Power to the People: Between Death and Insurrection in Nicaragua

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Friends and relatives of late high school student Alvaro Conrado, the first underage demonstrator killed during anti-government protests on April 2018 and who became a symbol of Nicaragua’s students’ movement, light candles during a tribute on his 16th anniversary, at Loyola Institute, the high school he used to attend in Managua on April 08, 2019. (Photo by Maynor Valenzuela / AFP / Getty Images)

By Julienne Weegels

It is late June 2018. A group of armed government supporters, known as a grupo parapolicial (para-police group), attacks the barricade that Layo[i] and his friends built and manned in the city of León, Nicaragua. With semiautomatic weapons, they shoot eight rounds into the body of Choreja, a 24-year-old barrio resident on watch, and leave him for dead. The barricade is one of hundreds erected following the April 2018 uprising, to protect protesters and their neighborhoods from violent incursions by police and para-police groups intent on quashing the protests at any cost.

Tragically, the young man’s death is one of over 300 documented killings that took place during the protests and their brutal repression.[ii] Here, I hope to provide a point of entry into the political entanglement of death and insurrection through the expression of popular sovereignty in Nicaragua.

History on Repeat?

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Relatives and friends of 16-year old student Matt Romero—shot dead during clashes with riot police and paramilitaries within a protest against President Daniel Orteg—attend his burial, at the Milagro de Dios cemetery in Managua, on September 24, 2018. Months of turmoil in the Central American country left more than 320 people dead, according to rights groups. (Photo by INTI OCON / AFP / Getty Images)

Choreja was a casualty in the government’s Operación Limpieza (Operation Clean-Up) – a life taken to reestablish “order” in a manner that no Nicaraguan of his generation would ever have thought possible. Like Layo, he had decided to “take life seriously,” as the old revolutionary song goes, putting his own life on the line in defense of the popular insurrection.[iii]  “I never imagined that would become my story, too,” Layo says as we talk over WhatsApp. Almost forty years earlier, Somoza’s Guardia Nacional shot his uncle, who was only fifteen. “Corruption, nepotism, embezzlement, all of the dirty politics for all of these years – that was one thing,” Layo says, “but killing people is another: eso no se hace” (that’s something you just don’t do).

In Nicaragua, dictatorship and death are intimately entwined. Previous dictator Somoza, whose family ruled Nicaragua since the 1930’s, was not fully understood as a dictator until he began murdering those who openly challenged his rule. Similarly Ortega, who never gave up the presidency of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and never relinquished his desire to be re-elected President of the country, perpetuated his power. Ortega ensured a dynastic succession (with his wife on the ticket for vice-president in 2016), and came to control all echelons of public (and even private) life through an advanced institutional and para-institutional network of influence. Yet it was not until his power, and that of his institutional apparatus, became lethal and absolute, that it was met by open and massive resistance. In fact, the more the state behaved in the way the protesters had been taught the Somoza-dictatorship worked, the more the protesters felt justified in demands for Ortega and his government to step down.

El Pueblo Presidente – The People for President

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A barricade with mannequins dressed up as protesters and a banner reading “Ortega nation-seller” is seen in a street of Masaya, Nicaragua on June 20, 2018 (Photo by MARVIN RECINOS / AFP / Getty Images)

The crisis in legitimacy that the current Sandinista government faces hinges at least in part on their claim to popular sovereignty and promise to make “el pueblo presidente” (the people president), as Ortega’s 2006 electoral campaign boasted. For years, the FSLN claimed to control the streets and held out the promise of social justice, a dignified life, and an end to exploitation for their dispossessed and largely marginalized electorate. Eleven years and three consecutive terms later, however, Ortega’s government and its politico-economic elite had collapsed the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers.[iv] Through a series of pacts and trade-offs, it established warm relations with the traditional elite, ensured hegemonic power over the electoral system and the national assembly, bargained land deals with foreign companies, and constructed resorts for high-end tourism. All the while, the country remained the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere and it became near impossible to obtain a job at any administrative or institutional level without FSLN militancy (carnet de militancia) or an aval político (verification of political sympathy signed by the local party secretary). By April 2018, there was not an echelon of public life that was not in some way controlled or monitored by the government and its proxies. It was a system that appeared to work perfectly.

