‘We Are Nicaragua’: Students Revolt but Now Face a More Daunting Task
Posted April 27, 2018 7:19 p.m. EDT
MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The hundreds of hot dog buns, bananas and containers of instant soup stacked up at the Polytechnic University basketball court suggest that the young people hunkered down here are not planning to capitulate.
The students and young professionals who occupied the campus last week in a nationwide protest against the government, demanding the ouster of President Daniel Ortega, have enough donated medical supplies to stock a field hospital. Young men with T-shirts covering their faces carry homemade mortar-launchers as they patrol the grounds. A box of Molotov cocktails sits in the corner.
“This is not a war; this a struggle we young people are doing,” said Freddy Martínez, one of the few people here who revealed his face and name. “We are not left or right. We are Nicaragua.”
The Nicaraguan youth did something few people in this country thought possible. Incited by an unpopular change in the social security system that would not immediately affect them, they staged a spontaneous uprising that has loosened Ortega’s grip on power.
After years of international denunciations — including efforts in the U.S. Congress to curtail financing to Nicaragua unless Ortega’s government becomes more democratic — it was a leaderless, disorganized mass of college students with no political experience or memories of the nation’s civil war that forced a reckoning.
The protests led to the deaths of dozens of people this month, many at the hands of the police, human rights groups say. Outrage over the killings drove thousands more people to the streets and quickly became the biggest challenge to Ortega, a Cold War foe of the United States, since he returned to the presidency in 2007.
Days of rallies forced Ortega to withdraw his social security cutbacks, release detained protesters and allow a television station back on the air.
But now a critical stage in the standoff begins.
Can the students, who astonished and awakened this Central American nation of 6 million people, transform their street activism into actual political change?
The protesters at the Polytechnic University, many of whom are not even enrolled here, are convinced they can get a new electoral council chosen, which would lead to early presidential elections. They also insist that top police leaders be replaced and that the killers of the protesters be brought to justice, among other demands. After days of refusing, the students have agreed to negotiate with the government.
In the meantime, the young people have dug trenches around the university here in the capital, Managua. Signs of wear are starting to show on the protesters, as days of sleep deprivation, the constant sound of mortar fire and the fear of a police crackdown strain their frayed nerves. Many students have abandoned the site.
Two people were killed at the university Sunday evening, the students say, arguing that one of the protest leaders was actually an infiltrator who revealed logistical information to the police.
Many of the students describe a jarring and confusing set of experiences that both propelled their movement and left them wondering how long it would hold together. One student leader, Jeancarlo López, 21, said he joined the effort after a stranger died in his arms at a demonstration last week.
Another student feared that a fellow protester was trying to kill her. Yet another said she had collected thousands of dollars for the movement, but someone stole it, so she gave up and went home.
One 18-year-old with bloodshot eyes and skinny jeans said he tried firing a homemade mortar-launcher from a rooftop, but it blew up in his hands. His parents came to get him, but he returned to the protest with his arm wrapped in a bandage.
“They were worried,” he said through the layers of fabric masking his face as he clutched a tube of pain reliever cream.
Sauting Onsang, one of several volunteer medics who have been at the university for nearly a week, said the students were trying to get organized. They named themselves the 19th of April Student Movement, after the day students began dying at protests. They also formed a working group of 25 representatives, while the others drilled them on their oratory skills.
“We practiced screaming at them; anyone who cried was cut,” Onsang said. “Right now we need some time to prepare our topics, and to prepare, we need sleep.”
The negotiations with the government are being promoted by the Roman Catholic Church and a leading business organization.
“The young people are asking for a few days to organize,” said Monsignor Silvio Báez, acknowledging that he has hardly been impartial. “I am absolutely on the side of the kids. I believe in this. I thank the students for waking up the public.”
Although analysts here are in shock at what the students have done, they are not confident about the protesters’ bigger objectives. If the president does not resign or agree to new elections, what is the endgame?
“This was a spontaneous movement that was not the result of any organization that existed,” said Carlos Fernando Chamorro, an analyst here whose mother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, beat Ortega in the 1990 elections and became president. “They are just organizing now. Who is going to represent them?”
Alejandro Aguilar, a former law school dean here who was fired after he criticized the government, said the lack of a clear leader helped the students because it made the movement harder to quash. But the same leadership void also makes it more difficult for them to choose goals and strategize.
“Daniel Ortega is not going to give up power because the students asked him to,” Aguilar said. “The students have done enough: They moved the consciences of the people of Nicaragua. There’s quite a bit of admiration for them. Everyone thought all they cared about was Wi-Fi, social networks, pictures and parties.”
The government’s Sandinista Front party released a statement this week blaming the students for the escalation of violence. When the police tried to clear a highway the students had blocked, the protesters attacked officers with homemade mortars, the statement said.
The governing party also said it was “worth noting” that the two universities where the protests began were religious universities “subsidized by the state” and that the protests were not a spur-of-the-moment occurrence.
“Despite the apparent lack of direction of the protests, it powerfully calls our attention that there was perfect coordination, synchronized actions and of the same type everywhere, as if something had already been prepared, ready to be activated when the conditions were right,” the statement said. The university provost declined a request to be interviewed “while lives were at risk,” but released a statement Thursday night saying that because the students’ safety cannot by guaranteed, the administration has not demanded that they leave campus. “We are happy that their aspirations and proposals have been known,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, Nicaragua’s colleges and universities are not holding classes.
The official national university student union, which is allied with the government, criticized the sit-in at the Polytechnic University, noting that many of the demonstrators do not even attend the school. They accused the activists of being directed by a rival political party.
Leonel Morales, one of the union’s leaders, said that most students wanted to leave after the social security change was repealed Sunday but that young people from off campus had taken over and would not let him go. So he sneaked out instead, he said.
“They kidnapped the university,” Morales said at a news conference. “Let all those who are there show their student ID.”
Jessenia Valeska Valle Duarte, 22, an accounting major at the Central American University in Managua who is serving as a spokeswoman for the students, denied that the protesters were affiliated with any political party, emphasizing that the national student union does not speak for them.
“We ask the people of Nicaragua not to abandon us,” she said. “Their struggle, I’ll repeat it again, is our struggle. We are going to make demands until they are fulfilled.”