Once again they left their lands in order to defend them and demonstrate their rejection of the expropriations involved in the Nicaragua Grand Canal project, packed with more doubts than certainties.
Those who arrived in Nueva Guinea to march numbered in the thousands. Some came by boat from the remote areas of Nicaragua’s south Caribbean; others in trucks loaded to the gills; in buses, by motorcycle, on horseback, on foot…. However they could, they converged on this departmental capital. There were many – men and women: they came with hats and caps, their rubber boots opening a path along the hot paving stones; the youngest men with their shirts unbuttoned and their chests uncovered, chests that rose with the ringing cry of “No to the canal!” They were the farmers and rural residents, en masse, with riding whips raised.
Among them was Francisca “Chica” Ramírez, short and plump, her face roughened by the sun and determination belied by her height. As leader, she directed an unending line of trucks from La Fonseca, Nueva Guinea, the line stretching back along the road. “Here comes Chica!” shouted other farmers that had come to this demonstration from El Tule, Río San Juan, Rivas and other sites affected by the canal route.
The planned route is the work of the company known as HKND Group, property of the Chinese businessman Wang Jing, to whom comandante Daniel Ortega has conceded the franchise for the project and the power to expropriate any site he chooses. That’s what Law 840 establishes, the law whose repeal is being demanded by these farmers and citizens from areas deep into Nicaraguan territory.
The rural residents came with their minds made up; to march “with no fear” some say. They knew that the National Police and the riot squads might block their path, as has happened at other demonstrations. But this time was different: there was no trace of officers. The police stationed at the roadblock near La Lechera in Nueva Guinea – the gathering point chosen by the National Council for the Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty – had left the area a long time before Ramirez group’s trucks and those from Punta Gorda began honking their loud horns to announce their arrival.
There were no traces of police along the march. None at all. The rural multitudes filled the streets of Nueva Guinea under the helpless gaze of the local court employees and the Sandinista mayor’s office, forced to bear witness to the farmers’ grievances against Daniel Ortega and First Lady Rosario Murillo. One day before the march, the city was peaceful, but Confidencial had confirmed the presence of the riot squad and many police officers in the police station. There were routine roadblocks but there were no barriers to the anti-Canal movement’s right to demonstrate.
Vilma Nuñez, president of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), stated that they’d had reports of the presence of the Nicaraguan Army at Río Punta Gorda, but there were no incidents. “We’d like to think that this indicates a rectification of inappropriate conduct on the part of President Ortega. And if that’s the case, giving him the benefit of the doubt, we invite him to continue without repression. As Monsignor Romero once said: ‘Let the repression cease!’” These were the words of this tireless human rights defender who had been in La Lechera since very early in the day.
Marvin Mejía, a young farmer from the community of El Tulito in Río San Juan, noticed the absence of police. He was unaware of the fact that in the hours before the protest Amnesty International had urged the Ortega government to protect his right to demonstrate. Mejía sustained that if the National Police hadn’t “repressed” the last national march held in Managua “we’d have been more successful.” “But even with so, we’ve always leapt over the obstacles to marching,” he stated, undeterred.
The drought and protecting the Lake of Nicaragua
Thousands of farmers arrived in Nueva Guinea to call for the repeal of Law 840. Carlos Herrera/Confidencial
There were so many rural residents at the Aprill 22 protest because it was the fourth march with a national character. A number of organizations from civil society and from the opposition parties participated, backing the demand to repeal law 840. Nonetheless, the farmers also lifted their voices to complain of the drought that’s affecting them.
“The water has disappeared from the wells, there’s no more to wash with, we don’t have a tiny bit of water, but have to buy cans of it for two or three pesos,” Reyna Sosa, from Río Punta Gorda related.
Mónica López Baltodano from the Popul Na Foundation, and legal advisor for the National Council said that April 22nd is a “symbolic” date for these farmers, who are also calling for Lake Cocibolca to be protected as a key reserve for human consumption of potable water. “Little by little this movement is going to come together as a national movement to meets the needs of Nicaraguans,” the environmental lawyer said, in reference to the environmental crisis that Nicaragua faces due to the authorities’ negligence.
“We can bend the arm of this government and of its allies in the private sector and foreign investors who want to strip the population of this country’s wealth,” López Baltodano added.
The Popul Na director recalled that the protest was also a response to the National Assembly’s rejection of the citizen’s initiative to repeal Law 840, as dictated by a Parliament under the domination of comandante Ortega. The secretary and the Parliament’s board of directors declared themselves “not competent” to transmit the initiative petition backed by 28,000 signatures, 7,000 of them notarized in compliance with the legal requirements.
The Sandinista deputies alleged that the Judicial Branch had already ruled on the constitutionality of Law 840 and thus they couldn’t act upon “a judged thing”. The farmers’ legal team alleges that they never requested this, that they merely accessed the Parliamentary capacity to dictate, modify and repeal laws.
José Chavarría, known as Chepito, isn’t interested in the legislators’ legal excuses. He rebuked them in a more direct way in the march: “We’re four things: angry, fed up, pissed off, and ashamed. Ashamed because the National Assembly declares itself incompetent, inept, with their hands tied by Daniel Ortega, and can’t repeal law 840,” complained this farmer from Palo Bonito a small community on the banks of the Punta Gorda river.
Chepito called out the deputies with a challenge: “If they can’t perform their work,” they should resign. “These fathers of the country make us ashamed, because a father loves his children. We’re under their protection. We don’t want people like these, that eat because of us but don’t serve any function,” the farmer and community leader insisted.
HKND and the business leaders
The meeting that the HKND consortium sustained with the business people from the Higher Council for Private Enterprise (COSEP) and the American-Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) was a topic of conversation during the protest.
First, because the HNKD, following months of absence, maintained that only six thousand families, some 20,000 people, would be affected, in contradiction with independent projections from the Humboldt Center and the Network of Local Communities who estimate that the Canal will displace 100,000 people.
“The important thing for us – and the commitment on the part of the company has been maintained here – is that when the negotiation process to buy their lands begins there’ll be three alternatives,” declared José Adán Aguerri, president of COSEP.
According to Aguerri, these “alternatives” are: direct purchase of the land, the possibility of relocating, and an option for exchange. “But the most important thing we talked about today is maintaining the commitment that when this negotiation happens it will be with the fair commercial price of that land,” the COSEP president said.
But Francisca Ramírez, wiping the drops of sweat off her forehead with a brusque sweep of her hand, asked: “What commitment” does HKND have? “Where is that commitment in the 25 articles of the law? We haven’t seen it. While the law exists, we feel that we’re not the owners of our properties. For that reason, we call for its repeal,” underlined the rural leader.
This article has been translated from Spanish by Havana Times.