April 2018: An insurrection of the nation’s consciousness
Nicaragua hadn’t been front-page news in the international media for almost three decades. In April when the bloodshed began in Managua and later in the rest of the country, we returned to the headlines for several days running. The size and consequences of the flare-up surprised the whole country, including even the young people who started it. The Ortega-Murillo regime was the most surprised, which may have been why it decided to repress with all it had. Whatever the reason, its mask fell in April, revealing its criminal face.
A decade of accumulated grievances
The disproportionate response by pro-government thugs followed by the shocking repression by anti-riot police against the youth and elderly citizens protesting social security reforms in different parts of Managua on April 18, and the brutal escalation of repression in the days to follow made the volcano erupt.
The accumulated indignation of ordinary people in the face of everyday humiliations, disrespect, arbitrariness, corruption and inequalities, not to mention crimes in rural areas that went unpunished, was what finally enflamed minds and hearts. The insulting arrogance of power, each day more absolute and suffocating, spread the indignation at the speed of social networks. The flare-up revealed not just how fed up people were with the status quo but also the taking up of the baton by a new generation.
University students in the
front line of the protest
The first protests against the INSS measures actually began the evening of Tuesday, April 17, only four days after the protests about the Indio-Maiz fire ended, when students from the Central American University (UCA) and the Nicaraguan Army-owned American University (UAM) gathered in front of the UCA gates. They were met by members of the Sandinista Youth (JS), who taunted them and threw rocks, damaging the university’s brand new gates.
The next morning a small group of pensioners protested the social security reforms and called attention to the misuse of INSS funds by holding their demonstration at a building constructed with questionable funds from that institute. At five in the afternoon of the same day a larger group of students and pensioners gathered at a center-city mall called Camino de Oriente in Managua. In no time at all, Sandinista Youth and motorcycle thugs showed up, carrying metal tubes and clubs. In addition to beating both young and old protestors, they stole cameras from independent journalists, by then also on the scene.
It was seemingly all over within the hour. More students had responded to the #SOSINSS sent out on the social networks and were joined by pedestrians and others in the mall, reportedly outnumbering the roughly 150 attackers by nearly 2 to 1. But at 6 pm some 200 anti-riot police showed up in full gear. According to journalists of the daily e-bulletin Confidencial, they mainly intimidated the protestors, who then retreated toward a more upscale shopping mall called Galerías some blocks south along the main highway. But the guards there closed the gates to the fleeing protestors. The JS-shirted youths rejoined the fray, again using their clubs and tubes with impunity. After an hour the demonstrators had been dispersed, but not before many rocks had been thrown, and dozens of protestors and both national and international journalists had been clubbed and robbed.
The government was confident that this method of violence, now a tradition, would quell the protests. This time, however, independent radio stations and TV channels had documented the repression in real time, as had cell phone cameras, which nowadays turn any citizen into a reporter. The next afternoon, more and more students hit the streets of both the capital and other parts of the country. In Leon, Sandinista Youth members beat an elderly protester, leading youths to pour into the streets; several were wounded.
In Managua, the young protestors defied compact rows of anti-riot police as social networks sent out shocking images of their courage. That night the first youth, Richard Pavón was killed. He was from the neighborhood housing the Polytechnic University (UPOLI), which in a few days would turn into a bastion of the youth’s insurrection.
By April 20th all the public universities in the country, previously dominated by the National Union of Students in Nicaragua (UNEN), an arm of the governing party, had awakened. It was a university rebellion. That day, a well-aimed bullet to the neck killed 15-year-old high school student Alvaro Conrado as he carried water to students protesting on the grounds of the Managua Cathedral. His premature death, his last words (“It hurts to breathe”) and the pureness of his action quickly made him one of the most powerful symbols of the April insurrection.
A whole country in rebellion
April 20 was also the day the first of Rosario Murillo’s 140 “trees of life” crashed to the ground after many young people patiently spent hours going after it with a handsaw. She had “planted” the 14-ton iron structures, which reportedly cost $25,000 each, all over Managua. Several more of these structures, seen as a symbol of power and the squandering of resources would be felled between then and August.
