What was it that set Nicaragua—a society disciplined for years by Daniel Ortega's iron fist—on the warpath? Martín Caparrós traveled to the country experiencing the greatest massacre in its peacetime history to try to answer this question.
By Martin Caparrós
“This wasn't even conceivable a month ago,” they say, they repeat. I've heard it so many times recently in Managua: that no one—and I mean no one—foresaw it, that everyone believed that Ortega was a rock, that it was such a surprise, that he's still there. That who knows what will happen now.
How does a revolution begin?
Why does a revolution begin?
Nicaragua was plunged into a stupor for years. It was ruled with an iron fist (and a fistful of flags and dollars) by one of the most colourful couples in the entire parrot-green continent: Commander Daniel Ortega Saavedra, 72, and his wife and vice-president and poet and sorceress Rosario Murillo Zambrana, 66. Ortega already ruled Nicaragua for eleven years between 1979 and 1990, and eleven more since 2007, and he doesn't want to give it up. Like other recent Latin American leaders, he gave in to his own temptation; in order to realize it, he put together a constitution that guaranteed his eternal re-election. And no one seemed to be in the position to prevent it.
His base was solid: he had given the Catholic church an influential space and the harshest anti-abortion laws in the world; he had given the richest entrepreneurs guarantees and provisions and more and more businesses; he had satisfied the International Monetary Fund. For years, his country had grown at an annual four percent rate—until Venezuela's fall cracked the mirror. But he held on to the backing of a good one-third of the population, the tolerance of another third, the obedience of public employees, the active support of the army, a tight grip on the police and parapolice, the indifferent ennui of young people.
Carrot-and-stick policies were working, but then carrots started to become scarce. In mid-April, harried by cash-flow problems, Commander Ortega decided to announce a cut in retirement funds and an increase in contributions to the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security. His business allies were surprised—normally, the Commander reached agreements with them on such policies, and this time he hadn't. It was just a hiccup, nothing serious. The same would be true for the two or three small protests in which a handful of senior citizens would attempt to complain. But during the march in León, the country's second-largest city, on April 18, some Sandinista youth attacked the old people. Images flooded social media. That evening, students decided to protest. There were so few of them that they arranged to meet at Camino de Oriente, a shopping strip in the suburbs of Managua, hoping that Ortega's long arm wouldn't reach them there.
The government of Daniel Ortega was always serious about the notion that the State should have a monopoly on violence
It did. The government of Daniel Ortega was always serious about the notion that the State should have a monopoly on violence. That's why it has, of course, a police force and an army, but also those groups of thugs that Nicaraguans call la turba—the mob—or los motorizados, who usually arrive on motorcycles, are employed by some government agency or another, and intervene when the popular cause has to be defended with clubs—or bullets, if necessary. That evening, at that mall, they started handing out beatings, robbing journalists, smashing heads—all under the police's watchful eye. It was the usual remedy for a handful of troublemakers: you'd put them in their place and they'd calm down. But that night, thousands saw them on television, thousands on social media, and they had enough. The next day, thousands and thousands poured onto the streets.
Clearing a path
No. 1. Darwin Urbina was a worker and fussy about his appearance: he had an intricate haircut, a short beard, a certain concern about his clothes, a confident smile; he did all right with girls, he liked himself. That evening, April 19, he was returning from his job at a supermarket when he noticed that some young people from the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua (Upoli) were setting up barricades, because the police and the motorizados were running them off. Darwin recognized a few of them—years back, he'd sold tamales outside the classrooms—and decided to help them: it had been ages since anything like this had happened in Managua. The young people were excited: they were breaking taboos, prohibitions, they were clearing a path, perhaps. The police came closer, menacing; they sang the national anthem. Shots rang out; Darwin fell, his neck broken.
When his sister Grethel finally found him in the police morgue, the coroner told her that his death had been immediate, that he hadn't suffered. And a plain-clothes policeman suggested that the bullet had come from the students, but she refused to believe it because she knew they were unarmed. But the authorities said it anyway, and they also said that Darwin was a slacker, a thief: in those first hours, it was still a single death, isolated, and it was easier to say things. The government was confident: they knew that if a few people stepped over the line, they'd have to browbeat them; and if clubs weren't enough, they’d have to kill a few to calm the others down.
But this time something went wrong: what had always worked failed. That night there were two more deaths, and the next day, instead of calm there was chaos: the street became a battle zone. The weakling didn't want to be weak anymore; the strongman didn't know what to do. Rosario Murillo, wife and vice-president, hastened to say that the culprits “are like vampires demanding blood. […] They're those tiny groups, those small, toxic, hate-filled souls. […] They're those miserable beings, mediocre beings, small beings, beings filled with hatred that still have the nerve to make up deaths among them. It's a sin to fabricate deaths, to commit fraud while playing with lives.” If she meant to scare them, she couldn't have done worse; her insults only stoked the fire, and ended up convincing those that had been unsure. With these deaths, with these words, Nicaragua was beginning to change.
If anybody knew how revolutions start, they'd know almost everything. A revolution is a radical change in a known condition: it arrives when everything we took for granted suddenly stops being so. When indifferent young people decide to risk their lives, when satisfied entrepreneurs fight with their general manager, when priests no longer submit and they find their mission, when the strongman becomes weak and no one is afraid of him anymore.
“We put up with him for too long. No, I don't know why, either. I don't know why we put up with him or why we stopped putting up with him.”
Suri tells me, 25, a student, an occupier at the Upoli.
We're in the third-floor hallway of a modern building, with windows, tiles, sitting on the floor; a large institutional poster says that Upoli “educates its students to serve according to Jesus Christ's model; to become leaders with an entrepreneurial, creative, investigative, and highly competitive spirit in a worldwide context.”
“Good thing we're back to being ourselves again, though, right?”
Nobody knows why these things happen, why the 180-degree change. We can only confirm it later, when it's a fact. It's easy, now, to say it was those deaths: that Nicaraguans could not tolerate those deaths. It's hard to know why a government that knew better than any other how to keep people calm, complacent, fearful, suddenly lost its footing and hurled itself into its own abyss.
“I decided to come here because I couldn't stand that they kept killing our people; I thought I had to do something.”
