MANAGUA – With pro and anti-government marches planned for the same day in the same city, and a clearly established precedent for political violence, Nov. 21 had threatened to be another disquieting day for Nicaragua’s struggling democracy. Instead, it offered a ray of hope.
For the first time in more than a year, Nicaragua’s often feckless opposition flexed its combined muscle by putting some 70,000 people on the street to march against the government of President Daniel Ortega.
Representing a wide spectrum of civil society interests, political affiliations, education levels and economic capacities, a floodtide of protesters from across the country marched on the capital to show their repudiation of the Ortega government.
Businessmen from Managua marched alongside impoverished campesinos from Boaco. University students marched alongside union workers. Former contras marched alongside Sandinista dissidents. Feminists marched on the same street as religious groups.
Some marchers chanted “Democracy Yes, Dictatorship No!” while others held signs asking Honduras to lend Nicaragua coup leader Roberto Micheletti, chanting “First Mel, Then Daniel!”
Some yelled “Viva Sandino!” while others yelled “Viva Somoza!” Some carried signs lamenting the deaths of revolutionary martyrs, while others commemorated the deaths of counterrevolutionary leaders.
Some marched in support of former President and ex-convict Arnoldo Alemán – including Alemán himself – while others meted equal blame to Alemán for forging his power-sharing pact with Ortega.
The march was, in short, a cross-section of the Nicaragua’s diversity and a celebration of free-expression. It was a march against fear, and an affirmation that Nicaragua belongs to everyone.
Ironically, it was also the best example so far of the reconciliation and national unity that Ortega’s government has promised since 2007 and – quite unintentionally – has achieved most notably among the opposition.
Cooler Heads Prevail
The Nov. 21 opposition march was organized by a group of 19 civil society organizations to protest a series of moves by the Ortega government that they claim is pushing the country back towards dictatorship. Topping the opposition’s list of grievances are last year’s allegedly rigged municipal elections, and last month’s contentious ruling by Sandinista magistrates to allow Ortega’s reelection bid in 2011, despite a constitutional ban prohibiting incumbent presidents from seeking re-election (NT, Nov. 13).
The march was first announced Nov. 9 to mark the one-year anniversary of last year’s allegedly fraudulent municipal elections. Several days later, the Sandinistas announced their own counter-march for the same date, same time and same route, despite the fact the National Police had already authorized civil society’s march.
At the behest of police, civil society organizers capitulated and agreed to change their march route to avoid possible clashes with pro-government supporters, who were already occupying the main rotundas throughout downtown Managua – a territorial marking that the opposition denounced as an intimidation tactic.
As the march date approached, the specter of violence loomed. The U.S. Embassy issued a warning to U.S. citizens to avoid the demonstrations, which they said could include “rubber bullets, firing of improvised projectile launchers (morteros), rock-throwing, tire burning, road blocks, bus/vehicle burning, and other types of physical violence between law enforcement and protestors or between rival political factions.”
Comments from several government officials and opposition sectors did little to ease concerns. Minister of Education Miguel de Castillo went so far as to defend the use ofhomemade mortars in protests, saying “they are part of the culture,” even though there is a law against their use.
“It’s difficult to apply the law because the phenomenon of (mortar use) is complex,” de Castillo told The Nica Times, when asked if he thought the law should be applied. “You’d basically have to put a police officer behind every student and protester.”
But in the hours before the march, cooler heads prevailed. Nicaragua’s Catholic Bishops Council issued a strongly worded communiqué Nov. 18, reaffirming Nicaraguans’ right to peaceful protest. The bishops called for peace and expressed concern about Nicaragua’s “growing moral deterioration” and “the threat to fundamental rights such as free expression and mobilization.”
President Ortega followed the bishops’ lead later that night in a nationally televised address in which he recognized that everyone has the right to march peacefully, “without converting Managua into a battlefield, into a theater of war.” As an additional show of goodwill, the Sandinistas changed their march time to 2 p.m., so as not to overlap with civil society march earlier that morning.
Despite assurances of protection and calls for peace, Nov. 21 started off with a tense calm amid an atmosphere of uncertainty. Some people said they supported the march but were afraid to go, for fear of violent repression from pro-government groups.
Public transportation slowed to a trickle after the Sandinistas rented out most of the available busses in the country to transport their own people, and allegedly pressured transportation cooperatives to not give rides to the opposition.
Downtown Managua was eerily devoid of traffic, as 7,000 police set up roadblocks and cordoned off the downtown area. A two-block wide “no-man’s land” was set up as a buffer zone between where the opposition march was scheduled to end, and where Sandinistas were gathering in anticipation of their event later in the day.
Businesses were closed, parking lots empty and chained off, and some windows were boarded.
As the Sandinistas set up 20-foot high speakers and stadium lighting for their afternoon event in the closed-off intersection in front of the Hilton Princess, the hotel erected a chain link fence around the front entrance to its premises.
“Most people checked out this morning and went to the airport,” the hotel’s marketing director said, as she and the few remaining guests looked out the window of the hotel lobby at the gathering crowd of Sandinistas who were firing their mortars and launching homemade fireworks that exploded around the upper floors of the hotel.
In the half-kilometer buffer zone between the Sandinista stage and the beginning of the opposition march, near the Jean Paul Genie Rotunda, the normally bustling central avenue of Carretera Masaya was completely desolate.
In this no-man’s land, the only noise came from the faint hum of air-conditioners fromlocked-up buildings on either side of the street, and the lonely sound of an “Eskimo” ice cream man ringing his bell as he pushed his cart up the street in a forlorn attempt to make a sale.