People from the barrios of Managua and other municipalities began joining the angry youths that day, sparking spontaneous protest marches and rallies all over the country. The next day, as the streets continued to fill with protestors and the toll of dead and wounded mounted, the first street barricades were built in the its historically combative (and also historically pro-FSLN) indigenous barrio of Monimbó in Masaya, emblem of the anti-Somoza struggle.
It no longer felt like it was about social security reforms. Ten years of university autonomy denied, municipal autonomy denied, democracy denied and human rights—especially civil and political rights—abused were suddenly enough. The country was in rebellion. The government’s response to this unexpected and spontaneous insurrection was as inept as it was cruel, proper of State terrorism policies. The deaths and damage the government ordered those first days only made things worse.
Surprised by the unexpected messages he was getting from all over the country, including from his own party’s base, Ortega announced on April 22 that INSS was revoking the social security reforms, even though they had already been published in the official daily, La Gaceta. But it was too little, too late; the protests continued in a series of increasingly sizable marches. Ortega asked the bishops to serve as mediators in a dialogue between the government and COSEP to negotiate another way to save social security’s insolvency, but that also was too little, too late. A good part of the business class had changed its perception of the value of working with the government.
The first huge march in Managua was on April 23, convened by COSEP as a “Walk for peace and dialogue.” While COSEP originally defined it as a business march, it overflowed the 8-kilometer route from the city center to UPOLI with people from all social classes, self-convened through the social networks. The majority dressed in white, while many others wore black in mourning for what were by then over 30 dead, most of them students; countless numbers carried the blue and white Nicaraguan flag. From that day on the nation’s flag became the emblem of the civic resistance. Two generations of Managuans had never seen such a huge, fully civic and peaceful demonstration of force. One of the most oft-repeated slogans was “They weren’t delinquents; they were students!” It was the challenge of parents to Ortega’s dismissive claim that they’re “just gangs killing each other.”
Similar marches were held in other cities as well, including Bluefields, where the journalist Ángel Gahona had been gunned down during a protest there two days earlier.
Vice President Rosario Murillo’s epithet against the protestors (“toxic little souls full of hate, vampires thirsty for blood, minuscule groups”), intoned in her chillingly incongruous soft voice, only stoked people’s indignation still more. The rapidly unfolding events and the viral cell phone photos of the heavily armed anti-riot police shattered the image the government and the business elite had been selling for the past decade that “Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America.”
After the march, aware of its responsibility in the crisis, the business sector requested that the dialogue have a broad agenda and that the students be present. The “national” dialogue the bishops had asked for with no response in 2014 now appeared as a possible way out of the crisis.
The bishops’ mega-march
The next day the bishops agreed to “mediate and be witness to” the dialogue, expressing publicly their awareness of the risks and difficulties: “The dialogue in Nicaragua is a risk because our country isn’t used to dialoguing and because a part of society has been silenced and had its fundamental human rights repressed. We bishops have accepted this risk in the name of Jesus Christ and of the people. If we do not run that risk, horizons of violence and chaos will open.”
The bishops then called for a “Pilgrimage for Peace” for Saturday, April 28. Again, the participation was massive and included people of all social classes and ages, some Catholic and some not. For the first time since the protests began, people came to Managua in buses and trucks from Masaya and Carazo, both of them parishes of the Managua archdiocese. Parallel pilgrimages were also held in different departmental capitals; the one in Matagalpa reportedly the largest with an estimated 50,000 people.
The huge protests nationwide within a few days of each other demanded two things: justice for all the deaths, and change in the country’s government. “They must go!” A clear line had been drawn dividing the Nicaragua before April and the Nicaragua after; nothing would be the same as before.
Nicaragua now put in the same
sack with Cuba and Venezuela
On April 24, the White House press secretary for the first time issued a brief statement that began with this sentence: “The repugnant political violence by police and pro-government thugs against the people of Nicaragua, particularly university students, has shocked the democratic international community.”
Then on May 2, US Vice President Mike Pence referred to Nicaragua’s crisis in his speech at the swearing-in ceremony for Carlos Trujillo as the new US ambassador to the OAS with the following words: “In recent weeks, the government of Nicaragua has brutally repressed its own people for raising their voices in peaceful protest.” He added that “in Cuba, the Castro name may be fading, but its legacy of tyranny lives on,” and warned that the United States “still has much work to do” in both those countries and in Venezuela.