Suri says; a lot of people thought so. On April 20, there were already ten deaths that were known to have caused by police and parapolice bullets. Several universities were occupied, the country was perplexed, thousands of men and women took to the streets in all its cities. They weren't just protesting against Ortega's government this time; they were also asking for justice for the dead.
“We're going to kick him out. We don't know how, but we're going to kick him out, because we want to be free, we want our Nicaragua free, we want our blue and white flag to shine.”
Suri prefers not to tell me her name; she does tell me she’s worked at many things, but now she's unemployed and studies marketing in night school. She has a fifteen-month-old baby, whom her parents help raise. She’s been an occupier for a month; she can only go home some nights. Suri is skinny, with a round face, sweet, almost sad: her black hair falls over her eyes; she has an expression of someone that’s seen too much.
“You have no idea how much I miss him.”
She tells me, referring to her son. Like in other remote areas of the empire, here, too, Spaniards spoke to each other using the pronoun vos, which Suri uses. She has a mission:
“My job here is to ensure food provisions; I make sure meals are prepared for everyone that’s fighting; we're talking about more than six hundred meals three times a day.”
Two metres away there's a hand-painted sign: “Let them be afraid, because we aren't anymore.” It's not always true: Suri is afraid, but she's here anyway.
“No, I'm unable to be in the trenches, throwing mortars. First of all because I have a baby. I help them from here, but going out and having the police come to us... I think I'd faint right then and there. We're not all the same, some of the women are warriors, but I...”
They're not all the same; Dolly, a feminist militant, will later tell me that she left the Upoli because she didn't want to participate in an “occupation led by a bunch of machos“:
“It’s guys who are in charge of the trenches, and that has to do with our culture. There was a point when their style of leadership became really macho, and I was sent to the kitchen, so I told them to eat shit.”
She says, when I ask her why all the victims of the Sandinista repression are men. The Upoli is the most militant university: youth from the tough neighbourhoods that surround it participate in the occupation. Around the central building there’s a large park, a very well-guarded gate, boys walking around with mortars; beyond that, the streets are blocked with cobblestone barricades—the “trenches“—: those keeping watch over the trenches come here to eat, rest, treat wounds if they need to. Here, there are young men, their faces hidden with handkerchiefs, that walk as if the very earth were their enemy; small groups speaking in whispers; there are looks. There's a room where they make the bombs for the mortars: four-ounce ones, half-pound ones, which make more noise than damage when they explode, but even so. And in three classrooms on the ground floor there’s an improvised field hospital that in the last five weeks has tended to over 120 wounded—and suffered several deaths. They set it up because the public hospitals won't tend to them or will detain them.
“There aren't just students here; the people are here supporting them.”
A man who won’t give me his name tells us, thirty-something years old, wide-set body, a tattoo of Guevara on one shoulder, a days-old beard, a bullet wound in his leg. He's lying on a makeshift cot, two benches that hold a mat, his IV bottle, bandages.
“I'm a truck driver, but I also wanted to help the cause. When the first death happened, I went with a group in my neighbourhood to drop off supplies, but we saw what was going on and decided to stay with them. I've been here from the beginning, I’m in charge of around 35 guys, but I can't go back home because I'm a marked man…”
“And when will you be able to return?”
“No, I can't anymore. If this isn’t resolved, if the dictator doesn't leave, I won't be able to return anymore.”
“And do you think it will be resolved soon?”
“Well, we're all confident that it won’t come to civil war. But if that’s what happens…”
He says, lying on his cot, a wide smile. I ask why he has Guevara on his shoulder.
“Because he's a revolutionary, someone who was in lots of countries helping with revolutions.”
“And do you consider yourself a revolutionary?”
“About my homeland, yes. I want a country where we're all equal, where we all have the same rights, freedom, where we can all speak without being repressed. This is a dictatorship, and we have to break free from it.”
Says the man lying there. Later, Suri will tell me she feels despair when she sees the wounded arrive, that she wishes it would end already; I ask her how she thinks it will end.
“I don't know. If we don't win, this fight will have been in vain; the deaths of all who died will have been in vain, and it will be as if nothing ever happened. And they'll start hunting us down, and we'll begin disappearing one by one …”
“And do you think that's what will happen?”
“I hope not. I hope we can kick him out. We don't want that man in power; he can't continue there, he's genocidal. Yesterday a boy came who had been run over and crushed by one of the mob's pick-up trucks; I had to prepare him. And then the boy's dad came, and seeing that man's face broke my heart; there are no words. I imagine what my mother would feel is she saw me there…”
Says Suri, and she shows me the photographs of the dead: many brutal and horrific photographs of the dead.
“The Boy Martyr”
No. 5. Álvaro Conrado wanted to be a fireman or policeman. Who knows if he would have become one: when you're fifteen years old, life is a question mark filled with temptations. But that morning, Friday, April 20, he decided to go help the students that had been fighting with the police since the day before. Álvaro wore glasses, had a big shock of black hair, very good grades at school; he played the guitar, did acrobatics with his skateboard, ran track at his Jesuit school. So when he showed up at the National University of Engineering, they had him run between the barricades carrying water and baking soda for the young people who needed it to endure the tear-gas. The police would attack them with gas and bullets, and the students would defend themselves with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Álvaro was running when he felt the gunshot to his neck. Nobody knew where it came from; the students suspected there were sharpshooters positioned at a nearby baseball stadium.
Álvaro fell; he was losing a lot of blood but he was conscious; as several people lifted him in their arms—his jeans stained, his t-shirt red—he shouted, “It hurts to breathe, it hurts a lot.” His friends put him in a car and drove him to a public hospital—the Cruz Azul, the Blue Cross—where they turned him away; they say they had government orders not to provide care to the protesters. He was bleeding out; when he reached a religious hospital where they did accept him, it was already too late. Now, the media have baptized him as the “The Boy Martyr,” and protestors carry his bespectacled image on photos and signs. Álvaro, so young, has become the face of what’s happening these days.
