Reforms cutting social security have triggered an unprecedented protest wave against Daniel Ortega’s government, including pitched battles between police and students. Dánae Vílchez reports
While the president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, talked about peace in his televized speeches, in the streets pro-government forces have continued massacring students.
Days of protests in the Central American country have left at least 42 dead, according to the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights, including the journalist Angel Gaona. More than 200 people were injured, and many remain missing.
On 17 April, Ortega announced a social security reform which would have effectively cut pensions by 5 per cent, as well as increasing the mandatory contribution of both employees – to a flat 7 per cent of salary, up from 6.25 per cent currently – and employers. University students came out in protest the following day, and were joined by workers and retirees. Students were already angry over recent massive forest fires at a nature reserve, when the government’s response was felt by many to be inadequate.
Pressured by the massive protest, Ortega reversed the reform on the 22nd and on the following day agreed to open a national dialogue with several sectors of the country – previously he had only been in negotiation with the economic elite, Nicaragua’s powerful business association, COSEP, over the reforms. COSEP has mostly been close to the government, although they are also opposed to the social security proposals.
But some think the discontent may be the beginning of the fall of his increasingly autocratic government.
On 23 April – in a march called by COSEP – many tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Managua demanding justice for the deaths of those murdered by the police, and advocating for the restoration of democracy in the country. Many, dressed in the blue and white colors of the Nicaraguan flag, could be heard chanting: ‘Ortega, resign now!’ This Saturday 28 April, tens of thousands took to the streets again, this time in a massive march called by the Catholic Church, calling for ‘peace and justice’.
The social security reform that made Nicaragua explode
When university students called for peaceful protests in the capital, they were attacked in combined operations between the police and the Sandinista Youth, which functions as the paramilitary organ of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
Over the next days, the National University of Engineering (UNI), the National Agrarian University (UNA) and the Polytechnic University (UPOLI) became battlefields, where the students barricaded themselves to fight against the police, whose objective was to dissipate the protests.
Students have criticized the National Police for using high-caliber weapons to attack them. The students have defended themselves with stones and mortars – which are widely available, as they are often used for firework celebrations. Students have also armed themselves with Molotov cocktails to defend their barricades from riot police.
‘They [the National Police] started [shooting] bullets like we were animals and all that was left was to run for your life... They used real bullets,’ says Jeanette*, who participated in the protests.
Protests spread throughout the national territory – like the wildfire, source of earlier anger – including in departamentos with Sandinista majorities, like León and Estelí.
Meanwhile, Ortega’s response to criticism, in addition to attacking the protesters, was to accuse them of being ‘delinquents’. In three public appearances that Ortega has given – only granted to pro-government media – he has referred to the protesters as ‘groups of gangsters manipulated by the right,’ while the Vice President, Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife, has called them ‘tiny vandal groups’.
Students say this is a lie. ‘Here we do not have any party that is paying us… the only delinquents are the policemen who shoot students,’ said Irene*, a student. ‘The government is responsible for these acts of vandalism and seeks to create smoke screens with disinformation.’
About 100 young people from the Polytechnic University remain inside the premises, helped by support networks which have provided them with provisions, mortars, and medical attention.
‘We have the right to protest, and they are repressing us, we are no longer protesting only [about] the social security, we are protesting for our dead friends,’ said Jeanette, who remains in the university. ‘They took the lives of our comrades’.
Now things have to change, she says.
The European Union, the United Nations, and Amnesty International, have called on the government to stop the repression.
‘The massacre of demonstrators, including several young students, who came out to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly will be remembered as one of the darkest chapters in the nation’s recent history,’ said Erika Guevara-Rosa, Americas director of Amnesty International.
A bittersweet victory
Despite Ortega’s Sunday announcement of the repeal of the social security reform, discontent with the government’s public policies continues to mobilize many sectors of the population.
‘This is the tip of the iceberg. This has been 11 years that the regime has violated the rights of Nicaraguans, in many aspects,’ explains the former congresswoman and political analyst, Edipcia Dubón, who has been part of the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista or Sandinista Renovation Movement, a party founded in 1995 by dissidents from the ruling FSLN.
From accusations of electoral fraud to negligence with environmental disasters, Ortega’s government has faced increasing criticism, and with the abolishing of term limits and the appointment of his wife to the government, he has been accused of attempting to create a dynasty.
Ortega, who was also president of the country during the Sandinista revolution of the 1980s, came back to power in 2006. He also repealed abortion – making it illegal in all circumstances – to satisfy the evangelical and Catholic churches.
Ortega's government has often resembled a corporatist model, in which he only spoke with representatives of private companies. Now he has been forced to include many sectors in the dialogue, including university students.
The Catholic Church will be the principal mediator in the negotiations. ‘In the dialogue we expect him to hold the police responsible as the main perpetrator of the murders,’ says Irene.
The new generation offers hope for change
For years, young people in Nicaragua had been harshly criticized for a supposed ‘apathy’ to the national reality. Recent events change that completely.
The auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Baez, has called the students ‘the moral reserve of the country.’ The journalist Carlos F. Chamorro, director of the national newspaper Confidencial said that ‘the students and young people have given hope back to Nicaragua.’
The way ahead does not look easy. Dubón says that because the political opposition is also fragmented, Ortega will be able to take advantage and continue to attack social movements. ‘Daniel Ortega won’t stop attacking until he dismantles youth mobilization, because he is stubborn, and he can not understand that there is a feeling of discontent with his regime.’ According to polling firm CID Gallup, more than 50 per cent of the Nicaraguan population does not identify with any political party.
But young people say they want change. ‘We want new people whose hands have never been stained with blood. We are very hopeful that the situation in our country will change. We are awakened,’ says Irene.
*Some names have been changed to protect individuals