How the Ortega regime turned on the people

January 9, 2019

Since 2017, the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo has faced a popular movement demanding democracy and justice. In response, the Ortega government has unleashed a wave of terror against the protests and the left — murdering, arresting and “disappearing” thousands. The repression has been carried out by both government troops and paramilitary forces operating under the regime’s orders, including some who were active in the Sandinista National Liberation Front that led the revolution against the Somoza dictatorship in the 1970s. Activists and academics from around the world have raised their voices in protest as activists have been forced into exile or worse.

Ariana McGuire Villalta is a member of the Coordinadora Universitaria por la Justicia y la Democracia Nicaragua (the University Coordination for Justice and Democracy in Nicaragua). In an interview with Natalia Tylim, conducted late last year in Argentina, where McGuire Villalta lives in exile, she describes the current climate of corruption and repression in the country, how activists are responding, and what the left internationally can do to help. This interview was translated by Stacy Amaral.

CAN YOU speak briefly about your experience as an activist?

I’M 26 years old, and for the past nine years, I’ve been an independent activist. In Nicaragua, we don’t have space for political participation. There is no opposition party that really represents us or that we can work with.

The issue of militancy and activism in Nicaragua is very tied to the question of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). For example, there are NGOs working along the themes of youth, environmentalism, a little bit on questions of democracy and a lot on the issue of feminism. But these organizations, the feminist ones in particular, are very institutionalized and top-down.

Nicaraguan police fire on protesters during demonstrations against the Ortega government
Nicaraguan police fire on protesters during demonstrations against the Ortega government

For this reason, I have argued for unity in the streets, and I support all the initiatives of these groups, but when it comes to political activism, I operate on an autonomous platform.

With this in mind, I have been organizing in opposition to Daniel Ortega and the laws he has put in place for the last nine years. One of these, for example, is Law 840, “La Ley de Concesión Canalera,” which punishes “terrorism” for up to 20 years in prison. In practice, this means that anyone who protests can be jailed for an extended period of time. This law is a part of Ortega’s new carceral constitution, to be in effect for the next 100 years.

Other laws have negatively affected the political movement of the rural poor, as well as displacing farmers and causing the deterioration of life for people in the countryside in general. Another issue is the protests against changes to the constitution that established the indefinite re-election of the current government.

I have participated in all these protests, and I also do social outreach. I had a radio program in Nicaragua that aimed to generate a political debate, to raise consciousness and to make the current problems visible. Through this organizing, I was connected to youth groups that operate as militant alternatives within the broader movement.

From April 2018 on, there has been a deep political crisis in Nicaragua. When it began, I started organizing a collection center out of my home. This functioned as a place to provide food, water, medication and money to the students who were fighting back in the university. This was necessary, because there was nowhere else this was being done.

Through this organizing, I met people involved in the initiative Coordinadora Universitaria por la Democracia y la Justicia (CUDJ), a group of university students that had begun organizing against repression. I immersed myself in this project, in the work of outreach, writing and creating social networks. I worked to support, coordinate and strengthen the organization’s functioning.

WHY ARE you now living in South America?

WHILE THE repression was in its fourth month, there was a complete and official media silence while the murderers and other criminals were acting with complete impunity.

In Nicaragua, there are no independent communication networks. For this reason, getting information out of the country was extremely difficult. It became clear by April to those of us in the CUDJ and to other social groups that it was necessary to form an international mission so that people in other countries could become aware of the events in Nicaragua and denounce them.

There were a series of votes, and I was elected to represent the student movement on the caravan to South America. Prior to this, a caravan had left for Europe, where three other women were representing the student movement. We became the caravan here in South America.

On August 8, we left Nicaragua to travel to five countries to present a series of talks and interventions geared toward the left, student and feminist groups.

While we were in South America, it became clear that we could not return to Nicaragua. We were so visible, and the Ortega government was using our video to label us as terrorists intent on a coup. They stated that we left the country to look for financing for arms. Of course, none of this was true.

It would be very dangerous for us to return and be imprisoned, like many of our comrades are. As I speak, we have 13 people from the CUDJ in jail.

I had come to Argentina with the caravan and gotten to know the Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores (MST). When we went to Argentina, they began to work on a permanent campaign for Nicaragua. After we left for other countries, I maintained communication with the leadership of the organization and, when we finished the caravan in Peru, they asked me what I planned to do since I couldn’t return to my country.

