Sandinismo Is in the Streets

Against the Current, No. 201, July/August 2019

Dianne Feeley

MORE THAN 100,000 U.S. citizens went to Nicaragua between the 1979 overthrow of the Somoza regime and the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas (FSLN) in 1990. I was among them, planting trees in Managua while my own government armed the Contra war. Others went on health brigades, bringing needed medicines to hospitals and clinics, or volunteered on farms.

Wherever we went, we met Nicaraguans who were transforming their lives. I was there for a month in the fall of 1984, during the first election campaign. As the right wing boycotted the election, I attended various debates among leftist candidates. It was an exciting moment.

When the Sandinistas were defeated in 1990 by center-right politicians backed by Washington, I was shocked. Yet I realized the brutality of the Contra war had worn people down. The Sandinista government, in placating the wealthy, had placed the heavy burden of conscription on poor and working people. People desired peace.

Despite the various errors of the FSLN, I hoped that they would “govern from below,” and that a vibrant civic movement could limit the right’s ability to roll back reforms. But even during the transition, FSLN politicians grabbed state property for themselves.

Failing to distinguish between what belonged to the party and what to the state had been a problem from the beginning, but now leaders took what they said belonged to them for all of their years of struggle.

The second problem surfaced when Daniel Ortega’s stepdaughter accused him of sexual molestation. Her mother, Rosario Murrillo, Ortega’s longtime partner and today the country’s vice president, denied the accusation. Although supported by feminists, Zoilamérica Narváez Murillo was unable to have her case heard by the FSLN ethics commission. Eventually she felt forced to leave the country.

The internal life of the FSLN became even less democratic as Daniel Ortega consolidated his political machine and moved to the right. Historic leaders from the Sandinista government — including former Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal, Vice-President Sergio Ramirez, and Dora María Téllez, the first Minister of Health — withdrew when they were unable to effect change within the party.

Ortega made a pact with the conservative Liberal Alliance headed by Arnoldo Alemán. Further, just a month before the elections, he cemented his alliance with the reactionary Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo by arranging for FSLN legislators to replace the longstanding therapeutic abortion law with a stricter one.

The following year a Human Rights Watch report, “Over Their Dead Bodies,” outlined the effects of the blanket ban. It not only cut access to abortion, but created a climate of fear so that women with pregnancy-related complications felt they had no one to turn to.

Ortega regained the presidency in 2006 with 38% of the vote. Eric Toussaint’s article in this ATC discusses his moves to consolidate power by denying political opponents ballot status and using his office to remold and corrupt the judicial, legislative and electoral branches of government.

Despite the authoritarianism of the regime, until recently Ortega has been able to maintain his popularity. Partly that is because Washington has always opposed him, partly because he maintained an anti-imperialist rhetoric and partly because he paid attention to his base of support in the street.

During Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez government, Nicaragua received more than 90% of its oil at very favorable prices. As a result, Ortega had an extra annual $500 million to use without any instititional oversight. Approximately 38% of the sum subsidized various low-income projects; the remainder was invested in profit-generating businesses or set aside as reserves. Since 2015 Venezuela cut its oil exports by two-thirds; the low-income projects have diminished.


On April 3, 2018 a forest fire in the Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve blazed out of control. Initially Rosario Murrillo minimized the extent of the blaze and rejected help from Costa Rican firefighters. Three days later, students at Central American University (UCA) protested this indifference. They held the government responsible for the invasion of non-indigenous settlers that led to the fire.

Within the week 300 students from various universities were demonstrating in front of UCA. Then an ever larger crowd decided to march through Managua, demanding information. Anti-riot police tried to stop them, beating several.

The fire lasted 10 days, destroying 5,500 hectares and a portion of the sanctuary for endangered species such as jaguars and tapirs. One environmental scientist called it “the greatest ecological catastrophe in our nation’s history.”

Just days after students returned to class, the head of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS) announced an increase in social security taxes for both employers and workers along with cuts to pensioners’ benefits. Business leaders from COSEP, who had previously supported Ortega’s programs, had previously walked out of the talks.

