A regime shooting at a civic revolution
The insurrection of civic consciousness that exploded in April was still very much alive in May.
Many people in many municipalities continued protesting in the streets with their blue and white flag, something never seen before. Whether in street mobilizations, the roadblocks that had gone up in major highways around the country as a weapon of civil disobedience to force the government to negotiate, behind the barricades erected to protect people from the police and paramilitaries, or in the brief attempt at a national dialogue, everyone was demanding the same thing: justice and democracy. Internationally, above all in the OAS, awareness was growing of what had happened, what was happening then and what could happen if the crisis in Nicaragua dragged out.
A largely unarmed
and civic revolution…
Nicaragua was experiencing an “unarmed revolution,” as Bishop Mata referred to it at the inauguration of the national dialogue on May 16. The importance of keeping the protests peaceful was reiterated again and again by both the newly emerging student leaders and those appointed to represent the different sectors of the opposition in the national dialogue. It was largely embraced without debate by most of the population old enough to remember the loss of tens of thousands of lives in the last years of the armed insurrection that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship followed almost immediately by the decade-long US-financed war against the Sandinista government in which tens of thousands more Nicaraguans died. It was also largely accepted by the young university students who wanted a new Nicaragua and on whom the vastly superior fire power and experience of the Ortega-Murillo regime was not lost.
This conviction that the solution must be peaceful, using nonviolent mechanisms, that another war must be avoided, has been maintained for these eight months through the end of this historical 2018 and is one of the big achievements of the April outburst.
That being said, however, the sight of repeated huge outpourings of peaceful demonstrators even after the willingness of heavily armed troops to shoot to kill had been demonstrated baffled a country whose entire history was made up of resolving political disputes through the barrel of a gun. It was perhaps even more baffling abroad, but in that case because it followed a silence of more than a decade in which little or nothing was known about the Ortega-Murillo regime’s excesses.
Some who should have known better didn’t want to know about them because they were locked into nostalgia for the revolutionary past. Others, such as the Nicaraguan business elite and the US government, tolerated them, considering Ortega to be less problematic governing “from above” than “from below” because his intimidating but seldom previously violent authoritarian rule guaranteed stability in a very violent region. After all, even the country’s general population seemed to be taking it in stride, both because the largely self-interested and discredited political parties offered no alternatives and because the generous solidarity from Venezuela had, prior to its own crisis, permitted years of significant handouts to the poor in exchange for their loyalty to the government, and held out the hope to others of receiving some themselves if they kept their discontent under wraps.
…with inevitable exceptions
Within a situation of such inequality and the regime’s immediate violent response to the protests, it was impossible to expect the protests to remain unfailingly within the borders of pure civility. Many Nicaraguans were grappling with the frustration of seeing the armed overthrow of one dictatorship nearly 40 years ago replaced by a dictatorship made up of the very leaders of that once hopeful event. They were also grappling with the recent frustration of four consecutive electoral frauds organized by Ortega that had closed the doors on any possibility of change through voting. It created a sense of déjà vu among those who remembered that the very same impossibility had led the then-youthful FSLN to decide Somoza could not be brought down by peaceful means.
It was inevitable that armed individuals would start appearing alongside the civic insurrection, though always a small minority. It was also inevitable that there would be episodes of legitimate self-defense and even acts of revenge, just as there were after the war of the 1980s. Also laced into the mix were self-serving poor youths motivated not by civic consciousness but by money-making opportunities who set up their own roadblocks and charged people to pass them. And of course there was also the to-be-expected quota of dutiful pro-government provocateurs at the roadblocks and among the peaceful demonstrators.
The bishops force Ortega
to allow the IACHR’s entry
On April 26, once the numbers killed by police sharp-shooters had made the international news headlines, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an autonomous OAS body, began urgently requesting the government’s permission to come to Nicaragua to investigate those crimes.
The government refused all three of its requests and on May 6 the National Assembly instead announced the creation of its own “truth commission.” Ortega apparently thought it would be an acceptable alternative to the IACHR, but who could possibly expect justice from a commission endorsed by a parliament utterly controlled by Ortega and whose five “notables” were ideologically and economically linked to the government?
