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Senseless repression gives a meaning to Nicaraguan rebellion

The crisis that has been shaking Nicaragua since April cannot be understood without considering the way in which it has been confronted by the regime. Español

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Protests in Managua, 2018. Wikimedia Commons.

It could be said that brutal repression was precisely what brought the citizens out onto the streets. In order to examine the correlation between repression and the protests (in that order, and not the other way around), we must understand that the government deployed its coercive mechanisms in successive stages, both before and during the crisis, and that it "adjusted" them to the actual "operation theatre" (rural or urban).

On the other hand, the stigmatization of groups (students, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, merchants, peasants, ordinary citizens, workers, feminists, political leaders) and the selective threats against certain individuals reflect the tilt that the government wishes to give to the narrative surrounding the events.

The messages intended to elicit support from allies (within and outside the country) also affected the forms of action of its opponents.

In a chronicle entitled ‘The vandal grandmother against the invisible men’, sociologist José Luis Rocha asks: "Why does a government that has more than 20,000 guards, between police officers and military personnel, and several thousand paramilitaries at his disposal, need to arrest with a disproportionate show of force, as if confronting a resurrected Osama Bin Laden, a 78-year-old lady who did nothing but offer some water to the participants in the protest demonstrations?".

Doña Coquito, Rocha goes on to say, "went to the protest marches to give the water bags she usually sells for a living for free. That's why she was arrested last weekend by a raging, uncoordinated police squad - no fewer than five agents, perhaps as many as ten.

She was not proclaiming anything. She was not demanding anything. She did not raise her hand in protest. She has never in her life uttered a word against the regime in public.

She was simply giving water to thirsty protesters. Even when she was later interviewed about her detention, she did not curse the regime. She told the facts: 'They called me an old cow and threw me onto the truck like a pig'."

"Doña Coquito, water purveyor to the protesters, together with dancer Doña Flor and marathon runner Alex Vanegas, has become a symbol of the rebellion.

lmost dragging her huipilDoña Flor was shoved and pushed towards a police patrol and then carried to El Chipote for displaying folk dances at the marches. 

lmost dragging her huipil, Doña Flor was shoved and pushed towards a police patrol and then carried to El Chipote for displaying folk dances at the marches. 62- year-old marathon runner Alex Vanegas, who was touring the country calling for the release of political prisoners, had already been arrested twice.

These are three characters of the rebellion. They are not leaders - God forbid, they would probably say. They only gave some water, danced, and ran. Three activities that terrify a millionaire family entrenched in their mammoth housing complex which includes à la carte room service."

Doña Coquito, Doña Flor and Don Alex are a part of the 'ordinary people' who have courageously and gracefully been involved in the April 19 movement.

They are moved by their values and have been hurled into action by the events – by the repression, most of all – and have ended up right in the eye of the hurricane.

30 years ago, they would have been nothing more than an anecdote which would have gone around by word of mouth. Today, they are three heroes of the rebellion.

They are ordinary people who do not lead anything or anybody. They do not seek a ministerial appointment, an embassy, or a cushy job. They have not written any manifestoes, and until a week ago they had never set foot in a television studio.

Today, they are champions of the movement. They and the university students made their debut on the tiny screens of cell phones before making it to the television. In a way, they were "approved of" by people through social media and identified by the regime as dangerous individuals.

"On the other corner, their contenders: the superheroes of the regime, the paramilitaries. Not only are they diametrically opposed because of their support of Ortega and his brutal methods.

They are opponents because they cover their faces. If Doña Coquito, Doña Flor and Don Alex are effective because they are now famous, the paramilitaries draw their strength from their anonymity. They are invisible. The hood over their heads not only renders them unknown to the rest of the people, it renders them unknown to themselves."

"The two opponents of the April rebellion are those who go defenceless and show their face, and those who hide under a hood. Those who show themselves and those who cover themselves.

Some are moved by compassion, others commit crimes that they do not dare to confess even to themselves. But the thousands of paramilitaries who hide their identity to ease their conscience have been unable to intimidate the opposition. And the regime feels insecure when a defenseless 78-year-old woman is offering water in the streets. Fear of what?"

This portrait of the resistance goes against the grain of the discourse that people in power have tried to impose: the tale of a Machiavellian opposition moved by dark forces and manipulated by foreign agents.

But it is also confounding if, like Honduran sociologist Tomas Andino - among the first observers who have tried to analyze "what’s happening in Nicaragua" - the reasons presented are mainly derived from a "deep social discontent that has been piling up for more than a decade, in the context of a number of contradictions between the government and the people, incubated in a Nicaraguan brand of capitalism, together with unpopular decisions, dictatorial attitudes and fiscal measures taken by the Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo duo."

This explanation has some validity, especially because it questions both the official discourse and the credulity of those who have accepted without questioning, the story of the "safest country in the region", friendly to foreign investment thanks to a broad social consensus promoted by the government.

If the problem had been confined to the controversial reform of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute, which was presented as the trigger for the protests, then the fact that Daniel Ortega withdrew it and then surrounded himself with the managers of the Free Zone companies to make the announcement, should have sufficed to calm the spirits.

But there was already more than a dozen dead. In addition, in the way it was staged, the message of the president sounded rather like a threat, a blackmail to the workers employed in the Free Trade Zones (numbering more than 100,000). In fact, as an organized sector, workers have been notably absent from the protests.

On the other hand, with few exceptions, the union leaders' chorus proclaimed, as an insurmountable horizon, the right of workers to continue being exploited by foreign investors.

Over the last two centuries, the political life of the country has been marked by several attempts at rebellion which have been brutally repressed, while a great mass of the population, bent on day-to-day survival, remained relatively "calm".