They say there's a plan in place to give names and numbers to the streets of Managua, and that the Japan International Cooperation Agency promised to provide support, but for now addresses in the city are haphazard: “from Chico Pelón hill, one block towards the lake and three up,” or “from Faraoh Casino, two down and one and a half south“—a stronghold of resistance to Google Maps. Managua isn't mysterious—it's just incomprehensible. Managua is wide and flat, fearful; made of low-lying houses that won't collapse if there's an earthquake. Managua doesn't have a clear central area; it breaks up; every now and then there's a shopping mall or a neighbourhood with big or small houses, every now and then empty space: an unfinished city. And, every now and then, those famous trees.
The Catholic Church always knew that one of a faith's first imperatives is to occupy its space, and it filled its own with churches and crosses. Governments also know this, and they fill it with statues and flags. Ortega's government, half faith, half State, crammed it with his “trees of life.” There are around 140 spread out all over the city. They're based on a painting by Gustav Klimt, 1905, and they're filled with adornments and hidden meanings and esoteric clues: The Kabbalah, the Bible and other books from the tradition of dialectical materialism. Each “tree” is a metallic structure standing around twenty metres tall, 25,000 dollars each, filled with symbolic meaning: they should represent peace and love and all those things, but they signify, more than anything, the power of Rosario Murillo.
Rosario Murillo, the wife and vice-president, has rings on all her fingers, a daily program on the three official channels, and both authority over and the hatred of millions of Nicaraguans—including many Sandinistas. In the political economy usually ordered by dictatorships, she's the bad one, the one to blame, the one who makes her poor husband do horrible things: a figure like this tends to be useful. That's why they don't just call her “la Chayo,” a nickname for Rosario, but also “la Chamuca”: the witch, the sorceress. That's why they don't just call her trees arbolatas—tin trees—but mostly chayopalos, or “Chayo trees.” That's why on the night of April 20th, when protestors knocked down the first tree, it seemed that something serious had happened.
And that something was that thousands of young people had made up their minds: that the street, which had been controlled by Sandinismo for so many years, was becoming a disputed zone. And that the silence that had blanketed the country was breaking into screams. It was a big surprise. Four years earlier, when the government of Daniel Ortega decided to place free Wi-Fi in parks and plazas, some decried the move—the connections would be used to keep young people entertained with their chats and their little photos and other silly things. Not because they needed it: everyone said they were the most apathetic and frivolous generation in history, so different from their elders, who had risked their lives in wars and revolutions. Now, suddenly, those networks that were supposed to distract them had become their weapon, their instrument—thanks to Wi-Fi they were able to call each other, meet, pass slogans and instructions to each other, resist.
And the images of the reaction came from everywhere, recorded by the participants. Some were horrific: the cruelty of an attack, the agony of the wounded, the pain of a death. State television continued to lie calmly, but the trick wasn't working anymore. So they tried to improve it: they sent fake news—old or doctored photos—on social media, in order to later say they were made up and discredit the rest. “They said this and that, and they were lying,” said an official mini-smear campaign on social media. And shortly afterwards they cut off Wi-Fi in the plazas, but it didn’t matter: the videos continued.
“This is key. This changed history.”
The journalist from an independent radio station now says to me, showing me his cellphone. Now, the city’s taken over by those that kept silent: in every nook, on every street corner there might be a group of students, neighbours, men and women with blue and white flags who are protesting, who demand that he leave.
No. 9. His mother's sacrifice had paid off: at thirty, Michael Humberto Cruz had a five-month-old baby, a car, was well off and was in a graduate program at his university, Upoli. His mother, Rosa Amanda Cruz, had migrated north eighteen years earlier and got a job at a Mexican restaurant in San Mateo, California. She never saw Michael again, because she was undocumented, and because if she left the United States, she'd be unable to return, but thanks to the money she sent, her son studied and made a life for himself. They spoke every day: that morning, on the 21st, Michael told her he was going to support his classmates who’d gone out to defend the old people; Rosa asked him not to go, that it was dangerous, and he said they couldn't allow the government to take money from his grandfather and from other grandparents, and not to worry, Amita, that nothing would happen to him.
He was at a Upoli barricade when two gunshots to the chest killed him immediately. His mother arrived in Managua that same night: she knows she won't be able to return to the United States, but it's all the same to her: “I was there for him, to give him an education, a life. Now what does it matter.”
(As she was telling me this at a protest with blue and white flags, an unshaven man, with an open shirt, an orange watch, was watching us, taking photos of us. Rosa was looking at him out of the corner of her eye; her sister told me it was normal: that they're being followed, intimidated, that they try to scare them.)
On the road leading from Managua to Masaya there’s a roundabout called Ticuantepe; there, like in others, there was a chayopalo. One day in April, hundreds of “protestants“—they call them “protestants“—tore it down and replaced it with a Virgin of Cuapa, a well-painted, metre-and-a-half-tall figure. But shortly afterwards, the Sandinistas, headed by the Mayoress, took it out and instead placed a Virgin of Cuapa, a nicely-painted, metre-and-a-half-tall figure. The next day, the rebels came back and took down the image of the Virgin of Cuapa, and replaced it with their image of the Virgin of Cuapa—and on and on. Until the local priest intervened, called for peace and conciliation and they ended up agreeing to put the rebels' Virgin of Cuapa in the centre and Madam Mayor's Virgin of Cuapa in a corner: it was, without a doubt, a huge victory for the forces of change.
“There are priests here who have shown us what it means to be close to the people.”
Chan Carmona says to me a bit farther, in Monimbó, and tells me that during one of the most brutal moments of the confrontation there was a truce when the parish priest, César Augusto Gutiérrez, arrived there, gathered them together, told them that the church supported fair demands, asked them to respect life and made them say the Our Father. And he stayed on the street and spoke to the police so they wouldn't shoot to kill and he prayed for the prisoners; later, he fainted from the teargas.
“There are priests that are almost more huevones than we are.”
Huevón in Nicaraguan means brave, and Monimbó is an indigenous neighbourhood with a long tradition of resistance, but its story is not unique: in many corners of the country, priests mediated, interceded, supported demands, tended to the wounded, tried to moderate violence. And the auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez, attends the protests, and the Episcopal Conference called for a negotiating table where something is now being discussed that remains unclear, perhaps the country's fate.
“I respect them. I don't like them much, but these days I respect them. They earned it on the streets.”
