa Cecilia liquor company, in which Leonel Rugama and Emmet Lang participated. The same two also assaulted the Boer Bank on January 10, 1970.
…and the repressive response
The Somoza family regime always responded to the university struggles with repression. When it would heat up in León, the city would end up in a de facto state of siege. Sometimes even a de jure stage of siege was declared, as in May 1959 after the anti-Somocista rebels flew in from Costa Rica and landed in Olama and Mollejones. Avendaña recalled that the state of siege instituted on July 1, 1959, meant “there could be a knock on the door of a house at any hour of the night.” Everyone knew that “anybody who disturbs the calm sleep of a home is unquestionably a group of Guards asking for the head of the family, checking all corners of the house and detaining the head of the family for any amount of time, be it a month, six months or even a year. Back then long-suffering Nicaragua resembled the times of Hitler’s Germany.”
In his biography of Mariano Fiallos, Sergio Ramírez recalls those times: “It would be hard to ever forget the faces of the dead, their brains strewn on the sidewalks, their blood running along the gutters, the moaning, the cries, the sirens wailing, the screams, the sordid sound of the cocking of rifles, the order to fire, the blinding and choking smoke of tear gas and the terrible rattle of machine guns which would assault us even during the night. Those were days of hearing the Guard patrol the sidewalks, the clicking of their hard boots against the cement, their rifle butts hitting against the ground, the murmuring, the compañeros being chased, the familiar sight of the prisons.”
Even before the student massacre of July 23, 1959, buses going to León were checked at the start of the university courses. Avendaña remembers how “that morning in June 1958 the bus was starting its run between the capital and the northwest cities and stopped at the police post to ‘check in,’ as was ots custom. Immediately two police boarded the vehicle and meticulously checked all the cargo being transported. They asked the vehicle driver for the list of passengers who were traveling, reviewing every name, one by one….”
Repression focused on the student leaders, using infiltrators and informers. In 1958 Luis Somoza publicly acknowledged having registered secret agents as university students. Popular shock forces were common. Nicolasa Sevilla headed up the Somocista Popular Fronts and became famous for dissolving opposition protests or attempts to take over buildings. No less famous were their attacks on the media: Radio Mundial and Radio Deportes were their victims in 1958. The National Guard insisted they didn’t know Nicolasa Sevilla, which is why the Conservative Youth, in its weekly publication
Movimiento (Movement) offered 5,000 cordobas to anyone who had information on her whereabouts.
Repression was constant and fear permanent, according to the memoirs of Irving Dávila, who was also a student leader during the 1970s. “I recall that I couldn’t go to parties because each time we’d come back at midnight we’d would be terrified when we’d see a vehicle behind us, because if it was the Guard, they’d surely pick us up.” The life of organized students was completely disrupted. Víctor Hugo Tinoco recollects how he no longer lived in a house, and couldn’t go to his family’s house. He basically lived in the university, and when he’d leave, nobody knew where he was heading. The repression created full-time insurgent students.
Today’s context is different
Without doubt, individuals place a certain bias on history by deciding the direction of key events. But the context in which individuals operate explains a lot. We can’t explain the acceptance of Luther’s doctrines without opposing them to the pecuniary exaction of Rome or of Hitler’s influence without the deeply rooted and widespread anti-Semitism within the German people, to mention some aspects of two concrete contexts. The contrast between the context of yesterday and today can give us some answers.
The context of Nicaragua’s old and new student struggles is markedly contrasting. When Carlos Fonseca Amador directed a message to students in April 1968, exactly half a century ago, to encourage them to take on belligerent protests that were not limited to just proclamations, he attributed the students’ inertia to the capitalist penetration of the universities.
yesterday and today
That penetration has deepened in 2018. In Nicaragua there is a market in which not only 2 but now more than 50 universities compete, some crazily trying to become internationally accredited, self-graduating semi-illiterate doctors so they can increase their points in the multinationals’ “academic accountability” scales.