The bishops certainly didn’t buy it, and on May 10 they conditioned the start of the dialogue on the government permitting the IACHR’s entry “in the shortest possible time.” Ortega had to agree because he still wanted international public opinion to believe he was truly willing to dialogue. With that, the national dialogue was finally inaugurated on May 16, nearly a month after the first fatal shootings, and the 15-member IACHR delegation led by Antonia Urrejola, the IACHR rapporteur for Nicaragua, and assisted by her executive secretary, Paulo Abrão, arrived the very next day.
In their four days in the country investigating what had happened in April and the first half of May in four selected cities (Managua, León, Masaya and Matagalpa), the commission members heard denunciations by more than 3,000 people, including testimonies from relatives of those killed and accounts of people who had been wounded, detained, tortured and threatened. They were also given hundreds of video clips, tapes and other material evidence.
A strong and thorough report
The IACHR report showed that the Nicaraguan State responded disproportionately to April’s civic protests, using National Police anti-riot agents, the governing party’s shock forces and other “armed third parties,” the latter starting to be called para-police in May when they were seen working together with the police during repressive operations.
As of its departure on May 21, the IACHR listed the tragic bottom line of the criminal display of force that triggered the crisis at 76 dead, 808 wounded and 438 detained, figures that continued to rise daily after the IACHR left. “We found a very serious human rights situation in Nicaragua, and left the country very concerned,” said IACHR Executive Director Abrão back in Washington. He pointedly told the international media that “the region is not yet sufficiently attentive to what is happening in Nicaragua.”
The IACHR has not stopped issuing communiques from Washington condemning the violence. It was precisely the presentation of its report to the OAS Permanent Council on June 5 that opened the regional organization’s eyes to the Nicaraguan reality.
The Ortega government, which over the years had committed equally serious human rights violations including documented extrajudicial executions, especially in rural zones, had never before found itself confronted with such crushing evidence of the criminal nature of its social control.
University students had taken over UPOLI and UNAN Managua in late April, and remained entrenched there as a method of struggle, defense and resistance. Another method was roadblocks, which peasants linked to the anti-canal struggle since 2013 began to put up in different parts of the country in support of the civic struggle’s goals. The first ones appeared in Chontales and soon spread to the whole country. Placed at the borders and at strategic turnoffs between one city and another or at the entrance to cities, they affected economic activity, which put pressure on the government. They also guaranteed citizen mobilization in all territories but kept the government’s repressive forces from moving around freely. The huge march in León on May 19 was possible because of the roadblocks defending that city.
On May 12, police attacked Masaya and its indigenous barrio, Monimbó. As part of their self-defense, residents quickly raised hundreds of barricades all over the city to defend the barrios. The police headquarters ended up trapped between a number of barricades, preventing the police from operating out of it until mid-July. With Masaya as the model, the roadblocks on the main arteries were soon matched by barricades at the entry to smaller towns and urban barrios everywhere. Aware that without them both the massive and selective repression would increase, a number of local residents took turns defending them day and night, while others provided food and drink. These constantly defended makeshift structures galled the regime as they not only expressed the protests’ national dimension, but were also a palpable demonstration that the government had lost control of the territory.
Elimination of the roadblocks and barricades would become the government’s sine qua non demand when the national dialogue began on May 16. Once the dialogue reached an impasse over that very issue, tearing them down became the main objective of the official repression in July, followed by ridding the universities of the entrenched students, both “at whatever cost.”
69% say the governing
couple should resign
The day before the dialogue started, the CID Gallup polling firm presented the results of a national survey of a 1,200-person sample conducted between May 5 and 14. Of those consulted, 69% said they would like Ortega and Murillo to resign from government, with 30% of that number identifying as Sandinistas. Even more (78%) said the country is on a “bad path,” a view held by only 35% in a January poll by the same firm.
Such a drastic change from the previous poll in such a short period plus the massive numbers of people in the streets braving the government’s repression explain a common protest slogan: “Daniel lost the people and the people lost their fear.”
“We’re here only to
negotiate your departure!”