Chan Carmona is a skinny lad, sinewy, tall, his beard black and eyes sunken from days without sleep. Chan is a leader of the rebels of Monimbó, and he shows me the nooks and the barricades and tells me where they stood and how they drove back the police, and he tells me he can't stand it anymore that people from the government live like that, while they have to work like dogs to earn one hundred córdobas. That they have to go, that they're opportunists and dictators and mass murderers. And that he's being followed, they have him marked. I ask him what he'll do.
“Nothing, what do you want me to do; keep on fighting. If they kill me, everyone will know who it was.”
“But aren't you afraid?
“Afraid as such… Well, it's my life. I like it, I'd like to stay in the action. Because once I'm dead, what’s the point.”
He says, and he laughs. In the Salesian school of Masaya, right next door, hundreds of neighbours welcome the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) delegation that’s come to hear grievances. A local leader gives a speech from the school steps:
“We are not moved by any ideology or party, but by our love for our people and our motherland!”
He shouts, robust and tidied up, and offers geographic cheers: to Nicaragua, to Masaya, to Monimbó. The rejection of parties can be heard everywhere: almost everyone says that they aren't politicians, that they don't do politics, that they repudiate politicians and politics and everything that is “politicized.” Meanwhile, they take to the streets to overturn a government; sheer politics in action. The magic of words: for some you fight, from some you flee.
A great day to die
No. 14. In Estelí, one hundred and fifty kilometres away from Managua, Franco Valdivia was known by his artistic name, rapper Renfán. Franco was 24 years old, in his third year of law school and worked as a carpenter to pay his expenses and those of his four-year-old daughter. Estelí is a midsize city, peaceful, temperate, “a Sandinista bastion” or “the thousand-times heroic city.” It's not the most appropriate place for a rapper, but Renfán kept fighting for it. He used to record songs with a group of friends and upload them to YouTube: they were well-made, and criticized abuses and corruption, and they had views. On April 18 he uploaded a rap poem to his Facebook page: “Today's a great day to die/ Because we didn't choose the path that corruption/ wants us to follow/ And even if it takes days off my life/ I will keep telling truths no matter what it costs/ Sandino had a dream and I/ can assure you it wasn't this.” At that moment, Nicaragua was taking a nap, and his only seemed like words; that night, the students of Managua went out onto the streets, and on the 20th unrest reached Estelí; his words became prophetic. Franco went to the park downtown to join the protests that he had sung about so often. Two hours later, a gunshot that appeared to come from the mayor’s office pierced his left eye and killed him. Another one of the songs was called Pilate: “There's no oblivion without burial/ for those who fight for what they are./ Let death give back to me/ what life has taken away.”
These days, in Nicaragua, life has become different. Politics—so reviled—occupies so much space: people think of matters they didn't think about before, they ask themselves things, they imagine. A revolution is the moment when questions change, when it’s possible not to have answers. These days, in Nica—Nicaraguan—cities, life is different: on the streets, at any moment, anything can happen.
These last few years, Managua prided itself on being the most peaceful capital in the region. Now it's a city shaken by its own history: on every corner, a flag, people waving them, yelling something. There are barricades; roadblocks (tranques), small protests (plantones), huge marches. There is, above all, a state of permanent expression, of people that kept quiet too long and now speak and enjoy speaking and try to forget past silences. And, meanwhile, shops are half-empty and streets are half-empty and fear is half-full; uncertainty is whole.
“The people/ united/ shall never be defeated!”
Thousands of people are now screaming with red and black and blue and white flags: they march in support of the Sandinista government. It's Saturday afternoon, the heat is overwhelming, and all along Bolívar to Chávez Avenue—that's what it's called: Bolívar to Chávez—there are giant screens that show how many of us there are and how well we wave our colours. Here, in real life, under a hyperreal sun, things are more modest: we don't seem like that many, and there's the dozens of microbuses that brought them, and the suspicion that many are public employees that will be punished if they don't come.
“Long live peace, long live love!”
Shouts a female announcer, and a drum-machine version of Solo le pido a Dios—All I Ask of God—starts to play, and then the announcer talks about Sandino. Augusto Sandino defined himself ninety years ago as the “general of free men,” and that is how history recorded him. But history changes more than anything, and now the announcer introduces him as “the general of free men and women“: effects of #metoo.
“We are lighting the flame of the sacred right to live in blessed peace, illuminated by the spirit of Sandino and guided by the wisdom of Commander Daniel Ortega.”
Says the announcer, and for some reason beyond me, nobody answers “Amen.” Above, a gigantic Chavez face gazes down on us from high on his arbolata/chayopalo. Down here, on the half-molten tarmac, there are lots of young men with mortars wandering around, women in high heels, men with rings, women in flip-flops, men with ruined and calloused hands: there's lots of space that hasn't been filled.
“Those vandals will have to understand that peace is needed here.”
A strapping young fellow tells me, his cap on backwards, a tattooed neck, a camouflage green T-shirt, referring to the students and other rebels. For a country that was at war for so many years, the narrative of peace is decisive. Then they all reproach each other for having broken it, so the government has decided to use it as its banner.
“And they'll understand it one way or another, it's up to them.”
Says the young fellow. The government, which always said the street was theirs, is now fighting for it—and it doesn't look like it will win the fight. That same evening, in León, tens of thousands of people gather to demand that they leave. The next day, Sunday morning, at a roundabout in Managua, there are a few people waving blue and white flags. The fight for colours is tenacious: for decades, red and black was the Sandinista emblem; since the opponents brought out the national flag, the blue and white one, Sandinistas began using it too: they couldn't cede the colour of the homeland over to their enemies.
“The people/ united/ shall never be defeated!”
The “protestants” are shouting, too, stressing the most widely repeated fake news of the last few decades. The two sides are fighting over the same words, the same slogans, the same songs: here, the entire left-wing collection of proverbs from the seventies that so many try to forget becomes booty to be fought over. A woman passes by in her wheelchair with a handwritten sign on her lap: “Power resides in the people. The people can remove or install governments,” it says, signed Daniel Ortega, 1979. In the war of words, words become a boomerang: what you said doesn't apply to anyone more than to yourself. And the woman is claiming their legitimacy: she belongs to the Mothers of April, the association of the mothers of the victims.
“You know, the songs and slogans have returned to the people. This dictatorship had kidnapped them, but now they're ours again.”