It was the first time the White House had put Nicaragua in the same sack as Venezuela and Cuba. From then on our country would always be mentioned in that trio.
May 1: Murillo wants the
genie back in the bottle
Only days after the second mega-march, May 1, International Worker’s Day was upon us. As in other years, the Ortega government called for the traditional workers’ march for April 30 so workers could enjoy their holiday the next day. To ensure the attendance of state employees, government offices closed early that day, and the employees knew their jobs were on the line if they didn’t show up.
This time Vice President Murillo “invited” those employees as well as genuine governing party sympathizers and Sandinista Youth members to express “the love and affection we have for our indisputable leader... The Comandante President has to feel accompanied by a sea of people and thus give a resounding reverse to the political-religious march of the Church-Right.” As always, the collective buses that normally transport the public both within Managua and between cities were diverted to collect local public employees and party sympathizers in neighborhoods and rural districts all over the country. But unlike always, social network reports claimed they had never carried fewer people.
Ortega’s speech to the crowd was brief and provocative. He assumed no responsibility for what had happened and let it be understood that he had no intention of ceding anything.
Leaving the stage where she had accompanied Ortega as always, Murillo made this statement to the pro-government media waiting for her: “What we want is for the country to take up again the good path it was on until a few days ago.” It was an impossible wish. The country had made a seemingly irreversible turnabout.
“It surprised us all”
The business elite realized the Ortega-Murillo government could no longer guarantee economic and social stability for their investments. The anti-democratic government model those same business leaders had given too little importance to when the country was “stable”—at least for them and their businesses—was in shreds.
Bayardo Arce, a comandante and member of the FSLN National Directorate throughout its existence, was he first top government official to break ranks with the style consolidated by over a decade of Ortega-Murillo rule in which only they made public statements. In an interview with the Miami-based Telemundo network, he recognized that the government’s announced social security reforms had been “a mistake.” Given that Arce is Ortega’s top economic adviser, his remark suggests he hadn’t been taken into account
Asked whether the students’ reaction had surprised the government, Arce, once a journalist himself, said, “Of course it did. It surprised us all. I think it surprised the business people, the unions, everyone, because it came from a sector that’s not directly linked to the social security problem. The university students were the ones protesting, but they aren’t yet employed, don’t yet pay into social security and aren’t yet pensioners.”
Jacinto Suárez, the governing party’s international relations secretary, member of its legislative bench and prison-mate of Ortega in the seventies, also made an unusual admission those days. Interviewed by ACAN-EFE, Suárez said, “We Sandinistas are going to have to do a critical assessment and find where we went wrong.”
Months later, Luis Carrion, another of the nine comandantes in the FSLN National Directorate during the eighties, said: “Nobody was prepared. Not the government nor private business, nor the opposition. Nobody thought this civic revolution was going to take place so spontaneously and so suddenly. In Daniel Ortega’s speeches up until April 18 we were all living in Wonderland. And all of the sudden, mysteriously, a ‘terrorist, coup-mongering force’ arose from nowhere and ruined everything. In his speeches after April, Ortega has revealed that he doesn’t understand the nature of the problem. He’s not interested in understanding it, because the only thing that matters to Daniel is to stay in power.”
“A Venezuela-style conspiracy”
All those comments demonstrated how much the spontaneous crisis caught everyone off base and how inept the government’s repressive response was. As Arce himself said, “It often happens in these social phenomena that a moment comes in which you lose control. The Police itself lost control and the news helped make that happen.”
The surprise admitted by Arce and Suárez, both members of the core of power, was evidence that nobody had organized or planned the April events either within Nicaragua or from abroad. If there was knowledge of such a plot, they would surely have been among those who knew about it.
