Thursday, May 17, 2018


NOTE: This post has grown over nearly a month of turmoil in my beloved Nicaragua.
The opinions expressed here are my own, and based on my best reading of the ever-changing situation. I welcome comments, especially from my friends throughout the country.

I was on my way to dinner with colleagues a month ago (the time since has passed very quickly for me) when I started to notice concerning posts from some of my friends in Nicaragua. At first I assumed there had been a volcanic eruption or an earthquake. I soon learned that the problem was much worse.

I usually manage to get through a meal without checking my phone, but as events in Nicaragua were unfolding, the outside media did not seem to be noticing, so I was checking frequently with my friends and sites inside the country. Throughout that evening and for several days thereafter, social media was the only way to track what was happening in a country that for several years has been the exception to the patterns of violence that become all-too familiar in several neighboring countries.

Worried about evidence that the government was beginning to isolate its citizens from the outside world, I checked my contacts constantly, and also checked frequently for Miami-Managua air traffic on Flight Aware, where both freight and commercial flights have continued throughout the crisis. Several television channels were shut down, though, and rumors that the internet might be shut down were frequent. Stories of police visiting people who had posted updates on social-media were even more ominous.

I was reminded of the turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s, when attention -- witness -- from outside was the only hope of curbing abuses by many governments in the region. Unable to do much else in the short term, I did my best to share what news I could garner from Nicaragua, and to assure Nicaraguans that they have not been forgotten.
Courtesy of MapsOpenSource
What I was learning in the first hours and days of the turmoil was that students and others in the city of León had organized protests against draconian cost-cutting measures in the Nicaraguan equivalent of our Social Security system. Effective immediately -- and without an open political process -- workers and employers would be paying much higher taxes into the system and retirees would be receiving much lower pension payments.

This created a precipitating moment for a broad coalition that had begun to coalesce against a government that had become steadily more autocratic over the past decade. Speaking anonymously with Catholic News Service reporters, at least one priest was more direct: dictatorship is the underlying problem, he said.

The first demonstrations occurred in León, home of Nicaragua's first university and still an important intellectual hub. (It is, coincidentally, the location of the original Ben Linder Café, which inspired the on-going effort to create a social-justice-oriented café on my own campus.) Demonstrations soon spread to Masaya, Managua, and other cities.

On April 28, journalist Todd Zwilig dedicated 9 minutes of the PRI program The Takeaway to a cogent explanation of what had transpired over the previous ten days. He spoke with New York Times reporter Frances Robles and Brown University scholar Stephen Kinzer about the increasing gap between Ortega's rhetoric and the reality of his regime. The title of the piece is not quite right, in my opinion: the protests are a symptom of the regime's eroded authority, not its cause.
The web page to accompany the Mass Protests audio includes a vivid image of the cathedral where some of the protests have gathered, and which I visited with students just a few months ago. I later learned that the cathedral was used for shelter -- sanctuary in the traditional sense -- for 2,000 of the protestors.

Before delving into more of the details, I want to remind readers of why this is so important. Despite its harsh history and suffering at the hands of internal and external bad actors -- from the Samosas to Oliver North -- Nicaragua is a gem. Its people not only are beautiful, they appreciate beauty. This is conveyed in "Nicaragua Nicaraguita" by Carlos Mejía Godoy, a bit of poetry that is thought of as the quiet anthem of the country.

It is not just a celebration of Nicaragua, though. It was written in 1983, when the country was under attack by remnants of Samosa's regime and the United States. It calls both for peace and democracy.

The following additional stories provide further information on the crisis:

May 11, Miami Herald. Lawmakers call on Trump to investigate Nicaraguan government in deaths of protesters. It is good to see bipartisan interest in addressing this crisis, though it is not appropriate for the United States to take the lead in any investigation, for myriad reasons. One small but telling detail is the Congresswoman who refers to Ortega as a socialist in the article. It is neither relevant nor accurate, and suggests that a U.S.-led inquiry would be distracted quickly. Still, there may be a U.S. role as part of a regional coalition. On May 16, the U.S. embassy in Nicaragua called for both a cessation of violence and an opening to the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. I am pleased to see that Ambassador Laura Dugo is a career diplomat with experience in the region -- a rarity in the State Department these days.

May 13, Al-Jazeera: Ortega to allow inquiry into protest deaths. Many have been unconvinced by these and other conciliatory words, especially as protesters continue to be assaulted and killed in some locations.

The international commission identified causes of the 76 deaths
during the first month of the unrest. Not included are even
more disappearances and injuries. At least one person was killed
simply for displaying the national flag in his car window.
On May 16, Nicaraguan bishops convened open dialogs among government, youth, and other sectors. (See more on the dialogs at BBC Mundo. (Google "Nicaragua diálogo or Nicaragua dialogue for much more about recent developments.)

This should have provided some encouragement that a peaceful resolution might be forthcoming, but government forces continue to attack demonstrators, at least in the areas of the north where I have the closest contacts. Wednesday through Friday, May 16-18, were particularly violent, but a parade was nonetheless planned in the city of Jinotega today (Sunday, May 20), with appropriate permits.

