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A series of violent protests broke out in Nicaragua in the last week over the controversial social security reform. The media blackout there left some in the country reaching across borders virtually to spread the word.
A student at the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua, or UPOLI, was among the several hundred students protesting in the capital.
“Media channels of the government are saying that there’s nothing happening in UPOLI, but that’s completely false," he said.
The students barricaded themselves in at the campus over the weekend after the police response to protests went from rubber bullets to real ones.
When the student saw his classmate was talking to a friend in the United States, he used Facebook Messenger to send the friend an update. That friend was Owen Dyches.
“It was pretty surreal I guess," Dyches said. "I was sitting at my kitchen island at my house. You know, my parents were just, like, watching TV, and I was watching people that I know be attacked by their government.”
Dyches is a student at Florida Southwestern State College in Fort Myers, more than a thousand miles away, but he, like many FSW honors students, has traveled to Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, more than once. He returned from his most recent trip just last month, and, last week, FSW hosted UPOLI faculty and administrators to formally develop an exchange program.
But, now, this.
“The police are entering, and they are firing with AK-47s," the student said. "The students don’t have any weapons. They only have homemade Molotov bombs.”
The connection was lost before Dyches could even learn the name of this friend of a friend. He said he just has to assume he’s okay – despite the latest reports saying more than 25 people have been killed and another hundred are injured or missing.
Across town from Dyches’ school, a group of Florida Gulf Coast University students gathered hours after the U.S. Embassy pulled its staff from the country and the Department of State issued a level 3 travel advisory to Nicaragua. By comparison, nearby Honduras, which has the world’s highest murder rate per capita, is also at a level 3.
“Alright, hi, everyone, how are you today?" Lindsay Weiss greeted the room.
Everyone collectively responded, "Good."
"Alright, that’s good," Weiss said. "So, has everybody been keeping up with their emails? Have they been getting the ones from the embassy? Have you been doing your research on Nicaragua? Does anybody know what’s going on?”
Weiss was visibly nervous, as she addressed the room of 27 of her peers. Most, she said, are self-proclaimed broke college students, like she is, and she was about to tell them they’d spent at least $900 each on a relief trip that could no longer happen.
They’re with Global Brigades, the international nonprofit that uses volunteer university students to provide aid in developing nations. The FGCU Global Medical Brigades had planned to go to Nicaragua for the fifth time in the chapter’s six-year history, but now, even more than the risks related to the civil unrest, there is the fact that the group’s presence at a time like this would almost entirely go against the Global Brigades mission.
“Another important thing to think about is we would be utilizing resources for 30 people – three meals a day, clean water, electricity," Weiss said. "So, I don’t want to use those resources for a country that is fighting for them. I don’t believe that is fair when we are going to give our assistance, we would really be taking away.”
The lack of resources is nothing new to Nicaragua though. FSW professor Dr. Bruno Baltodano knows that better than anyone.
The framed photos on his office walls are not the traditional family portraits. Some feature his ancestors fighting for a better Nicaragua in decades past. Others, like the image of a burning village in his home country, stay in your vision long after you look away.
“The current situation that led to the protests is not really just about the Social Security law that passed," Baltodano said. "That was sort of like the drop of water that overflowed a bucket of complaints.”
One of the biggest complaints Nicaraguans have had in recent years, fittingly, involves water. President Daniel Ortega approved plans for an interoceanic canal to compete with nearby Panama. The project would cost an estimated $50 billion dollars, at least. This, while the country still relies on the aid of groups like Global Brigades to fill its healthcare needs.
Rachel Walter is the advisor for the FGCU GMB. She’s been to Nicaragua four times now, and each time, she said, the coordinator in Managua gives a tour that includes the artificial trees. President Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, loves trees, and as his vice president, she led a beautification project to erect tree-like structures in the medians of the capital.
Walter said, seeing the videos of those familiar, metal limbs tumbling down spoke louder to her than any of the chants or sirens or gunfire.
“The protestors hurling down these trees was very symbolic of, like, give me liberty or give me death kind of thing. Like, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but that’s pretty much how it was," Walter said. "It was very, very symbolic just to see, like, what the government of Nicaragua thinks is important versus what the people of Nicaragua think is important.”
President Ortega’s brother, General Humberto Ortega, agrees.
The general once violently ousted a dictatorship alongside his brother in the Sandinista Revolution, but now, some 40 years later, he was the one to reach out to the archbishop of Managua, urging him and the Catholic Church to lead peace talks before things got worse. From the Vatican, Pope Francis asked for an end to the violence, and President Ortega, the leader of a predominantly Catholic country, obliged. On Sunday, he reversed his plans for a Social Security reform.
Humberto Ortega spoke with WGCU on Tuesday via WhatsApp due to the poor phone connections. You can find the full conversation here.
When asked if he thought the protests would end, he said in Spanish, “The people are expressing their discontent with, particularly, the authoritarian style of governance and their rejection of the image of arrogance that comes to mind for most of the population when they think of Rosario Murillo.”
Much like the trees Murillo so loves, the roots of the civil unrest have burrowed deep into the foundation of Managua. And, in spite of the media blackout, messages from inside a campus being stormed by militarized police have spread far beyond the country’s borders.