by John Kotula
Up until the unrest in Nicaragua began last Wednesday, April 18, 2018, the story being told about Nicaragua in the popular media was a very positive one: the most stable and safe country in Central America, a hip, cheap, new tourist destination, a growing economy, good evaluations by international lenders, a leader in renewable energy, and a happy, contented, welcoming population. You could find any number of magazine and newspaper articles along these lines. The speed with which the unrest in Nicaragua changed this narrative has been absolutely breathtaking.
Today, all you can read in the press and especially on social media is that Nicaragua is a country in a deadly crises, wracked by violent protests and counter protests, and oppressed by a murderous “dynastic dictatorship” that lines its own pockets by robbing the impoverished people of the little they have. To a large part because I am pretty much house bound in Managua, I have been paying close attention to Nicaraguan newspapers, social media – Facebook in particular – official notices from the US Embassy, and international reporting. I have also gotten out in my neighborhood and talked to friends and neighbors, and I have had personal communication by phone and email and text with acquaintances around the country.
The contrast between what I read online and what I hear on the street is striking and disturbing. Everything on Facebook is angry, vitriolic, and divisive. The social media is also full of misinformation. Some of this is trivial – the airport is closed, no the airport is open – and some of it clearly comes from people who are sincere and passionate, but, much of it seems to be calculated to fan the flames, vilify those of other opinions, and to make dialogue and resolution less likely. In contrast, my friends and neighbors talk almost exclusively about their sadness, fear, and anxiety. They are praying rather than shouting slogans and only want safety and security, especially for the young people.
I am keeping a journal of events and my thoughts during this unrest in hopes that it will be informative to readers of NicaNotes. It bears saying, that these are gringo observations and thoughts. I do not, of course, speak for Nicaraguans. Seldom have I been so aware of my privilege. If push came to shove, I could be in Miami in two hours. This being said, my love, respect, and faith in Nicaragua are very strong and I want to give them voice in these hard times.
Ironically, when all this developed, I was enjoying the hell out of Nicaragua. A group of five much loved family and friends were here for a visit. We had rented a house in Granada for the week and had a wonderful time being typical tourists: touring the isletas by boat, seeing Masaya Volcano just as the sun set, swimming in Laguna de Apoyo, eating too much gallo pinto and drinking too many ice cold Toñas. I was playing tour guide and sharing some of my favorite stories about Nicaraguan history and culture. After a few days, our guest were already in love with Nicaragua and were talking about coming back next year.
Then news of the conflict started to seep into our awareness. My wife, Deborah Drew, had been commuting to her job in Managua and coming back to Granada in the evening. Her route involved catching the bus at Universidad Centroamericana – UCA, a center of the protest. On Thursday as she was getting on her bus a large group of police in riot gear ran past her and soon she heard shots being fired down the block and saw young protesters running in all directions. Although we knew things were heating up, we went out for our last dinner in Granada. On the way back from the restaurant, we realized that the street we had walked two hours before was now littered with stones and large pieces of pavement had been pried up. We had to avoid areas of broken glass. A car pulled up and the driver said to us in English, “You don’t want to go that way! Its dangerous, man. Where you going?” We explained that our rented house was around the corner. He said, “OK. You can go that way, but don’t go right. There is trouble down there.”
The next morning we returned to Managua by van and our driver had to avoid several demonstrations in communities along the route. The vacation that had started with awe at Nicaragua’s beauty and friendliness had become a different kind of experience. Our family and friends were actually fascinated and excited by what was happening, but I was tense and wanted to see them safely on their plane home. We went to the airport early Saturday morning and the route along Carretera Norte was strewn with rocks, broken pavement, and every hundred yards or so big nests of charred wires, the remains of burning tires. Also, almost all of the Trees of Life, the large, colorful, brightly lit public sculptures that have proliferated along Managua streets showed signs of fire damage.
Once inside the airport, things were jarringly normal, people patiently waiting in lines at the Copa ticket counter, picking up last Toña tee shirts, coffee and cigars as souvenirs, ordering a latte at Cafe de Las Flores to drink while filling out their Customs forms, taking selfies with the large portraits of Sandino and Darío in the background and hugging their companions good bye. There was no indication that we had just passed through a combat zone to make our plane. Our guests made it home fine and they are still talking about what a great time they had.
Back in Reparto San Juan where I live, I went around the corner to the neighborhood store to buy some nacatamales. The proprietor is a friendly guy named Jose who I frequently chat with. I ask him how his night went and he replied, “It was a very sad night. More kids were killed at the university. In our country it is the job of the police to protect to the kids, not to kill them. This is the kind of thing we read about in your country, but it doesn’t happen in Nicaragua.” He said this to me with visible sadness, and, I think, with a sense of deep dismay.
Not much later, I see a post on Facebook from a young man I know from Chinandega. He is a very talented poet named Pablo Antonio Alvarado Moya. He put up a poem he had written about another student from his university who was killed in the protests. I asked him for permission to translate his poem and share it.
Elegy for Richard Bermúdez
“Let your mother give up!”
I did not know you but I already have admiration for you.
You went out on the streets in the name of your homeland,
in search of the light that has escaped
from our hands
You went out
without thinking about consequences,
firm in the thought,
Better to die as a rebel and not as a slave.
First martyr of the beginning of this fight,
of the outbreak of this necessary revolution
to cleanse the bloody tears of our land.