Two deaths – caused by the violent state-led attempt to break up student occupations of universities, following suppressed protests against social security reforms – were the trigger. When no public apologies were offered and riot police took to the streets against the protesting students, people came out across the country to demand justice for the dead and defend the protesters’ right to life. During that first weekend, more than 30 others were shot. In a futile attempt to cover up the massacre, news channels were taken off the air, but live streams of the unfolding repression flooded the Internet. Death and heavily armed repression filled the air, but revolt ensued.

Patria libre para vivir – A free fatherland to live

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A woman and children place a Nicaraguan, a Vatican and a black flag on a barricade at Monimbo neighbourhood in Masaya, Nicaragua, on July 11, 2018.(Photo by MARVIN RECINOS / AFP / Getty Images)

Taking friend and foe by complete surprise, the protests quickly evolved into a massive, nation-wide uprising, occupying large swaths of national territory and blocking main economic arteries. A network of safe houses and clandestine medical posts quickly evolved. For the first time in forty years, the FSLN lost control of the streets. Like many other cities, the city that Layo and his group of autoconvocados (self-convened protesters) operated in was considered a Sandinista stronghold prior to April. “If they could do it back then, then we can do it again,” was the thought. Bayardo explains that he purposely chose his apodo de lucha (struggle nickname) to be the same as that of his grandfather, who had led an attack against a barracks of the Guardia Nacional back in the day. At the barricades, revolutionary histories, militancy, and anti-government mobilization were densely entangled. By collectively putting their lives on the line, the protesters mobilized the claim to justice and freedom – a claim once forwarded by the FSLN itself.[v] But this was not an organized guerrilla. The uprising evolved spontaneously and anarchically, it was pluralist yet unidirectional: the goal was to force the government to step down.[vi]

Evoking and re-appropriating symbols of insurrection and revolution, the protesters altered their premise of violence to one of justice. It was for a “Free fatherland to live!” as the students shouted, drawing on but radically altering the revolutionary call for a free fatherland or death (patria libre o morir). At the barricades, the roadblocks and occupied universities, new modes of resistance and new models of radical, horizontal democracy were drawn. No more bloodshed, no more repression, no more one-man leadership (caudillismo). In turn, however, the government portrayed the protesters successively as “right wing vandals,” “delinquents,” “CIA-backed coup mongers,” and finally as “terrorists.” But the protesters refused to go along with Ortega’s hyperbolic discourse. “They’re trying to justify the war they’re waging against the people, but this is not the eighties. This time there is no excuse,” Layo said. The protests rearticulated not only the memory of the 1978-79 Insurrection, but also those of the civil war. “Nobody paid for all the pain caused back then,” Bayardo held, “we can’t let that happen again.”

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Nicaraguan migrant Axel Sebastian Palacios Molina (in wheelchair), who takes part in a caravan heading to the US, his mother Idania Molina (L), and sister Alexa Michel (C), rest in Juchitanh de Zaragoza, southern Mexico, on October 30, 2018. – Palacios, 14, who was wounded by Sandinista forces, fled Nicaragua with his family and says “he feels safer” in the caravan than in his home country. (Photo by Guillermo Arias / AFP / Getty Images)

Putting in motion its full (para)institutional framework, Operation Clean-up crushed these hopes for a swift transition. The government’s objective to take back the streets before the 19th of July (the day the Sandinista Revolution is celebrated), was achieved. The cost was its delegitimation. Over 300 people were killed and more than 800 are being held as political prisoners. As the call for justice persists, the question remains whether the system that Ortega and his cupula have established – one that now openly hinges on the marriage of state and personal interests, and on the ability and capacity to repress at all cost – can ever be broken. Late February 2019, Ortega’s government acceded to a new dialogue with the opposition under pressure of the traditional economic elite, a heavy economic downturn, and the international community. The government proceeded to negotiate solely with the part of the opposition that did not take to the streets – that is, the economic elite (with which they upheld a ‘model of consensus’ prior to April) and a marginal section of the ‘people’s’ opposition. No ‘radicals’, no peasants, no women. No autoconvocados. Strategically attempting to pull apart the opposition, avert sanctions and stall, the government has managed to pass off the promise to reestablish basic human and civil liberties as a gain. No reforms, no early elections – let alone justice.

