Amid government repression, Nicaraguans get creative

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes a firm no from authorities winds up creating an environment ripe for creative opposition. Nicaraguans aren't letting a government ban on large-scale protests quiet their complaints and calls for fresh elections.

Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters
Demonstrators hold national flags during the procession of the Via Crucis in Managua, Nicaragua, April 19.

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More than a year after protests exploded across Nicaragua, leading to at least 300 deaths, 500 political prisoners, and tens of thousands of people fleeing home, the Nicaraguan government continues to clamp down on freedom of expression.

As a result, citizens – at home and abroad – are adapting: relying on social media; forming small, impromptu flash mob-style protests; or hosting underground academic conferences to plan for a renewed era of democracy. In fact, the government's ban on large, organized protests may be creating unintended consequences: More widespread, spontaneous local protests have emerged in recent months.

Nicaraguans are “liberating themselves” from the government’s ban, says local journalist Maynor Salazar, through tiny actions like joining small groups of demonstrators, painting neighborhood walls blue and white – the colors of the Nicaraguan flag – or honking their car horns during mass meetups at rush hour. They’re starting to see they can individually make a statement anywhere they go, he says.

“What’s important is that we are here, we continue to resist, and we continue with our demands,” says an activist called Lucero.

Last week, Nicaraguans ignored a government ban on public protest, gathering in small groups across the country to commemorate a year of deadly upheaval and government repression.

A small group waving blue and white Nicaraguan flags and chanting “Freedom for political prisoners!” was quickly surrounded by truckloads of police in riot gear. But the demonstrators’ presence underscores a dedication to voicing opposition to the government, despite more than a year of sometimes deadly crackdowns and intimidation – in which protesters are getting more creative.

More than 300 people have been killed and more than 500 protesters imprisoned since April 2018, when students, retirees, and civic groups joined protests to oppose proposals for fiscal reform and the government’s increasingly authoritarian response. It was a tipping point in years of increasing repression under the government of President Daniel Ortega. In a poll this March, only 22% of Nicaraguans said they would vote for the president, who has resisted calls for fresh elections.

Protesting has become increasingly precarious in Nicaragua, with an estimated 60,000 people seeking refuge abroad, according to the United Nations. Inside the country, Nicaraguans face networks of informal neighborhood spies and a dramatically heightened police presence. And the conflict is at an impasse: While the government recently released dozens of political prisoners to house arrest, leaders of the opposition refuse to continue negotiations until all prisoners are released and other rights restored.

Yet Nicaraguans are adapting, both at home and in exile. From flash mob protests to social media campaigns to clandestine street art, citizens are using new tactics to express their opposition and keep abuses in the international spotlight.

And the government's ban on large, organized demonstrations may be creating unintended consequences: More widespread local protests have emerged in recent months, says Maynor Salazar, a journalist with the independent news site Confidencial. Nicaraguans are “liberating themselves” from the government’s ban, he says, through brief, spontaneous actions, like joining small groups of demonstrators, painting neighborhood walls the blue and white of Nicaragua’s flag, or honking their car horns during mass meetups at rush hour. 

Now, Mr. Salazar says, despite continued risks, Nicaraguans see they can take their flags and make a statement anywhere they go, individually, in order to “demand an end to the dictatorship and freedom for political prisoners.”

‘The spark’

It was here, on the manicured lawns amid the stark white buildings of the Jesuit Central American University (UCA) in April 2018, that students first organized in opposition to Mr. Ortega’s government. 

“University students were the spark of this rebellion and consequently they are the main target for the government,” says Jorge Huete-Pérez, a biology professor at UCA, in the capital Managua. The crisis has had devastating effects on universities and students across the country, he says, with many college campuses shuttered for nearly a year as students fled abroad or went underground. Police maintain a presence outside UCA’s campus gates.

But despite intimidation, the school is “seen as the only place right now in the country where you can speak your mind,” Professor Huete-Pérez says, due to its status as a private university and the faculty’s support of the student movement. Lately, students have organized flash mobs they call piquetes, or “mosquito bites,” for their quick impact. On the tree-lined pathways of UCA’s campus, students masked with Nicaraguan flags regularly gather, chanting, “They weren’t delinquents, they were students!” and reading imprisoned students’ names.

It’s not just students taking risks. Professor Huete-Pérez helped organize a series of academic seminars to generate ideas on how to build a democratic society in what he calls the “Post-Ortega time.” Its first gathering, held in December, drew 100 participants, including student leaders and professors fired from public universities for their activism. 

Efforts in exile

Thousands of miles across the globe, Norma Chavarría and three other Nicaraguans unfurl a banner in a Madrid park that reads, “Feminists condemn the terrorist, sexist state.” They film their rainy-day declaration on Facebook, working to keep attention on Mr. Ortega’s actions both at home and abroad.

The internet and mobile apps have played a key role in keeping up activist engagement from afar, Ms. Chavarría says.

“As long as there are dissident voices, they will continue to refresh our memories and denounce the government from wherever they are,” she says.

Ms. Chavarría worked for years in the city of Matagalpa with feminist groups, who have long accused Mr. Ortega of failing to address significant rates of domestic and sexual violence. She quickly joined the widespread protests last year, but fled to Spain after receiving threats. Since then, she has joined efforts to educate allies in Europe about the conflict and highlight women’s leadership in the opposition.

Not all efforts to educate foreigners about Mr. Ortega’s crackdown are quite so far afield. A collective of Nicaraguan feminists called Las Malcriadas, or “badly-behaved women,” is tapping into social media and cross-border projects like a Central American tour. Lucero, a photographer and activist who uses a pseudonym, recently traveled across Costa Rica, trying to raise awareness about the realities back home.

Courtesy of Lucero
Lucero, a member of the feminist group Las Malcriadas, projects the message 'Freedom for the 45 women political prisoners' on a Managua street last December. She used an LED projection, and then shared images on social media, rather than using traditional street art that the government could erase.

Inside Nicaragua, “our work has been mostly reduced to the digital space,” she says. Las Malcriadas use social media to draw attention to political prisoners’ poor conditions and to call for justice for those killed during protests.

Lucero also uses street art – and she’s had to innovate. In December, she broadcast messages with an LED projector on a Managua street, then documented the images on social media. But there are still risks: Last week, while she photographed an anti-government demonstration, a reporter from state-sponsored media filmed her and other activists, she says, while another reporter threatened them.

The risk for speaking out has only increased in recent months, says Mr. Salazar, the journalist, with police using photo surveillance and informants to keep tabs on demonstrators.

But despite Mr. Ortega’s firm grip on power, Lucero says these small acts of resistance do add up.

“What’s important is that we are here, we continue to resist, and we continue with our demands.”

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