‘This is a revolution’: Who are Nicaragua’s student protesters?
In Nicaragua, students at the heart of the anti-government protests say they want another revolution.
Lyris Solis Gonzalez didn’t realise her classes had been cancelled when she turned up at the University of Engineering (UNI) in Nicaragua’s capital Managua on April 19.
Until then, the 19-year-old architecture student didn’t have much of an interest in politics. She didn’t vote in the 2016 general elections because there was no one she wanted to back.
The night before her class, Solis Gonzalez had seen some Facebook live videos about protests, but she had not been involved herself. So when students started running outside of the university building, holding rocks, she wasn’t sure what was going on.
“I didn’t know what was happening so I ran outside too,” she told Al Jazeera.
There, she saw who she identified as members of the Juventud Sandinista, the youth organisation of the Central American country’s ruling Frente Sandinista party (FSLN) and paramilitaries.
“I understood this was the same thing that happened the night before, I watched them shoot rubber bullets,” she said.
The next day, Solis Gonzalez attended a protest at Managua’s cathedral. Paramilitaries appeared again, she said. And this time, they were using bullets.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Solis Gonzalez said.
“It’s one thing watching it happen on your phone and another thing living it. After those two days, I couldn’t stay without doing something.”
Students at the forefront
Today, Solis Gonzalez is one of the many Nicaraguan students who live in a safe house, hiding from the persecution that has seen many of her peers arrested, injured, or even killed.
Since April 19, at least 317 people have been killed in the violence, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The government said that between April 19 and July 25, 197 people were killed, including 22 police officers.
In recent weeks, many students have fled to neighbouring Costa Rica. They were among the first to hold rallies against proposed social security reforms – and they were among the first to be met by lethal repression.
By the time President Daniel Ortega scrapped the pension reforms that initially ignited the protests the week before, nearly two dozen people – many of them students – had been killed, further fomenting outrage among Nicaraguans.
“The youth and particularly university students have been at the heart of this mobilisation,” said Elvira Cuadra, an associate and former director at the Nicaragua-based Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policy (IEEPP).
Cuadra said the generation at the helm of today’s protests are different from their parents in that they belong to a “post-revolution” generation.
“They grew up listening to the discourse of democracy, of human and civic rights, and have new values and principles of politics that are more democratic and civic,” she told Al Jazeera.
Early on in the protests, a number of universities became sites for protester sit-ins. Students and other protesters barricaded themselves in at the campuses of the Polytechnic University (Upoli) and the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in Managua (UNAN).
In July, police reportedly assisted by pro-government gunmen who overran students barricaded in at UNAN, the last university to be occupied. About 200 students took refuge in a nearby church and were trapped inside by gunfire overnight. The siege reportedly killed two and injured 10.
Video footage of some of the students pleading for mercy as gunfire is heard in the background went viral.
They were later freed after Catholic Church leaders negotiated their release.
The IACHR later accused police and so-called parapolice groups of a “disproportionate use of force – including lethal force” at young protesters. FSLN-controlled news website El 19 Digital had reported earlier that the university was occupied by “thieves” and “terrorists” rather than students.
‘They started shooting’
Solis Gonzalez, too, occupied her university – though it was short-lived. On May 28, she was one in a group of students who staged what she called a “symbolic protest” after UNI authorities had ignored her organisation’s calls for change.
One of the guys in our movement, a bullet grazed his head leaving a wound of some 10cm. Another was shot with rubber bullets in the head and in his back
Late in the morning, gunmen arrived, she recalled, identifying them as police and paramilitary groups.
“They started shooting, we had to evacuate ourselves,” she said.
“One of the guys in our movement, a bullet grazed his head leaving a wound of some 10cm. Another was shot with rubber bullets in the head and in his back.”
Amnesty International reported one person died in the attack on the university, while 41 students had been injured, “most of them by gunfire”. The human rights organisation said the attack had been carried out by “Sandinista mobs” and then by riot police.
“A new attack against students in #Nicaragua. Our director Erika Guevara-Rosas was there covering the repression live. How much more violence needs to happen?” a tweet by Amnesty International containing footage of the attack said.
Un nuevo ataque contra estudiantes en #Nicaragua. Nuestra directora @ErikaGuevaraR estuvo allí cubriendo la represión #EnVivo. ¿Cuánta más violencia tiene que pasar? Comparte este video usando #SOSNicaragua 🇳🇮 pic.twitter.com/PBhLpfvkJ5
— Amnistía Internacional Américas (@AmnistiaOnline) May 28, 2018
In a press release, national police mentioned the university had been taken by “hooded individuals” but did not comment on the clash.
After the incident, the students retreated. That day, Solis Gonzalez, who had already been receiving threats for her activism, went into hiding.
‘Not little angels’
Since April, Ortega and Murillo have persistently denied culpability for the deaths of protesters, accusing, both the US and opposition parties of fomenting the unrest in an effort to topple his government.
In May, during a meeting that was part of a Church-mediated political dialogue, Ortega accused universities of housing criminals and referred to police as victims of violence.
“You can’t go around attacking police stations. Because it’s not little angels out there … there are guns, too, shooting at police,” he said. In its latest report on Nicaragua, IACHR said that 21 police officers were among the dead.
The embattled leader has had the support of Nicaragua’s National Student Union (UNEN), a national student organisation allied with Ortega’s Sandinista party.
In a statement issued on July 18, the student body blamed “various political actors” for waging a “hate campaign” aimed “delegitimising our institutions with the goal of creating chaos and fear in the population”.
