Harley Morales is living in a kind of cloister at the moment. This 26-year-old sociology student at Nicaragua’s Central American University sleeps in a safe house, together with another 40 university students who are representatives of the student groups that have risen during the current political crisis.
Morales is a member of the political strategy committee of the University Alliance, one of the five student movements that make up the University and Civil Society Coalition, an umbrella group that has taken up the political struggle to demand the departure of the current leaders. This coalition has been joined by NGOs and also business associations.
The crisis began on April 18, less than two months ago, triggered by cutbacks in the Social Security pensions. The protests then multiplied, due to attacks mounted against demonstrators by the National Police and other pro-government forces. When they began counting the dead, the protests stopped being about pensions but aimed directly at the state repression. The university students barricaded themselves into the universities and the churches, accompanied by a significant sector of the population demanding that the leaders resign. That was the beginning of Nicaragua’s current political and social crisis. A mere seven weeks ago. Since then, over 130 people have died as a direct result of the conflict, and every day the list grows longer.
More by force of circumstances than through a deliberate decision to hoist the banner of a popular revolt, the students had to move from full-on street protests to a new stage: that of organizing. “Ever since April 19th, we’ve been organizing committees, constructing movements; we were worried that the protests might dissipate.” states Harley Morales. The movement he’s affiliated with, known as the University Alliance, arose out of an incident he calls “the cathedral kidnapping”: on April 19, in full retreat from the flying bullets, hundreds of students and members of the general population took refuge in the Managua cathedral. They remained under siege there for several days. Inside the sanctuary, they organized themselves. The first groups of leaders came forward. In a similar way, another four groups formed in different universities.
In a very few weeks, these student representatives were transformed from social agitators to political protagonists. Whereas barely a month before they could be found in the street with a megaphone in hand or organizing logistics on campus, now they live together as if at a boarding school – isolated, surrounded by advisors and under tremendous pressure from different sectors to assume certain postures within a very complicated process.
They are, then, a true product of spontaneous generation, attempting to adapt themselves to their role as protagonists at a moment when whole chapters in history books are closed and opened. Together with the Catholic Church, they continue to be the ones to legitimize each step of the process. They’ve gained national and international recognition since the moment last May 16th when the dialogue table was being inaugurated, and a 20-year old student named Lesther Aleman told President Ortega that the only thing they were going to negotiate at that table was his departure. The video of this was viewed all over the world.
The Ortega government considers them part of a “right-wing coup conspiracy,” and there are more than a few suspicions raised by the sudden economic capacity of some students to hold conferences in the salons of luxury hotels or maintain a new life without any income.
Harley Morales doesn’t hide from responding to such questions, and he clarifies the source of the funds that are supporting them. They know, he says, that these funds come with strings attached, from sectors trying to advance their own agendas through those who’ve proven their legitimacy in the street battles. They’re young people with no experience, naive at times, trying to walk through a forest with many menaces. More than a few of them are walking at their side.
Last week, a delegation of these students visited Washington to attend the OAS general assembly. Shortly afterwards, they met and were photographed with three of the most extremist US Republicans: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ileana Ross-Lehtinen. The photos surprised everyone in Nicaragua and were viewed with strong disapproval, not only by Ortega’s sympathizers but also by those opposed to the regime, including liberals and former Sandinistas. “It was terrible,” Morales admits. “They’re the Republican far right. We’re very unhappy with this trip paid for from the United States and how an they imposed their agenda. We’ve painted ourselves with a terrible brush. We’ll have to correct our mistakes.”
El Faro has confirmed that the trip to Washington was financed by the Freedom House organization, based in Washington. This organization also set the students’ agenda, including the controversial visits with Rubio, Cruz and Ross-Lehtinen. Carlos Ponce, the Latin America coordinator for Freedom House, argued that they requested meetings with other congresspeople and senators, but that these three were the only ones to accept. “Apparently, they’re the most interested,” he said.
The photos with the Republicans were very inopportune, given the current juncture in Nicaragua: Ortega’s government accuses the students of being pawns in a conspiracy of the international right wing. The mistake hasn’t cost them their credibility, but it has given them one of their first hard lessons in politics, as Harley Morales admits. Probably the main one is that there are a lot of people around them wanting to impose a foreign agenda on them.