A 15- or 16-year-old girl tells me. The hit of the month plays over the loudspeaker, Mercedes Sosa with Que vivan los estudiantes—Long Live the Students—but the vuvuzelas drown it out mercilessly. A small group of women yells, “We don't want whistles; we want slogans”; nobody pays any attention to them. Cars driving down the avenue wave their flags: it all sounds very patriotic. Almost everyone is extremely nationalistic, many are very Catholic, they're all very democratic, but maybe they didn't like “God, Homeland, Freedom.” There's a mix, a wide mix: from a really classist poster—”In a nation ruled by an ignoramus, professionals are a threat“—to those who demand more equality and less hunger. The explosion of words is sheer joy, happiness made word: “There are decades in which nothing happens, and weeks in which decades happen.”
“So many unarmed brave ones, so many armed cowards.”
“We allowed you to do everything, Daniel. But you shouldn't have killed the youngsters.”
And there are metamorphoses: from the old Sandinista slogan that proposes “A free homeland or death,” someone moved on to “A free homeland or life” and someone, more carefully, to a reasonable option: “A free homeland to live.” And their cries that say, make no mistake: “they weren't delinquents/ they were students,” and those that define the main confusion, that “Daniel/ and Somoza/ Are one and the same.” And, above all, that Sandinista hit recovered by those who want them overthrown: “Let your mother surrender!”
No. 24. When Ángel Gahona was five, in 1981, his teacher in Bluefields, a small city in the Caribbean, had the children repeat that they were children of Sandino; little Ángel refused. He later explained that maybe the others were, but he knew his father's name was Ángel, like his. Soon, his family had to escape to Venezuela, run off by the war; there they experienced hardships and Ángel began to work before he was ten years old. Upon his return, he managed to study journalism at a university in his Caribbean region; for years he worked where he could—food seller or junk seller or junk food seller, manager at a cybercafé—until, after he got married, he was able to open a small digital newspaper with his wife Migueliuth Sandoval: El Meridiano. They ran it between the two of them and managed to survive; Ángel would run around the city on his motorbike greeting everyone, he'd go to evangelical mass, raise their two children, dress as a chef and cook, had started studying to become a lawyer. That Sunday the twenty-first, the protests reached Bluefields; Ángel and Migue thought of going so they could broadcast them, but someone had to stay with the kids. They decided she would; he was afraid of what could happen, so he went alone. On Facebook Live, when it was already night, Ángel shows some young people throwing rocks at the city hall; then he says—his voice-over on the video—that “we're going to find a place to take shelter, as the police are moving in this direction.” He focuses on them, shows their arrival and narrates it, and, suddenly, the image shakes and fades to black and only screams can be heard. A bullet has passed through his head; a colleague's video shows him on the ground, covered in blood, dead. Nobody knows who, nobody knows why; an official or pro-government sharpshooter is suspected, but justice chose to blame two young men who didn't even have weapons and weren't even there. The best trick for not solving a case like this one is to pretend you already solved it.
On Wednesday, May 16, a young man deeply stirred the country. That morning marked the inauguration of the negotiating tables that the Catholic Church had convened at its Interdiocesan Seminar. All parties in the conflict were there: the students, the campesino federations, management, bishops, “civil society,” the President and his Madam Vice-president. Protocol established that Daniel Ortega should speak first; as he was about to, Lesther Alemán stood up, wearing his black shirt for mourning and his blue-and-white kerchief for the homeland, and dove right in:
“We're not here to listen to a speech that we've already heard for twelve years. Mr. President, we know history; we don't want to repeat it. You know what the people are. Where does power lie? In the people. We agreed to be at this table to demand right now that you order an immediate stop to the attacks that are being carried out in our country, repression and attacks by paramilitary forces, by their troops, by the mobs that support the government. You know the pain we've experienced these past twenty-eight days. How can you sleep peacefully? We haven't slept peacefully, we're being persecuted. And I am speaking now, because we’ve provided the dead, we've provided the disappeared, we've provided those who have been kidnapped.”
He said, in his old-fashioned radio announcer voice, his movements measured, a hint of a smile—and nobody dared interrupt him. Three metres down, Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo were listening in disbelief; no one in all these years had done something like this. Then Lesther—his glasses, his handsome, slender body, his modern, well-cut hair—delivered the blow:
“This is not a dialogue table. It's a table to negotiate your departure. And you know that very well, because it's what the people have requested. In one month you have torn the country apart; it took Somoza many years, but in less than a month you have done things that we never imagined. Many feel deceived by the ideals that have not been fulfilled—those four letters, FSLN, that swore that our homeland would be free—and today we are still slaves, today we are still subjugated, today we are still marginalized, today we are being massacred. How many mothers are crying for their children, sir?”
There was utter attention, tremendous tension. The country's authorities paralyzed before a twenty-year-old boy who was saying to them what nobody had ever said to them: serenely, without raising his voice, as if he were explaining something obvious to a slightly dense uncle. The scene was hypnotic and moving, and it was unending:
“The people are on the streets; we're at this table demanding that the repression cease. Know this; surrender before all these people. You may laugh, you can make all the faces you want, but we are asking you to order a cease-fire right now, and the liberation of our political prisoners. We cannot have dialogue with an assassin, because what has been committed in this country is genocide.”
By 9:47 that Wednesday, Lesther Alemán was already one of the best-known, most-hated, most-beloved people in Nicaragua. He'll later tell me that it was the other participants at the table who decided he would speak: that they told him it was “because of his voice, his moral authority, his rectitude, and his knowledge.”
“Yes, I remember many things. I first saw the cameras turn; they were pointed at the president and they turned towards me. And then I saw him; I saw his face, his eyes, his pupils dilating as he watched me; I don't know whether from surprise or if he was thinking many things about me. And Rosario was drinking water nonstop. It was so strange. I thought I wouldn't be able to speak very much; I was hoping he'd interrupt me. That he'd allow me all those minutes, however, in silence, and that people then had the reaction they did; those who have told me these past few days that I was speaking for an entire people… I felt like a Rigoberto López Pérez.”