Quality is recorded in the number of graduate students, doctors, rules, bureaucratic procedures, publications…. An environment that previously wasn’t sellable has now become a commodity. As a paradoxical counterpart, students are receiving titles whose face value doesn’t correspond to their real value because they are exchanged for ever less pay in the labor market. University bureaucracy is also commercialized and its “products” are poorly received in the market. The universities’ bureaucratic paraphernalia is connected to the market while their degrees are more and more disconnected.
Students are playing this game, like it or not, understand it or not. Nobody is questioning the rules of the game. No group of today’s insurrecting University Coalition has put out a statement on this issue. Their struggle has a general and immediate objective: to put an end to the dictatorship.
In this narrow but urgent horizon, the first anti-Somoza university students of the 1940s and early 1950s coincide in their focus to stop the reelection of the first Somoza. They, as now, had an absolute majority. But as Marxist study groups and liberation theology groups were created, the university students intensified their ambition, opting for a struggle against the capitalist system.
Today, without weapons
and without a utopia
Another point of contrast is that the anti-Somoza students of the 1950s and even the 1960s and 1970s could point towards a tangible horizon, be it the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and/or revolutionary Cuba. However flawed, their utopia had concreteness; it existed. It wasn’t utopian. Today’s university students must invent a utopia based on defective and limited concreteness: feminist and ecological laws born in Europe, liberal political theories, the visions and missions of the NGO world…
Alternatively they have to be content with aspiring to a representative democracy, an objective that may seem modest to their predecessors but unfortunately isn’t so in the current context. There’s no ideological north to set out for, leaving the struggle reduced to a short-term immediacy. Or for some the desired aim is still the imperialist North in its different variations and academic, legislative, civil society ramifications, including military.
Repression then and now
These university students, orphans of broader utopias, have had to face not an armed State such as Somoza’s, a National Guard that even though it was the family’s loyal army, was for all that a professional army. Instead, they’re facing a mafia State, which has had to fall back on discarded and forgotten old militants with military experience, gathering them from the sewers of history, hooding them and giving them assault weapons and a license to kill.
The result leaps to sight. There was a sort of containment in the National Guard; not all excesses against peaceful protests were allowed. Today’s students have had to face a bloodbath that perplexes the most experienced analysts.
In his memorable message of April 1968, Carlos Fonseca counted the students killed in a decade of struggle: it totaled 23, including those killed in the traumatic massacre of July 1959, whose sixtieth anniversary will be celebrated next year.
The afternoon of July 23, 1959, a National Guard squad shot at a university student protest in León killing four students, a woman and a little girl. The reporters of that time referred to it as a “mass killing.” In the April 2018 revolt, 18 were killed on Mother’s day alone. The Nicaraguan Pro Human Rights Association has registered 485 killed, most of them by paramilitary groups and the National Police. How could these massacres be classified? “Mass killing” seems an insufficient label. This is the contrast between before and now that we can’t pass over. The simplest explanation is that Ortega is more criminal than Somoza.
Intervention then and now:
Unilateral vs. multilateral
Curiously, today’s context seemed an appropriate one for supranational institutions—whose interventionist power is held in high esteem in this era of legal and judicial globalization—to serve as a force of containment. However, the officials of bodies such as the OAS and the UN virtually saw bodies fall at their feet and couldn’t stop the series of massacres underway. The speed with which the news spread should have worked in favor of a speedy intervention by international organizations. But it didn’t.
And it’s not because both Somoza and Ortega opted to spread another version of the facts. As if to agree with those who shout “Ortega and Somoza are the same thing,” Ortega resorted to the same accusations as the three Somozas: “I’m a victim of terrorism,” a story that only the most asinine Left would swallow. It’s because international organizations work with the same parsimony of the pre-information era, while criminals work with less containment and scruples and more speed.
Containment vs. excesses
The numerous killings of journalists and ecologists in neighboring Honduras shows us we’re not facing isolated cases of a lack of contention and of a hope of maintaining form. Honduras’ crimes have happened little by little, whereas in Nicaragua there was a succession of massacres. Why? Other explanations for Ortega’s excess and Somoza’s containment find support by paying attention to the internal context.
I propose three explanations without assuming they’re the only ones.
