MASAYA, Nicaragua — On a dusty backstreet in the city of Masaya, masked protesters took shelter behind a stone barricade. Two blocks away, police and members of a pro-government paramilitary force shot at demonstrators from the city’s main square with a mix of non-lethal bullets, tear gas, and live ammunition, which has caused around 50 deaths since anti-government protests first rocked the country a month ago.
Demonstrations calling for the resignation of President Daniel Ortega intensified across Nicaragua this weekend, after gun attacks by government militants killed three protesters on Thursday night. Masaya suffered the fiercest clashes, and by midnight on Saturday, the city hall was in flames and two more protesters had been shot dead.
Fernando Diaz, a salesman from Masaya, unexpectedly found himself on the frontline after joining protests for the first time earlier that morning. The fighting has stirred old memories for Diaz; he was 12 when the Nicaraguan revolution against dictator Anastasio Somoza broke out in 1978.
“That started the same way,” Diaz recalls. “Somoza’s guards had guns and all the people had were stones and mortars.”
Attacks by Ortega’s forces are inciting more people to join the uprising, including in cities that have typically supported him. Masaya is the latest example: Situated 20 miles south of the capital Managua, it’s an unlikely center for the anti-Ortega uprising. It was a revolutionary stronghold in 1978, and has backed Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FLSN) ever since.
Though some Masaya residents remain loyal. Many more of Ortega’s supporters are breaking with the embattled Nicaraguan President. With anger at boiling point, hopes for a peaceful resolution rest on dialogue led by the Catholic Church. But with typical government strongholds turning against Ortega, many are worried how the longtime leader will respond.
“We’ve seen a rupture with the government in the Sandinista base, in cities where they had hegemony, like Leon, Masaya, Matagalpa and Estelí,” says Sofia Montenegro, a sociologist who fought with Sandinista guerrillas against Somoza.
One of the fiercest points of resistance is the indigenous neighborhood of Monimbó, in the south of Masaya. The revolt here carries symbolic potency. In 1978, Monimbó residents were the first civilians to rise with Ortega’s Sandinista movement against Somoza. Ortega was a Sandinista commander at the time, and his younger brother was among those killed.
Today, a memorial by Monimbó’s San Sebastian Church commemorates the 13 Masaya residents killed during a protest on April 19, 2018. One of the dead was Alvaro Gomez, who voted for Ortega in 2016, but joined the protests in anger over the student deaths.
“People here are proud of the part they played in the revolution,” says his father, Alvaro Gomez Sr., who lost a leg in the struggle against US-backed Contras in the 1980s. “Before these protests, some of us disagreed with the government, but most maintained their support for the President. Now nearly everyone is against them. They’re killing the sons of the parents who fought in the ‘80s.”
Demonstrations began in mid-April, sparked by cuts to pensions and disability allowances. But after state security forces responded with lethal force, grievances over policies changes transformed into a nationwide movement against Ortega and his government.
“There is a long list of abuses, grievances, censorship, killings in the countryside by the army, Orwellian control from city hall at a local level, unrestrained corruption, consecutive electoral frauds in national, legislative and regional elections, repression and abuse of students, persecution of NGOs,” said Montenegro. “What we’ve seen in these protests is the materialization of an alliance between the countryside and the city: between campesinos and students and the urban population.”
On May 9, 200,000 protesters marched through the streets of Managua. The next evening, renewed gun attacks by pro-government paramilitary forces on student-occupied universities in Managua left three protesters dead at the Polytechnic University. The following morning, 18 students were reportedly hospitalized by donated food that had been laced with poison.
The fighting revitalized a fresh round of protests that swept the country last week. By nightfall on Saturday, Masaya seemed close to full-blown insurrection: The town hall was on fire and protesters had erected roadblocks across the city.
The government has defended its use of force as a “legitimate defense” in the face of “tiny groups that seek to destabilise Nicaragua.” But with his support base steadily crumbling, Ortega made his first real concession on Monday morning, inviting the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights into Nicaragua to investigate the mounting deaths and disappearances. This was one of the prerequisites for dialogue set by the Catholic Church, and talks between the government and representatives of civil society are now set to begin on Wednesday, May 16.
Few, however, expect the government to commit to the kind of reform protesters are calling for — such as changes to Supreme Court and Electoral Council that would roll back the centralisation of power in Ortega’s hands.
“Ortega will have to reflect radically on his politics if the dialogue is to make progress,” said Ricardo Antonio de Leon Borge, a political analyst in Managua. Though this isn’t likely, neither is civil war, Borge said, adding that today’s protests lack the funding and resources Ortega’s Sandinista fighters had when they overthrew the last government.
“If the army backs the government, it will be able to maintain power,” he said. But he didn’t rule out another dimension if Ortega continues to lose his loyal supporters: “We could see a coup by those same armed forces, as the FSLN loses its grip on power.”
Thus far the army has straddled the fence: On the one hand, they’ve affirmed they have “no reason to repress protesters.” But they’ve also said they “back the efforts of the government of Nicaragua” to find a peaceful solution.
For Fernando Diaz, the situation is much more clear-cut. As smoke and tear gas polluted the Masaya air, he said, “We’re going to keep resisting until this government resigns.”
Cover image: A sea of protesters demonstrate at the foot of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Managua, Nicaragua on April 28. (Toby Hill for VICE News.)
Toby Hill is a freelance journalist reporting on social and environmental issues in Latin America and the UK.