This morning, one of these friends sent a video that was posted on Friday and shared thousands of times since. I do not know anybody in the video, but it captures the beauty, determination, poetry, and decency of the people I do know in Nicaragua. I was asked to share it widely, to let everyone know that Nicaraguans are dedicated to their liberty.
This reminds me of the Vietnam-era protestors who put flowers in the barrels of guns. They believed -- as does the person behind this painted hand -- in the deep patriotism and basic humanity of most of the troops who find themselves on the front lines against their own people. This is a still from the video mentioned above. Please watch and share it.
Also from a church source, on May 11 the Latin American Jesuit organization CPAL Social posted La insurrección de la conciencia, a step-by-step explanation of how the country got to its current political impasse.

The evolution Ortega's dictatorship is very difficult for many in the United States to understand, in my opinion. Those on the far right and the far left still believe that Ortega is a socialist, both because he says so and because of nostalgia for the ideological battles of the original FSLN era. (For the former, see Belen Fernandez' analysis "Nicaraguan Spring or imperial spring cleaning?" I see a lot of the latter (that is, left-wing nostalgia for the old FSLN) on the social networks of the U.S. ex-pat community (sandalistas, by which I mean no disrespect).

My travels to Nicaragua began shortly before his return to power. During my 2009 visit, I met U.S. investors who were concerned about a possible shift to the left (after an interregnum of relatively centrist presidencies) and who were in the country to make that clear to him. In the decade since, I have seen that they had little to fear: Daniel's rhetoric has remained to the left, but his real alliances have been with elites who have concentrated economic power to a degree that rivals Samosa's empire. One silver lining -- again, just in my opinion -- is that these capitalists rely on stability, and they might be able to offer Ortega a way out of this crisis. By this I mean, of course, a plane ride to a nice villa elsewhere.

May 28 Update: Writing for the New York Post, retired diplomat Otto Reich argues that Nicaragua is following Venezuela toward the rocks. Within this short article, he presents a cogent description of the regime's ideological shift and growing corruption that jibes with my understanding of its recent history. In fact, even as I am writing this, friends in the country are sending me private messages making the Venezuela comparison. I further agree with Reich that a multinational coalition must join the broadening internal coalition that is urging the Ortega to stand aside. I do differ with Reich on the role that the United States can or should play; for a whole host of reasons, U.S. participation needs to be in support of an effort led by others in the region.

BRIDGEWATER NOTES: The U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua continues to advise against travel by U.S. citizens to Nicaragua, and is operating its own missions on a reduced basis. For this reason, plans for the January 2019 travel course are on hold. For reasons cited above, it is important for U.S., European, and other outside visitors to keep attention focused on Nicaragua. But a travel course might not be an appropriate way to do so just yet. Those interested in the course, please keep reading advisories from the embassy and stay in contact with me through the summer.

We know that those who have traveled from Bridgewater to Nicaragua want to help. One of our coffee-course alumni and I have been working with friends on the ground in Nicaragua to organize a small project that will enable us to raise both awareness and funds. Please visit the #SOSnicaragua page to buy a shirt and make a contribution.

Before I close this rather rambling post, I have to share something that was sent by a close friend about a week into these events. It is a coffee connection that captures the political moment perfectly. Some of the public's ire at the regime focused on the illuminated steel trees that line many of the boulevards of Managua.

On the one hand, these are perhaps a laudable example of public art. On the other, the circumstances of their proliferation came to symbolize the nepotism and increasing detachment of the regime. The contrast between ample funding for electrified fake trees and inadequate protection of actual trees had become deeply problematic, and some have been destroyed in response to recent repression.

That all of this is captured in the foam of a single cup of coffee is a reminder that  coffee shops -- since their invention over 1,000 years ago --are key locations for political foment.

On May 21, the day after I posted most of what is in this article, I noticed this fascinating photo, posted by a friend in Nicaragua. It is a flag of Nicaragua, taken for the first time to the summit of Mt. Everest by a Californian who has made Nicaragua his home. His video message is one of great pride and support for the people of his adopted home. PLEASE WATCH. In the first 10 hours after he posted it, this video was shared on Facebook more than 10,000 times. This signifies that people worldwide are following the events in Nicaragua with care.

I am closing this post with a positive note. In the midst of this crisis, friends in Matagalpa -- the place where my Nicaragua experiences began and that I now consider a home -- shared yet another video. This one promotes a project of which they -- and I -- are very proud. It integrates cultural and environmental education in a beautiful setting they have created just on the edge of the city.

I will be going to Casa Coibríes on my next visit.

July 11, 2018

I am going to leave the positive item above, but for now I cannot end this post on a positive note. The violence has continued now for almost 3 months, and 300 people have been killed, mostly by government agents and their sympathizers. Many international and religious leaders have advocated for peace, and many peaceful protests have been held. But the FSLN is determined to hang on to power, and we do not really see an end soon.

For example, just two days ago, church leaders -- including the Cardinal of Nicaragua were attacked as they tried to shield regime opponents in the town of Diriamba, south of Managua. A Washington Post editorial compares the situation to the fall of Venezuela, and calls for regional cooperation to put pressure on the regime.

Also see Amnesty International's report on repression in Nicaragua, posted June 22. Nothing has improved since then.

July 23, 2018

One small item: I have noticed the expression "¡Que se rinda tu madre!" ("Let your mother surrender!") on the social-media profiles of many in Nicaragua, and have been confused about its meaning. I found an academic article about the phrase, used by Sandinistas in their early days, and more recently used as a rebuke against FSLN leaders who have kept power but not the ideals of the revolution. Interestingly, the article was published in 2012 -- this rift has been growing for some while. An abstract of the article by Hilary Francis is available from Taylor & Francis publishers; I am currently waiting for a digital copy of the full article. Consult your local library if interested.


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