Over the last week there has been an increase in violence in Nicaragua. In Masaya several people were killed, government buildings burned, a market ransacked, and ongoing blockades of the roads leading into the city. Much of the media attention about the ongoing political crisis in Nicaragua has ignored the conflicts in cities outside of Managua, or focused solely on accusations of excessive force by the police. We feel it is important for people to understand the complexity of the situation, and the ways in which violence and intimidation are also being used by opposition groups, with most of the people simply caught in the middle.
This week, I interviewed John Perry, who has lived in Masaya, Nicaragua for the last 15 years, and works as a volunteer with a local NGO in the field of sustainable rural development. We talked about the situation in the city over the last few weeks. The views expressed here are John's, based on his observations.
There has been a tremendous amount of violence in Masaya over the last week. Several people have been killed, a school was set on fire, and people assumed to be supporters of the government have been attacked, or houses set aflame. What have you been seeing and hearing from friends in the area?
Until mid-April, Masaya was a peaceful city (and Nicaragua the most peaceful country in Central America). All that changed when police responded violently to a student protest in Managua. This awoke a lot of resentment in Masaya against the government, including from its previous supporters, and barricades appeared in the streets. There were pitched battles between pro- and anti-government groups. Even demonstrations calling for an end to violence (like one I took part in on Sunday May 6) were attacked.
Since then the violence has become far worse. Ransacking of businesses (with people running off with TV sets and motor bikes), destruction of public buildings (including the tourist market) and burning down the houses of Sandinista sympathisers have become a nightly occurrence. We are in the bizarre situation where Masaya's people (for the most part) are destroying their own city.
The international media has been focused solely on a narrative that presents protesters as peaceful, and laying almost all of the blame for violence on state forces. It sounds like things are a lot more complicated than that. Does the violence in Masaya seem to be coordinated?
All that can be said for certain is that the media’s simplistic narrative is wrong. Both ‘sides’ are using violence. Protesters claim that government sympathisers are destroying public buildings, but even if this were true, would they then burn their own homes?
If you look at the BBC coverage here, it faithfully follows the narrative. Yet you look at the photo and observe (a) the road has been ripped up to make the barricades and (b) those manning them have lethal weapons. In what other country would this be regarded as exercising a constitutional right to protest (which is what the protesters claim)? In what other country would the police not arrive in force to remove the barricades and arrest those holding the weapons?
Throughout the country, blockades have been the dominant strategy of the opposition to create tension and put pressure on the government. I understand you are actually trapped between two different blockades, and that travel is difficult, if not impossible outside the city. Can you say what it is like to be in a blockaded city now?
Masaya is effectively cut off by road from everywhere else and has been for several days. We live outside the city so can only enter it on foot. There are two major problems with the barricades. One is obvious – they disrupt the normal life of the city, preventing people from working and getting food, preventing deliveries to shops. In a city where most work in low-paid jobs, this is creating enormous hardship. My wife walked to the Masaya market this morning and came across a young woman trying to walk to the hospital who had started to give birth in the street. She persuaded a passing cyclist to take her to the Red Cross on his crossbar.
But an even more serious aspect is the intimidation. People are being asked for their papers at the barricades by masked youths carrying homemade mortars; they’re having their bags searched. Anything linking them to the government or police means they won’t get past – or worse. A police guy in civilian clothes was ordered to burn his police uniform publicly (it was hidden in his rucksack). In other cases, people have been stripped and humiliated. We had a call for help from a policewoman who lives between two barricades, and who is scared stiff her house with two young children will be burnt down while she is at work.
It seems amazing that the blockades have been allowed to continue - though I assume the government is reluctant to order the police out to break them up in force. It seems like this is a strategy that will turn on the opposition eventually - as it is wreaking havoc on people’s lives. Do you see this going on much longer?
It’s very difficult to say. Many of the Masaya barricades are at head height so it would be extremely difficult for the police to remove them unilaterally. Even the riot police lack the equipment that most police forces have in developed countries. So the only route to peace is through negotiation – the process of national ‘dialogue’ being led by the Catholic church – but which has made only sputtering progress so far.
From a national perspective, you wrote a piece for the London Review of Books’ blogin early May that noted there is little honest discussion about what happens if Ortega’s government collapses. What comes next? How are you feeling about that a month later? Does there seem to be any strategy here from the opposition other than disruption?
Nicaragua has a past history of conflict, but based on clearly conflicting ideologies – people fighting against the repressive Somoza dictatorship in the 1970s, and the revolutionary government against the US-funded Contras in the 1980s. This time the ideological divide is far from clear. On one side, we have a government which mixes a mildly neoliberal economic policy with social investment, but via a party machine which stifles dissent and fails to bring on a new generation of leaders. It supports LGBT rights and promotes the role of women in politics, yet imposes strict abortion laws. But whatever its deficiencies, it stands in contrast to the governments between here and the Texas border, which all have far greater problems of democratic failure, corruption and violence, whether led by the state or by criminal gangs.
On the opposition side, we have two sets of ideas which contradict each other. One says that the government has given up its revolutionary principles and should return to them; the other (despite being called the Sandinista Renovation Movement, the MRS) has aligned itself with the right both in Nicaragua and in the support it receives from the US. Both are temporary allies because they want more ‘democracy’ and for Daniel Ortega to resign, but if Ortega were to leave peremptorily, who would fill the power vacuum and how? The situation reminds me of East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when many activists wanted the coming change to lead to democratic socialism. But those who brought in the capital to transform the country were, unsurprisingly, capitalists.
A lot of the discourse about recent events here has focussed on the failure of the international left to criticise the Ortega government (even though, it seems to me, such criticism has been plentiful, especially over the ‘megaproject’ of the interoceanic canal). But what interests me is how the country moves on from the present situation. Who do those destroying Masaya now think will invest to rebuild it next year or the year after, and at what political cost? How can we avoid a further collapse into the chaos of which Masaya gives us both an example and a warning? How do we help Nicaraguans recover their peace and curb the brutality which has been unleashed? Those on the right who want Ortega out of office now have their own plans to prosper from the chaos: they want a massive civic insurrection to get power and then they’ll enter government with a ‘business spirit’ and start cutting taxes. No doubt in both respects they’ll be cheered on by the Trump administration. But what alternative can the left support that shows a better route out of the current crisis?