From late April through early July, thousands of Nicaraguans marched in the streets, barricaded roadways, and occupied universities. All the while, they chanted their movement’s ubiquitous slogan: “Ortega y Somoza son la misma cosa.” In English, and without the clever rhyme, it means: “Ortega and Somoza are the same thing.” It draws a parallel between Anastasio Somoza, the right-wing dictator who ruled from 1967 to 1979, and Daniel Ortega, the first and only president from the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the revolutionary socialist party that overthrew Somoza nearly 40 years ago.
The phrase speaks to the core of the Nicaraguan people’s discontent with Ortega: He no longer represents the ideals of social welfare, educational access, and anti-imperialism on which the Sandinista party was founded. Ortega has moved so far to the right, according to Yanice Perez, a youth organizer and artist whose name has been altered for his safety, that the struggle against him “has historical Sandinista bents.”
Yet Guillermo Obando Corrales, a high-school Spanish teacher from Managua in his early 20s, emphasized how the present situation was different. “In the age of Somoza, they never reached 448 dead in demonstrations,” Corrales said, citing the death toll stated by the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH) as of our video chat on August 2. To Corrales, the circumstances behind these casualties—which the government claims are less than half the ANPDH estimate—mark a key distinction between the current instability and the Sandinista revolution, which resulted in 10,000 deaths even before the US-supported Contra War killed thousands more. During the Sandinista revolution, resistors took up weapons and formed a guerrilla army. Now, Corrales said, “We are not in a war. We are in a massacre.”
The recent violent and legislative repression by the Ortega government has made Nicaragua too dangerous for resistors to rally publicly. Beyond the threat of being shot or kidnapped, protesters now face criminal prosecution: As of July 16, demonstrators can be charged and tried as terrorists; more than 200 have been detained under the new laws already. But, despite the killings and newly authoritarian laws, members of the opposition insist that their movement is far from over. Corrales said Ortega’s verbal attacks on “this peaceful revolution” are losing credibility, and when Ortega claims the protesters are the real aggressors, “no one believes him anymore.”
Across a diverse movement that includes university students and housewives, indigenous communities and the rural poor, feminists and queer people, exists one unifying demand: Ortega and Rosario Murillo, the first lady and vice president rolled into one, must agree to accelerate the electoral schedule that would otherwise keep them in office until at least 2021. If they do, they are almost guaranteed to be voted out of power.
Perez told me assuredly, “If we were to have democratic and transparent elections, Ortega would lose.” He pointed to widespread skepticism over the legitimacy of the last election in 2016. Because registered FSLN members staffed the polls, many Nicaraguans believe final numbers were decided before the votes were cast.
The spark for the opposition movement was, ironically, a fire. Reflecting on the early days of the resistance, Santos Méndez, an engineering student at Managua’s Universidad Centroamérica (UCA), said: “At the beginning of April, news spread rapidly of a fire in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.… It was the delay in response from the government, little information about the situation, and the rejection of international aid to extinguish the flames that caused UCA’s environmental conscience to surface.” Indio Maíz is home to indigenous and Afro-descendant Rama-Kriol communities, making the government’s neglect reek of environmental racism.
As outrage over the fire grew, the government announced unexpected reforms to raise social-security taxes and reduce benefits. “The Nicaraguan population woke up when the ‘solidarity government’ made a reform to social security…[that] would obligate pensioners to pay 5 percent to the INSS [Nicaraguan Social Security Institute],” Méndez explained.
The sudden change that sought to fund the INSS is symptomatic of what Perez called the Ortega regime’s “clientilism,” which lies at the heart of popular dissatisfaction. Regardless of what drew them to the protest, Perez said, most dissenters agree that access to the public goods provided by Nicaragua’s self-proclaimed socialist government is unequal, determined on the basis of party loyalty rather than mere Nicaraguan citizenship.
“The party [is] intervening in what should be neutral,” he said. “One of the biggest critiques of Orteguismo is that Ortega co-opted all these public goods.”