They proposed that I move to Argentina to be active in the campaign for Nicaragua full time.

With this opportunity to continue this urgent and necessary political work, I decided to return to Argentina. I have been here in exile for the last two months and working to do what I can to connect my movement with others at the international level. I also continue to work on a regional plan of action for Nicaragua.

CAN YOU speak a little about the situation in Nicaragua currently?

LAST APRIL, in response to a series of demands from the IMF, the Ortega government carried out a number of changes to the Social Security Law. These caused a massive mobilization against the cuts, where the elderly and older adults took to the streets.

The government responded with repression to this mobilization. From there, the real repression began against an unprecedented scale of social mobilization in Nicaragua.

This level of civic participation in the streets hadn’t been seen before. The wave of mobilizations generated an increase in the form and phase of the government’s repression at the hands of the national police and later by paramilitary groups with the goal of containing and paralyzing the social upheaval.

This was a totally traumatic experience for the individuals involved, as well as society as a whole. It is a collective trauma that will require a good deal of time to heal.

Unthinkable things happened. Bullets were shot directly at the protesters. The military entered the university and assassinated students. Paramilitary groups burned the homes of entire families while the families were inside — including children and babies. The national police shot children as young as six months old in the head. The Ministry of Health prohibited public hospitals from attending to those injured in the attacks, and any doctors or professors who stood up to the repression were horribly punished.

There has been an enormous polarization, so much so that the government’s repression failed. They refuse to recognize that what was seen in the streets was a social movement that is seeking the democratization of the country, which has been completely usurped by the governing party and the Ortega-Murillo family. The people are seeking justice and liberty, above all else.

Even with all the trauma, there is still an impressive youth movement that is not only based in the university, but in the neighborhoods as well. But the cost of protest has been great.

There have been more than 500 assassinations in the last six months. Two thousand people have been “disappeared” — we don’t know where they are, if they are in prison or dead. Fifty thousand have had to go into exile in other countries, mostly Costa Rica. Half a million have been fired from their jobs in the last six months. Many businesses, restaurants and small companies have been forced to close.

Even more problematic and urgent is the issue of political prisoners. There are more than 600 people imprisoned by the dictatorship. Many do not know the reason for their imprisonment. There is no due judicial process that is legal or based in law.

This is all done at the discretion of the national police, and the judicial system is completely in the hands of Daniel Ortega. These prisoners are confronted daily by physical, psychological and sexual torture. The sexual torture is often by groups.

There is also the issue of sexual identity. Three trans women are being held in the men’s prison and are exposed to abuse because they are trans women. Of the 610 political prisoners, 52 are women, 3 are trans. Thirteen are comrades in the CUDJ.

This is a very serious problem, as there is no guarantee for their release from such an arbitrary and unjust imprisonment.

In early December, the government rounded up people from six organizations, including the only center for human rights that we have in Nicaragua, as well as others working on the issues of democracy and feminism. They are not allowed to continue their work in those agencies.

At dawn, the police entered their offices, these individuals were arrested, and their property was taken. Computers, cameras, recorders, office furniture and vehicles — anything that could be stolen was stolen. This was carried out by the national police.

So the phase of repression has not stopped, and there is no sense that the government will be putting an end to the structural violence and state terrorism. Within the crisis, various resistance groups continue to form. They have tried to confront the injustice, generate a transitional program and fill the void of leadership that we as Nicaraguans have. These groups have had to exile themselves and are working mostly in Costa Rica.

There is no clear alternative or end at the moment. What we are experiencing now is a crisis without precedent, worse even than the days of Somoza.

CAN YOU speak to the causes and reasons behind the degeneration of the Ortega regime?

THE FRENTE Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) was the revolutionary alternative to the Somoza dictatorship. It was the alternative that Nicaraguan society founded in the 1970s to confront and end the 46-year Somoza dictatorship.

So we can say that this government was the triumph of the revolution, but it was never really democratic in a broad sense, and it has been a government that maintained alliances with the bourgeoisie. The FSLN didn’t finish its project.

What has happened is that this transitional government — the symbol of democracy and liberty — began to confiscate property from the bourgeoisie that functioned during the Somoza years and put it in the name of the party and the highest functionaries of the party. This is why we call them the “piñata” (or where the “goodies” are).