The bishops announced in their first communique regarding the upcoming national dialogue that it would take place in the national seminary; in other words, their court, with the bishops acting as mediators and witnesses. On one side of the large quadrangle of tables sat the government’s delegation and opposite them sat the delegation that called itself the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy (three representatives each of students, peasants, private business, civil society members and the Caribbean Coast, selected by the bishops). Acting as mediators and witnesses, the bishops sat on the third side.
Hours before the inaugural session began, Vice President Murillo announced that she and Ortega would personally attend this “historic event.” Accompanied by three of their children, the couple arrived punctually at the seminary surrounded on all sides and above by an excessive security detail. Their armored Mercedes Benz, driven by Ortega himself, was preceded by 14 police motorcycles, 3 pick-ups with at least 8 heavily armed police in each and two closed vehicles. Following it were 6 more police motorcycles, another 2 pick-ups with at least 8 police each and two microbuses full of armed police. and finally an ambulance. Two Army helicopters flew overhead and along their route through the city, while 6 police stood guard at every traffic light. As they turned into the road leading to the seminary, a group of women shouted “Murderers! Murderers!” at them. It was not a great image for the self-proclaimed “People President.”
It was announced that the session, broadcast live via a TV and radio hookup and attended by the entire diplomatic corps accredited in Nicaragua, would follow a pre-determined protocol: the singing of the national anthem, an invocation to God by one of the bishops, a brief speech by Ortega, a prayer for the victims of the violence, and the singing of the Salve. At the conclusion, Ortega and Murillo would leave first with their entourage.
Before Ortega could speak, however, a communications major from the UCA named Lesther Alemán stood up. With no microphone, but with a resonating voice that held the country spellbound, this 20-year-old young man, wearing a blue and white kerchief around his neck, directly addressed the President: “Why am I hijacking your turn? Because the dead, the wounded, the disappeared have come from our side! We have agreed to be at this table to demand that you order an immediate stop to the repression by your troops, paramilitary forces and thugs! This is not a dialogue table, it is a table to negotiate your departure, and you know it very well because it is the people who have requested it! In one month you have torn the country apart; it took Somoza years to do the same, and you know it very well! Surrender before the entire population!”
It was a moment that will remain in our collective memory for a long time.
“A disappointing speech” by Ortega
Daniel Ortega, his face frozen in impassivity, had never heard anything like it before. In his 11 years in government this time around, he had never appeared in a press conference, never condescended to grant an interview to the national press, and never had to answer questions because he shielded himself from having to listen to any.
In his speech he said nothing that could be even loosely interpreted as an apology for the deaths he was responsible for, or even any admission of what had happened to so alienate the population. To the contrary, he referred to the 50,000 dead in Nicaragua’s 1980s war and the thousands of Palestinians wounded in Gaza in those same days, as if those numbers would diminish the importance of the Nicaraguan students killed now. He expressed concern about the “irrational violence, the diabolical violence that has exploded in our country” as if he had nothing to do with it.
Lesther Alemán’s words encouraged other participants to break with the stipulated script as well, including Bishop Abelardo Mata who made a remark about an “unarmed revolution,” not army vs. army, as if to remind the President who has the weapons. Former Education Minister Carlos Tünnermann from the Civic Alliance side of the table told Ortega how “disappointing” his speech had been by refusing to accept the new reality the country is demonstrating. And, after having listened to Ortega disparage those who had put up roadblocks on the highways, anti-canal movement peasant leader Medardo Mairena stood up to clarify the President’s misconception: “I want you to know, Mr. President, that we peasants have united to back the students. We are the only ones at those roadblocks. We, who have never been listened to, are the ones who are there.”
In response to a throw-away offer by Ortega to look into the deaths of the students if they would send him the names, a student named Madeleine Caracas stood up and began slowly reading a list of each student killed in April and where it happened. After each name, the students chorused “Presente!” while the presidential couple maintained their emotionless expressions.
“A criminal conspiracy”?
After that unexpected inauguration, the dialogue held three working sessions. The first, on Friday May 18, exactly a month after the first protest and its repression, was not broadcast live. This time the government delegation. headed by Foreign Minister Denis Moncada, showed up two hours late and minus the presidential couple.