Says Lesther, and he tells me the story. López Pérez was a twenty-five-year-old journalist who, in the midst of the Anastasio Somoza dictatorship—the first Somoza, and Sandino's killer—approached him at the dance and killed him with three shots. It was September 1956.
“He would just keep saying that the end of the dictatorship was coming. 'How?', they'd ask him. The end of the dictatorship is coming, he'd say, and he went into that room and killed him. Then they riddled him with bullets, around three hundred shots. Two days earlier, he'd written a letter to his mother, one of the most beautiful letters I have ever read. And in it he says he's going to free the country, nothing else. Then, that Wednesday, I thought: Rigoberto reincarnated in me. I thought: it wasn't with bullets; it was with words.”
“Had you prepared them?”
“Yes, in broad strokes. I don't learn things by rote, by memory, because I believe emotion makes you say accurate words. But the night before, I walked the hotel hallway from end to end, many times, and I kept asking myself, what am I going to do, what are people going to say, what will peoples' reaction be? And I kept asking myself what to do so they wouldn't silence me. So I started writing these lines; I wrote two drafts that are over there, in my own hand. Then I thought, I can't throw out that paper, I'll show it to my son; look, Son, this was the paper…”
“As a leader you have to stay calm, so you don't show signs of suffering to the rest”
Lesther doesn't have a son yet, and it's nighttime. On the outskirts of Managua, at the University Centre where he and his companions from the University Coalition take refuge, half clandestine, at the edge of the pool and a gym, he tells me that he's the son of a family of sugarcane workers and that, with a scholarship, he's studying fourth-year Communications at the Universidad Centroamericana—Jesuit—in Managua. And that it all started a few weeks earlier, at the march to demand the government take responsibility for the fire at the Indio Maíz Reserve. That afternoon, he says, there was a microphone and he, for the first time, dared to use it.
“And why did you think to speak?”
“It was an open mic; people were reading things, reciting, and my classmates told me, Lesther, it's your moment. Because I've dreamt of being this country's president since I was little, and they know it. So they said that to me, teasing me, and I said, okay, I'll do it, and I spoke and people screamed, and I started feeling like I was already a candidate…”
He says now, and looks at me very seriously, smiling but serious; that it's true, and that he always had two dreams: one, to join the Army, because he loves order and seriousness and camouflage uniforms; the other, to become president. After all these days of not going home, of living on the run, Lesther is still impeccable: a tight brown shirt, black pants, severe boots. His slacks have white spots, and you can tell they bother him; he scratches at them to no avail; on one hand he wears a signet ring and a tiny watch, almost doll-sized.
“That's why I only allow them to call me by one pseudonym: Commander. My best friends have always called me Commander.”
“It worries me. The combination of your two dreams leads us directly to a military coup.”
Lesther laughs, a battalion of white teeth lined up for inspection, and says he has to study a lot, prepare to become president with all the knowledge and all the merits, but that could happen in a different country, that in this one the dictatorship discourages it, that many of his classmates from the Faculty of Communications, for example, don't want to be journalists, because, what for, if control and censorship are the norm. But that he's never discouraged, that he's read a lot about Sandinista ideals, that his hero is Carlos Fonseca, the founding father and hero of the Front, who died shortly before the triumph of his revolution.
“Lesther began to build his ideals from books, videos, songs. His anthem is Nicaragua, Nicaragüita; his favorite songs are testimonials.”
Says Lesther; he'll later explain to me that he frequently speaks of himself in the third person: Lesther thinks such thing, Lesther does this other thing.
“Lesther never imagined he would get so far.”
He says, and that the worst moment was that afternoon at the Cathedral, when they tried to take refuge from the police and parapolice attack, and were surrounded.
“When they sequestered us in the Cathedral, when the police began to surround us, there were more than two thousand of us and we didn't know what to do, so we put a group together to organize and direct the situation. But that lasted about two hours, until the Sandinista mobs arrived and it became collective hysteria; out of sheer fear, some were going all the way into the sacristy, desecrating all the holy places. At that moment I thought we'd be killed, I thought I'd be left there, murdered in the Cathedral. And my mates were crying, and I was crying, and they were throwing gas inside, bullets… But I tried not to let it show, to stay calm. As a leader you have to do that, so you don't show signs of suffering to the rest.”
They were shut inside almost thirty hours, waiting for the final attack: that night, the lights were cut; they continued to threaten them; they were exhausted, unarmed, waiting for the end. But the next day, they let them out. Lesther was one of the last: exhaustion, relief, the firmest resolve.
“When you thought they could kill you, what were you feeling? Fear, sadness…?”
“No, I was feeling sad for my mother. But to this day, Lesther hasn't been afraid. I don't fear for my life.”
“It's one of my phrases: whoever loves their homeland is willing to surrender themselves on a cross. Suffering and pain are necessary if you love your people.”
He says with that voice that seems to emerge from another person, more solid, more aged, more experienced.
“But you're more useful alive than dead, aren't you?”
“Maybe. But I'm not like those who fear for their lives, for their safety, who have left the country… and maybe they haven't even participated, and they're already out. It's not that I’m bragging about the place I’ve reached, but… everyone knows me, so I'd have to go very far.”
Lesther tells me that he'd like to be a journalist, that a couple of years ago he was in New York and got his picture taken at the entrance of the New York Times, that he likes to read newspapers on paper and listen to the radio on a real radio, that as a millennial he's much too analogic, that his friends tell him he's an old man in the body of a twenty-year-old boy. And that he's never before been in a political group, that “Sandinista youth isn't Sandinista, it's just bacchanalia,” that he's very interested in many of the ideals of socialism and communism, but not in their ways; that he doesn't believe in politicians because they have never represented him; that they had the opportunity to confront this dictator and they didn't do it; that they don't have moral authority. And that he likes writing and now he's trying to tell the story of these days, “so that later, when I'm retired, I can sit with someone, a grandchild, and tell them, this was me, this is what Lesther did when he was a boy.”
He doesn't need to, now: everyone remembers him. A newspaper mentioned “Lesthermania“: there are little dolls with his features and a blue-and-white superhero cape, there are keychains and posters and placards, there are hugs and kisses and selfies every time he goes out on the street.
“What does it mean to be a leader?”