When a small group of pensioners gathered on April 18 to protest the cuts, some students responded to a social media alert and joined up with them. Within a few minutes, 150 members of the Sandinista Youth (JS) showed up armed with clubs and metal tubes. They beat protesters and stole the cameras of independent journalists. Only after the appearance of 200 anti-riot police did the protesters flee, first toward an upscale mall, which closed its gates to them, and then back to the campus, which offered protection.

All this was documented by cell phones and shown on independent TV channels. The government’s response was to cut the transmissions of four TV channels. But that didn’t stop marches from spreading.

The following day, Managua residents joined the students and pensioners in hours-long confrontations. Police used bullets and snipers fired from rooftops. In the end three were dead and dozens wounded, including one policeman. The following day Ángel Gahona, a journalist, was shot to death while covering protests in Bluefields.

On April 21,  2018, just back from a trip to Cuba, Daniel Ortega appeared in public and described the protesters as belonging to “pro-imperialist groups.” Yet the following day he withdrew the INSS “reforms” and agreed to participate in a “national dialogue” with business leaders and worker representatives. However, the business leaders conditioned their participation on an end to the violence. Ortega refused to accept the precondition.

Meanwhile COSEP leaders called for an April 23 “March for Peace and Dialogue.” Thousands joined the five-mile march as police stayed away.

Bouyed by that success, the business leaders called for expanding the dialogue to include civil society and broader issues, including an investigation into the murders, reform of the electoral system, elimination of corrupt practices and a resolution of the social security crisis. This is how the Civic Alliance came into being as a broad front and how business broke with the regime.

For their part, Catholic bishops, who Ortega had invited to participate in the dialogue, called for a “Pilgrimage for Peace.” On April 28 hundreds of thousands marched in Managua with parallel actions in departmental capitals. Once again police stayed away.

Peasants from the Council in Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty arrived in truck caravans and joined the pilgrimage. They had formed five years previously in order to oppose the government’s plan to construct an environmentally damaging transcontinental canal. Their attempts to organize national protests against the canal project had been blockaded by police and some of their leaders arrested as terrorists.

This unification of urban and rural forces further strengthened the Civic Alliance. Yet the violence continued as anti-riot police and armed paramilitaries attacked students who had taken over Managua’s Polytechnic University and UCA’s Managua campus. Police attacks in Masaya, and particularly its indigenous barrio of Monimbó, led the population to erect barricades in what had been a historic Sandinista site.

Dialogue and Brutality

The televised dialogue sessions began on May 18 at the national Catholic seminary. Student and peasant leaders confronted Ortega and Murillo, demanding their resignation and an end to the repression.

When Ortega said he would look into the deaths if they sent him the names, one student immediately stood and began to read the names off. After each name the others shouted ¡Presente!

Just the day before a 15-person delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), arrived. After hearing testimony from 3,000 people in Managua, León, Masaya and Matagalpa, they issued a preliminary report on May 21 with 15 recommendations. The first called for an immediate end of repression and arbitrary detention.

Although the government accepted the IACHR recommendations, the violence escalated. As for the dialogue, on May 23, seeing an impasse, the bishops suspended further meetings.

After the Dialogue, More Repression

The 300,000-person Mother’s Day march on May 30, 2018, honoring mothers whose children were killed the month before, saw a resurgence of police repression: 14 killed, more than 100 wounded. Protesters did not anticipate that police would attack the march of mothers, but they did with particular brutality.
Government orders also prevented hospitals from receiving and treating the injured. Medical personnel who dared to help were subsequently fired.

In response to continuing arrests, roadblocks went up on highways and barricades built in cities. Local residents guarded them day and night. Traffic throughout the country and at the border was halted. Police trucks, accompanied by bulldozers, were deployed to destroy one after another. The last of the 200 was toppled just in time for what observers felt was a staged celebration on the anniversary of the revolution.