After nine hours, the only agreement reached at that session was for a two-day weekend “truce” in which the government would not exercise more repression and the Civic Alliance would urge the people at the roadblocks to be more flexible in letting vehicles through. But the repression continued and so did the roadblocks.
Ortega-supporting mayors organized acts to provoke chaos in several municipalities. Attempted or consummated arson, looting, property destruction and generalized chaos became increasingly frequent day and night throughout the country. Most of the population accused the governing party mayors and other government authorities of paying gang members or individual youths, or sending in their own Sandinista Youth members to implement the destruction, while the official and pro-government media uniformly blamed “rightwing groups of vandals.” Vice President Murillo took it a step further, in her own inimitable style: “A plague has been devastating the country for exactly a month,” while Ortega later added that “the devil is showing its claws.”
A few days after that, the government informed the national and international community in an official note that the actions were the product of “opposition political groups with specific political agendas, activating criminal formats to terrorize families.” It also specified that the violence is part of a “criminal conspiracy aimed at turning the country over to organized crime.” At that time, the government still hadn’t mentioned its “coup d’état” thesis.
Where were all those
rightwing vandals before?
That “interpretation” of everything that was happening, tirelessly repeated by the government media, was shocking. How come Nicaragua was “Central America’s safest country” before April 18, with an “exemplary” police force guaranteeing that security? How could so many groups of “vandals with rightwing intentions” and the capacity to function so actively all around the country have suddenly sprung up from nowhere, unperceived by the government’s highly skilled and experienced intelligence forces?
Where had they all been hiding? And why would they think they could convince the hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans who were risking their lives in massive nonviolent demonstrations against the “Christian, socialist and solidary” government to support vandalism?
Moreover, how could the National Police, once the most prestigious in the region, be so inefficient that it hadn’t detained a single vandal committing those misdeeds? From the start, faithful visual documentation through social networks showed that the “vandalism” was organized by the regime itself. Months later it would be confirmed through testimonies of reporters who had left the government media that the ransacking had all been planned “at the top.”
A schooling in dialogue
The second dialogue session on May 21 was again broadcast live, and was shorter than the previous one. It was an unprecedented exercise of citizenship by the Civic Alliance. Following it on TV, radio or social networks was a learning experience for a county so unaccustomed to debate and give-and-take negotiations. It was also unprecedented in the past 11 years to watch government officials called to account and see how ill equipped they were to respond. We were able to witness, live, their paucity of arguments and lack of decision-making power, as they constantly consulted the presidential office by cell phone on what to say, what to object to, what to propose…
The IACHR released its report in Managua while that session was still taking place. With surprisingly little foot-dragging the government agreed to comply with its 15 recommendations, thus creating the appearance of an enormous breakthrough in the thorny issue of justice, the dialogue’s second agenda item. But consistent with the government’s repeated trick of signing with no intention of complying, the para-police groups described in the report continued repressing the population that very same day, without a breather. In the government’s own social networks, threats, disparagement, calumnies and criminalizing continued to mount up against businesspeople and students participating in the dialogue, and also against the bishops, particularly Monsignor Silvio Báez, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Managua, thus mocking the IACHR’s tenth recommendation: “Exhort the state authorities to refrain from making public declarations that stigmatize demonstrators, human rights defenders and journalists or from using the state media to conduct public campaigns that could encourage violence against individuals for reasons of their opinions. In addition, effectively protect defenders and journalists at risk.”
The Alliance’s roadmap
At the end of the third session two days later, also broadcast live, the bishops suspended the dialogue after the two sides were unable to resolve an impasse. The bishops and the Civic Alliance had put all their energy into making headway on the democracy issue, the agenda’s first point. To that end, the bishops presented for the day’s discussion a short document prepared by the Civic Alliance titled “Roadmap to Democratization.” It was extensive and all-encompassing, including a calendar, for a total restructuring of the State. The Civic Alliance’s aim with something so holistic was to test the government’s willingness to discuss its first point, the issue of partially reforming the Constitution, a fundamental step required to bring forward the presidential, legislative, municipal and Caribbean Coast autonomous government elections in the “greatest possible brevity.”