“It's someone who doesn't give orders but convinces instead; the leader listens, assesses, analyzes, critiques, and then communicates. But above all, they’re the person who must have more humility, sobriety, patience. I lack patience…”
“Well, humility, too.”
I tell him, and he laughs uncomfortably, but he tries to think about it: we discuss it. He then explains to me that one of his forms of humility is the issue of referring to himself in the third person.
“It's so I won't feel limited. I don't think I can say I am like this, I say this, so I'd rather beat around the bush: Lesther is like this, Lesther says that. I've always seen myself as speaking for Lesther… I have this idea of not letting Lesther speak for Lesther…”
He says, and sees my surprised expression and bursts into laughter:
“Can't you see it's just a crazy thing of mine…?”
I tell him yes, I can see that, we laugh, he keeps explaining the inexplicable to me, he gets almost nervous: one of those shy people whose shyness makes them more expansive, more electric. He is, after all, a twenty-year-old kid who everyone is suddenly watching. He is also, these days, the most popular person in Nicaragua, the hero who lived just around the corner.
No. 63. Margarita Mendoza had been terrified for four days: Javier Munguía, her son, 19 years old, an unemployed construction worker, had been stopped by the police on May 8 near the Polytechnic University and he hadn't appeared. She had already asked at all the hospitals and finally, on May 12, she decided to visit the morgue at the Institute of Legal Medicine; when they told her he wasn't there, her relief was immeasurable: Javier must be alive still. But he was still lost; the next day, Margarita went to knock on the doors of the Directorate for Judicial Assistance, a.k.a. El Chipote, a repression centre with an eighty-year criminal history: there, they told her they didn't know him, but former detainees told her that they had seen him inside and that he was being tortured. On Friday 18, Margarita was one of the hundreds of relatives who showed up before the IACHR delegation: she wanted to report her son's disappearance. Her cell phone rang while she was there. Margarita answered: an official from Legal Medicine told her that they had Javier's body. Her screams were heard throughout the floor. Later, at the Institute, they told her that the young man had died “from natural causes.” The next day, an independent coroner told her the truth: Javier Munguía, his face smashed from beatings, had been strangled.
“Yes, of course I'm still afraid. But you start losing your fear in the street. As we like to say, they took so much from us that they took even our fear. Yes, many of us were attacked by the police, we already know how that goes. I was also at the Cathedral when the police and the Ortega mobs surrounded us, and we were so close to death. We really thought that it had come to that; some knelt down, others started to pray, others cried…”
Says Melisa, and Erasmo seconds her:
“They say courage isn't the absence of fear, but fear itself along with the will to continue. So above all, we had that rage from seeing our comrades being killed…”
Melisa and Erasmo study at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, the largest in the country, forty thousand students and thirty hectares of forests scattered with buildings: thickets, trees, canyons, and now a few tents that give shelter to watchful students. When the first wave of occupations came, the UNAN escaped: the syndicate of pro-government students, the UNEN, managed to avoid it. The University was closed two weeks; on May 7, when it reopened, the students occupied it. And now we're inside a building—the School of Geology—that the rebels use as a hospital, kitchen, dormitory. Melisa and Erasmo are around twenty years old, middle-class kids, very articulate. The number of occupiers, they tell me, is around five hundred; I ask them if they don't think it's questionable that 1% of the students claim the right to take over the university.
“Well, we won't deny that we're a small part. It's just that many of them can't be here. For example, I've been here since Monday of last week, and I know if I go home I won't be able to come back again.”
Erasmo is one of the leaders of the occupation; he’s tall, well-built, with dark skin, a bright smile. I ask him why.
“Because my mom won't let me. And there are many who aren't allowed or are afraid of getting involved or involving their family, since people have gone to our homes to intimidate…”
Says Erasmo, and Melisa cuts him off. Melisa really feels like talking; her forehead is broad, clear beneath brown curls, an intelligent gaze:
“Yes, there are many university students who agree with us, even if they're not here. The problem is that nobody wants to die. Nobody wants to be a martyr. But we already have martyrs; there are already more than sixty dead youth. And many are afraid, but that doesn't mean that they don't agree…”
The notion that a few do what many would is one of the foundations of twentieth-century politics: they used to call that the vanguard. Here there are a few, and those few place a government in check. They have legitimacy and public opinion on their side, and sometimes—just sometimes—that is worth more than strength, than numbers.
“We never thought we'd spend so much time here, so we began organizing little by little, explaining what this meant, its importance, its dangers. We know that at any moment they can attack us, we have to be prepared all the time.”
Says Melisa. Evicting them doesn't seem difficult in practice; for the government, the cost could be very high. The few hundred are also organized into groups that take care of the food, sanitation, guard duty, clashes. There is a complex network of young men and women who occupy the entire space of the university, with a system of delegates and powers, reunions, assemblies, discussions.
“And how do you think the occupation will end?”
“In order for us to hand over the university to the authorities, they must consider at least a few of our demands: the restoration of the student movement, the university's autonomy, and then, the most difficult one, a democratic Nicaragua. It may seem utopian, but if Somoza fell, if the Berlin Wall fell, why wouldn't this one fall?”
There isn't an entirely legal way to put an end to Ortega's government: if he resigns, his wife, the vice-president, will succeed him; and if they both resign, next in line is their stalwart, the president of the Assembly. In order to put an end to the regime and call for elections, they would have to do legal somersaults that are still unclear. But they say that the wealthy have already let go of the president's hand—that social pressure is too strong, that their families would not forgive them if they continued being allied to a “dictator and mass murderer.”
“Ortega has to understand that he must resign. Otherwise, the moment will come when Nicaragua will blow its lid. And when Nicaragua blows its lid, believe you me, that man won't know which way to turn.”
Says Erasmo, almost menacingly. Blowing its lid is something serious, and nobody wants that to happen, but there isn't an alternative either. It's the strength and the failing of this strange alliance: since they don't offer any proposal beyond ousting Ortega, they don't have any reason to fight amongst themselves; since they don't offer any proposal beyond ousting Ortega, they don’t have a destination either. Not yet.