It’s a good idea here to put some perspective on things. These young people were children when Daniel Ortega won the presidency in 2006. They’re young university students with no political experience, who’ve spent two months under the floodlights, with the weight of becoming the protagonists of an important transition in their country. It’s not surprising, then, that their naivete is at times obvious, as in the visit to Washington. But, above all, it’s not strange that there are so many sectors interested in isolating them, in influencing them, in using them to advance their own agendas. “We know that we’re the only ones who can authenticate this process,” Harley Morales says. Those who today are lurking around them, also know this.
This conversation took place on Friday morning, June 8, in Managua.
How have you organized yourselves in seven weeks?
After April 19 we began to organize committees and form movements. We were worried that the protest might dissipate. Five movements were formed, and afterwards the University and Civil Society Coalition. When the Episcopal Conference called for the dialogue, we held meetings with the COSEP (Superior Council of Private Enterprise), with organizations of civil society and others who were in favor of organizing this. The COSEP forms part of the Coalition, as well as the American Chamber of Commerce in Nicaragua; there are farmers’ organizations and also representatives of people from the Caribbean.
Why did you decide to join together with groups so different than yours?
We know that the only way to defeat the regime is by creating a common agenda. The student movement has already morphed into the political realm. We’re not fighting about scholarships or for the interests of a specific sector.
Who’s paying for your new life: your provisions, housing, mobilization, security, your trips..?
We demanded a minimal security to attend the dialogue, and obviously the government wouldn’t give this to us. We have to ally ourselves with other sectors, like private business and civil society. It’s not only the private sector that helps us – there’s Oxfam, the Maria Elena Cuadra movement, the agricultural and cattle producers, etc.
How did the trip to Washington come up?
That trip was something very odd. We’re very unhappy about that trip, and with our representative as well. When we planned it, there were already a lot of figures wanting to intervene in the agenda. That happened right from the beginning. I’m talking about organizations, politicians from the opposition, some of them more to the right… This trip was financed (by the Freedom Foundation) from within the United States. The agenda was imposed by them, and that’s terrible. It was they who decided which students would go.
So why did you accept it?
We didn’t accept it. We were going with a clear idea that they would attend the General Assembly of the OAS. It’s terrible. We didn’t know of the meetings with Ted Cruz, with Ileana Ross nor with Marco Rubio. We’re very unhappy about that. When the guys return, we’re going to talk with them. We can’t give in on the fundamentals.
What are you referring to?
To the fact that they didn’t tell us that they were going to those meetings. It was very strange. All of the movements now have advisors, people who are active. Children of politicians, business leaders… They have a very clear political line. Of the three students who went to Washington, two are from the April 19th movement, and one – Fernando Sanchez – is from our alliance.
And he didn’t tell you what he was going for?
In the Coalition, they don’t see us any longer as groups. Someone called him and told him: we’re taking you. They didn’t say anything to the others.
What didn’t you like about the meetings with Rubio, Cruz and Ross?
We’re not for sale! Not even in our own Alliance. We put our cards on the table. We have legitimacy and this alliance exists because of us, not because of the private sector, and we can delegitimize the alliance and leave. We’re not children of COSEP. I’m a leftist, and I wouldn’t have gone.
How have those meetings been received within the University Alliance?
We’re going to have to make a plan for correcting mistakes. We’ve painted ourselves with a terrible brush. If they were already saying that we were children of COSEP, what are they going to say now? That we’re children of the Republican Party of the United States? We have to talk about this when they return.
In your opinion, are there figures interested in manipulating you?
Lots. I was in the Upoli (Polytechnic University, one of the first to be occupied by the students) on April 22, and I remember then how many figures that I recognized were already there seeing who they should talk to. There were many groups vying for the student leadership. And many trying to “advise”. That’s the key word. The “advisors”, that I believe are making decisions; and there are movements that are letting themselves be advised by certain people.
What’s your relationship with COSEP at this moment?
We’re very clear. We know that when COSEP no longer needs us, they’re going to try to dismiss us. But we have other plans.
Will you reveal them to me now?
Yes. History tells us that we should not be subject to the political and economic agenda of the business community and we know that they will abandon us. We know the risk involved in receiving their support. They think they can ask us for something in return. We insist on justice and democracy, and there are some things we say that they did not like.
Isn’t there a contradiction in which you, opponents of the system implemented by Ortega and the big businessmen, are now supported by these same entrepreneurs?