Foreign Minister Moncada, still heading the government delegation, retorted that what he had just heard Bishop Álvarez read was not a roadmap for democratization but “a roadmap for a coup d’état to overthrow the government.” With that, Bishop Báez, who took umbrage at such a “grave accusation,” set him straight on the difference between a coup d’état and what was happening now: a political crisis the bishops were attempting to solve “in line with the Inter-American Democratic Charter and the Constitution of Nicaragua.”
From that tense moment on through the rest of the day, all government representatives in lockstep demonstrated their delegation’s refusal to address the democratization issue. Each time any of them spoke, it was only to insist that the roadblocks had to come down before they would discuss anything. At the time, 70% of the country’s main arteries were blocked by paving stones, rocks, tree trunks, cinder-blocks and whatever else people could find, including a metal bunk bed frame, allowing only ambulances and vehicles transporting sick people through. The Civic Alliance delegates countered that they were not a top-down structure and did not have the power to tell the people who had erected the roadblocks that they would have to be dismantled. They also reminded the government delegation that this was a peaceful civic rebellion in which the roadblocks were a legitimate form of civil disobedience, and the only weapon of pressure the people had.
“An attack on one is an attack on all”
In its three sessions the dialogue had made no advance, and was now at an impasse. After conferring with each other, the bishops suspended the dialogue with the recommendation that each side delegate three people to sit down with each other and see if they could reach some compromise. Ortega and Murillo, believing they had the Episcopal Conference “under control,” hadn’t expected the bishops to mediate the dialogue with such a firm but fair hand.
On May 22, the day after the dialogue was suspended (and has yet to be reconvened), the Episcopal Conference issued a communique denouncing threats aimed at the straight-speaking Bishop Báez by government sympathizers, presumably for having contradicted Moncada on his definition of a coup. The text described the people of Nicaragua as “going through one of the worst crises in its history, following the crude repression by the government of Nicaragua, which is trying to evade its responsibility as the principal actor of the various aggressions.”
The Conference warned that “despite these threats, we remind our aggressors that we are a collegiate body so that an attack on one bishop or priest is an attack on our Church, and at this decisive hour we will not abandon the task of accompanying the entire Nicaraguan people, who under the blue and white of our national flag have taken to the streets to demand their just right”
seeks “another” dialogue
By that time, the civic insurrection had already shown the regime that it had lost both the streets and its big business allies. But the national dialogue demonstrated that it had also exhausted the tolerance of the Catholic hierarchy and many parish priests around the country. They had sided with the people.
With that, Murillo circulated an internal document titled “Our political panorama.” Among other things it said that on May 22 “the Episcopal Conference in an official communique has said that the opinion of one is the opinion of all, making Silvio Báez’s call to war their own.”
Murillo’s text proposed to organize an alternative national dialogue with pro-government unions, sell-out political parties and other sectors under its control, and with new mediators. Although that plan was stillborn, it was evidence of yet another desperate attempt to fast-backward to Murillo’s pre-April fiction.
On May 26, thousands of Catholics mobilized to support the bishops. Those at the front of the march carried a banner that said: “We want genuine justice. We support the CEN [the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua] and especially Monsignor Silvio José Báez.”
A few days later, the government’s vindictive retaliation against the Catholic Church for its independence was expressed in a circular asking FSLN sympathizers not to attend Sunday Mass or other Catholic rites. It was an open declaration of war against the Church, which has only been increasing ever since, with Baez the main focus of the attacks and threats.
AI Report: “Shoot to kill”
On May 28, Managua lived hours of terror when heavily armed anti-riot troops showed up in front of the Engineering University (UNI), taken over by students earlier that morning. There along that heavily transited area, across the street from the UCA and only a couple of blocks from the Metrocentro shopping mall, troops opened fire, wounding dozens and arresting others, some because they supported the university students, but the majority because they simply were out on the street at lunch hour. In the chaos, some supporters of the student movement set fire to the front of Radio Ya, a major FSLN radio station just around the corner from the UNI.
