MANAGUA – A peaceful march Dec. 10 to commemorate International Human Rights Day became the latest victim of the government’s crackdown on freedom of expression as Sandinista supporters attacked the humanrights activists with mortars, rocks and sticks.
The Sandinista mob – a group convoked by the government’s Human Rights Ombudsman Omar Cabezas and transported to the event in buses provided by the governing party – wasted no time in clashing with human rights activists, who were assembling at the downtown Güegüense traffic roundabout to leave on their scheduled march.
The Sandinistas, some masked and most dressed in government propaganda shirts and hats, shoved and kicked the protesters while others tore up their signs, some of which bore messages protesting electoral fraud in the Nov. 9 municipal elections. The rights activists responded by accusing the government of electoral theft and dictatorship.
The civil society groups, determined to march and not be intimidated by the government’s “grupo de choque,” or “attack groups” as they are known here, started to march south toward the U.N. buildings, as the Sandinistas followed them for 100 meters, throwing sticks and rocks at them as they left.
One Sandinista supporter, 15year-old Eladio Mayorga, who handed rocks to friends as they chucked them at human rights protestors, asked, “Why won’t they let us govern?”
Mayorga, whose parents are former Sandinista guerrillas who now work for the government, said the Sandinistas are taking over the streets to “defend the vote” after the contested municipal elections, in which the opposition claims the Sandinistas stole between 30 and 50 municipalities.
Police, who were again given orders by President Daniel Ortega last week not to “repress the people,” made several inefficient efforts to calm the Sandinista mob until they were eventually able to separate the two groups long enough for the rights activists to march off.
After they had left, the Sandinistas celebrated their victory; a man on a motorcycle with a bullhorn circled the traffic roundabout exclaiming: “We are a majority!”
Violeta Granera, president of the civil society group Por Nicaragua, said that the relatively low turnout for the human rights march was due in part to people’s fear of violence from government attack groups.
“The environment that this government has created with its aggression doesn’t stimulate massive citizen participation,” she told The Nica Times as she marched with several hundred rights protesters. “And we don’t want to put people at risk, either. But we are demonstrating that the streets belong to all Nicaraguans. Fear is natural, but what we hope is that the population won’t give in to it.
“Here we have to be brave now so that we don’t have to spend the next years suffering and lamenting under a dictatorship,” Granera said. “This is a key moment for the country.”
Since August, the ruling Sandinista Front has adopted a zerotolerance policy toward any form of social or political protest or demonstration.
Yet by lumping humanrights groups into its imagined international conspiracy to destabilize the Ortega government, the government this week took its crackdown to new levels, which critics claim is a clear indication of the move toward dictatorship.
“We don’t want to topple this government. We’re not the enemy. We are seeking dialogue for a process that allows progress,” Georgina Muñoz, head of the Coordinadora Civil, an umbrella group of 19 nongovernmental organizations, told The Nica Times.
She lamented that government supporters have tried to block every opposition protest and civil society demonstration since the Sandinistas were accused of electoral fraud.
“It’s been difficult for a country that is coming from dictatorship and war,” Muñoz said. “It’s been difficult to find a dialogue with the government.”
Back at the Güegüense traffic roundabout, where the Sandinistas stood on the hilltop like a conquering army that had driven out invaders, Sandinista-appointed rights leaders applauded their group’s action.
Reverend Sixto Ulloa, rights coordinator for the government’s polemic Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs), said his group was defending the government’s programs in the areas of health and education.
“There are a great quantity and variety of programs. The government is complying with all 30 articles of the universal declaration of human rights,” Ulloa said.
The government-affiliated reverend went on to call the other human rights groups “crybabies” who “ran away.”
Ulloa dismissed the Sandinista intolerance toward the civil society groups as “part of the folklore of the people” and the population “manifesting the human rights that Daniel Ortega has given us.”
Marcos Carmona, director of Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH), called it “incomprehensible” that the government’s alleged humanrights leaders are “fomenting acts of violence and vandalism.”
He said it is another symptom of a government that is “characterized as being violent and intolerant of citizen participation.”
Bayardo Izabá of the NicaraguanCenter for Human Rights (CENIDH) said the confrontation with government groups is further evidence that the Ortega administration has an extremely limited view of human rights.
“The government thinks that the only human rights are economic, social and cultural,” Izabá said. “They think people will sacrifice other liberties for economic, social and cultural rights. And they think that this is a leftist position.
“No way, human rights are indivisible,” the rights leader said. “It’s as important to eat as it is to express yourself. It’s as important to have access to water as it is to express your mind and have the right to vote freely.”
Nica Times reporter Blake Schmidt contributed to this story.