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the protests, the general climate is one of fear and disillusion – but the fight persists. Over 60,000 Nicaraguans have crossed the border fleeing political persecution or mounting insecurity. Layo and his friends hope to return when the government has fallen and the para’s have gone, and continue to exert pressure and critique from abroad. We live in a world where economy comes before human rights and Nicaragua is no exception, Ana sighs about the negotiations: “Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo” (only the people will save the people). She laughs from her forced exile when the government declares that they will ensure a safe return of the refugees. People like her, like Layo and Bayardo, face very real state-sponsored threats. Their friends are in prison. Some of the protesters they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with, dead. It is necessary to understand the nature and origins of political conflicts like the Nicaraguan one so as not to enable the further dehumanization of these people in resistance – so as not to erect more barriers to solidarity. After all, such political ignorance may condemn more Nicaraguans to death and imprisonment.

Julienne Weegels is a postdoctoral researcher with the Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation (CEDLA) at the University of Amsterdam. At present she is developing a research project on Nicaraguan practices of justice and sovereignty from below, and changing understandings of policing and (political) imprisonment. She is much interested in the politics of (dis)order, power, and (public) secrecy. Previously, she conducted extensive research inside and around Nicaragua’s prison system, working with prisoners and former prisoners (2009-2016). This research focused on (former) prisoners’ experience of imprisonment and the state, of violence and “change of attitude” – leading to her manuscript Performing Prison: Power, Agency, and Co-Governance in Nicaraguan Prisons.


[i] All names are pseudonyms, except for the President’s and Choreja’s. Everyone quoted has fled the country.

[ii] The Inter American Human Rights Commission was able to document much of the crisis until they were obliged to leave the country just before Christmas 2018; they verified 322 deaths (CIDH 2018). Their International Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) furthermore conducted a thorough research of the 19 April – 30 May 2018 period, and concluded the government committed “crimes against humanity” (2018). Dozens of people are still missing.

[iii] In the song “No se me raje mi compa” by Carlos Mejía Godoy there is a strophe narrating the death of a guerrillero at the hands of the Somoza’s National Guard that goes “he died as a real man / out by the cemetery; / for he had committed the atrocious crime, of taking life seriously,” i.e. joining the revolutionary struggle.

[iv] For an in-depth consideration of post-2007 Sandinismo see the special section ‘Dossier Nicaragua: Sandinismo 2.0?’ in Cahiers des Amériques Latines (no. 87, 2018), edited by Maya Collombon and Dennis Rodgers. See also ‘Inside Out: Confinement, Revolt and Repression in Nicaragua’ (Weegels 2018).

[v] During the Insurrection in the seventies, but also in the nineties. While organizing massive street protests and strikes against Arnoldo Alemán’s government, Ortega justified these by arguing, “when those who govern break the law, the people have the right to do justice” (Managua, 1997). A video fragment of him saying this began circulating on social media during the protests, using his argument against him.

[vi] Note that the modes of organization, motivations and personal histories of the autoconvocados who joined the protests vary greatly, especially between the countryside and the urban centers. Nonetheless, a vast network of solidarity and communication was quickly established between the different (self-convened and organized) movements and groups manning the barricades, roadblocks, and occupations. This later consolidated partially in the Alianza Cívica (Civic Alliance) and Articulación de Movimientos Sociales y Organizaciones de la Sociedad Civil (Platform of Social Movements and Civil Society Organizations), who joined forces in the pluralist opposition organization Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco (Blue-White National Unity), while small other groups continue operating autonomously.

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