He refers to the party as Orteguista, rather than Sandinista, a linguistic distinction that has become a common indicator of Ortega’s divorce from the FSLN’s founding values. Where the Sandinista Front was established as socialist, the Ortega government has privatized Nicaraguan industries and made welfare services contingent upon party allegiance.
“They’ll give you a pig for free, but you have to sign a document saying you’re pro-government,” Perez said, making reference to a government program called Hambre Cero, or zero hunger, which claims to have ending food insecurity as its goal. Public hospitals are similarly exclusive; amid recent unrest, doctors have been fired for treating injured resistors. And at public universities, professors are prohibited from criticizing the government in the classroom. The latter reality led a to key demand of the student movement: educational autonomy, which according to Perez, means “free, public, quality education without the intervention of the party.”
The student movement, which is itself multifaceted, makes up only one piece of a complex opposition force. Perez, a member of the “feminist and rad” student group Coordinadora Estudiantil, noted that campesinos, or the working poor, make up a significant portion of the opposition and are demanding free and equal access to the services that promise to remove them from poverty. Indigenous communities have called for the government to recognize their rights, and environmental activists want accountability for damaging projects like the Chinese-investment-driven canal project slicing through the country. As one would expect, the groups and goals overlap significantly.
“Before April 18 we had a quiet society,” Corrales said. Calling his own family “politically correct,” he said that, fearing government reprisals, his parents had discouraged him from speaking out. But Corrales “couldn’t bear it any longer” and joined the protests on April 19, the day after dissenter began to direct their anger not just at the fire response and the social-security reforms, but the entirety of the Ortega regime.
He said he encountered pro-government protesters who appeared “lazy, tired…like they were obligated to be there.” Young Ortega loyalists, known as the Sandinista Youth, mocked demonstrators and threw rocks at them. But insults and stones soon gave way to police gunshots and tear gas, driving protesters like Corrales into hiding. It was there, he explained, that he found true solidarity. “People of the [surrounding] neighborhood began to open their doors to protect us,” he said, still amazed more than three months later. “The police were trying to enter the house [where Corrales was hiding], but the people said ‘Go, you may not enter my house.’ They were no longer afraid.”
After half an hour in hiding, Corrales walked to another neighborhood, where civilians offered him bread and water. He was worried he would run into security forces on his way home, but the streets of Managua were lonely and silent.
He got home sunburnt, exhausted, and with aching feet. “Why did you go out?” his family cried out, “Don’t do that again!” After acknowledging their concern, Corrales was quick to get into bed. But before he went to sleep, his little sister entered his room and asked if he’d gotten any videos. He showed her one he’d filmed while hiding. In it, he talks to the camera, explaining what’s going on, and a woman’s voice tells the police: “We are people, just like you.… We are in our own home. You may not invade.” Gunshots echo in the background.
Corrales’s sister urged him to post the video to Facebook, but he was afraid of being identified and persecuted for its contents. Instead, he sent it to her on WhatsApp and went to sleep. His sister passed the video to friends on WhatsApp, who promptly circulated it on Facebook and Twitter. When Guillermo awoke, he had gone viral.
Social media has proven instrumental within the student movement, though it makes up only one tool of the resistance. The opposition actively participates in meme culture, often representing the police—whom they disparagingly call sapos, or toads—as Pepe the Frog, a cartoon associated in the United States with anti-Semitism and the American far right. Perez stressed, however, that social media can give a disproportionate sense of its own importance, because no one hears from the non-users. And in Nicaragua, that’s a majority of the population: Only about 20 percent of Nicaraguans have access to the Internet.
Perez said that an essential quality of the opposition movement has been its ability to reach “normal people,” or those who aren’t necessarily radical but just want basic rights. “The majority of the movement is mostly center,” he explained.
A major turning point for many Nicaraguans was Ortega’s split with the Catholic Church, as the two powers had been close since Ortega worked with the church to outlaw abortion in 2006. Despite Ortega’s earlier criticism of the Catholic Church as a member of the secular FSLN, the deal earned him a church endorsement, which aided his return to power after 17 years in the opposition. Ortega publicized his new piety a year earlier, when he married Rosario Murillo in a high-profile wedding officiated by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo (recently deceased). Now, however, the church is condemning Ortega for his repressive actions, making its stance publicly evident when mediating a “national dialogue” between the government and the opposition.
