University students all over Nicaragua are fighting for the democratization of their country. Throughout the civic uprising, protesters have been threatened, tortured and killed by the Nicaraguan government. Luisa and Amanda experienced the conflict from two different perspectives. Luisa was an exchange student when the revolt started, whereas Amanda was taken into custody after participating in anti-government marches.
In April 2018, Nicaraguan students started organizing peaceful nationwide marches and sit-ins at universities. They were protesting the government, led by President Daniel Ortega and his party the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), as it did not react fast enough to a wildfire that destroyed parts of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Moreover, the government announced a social security reform that represented a threat to the population's social security. Consequently, people led by student groups took to the streets. On the 19th of April, protesters were killed and injured by police and pro-government paramilitaries such as the FSLN aligned official national university union. Already during the early beginnings of the conflicts, the official national university student union showed that it would not operate as a representative body for students´ rights. On the contrary, they went as far as attacking fellow resisting students as part of their pro-government engagement. They are directly associated with the Sandinista Youth, which in turn is aligned with Ortega´s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). When Ortega finally dismissed the social security reform, the revolting students of Nicaragua had already broadened their demands and wanted to see Ortega´s reign over the country come to an end.
I´ve been treated like a criminal for demanding justice and democracy.
The Sandinistas used to be very popular in Nicaragua. During the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 60s to 80s, they freed Nicaragua from the dictatorship of the then ruling Somoza family. Their goal was to establish a socialist oriented society, with Cuba as their role-model. One of their leading commanders was our culprit himself, Daniel Ortega.
After the events of the Nicaraguan Revolution, Ortega became president and his party, the FSLN was elected into office. They governed Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990 and regained power in the National Assembly after Ortega was reelected as president in 2006. After obtaining 'supermajority' in the National Assembly, FSLN changed the country´s constitution, so that Ortega was able to uphold his presidential office in a reelection 2016. In 2017, Ortega single-handedly appointed his wife, Rosario Murillo, as vice-president. A month after the public outrage in April 2018 at a 'peace' talk in Managua to put an end to the weeks of unrest and deadly repression, The Guardian reports that the mighty pair Ortega and Murillo were greeted by critics chanting “Asesino!” (“Killer!”)
When the protests started, Luisa (21) was in the middle of an exchange. “Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were my main sources of information”, she says. She found out about the unrest in her country through a live video on Facebook. Social media platforms were an important tool for protesters in Nicaragua to mobilize and inform the world about what was happening. Videos and other footage of repression against civilians by the Nicaraguan government went viral on Twitter under the hashtag #SOSNicaragua. Luisa knows that few of her fellow students were politically active before the conflict. She explains that “they were driven into political activism by the social injustice they saw happening around them.”
Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. Therefore, the government´s plan to cut social security was the last straw. On the 19th of April 2018, people gathered at the Xalteva Church for a peaceful protest. Civilians were beaten up and wounded by police, resulting into protesters burning the Sandinista flag on a main square in Granada as an act of rebellion. Among them was Amanda (22), a student and activist, who was captured by police when she was on her way to Managua to organize a national march in Granada. “It was a horrible experience. I was treated like a criminal for demanding justice and democracy”, she recalls. While in custody, Amanda and her fellow activists were forced to take off their clothes and do squats in front of police officers. Thanks to the support Amanda and her friends received from the population and church bishops, the police released them with a warning not to get involved with the anti-government movement again. After having fled to Managua, Amanda and her friends were pushed into exile to Costa Rica.
Students were driven into being politically active by the social injustice around them.
The Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy reveals that 137 students have died during the conflict. An Amnesty International Report of September states that at least 322 people have been killed (most of them by state-led activities) and 2,000 were injured.
Luisa did not return home after her exchange. “My friends warned me to never come back to Nicaragua again and to stay safe in Europe. The conflict has taken a toll on my friends. They became very depressed.” She returned home at last during the fall of 2018. “People can go outside relatively safe now but nothing is the same.” Ortega´s legitimacy has been challenged. The restraint of civilians, however, has not stopped. “Sometimes we are still restricted to go outside in the evenings due to curfews. The police are everywhere, controlling everyone.” The government makes 'terrorists', even 'US-led propaganda' responsible for the nation-wide conflicts. Hence, students in custody are facing charges of terrorism. Luisa isn´t spending too much time at her university, since students are still being persecuted by police. She´s taking online courses instead, to complete her studies.
Amanda has not returned home from her exile in Costa Rica. She demands the liberation of political prisoners. To establish this and to enable her return, she thinks the Ortega regime has to be gone. According to Luisa, international intervention is the only hope for Nicaragua. “We need the international community to force democratic and fair elections so Ortega and his party can be put out of power.”
We can show solidarity with the resisting Nicaraguan students, by trying to maintain contact with them and spreading their stories online. As students, we should defend the right to pursue education and the statement that no politician is allowed to take away our right to protest and to speak our minds. Whether you´re from Nicaragua or from Belgium, this is a students´ struggle.
Note by the author: The names in this article have been changed for the safety of my interviewees.