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Nicaragua: Speaking truth to power

Protests in Nicaragua April 24 2018

Catherine “Kitty” Madden reports on the crisis in Nicaragua. Madden has lived and worked in Nicaragua since 1986, some of that time as a Maryknoll Lay Missioner and many years as a Maryknoll Affiliate. The following article was published in the September-October 2018 issue of NewsNotes.

It was the time of the August new moon as I sat with those gathered outside of my neighbors’ home. We were there to mourn the death of Juan and to share our sympathies with his mother, wife, and children. Just 54 years old, Juan (not his real name) was killed by a sniper who fired on a peaceful protest earlier that day.

As I sat in the open air darkness, my mind traveled back to early April, when Nicaragua was still hailed as “the most peaceful country in Central America.” Multitudes of people entered the country each day, some to provide humanitarian aid and many others to enjoy the beauty of nature and the warm hospitality of the people as tourists. Still others came to invest in an economy that was thriving due to the amicable relationship between the government and business. 

On the surface, things seemed quite perfect! However, just as with the majestic volcanoes that grace the countryside of Nicaragua, something very charged was growing beneath the surface. All was not as it appeared. No one could have imagined the catastrophic changes about to emerge.

Having had the privilege of living and working here for 32 years, I first experienced life under the revolutionary Sandinista government of the 1980s. The FSLN (Sandinista national liberation front) toppled the dictator Anastasio Somoza and his family dynasty in the long war of insurrection that claimed 50,000 lives. In the 1980s, I anguished at the U.S. backing (if not instigation) of the Contra War that ended in 1990, after taking another 30,000 lives and maiming thousands of others.

I have lived through three neo-liberal presidencies from 1990 to 2006 and for the past 12 years, I have observed with great sadness the development of yet another dictatorship and family dynasty headed by Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo and their FSLN party, a party no longer considered “revolutionary” by a large portion of the population. Most significant for me has been to observe the ways in which people began to carefully monitor their words or remain silent for fear of reprisals. Such a great contrast to the refreshing openness with which everyone spoke out in the 1980s! 

Since his election in 2006, Daniel Ortega has moved to consolidate power, control and wealth for both his family and for the FSLN party. And, yes, there have been “gifts” given to the people such as food, housing, scholarship programs, and perks for business leaders. 

These gifts were given at a price: silence, gratitude, loyalty. Any other entity desiring to serve the people, such as the Casa Materna Mary Ann Jackman clinic and obstetric center where I worked for 27 years, was treated as a potential rival and a threat. When university students launched a national protest on April 18 to demand not gifts but freedom of expression, the government responded with unexpected, unbridled ferocity. 

What had seemed so “perfect” in early April changed dramatically when the Ortega government ordered police to fire real bullets to quell the student uprising on April 18-19. The students had gathered in support of pensioners, actually their grandparents, to protest changes in social security benefits. Previous protests against government policies had been quelled by police shooting rubber bullets or Sandinista youth gangs shoving and beating demonstrators. For example, in the five years of constant protest against the government proposed oceanic canal, the police never used real bullets. 

In April, twenty-five people were killed in five days, including a journalist and a 15-year-old boy bringing water to the student protesters. Dozens more were seriously wounded. As people found their voices, the “volcano of submerged feelings” began to erupt with unbridled energy. As one man expressed it: “People have lost their fear of speaking out. And Daniel has lost the people.”

By Mother’s Day, May30th in Nicaragua, over 100 people had been killed. Most of the dead were young and many had been shot with one strategically directed bullet to the head, the eyes, the throat, or the heart. As a way of sharing the unspeakable grief of the mothers who had lost their children, over 600,000 people gathered in Managua to march with them. Who could have imagined that, on this most sacred of days, the police and snipers would attack the grieving marchers? Twenty were killed and close to a hundred wounded. To this day, the people lament, “Mother’s Day will never be the same. Nicaragua will never be the same.”

Each day, the counts continue to rise. As I write this, it is early August and there are over 350 dead, 3,000+ wounded, many with wounds they will carry all their lives; 1,200 people have been picked up and imprisoned without legal rights, many tortured; hundreds “disappeared” – perhaps hiding out if not already dead and thousands leaving the country every day. Most recently, 200 medical personnel who had aided the wounded or dying have lost their jobs in public hospitals or universities. 

“Ortega and Murillo have transformed Nicaragua into a battlefield where two forces are facing off in a conflict defined by total asymmetry,” Roberto Cajina, civilian consultant on security, defense, and democratic governance, wrote in an article in Envio, a magazine published by the Jesuit Central American University in Managua, in July. “On one side anti-riot police, snipers and paramilitary forces, all armed to the teeth. On the other, a populace armed, if at all, with rocks, slingshots and homemade mortars.” 

In addition to the absence of tourists on city streets. it is not uncommon to see police-driven vehicles carrying hooded and masked “paramilitaries” armed with high caliber weapons aimed at instilling fear in the people. Airlines that brought passengers twice a day now have flights only 3 times a week. Numerous hotels and restaurants have been closed and, of course, thousands have lost their jobs,

Yet, something vital and courageous is happening today in Nicaragua. People are regaining their voices and are, indeed, speaking truth to power. And, yes, they do so at great cost as is evidenced in the death of my neighbor and hundreds of others. The civic alliance that has been formed is strongly committed to walking a nonviolent path…..however, theirs is a pilgrimage of great pain and unspeakable grief. Please join in our journey of solidarity through the support of your prayers.

For a detailed response to popular arguments in favor of the Ortega administration’s actions, read “A Massacre, Not a Coup: A Response to Misinformation on Nicaragua” by Dr. Mary Ellsberg, Professor of Global Health and International Studies, and Founding Director of the Global Women’s Institute of the George Washington University in Washington, DC.  

Photo: Protest in Managua, Nicaragua on April 24, 2018 by Voices of America/Public Domain.