It was night,
under the starry sky that now welcomes you
like a hero in his luminous cloak.
You have sown the seed, Richard,
now it is up to us to ensure its growth.
Rest in peace.
By Pablo Antonio Alvarado Moya
Pablo is a teenager, as was his friend, as was Leonel Rugama who he references in the poem. It is heartbreaking to me, especially since I have teenage grandsons, that the conflicts created by adults so often victimize the young.
5:30 PM – It has just been reported that the changes to the social security system that started the demonstrations have been cancelled. These changes required both workers and businesses to pay more into the system and withheld part of retiree payments to pay for medical care. However, while these changes triggered the crises they seem to have receded into the background. Now the conflict seems to be focused much more on the violence itself. The cancellation of the changes would appear to be an opportunity for the demonstrators to declare victory and restore peace. However, the accusations have become so bitter and the polarization so far reaching it remains to be seen if this can happen.
Monday, April 23, 2018
“Security Alert – U.S. Embassy Managua
Location: Throughout Nicaragua
Event: Large-scale civil unrest includes violent and non-violent demonstrations, rioting, and looting throughout Nicaragua. Grocery availability may be limited, and access to the Sandino airport in Managua is sporadic and complex. The U.S. Embassy in Managua will be unavailable to provide routine services to the public until further notice, but will continue to be available by phone for U.S. citizen emergencies. Please see below for information regarding obtaining travel documents for U.S. citizens only for imminent travel. The Embassy has ordered all eligible family members of U.S. government employees to depart Nicaragua until the security situation improves.”
There is a large “peace march” scheduled for today. I talked with a neighbor who sought to reassure me that this was going to be a turning point and that things would get back to normal. It is hard to tell if he was actually feeling optimistic or he was taking care of me by telling me something comforting. In my experience, it is interpersonally very difficult for Nicaraguans to let you down, disappoint you, or deliver bad news. It is a lovely characteristic.
A couple of days ago Daniel Ortega spoke publicly about the turmoil. He suggested that the US was behind it. His remarks were met with anger and intensified demonstrations, seemingly because people thought he was trying to deflect his own responsibility for the violence and put the blame on an easy target, the Great Satan to the North. I have no intention of telling Nicaraguans how to think about this. However, I have to say to US readers, why would you NOT think your government is behind this. Look at our history. We have been consistently inserting ourselves into the internal affairs of Nicaragua for 200 years. It is the ongoing, stated policy of the US embassy to support the political opposition in Nicaragua in the name of, increasing “…citizen’s ability to engage in democratic governance.” This is just a euphemism for “anybody but the Sandinistas”. Also, the terribly wrongheaded NICA Act is still under active consideration in the US Senate, having passed the House of Representatives without objection.
Further, the “soft coup” is a real thing. It is not a left-wing conspiracy fantasy. There are books about it, conferences, think tanks, and academic studies. Most closely associated with Gene Sharp, the soft coup is a set of interventions that brings about regime change without sending in the troops. Sharp conceives of his work as violence prevention, except it never turns out that way. People die, usually a lot of people. “Sharp’s work has had an unusually broad impact. His pamphlet From Dictatorship to Democracy, a ninety-three-page distillation of his core insights and a handbook for overthrowing autocrats, has been translated into more than thirty languages. The slim volume has a habit of turning up in hot spots of global resistance.”
The US has sought regime change through soft coups for a long, long time and across most of the globe. There is no reason to think they do not have their hand in the current situation in Nicaragua. If this is the case, you can expect some of the usual suspects – Ted Cruz, Mario Rubio, Ileana Ros- Lehtinen, and sadly, Democrat Dick Durbin – to start talking about interventions using language like this, “The US stands with the people of Nicaragua. The Ortega regime has gone unchecked for far too long. Hijacking electoral institutions and repressing the opposition has severely undermined democratic order and the will of the people. It is incumbent on the U.S. to address Ortega’s brazen overreach and incentivize meaningful reform.” (Taken from Cruz’ statement in support of the NICA Act.)
This is all double speak. If they really spoke the truth they would say, “We have tried to undermine the Sandinistas for forty years. We have spent billions of dollars, lied to the American people, committed crimes, including drug running, and sent scapegoats to jail to get rid of those bastards. Of course if we can exploit a crisis or can create one, we’ll do it in a New York minute.” My personal guess is that what is happening in Nicaragua is over determined. There are many intersecting factors and no single political analysis will produce a complete picture. However, as US citizens, we need to be clear that second guessing, criticism, advice, and, least of all, intervention from the United States is the last thing that is needed.
My wife, Deborah Drew, has been studying Nicaraguan folk dancing (Ballet Folklorica) at The Nicaraguan Academy of Dance. She is part of a group of older women who take a class together and prepare a traditional dance to present twice a year at the Academy’s recital. Unfortunately, the Academy is located near UCA, in the heart of the protests and the class has not been meeting. Deb’s dance group is connected by WhatsApp and she receives several messages, photos, and videos a day. She let me read through the messages and I was touched by the pain, caring, and support the women share with each other. They are praying for peace, for their families, for their children, for their country and for each other. I invite you to consider that this is the real voice of Nicaragua.
I am confident that, in the end, this wonderful country will find its way, but right now it is heartbreaking to see the destruction and know that all I can do is stand beside them.
To be continued…