Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua, once stood at the frontline of his country’s leftist revolution, fighting for the emancipation from forty two years of dictatorship. Almost forty years later, as Ortega is serving his third consecutive term, large-scale protests against his presidency have resulted in hundreds of deaths and the most severe national political crisis since the civil war. While the future of the country is more uncertain than ever, young people are risking everything by using their voices in the hope of bringing about a fairer system and a brighter future. Jessica Cisneros, graduate student at Universidad Centroamericana in Managua, is one of them.
The uprising was triggered on the 18th April, 2018 after a protest against a pension reform. The protest, carried out by a small group of elderly and students, was violently crashed by a pro-government group. Since this day Amnesty International reports that at least 322 people have been killed, in large by government forces and about 2000 injured. Several hundred have been sentenced for terrorism as participation in anti-government demonstrations is criminalized.
I call Jessica Cisneros on a cold and dark Sunday afternoon to talk about her experiences of the protests, her thoughts on the role of the youth in generating change, and her hopes for the future. Back in Nicaragua she was a student in graphic design. Now she is temporarily residing in Europe due to the risks of returning to her home country. With hundreds of activists being imprisoned on charges of terrorism, Jessica Cisneros expresses fear of the same happening to her.
During her time as a student she had a strong interest and engagement in national political issues:
“I belonged to a small student movement that worked with one of the municipalities of Managua. We worked principally with young people and women in this area touching on several issues like themes related to gender. We were always very active in social issues both at an individual level and as activists. We supported the fight for the anti-canal movement and the peasant movement. We’ve also been active in the feminist movement focusing on the punishment of abortion and the reforms on law 779. From there I found out about the movement against the social security reforms and on the 18th of April I joined the protests.”
Although previously engaged in national political issues, the 18th of April sparked a will to resist in a broader sense against an unfair system.
“I think that because of the violent response that we were met with that day, where principally it was young people that demonstrated, and the pain from that as well as the empathy you have for your friends that were violently attacked makes you mobilize and retain a broader sense of a struggle for justice.”
Since this day, young people and especially students have been prime actors in leading the anti-government movement.
“Historically the movements in Nicaragua have been led by the youth. For example, young women have been key actors in the feminist movement. The movement for social security is, in large, marked by the engagement of young people, students, that go out to put an end to this system.”
In the late seventies Daniel Ortega was a guerilla leader and member of the Sandinista junta, the group which in 1979 managed to depose the dictator Somoza and later, US-sponsored rebels. Five years later, in 1984, he was elected president and served until right-wing politician Violeta Barrios de Chamorro took over in 1990. Fast forward almost two decades, Daniel Ortega was in 2007 once again elected president of Nicaragua. However, since his reelection the president has received large-scale criticism, much of it from former allies, arguing that he is beginning to look a lot like the dictator he once overthrew.
Jessica Cisneros explains how Nicaragua today is going through a demographic process that is not tapping the potential of the capacities of the youth thus not bringing development of the economy.
“We are feeling into our bones this repressive system, the poverty, the corruption, the public institutions that no longer are working. As citizens we were losing our rights and because of that I felt the need to fight and demand that they respect our rights, especially as young people.”
Nicaragua was for many years perceived as of being a somewhat calm Central-American nation in comparison to its northern neighbours Honduras and El Salvador. But Jessica Cisneros’ view on the calmness before the uprisings is more complex, suggesting a longer process of oppression and resistance.
“I think there was a relative calm in the atmosphere but with a lot of pressure which we all knew would at some point erupt. However, not in such a violent way. We knew that the repressive system is not only against the social movements, like the peasant movement (movimiento Campesino) which received nothing but repression, but against citizen participation or any form of critical thinking that is not in correspondence to the central government.”
While uncertainty over Nicaragua’s future reigns over its citizens, Jessica Cisneros believes that the anti-government struggle might be a first step towards democracy.
“I think that this crisis has made us Nicaraguans unite, and rethink the ways things are done and reported, in this case about the reality of our country. We are trying to maintain this a civic struggle because we don’t want it to turn into a civil war like our parents experienced in the eighties.”
She continues to emphasize that democratization will and should take time.
“I think that the struggle is very premature. It’s been six months of civic resistance despite the strong violence we’ve been met with. It’s premature even though the main thing that we Nicaraguans want is that Ortega and his family step away from power so that a more democratic system can emerge, to begin the process of democratization and justice.”
“But it has to happen one step at a time, there are no utopian ways of doing it.”