“Nobody wants war. We aren't armed, we're the children of the postwar period. Our parents, however, are ex-combatants, at least some of them; they experienced the revolution, the Contra, they were militants, but what do we know about these military, logistical things…? We don't even want to know, but Nicaragua can’t take much more, and we're afraid war will start again. So we're really hoping for dialogue, to see if we can avoid it…”
Between 1970 and 1990, over twenty years of war, one hundred thousand Nicaraguans died. Later, many described this generation as kids who had seen that the only thing to come of it was that a handful ruled and became rich, and that that's why it was logical for them to care only about online games, and Messi games, and certain music, and certain dances: that they were a generation of apathetic individualists, poor things, that they'd never know what life is really about. But they were also kids who had spent their whole lives hearing heroic, revolutionary stories from their parents, their grandparents, and being reproached for being slackers or loafers, for not having done those things. You can tell they got tired of it.
“Even before, we disagreed with this government, except we were numb, we hadn't set things in motion.”
Now they have, and they've got the country wondering what to do, thinking itself all over again.
“Nobody wants any more deaths. We're tired of deaths. We don't want anyone else to die, we're betting on a peaceful path, for a resolution without the use of arms.”
“And what does your mom say?”
“My mom says said if she catches me…”
Says Erasmus, he laughs; Melisa wants to clear up the point:
“Many are here without their parents' permission. My father supports me; he was in the Sandinista revolution… And he says that, for the time being, we're safer here than at our homes.”
“Sure, but when you have to go back home?”
“That's the million-dollar question. What will happen?”
No one knows.
Many people know they’ve already burned their bridges: that they can't go back, that they can only move forward
Now, no one knows what may happen. Daniel Ortega least of all: he must be perplexed. A month ago, poor people in the shantytowns as well as businessmen in Managua would wrangle over getting a selfie with him. It's likely that some of the poor people still keep them; very likely that most of the businessmen have already deleted them. And the patronage system of social control was working in full: the party endorsed you for getting a job; it brought you tin for your shack's rooftop; it could ruin your life.
“With Daniel, you’re always wrong. The most common mistake is to underestimate him, because in the end he always manages to get something out of each situation. We don't know what will happen this time; he’s in a difficult situation, but we have to be alert, very alert.”
Says Carlos Fernando Chamorro, historical journalist, now director of El Confidencial. And everything is on hold. Some believe that the students, “civil society,” and a few agricultural and business associations could call for a national strike that would close down roads, streets, activities—and would speed up the government's fall. Or it could annoy many citizens, who would get fed up with problems and difficulties, sorrows, losses, discomforts, and would begin to miss calmer times.
Some remember Venezuela's example: a few months ago it seemed that its government was ready; now it just gave itself new elections. Fabian Medina, an editor at La Prensa, says Ortega is now like a boxer who just received a hard blow: he has to hold on to his foe to stop him from hitting him, take a breath, buy himself time, and finish the round. It's a desperate race: he knows—he probably knows—that if he gets through these days, it won't be easy to oust him; his most enthusiastic opponents know—they probably know—that if he gets through them, he'll take his revenge on them. Even if for no other reason than having everyone know that you can't defy the Commander and get away with it.
That's why many people know they’ve already burned their bridges: that they can't go back, that they can only move forward—or into the abyss. Meanwhile, Ortega is coming apart: more and more sectors are abandoning him. Power can only be maintained when you really have it; when you start losing it, the vultures fly off in search of fresh meat. There's uncertainty, above all, but everyone knows this situation can't go on. Either the government neutralizes the protests, or the protests will end up neutralizing it. And the government won't fall without a fight: if that confrontation arrives, the Army can be the referee. If “protestants” reach critical mass, they could overpower the police and the mobs, and then the Army would have to decide if it defends its commander-in-chief or lets him fall. It's a matter of days, weeks.
“So, how does this all end?”
I ask, and Sergio Ramírez, the great Nicaraguan writer, the latest Cervantes prize-winner, who was Ortega's vice-president between 1979 and 1990, bursts out laughing:
“Who knows… This dialogue is very uncertain. There are two completely different universes: that of Ortega, who isn't thinking of leaving, and that of civil society, which thinks he is. This clash of realities will determine everything. Unless there's greater pressure, if there can be pressure without blood…”
“And can there be?”
Ramírez grows quiet, stares nowhere.
“That’s a terrifying question. Well, there would have to be real civil resistance, barricades, strikes, a general strike… And on the other hand, international pressure. But Ortega doesn't plan to leave, and without his leaving there's no way of continuing, because the outrage is widespread.”
Says Ramírez, and the problem is that the country needs Ortega to disappear. Although, he says, that doesn't mean that the Sandinista Front will disappear, because it's an important political force that even in the midst of these terrible crimes still makes up 30% of the population. In other words, you have to count on them, he says, because without that strength there isn't stability in the country, either.
“The great difficulty is that Daniel Ortega doesn't have a life that's alternative to power; he's not a person to whom you can simply say, ‘Take your millions and move to the United States…’”
He says, and a man that's all smiles interrupts us. We are at a café in a mall; every now and then, a stranger will approach us, greet him, congratulate him, pat him on the back.
“The United States doesn't exist for him, and neither do the millions. He doesn't have the ambition of being rich; his ambition is having power. He doesn't have a life that's alternative to power; he's not a person who can retire to a plantation to grow coffee or write his memoirs; for him there is only power. That's the difficulty, the Gordian knot. And also, even if they let him take his money and leave with his family, where would he go? To Cuba? To Venezuela? It would mean jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. To Russia? And he wouldn't be safe anywhere else, because now the Commission is saying that there has to be an investigation as to whether there were extrajudicial executions, and those are already crimes against humanity…”
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights already documented, between April 18 and May 23, seventy-six deaths and 657 wounded: it is, as Chamorro says, “the greatest massacre in the peacetime history of Nicaragua.”
How do revolutions end?
And, again: how do revolutions begin?
Fortunately, no one ever really knows. It is so encouraging when there are moments like these, stories like these, that show that everything you know is debatable: you believe you know things, and in general those things are sad, discouraging, reasonable. When something happens that no one foresaw; when, every now and then, reality shows you that you're wrong, it's a humbling experience, a song of hope.
Translation: Sonia Verjovsky / George B. Henson
Photo: Protestas en Managua, Nicaragua, 24th April 2018. – © EEUU retira diplomáticos por violentas protestas / Voice of America / Wikimedia Commons
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