On April 19, university students in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, exploded onto the streets. Their initial demand? A more effective government response to wildfires burning out of control in the country’s most precious repository of biodiversity.
Soon, a social wildfire took hold in Managua and then spread across the country. Thousands of Nicaraguans added a second demand to the first: for President Daniel Ortega to revoke his recent changes to the country’s social-security law, which had simultaneously raised social-security taxes (upsetting private enterprise) and cut benefits to seniors (angering many ordinary people). In the ensuing clashes, close to 200 Nicaraguans have died, hundreds have been arrested, and thousands have been injured, almost all at the hands of anti-riot police, unidentified snipers, or gangs of pro-government thugs on motorcycles. Today, this movement of auto-convocados (self-conveners) articulates two key demands: justice and democracy—justice for those who have died at the government’s hand and a return to democratic governance for Nicaragua.
Why should we care? In a world where the US president proclaims his desire to see his people “sit up and pay attention” to him the way North Koreans do for Kim Jung-Un; where his attorney general tore children from their parents’ arms; where the United States plans to initiate the militarization of space (despite our endorsement of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which outlaws exactly that)—in such a world, why should people care what happens in an impoverished Central American nation thousands of miles from the centers of power?
Because there was a time when Nicaragua’s imaginative, idiosyncratic revolution offered the world an example of how a people might shuck off the bonds of US dominance and try to build a democratic country devoted to human well-being. I know, because I saw a little of that example during the six months I spent in Nicaragua’s war zones in 1984, working with an organization called Witness for Peace. My job there was to report on the US-backed counterrevolutionary (Contra) military campaign to overthrow the Sandinista government, which had replaced a vicious dictator in 1979. The Contras employed an intentional terrorist strategy of torture, kidnapping, and murder, targeting civilians in their homes and fields and workers in rural schools and clinics.