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Dublin: 10 °C Wednesday 18 September, 2019
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Opinion: Irish people travelled to Nicaragua in solidarity in the 1980s - now it needs our help again

The Nicaraguan people continue to struggle for democracy and justice – only this time against a surprising enemy writes Molly O’Duffy.

Molly O'Duffy

BACK IN THE 1980s thousands of Irish people backed the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua – when they overthrew the dictator Anastasio Somoza.

I took part in fundraising and awareness-raising activities here in Ireland and in 1988, I was one of more than 150 Irish people who travelled to Nicaragua to support the Sandinistas, as part of the Solidarity Brigades, sometimes known as the coffee brigades. 

We went to lend a hand to local farmers by picking coffee as well as to offer friendship and support to the local people.

At that time the gains of the revolution, chiefly universal literacy, land reform and wide access to education and healthcare, had vastly improved the lives of the poor people in Nicaragua. 

But a US-backed war against the Sandinista government had led to compulsory military service, which was increasingly unpopular.  I witnessed many reluctant men being driven to the front, many of whom came back maimed or in coffins. 

The US economic embargo caused shortages and hardship and had led to cuts in essential services.  The people were tired.

Daniel Ortega was a leader of that revolution and the president – he still heads the Sandinista National Liberation Front to this day. But that organisation has changed beyond anything we could have imagined in the 1980s. 

The rot started in 1990 when leading party figures plundered state resources for personal gain before handing over power after losing an election.

Then during the nineties, Ortega moved to eradicate democracy within the party and entered into political pacts with right-wing parties aimed at carving up power. 

As a result, many members left his party, including the majority of the commanders who had helped to bring about the defeat of Somoza. Along with the former Sandinista Vice-President, they established an alternative – the Movement for Sandinista Renewal (MRS).

Control

When Ortega regained the presidency in 2007 a friend of mine who was a member of MRS said to me: “He will come after us all.” How right she was.

Ortega has amassed huge personal wealth based on control of the energy and telecommunications industry, as well as privatising the support offered to the country by Venezuela.

He has managed to control the four pillars of democracy: the judiciary, which he uses to punish critics; the electoral commission, which he has used to run fraudulent elections; the parliament, which obediently passes laws that promote his interests and bans any party that might compete with his ruling FSLN party.

He controls the executive through his wife, who is the vice-president and he has changed the constitution to allow himself to stay in power permanently.    

The human rights record of his government has been very poor, with Amnesty International documenting appalling prison conditions and attacks on peaceful protesters.

A  15-year old boy that I know was tortured in prison in 2016.

Ortega has satisfied all the conditions to secure loans from the IMF.  He forged alliances with big business and has silenced all voices not controlled by his party except for a few small media outlets that are under constant attack.  

But he has also carried out some social programmes that proved popular. His iron control of the country has also meant that the drug traffickers and gangs, that have terrorised the population of neighbouring countries, have not succeeded in achieving a strong foothold in Nicaragua. 

These factors may help to explain why the population was fairly acquiescent during many flagrant electoral frauds, cases of corruption, police and army violence and non-stop propaganda from the government –  but on 18 April 2018 that changed when peaceful protests took place.

Peaceful protests

Ortega’s implementation of an IMF-recommended reform of the social security system served as the trigger for the current protests, which were led by university students.  

However, it was not so much the proposed changes that led to widespread anger but the suspicion that the social security fund had been looted by a member of Ortega’s family.

Other contributing factors were government inaction in the face of a massive wildfire in an important ecological reserve, and a threat by the vice-president (Ortega’s wife) to ‘regulate’ social media.  

The peaceful demonstrations of April 18 were fired on by police.

Over five days of protests 30 people were killed.

Arising from these killings, a wide opposition coalition was formed, consisting of students, civil society, the women’s movement and employers, now demanding the exit of Ortega and his government. As the protests spread, the death toll has mounted. Government-backed forces have opened fire on peaceful protestors.

Police, backed by government-supported gangs, roam the streets at night, killing, injuring and kidnapping people thought to be engaged in the protests.  

The death toll is in the hundreds – the dead are mostly young men and students, but also include women, children and babies. Thousands more have been seriously injured.  

There have also been many arrests, with 600 people still detained while 300 others have been charged with serious offences, including terrorism. Many released prisoners have been tortured and the ‘disappeared’ whose bodies have been found at the side of the road also show evidence of torture.

In recent months Ortega has waged war against the independent media with many journalists in jail or forced into exile.  

He has been criticised by human rights bodies, including Amnesty International, the Organisation of American States and the UN High Commission on Human Rights – which has been expelled from the country because of their negative findings against the government.  

The UN Security Council and the Organisation of American States have both attempted to intercede with Ortega to stop the repression, to no avail.

Alleged conspiracy

The government alleges that the uprising is ‘coup-mongering’. The product, variously, of a conspiracy by the US, the Catholic Church, ‘satanic forces’ or the narcos and gangs.

However, the head of the Supreme Court, Rafael Solis, the man who previously masterminded all of Ortega’s manoeuvres to gain complete control of the country, resigned his post in January and his party membership.

Solis said that there is no coup and that the political prisoners are innocent peaceful protesters. He said that the long sentences being handed down to protestors for ‘terrorism’ are being dictated by Ortega.  

The reality is that 80% of the population now oppose Ortega, that is according to a recent survey by transparency organisation Etica y Transparencia.  

There have been pleas for restraint by the international community and from many international left-wing figures, including Noam Chomsky.

A surprising enemy

It is estimated that Ortega’s apparatus consists of approximately 1,000 people, many with so much corruption and violence to their name that they will fight to the end to protect the regime.  

This is not a war, but a massacre by a criminal regime against an unarmed population that wish to have a say in how their country is run.

The UN estimates that up to 50,000 people have gone into exile in neighbouring Costa Rica, among them Carlos Mejia Godoy, the troubadour whose emblematic songs accompanied the struggle against Somoza, and the entire staff of the Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association, all threatened with death for their defence of the unarmed protesters.

Others, particularly campesinos (small farmers) young people and students, are in hiding from the state in safe houses or in the jungle. Many of those who have been affected by the violence were supporters of Ortega prior to the events of 18 April 2018.

The message for Irish people who supported the Nicaraguans in the 1980s in their struggle for social justice, and who identified with the Sandinista cause, is that the majority of Sandinistas now support the protest movement, not Ortega’s government.  

It is estimated that 70% of the political prisoners have Sandinista origins.

My Nicaraguan friends are afraid to leave the house. The generation that fought with Ortega against Somoza feels guilty that they were outwitted by him, resulting in so much suffering for their children.  

The Nicaraguan people continue to struggle for democracy, justice and fairness – only this time against a surprising enemy.  

They deserve our solidarity today just as they did in the past.

Molly O’Duffy is a former Solidarity Brigade member and a member of the Latin America Solidarity Centre in Dublin. 

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