Michael McCaughan travelled to Nicaragua, to explore issues of governance, human rights and accountability under the Ortega administration. Here, he reflects on his trip.
In more than two decades spent writing and living in Latin America, stories have evolved over hours, days, weeks, months and even years. In Belize, the issue of bananas and worker rights matured over twelve months while in Colombia, the story of Smurfit’s business affairs in the Cauca Valley took twice that long. On very rare occasions a story simply refuses to be written.
My trip to Managua in April of this year appeared straightforward by comparison, a two-week inquiry into the deaths which occurred during the April 2018 uprising against the government of Daniel Ortega. A year after the unrest Nicaragua had supposedly returned to normal even if relatives of the estimated 322 dead still demanded justice for their lost loved ones.
In the months preceding my trip however, the situation clearly worsened and my list of interviewees shrank drastically with prominent journalists, activists and even a former Supreme Court chief imprisoned or forced into exile. Communications were tricky. No one wanted to speak on Whatsapp, insisting instead on Signal, an App which guarantees better encryption. (the recent revelations of cyber-attacks against prodemocracy activists using Whatsapp, from Morocco to Rwanda, via the notorious Pegasus virus, justifies the caution).
My fixer and driver requested anonymity while relatives of the dead demanded I speak to them anywhere but at their homes where they faced constant state surveillance. I trawled through the list of the dead, discovering a cross section of Nicaraguan society; rich and poor, young and old, urban and rural, first time protestors and seasoned veterans, including former Sandinistas, who fought alongside Ortega during the insurrection which toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.
Who were these people and why did they die?
In April 2018 hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets after Sandinista thugs attacked elderly protestors marching against pension cuts. Social media played a key role in spreading the news and by the time the dust had settled, three months later, more than 10,000 street incidents had been recorded and uploaded, offering a dynamic and immediate historic archive.
The growing protests were greeted with lethal state violence, sparking an insurrection in which barricades were erected across cities and highways, business brought to a halt, police forced to retreat to barracks. The government looked on the edge of collapse.
A brief attempt at dialogue came to nothing and in July 2018 the government ordered police and paramilitaries to retake every inch of disputed territory by any means necessary. Ortega denounced the events as a US-backed coup attempt dressed up as a popular uprising.
I landed in Managua at first light, greeted by a familiar blast of tropical heat and the welcome sight of my prearranged driver. I was going to focus on the life and times of five of the dead, tell their stories, speak to their relatives and find out how far the state had advanced in investigating the killings. An hour later, woozy from travel but wide awake with nervous energy, I was sitting in a ramshackle backyard in Masaya, interviewing Auxiliadora Cardoze, who lost her husband Marcelo Mayorga. A surprise awaited me. The house belonged to the family of Carolina Isabel Carrión, mother of Jorge Zepeda, another victim of the political upheaval. I now had another lost life to add to the list.
This pattern continued in the days that followed, as each interviewee would invariably arrive with someone else keen to unburden themselves of a tragic personal loss. As a journalist with a limited word count and an audience largely unfamiliar with the minutiae of Nicaraguan politics it would have been impossible to do justice to these multiple tales, all featuring a unique back story and grave, unfolding consequences. In this situation, a single life, carefully revealed, might shine a more powerful light on the bigger story of a nation in turmoil.
By the time I left Masaya three hours later, I had a panoramic if partisan account of the April 2018 uprising recounted by two women who found themselves at the centre of events and are still living in their aftermath. The interviews were intense and emotional, frequently moving from tears to laughter. Back in Managua, I had rented a comfortable apartment in an anonymous suburb where a trail of people passed through in the days that followed, carrying photos of their lost partner, son, daughter or sibling.
Once the interviews were completed I explored Managua, its markets and back streets heavily policed, its people cautious to the point of avoidance. In a country where surveillance is highly effective, silence invariably follows.
The population appeared to be divided into three sections; a substantial minority, perhaps one in four, still backed Ortega, loyal to the leader who embodied the struggle for a just society in the 1980s. A similar figure actively sought to bring forward elections (scheduled for 2021) and unseat Ortega. This cohort faced constant danger, dragged from their homes or off the street, disappeared and subsequently imprisoned on generic ‘terror’ charges.
