Nicaragua: A land of red lips, rebel tunes and prairie fires

A woman stands near a burning barricade holding the national flag of Nicaragua. Photo: Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons

These are serious and troubling times in Nicaragua. Protests since April have left hundreds dead and many more incarcerated or missing. As recently as October 14, police detained another 38 protesters for marching in the streets, an act that was made illegal in September by the Ortega government. Many others languish in jails, some awaiting a court date, others simply waiting.

There have been many reports of torture and illegal detentions, denounced by human rights groups such as Amnesty International. Some of these groups been expelled while doing so. Street protests have been criminalized. More than 40,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country due to repression or an uncertain economy, many heading south to Costa Rica.

A few weeks ago, the Nicaraguan government stopped online dollar purchases by banks, a measure used to control the withdrawal of money from banks. Due to the instability, unemployment has increased, productivity has stalled, investment has fallen, along with deposits in banks, and poverty is increasing. The economy is spiralling downward. International financial institutions are not providing any new loans. Economic reports project that if the situation continues, the Nicaraguan Central Bank will be left with no foreign currency by December.

An even starker reality would be the imposition of economic sanctions by the U.S., a move being mentioned with increasing frequency. Some Nicaraguans say they feel trapped by the approach of right-wing U.S. leaders, and by the total disregard for free expression and human rights by the Ortega government.

In true creative form -- Nicaragua has long been known to be a country of writers and poets -- even local musicians are chronicling events. One ska/reggae group penned a protest song called "What are you going to do (when they arrive at your house)?"

And following the most recent arrests, Nicaraguan women created the Red Lips campaign (#soypicorojo), which has gone viral. This tongue-in-cheek feminist protest -- red lips or mouths have long held the cachet of rebellion -- was initiated by a woman who was detained and interrogated about which organization she belonged to and about who organized the protest that she took part in. She responded that she belonged to the Nicaraguan Association of Red Lips, to add a bit of levity to a difficult situation and unanswerable question. The latest trend in the country's peaceful protests is now not only blue and white national flags and colours, but also women and men sporting bright red lips! Musician Carlos Enrique Mejia Godoy has even chronicled the popular protest in song.

Holding on to power

While Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega has emphasized in public interviews that what is happening in the country is a "soft coup," and while he has often disputed the number of dead and incarcerated -- and the brutality toward incarcerated protesters -- it is clear that Ortega and Rosarillo Murillo, his wife and also, conveniently, Nicaragua's vice-president, are interested in maintaining power despite the fact that the economy grows weaker by the day.

It is indeed hard to believe that Ortega, who risked so much to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s, and who acted on behalf of Nicaraguan people for the full decade of the 1980s, would some 40 years later become the type of leader more concerned about profit than people. Power can corrupt... and, absolute power? Well, you know the rest!

A number of people who were instrumental in the fight to overthrow Somoza and the work to reduce poverty, distribute land, and create a system of social security, have been backing away from the Ortega government and its policies, many for more than two decades. Several are former commandantes. One is Humberto Ortega, Daniel's brother. Others are well-known author Sergio Ramirez, Sandinista vice-president in the 1980s, and Jamie Wheelock, one-time commandante of the agrarian reform.

Back in the 1980s, the enemy seemed clear -- poverty, largely rural, and the U.S.-sponsored Contra war. In the countryside, farmers were organizing co-operatives, and there was the hope of the agrarian reform for the landless rural poor, with the possibility of food security.

Today, in 2018, poverty in rural areas persists. Despite the promises of the 1979 Sandinista Revolution, Nicaragua is still the second-poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with more than 30 per cent of the population living on less than US$2 a day and more than 50 per cent of rural people living in extreme poverty.

It's true that the Contra war prevented much development for close to a decade. And then in 1990, the Sandinistas, led by Ortega, lost power to a series of neoliberal and right-wing governments. While Ortega became president again in 2007, examinations of policy and political change in the last 12 years show that neoliberal policies have continued and were actually adopted by the Ortega government.