After the loss of the 1990 elections, when Violeta Chamorro won, Daniel Ortega, the main figure and leader of the Sandinista Front, started a series of actions that totally contradicted the revolutionary plan we had understood until then.

He made a pact with the right wing, with the most corrupt president that Nicaragua has had. They divided the quota of judicial and electoral power amongst themselves, including the National Assembly. They changed the electoral law so that the FSLN could win an election with fewer votes.

Then in 1998, Ortega was accused of sexual abuse by his stepdaughter, Zoila América. He had been sexually abusing her since she was 11 years old. Her mother, Rosario Murillo, turned her back on her, and so did the left. Latin America did not want to pay attention to the accusation or pursue any legal process against Ortega.

In 2006, as part of the campaign to return the FSLN to power, Daniel Ortega made a pact with both the Catholic and Evangelical churches. This pact would penalize the law that supported therapeutic abortions, a law that was in place in Nicaragua for more than 100 years. Since then, more than 25,000 girls in the last decade, girls younger than 14 years of age, have been forced to give birth to babies, mostly products of sexual abuse.

Ortega began a nefarious campaign against the feminist movement. This also eliminated the possibility that women who suffered violence or other forms of oppression by men could find justice or the means to eliminate the violence.

In 2007, the FSLN returned to power with the Ortega presidency. At this time, they made a pact with big capital and with the largest private businesses of Nicaragua. They set up a consensus government and are responsible for destroying the political culture while big capital was able exploit resources and the labor force.

They further concentrated the economic wealth in the hands of a small number of individuals and groups. In the last decade, Ortega has made himself the richest man in Nicaragua. He is a multimillionaire — and this, of course, contradicts his vision of himself as a revolutionary and the completely false propaganda that this is in any way a socialist government, a solidarity government or, as they claim, a Christian government.

It is the deformation of the ideals of Sandinismo that has given rise to the social resistance that we are now experiencing. People are protesting because they no longer have faith in the program and see that Ortega is the only one who gets a say on the national level.

He has been president four times and is now trying to get his wife elected and get a number of his children into government roles. It is a system of complete nepotism. The chief of police is Daniel Ortega’s brother-in-law. One of the contractors for state infrastructure is his cousin. The owners of the media are his nine children, who also have a lot of financial discretion.

More than $500 million has come into the country from Venezuela over the last eight years that has not passed through the administration of the state. Instead, these transactions occurred through a private company that is the property of the Ortega family.

All of this to say that the idea that Daniel Ortega and the FSLN are in any way a socialist or revolutionary project doesn’t recognize the reality in which we are living. This is a neoliberal, capitalist, exploitive, misogynist, male chauvinist government. People need to understand that this is a dictatorship.

WHAT CAN people in the U.S. do to support activists in Nicaragua?

FIRST, PEOPLE need to share as much information as possible. I imagine that there are not many people in the U.S. who know or understand what is happening in Nicaragua. Maybe now a bit more with the sanctions that the U.S. government is pursuing and the approval of the Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act, which sanctions specific Nicaragua functionaries.

But in general, the first thing is to share the most information possible and generate space to debate the question of Nicaragua everywhere you can.

Second, it is important to connect with organizations, social movements, feminist groups, student groups, etc., to form coalitions to support the resistance in Nicaragua. The feminist movement, the groups fighting for human rights, the movement of campesinos and the student movement have started to take shape in my country. We need support and help.

Third, we urgently need help generating funds. We need networks of solidarity that give alternative financial support to the families of political prisoners. In Nicaragua, families must essentially pay room and board for their loved ones in jail. The majority of these families are poor, have no employment, and are living in totally precarious conditions with no means to support an imprisoned family member.

What people in other countries have done is to sell food, stickers and T-shirts, or collect money in other ways to send to the groups that really offer support to the families who need help providing for their imprisoned loved ones.

In Nicaragua, those who think differently from the government are being assassinated. This is fundamental. There are more than 800 students who have been expelled from school for protesting. Some of the students are 14- and 15-year-olds, with no hope for a future. Many are in hiding. There is a need for a campaign in other countries to pressure the local and national structures to allow Nicaraguan students to study in their schools.

Basically, we need more than the sharing of information. We also need organized solidarity. This means generating international action networks for Nicaragua that recognize that it is a dictatorship.

Translation by Stacy Amaral

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