The Nicaragua Solidarity Caravan, a group of activists who raise awareness about the human rights abuses occurring in their country, came to BC this Monday as part of their nationwide tour.
Activists George Henríquez, Claudia Ochoa, and Julio Martínez Ellsberg have been traveling to college campuses across the United States since September 5, when they visited UC Berkeley.
The crisis in Nicaragua began on April 19 of this year, when students protested reforms to the pension system. The government responded with violence, marking the beginning of five long months of bloodshed with no end in sight.
Although students organized the protests, activists have now formed a broad-based coalition that includes groups as diverse as farmers, teachers, feminists, and religious leaders. All of them are united in their opposition to the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Daniel Ortega. To highlight the wide range of interests that form the movement, the panel shared an anecdote of ex-Contra and ex-Sandinista guerillas, enemies during the Nicaraguan Revolution, who are currently working together to fight against the regime.
Daniel Ortega first rose to power in 1979 when his left-wing Sandinista movement overthrew the Somoza regime. After a 17-year hiatus, he returned to the presidency in 2007 and has worked to solidify his grip on power since then.
In doing so, some members of his Sandinista party have abandoned the progressive principles that originally guided them in favor of authoritarianism, inciting opposition from all sides of the political spectrum.
Since the crisis started, over 500 people have been killed, including children. However, the vast majority of protesters continue to embrace pacifism, denouncing those who have retaliated against police and paramilitary groups.
When asked how they are able to remain non-violent under their circumstances, Ochoa replied that “having to live with killing someone is worse than dying.”
Furthermore, the Ortega regime has been wielding Nicaragua’s anti-terrorism law like a cudgel, branding protesters, and even bishops who provide shelter to activists, as terrorists. Hundreds have been arrested under this law, many of whom have been detained in El Chipote, an infamous torture center that houses the government’s political prisoners.
Most of the violence plaguing the Central American nation has been perpetrated by pro-government paramilitary groups, armed by the Ortega regime and tasked with suppressing protesters. In one particularly violent episode, the paramilitaries responded to peaceful roadblocks set up by protesters with bullets, which has become the typical answer to any public display of opposition.
After five months of bloodshed, with new casualties every day, violence has become normalized in the minds of many Nicaraguans. Experts fear the effects that this might have on younger generations raised in an environment saturated with such brutality.
After their prepared talk, the panel opened the floor to questions and comments from the audience. A Nicaraguan woman who has lived in Boston for the past 24 years pleaded with the audience to have compassion for refugees fleeing violence in their home countries. She urged audience members to call their senators on behalf of Nicaraguans seeking sanctuary and proclaimed, “We are not criminals,” as she fought back tears.
When asked what Americans can do to help Nicaraguans, the panel answered that, in addition to spreading awareness, the greatest weapon against the regime is economic pressure. The United States remains Nicaragua’s largest trading partner, and the panel exhorted the audience to contact their elected officials and lobby for sanctions against the Ortega Administration. At the end of the discussion, pamphlets were handed out, directing people to contact their representatives via www.callmycongress.com.