MANAGUA – Israel Lewites’ father was tortured by former dictator Anastasio Somoza’s National Guardsmen when he was 16, his uncle was martyred by the Guardsmen’s bullets during the famous assault on the Masaya barracks, and his other uncle, the rogue Sandinista gunrunner-turned Mayor of Managua, Herty Lewites, died mysteriously during his 2006 presidential campaign against President Daniel Ortega.
That’s a lot of rebel blood.
A son of the Sandinista revolution, Israel Lewites, 32, was born into the very Kafkaesque heart of Nicaragua politics. He reminded himself of that that fact in October, when he suddenly set off to run across the country like a Nicaraguan Forrest Gump in a lone journey to protest what he says is the current government’s return to dictatorship. The three-week rain-soaked pilgrimage, on which Lewites embarked in order to honor his martyred uncle of the same name, was documented in photos in local newspapers. Yet unlike Forrest Gump, no fans united with Lewites in his cross-country trek.
“It’s not that I wanted to be alone, it’s that nobody joined me,” he told The Nica Times in a recent interview.
The Sandinista dissident’s solitary sojourn came on the heels of violent anti-Ortega protests launched last year in defiance of the government’s ban of minority parties, including Lewites’ Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), which was stripped of its party status and prohibited from running in the November mayoral elections.
During the protests, anti-government demonstrators targeted the government-run Multinoticias TV Channel 4, flipping over one of their vehicles in the street and throwing bags of water at government reporters.
As protests against Multinoticias seemed to be gaining steam, the Sandinista media struck back by going after Lewites, whom they suspected was behind the movement.
After a small group of university students who attempted to protest in front of Channel 4’s TV station were chased away and belt-whipped by Sandinista thugs on national TV, reporters from Multinoticias filed charges against Lewites for inciting the violence. Lewites however, claims he had nothing to do with the protest and that he first learned of it while sitting in the dentist’s chair watching TV.
The charges against Lewites put him on a list with a handful of other opposition leaders who have faced similar judicial persecution by the Ortega government (see separate story).
Journalists Carlos Fernando Chamorro and Jaime Arellano, La Prensa publisher Jaime Chamorro, women’s rights leader Sofia Montenegro, and liberal leader Eduardo Montealegre have all faced investigations, charges and even sanctions that they claim are politically motivated.
Lewites suspects the Ortega government will pursue its case against him this year. The Ortega government’s plan, he says, “is to completely crush the opposition; it’s going to be an offensive year.”
Other persecuted dissidents, namely Italian missionary Alberto Boschi, have said they are concerned that Lewites may be next on the government’s hit list. Boschi recently fled the country after he was convicted to a year in prison for his alleged involvement in opposition protests similar to the one Lewites was accused of inciting (NT, Jan 2).
But while catching up with Lewites at his Managua office at Water and Earth (WE) Solutions, the civil engineer who dabbles in Veejaying (video Deejaying) seems more like a son of the Internet revolution than the Sandinista one.
He sits at his Mac laptop wearing glasses and a T-shirt, Googling answers to questions. As an engineering student who studied in Monterrey, Mexico, Lewites began experimenting with mixing videos and music, and now performs with some of Nicaragua’s most renowned young musicians. During concerts, he compliments artists performances with his large-screen, onstage video productions. Lewites has even directed some videos of his own, such as the popular Tululu remix for up-and-coming Nicaraguan artist Revuelta Sonora.
But he can’t hide his rebellious roots despite his Net Generation aura.
“The Sandinista party has consolidated like a dictatorial force that is destroying all the institutions of Nicaragua,” he said.
Formerly spokesman for the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) and Herty Lewites’ former right-hand man, Israel Lewites has been forced out of politics since his MRS party was banned from participating in elections last June. With the shining exception of his solo march and several other protest exploits, he’s remained on the sidelines in recent months, watching with the intent of an injured athlete.
“The Ortega regime isn’t an option for the economic development of Nicaragua,” he said, adding that Ortega is “creating a new oligarchy” amongst his group of former revolutionary cronies. The “new oligarchy” reaps the benefits of foreign aid from countries such as Venezuela, taking trips around the world and using the money with virtually no oversight, Lewites charges.
He hopes the country can find “fresh” leadership, though he says powerful politicians are interested in maintaining the status quo.
Fortunately, he says, the government’s legal case against him, in which he and other MRS leaders were charged with five crimes, including inciting violence during an electoral period and attacks against freedom of expression, hasn’t advanced.
He hopes it won’t but fears it might if he keeps talking.
The offspring of a Jewish immigrant, the Lewites family quickly made names for themselves during the revolution – one of Managua’s markets is named in honor of Israel’s martyred uncle, Israel Lewites. Today, the Lewites name is a tough one to live up to.
Israel acknowledges that he has felt the responsibility to lead ever since he accepted Herty Lewites’ offer to be his campaign manager and right-hand man during his run for president.
The questions surrounding his uncle’s 2006 death – he reportedly died of a heart attack, but no autopsy was ever performed and some doubt the true case of death – still rack Israel’s brain.
Today, Lewites sees little hope for justice in a system he thinks has failed. But he holds out hope that by putting pressure on the Ortega government, especially with international support, change can happen.
Unlike his martyred uncle, Lewites’ says his struggle against power will be fought with words and coalitions, instead of bullets.
Though he’s leery of Ortega’s intentions to remain in power – “We easily have 10 more years of this regime,” he said – he’s given hope by the growing discontent with the Sandinista government.
“Sometimes the horror caused by bad leaders leads to new eras,” he said.