By Linda Bordoni
As President Ortega and his government celebrate the 39th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, the people are reeling from the violence unleashed by police and paramilitary forces that has killed over 300 opposition supporters and jailed many more during protests in past three months.
Government forces have not even held back from attacking Catholic churches where student protesters sought shelter after Nicaraguan bishops repeatedly appealed for dialogue and restraint from violence and led a mediation effort.
Maria Campos, who works in Social Sciences in Managua, has participated in many of the rallies protesting government policies.
She told Vatican News’ Timothee Dhellemmes that peaceful protests were originally organized by university students, but the brutality with which they were repressed gave way to a wave of anger that has united all sectors of society and has brought people from all walks of life to participate in the demonstrations.
Maria Campos explained that when students began to protest peacefully in the universities following punishing new legislation regarding social welfare, government forces “started shooting them” and that is what led the rest of the population to take to the streets.
“We saw students being shot by the police with live ammunition, we watched the live videos they were being streamed live on Facebook and on twitter and watched them die” she said.
Church-led mediation effort
In mid-May representative of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua mediated talks between government leaders and representatives of civil society to overcome the weeks of demonstrations and riots.
Campos said she believes the mediation did not succeed because of a total lack of will on the side of the government.
“They don’t want to negotiate” she said.
She also describes what the Church has been doing in the dramatic situation as “amazing in many ways”:
“They have protected a lot of people, but they have also had a lot of patience in the negotiations: they have heard all the actors of the government talk and lie constantly. It didn’t work not because the Church failed, or because representatives of the population didn’t want dialogue, but because the government doesn’t want to yield its power” she said.
Living conditions in Nicaragua
Campos explained that official numbers say only 30% of the population is poor in Nicaragua. In reality, she noted, there is no middle class in the county and the number of poor people is actually much higher when you use other indicators.
She claimed that in reality more than half the population is poor, unemployment is rife, migration is high, and huge numbers of the population have informal jobs and struggle to survive from day to day, whilst those who are employed are subjected to extremely harsh working conditions.
Campos spoke of how people from all walks of life come together during the protests.
“There are a lot of different sectors in the rallies” she said, and it is interesting to see Catholics march with feminists, peasants and students, public and private sectors, elder people: “there are a lot of people united against the government”.
She recalled a pilgrimage organized in April by the Catholic Church in which a lot of people – many of them non-Catholics – participated.
Campos also explained how the protests are usually organized through social media or by word-of-mouth as most Nicaraguan media is controlled by the government.
Campos said people are afraid: “It has become scary because recently the police and paramilitaries shoot with live ammunition”.
“You go out carrying only flowers or a flag, knowing you can be shot anytime during the rally” she said.
Campos recalled that things got really bad when a mass “Mother’s Day” march was organized on 30 May when government forces unleashed a clear shoot-to-kill policy against protesters.
“Starting on 30 May – Mother’s Day – during a big demonstration, snipers started to shoot from the rooftops”. Killing 8 persons, and then during another march 2 more people were killed, she said.
She said that before the insurrection, Nicaraguans were not allowed to protest on the streets, and if they did, they were beaten and jailed.
She told of personally witnessing the shooting of a young demonstrator who was killed before his mother’s eyes, and said she knows people who have been arrested and jailed with no charges.
In these cases, she said, it is terrible because they give the family no information and people spend days searching for loved ones in the city prisons.
“You just don’t know, she said, where your relatives are or what is happening.”