Young and feminist voices in Nicaragua: Those who RESIST on the streets talk about the crisis

05 December 2018

For almost eight months Nicaragua has been immersed in a political, economic, and social crisis. During the last 11 years, the despotic methods implemented by Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice-president Rosario Murillo have been used to govern the country, leading to a situation where the people are feed up with so much repression, death, and impunity.

From the start, the feminists watched Daniel Ortega closely, as he had sexually abused his step-daughter Zoilamérica Narváez. For years, they have announced that he has a misogynist government that attacks life. Today, women and the feminist movement are the people who continue to hold up, from their different perspectives, a social resistance to the abuses carried out by the Nicaraguan state.

“With Daniel Ortega there has always been a dispute to be on the street,” Dolly Mora stated during our interview, highlighting the repressive nature that has characterized the current administration. Dolly is a young feminist and member of Agrupación de Mujeres Trans y Culturales (Grouping of Trans and Cultural Women) and Articulación Nacional Feminista (National Feminist Coordination), which brings together the country’s current feminist expressions. In the context of this struggle, it is also part of the Alianza Universitaria Nicaragüense (Nicaraguan University Alliance). The feminist experience within the country's crisis, how resistance is constructed, and lessons that can be shared with the rest of the continent, are some of the issues that will be addressed in this conversation with Dolly.

-Tell us about the evolution of this crisis?

On April 18th there was an outbreak of protests that the Government began to repress; and since then it hasn't stopped. The country's main universities rose up and then the blockades began [roadblocks made of rocks, branches, and paving stones to prevent vehicles from passing] in Managua and other departments. In parallel was the creation of the Mesa de Diálogo Nacional (National Dialogue Working Group) [made up by the Government, and students, the private sector, civil society, mediated by the Catholic Church]. In this space, the Government has not shown political will to reach a negotiated solution to the crisis. What the people want most is for Daniel Ortega to leave office. The administration cannot continue when it has over 500 deaths and 552 political prisoners on its shoulders. The majority of the affected population are young university students, and urban poor and farmer youth. Evidently, this has a class connotation, when they say they are a socialist and Christian government, a government for the poor. But he is killing the poor, he has the poor as prisoners, and he continues to persecute them; because the National Police has a policy to persecute all actors, and in particular kids and youth from the poor neighborhoods.

- What was the pre-crisis process like? Were there warnings about what was to come?

The Daniel Ortega government has the practice of calling for counter actions when an organized civil society group convenes a public activity. If there is a march, they call for a counter march. There was also a time when some opposition parties held “Wednesday Protests,” and there were flare-ups of violence and clashes between the government's people and the opposition. As feminists, we have always talked about how, for example, when we march on March 8th they would install a line of female anti-riot police, these are special forces, so that we cannot march. There was already a lack of respect for the right to protest and demonstrate, which are rights recognized in the country's constitution. With Daniel Ortega there has always been a dispute to be on the street.

All this began when the youth started going out into the street to hold protests and picket due to the lack of governmental response to the uncontrolled burning of the Indio Maíz biological reservation. Then, many more people joined us in the streets when we protested the government reforms to the Instituto Nicaraguense de Seguridad Social (INSS- Nicaraguan Social Security Institute). On April 18th when we went out to protest the INSS everything blew up. There was a group of youth in Camino Oriente protesting and a large group from the Sandinista Front arrived and began to beat us and hit us with sticks; they stole cameras from journalists; there was violence against youth and journalists. That day, when the repression began with force, Daniel Ortega ignored the political costs and was comfortable sending in forces to assault the youth. That same day the Universidad Centroamericana (Central American University) was attacked and when the sun rose on April 19th all the universities had risen up: the UNAN [Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua – National Autonomous University of Nicaragua], the UNI [Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería- National Engineering University], the Universidad Nacional Agraria (National Agricultural University), and the Universidad Politécnica de Nicaragua (Nicaraguan Polytechnic University). All the universities went on strike and protested. In response to these peaceful protests, the government sent in the anti-riot police to fire tear gases and rubber bullets, and the repression intensified to the point of directly killing youth with military caliber weapons. At that point the international human rights organisms, like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International, began documenting the repression and murders in their reports.

