“[Nicaragua] is a country that really grabs a hold of you. It’s a place with deep humanity, but it’s also a place with an unbelievable history,” said Stephen Kinzer. “There’s no country in the world where the cycle of rebellion, repression, intervention, more rebellion, repression, intervention has gone on longer than in Nicaragua. It’s been well over 100 years.”
Kinzer, an award-winning foreign correspondent who served as bureau chief in Nicaragua for The New York Times from 1983 to 1989, and Mateo Jarquín, a PhD candidate in the department of history at Harvard University and a native of Nicaragua, shared their immense knowledge of Nicaraguan history and their takes on its current crisis with a crowded Higgins 300 last Thursday. Alongside them on the panel were Maura Lester, MCAS ‘17, and Pablo Cardenal, LSOE ‘20, who shared their experiences as Nicaraguans living in the United States during the crisis, with countless friends and family members still at home.
“The Crisis in Nicaragua,” hosted by BC’s Organization of Latin American Affairs, was part of the organization’s “Scholar and Student Perspectives” series, which “brings experts into conversation with students in an effort to create unique insights rooted in scholarship and testimony,” according to Jorge Mejia, MCAS ‘19.
Co-sponsored by the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics and the Latin American Studies Department and moderated by Daniel Ponsetto, director for Volunteer and Service Learning at BC, the event was meant to educate students about the past, present, and future of the crisis and, ultimately, “to compel us to take action,” according to Mejia.
The crisis in Nicaragua reached a boiling point on April 19 this year, when peaceful, student-led protests were met with deadly police and paramilitary force. The protests began after Daniel Ortega, President of Nicaragua, announced changes to the social security system, but Kinzer said that a build-up of frustration led to the current crisis, with Nicaraguans slowly realizing that there was no way out of the oppressive regime they’d been living in. Ortega, he says, was continuously cheating democracy.
Kinzer explained that Central American countries have a strong tradition of no re-election written into their constitutions. After Ortega’s first term as President, however, he went to the Supreme Court looking for rationale and justification that would allow him to run for another term. While one clause in the constitution says he could not be re-elected, another clause says that all Nicaraguans have equal rights. The latter, the Supreme Court said, takes precedence, so any Nicaraguan, including the current president, should be free to run for president. Ortega is now serving his third consecutive term.
“The closing of all political avenues makes it inevitable for a sort of violent situation to develop,” said Jarquín. “None of us could have predicted it was going to be April 2018 and that it was going to be about the social security fund, but it was inevitable.”
“With what happened in April, it suddenly clicked that we’re in a dictatorship and citizens of Nicaragua need to start fighting,” said Cardenal.
Since the protests began about seven months ago, the government has continuously responded with brutal repression, even instituting an anti-terrorism law that has been used to criminalize peaceful opposition to the government. With several hundred citizens detained as political prisoners and more than 40,000 Nicaraguans fleeing to Costa Rica, Jarquín describes the situation as “one of the worst human rights crises in Latin America since the end of the Cold War.”
For Cardenal and Lester, watching the crisis unfold from afar is both heartbreaking and extremely frustrating.
“This is something that’s not just happening with a select group. It’s everyone,” said Lester. “Every single Nicaraguan is deeply, personally affected by this.”
For Lester, it is social media that keeps her up to date on what’s happening at home. On April 19, she watched a friend’s Facebook Live video of Ortega’s paramilitary forces at the University of Engineering in Managua. The video, she recalled, showed police officers in full riot gear on one side and university students on the other.
“All the university students had were rocks to try to keep a distance from the police officers in riot gear with AK-47s in their hands,” she said. “So it was students with rocks in their hands, police officers with AKs.”
Lester explained that the movement is intentionally nonviolent. At protests, Nicaraguans carry flags and give out white and blue balloons. But protestors are repeatedly met with forceful oppression.
“There is no democracy, there is no liberty, no free speech. Everything is so controlled by Ortega and his regimen,” said Cardenal. “Nothing can come back to normal because of the scars that these events have left on this country, this beautiful country.”
This panel raised a perhaps obvious but often ignored question for the students attending: what can we do?
Lester suggested following the hashtag #sosnicaragua for constant updates and firsthand accounts of the crisis. Additionally, Jarquín suggested first helping organizations currently at work in Nicaragua, such as the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, “which are devoted to vouching for the most basic rights and dignities of the hundreds of political prisoners.” Second, he said, are the tens of thousands of Nicaraguan refugees in Costa Rica that need to be accounted for. Third, elections. He urged the international community to make it clear today, rather than right before the elections in 2021, what real, fair elections would look like.
“These are the very immediate realities,” Jarquín said, imploring those attending the panel to think about justice globally.