Actions speak louder than words

A saying that comes in handy at a time like this is "actions speak louder than words." Previous columns in this series have detailed the revolutionary history of Nicaragua, the policies in recent years that have seemed so out of step with progressive, people-oriented programs, and the violence and repression that have plagued the country since April.

In a revolutionary socialist society, it is accepted that the state controls important public services such as oil, transportation, media outlets, land distribution, foreign investments of any type, educational institutions, etc. Generally, state control is exercised through an elected national assembly of some sort.

Since the 1990s the Nicaraguan assembly and its institutions -- the very bodies that could help ensure the fair exercise of state control and elected power -- have been seriously eroded.

It appears that the control exercised by state institutions has been replaced with control by the Ortega family and family-friendly entrepreneurs. It is why today, Daniel Ortega no longer has many of the original Sandinista revolutionaries from 1979 at his side.

Ortega's family is deeply entrenched in controlling important chunks of Nicaraguan society. For example, most of the media outlets in the country are controlled by Ortega's children. Beyond media outlets, the Ortega-Murillo family also controls marketing and cultural companies, petroleum and gas distribution companies, hotels, and more. Little wonder then that Ortega has been putting up such a defence since April -- and readily risking the Sandinista legacy and future at the same time.

And then of course, there is the looming matter of accountability for human rights abuses, torture and death. Will there be an international court in Daniel Ortega's future?

The Sandinista spirit still appears strong in the slogans, the political discourse, and the actions of protesting Nicaraguans. The reality appears to be that there are now more Sandinistas on the outs with the Ortega government than within it. Of the seven surviving FSLN commandantes from the original nine who formed the 1979 revolutionary government, only one, Bayardo Arce, still stands with Daniel Ortega.

If actions speak louder than words, this speaks volumes.

Meanwhile, protests continue despite having been outlawed, and the opposition, initially called the Civic Alliance, has garnered strength not only from students and pensioners, farmers and rural people, but also business people, the church, citizens who identify as Sandinistas, others who never have, and an increasingly organized Nicaraguan diaspora. A new political party, the Blue and White National Unity movement (Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco) has been formed, with many of these groups among the ranks. It is a mishmash of interests and backgrounds and politics that have once again come together (a situation that parallels what occurred in the ousting of the Somoza dictatorship) for one single purpose -- to remove Ortega from power.

What's next for Nicaragua?

It might well be that, while el Commandante Daniel Ortega was loved and respected for so many years -- affectionately called simply "Daniel" -- placing so much power in one individual is not wise, particularly when decision-making by an individual leads to democratic structures being totally bypassed. While leadership in any progressive movement is important, there really are no singular heroes, and revolutions should not be anchored in the celebrity of individuals. 

If anything, what we see in Nicaragua today proves this. Too many people trusted Daniel for too long. The question now is, where will it end and how? The U.S. longs to control Latin American economies and works hard to do so. "Soft coups" do in fact exist in Latin America and elsewhere -- just not in Nicaragua, I believe, at this time.

But make no mistake that the U.S. is trying to take advantage of the Ortega regime's huge mistakes when it comes to repressing protesters -- and the longer Ortega stays around, the longer he risks destroying the true meaning of the Sandinista movement. If he leaves sooner rather than later, there may be something to salvage, and the Nicaraguan people may be able to salvage their independence and keep the Americans at bay.

As Sergio Ramirez noted in a recent interview with Al Jazeera, the April protests were the spark that ignited a prairie fire.

Prairie fires are extremely hard to put out. Sometimes you see the flames, but even when you no longer do, there can be embers hidden away below the sod -- waiting for a breeze or wind to flame up once again, and for the fire to race across the landscape.

It will be up to the Nicaraguan people to determine how best to deal with the prairie fire when it is time to put it out, and how to go about re-seeding for a more productive future. It depends on how large and how deep the burn -- and the type of leadership that surfaces to coordinate a common response and begin rebuilding a society where ordinary people are really in the driver's seat.

This is the fourth part of a series of columns on Nicaragua. Follow the full series here.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons

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