-I understand that the opposition does not exist in Nicaragua, so who is leading the resistance?

It is the people. The insurrection that was born on the streets comes from the strength of the universities but extends to the people. The youth, we did not go into the streets to protest for university issues, we went out with a national agenda. When it was seen that the university students were being attacked, the people began to “acuerparles" or embrace/surround/accompany them. After the first three days and over twenty deaths, the people proclaimed that Daniel Ortega cannot continue in Government and the popular outcry began to demand his resignation. When the Mesa de Diálogo Nacional is created, its main focus is to stop the repression and establish Daniel Ortega's negotiated departure. But the closing of spaces is very delicate, because the political parties that have historically opposed the social revolution (conservatives) have joined the Sandinista Front of National "Liberation” government, to repress all protests.

- You said that it is the poor people who are most affected by the repression, what is the situation for women?

Yes, it has a different focus. The violence against young women in this context is different and broader, because when you are on the front line you are not only exposed to physical violence from the State and police, but also their threats of sexual violence. Many of the women who are political prisoners or who were in Chipote, the police's torture prison, have denounced sexual violence and psychological torture using threats against their bodies. The men are killed in the confrontation, and the woman can also be killed in the clashes; when a young man is captured they torture him, but when it is a young woman the first things they say is that they are going to rape her. Regardless, the women have participated in all the resistance methods: in takeovers, in the mass media, in dialogues, on medical teams, on the street, in the 'Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco' (National Blue and White Unit) that was just created, and in the Alianza Cívica por la Justicia y la Democracia (Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy). The women are in absolutely all of the social resistance spaces, with active participation in response to this crisis.

And the feminist movement has always called attention to the sexual abuse perpetrated by Daniel Ortega in the case of Zoilamérica Narváez; we have always called out the misogynist and sexist nature of his government, and that in general, it is an attack on life. For example, we have historically and publicly rejected the mass murders of small-scale farmers who resist the mega-projects in their territories. There are documented cases and public statements.

-Why is it a misogynist government?

Since Ortega began his campaign in 2006, the worst expression of violence against women was the repeal of Article 165 of the Criminal Code that allowed for therapeutic abortions, which had been in the Nicaraguan legislature for over 100 years. From the perspective of women's issues we never expected anything good to come out of the Daniel Ortega administration. Criminalizing therapeutic abortion looks to criminalize poor women who cannot access this right; because abortions continue, it is part of our reality as women, but the women who can access an abortion are those with more resources. For a rural woman who is carrying a fetus with a congenital malformation it is very difficult for her to go to the city to carry out a clandestine procedure. Based on his rhetoric, we saw the violence coming. In addition, using welfare programs he won over the poor population because it resolved their immediate needs, but there were no public policies that helped people to truly escape poverty.

- What are the characteristics of the feminist resistance in this fight?

The women have maintained our agenda carrying out a major campaign called “There is no revolution without women's participation.” This is a slogan that we have transferred from the 80s to the present because we need to make our participation visible in all spaces. For example, the work of Las Malcriadas on Facebook is notable and increases the visibility of each woman who has been kidnapped, disappeared, or is a political prisoner. There are also reports on the violence specifically against women: the feminist movement has held protests outside of the La Esperanza prison, which is where the women are imprisoned. Most of the prisoners are very young, 18, 20, 25 years old; and the majority are university students. There is also an older women with cancer who is held under inhuman conditions. For example, in the Unidad Azul y Blanca, we are present as the feminist movement, because we will not permit our exclusion from important decision making spaces in the midst of a historic process like this one. And we always have our purple handkerchiefs, in all the spaces, there are a lot of us. For example, LGBTIQ people have also had a very active participation in this political process.

- The Church has had a very important role in this crisis. What has it been like to march together with the Church and other sectors where there was never a positive relationship?

