They are 16 to 25 years old. They are university students who share dreams, ideas and friends who were killed. And they have no intention of compromising with the current government. For the students, the reform of the pension system was what finally set them off, but the explosion was brewing for some time. They are tired of feeling manipulated, of standing quietly by while public money is wantonly squandered, and of having to accept the inscrutable vagaries of Vice President Rosario Murillo.
One visible example are the Arboles de la Vida (“Trees of Life”), gigantic tree-shaped metal structures that Murillo ordered built throughout the country, each around 20 meters high and weighing seven tons, bearing 15,000 lightbulbs and at a cost of $25,000 each. Perceived as a symbol of presidential power, these have been burned and knocked down by protesters in recent days.
“Ever since Ortega won the elections in 2007, an apparatus of power has been constructed that uses intimidation as a weapon, as a social deterrent,” says Eduardo Flores Arroliga, a professor of philosophy at the Central American University. “Over the years, the problems and the more or less subtle repression have all built up, now reaching the point of murdering the protesting students.”
He says the youth have sidestepped the national communication channels and used the Internet to empathize, create a common consciousness and give an international echo to their demands. The university students of this “Nicaraguan Spring” began to organize themselves at the beginning of April, when a fire destroyed 5,484 hectares of the Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve, an essential part of the Central-American ecosystem, with a level of biodiversity that is among the highest in the world.
Then, during the next few days, when the president signed the pension reform promoted by the INSS (Instituto Nacional Seguro Social), the students decided to demonstrate again. For the first time since the Sandinista Front came to power, the public universities took to the streets united.
But the government’s reaction was swift: four TV channels which dedicated airtime to the protests were taken off the air, while the broadcasters loyal to the Ortega-Murillo family said the students were nothing more than small right-wing groups.
The lies and the attempts to cover up the violence and abuses committed by the police were verging on the blatantly ridiculous. Both on the streets and online, dissent grew rapidly. April 19, 20 and 21 were bloody: 63 dead, of whom the majority were students. More than 400 were injured and 200 detained, and 15 young people have disappeared.
Vaneska Valle, 22, a student at the Central American University, was one of the student leaders who, along with other comrades, founded the group that is demanding the resignation of the president and his vice president/wife. “The April 19 University Movement was born a few days after the start of the protests, because we needed to elaborate our demands,” she said. “We use pseudonyms to protect ourselves from infiltrators; some are even funny, like Commandante Tapa, Cuajada, Zorro, Tigre, Chavalito. We are organized into divisions: spokespersons, logistics, communications, defense, security, psychological support, economic management. Our goal is one, and it is clear: Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo must resign, as their corruption has been clearly shown. When they are off the public stage, we will recover the Republic, the sovereignty and freedom of the country.”
She added, “I am proud of every one of the people who were present at the barricades, of the medical volunteers, of all the young people who took to the streets to defend their homeland. I’ve never felt so happy as I did then.”
The Movement’s leaders are stressing that many of the victims of the clashes could have been saved if they had received the needed medical care. According to one of them, G.A., “when someone called the ambulance, they would say that they needed orders from above to intervene. Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo are directly responsible for this massacre. They called us vandals, thugs, leeches, irrelevant. But they are the ones who are irrelevant.”
At this point, the Nicaraguan population is not only supporting the students, but is pushing for their demands by participating in demonstrations with attendance rates never seen before. Over 200,000 people took to the streets on two separate days to demand Ortega’s resignation.
Yet the prospects for the future remain troubling, given the current highly centralized government structure and the overall absence of middle-ground political forces: an immediate resignation by the president might end up being a double-edged sword, especially taking into account the emergence of right-wing parties and external interference.
Late in the evening of May 2, the “April 19 University Movement” made public a direct ultimatum addressed at Daniel Ortega: he had one week to allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and UN delegates to enter Nicaragua and investigate the cases of students being murdered, of the refusal of hospitals to provide medical care, of torture in prisons, the lack of the freedom of expression, and the repression of the rural (campesinos) and indigenous communities in recent years.
If the president rejected these conditions, the Movement said it was ready to push its resistance even further and to reject all dialogue: “We will organize a national strike with the support of all sectors of the population. The campesinos are also with us, and the ethnicities of Caribe Sud and Nord,” said Victor Cuadra, one of the leaders of the Movement.
After this ultimatum, on the night of May 2-3, police and paramilitary forces attacked the Polytechnic University, leaving behind six injured students and one seriously injured. The students raised the barricades again, and the university area has once again become off limits.
The Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference, which will be a mediator in the long-awaited dialogue, expressed an invitation to peace and announced the venue for the negotiations to begin. The private sector has made public the names of its representatives, and is asking for credible investigation of April’s events, electoral reform, the separation of the state’s powers and sustainability for the INSS.
At this point, therefore, one must wait for the setting of a date for negotiations, even if a peaceful resolution to this conflict seems unlikely.
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