Youth as a Catalyst for Change in Nicaragua
“SOS Nicaragua” the autoconvocados, or self-organized, yell in protest across Nicaragua. College students are organizing nationwide protests in order to change their country’s leadership. Millennials are taking the lead in hopes of bringing serious reform and reversing President Daniel Ortega’s policies. In April, Ortega implemented a social security policy that would reduce benefits for retirees and increase taxes on workers. Since then, the Nicaraguan government has faced backlash. The autoconvocados garner support from the majority of people in the country, despite the authoritarian response exhibited by the Ortega government. During the last election, he banned the main opposition party. He continues to maintain control over the military, the media and most branches of government. Nicaraguan university students want to end government repression, fearing that push Nicaragua will join Venezuela in being one of the only two Latin American countries to regress from democracy.
The first wave of student protest called for democratic change and an end to the recent government policies. These protests culminated in the deaths of several students, who were killed by Ortega supporters that found the students call to action threatening to an already weakening Ortega regime. A civic insurrection followed as furious citizens responded. Journalist Kyra Gurney explains in the Miami Herald that:
“Few could have been psychologically prepared for the violence the Ortega administration has unleashed on the protesters. The intensity of the demonstrations, and the response from government forces, have come as a surprise for many in Nicaragua, which in recent years has been a relatively safe, stable country. The Ortega administration has denied responsibility for the killings, blaming criminal groups and characterizing the protesters as right-wing gangs.”
According to the Organization of American States (OAS), 1,337 have been wounded, 212 killed and 507 arrested since the protests began. This does not include several undocumented kidnappings and murders. These clashes that began in April mark the deadliest protests in Nicaragua since its civil war ended in 1990.
The United Nations condemned human rights abuses perpetrated by pro-government forces. While the UN released a statement claiming that “The UN is available to assist national dialogue efforts to strengthen the rule of law, respect for human rights and the peaceful resolution of differences,” international attention on the situation is lacking.
The United States, which has a history of intervening in Nicaragua’s internal political affairs, should help mitigate the crisis by discussing options to grant asylum and place sanctions on high ranking Nicaraguan officials. Manuel Orozco characterizes the situation well, writing in the New York Times that “Mr. Ortega has shown that he responds only to pressure. In response to the demonstrations, he rescinded the social security plan that triggered the protests, and he freed some of the demonstrators who were jailed. The pressure must be sustained.” The lack of international uproar does not help the civilian agenda calling for stronger democratic institutions and early elections in 2019. The U.S. should enforce the Global Magnitsky Act- an American law used to punish people around the world for human rights violations - to further sanction members of Ortega’s business inner circle who sponsor his political agenda. This could apply to election commissioners who aided Ortega throughout fraudulent elections. Greater sanctions on individuals can aid the peaceful transfer of power in all branches of government.
Nicaraguans are afraid to leave their homes to protest because of the chance that they will be targeted and imprisoned. The Roman Catholic church is working to build peaceful coalitions to mitigate street riots. Following peace talks between student organizers, the Catholic Church and the government, the social security policy was amended. However, this does not make up for the restrictive path the government is continuing the follow.
Nicaraguan students remain committed to political change. Kyra Gurney explains the capabilities of the student movement as such:
“Despite their lack of preparation, however, the students have managed to keep their new bunker running smoothly. Each one of the roughly 900 students living at the university which they have occupied as a main base for their protests, which normally has about 40,000 students, has a specific task based on his or her major. The medical students run makeshift clinics. The law students document human rights violations and communicate with local human rights groups. The economics students administer the meager and financial donations.”
By maintain opposition despite a lack of resource, young Nicaraguans can inspire other youth movements in repressive countries around the world. In an effort redefine their country’s future, students have used social media as an outlet to broadcast the atrocities occurring across the country, since most public broadcasting is censored by the government. Autoconvocados are active in the diaspora as well. Nicaraguan-American citizens are organizing small rallies across the United States and pressuring their politicians to draft bills to sanction multiple Nicaraguan entities. This step is the first of many in hopes of garnering greater international attention while shaping a more stable and democratic Nicaragua.