In the last two decades, civic protests have exploded in Latin America and Europe – in Chile, Guatemala, Venezuela and Spain, among other places, borne out of an “indignation” about the closing off of political spaces, corruption and the power of the political elite. In all cases, the common denominator has been the central role of the university students.
The outcome has been different in each country: in Chile – after the so-called “March of the Penguins” – an educational reform was implemented and the leaders of the movement ended up in Congress; the outraged students of Guatemala managed to overthrow the corrupt government of Otto Pérez Molina, but democracy was not won; in Venezuela, the student rebellion freed the public universities from their submission to Chavez, but Maduro remains in power, and in Spain there was a political earthquake, from which new parties like Podemos and Ciudadanos emerged.
The April rebellion that broke out so suddenly in Nicaragua differs from these other experiences, in that in none of the other countries has civic protest been repressed with such violence and brutality and led to such a bloodbath. The exhaustion after eleven years of dictatorship and the outrage generated by the Ortega government’s repression has birthed a national movement that is calling for an end to the regime.
The universities shook off their lethargy and sparked a new student movement that was both courageous and rash. Their awakening cost them much blood, but also generated great enthusiasm in a weary country.
Four months later, as the repression intensifies, the student movement faces at least two major dilemmas: the immediate one being its ability to truly represent most of the students, along with its role in the Civic Alliance as the force with the greatest legitimacy to develop a strategy that could bring an end to the dictatorship. There is also the medium-term challenge around university autonomy, democracy, and its role in national politics.
What is this student movement looking for? What is its identity? Their representatives say they want to break with the vices inherited from the past, but how far are they willing to go to achieve such a shift in Nicaragua?
During the last two weeks of August, Confidencial interviewed eight representatives of four of the five groups that make up the University Coalition. We spoke with Lesther Aleman, Communications student from the UCA (the Jesuit Central American University), and spokesperson of the Nicaraguan University Alliance (AUN); Harley Morales, sociologist from the UCA and member of AUN; Jeancarlo López, student of Systems Engineering from the UNAN (Nicaragua’s National University) and member of the April 19th Movement; Fátima Villalta, student of Psychology from the UCA; Claudia (asked not to be identified with her full name), student from the UNI (the National Engineering University); and Mila, all three representatives from the Coordinating Committee of University Students; Justina Orozco and Juan Ramón González, both students from the UNA (the National Agrarian University) and members of the National Agrarian University Committee.
They were all asked the same questions about the present and the future. They abhor the concept of caudillismo (strong man rule), and define themselves as “spokespersons,” not as student leaders, weighing their political opinions with caution. But at the end of this conversation, the question that thousands are asking themselves today in Nicaragua continues to float in the air. What, precisely, is the strategy of struggle to achieve the end of the Ortega Murillo dictatorship?
The Student Movement in Nicaragua
What does the Civic Alliance mean to you? Is it just a negotiating group or is it an organization capable of leading a struggle to end the Ortega dictatorship?
Fatima Villalta: The Alliance is the base of a whole group of alliances that have emerged after April 19th. Yes, in some ways it is like a negotiating group, but it can also channel the demands of distinct movements. Something important about the Alliance is the linking of social movements across civil society, we are part of that and we are also part of the Alliance, because we understand that we must have real links with the different social movements, as they are the organizations that have generated this explosion, and that have created very strong links and bonds to continue mobilizing and discussing the demands from the different sectors.
Jose Ramon Gonzalez: The Alliance was formed quite suddenly by the situation that the country was experiencing at that moment, and it has four faces: the business sector, civil society organizations, students and peasants. As an Alliance, we were negotiating towards an immediate way out of the problem in the country, but it’s clear that the government simply saw the dialogue as a distraction, and it continued to repress people with bullets. The Alliance would have been able to achieve a stronger solution to the crisis if it had involved other sectors such as that of the transport sector. I think it’s time for the Alliance to expand and become stronger.
