In September, the Nicaragua Solidarity Caravan for Peace sponsored four programs in the Bay Area. They featured George Henríquez, a researcher and activist from Bluefields, Nicaragua, Claudia Ochoa, an architecture student and activist, and Julio Martínez Ellsberg, an advisor to one of the Nicaraguan student groups involved in the current uprising.
The u.s. media has intermittently covered the demonstrations that began earlier this year with protests over President Daniel Ortega’s actions on the environment and proposals to reduce social security pensions. The movement developed into mass protests in the streets and universities, and calls for a general strike. Protesters have accused the government of mass killings at demonstrations, including a huge mother’s day march in Managua.
In July, Human Rights Watch published a statement saying that since the protests broke out on April 18, 2018, “at least 270 people have been killed and over 1,500 have been injured, in most cases at the hands of police officers and pro-government armed gangs.” The speakers repeated these charges, saying that there are now paramilitary squads that are abducting and torturing people.
LAGAI – Queer Insurrection started in 1983 as a Central America solidarity group. Prior to LAGAI, Gays for Nicaragua organized support in the Bay Area for the Nicaraguan revolution. After the popular uprising forced Somoza from power in 1979, the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) took power, and in 1984 Daniel Ortega became president. The u.s. supported the Contra war, a campaign of economic and political terrorism against the Nicaraguan people that included not only armed attacks and death squads but attacks on crops and social institutions. Many political activists, including many LGBT people, actively supported the building of the new society in Nicaragua, including agricultural and medical brigades, and the Witness for Peace program, which documented the actions of the Contra. The FSLN lost the 1990 election to UNO, and Chamorro became president. In 2006, Ortega again became president, but political alignments had changed.
So we, like many activists in the Bay Area, have been confused and upset by the current situation in Nicaragua. We have heard leftists defend Ortega, deny that there have been killings, and accuse the current popular movement of being nothing but a front for u.s. imperialism, and there are historic and funding reasons to be cautious with HRW conclusions. On the other hand, the programs Ortega sought to initiate recently were NOT progressive; they would have reduced benefits to retirees and others, and been destructive to the environment.
Unfortunately, the programs we attended didn’t do that much to resolve our confusion. It seems clear that the government and allied individuals have killed demonstrators, the number now considered to be above 300. It isn’t ok for armed police and paramilitaries to attack demonstrations of students and workers, even if their political demands were wrong. The activists who spoke here were calling for this level of minimal agreement. Beyond that, unlike 1979, it seems there is no accountable organization at this point that can take power in the name of the people, if Ortega were to be forced to call new elections or otherwise step down. This creates a situation less like Nicaragua in 1979, or Cuba in 1958, and more like Egypt in 2011, when the popular uprising threw out Mubarak, and then succession went first to the military, then to the Muslim Brotherhood through elections, and then to a military coup.
If we have learned anything from the overthrow of the Iranian Shah to the Arab Spring, it’s that if the people’s movement isn’t prepared to take power, for sure there will be someone who is. It’s clear to us, though not to everyone at the Caravan Peace event, that u.s. intervention – whether economic or military – will only make things worse. Beyond that, we are not sure how to support democracy and a good outcome in Nicaragua, but we will be continuing to watch, listen, and try to learn.