Student-led protests in Nicaragua end in violence

National police used excessive force to stop peaceful demonstrations

A movement has formed in Nicaragua calling for governmental reform after a peaceful student protest was met with excessive force.

The protests, which began April 18, happened in response to President Daniel Ortega’s pension reforms, which would have increased the contribution that Nicaraguans had to pay while decreasing the pension that would go to retirees. “The delta in the payment would have gone in the pockets of the government,” an MIT alum with family and other contacts in Nicaragua, who asked not to be named in this article, said in an interview with The Tech.

Ortega, who was president during the 1980s and elected back into office in 2007, has been accused of abusing his power, as he banned the main opposition party and changed the constitution to abolish term limits, giving him the ability to rule indefinitely.

On the first night of protests, three university students were killed by national police, the alum said. Estimates of the total death toll vary: the alum said over 60 were killed, according to the alum’s sources in Nicaragua, while Amnesty International wrote April 21 that the toll is at least ten.

Peaceful protests against the social security reform have now escalated into demonstrations against the government. According to the alum, many Nicaraguans who previously supported the government have changed their minds after seeing police forces kill the nation’s youth.

Massive demonstrations with upwards of half a million participants occurred in the nation’s capital Managua April 23. Quieter demonstrations calling for democracy continue to take place on the streets of Nicaragua.

In an interview with The Tech, Bernie Perez, a research fellow in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning who is from Nicaragua, said the recent events in Nicaragua have not received sufficient attention due to the government’s censorship of the media.

While the government has shut down the only four non-government-owned television channels, Nicaraguans have used Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter as avenues to spread awareness of the protests. Since the servers on these social media platforms are safe, Nicaraguans are able to communicate with each other and to the outside world. The hashtag #SOSNicaragua seeks to build international pressure on Ortega to leave office. The protests have recently garnered greater international attention in media outlets such as the New York Times. However, according to Perez, the situation still does not receive the attention and urgency it deserves.

So far, the Nicaraguan government has responded by repealing the social security law and attempting to divide Nicaraguans based on their political ideology. Ortega wants to portray himself as a left wing leader and the protesters as right wing activists who have infiltrated the Nicaraguan people, Perez explained.

However, the issue is no longer about ideology; it is about human rights, Perez said. Regardless of whether they are right wing or left wing, Nicaraguans are standing together to demand a democratic, peaceful government.

A dialog between Ortega and sectors of Nicaraguan society is currently taking place, and its results are yet to be seen. Nicaraguans are asking that students have a voice in the discussion, speaking to the respect the country has for the students who started the movement.

Students are still seen as the foundation and the leaders of the movement, the alum said. “They are the voice of the people.”

In the face of all the turmoil, Nicaraguan civilians have responded with warmth and kindness. The alum’s contacts in Nicaragua say that incarcerated students are being released into the countryside with shaved heads and no shoes or possessions. People are looking out for these students and providing them with necessities.

Nicaragua has not seen such widespread dissatisfaction and fear since its civil war in the 1980s. However, protesters remain undeterred. “Nicaragua is a small country,” the alum said, “but it is internally strong.”

Update 5/16/18: The article was updated to correct a misquotation of Bernie Perez. Perez said that Ortega wanted to portray himself as a left-wing advocate, not the protesters.