I am from Nicaragua.
This statement is usually followed by an awkward silence and a pitiful look — when it isn't a what-is-Nicaragua-stare. I immediately brace myself for the variations of “How are things going?” or “How is your family?” My response is the same: things are bad but we’re doing okay.
The truth is, everything I say is a lie. I don’t really know how things are going or how my family is doing. I left my home over than three months ago and since then I have been scrambling for bits of information, but nothing truly prepares me to give an honest answer to the questions I am faced with. My family is no longer a family; we are spread over four different time zones, in vastly distant parts of the world and living in radically different situations. So whenever I think of home, it is with interminable fear that I may not have one anymore.
So, what is happening in Nicaragua?
Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest
in the Western Hemisphere. As of April 2018, it is in a deep socio-political crisis. To fully understand what has been going on this year, I have to tell you a story that began more than 80 years ago.
In 1936, Anastasio Somoza Garcia set in motion what would end up becoming over 40 years of Somoza Family rule in Nicaragua. His brutal repression of the Nicaraguan people and alliance with the U.S. Government eventually sparked a multi-party revolution. This revolution was instigated largely by one particular group, the Sandinistas. I will not delve into the details of their ideology or what happened after the overthrow of Somoza family in 1979. All you need to know is that in 1990, the Sandinistas lost power and democratic elections have taken place each year until 2007 to elect a new government.
The Sandinistas’ President back then and today is Daniel Ortega. He was once venerated as a war hero and liberator from the Somoza dictatorship but he lost the elections in 1990, having led the country since 1979. Since 2007, Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front has changed the constitution to not only allow Ortega to run for unlimited terms, but also allow his wife to become his vice president. Throughout the 10 years Ortega has been in power, he has slowly taken over most branches of government, seized profitable businesses and generally ruled the country as a disguised dictator.
After the violence and turmoil of the 1970s and 80s, the Nicaraguan people were not keen to throw themselves into another violent fight for power and democracy. We were content to live with our heads down and work for a better life.
However, in 2017, the National Institute for Social Security or INSS realized that they were rapidly running out of the money
required to continue providing basic services to the population. Although the INSS was turned over to Daniel Ortega’s government with a surplus of money, risky investments made against the advice of our own constitution and outside sources quickly burned through that surplus and put the INSS in danger of not being able to pay pensions after 2019.
On April 18, the government announced a social security reform
that would increase the amount of money employers and employees would have to pay to qualify for pensions, while also reducing current pensions by five percent. Protests, attended primarily by university students and senior citizens affected by the pension reduction, flared up around the capital. Anti-riot police were quickly discharged, along with the Sandinista Youth organization, to the protests in an attempt to shut them down.
More than 30 people died during the first four days of protests. From then on, the people of Nicaragua rose up against Ortega’s oppression. The protests were no longer about just reforming the INSS, they were also about every single injustice inflicted upon the people in the past 10 years. As the people’s anger increased in intensity, so did the repression and violence with which the government responded.
Here is a summary of the regime’s most despicable acts and the consequences attached to them:
Today, the Nicaraguan Association in Favor of Human Rights or ANDPH
estimates over 512 deaths, more than 30 of whom are children below the age of 15.
The government passed an “anti-terrorism” law
that basically strips a person of all rights once they are accused of terrorism, without the need of any evidence.
There are more than 300 political prisoners
and over 1000 people kidnapped or missing.
The government has attempted to censor media and news outlets
, often through violent means such as attacking journalists or media organization offices
Major businesses have started to close or downsize, resulting in thousands being unemployed
. There has been a mass migration of Nicaraguans to Costa Rica due to threats to people’s lives or as a result of increasing unemployment.
The government has forced its employees
to participate in pro-government rallies at the threat of not only losing their jobs but also their lives.
The Minister of Health, Sonia Castro, gave the order that no public hospital could treat protesters
, resulting in several deaths.
After reading this rather brief and light overview of what is happening in my country, you might be wondering why you should care about this. You don’t have to, no one will force you to look at pictures of dead children or empty streets. But the sad reality is that if you don’t care, perhaps no one else will. Daniel Ortega has gotten away with so much simply because in Nicaragua he holds all the power and nobody outside of the country cares. So share the news, start a conversation.
I know that I am not the only one carrying the immense weight of a home torn to pieces with them. Trust me, it is not pretty and it doesn’t go away once you do other things. You are constantly reminded every single day of the fact that you are in university while people die every single day in your country. You feel guilty, useless, alone. Much of who I am is because of the country I grew up in, the people who lived and shared that with me. And simply being myself reminds me of how much pain and suffering there is and how little I can do to stop it. Knowing what is going on hurts you, but not knowing is much worse. Every news article makes you yearn to be home, to be able to fix things at any cost. Every time one more death is announced, you wish you could have stopped it, given yours in exchange for theirs.
My friends and family back home are afraid to leave their houses after 5:00 p.m., to openly discuss what is going on. The death toll keeps growing and everyday I wake up to check the news, knowing that while I slept that number went up.
Mari Velasquez-Soler is Deputy News Editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.