Friday, June 29, 2018

A revolution looks different on the streets you once walked

My latest Tyee column

People are dying on the streets I walked to work in Managua just two years ago. Masaya, a smaller town about an hour away by bus, is a battlefield. The streets of Leon, where we also lived, were filled with improvised barriers as neighbours united to keep out police and government supporters.

This is what revolutions look like, I suppose, but it is still surreal to see all this unfolding in a country that I lived in so recently, and that seemed then to be working. And it’s also surreal that despite some 285 deaths and 10 weeks of fighting, the rest of the world has paid so little attention.

After more than two years living in Honduras — perilously close to a failed state — Nicaragua looked like a model of stability. Institutions — schools, hospitals — worked. The cities weren’t plagued with the urban gangs and narcos that led Honduras to have the world’s highest murder rate when we lived there.

The Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega showed troubling signs of moving toward one-party rule, but a 2015 Cid Gallup poll found 66 per cent of Nicaraguans gave Ortega a positive rating. 

That was consistent with my conversations with Nicaraguans. People grumbled about a deal to let a Chinese corporation build a rival to the Panama Canal across the country, complained that Ortega’s wife Rosario Murillo — now vice-president — was spending millions of dollars to erect hundreds of five-storey “arboles de vida” around the capital, Klimt-inspired giant metal trees, each with 17,000 lights. Some were alarmed when his government changed the constitution to let him seek a third term. Elections weren’t fair and open.

But despite that, and the second highest poverty rate in the hemisphere, they still spoke fondly of Daniel, as he was always called, the short, stocky leader who spent 24 years fighting against the Somoza dictatorship and the U.S.-backed Contras, seven years in jail, tortured, willing to accept his electoral defeat in 1990. He was on their side, most people said.

Until, in late April, they decided he wasn’t.

That’s part of what makes it surreal. The government’s legitimacy had been questioned — one newspaper always referred to him as the illegally elected president — but largely accepted. Until the mood changed. 

About 285 people have been killed, mainly by police and well-armed pro-government paramilitaries. Protestors have set up tranques — road blocks mostly built out of pavement blocks ripped from the streets — to protect neighbourhoods and slow traffic throughout the country as a way to bring pressure on the government. 

On May 29, Mother’s Day in Nicaragua, several hundred thousand people marched down a main road near our old house, led by mothers whose children had been killed by police and paramilitaries. The sea of blue and white flags was inspiring. The end of the march, when snipers opened fire and 11 people were killed, was horrifying.

The protests were triggered when the Ortega government announced changes to the social security plan on April 20. Pensions would be cut five per cent, and employer and individual contributions would be raised a small amount. 

The changes weren’t big. But they were arbitrary, a reminder of the president’s total power. And they came after mismanagement or corruption had undermined the fund.

Students led the first protests. After five days — and 25 deaths — Ortega scrapped the changes.

But a tipping point had been reached. Protesters had discovered their power, although at a high cost. The dead could not be brought back to life as easily as the social security changes were reversed, and protests continued demanding justice and accountability. 

The Catholic Church, a powerful force, attempted to facilitate a national dialogue between the government and protestors, but talks failed. The leading business organization ended its support for the government.

And the country remained a battleground.

The images and stories have been incomprehensible. Masaya, a cradle of the Sandinista revolution, was a quiet, traditional town about 45 minutes away by bus. We had licuados in the square, admired the church, went to a wild festival where costumed people followed bands through the streets and we were invited into a family’s celebration.

Now the images are of paving stone walls thrown up to resist police and para attacks, young people wielding homemade mortars, bloody bodies and police storming the cathedral. The city declared it was no longer under the authority of the government, and reprisals were swift and violent.

Armed gangs stalk the streets of Managua, a family of six was burned in their home, thousands of people have been injured and scores have disappeared.

There were warning signs when we lived there. The government took control of the courts and the electoral commission, and we learned not to walk past the commission’s office when there were protests, because Sandinista youth might attack.

But I didn’t see this coming.

That might be part of the culture. Nicaraguans talk of the Güegüense effect, a reference to a 16th-century play that mocked the Spanish invaders without directly confronting them. The play is still part of the culture; some political scientists say that the tendency for Nicaraguans to conceal their true feelings in the face of authority also remains strong.

It’s difficult to see a way out. The protesters want justice and accountability for kidnappings and killings, and fair elections next year, two years ahead of schedule. The Ortega government has shown no signs of agreeing to either demand, and blames “delinquents” for the violence.

Meanwhile, the economy has been battered, people are unable to work and the fledgling tourism industry is destroyed. International organizations and other governments offer advice, but little more. (Canada has condemned the killings and repression and urged dialogue.)

Revolutions or uprisings have been abstract for me, perhaps a failure of imagination. Now one is happening on the streets I once walked, in the towns we visited and with people we know. 

It has been a terrible time, and there seems no good way for it to end. People will keep fighting, and dying, or Ortega will establish a family dynasty — like the Somozas who controlled the country for more than four decades before being ousted by Ortega and the Sandinistas in 1979.

It’s an impossible choice, but it’s the one facing Nicaraguans. My heart aches for them.