MANAGUA – Burning tires, flaming effigies and exploding home-made mortars have been commonplace in the streets of Managua in recent weeks. Foreigners call that havoc, but Nicaraguan public university students call it November.
In addition to the other incidences of political violence that have congested the streets with demonstrators and clouded the air with mortar explosions over the past few weeks, it’s also that time of year when university students traditionally protest in front of the legislative National Assembly to demand that the constitutionally – mandated 6 percent of the budget is allocated for the public universities.
But as the budget suddenly shrank this year due in part to the international economic crisis, the 6 percent for universities has also dwindled, adding a new sense of urgency to this year’s protests.
Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, a member of the National Assembly’s budget commission, said the 2010 budget will be in the range of 31 billion córdobas ($1.5 billion), about the same as it was 2009, meaning the public universities would get about $93 million in funding. But in real terms, Aguirre said, the 2010 budget is actually less than last year’s because of 20 percent inflation.
He said next year’s budget will remain stagnant due to the global economic crisis, dwindling tax revenue and a cutoff of quick-disbursement budget aid from the international community.
The EU and Canadian “budget support group,” which last year was expected to supply $120 million in budget aid, cut funding to Nicaragua following accusations of widespread fraud perpetrated by the Sandinistas in last year’s municipal elections. Aguirre said only $10 to $15 million of that European aid was disbursed, and earmarked for specific education programs.
Student groups such as the University Students’ Force (FNU) say the blame for the budget strains should be shared among foreign nations, private interests and even the Sandinista Front – the party that has traditionally identified with the students’ annual struggle for 6 percent funding.
During the previous administrations of right-wing Presidents Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños, the annual 6 percent protests were viewed as a violent form of Sandinista-authored social pressure against the government, which responded by sending out riot police to repress the demonstrations.
Previous student leaders, who openly identified with the Sandinista Front (one is now a Sandinista lawmaker), would direct the street fighting like generals, barking orders into walkie-talkies.
When President Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2007, the annual 6 percent protests mysteriously stopped. Until now.
“We take a clear stance on this,” said FNU president and Sandinista party member Amaru Ruiz. “We will not let the government take any more from our 6 percent.”
But others, such as the PLC’s Aguirre, say the protests for 6 percent are a smokescreen for political dueling over another issue: the recent creation of the polemic National Council for Assessment and Accreditation (CNEA). Student unions say the accreditation board could be used to redirect funds for public universities into private ones, even though some private universities, such as the University of Managua and University of Central America (UCA), already receive money from the 6 percent budget allocation.
Aguirre said the real reason for protests is about who controls the purse strings. He said the National Council on Universities (CNU), which currently oversees the distribution of the 6 percent to the nation’s 10 public universities, feels its influence is threatened by the creation of the accreditation board and is utilizing students to protest against the competing institution.
Telemaco Talavera, the director of CNU, says he’s opposed to the CNEA possibly diverting funds from public universities. He said he condemns violence or property destruction that might occur as a result of the student protests, but insists the students are only expressing their rights.
“We’re defending the autonomy of the universities,” Talavera told The Nica Times. “It would be contradictory for CNEA to take away resources.”
Marta Marina González, a Sandinista lawmaker who supports CNEA, said opposition to it is based on widespread lies. She challenges those who oppose the council to back their arguments with facts. “None of the 6 percent will go to CNEA,” she insisted.
The Sandinistas & 6 Percent Sandinista government leaders, in an attempt to prevent the 6 percent protest turning against them, have attempted to side with the students. But when Sandinista lawmaker Edwin Castro attempted to take the microphone and speak in solidarity with the students during an Oct. 28 protest in front of the National Assembly, he was greeted with a bag of water thrown in his face.
Still, other student leaders remain firmly behind the Sandinista leadership and have adopted the governing party’s line of blaming the problem on the world economy and foreign donors.
Luis Martínez, vice-president for the National Nicaraguan Students Union, said foreign countries should take the blame if the universities ultimately get less funding. Martínez said the poor are always the first to be affected when aid is cut.
“The international community is more responsible for the budget cuts (than the Sandinistas),” Martínez said. “If there’s a country that can help, they should feel responsible for this.”
Sandinista congresswoman González, a member of the National Assembly’s education commission, said the preliminary 2010 budget meets constitutional requirements.
She said students can protest for the 6 percent, “but if they want the government to appropriate more, it’s just not possible.”
The constitution mandates that the budget be passed by Dec. 15, but the National Assembly has failed to approve the budget on time for the past two years.
Ruiz said that in the meantime FNU members will continue to take to the streets as the National Assembly debates the proposed budget and considers possible regulations on CNEA.