Yes, there is. There were two pacts that allowed the return of Ortega to power: the one he made with Arnoldo Alemán and the one he made with the large private business sector. When we started talking to business people, we did not do it with (José Adán) Aguerri (executive director of Cosep), but with Michael Healy (president of the Association of Agricultural Producers of Nicaragua, UPANIC) and with Álvaro Vargas, of FAGANIC (Federation of Livestock Associations). We believe that Cosep is now in dispute. The Chamber of Healy is the most belligerent. We have business people as allies in the face of dialogue, but we don’t trust them. We were very clear to them: we told them that we were afraid that the dialogue would be a media show and that the real dialogue was taking place under the table. That is a latent suspicion. We demand justice and democracy.
Does justice mean putting all the corrupt on trial? That is to say, also the business people who turn out to be accomplices of the corruption?
Yeah right. Of course! But first you have to try those responsible for all these murders.
If tomorrow Ortega resigned, as you ask, and there was a call to elections, what would you do?
We no longer bet on being a only student movement but instead a replacement of the flawed political elite that has always protected its own interests. Maybe we are not the ones who are going to lead the country in the short term, but we are going to be a belligerent force. If there were elections tomorrow, we would have to sit with many people. “Prepare the field”, as the OAS says. We not only demand transparent elections, but deep electoral reforms. We do not want only a change of elites. We do not want the traditional parties. The culprit of all this is not only the Sandinista Front, but the entire oligarchy and the political elite of this country, either by complicity or by incapacity. We have made it clear to the business people that we did not want elections, but the resignation of the current government and the conformation of a transitory junta. Our struggle is also against all traditional political parties.
So what do you propose doing?
The FSLN is now in crisis. Our fear is that if we give more time to call elections, Cosep and the big business people will make another three party pact [that what they call in Nicaragua the agreement between Ortega, big business and the unions, which has allowed the commander to govern without counterweights, pervert state institutions and eliminate the opposition. It has included the blessing and complicity of that private sector who, in exchange, dictate the economic measures and reap benefits from the State]. We need guarantees that neither political parties nor business people are going to do this. Nobody should be able to impose their interests.
But what would be, for you, the ideal calendar?
The private sector has requested 14 months. That would allow them to agree with the regime or take over themselves. We demand open electoral participation that is not limited to traditional political parties (open inscription of movements, alliances, etc.) to participate in elections in coalition with other sectors.
But how, with whom, if you boast of not having leaders?
Today every agreement of civil society needs to be legitimized by us. We have to be wise enough to know who should be asked to hold public office. We are not going with the logic of revenge.
Recently, representatives of the OAS came and met with you. What did you talk about?
We speak. They do not talk much. We clarify our positions and the scenario in which they are. Ortega would like a pact with less belligerent actors. We know [OAS secretary general] Almagro’s love relationship with this government. They say the playing field will be ready for January, but by January they will have killed us. We present our agenda to them. They told us that they do not accept anything outside the constitutional channels.
And what was your counterproposal?
That in August there could be a call for elections. But first there must be reforms. We won’t accept just any early elections.
Does all this require the departure of Ortega?
The moment the dictator admits our agenda, he would be surrendering. We know that. We would be bending his arm. That depends on our ability to mobilize, on the street. Unfortunately we have just played a bad role before the international community.
Let’s talk a little about your current situation, boarded up for safety… Have you not lost the link with the street, which was precisely what you managed to gain in April?
Yes a lot. It has its cons but also its pros. It has allowed us to better organize ourselves, design strategies, paths of action. We have lost contact with the barricades and our weakness is the UNAN (Autonomous University of Nicaragua), because it is very large. We are trying to integrate them more into the coalition. There was a time when we were at the barricades. Now we are in another phase. It is no longer just entrenching ourselves. We’re going to have to be very creative and learn from history.
You mention the word history a lot. Do you assume yourselves as protagonists of a historical moment?
Yes, we know it. Circumstances demand careful decisions and discipline. Calling this a revolution is nice, but that means changing structures. The priority right now is that they don’t kill us. Then, justice and democracy.
The dialogue table convened by the Episcopal Conference has been suspended. What happens if it is terminated?
We foresee strategies so that the way to shut down the country is more coordinated. A network of supplies. There is always the possibility of a strike or the installation of a governing junta in liberated territory, such as Masaya. There are ways of pressuring.
(Originally published in El Faro, a prestigous Latin American online publication).