July 26 marked 100 days since unrest began in Nicaragua, my home of seven years. The Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH) has reported that between April 19 and July 25, 448 people were killed, 718 disappeared, and 2,830 were wounded. Nicaraguan citizens have died from sniper shots fired into a crowd during a peaceful protest attended by hundreds of thousands of people. A Brazilian medical student was recently gunned down near the school where I used to work. A house owned by a family that doesn’t support the government was set on fire – six people burned to death, including a toddler and a three-month-old baby.
Living in Nicaragua hasn’t always been a nightmare.
My husband and I moved to Nicaragua in 2011. We met in 2001 in Minnesota, where I was born. He grew up in Nicaragua during the 80s and 90s and then lived in the United States for 13 years attending university and working. We both wanted to work toward social justice after college, and his dream was always to return to Nicaragua, his home and the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere.
In 2011 he got a job working at an organization building schools in rural communities. I became a teacher at an international school. We bought a house and gave birth to our son and daughter. On the weekends we drove to the beach or hiked in the mountains. We took day trips to swim in the sparkling crater lake (Laguna de Apoyo), or peek at the bubbling lava from the smoking Masaya Volcano.
We moved to Managua right before the elections of 2011, when guerilla-fighter turned politician Daniel Ortega won a second term as president. Ortega had helped overthrow the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 during the Sandinista Revolution, after four decades of repressive rule. Ortega became president in 1984 and served until 1990, when he was voted out of office. He was again elected president in 2006. Since then, Ortega has consolidated power and taken control of the parliament, the courts, and the military while also creating what some have described as a family dynasty by appointing his wife, Rosario Murillo, as vice-president.
Politics had always been a common topic of conversation among our friends and colleagues. We frequently discussed what many deemed as Ortega´s authoritarian ways: how the administration bused in government workers to attend rallies, where lack of participation could result in losing your job. How he changed the constitution in 2013, so that in 2017 he was able to run for a third consecutive term, which previously was deemed unconstitutional. How in 2015, he secretly signed a law that would allow for a canal to be built that would have forced peasant farmers off their land as well as generate irreversible environmental damage. He repressed any sort of dissent by sending out turbas and motorizados, pro-government civilians who terrorize and beat up protestors.
From Hot Spot to Hot Spot
Not everyone saw the president as authoritarian. During these seven years of living in Nicaragua, I met many people who favored Ortega and his policies. After the elections in 2017, I spoke with teachers from one rural school who said they felt much more support from his administration than previous ones. Under changes he made, the students began to receive a daily meal of rice and beans, as well as free backpacks and shoes at the beginning of the school year. Many social programs were set in place for rural residents, such as Plan Techo, where low-income families received sheets of zinc for the roof of their homes, or Hambre Zero, a program aimed at curbing malnutrition, where residents obtained crops as well as animals such as cows, pigs, or chickens.
Under Ortega, the business sector built strong alliances with the government and business boomed. Each year, more businesses, buildings, and malls were constructed. The government built brand new parks throughout the country and invested heavily in tourism. It was deemed the safest country in Central America without the narco-trafficking or gang violence that plague our northern neighbors in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Nicaragua was the new up and coming destination, from backpackers on a budget to high-end vacationers able to pay $500-$1000 per night at luxury resorts. Articles from travel bloggers, The New York Times, and National Geographic praised Nicaragua as a hot spot (the good kind).
But tourism came to a screeching halt after April 18 when Nicaraguans, mainly university students, peacefully protested social security reforms the government abruptly announced. Protestors were brutally repressed by police with rubber bullets, tear gas, and live ammunition. As the protests continued in the following days, several people died, including a journalist shot in the neck when he was filming police repression live on Facebook. Stores were looted, bus drivers went on strike, and families of U.S. Embassy personnel, missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers, and students studying in Nicaragua were evacuated. Hostels, restaurants, and stores let go of their staff and closed their doors. Faced with intensifying protests, Ortega rescinded the reforms.
Yet with the increased violence and bloodshed the demands changed: students and common people now want Ortega and Murillo to step down, and their constitutional right to peacefully protest to be respected. They are demanding freedom to protest and live in a true democracy.
Living Through the Chaos
Many Nicaraguans became part of the opposition. Government workers who denounced the repression received death threats and risked losing their jobs. Citizens continued to fight back, mostly unarmed, and took over universities and set up road-blocks, trying to interrupt economic activity in a pacifist manner. These protests were met with a heavy hand. Paramilitary forces backed by the police dismantled the roadblocks, which resulted in many casualties, as the protestors mostly fought back the bullets with homemade weapons. Students that had overtaken one of the universities were surrounded by paramilitaries and took refuge in a church for 18 hours, until members of the church were able to negotiate their release.
The government is also terrorizing the population by kidnapping students and others involved in the opposition. A law was passed on July 16 that allows terrorism charges to be brought against protesters and those who financially support protests, which could carry prison terms of 15-20 years. Numerous reports have come out that a son or daughter did not return home, and the parents have no idea of their whereabouts. Students and others participating in protests are sent to jails in deplorable conditions, and it is very difficult for families to receive information, yet they desperately wait, mostly mothers, outside the jail with photos of their missing children. On July 22, police were sent to clear out the family members, and they fled to take refuge in a church.
I have not personally experienced the tragic levels of pain that many Nicaraguans are facing, although I have friends of friends of people that have been killed and disappeared. Life in Nicaragua is completely different now. Armed robberies and muggings have dramatically increased at night, and we must be in the house before dark. Shots were fired a few blocks from our house, and later we realize that a motorcyclist was killed. The baby-sitter that watches our children during the week while we are at work was not able to travel to Managua for several weeks because she wasn’t able to get through the roadblocks. Numerous school days were canceled, and we spent weeks holed up in the house, afraid to leave due to the fear of what could happen in the streets.
My husband and I both work for an experiential education and service-learning organization that brings students from the United States and Canada to help build schools in rural communities as well as learn about Nicaragua. Canada and the United States have issued travel advisories to Nicaragua, and thus all group travel has been canceled for the rest of the year and rerouted to our location in Ecuador. We were both asked to support these trips, so my husband and I, along with our two children, moved to Ecuador for two months.
I’m writing this essay from Quito.
We are lucky. Although we have been uprooted from our home that we love, we have been able to hold onto jobs, while more than 200,000 Nicaraguans have lost theirs. Many people who have been threatened or who have the means to leave the country are doing so, spending entire days waiting in line at the immigration office requesting passports and travel documents. I spent seven hours prior to our travel requesting required visas for my Nicaraguan children, and I have been told people now begin to get in line at 3:00 am. Although hundreds of people are leaving the country the reality for the majority of Nicaraguans is that leaving the country is not economically viable.
I want to have a voice to stand up against the repression. Yet, as a foreigner, I am prohibited from participating. While I have two Nicaraguan-born children and I have been a legal, permanent resident for the past seven years, Article 1 of the Nicaraguan Constitution states that my residency could be revoked if I were to participate in national politics.
It is hard to know what the next step is. We plan on returning to Nicaragua when we can, despite the economic and security concerns. We desperately want our children to know and love Nicaragua as we do, as well as learn its rich culture and history. We admire the brave people standing up for justice, trying to end the repressive rule they have been forced to endure. While we cling to hope, hope alone can sometimes feel inadequate.
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Human Rights, Civil Society, Protest, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Latin America