The message that day seems to have been to terrorize the capital’s residents, who were preparing for a huge march announced for May 30, which is Mother’s Day in Nicaragua.
Erika Guevara-Rojas, Amnesty International’s director for the Americas, had just arrived with a delegation planning to present the report of AI’s May 4-13 fact-finding visit to Managua, Ciudad Sandino, León and Estelí. The report presented the next day was titled “Shoot to Kill.”
It states that the “alarming number of deaths and people injured indicates that the government used disproportionate, excessive and sometimes unnecessary force in responding to the protests, allowing demonstrators to be deliberately attacked.” Of the eight concrete cases it investigated in detail, “people were shot in the head, neck or upper chest. In at least four cases, the trajectory of the bullets was downward, suggesting that they were fired by snipers or people shooting from a vantage point high up. (...) These elements, taken together with the use of pro-government armed groups, would seem to indicate that the aim was to implement a policy of repression using lethal force; that is, …not only to control those who were protesting, but rather to deprive political opponents and demonstrators, or those who were perceived as such, of life.”
Pilar Sanmartín, a regional AI investigator for crisis situations, listed in an interview with national newspaper reporters the three problems detected with the Nicaraguan authorities: “They are not taking responsibility for what is happening, are not accepting the facts, and are not investigating as they should do.” She added that “we didn’t expect to come up against this, with the authorities denying the deaths, minimizing what’s happening, criminalizing the protest and stigmatizing the demonstrators. But through that discourse we can see that they do know what’s happening. The problem is that they don’t recognize their responsibility and are allowing time to pass and more deaths to occur. For our part, Amnesty isn’t going to stop until this stops.”
Two days later, in another accomplishment of the civic pressure, the government had to agree to let an International Expert Investigation Group come to Nicaragua to determine responsibilities for the repressive wave Nicaragua had been experiencing since April 18. The Civic Alliance also requested that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights come to Nicaragua.
May 30: A tragic mother’s day
May 30, Mother’s Day, a sacred day for Nicaraguans, will go down in history as the crossing of a line of terror in this crisis.
The “mother of all marches” had been announced for that date in solidarity with the “Mothers of April” those whose children were gunned down in the first days of the civic insurrection. Hundreds of thousands participated in the march—more than 300,000 according to some estimates and 500,000 according to others, but hands-down the largest yet. It was led by the grieving mothers, who were accompanied by the AI representatives. Families brought their children, even babes in arms, and elderly people in wheelchairs. In short, people of all ages and social conditions were there, most of them carrying national flags.
It was Managua’s fourth mega-march since the insurrection began. None of the previous ones had been attacked and no one expected anything different this time, certainly not on Mothers’ Day.
To the shock and horror of everyone, para-police groups and snipers opened fire on the crowd on the last leg of the march, from the Metrocentro traffic circle to the UCA. Fourteen youths were killed and nearly a hundred people were wounded.
“We’re all staying right here!”
As the gunfire rang out across from the UCA, Ortega was addressing his party sympathizers and public employees at a separate Mothers’ Day celebration billed as “songs for mothers” down at the Hugo Chávez traffic circle on Bolívar Avenue.
The numbers that turned out for each march revealed an unarguable shift in the human correlation of forces, with only an estimated 30,000 at the government event, for at least a 10:1 difference. The contrast must have disappointed those who had hoped to gather more people around Ortega and may have contributed to the decision of some of them to go and attack the other march. The violence the government had unleashed had promoted a dangerously polarized climate.
If any of those who went to Ortega’s event that day expected to hear some guidance, some strategy, some proposal, they were sorely disappointed. His speech was a declaration of war. He went after his former allies from big capital, as they had not only abandoned him, but had joined the Civic Alliance, supported the mothers’ march and even asked him publicly to accept early elections. He advised them that “Nicaragua is no one’s private property! And we’re all staying right here!” To some it had the sound of a petulant tyrant: he’s not leaving and if forced out there would be more bloodshed and the country would be left in ruins.
Eight months later, still with the slogan “The coman¬dante is staying,” Nicaragua is soaked in blood, immersed in pain and at the brink of an economic debacle.