Jeancarlo Lopez: The Alliance was not foreseen by any of the groups that were part of the Dialogue. When we convened all these heterogeneous sectors, from the students who had just united, along with other members of civil society, academics and the business sector, we were not planning an alliance. The first day, with that direct confrontation with Ortega and Murillo, we did not have something concrete as the Alliance. Now the dynamics of the Alliance are something very curious, because we are inside the Dialogue, speaking up; as time has gone on, our role has changed. Now we are not only taking part inside the dialogue, but we are also carrying out actions that have much to do with society as a whole, for example: the organization of marches, support for people who are suffering, moving forward in getting the word out internationally. There are a number of issues that are changing the dynamics of the Alliance, because the Alliance is not a static entity that only exists vis-à-vis the Dialogue, it is something that is in process.
What is the role of the University Coalition within the Alliance? What weight does it have and what are the initiatives that the students are promoting?
Harley Morales: In the beginning, our position was that of talking loudly and imposing ourselves, thinking we would be able to get what we wanted – the students were the ones dying in the streets, and we thought that we had the legitimacy to make the decisions about certain fundamental questions inside the Alliance. That was our position and I think it still is, because so much of the legitimacy that the Alliance has won is because of the young people and these five movements. Later, we began to put the issues on the table and really open ourselves up among the other groups and we saw that the solution to all of this was an active dialogue, with the students bringing concrete proposals to the table.
We have a lot of influence inside the Alliance, not because we are raising our voices to say: “you have been with the regime for however many years, or you haven’t been doing such and such while we are dying”, no, we think that we have matured in the way that we are doing politics inside the Alliance. We have concrete proposals now that are taking on the key issues, for example in the Political Commission and in the Organization Commission. It is not just a question of carrying out marches, but organizing out in the rest of the country as well.
Fatima Villalta: We were not happy going into the dialogue, everyone knows that. At the beginning, there were many conflicts and it’s not that we don’t have those anymore, but to us it is very important that we remain in the Alliance, that we try to continue in the dialogue in some form. But there is another face to the mobilization: we are responding with student disobedience. The difference is that the Alliance has a business sector that is very important, but with something like fiscal disobedience which has been talked about for a long time, we are still waiting for that to happen.
What is the cohesion that unites these groups that the University Coalition is based on? Do you see the possibility of naming one representative to speak for all five groups or would that generate a crisis?
Lesther Aleman: We don’t believe in caudillismo (strong man politics). The faces that have been seen at a given moment had to be visible, because if they weren’t, we wouldn’t have created that empathy with people. But none of us are indispensable and we never will be, because the truth is, if I step aside, many others will follow.
We have always bet on a generational change, and though I’m not necessarily the one who’s going to be in a Ministry, I do want somebody that I identify with, who thinks the way I do.
Mila: What I like about this revolution, if we can call it that, is that it does not have one single face attached to it, because it is all the people. If we pick one representative from all these actors, then we are falling into the same thing that we have been fighting against: there cannot be one single person to represent such a diversity of minds as we see in a university space. History has shown us that having only one person as a representative corrupts, it is not viable.
Justina Orozco: I would say that there should not be a leader, but rather a spokesperson for those kids who were part of that fight, and those who weren’t able to be, those kids who were massacred on April 19th and so many other days. We say that our movement is autonomous because all the students in the Agrarian University are sitting down to say: “this is happening in Nicaragua, what do all of you think”, from the ones in the trench to the ones talking about politics, because that is how we are organized. We are a movement that works like little ants and we believe that this could happen in all the different universities. From the perspective of the Agrarian University, we are a movement that in its essence is close to the people and going out into the streets to teach about the ways in which we can carry out this peaceful struggle.
The authorities in the public universities have talked about starting up classes again. What is your position, do you think classes should begin again?
Jose Ramon Gonzalez: We are fighting as a movement within the university. We all have the right to study, but I don’t think it is fair that a university student sits in a chair to receive classes knowing that there are university students who will never return to that chair, you will sit in a chair stained with blood, because they were brothers and sisters from the university who died. It is not fair that we sit in class, when nothing is normal, when people are still dying, when there are people who are disappeared, people who are being arbitrarily arrested by the Government, by paramilitaries, by the police.
This campaign headed up by UNEN, which is an arm of the government, is to discredit all the movements that emerged in the different universities. In the Agrarian University, if you go back now, you have to present your student card and your official ID, it means that you cannot enter the university if you do not have both and with that ID you are easily identifiable, they can tell whether or not you participated in the movement.