Yes, the Church is the dialogue's mediator. At the beginning I was resistant, due to the Church's history and because it pushed for the criminalization of therapeutic abortion. But when you start to get to know the bishops who are part of the resistance, they have shown an incredible level of coherency and have put their bodies and their lives on the line. For example, Monsignor Báez has a very tangible commitment to this crisis, you can feel their commitment. And well, we are in a conflict with a person who is killing youth and the Church has major and historic power in this country; anything that the Church does is going to have an impact. So, as feminists, we have marched with the Church because we recognize it as a key actor to resolve the crisis, because we come from a catholic tradition and Nicaraguans places a lot of importance on that. In addition, the government had a certain amount of respect for the Church, but not anymore. The bishops have death threats and defamation campaigns against them, just like us. Now, we face this together, but the true dialogue will come later. We will talk about abortion again, and what will be the Church's position?

-Tell me about the Pico Rojo protest campaign, which has had a major impact nationally and internationally.

Ah, that was great. Marlen Chow, a historic feminist in Nicaragua, is imprisoned with some other women. When Marlen was in prison she painted here lips and passed the lip pencil onto the other women. In those interrogations the police looked to establish who financed the resistance, because they have this narrative, that it is a financed blow. Currently, interrogation is used to make people say everything, even what you do not know. So when they asked Marlen what organization she belongs to, she said the Asociación del Pico Rojo (Red Lips Association), that all the women in prison at that time are members, referring to Claribel Alegría, a Nicaraguan poet. So, when Marlen is released from detention, the anecdote becomes a new form of resistance. It is like throwing away the government narrative. What organization is behind me? What it is saying is there is nobody behind her, it is the people who have said enough already. And we began to make viral the images of many people with their lips painted red.

-The ironic nature of these manifestations in the midst of such a difficult context is noteworthy, how did you do it?

It is the same things that happened with the balloons. Since there is so much repression, often taking to the streets is not an option. So, to protest the people have released blue and white balloons, and it has been absurd to see the police popping the balloons in the street. Us Nicaraguans are VERY creative. On the social networks we began to read about the “appearance of terrorist balloons” and “balloons financed by the United States.” A journalist used the phrase: “we are making them crazy.” Currently, using blue and the white is synonymous with crime. There is also Don Alex who goes out running all the time wearing blue and white. This gentleman was jailed, released, and he continues to run. What that says is that we are tired, and we will continue, and continue, and continue, until they leave office. But we stay strong using laughter also… the memes have encouraged us.

- How have the youth joined in?

Its not that many of the people who are becoming involved were politically apathetic, but they were apathetic to party politics. And why wouldn't they be? We have deputies who have been in power for almost 39 years, since democracy returned to this country. And the people from their different perspectives are starting to get into politics and rename it, re-appropriating this process for ourselves is definitely historical. And I believe that for all the youth who have created these new university movements, who do not come from political training initiatives, this has been an important school, a school on the streets, resisting and accompanying.

-To close, what lessons is the feminist resistance generating in Nicaragua and the rest of Latin America?

I think that the main thing is that it has united different movements, the Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco is very strong. We have a very clear agenda and positions, and we try to communicate whenever there is something important to say or a need to take a position. Very strong international solidarity campaigns have been created, there was the Grito Feminista por Nicaragua (Feminist Cry for Nicaragua) in Mexico, Spain, El Salvador, Argentina… There has been a lot of feminist solidarity with the Nicaraguan feminists and the situation in Nicaragua. Also, that international solidarity put Nicaragua back on the map because a lot of people didn’t have any idea what was happening here and the feminists' contacts with other movements helped to make the Nicaraguan situation more well-known abroad.

I participated in an Urgent Action Fund convening and the African women who are raising awareness about the abduction and kidnappings of women in their countries were surprised by how we had been able to face this crisis with such strength. For me it is our history, many of the older feminist were part of the Sandinista Revolution and at that time they helped to create the international solidarity committees. Those ties have reappeared and we are using them again. That historic connection has been very important. We are reminding the world that “networks save lives” and that we need “to acuerparnos (embrace/accompany one another)” now.

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