MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans flooded the streets of Managua on Monday, as demonstrations against pension reforms escalated into mass calls for the resignation of President Daniel Ortega.
Protesters carried flags and photos of those killed by security forces in recent days, chanting “President out!” as they moved through the city.
“We want Ortega out of the country and a return to a democratic system with a free media and the right to protest,” said Leina Garcia, a journalist with El Nuevo Diario.
Demonstrations began peacefully last Wednesday in opposition to Ortega's proposed reforms to Nicaragua’s crisis-hit National Social Security Institute (INSS). The president sought a 5 percent tax to pensions and disability living allowances, and an increase to contributions paid by employees and employers.
For many Nicaraguans, Ortega's latest demand was yet another example of government overstep, though not entirely surprising. But the level of violence exhibited in the government’s response jolted many who hadn’t joined the original protests out onto the streets, generating a nationwide movement against Ortega’s 12-year corrupt and authoritarian rule. Students played a lead role, occupying university buildings and resisting eviction by building barricades and defending them with homemade weapons.
At Polytechnic University of Nicaragua (UPOLI) still protestors occupy campus buildings even after a series of clashes with the police over the weekend left several students dead. The violence there has made UPOLI a symbol of resistance to government repression.
Reynaldo, an 18-year-old engineering student, was on the front line as police advanced on Sunday night.
“We set up barriers and confront them with stones, Molotovs, and homemade firearms,” he said. “They throw teargas and shoot at us, sometimes with rubber bullets, sometimes live ammunition.”
Doctors volunteering inside the Polytechnic University told VICE News that 30 students had died in clashes with security forces since the occupation began Thursday, although this could not be independently confirmed. The Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (CENIDH) has identified 26 deaths across the country since violence broke out, mostly the result of government security forces firing on demonstrators.
“We can say 26 with certainty, but there are undoubtedly more,” said Vilma Nunez, founder and president of CENIDH. “This is an atypical situation because it’s not just police repression; the government also deploys gangs of young men, usually armed with clubs or bats. We have evidence that these gangs have been ordered to loot shops and justify the government’s repression of legitimate protesters.” Footage shows members of one such group, the Sandinista Youth, assaulting protesters while police look on.
The true death toll from the weekend of violence remains unknown, but accounts across the country tell a vivid story of shocking state violence. With the government cracking down on media coverage of the protests, Nicaraguans are sharing evidence of abuses on social media using the #sosnicaragua hashtag.
On Thursday, a 15-year-old was shot in the throat at a demonstration near a shopping mall in Managua. In the city of Bluefields, on the country’s Caribbean coast, a journalist was shot dead while live-streaming protests. A father of two children was shot while protesting by members of the Sandinista Youth. Two UPOLI students were killed as they fought alongside Reynaldo on Sunday night.
In addition to deaths, human rights groups have documented 428 injuries and more than 100 arrests or disappearances since the protests began. Shops have been looted and public buildings burned to the ground, including part of the National University in Leon and the city hall in Granada. The government has also cut the signal on critical media channels and intensified censorship elsewhere, leading to the resignation of six journalists.
Yet Ortega’s forceful attempts to contain the spread of anti-government protests is only fueling greater opposition. As key allies lined up against his pension reforms, including the private-sector body COSEP, Ortega withdrew them on Sunday.
His attempts at reconciliation proved too little too late.
“People began by protesting corruption and wasted resources in the INSS,” said Nunez. “But now the movement has picked up the force of all the rage accumulated by people who for years have been repressed, who haven’t been able to protest or speak out against the government.”
Ortega, a commander during the Sandinista Revolution, has been in power since 2006. In that time, he’s centralized power over key institutions and made his wife vice president.
“There’s no independent judicial power. The supreme electoral council doesn’t function,” said Nunez. “Combined with control over the police and the army, this leaves people with no access to justice. There’s huge impunity. This creates the conditions for systematic human rights violations, for the repression and deaths we’re seeing right now.”
In 2009, the Supreme Court, controlled by Ortega’s party, overturned a constitutional ban on the president serving two consecutive terms. Since then, Ortega has gutted opposition parties and hounded prominent critics, including several former Sandinista leaders. A 2014 reform put him in direct control of the police and neutralized a second constitutional safeguard preventing the president from using the army for domestic security.
On Monday, ex–Sandinista Chief of Staff Joaquin Cuadra Lacayo used a newspaper interview to warn Ortega that having the army repress protesters “would be a historic error."
Protesters voiced mixed views on what will happen next, some insisting they’ll stay on the streets until Ortega resigns, others demanding action on transparency and accountability to ensure free elections in two years’ time. But it’s clear that years of simmering anger are not going to be easily suppressed.
“We need elections to choose a new leader and overhaul our congress, which hasn’t even opened its mouth during this crisis,” said bank cashier Ronnie Obando.
“We’re fed up with phantom elections, phantom salaries, phantom consultants, the fact you can’t get good work unless you have connections with the right people,” said Belem, a doctor volunteering on the UPOLI campus who withheld her last name for security purposes. “Everyone knows this, but no one’s been able to say it, because we’d lost the right to have an opinion. Until now.”
Cover image: A demonstrator takes part in a protest as Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega cancelled a planned overhaul of the welfare system in a bid to end protests in Managua, Nicaragua, April 22, 2018. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas
Toby Hill is a freelance journalist reporting on social and environmental issues in Latin America and the UK.