It is interesting that some in the European Left who have expressed their support for the Ortega government are not denouncing what they would never accept in their own countries. In the context of the recent railroad workers' strike in France for example, those who claim that the population is "hostage" to the demonstrators and strikers would almost certainly be labelled as a mange.

A "historiographical geography" of the rebellion

Another observer of Nicaragua’s rebellion has examined what happened in places which used to be strongholds of the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship in the 1970s, such as the indigenous district of Monimbó (in the city of Masaya), or the popular neighborhoods bordering the Northern Highway in Managua, and which now stood out again not only for their participation in the protests but also for their self-organizing capacity.

Extending his analysis from the particular cases to a more general overview, he highlights "the existence of a great mass of the population which has been historically excluded not only in economic and social terms, but in terms of political participation and representation. It is characterized by the presence of extended families, strong family ties and, in the neighborhoods and settlements where they live, strong community ties".

"The most relevant characteristic of political power in Nicaragua has been vertical and authoritarian governments controlling discretionally all the levers of the State, and particularly the armed forces.

Over the last two centuries, the political life of the country has been marked by several attempts at rebellion which have been brutally repressed, while a great mass of the population, bent on day-to-day survival, remained relatively "calm".

Massive uprisings only occurred when large sectors of the population perceived that the abuse of discretional power by the ruling sectors had crossed a certain line, and/or dislocated daily life in an unacceptable way. In other words, when power intervened in their lives in a way which was perceived as unjust, arbitrary and abusive."

"An outstanding feature of the popular sectors in Nicaragua has been their high religiosity expressed in dozens of religious festivals, a syncretic religiosity that combines religious ceremonies with dances, music, liquor and celebration.

This religiosity also explains why the powers that be have tried to use a religious language and exploit conservative religious prejudices, such as qualifying feminist groups advocating the restoration of therapeutic abortion as "criminal", and resorted to allying with the more retrograde sectors of the Church.

However, it is also very interesting that the population, when it rebels, entrusts itself to God and summons the "Lord of all the armies". A remnant also, perhaps, of the syncretic religiosity of the indigenous people, who entrusted themselves to their gods before going to battle."

Both the above accounts put a face to the indignation: the many faces of a popular, mainly urban citizenry. But what they say is also true for a broad swath of the rural population which, by joining in the protests, have found an opportunity not only for advancing their own struggles, but also for making visible the repression they have been enduring for many years.

The Anti-Channel Peasant Movement, which had already organized hundreds of protest marches (despite the militarization of the area and the recurrent barring of the protesters' access to the capital) has been the most visible face of discontent in the countryside.

In other regions, resistance has been the result of the unbridled continuation of mining undertaken by the government since 2007, and of infrastructure projects which have involved dispossession of land and the displacement of the population. In recent years, the renewed presence of armed groups in the countryside has been evoked.

On several occasions, extrajudicial executions (at the hands of the army) have been reported which the military authorities have described as deaths occurred in clashes with criminal groups. In a way, as of April, the expansion of the repression to the cities has contributed to make visible the silent (and silenced) anger in the countryside.

Is fear of a similar outcome the reason why Carlos Fonseca Terán, the self-proclaimed "ideologue" of the Sandinista Front, labelled as "nefarious" the so-called Arab revolutions?

This phenomenon recalls what happened in 2011 in Tunisia. The riots which, in previous months and years, had been brutally repressed in remote provinces of the country went unknown until the revolt reached the capital and ended the despotic government of the ruling family.

Is fear of a similar outcome the reason why Carlos Fonseca Terán, the self-proclaimed "ideologue" of the Sandinista Front, labelled as "nefarious" the so-called Arab revolutions?

It seems that he and other regime advisers did not see the dangerous boomerang effect that they had identified in the distant Arab countries coming their way.

The discourse consisting in justifying the elimination of some subversive elements in the countryside in order to guarantee peace lost all legitimacy when the term "terrorist" was extended first to the students, and then to the population at large.

From the logic of power, this "qualitative leap" from selective elimination to mass repression invalidates also the endlessly repeated claim that a small group of agitators, financed and directed from abroad by forces of the right, are actively engaged in destabilizing the government.

Paradoxically, the lack of effective leadership on the part of the traditional opposition parties in the protests, although there were quite a few members of these parties who sought to position themselves for the future, was highlighted when the regime recruited paramilitaries to take on weapons of war against the students.

Suddenly, young people without any particular political preparation were propelled to the front of the crowds motivated by an indignation whose magnitude they quite probably had not foreseen, nor had the capacity to lead, and much less to channel. In the end, what the repressive strategy of the government achieved was bringing together sectors (feminists, rural people, merchants, students) the interests of which might not have met otherwise.

About the authors

Hélène Roux es investigadora asociada a la Unidad mixta de investigación "desarrollo y Sociedades" de la Universidad París 1 y participa al proyecto de investigación "espacios globales para la acumulación de capital transnacional" en el marco del GT CLACSO "Fronteras, regionalización y globalización". Trabaja principalmente  sobre conflictos agrarios vinculados a monocultivos, proyectos de infraestructura y zonas especiales de desarrollo en Centroamérica.

José Luis Rocha Gómez es doctor en sociología por la Philipps Universität, Marburg. Es colaborador de la revista Envío e investigador de la Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas” y la Universidad Rafael Landívar. También es investigador asociado del Brooks World Poverty Institute de The University of Manchester y miembro de los consejos editoriales de las revistas Envío, Encuentro y del Anuario de Estudios Centroamericanos de la Universidad de Costa Rica. Se ha especializado en investigaciones sobre violencia, migración y análisis político.


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