Between April 19 and August 4, 2018 the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) estimated that 306 people were killed (21 under 17), roughly 2200 injured, 300 kidnapped (without a judicial order) of whom 148 were accused of terrorism, 180 disappeared (some of whom have resurfaced, having been tortured), 2500 jailed but released and 23,000 who went across the border, mostly to Costa Rica.

Last December the FSLN-dominated National Assembly revoked the legal status of nine non-profit organizations, accusing them of U.S. ties. This included CENIDH, the most respected human rights organization in the country. By February 2019 the Committee of Political Prisoners listed 777 people (714 men, 60 women and three transgender women) as either in prison or under house arrest. Recently three peasant anti-canal leaders were convicted and sentenced to a total of 585 years!

The demands of the broad protest movement remain the immediate freeing of all prisoners, the resignation of the Ortega-Murillo regime and the convening of new and transparent elections. (Currently elections are scheduled for the fall of 2021.)

Of course this situation has provided Donald J. Trump and his advisors — especially Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) — with an opportunity to intervene. On November 27 Trump signed an executive order giving the Treasury Department the go-ahead to block the property and interests of specific political actors.

Other sanction tools have been applied under the Global Magnitsky Act, but most importantly last December Congress passed the Nica Act. As a result, international financial agencies have been instructed to cut off all loans.

The problems of the economy are growing under the imposition of U.S. sanctions. Compounding the current economic and political crises was passage, in early 2019, of the law increasing social security taxes and reducing pensions of future retirees.

Impasse and Conclusion

The Nicaraguan government, IACHR and the OAS had agreed that IACHR’s Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) would document the violent events of April and May. But December 16, the day before they were scheduled to present their findings, GIEI — along with IACHR — was “temporarily expelled.” Foreign Minister Dennis Moncada stated that the government would not accept a report full of lies.

Nicaragua, a country of nearly seven million and today primarily urban, now faces the devastating blows of both political repression and economic sanctions. Perhaps to buy more time, Daniel Ortega called for re-establishing negotiations with the opposition — while still referring to the April demonstration as an “attempted coup.”

Meanwhile, with the OAS scheduled to discuss Nicaragua at their upcoming meeting, and with the U.S. sanctions coming into force, the government began releasing political prisoners. This was to fulfill one of the IACHR recommendations the government signed in March 2018. Although the Red Cross was assigned to guarantee that the prisoners were released, so far it has been left in the dark, with no list of who or when, whether they are subject to house arrest or whether their records are being expunged.

On May 16 Eddy Montes Praslin, a well-known activist from Matagalpa arrested last October on terrorism charges, was murdered by guards at the Modelo Prison. Only the presence of the Red Cross stopped the guards from beating the other prisoners.

This led to demonstrations in his home town. In response, the Civic Alliance called for a general strike on May 23. In Matagalpa the streets were filled; in other areas protesters stayed home. These are the first public actions since last spring.

The second round of negotiations, starting February 27, 2019 and continuing over the next two months, still found the regime unwilling to negotiate a plan to resign. It was also unwilling to sign any agreement that would be supervised by international guarantors such as IACHR or the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights. Government negotiators insisted the only guarantor could be one of their own discredited institutions.

The impass continues while the need for a negotiated settlement remains strong. Clearly the Civic Alliance needs the backing of international human rights organizations as observers and documentarians. But that does not mean these institutions have any right to impose a solution. That remains the task of the Nicaraguan people.

After so much violence the majority of Nicaraguans do not believe change can come through sanctions or war. Determined to build a new Nicaragua, they desire peace.

Yet this is a particularly difficult moment as Washington has been orchestrating a destabilization campaign against Venezuela. Washington claims to use its sanctions against the Nicaraguan regime in the name of opposing corruption. The regime is corrupt but that in no way justifies U.S. interference.

Those of us who have been supporters of the Sandinista Revolution need to see that the Ortega-Murillo regime has stained that revolution. Our solidarity, therefore, has two tasks: to stay the hand of Washington, and to build networks of solidarity with the civic movement.

July-August 2019, ATC 201

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