The Opposition March
But at the opposition march, the mood was more celebratory than foreboding. Starting early in the morning, thousands of protesters began to arrive from across the country. Police officers assured safe passage, and in some cases had to intervene when Sandinistas attempted to block roads or prevent the opposition from mobilizing in various municipalities.
By 10 a.m., some 70,000 protesters had gathered (though estimates of the crowd size vary wildly) and the march started in an atmosphere of guarded optimism.
Event organizer Violeta Granera, of civil society group Movement for Nicaragua, said the turnout was more than three times what event planners had hoped for, and there was a sense of strength in numbers.
Still, people took precautions in anticipation of attack or ambush. Many marchers wore helmets or carried homemade shields, while some partisan loyalists of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) brought their own homemade firepower.
The Nov. 21 march was, in the words of Granera, the first time in history that mortars were used in a civil society march, much to the perturbation of event organizers, who had signed an agreement with the opposition party leaders prohibiting the use of artisanal firearms in the march. During her speech at the end of the march, Granera publicly scolded Alemán and other political leaders for the use of mortars, and told the politicians to “get control” of their followers.
Demonstrating that the Sandinistas don’t have a monopoly on disenfranchised youth, Alemán’s PLC sent hundreds of its own masked youths into in the streets to fire their mortars in the air and launch explosives at the ubiquitous Ortega billboards that overlook the city. Meanwhile, other youths used spray paint to cross out pro-government graffiti scrawled on buildings throughout the city.
Some protesters admitted they were uncomfortable with the PLC’s clearly partisan and militant presence in the march.
“I would have liked to see them at the back of the march and civil society leading, which is the way this was supposed to be,” said protester Cynthia Ortega, 21. “But the turnout here is excellent.”
It wasn’t only young men carrying the mortars. Fatima Martínez, a 55-year-old mother from Chontales, marched wearing a PLC hat and carrying her own mortar, which looked shiny and unused.
“This is a show of force because we don’t want more dictatorship here,” she said. “We want Ortega to go so he’ll stop robbing elections.”
For the most part, the march was conducted peacefully and respectfully, ending at a stage set up near the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), but distant enough that the building couldn’t be hit with mortar explosives or eggs, which some protesters carried.
On stage in front of a sea of flags and homemade signs denouncing Ortega’s government, march organizer Granera announced that the “civil resistance will continue after the march and won’t end until the country is able to peacefully and civilly end this bad government,” so that Nicaragua “can again be a republic.”
At the other end of the street, a group of Sandinista protesters on the other side of the police buffer zone, tried to drown out Granera’s speech by filling the skies with hundreds of mortar-fired explosions. But the opposition raised their voices above the explosions, chanting “Viva Nicaragua!” “No Dictatorship!” and “Out With Ortega!”
“The Nicaraguan people have shown President Ortega that the streets belong to everyone,” said opposition figure Jaime Arellano. “There was one Nicaragua before Nov. 21, and there will be another Nicaragua after Nov. 21. The people aren’t afraid anymore and we are going to work peacefully and civilly so that Ortega doesn’t continue destroying this country.”
The Sandinista March
As the opposition march receded and returned home shortly after noon, the Sandinistas began filling the street in front of the Hilton Princess. Tens of thousands of Sandinistas – including thousands of state employees pressured to attend party rallies – were bussed into the city from across the country to celebrate the Sandinistas’ contentious 2008 “victory” in the municipal elections, and all “future victories.”
As the Sandinistas gathered in Managua, firing mortars and drinking beer despite the liquor ban (which was enforced during the opposition march but not at the Sandinista rally), there were reports of violent clashes in other parts of the country as caravans of incoming Sandinistas crossed the paths of Liberal protesters returning home.
Rock fights between Sandinistas and Liberals ensued in several points along the highways to León, Matagalpa and Jinotega, resulting in at least 19 injuries and the death of one 42-year-old Sandinista supporter, Rafael Anibal Ruiz, who reportedly fell out of a truck after being hit with a rock, according to National Police.
In total, some 10 busses were attacked, according to initial reports. The PLC also denounced that its Managua headquarters was attacked and windows were broken by mortar explosions and rocks fired by Sandinistas.
Ortega finally addressed the crowd shortly after 5 p.m. Standing on stage under a giant billboard featuring a picture of himself, President Ortega called on God to “illuminate the path for those who are selfish, individualistic and carry violence and hate [in their hearts].”
Ortega did not refer to the protest march earlier that day, but called for “understanding” and “unity.” He told his adversaries, “I’m not asking that you love us, but simply that you act with your heads, because instability and violence are not the way.”
The Sandinista rally had all the trappings of a campaign event, yet was obligatorily carried on all the national television stations as “an address to the nation” (Ortega’s second in four days). The government party claimed it had 350,000 supporters at the rally, though from the top of the Hotel Princess the crowd looked much smaller than that – smaller, in fact, than the civil society march earlier that day. And by the time Ortega took the stage to start his speech, thousands of people were already leaving. By the time he had finished, the crowd had already dwindled to about half its original size.
For civil society and opposition political parties, the challenge now is to harness the momentum from the Nov. 21 protest march and channel it into the change that Nicaraguans are demanding.
The opposition has already agreed to not reelect any of the current Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) magistrates whose terms end next year.
But more broadly, the opposition will be challenged to channel the success of the march into increased citizen participation.
“The energy of the march is a product of peoples’ will to participate – something that has been obstructed by the intimidation and violence of government groups,” Granera told The Nica Times after the march.