The biggest slice of the population seemed afraid or indifferent, their lives governed by the daily grind, long hours spent travelling to low-paid work, ending each day exhausted and worn.
The country was polarised and two radically different perspectives prevailed – For Ortega, a US-backed coup had narrowly been averted. For the protest movement, a tyrant had shown his rage, resulting in hundreds of casualties. In this highly charged atmosphere, the stories of the dead revealed their own truth.
As we travelled from town to town, I asked my driver to pick up hitchers, each unsuspecting ‘interviewee’ adding fresh insights on a random yet informative basis. Outside the capital, the atmosphere was stifling as people living in small towns faced greater surveillance and several rural interviewees opted to travel to Managua to meet me.
Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution came to power in July 1979, governing until 1990, defeated at the polls by a conservative coalition. The revolution was strangled by US-backed military aggression and an economic embargo but the Sandinistas have also acknowledged their own errors which contributed to the erosion of domestic support for an ambitious political process.
I visited in 1985, a mere child-student, writing a lengthy diary piece for Hot Press magazine upon my return to Ireland. I re-read it recently, fearing the worst. The Nicaraguan revolution shaped my life, a beacon of hope which showed that another world was not merely possible but was already underway and available for viewing.
Ortega returned to power in 2007, without most of his former Sandinista allies yet claiming the mantle of a revolutionary past. The diehard socialist had transformed into an odd but effective political hybrid, blending anti-imperialist rhetoric with conservative, Christian ‘values’ while backing low-wage foreign investment. Ortega desperately needed Catholic church support, so he backed the most radical anti-abortion legislation in the region. After his shock defeat at the polls in 1990, Ortega was determined to hold on to power at any price. In a process worthy of Orwell, he placed his family in key roles, his son overseeing Venezuelan oil revenues, his wife Rosario Murillo currently vice-president. The Ortegas have donned the abandoned clothes of the Somoza dynasty, abolishing term limits, seizing control of electoral authorities, crushing critical media and jailing dissidents. Political debate has largely been reduced to a simple mantra – are you with us or against us? Do you support Ortega, man of the people, or the mad fascists in Gringolandia? Everything else is a matter of law and order and government handouts.
However a new generation of activists, notably feminists, students and environmentalists, are redefining the national debate, finding creative ways to challenge Ortega’s grip on power, sharing with and learning from similar movements worldwide, from Turkey and the Lebanon to France to Chile, Hong Kong and Brazil.
With upwards of one thousand political prisoners, the pro-democracy movement had shifted its attention to reports of torture and other cruelties inflicted behind bars. I was keen to speak to someone who had been inside. I arranged to meet one woman, recently released from prison but as the hour of our interview approached, she phoned me in a panic, in traffic, warning me she was being followed by armed men in a jeep. She immediately went into hiding. I had also made contact with a serving police officer, who agreed to speak to me after lengthy prior negotiation through a trusted intermediary. The day of our planned conversation finally arrived but minutes before the arranged time, he cancelled, terrified that his anonymity would be inevitably undone. One surprising aspect of my visit to Nicaragua was the reluctance of apparent Ortega supporters to go on the record.
On my last night in Managua, I found myself a passenger in a car driven by a member of a prominent former Sandinista family, heading to her home where she was hiding Levis Artola, a student leader and former prisoner. Artola, under house arrest, faced constant state harassment at his grandmother’s home and he had opted to flee his remote village and go into hiding. ‘I got off lightly’, he told me as he put the finishing touches to a pottery figurine, a therapy recommended by a psychiatrist. He was picked up by police after a student rally in Leon and jailed for several months. During that time he was dumped in solitary confinement after singing the national anthem.
It was after midnight when the interview concluded and my hosts insisted on driving me home. We sped along the Carretera Sur, windows open, a merciful breeze blowing, Artola hiding in the back seat. A familiar song came on the radio, Candi Staton’s ‘Young Hearts Run Free’. It was released when I was a kid, a harmless yet catchy pop song, rediscovered as a timeless anthem of liberation and empowerment.
‘Turn that damn radio up to the max’, came a voice from under the back seat.