Nevertheless, the discourse from that core of power quickly transmuted into a charge of outside interference and aggression... Jacinto Suárez himself changed tack only days after his first remark, in response to a BBC reporter, who asked him to explain how it had all happened. In lockstep with Ortega’s line, he said “we’re looking at a conspiracy sponsored and financed by the government of the United States. We aren’t seeing ghosts or inventing anything. It’s the same style as Venezuela: tumults by vandals, demonstrations, a lot of deaths.” In an effort to square this with his earlier statement to ACAN-EFE, he added that “it obviously had an effect on us because we weren’t prepared. To be sincere, they surprised us. But now we know the score. We’re more alert to understand this phenomenon and figure out how to get control of it.”
Soon it was clear that the government’s game plan was nothing more than unlimited repression; it would “get control” by increasing the violence to inconceivable levels.
The only ones who bought the government’s parallel reality line were those in the nostalgic international “Left in solidarity” with a Nicaragua that no longer exists. Frozen in time and prone to make interpretations through simple and obsolete schemes about almost everything that’s happening in the world, they seemingly underestimated and undervalued the people of this small and insignificant country. They were quick to buy the “imperialist” conspiracy explanation then and still believe it today, despite everything that has happened both before and since.
The fatal bottom line:
“They were executed”
As of April 19 the regime consistently responded to what were almost exclusively peaceful protests with disproportionate violence, using snipers and anti-riot forces armed with lethal weapons. Since the first young person killed on April 19 through July, there were shooting every day. And not a day has gone by right up to the end of the year without one form or another of unscrupulous repression.
On May 4 the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) released its first summary report of what it called “systematic violations of the human rights of Nicaraguans by the dictatorial regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.” With respect to the violation of the right to life, the report said “the violence exercised by the Police and government shock forces, incomparable in Nicaragua’s recent history, has resulted in the violent death of at least 45 people during the legitimate exercise of a social protest. Of them, 4 were under 18 years old, 24 were young students, 18 were civilians with different occupational profiles who were supporting the student protest, 2 were police agents and 1 was a journalist covering the acts of violence in Bluefields.”
The report specified that “all deaths occurred in the context of repression and state violence. The majority of the victims were hit by a bullet to the head, neck, chest or abdomen, so we can state that they were executed, with the authorities and shock forces enjoying a clear advantage with respect to the means available to the demonstrators. This shows that the order was to kill.”
What will the OAS do?
The question about the role the OAS would take in response to the Nicaraguan crisis was one of the first to come up in the international sphere. Given the complacency with which Secretary General Luis Almagro had treated Ortega when he sent him a questioning private report just before the 2016 presidential elections, he needed reminding of how much things had changed in Nicaragua since then.
Cristiana Chamorro, who now directs the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation founded by her mother after her 1990-1997 presidential term, took on that task. She paid Almagro a visit in Washington on May 4 to ask him to stand with the demands for justice in the April massacre. She pressed him about the regional organization’s silence thus far regarding the crisis: “We don’t want more deaths; what’s the OAS going to do?” She pointed out that it had suffered a loss of credibility among Nicaraguans and that the memorandum of understanding Almagro signed with Ortega in February 2017 was now “outdated.”
Chamorro outlined for Almagro the two basic options that exist in Nicaragua today. Either hold free and transparent elections that permit a peaceful transition, as Ortega agreed to under duress in the Esquipulas peace talks in 1989, or the choice Somoza made in 1978: a bloody and destructive defense of his rule against a population that had had enough and suddenly saw light at the end of the tunnel. “Regrettably,” concluded Chamorro, “Ortega seems to have chosen the latter.”
Eight months later, those two options still hang in the balance.
A first assessment
of the April flare-up
Thanks to the courage and decisiveness of our country’s millennial youths, a consensus exists among most Nicaraguans that justice must be done for so many deaths by sanctioning those responsible. Many also believe the moment has come to democratize the country, and that this opportunity must not be lost.
In barely a week, starting on April 18, the Ortega-Murillo government saw its alliance with the business elite morph into opposition and its own political forces lose their monopoly of the streets. The shocking events of that week were an irreversible disgrace to many good people who up to that point still believed in that government. The remaining supporters of the governing couple became an increasingly smaller social minority, while polls in the coming months would show that the majority of the population considered Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo to have lost all moral authority to continue exercising power. This consensus remains alive eight months later.