According to Perez, the Catholic Church’s defiance of Ortega “caught everybody off guard.” Many were concerned that Ortega’s agreement to participate in the dialogue was only a symbolic concession intended to “buy time,” as Corrales put it. Watching the first debate—the only instance in which Ortega himself participated—Perez had expected the church to help Ortega get the upper hand. Instead, “Ortega got his ass handed to him.”
During the live TV stream, protest leaders, many of them students, got to personally confront Ortega, who seldom allows press interviews and only addresses his constituents with prepared statements. Perez suspects that he and Ortega did share one expectation: that the clergy would be on Ortega’s side. But, to everyone’s surprise, the church chastised him. “One priest reads the definition of a revolution and says, ‘This is what’s happening now,’” Perez recalled, grinning.
The televised conversation resulted in no legislative changes, but afterward, Corrales said, “people started to organize themselves better.” Now, according to Perez, the government has arrest warrants out against the student representatives who dared to challenge Ortega on air.
From the student movement to the campesinos, exercises in solidarity have been just as important as the demonstrations themselves. At the National University of Engineering, Méndez helped demonstrators fortify their occupation. Perez, who had years earlier turned his apartment into a communal living space for artists and activists, offered his home to architecture students who draw up and circulate plans for building barricades. Corrales said that, both in person and online, there’s been an emergence of “political love” among the resistance. He remembered being struck by “a very brave girl,” who, during one of the protests, faced a police officer and asked: “What’s your problem?”
“I was reading a John Updike novel,” he remembered. He handed the girl his book, and she wrote her phone number inside.
The love and memes haven’t stopped, but the barricades and occupations are gone. So too are many of the resistors. Beyond the hundreds dead and disappeared, Perez told me, more than 2,000 people have fled Nicaragua, going mainly to Barcelona, Miami, and San José, Costa Rica. Perez is one of the them.
I caught up with Perez at a coffee shop in New York while he was staying with a friend in the city. He’d asked me to pick somewhere quiet to meet, and when I arrived, he was already seated in a corner next to the bathroom, facing out at the rest of the café.
A man overheard our conversation on his way to the bathroom, and he paused by our table to say: “It sounds like you’re from Nicaragua. I was born there. I have a tattoo.” He twisted to show us, and sure enough, the triangle from the center of the Nicaraguan flag was printed on his skin.
He explained that he had had plans to visit family in Nicaragua late this spring, but he canceled his trip due to the recent violence. While the man was in the bathroom, Perez paused our conversation. “I don’t know what side he’s on,” he said with a nervous smile. We heard the toilet flush and the hand-dryer run, and the man reemerged.
“So what do you think,” Perez asked politely, “about everything that’s going on?”
“I think Ortega needs to go,” the man said. Perez visibly relaxed.
“What are people supposed to do?” the man went on, “They’re armed with slingshots but being attacked with machine-gun bullets.”
Corrales left the country, too. In July, he volunteered as an international observer during the Mexican presidential elections and never left. “In the very airport, they could [arrest and] investigate me,” he said. “They’ve criminalized youth.”
Méndez, however, remains. “I’ve thought about leaving the country,” he said, “but my family’s economic situation doesn’t permit it. And I’m sure there are thousands of cases like mine.”
As for what’s next, all three hope for an early election. But “the only way Ortega would concede to that,” Perez lamented, “would be with US and international pressure.” Many Nicaraguans are justifiably wary about the potential consequences of US intervention because of the Contra war, as well as the United States’ imperial track record in Latin America. Some of Ortega’s harshest critics are members of the American far right—like Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio—who seem just a little too eager to condemn a leader who calls himself socialist, even if he doesn’t uphold leftist values. While the United States is not the perfect partner, options are limited with the state of the current repression.
“These months have been an eternal night of persecution and death,” Méndez said.
In Managua, the streets shut down as soon as the sun sets, but Corrales is sure that Nicaraguans will not return to their former silence. According to him, “The people are shut up in their houses, but always with dissent on their minds.”