First: the FSLN as a church-party. The university students who confronted the Somoza dictatorship weren’t up against a character or a party that arouses such veneration. In the FSLN, membership is a cult and its supporters sacrifice their own capacity to think at its altar. The less scrupulous members of the FSLN have known how to exploit this moral capital. The confessional nature of the FSLN convinces the High Priest and his Priestess that they are right and allows them to act as judges and issue sentences.
OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro fell under that religious spell on his visit to Nicaragua in December 2016, when he might have saved many lives had he initiated a sustained pressure to achieve electoral reforms. It wasn’t the OAS that got Roberto Rivas out of the Supreme Electoral Council’s presidency, it was the US Treasury Department through the Global Magnitsky Act. Almagro remained under the spell during the first weeks of protest.
Second: The numbers behind the panic. There’s a fear of large numbers that we shouldn’t underestimate. Panic produces drastic reactions. In 1950 there were only 494 university students, a very select group within a population of 160,658 young people between the ages of 18 and 25. Five years later that group of university students had nearly doubled to 840. Even so, they continued to be rare birds among the universe of 174,487 young people of those ages, with only 1 of every 200 of them in the university.
In contrast, 2014 had 123, 220 university students and 1,283,174 young people between the ages of 15 and 24, the age range used in today’s official statistics: close to 20 university students for every 200 young people of those ages.
The struggle against Somoza required the cooperation of high school students to come close to significant numbers of people. In the April 2018 revolt, a very small percentage of university students willing to risk their lives, with support from other actors, were able to turn a small country like Nicaragua upside-down.
The numerical relationships also favored the university students facing the “forces of law and order.” In 1956, the year of Anastasio Somoza García’s execution and three years before the July 1959 massacre, there were 970 students, but the National Guard registered 4,391 members that year, a ratio of 4.5 Guardsmen to every student and 349 for every 100,000 people.
Today, six decades later, there are 242 police for every 100,000 people, according to the annual National Police report for 2016. Only if we add the number of soldiers in the Army do we get a ratio of coercive forces of 454 for every 100,000 people, superior to what the first two Somoza’s had. However, the ratio of university students per police/soldier is inverted; 4.4 students to 1. This relative weight surely causes panic in the Ortega government and contributed to the decision to arm the paramilitaries so heavily.
Third: The social media surmount time-space limitations. The social media act as magnifiers of events, allies and contenders. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other chat media, not to mention thousands of blogs are much faster, more massive and cheaper than the mimeographed flyers and pamphlets handed out by the university students who battled Somoza.
Not only that, but their images and words are indestructible. They reach a wider audience and are less repressible than the speeches of leaders standing on soapboxes. Today’s university students have also been resorting to those means, but they don’t have to limit themselves, because the social media and their networks permit the surmounting of space-time limitations. Flyers can be confiscated and burned and mimeographs destroyed. The government can’t destroy WhatsApp accounts and their messages cross cities, countries and continents before get to the hands of Ortega’s sinister police.
The presidential couple certainly observed from their bunker in El Carmen the capacity of this new media to convene mass protests. The fact that the Vice President refers to the “self-convened” as “minuscule, scanty, handfuls, remnants and small souls” is symptomatic of her panic about the size of the popular response. The word “minuscule” appears in five of the first nine paragraphs of her April 19 speech.
This magnification of the rebellious outbreaks in the social networks fueled the terror of the powerful, inciting in them a fear of being mowed down by a mass whose dimensions could be measured on the streets. Their reaction was proportional to the panic experienced. And everything that provoked their terror was thus redefined as terrorist.
Challenges for April’s university students
Today’s university students, albeit more in number, also face greater demands than their predecessors. They carry four hundred dead on their backs, having stood up to a dictatorship that has shown itself to be bloodier than the Somozas’ and is now hunting down, persecuting and punishing them. Responding to this tough ordeal is both testing and attesting to their commitment and creativity.
They have shown their courage. Although there’s no such thing as technological determinism, the social media continue to be their tool, one their predecessors didn’t have, and are expanding the horizon of their possibilities. We know the social media are magnifiers of events. Now we need to see if they are also accelerants of processes.
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.