As part of this campaign, UNEN said, universities were taken and turned into “battle trenches and into operation centres for crime, theft, illegal drug trafficking, terrorism and organised crime”.
Luis Andino Paiz, the president of the national student union and a supporter of Ortega acknowledges the “historic links” between UNEN and the FSLN, but emphasises that the organisation represents “all students … not just Sandinistas”.
Andino Paiz believes Nicaraguans have fallen victim to manipulations and “terrorism” perpetrated by “coup-mongers”.
He blames the “hijacking, looting and destruction” of a number of public universities on “elements foreign to the universities”.
“Even if some of them were matriculated in the university, they would immediately lose this status because no one would allow them to destroy the people’s heritage,” he said.
Andino Paiz added that the number of student deaths has been overstated in international media, citing a recent police statement that put the number of student deaths at 10 out of a total of 197 people killed in the unrest.
Official numbers on the number of deaths have been lower than those provided by human rights groups and the IACHR from the beginning of the crisis. For example, the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, a campaigning coalition seeking democratisation, said 137 students had died in the protests.
Memories of war
Many of Nicaragua’s young people grew up supporters of 72-year-old Ortega.
In 1979, he was a commander in the Sandinista army that overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in what is known as the Nicaraguan Revolution.
He swiftly became the head of the country’s military government and in 1984 was elected president, maintaining a Marxist rhetoric and allying himself with the Soviet Union.
During the 1980s, his Sandinista government fought the US-backed Contra rebels army in a bloody civil war which led to the death of as many as 50,000 people.
I used to believe in the Sandinista party
After losing elections and ceding power in 1990, Ortega made a comeback in 2006. He was re-elected in 2011 and once more in 2016, after seeing through a change in the constitution that allowed him to run for a third consecutive term.
“I used to believe in the [Sandinista] party,” said Allan Blandon, a 28-year-old tourism professional from Granada. “I think most of my family is Sandinista.”
“During the revolution and the civil war, my mother helped Sandinista soldiers with food and things like that. My dad was one of them – that’s how my parents met.”
Blandon praises Ortega for the projects he rolled out to help the poor in a country that is the second-poorest in the western hemisphere. The problem, he said, is that “[Ortega and Murillo] stayed for so many years. They started to control everything”.
Seeing videos of students from his alma mater, the Central American University, getting repressed spurred him into joining marches himself.
“I said to myself, this is enough because this has become a dictatorship,” he told Al Jazeera.
After years of growing concerns over Ortega’s grip on power, the crackdown on the student-led protests against social security reforms was the final straw, giving way to what Monica Baltodano has termed a “civic uprising”.
In the 1970s, Baltodano was a Sandinista commander who fought alongside Ortega. She is one of the many original guerrilla fighters who have since broken with the FSLN and become some of Ortega’s fiercest opponents.
“We feel represented by the students, today’s youth,” she told Al Jazeera.
Baltodano believes that today’s student movement stands for many of the same ideals her generation fought for.
“It’s impressive that 40 years later, we are raising the flag of democracy, the flag of the right to free mobilisation, free speech – that is our flag,” she said.
We feel represented by the students, today's youth
What is different, she believes, is that this time around “[the revolution] will succeed without weapons”.
Arming the anti-government movement, Baltodano said, would mean a victory for Ortega.
“[The government] has the army, they have the weapons,” she said. “It would mean a return to war, take a lot of time and cause thousands of deaths.”
“Our parents and grandparents still feel the hurt of the civil war of the 1980s. They are still suffering,” said Solis Gonzalez.
“We grew up with the consciousness of how civil war can hurt us as a society. That’s why we don’t have weapons.”
Though the student protests have been mostly peaceful, some have armed themselves with rudimentary weapons such as rocks, Molotov cocktails and homemade mortars. The Washington Post reported that during the siege of UNAN, a few students carried firearms.
These are the bullets that the Nicaraguan government forces are firing at the students inside the church. pic.twitter.com/QZbPmgssiS
— Joshua Partlow (@partlowj) July 14, 2018
Solis Gonzalez said social media is her “most important weapon”. She has used platforms such as Twitter to share videos of anti-protester violence and make contact with other people involved in the protests.
Footage of protests and denouncements of the Ortega regime have gone viral on Twitter under the hashtag #SOSNicaragua.
While no firm leadership of the student movements has emerged, students have formed a number of organisations. One of the most well-known groups is the April 19 University Movement (MU-19A).
Baltodano believes the protesters face the “challenge” to organise themselves more strongly.
“Total spontaneity has its disadvantages in the face of a vertical, authoritarian government,” she said.
‘This is a revolution’
These days it’s too dangerous to protest on university campuses, Solis Gonzalez said.
Sometimes, she still attends marches, though only in the relative safety of a big group.
In its most recent report on the situation in Nicaragua, IACHR expressed concern over “legal persecution and criminalisation practices” of, among others, students.
The Associated Press recently reported more than 2,000 people have been arrested since the beginning of protests. The report added that the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (CENIDH) believed at least 400 were still being held.
We are trying to make a change and not just change the president
From her hiding spot, Solis Gonzalez said she tries to put pressure on the government through social media and by organising with other universities. She also believes there is still a role to play for a stop-start political dialogue that has been mediated by the Catholic Church.
“We are trying to make a change and not just change the president, but to change the way that this country is working and making a change in the conscience of the people,” she said.
“This is a revolution, because we are trying to make things right.”