In late 1979 Valerie Roche was invited to go to Nicaragua to work in the Ministry of Planning as an information advisor. For the following 4 years she worked enthusiastically alongside many dedicated people in a variety of projects aimed to bring about positive changes in Nicaraguan society. Here are some of her reflections.
On 18th April 2018 I received several unexpected text messages about the social explosion that was taking place in Nicaragua. I contacted friends living there and watched every news bulletin I could find. Peaceful protests by students had been met by armed police, tanks and live ammunition. Within days several protesters were dead and hundreds had been arrested. This was not the Nicaragua I had known when I worked there in the 1980s. There had been a profound change. It is true that over the intervening decades, and in particular since 2007, the seeds of this change had become ever more apparent, but none of us had predicted just how brutal the change would turn out to be.
THE TRANSITION FROM 1980s NICARAGUA TO PRESENT DAY
In the 1980s Nicaragua was a country with an exciting social and political project, seeking to transform one of the poorest countries in Latin America into an equitable and fair society. The Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) was at the forefront of this far-reaching project and many of us from Ireland who worked in Nicaragua at that time were proud to be associated with such a progressive plan. Ambitious policies achieved unimaginable results: literacy rates reached 70% from a low of 13%, a drive towards domestic food production provided increased food security and the differential between the salaries of the top earners and those on minimum wage was flattened dramatically. These were just a few of the exciting changes which took place.
Having lived and worked previously in Mexico and El Salvador, it was in late 1979 that I was invited to go to Nicaragua to work in the Ministry of Planning as an information advisor. For the following 4 years I worked enthusiastically alongside many dedicated people in a variety of projects aimed to bring about positive changes in Nicaraguan society. But the far-reaching vision of a new Nicaragua was beyond reach; in large measure due to constant attack by US-backed initiatives including the armed “Contra” who were trained and equipped by the US. After just a decade in government, the FSLN lost the elections in 1990.
Following several changes of government, Daniel Ortega, having consolidated his personal control over the FSLN, retook power in 2007. From there on in, he dismantled the democratic institutions of the State, removing regulations regarding successive terms of office, ensuring the possibility of successive victories in elections by controlling the Supreme Electoral Council and the Supreme Court, nominating his wife as Vice-President and establishing a clear-cut dictatorship by a single family.
THE PROTESTS OF 2018
Now, back to the 2018 protests. These were sparked by two specific events: the apparent wilful destruction of the Indio Viejo natural reserve where fires resulted in thousands of acres of natural forest being destroyed while the government refused to accept assistance from neighbouring countries and delayed efforts to combat the fire. And the introduction of new policies which would cut the state pay-outs to pensioners while also significantly raising the pension contributions by all registered workers.
But the protests on these issues were only symptoms of a much more profound distrust by the people of those who had consolidated the power of the State. Escalating street demonstrations and demands for the resignation of the presidential couple were met by ever-harsher police brutality, over 300 deaths and some two thousand political prisoners. Days turned into weeks; weeks into months and as the systematic repression of community organisations, NGOs, newspapers and broadcasters escalated, more and more people fled the country, many of them across the border to Costa Rica. It is estimated that there are over 80,000 Nicaraguans taking refuge in Costa Rica.
PEACE BRIGADES INTERNATIONAL (PBI)*[i] IN COSTA RICA
I visited Nicaragua in late 2018 to find a society living in fear with little hope of seeing the situation change in the short term. Despite internal demands for his resignation and international condemnation of the flagrant disrespect for human rights, Daniel Ortega insisted that he would see out his “elected” term of office which was not due to end until November 2021.
Together with other colleagues in Peace Brigades, we set up a programme to support those who found themselves in exile, trying to come to terms with the profound social volcano that had exploded in their country. Expectations of a rapid return gave way to reluctant resignation that this would not happen until the elections in late 2021, and more recently a growing fear that these elections might not bring about the hoped-for change of government or may not even happen.
And so, despite the Covid pandemic, we set about organising workshops, seminars and training sessions around themes of interest to those who found themselves in this new reality uprooted from family and their communities. And due to the pandemic, we had to make major readjustments to the programme. To take just one small change – transport to a venue had to be replaced by providing phone credit to attend the various online events. These events included talks that aimed to help individuals deal with personal trauma, discussions on the political outcomes of what had happened, training on digital security, preparation for returning home – whenever that might be.
But perhaps more important than the content of the session was the coming together in groups, the feeling that someone cared and that we were there accompanying them. The groups were made up of Campesino community leaders who had experienced and witnessed horrific repression in the rural areas of Nicaragua; young women who had got caught up in the protests, had been arrested and often imprisoned, and groups from the Afro-Caribbean communities who had experienced repeated displacements and land-grab over recent decades. All are determined that once it is safe to do so, they will return home and try to re-assemble their lives. For the moment they concentrate on survival and preparation for the day they can re-join their families.
A NEW REALITY OF SOLIDARITY WITH NICARAGUA
Back in the 80’s we were in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua in their project for building an exciting new society. Today’s reality is very different. When I talk to those who have been impacted by state repression, I am struck by the very diverse political views they hold. Some believe in that dream of the 80s; others are active members of US-backed conservative political parties; others have no interest in politics at all. What brings them together is the denial of basic democratic rights in their country, a country now run by fear and repression, where freedom of expression, rights of organisation and basic human rights are denied. For those of us who believe in people’s right to democratic freedom, it is equally important to stand in solidarity with them and raise our voices on their behalf.