Mila: It is not normal that this past weekend we spent all day on Saturday talking in all our networks, speaking up so that our compañeros would be freed. It is not normal that we are worried because there are currently six of our compañeros kidnapped and being held in El Chipote – and we know absolutely nothing about them, nothing is normal. It is not normal, and this calling out to the university students [to return to classes] only demonstrates once more that they are putting on a circus in the country. The UNI (the National Engineering University) has not said that classes will begin again, but we think that’s due to the fact that they are well aware that if the students return to the university, we will not recognize the authorities and the student “representatives” they are imposing on us.
Lesther Aleman: We have had a great impact on the shutdown in the universities, due to the very high levels of insecurity. If we show up and enter the university they are going to takes us away by the busload, because for Ortega, being young and a student is a crime.
How the struggle has played out is something that each person can comment on, here in the university I am better able to comment, because at this point we are very dispersed, you see students from the UCA who are back in their provinces and others who are not going out because they are afraid.
What is your opinion about the takeover of the university campuses? They played such an important role in April, May and June and then Ortega unleashed such brutal repression against the UNAN. Do you think the campuses have been crushed or do you think that they might once again become a platform for the struggle in the universities?
Fatima Villalta: This is a new stage of the resistance, the costs were so high, not only in lives but also in people who were tortured, arbitrarily detained, and that’s not even taking into account those who have fled. Even though they want to go back to normalcy, I think that’s impossible, with so many people fleeing. What we are calling for is for people to disregard the call to return to the universities.
Justina Orozco: If you get all the students together and say to them: “we’re going to take over all the campuses”, a lot of them will say yes, even if all they have is homemade mortars. But we don’t want even one more death. Time will tell.
Lesther Aleman: Taking over the universities isn’t going to happen at this point, because you know that they will attack you directly, it would simply mean openly putting your life at risk. If you want to go and die, then you have to take over the university. We are supporting the student shutdown. The government has formed a security committee at the UNAN, but who are they? The paramilitaries. They are searching people who come into the universities, so how can you go to class when they have violated the autonomy of the universities? Ramona Rodríguez, the UNAN’s Provost, has violated autonomy by allowing the paramilitaries to remain on campus. There is simply no way we will return to classes at this time.
If President Daniel Ortega were to give in and agree to moving up the elections, what would be the role of the University Coalition? Would it become a political movement? A party? Would it support an opposition candidate?
Jose Ramon Gonzalez: It is the people who will decide who will sit in the presidential chair; not the Coalition or the Alliance. You should ask the people if the Alliance would be a party that represents them. Nicaragua will decide who stays and who goes.
Mila: We have said from the beginning that the Alliance is only for the transition. If the Alliance were to become a political party at some point, I personally would not support it, because that would be going back to the same old thing. In an ideal context, in a country that respected human rights, where you know that the laws will not be overturned by any one person or regime, yes, you should have elections, because democratization is the best thing for a country. But, do we really believe that they would let us introduce a new political party in this context?
Jeancarlo Lopez: For our heroes, for the people who gave their lives for freedom in Nicaragua, we have to ensure that whoever is in power will have the confidence of the people of Nicaragua. As students, we will support the right person, but that person must know that those who have fallen in this struggle, like that first person whose body I held at the UPOLI (the Polytechnic University) – all of them wanted a free and democratic Nicaragua. We must make sure that the people in power play an important role in the reconstruction of Nicaragua, and we will not allow anyone to take advantage of the situation in the country.
Harley Morales: We have always played a role with a purely ethical character, showing people that sacrifice, commitment and dedication must be the base on which the new Nicaragua will be built. We are a symbolic, unifying force and we have the responsibility to extend legitimacy or not to all proposals, political agreements and electoral formulas. People do not support the Alliance just to support it. If you see the marches, people do not support a Juan Sebastián Chamorro, they support Jeancarlo, Lesther, who are the kids. As a movement, we are not looking to become a political party, we have not talked about that, as it would be very pretentious.
All the organizational expressions at some point will have to be united, thinking about how to form an electoral presence, and we would want to know if those people who are candidates are people who truly represent us and who will comply with the ethical obligation for which so many have sacrificed. That ethic which Alvarito Conrado taught us – it is with that ethic that a new Nicaragua and a new political culture will be created.