In April 2018, protests against pension reform plans in Nicaragua quickly mushroomed into a widespread anti-government movement.
The country’s Sandinista regime under President Daniel Ortega cracked down hard. Over the following year, hundreds were killed, thousands more were exiled or detained and independent media voices were suppressed.
As negotiations to resolve the crisis finally got underway earlier this year, we sent filmmaker Rodrigo Vazquez to investigate.
By Rodrigo Vazquez
It was tourist season, but the arrivals hall at Augusto Cesar Sandino airport in Managua was eerily quiet. I had expected to see weary passengers fussing over their luggage and taxi drivers husting for fares, but there were few people around and it was easy for the waiting officials to pick me out.
But then again, they knew I was coming. My reasons for coming to Nicaragua – to make a documentary about the current political situation and, or so I hoped, to interview the country’s president – had been logged with the authorities well in advance and these days all journalists in Nicaragua, both domestic and foreign, were receiving more than the usual amount of attention.
They came for me as I was queuing to get my passport stamped. “You must be Rodrigo,” said the official. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
He directed me over to a separate booth, where I was then questioned about my views on US intervention in Nicaragua’s affairs. I was determinedly noncommittal and whatever I said seemed to satisfy them about my credentials and impartiality. I was eventually waved through.
I can not say that I was surprised at the reception, though. Ten months earlier, relatively modest protests against proposed pension law reforms had quickly grown into much larger anti-government demonstrations, which in turn spawned a widespread insurrection against the regime of former left-wing revolutionary, President Daniel Ortega.
In the weeks that followed, his government deployed security and paramilitary forces to crack down brutally hard on the demonstrators and the resulting violence and intimidation quickly got out of hand. International and domestic NGOs would later claim that over the course of the year around 1,500 people went missing, 500 were killed, 81,000 went into exile and 800 were detained as political prisoners.
Indeed, investigators from the UN Human Rights Commission had passed through this very same airport only a few months before, but they had been going in the other direction – expelled for attempting to document the many abuses that were believed to have taken place.
In the meantime, independent and opposition media outlets had been closed down or banned, several journalists had been imprisoned or forced to leave the country and, according to the current US government at least, together with Venezuela and Cuba, Nicaragua had reaffirmed its bogeyman status as one of the Latin American “socialist regimes” that needed to be sanctioned and otherwise brought to heel.
The economy had since all but collapsed and Nicaragua has reeled under the resulting crisis. It was fairly inevitable then, that anyone seeking to ask questions about what had gone wrong here, would be closely watched.
As I waited for a ride into the capital, I pondered the man after whom the airport – and much else in Nicaragua, including Ortega’s Sandinista political movement – had been named. Augusto C Sandino was an iconic revolutionary figure who had fought against the first US military occupation of his country from 1912 to 1933.
Sandino’s guerrilla fighters had had the dubious privilege of being at the receiving end of the first aerial bombardment against civilians in the Americas, in 1927, when US Marine aircraft dropped bombs in the town of Ocotal, killing 65 civilians and wounding 100.
The aim of the US back then was to stop any other nation except the US from building a Nicaraguan Canal to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific oceans, pretty much as the Panama Canal does today. The occupation had failed, however, and Sandino had since been hailed by many as a symbol of national resistance against US aggression and imperialism.
Forty-three years later, in 1979, a revolution named after Sandino seized power from yet another US-supported dictator, Anastasio Somoza. It was the last armed uprising to take power in Latin America and it had been led by eight commanders, one of whom was now the current president, Daniel Ortega.
As soon as the Sandinistas started to implement socialist reforms in the economy in 1980, the Reagan administration in Washington unleashed an economic blockade and armed a counter-insurgency force – financing it with proceeds from illegal arms sales to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, in what became known as the Iran-Contra Scandal.
This counter-insurgency force had operated out of Honduras and been led by former Sandinista Eden Pastora. Its war on the Sandinista revolution had caused the death of 85,000 people.
Thus I was startled, on checking the news at my hotel, to find out that Pastora was now boasting of his renewed bond with Ortega and the Sandinistas. Indeed, when Nicaraguan pensioners and their student supporters began their demonstrations against new pension laws in April 2018, Ortega, who was visiting Cuba at the time, had apparently sent Pastora a message. According to Pastora, Ortega had told him to blow “those mother***’s private parts off!”.
I was even more surprised to read Pastora’s claim that it had been Ortega’s idea to arm paramilitaries to better enable Nicaragua’s security forces to retake towns and universities that the students had occupied. It immediately brought George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” to mind, with its cautionary tale of revolutionaries eventually becoming the very “pigs” they had once railed against.
I had heard that the government might soon begin to talk to the opposition to resolve the crisis and was keen to find out more, but first I had to deal with the bureaucracy. A few days after my arrival I went to see the government fixers who were supposed to be coordinating my official engagements.
Two minutes into the meeting at the National Cinematheque, it became clear that none of the sequences I had requested to produce had been set up. The fixers told me that Ortega’s wife and current vice-president, Rosario Murillo, had to personally grant permission for such things and that, given the delicate political climate, she had been unable to do so.
I reminded them that they had already confirmed to me in writing that my filming could go ahead. But they gave exactly the same answer: “It’s up to Rosario Murillo”. When I asked why a vice president was taking an interest in such a relatively insignificant matter they just looked at each other, shrugged and then changed the subject to ask what I thought about Nicaraguan coffee. This frustratingly inconclusive meeting seemed to be over, but then, just as I was leaving the office, I heard one of them mention that Ortega was scheduled to give a speech to the Sandinista party faithful that afternoon.
Three hours and 10 security checks later, I was 50 metres away from a stage on which Ortega and Murillo were due to commemorate the 85th anniversary of Augusto Sandino’s death. Among the audience, I spotted a number of leading officials from the security forces, including some I knew had been investigated by the expelled UN Human Rights Commission for alleged human rights abuses. I had just finished filming them when the music swelled and Ortega and Murillo came in to loud applause.
Ortega spoke for 45 minutes, with long pauses between phrases and with occasional hard-to-decipher asides to himself. It was as if he were talking in slow-motion or with a speech impediment and all in all it was one of the more peculiar speeches that I had ever heard a national leader deliver.
At times, some in the audience appeared bored and restless, although at the first hint of humour, the party faithful laughed with dutiful enthusiasm. What jokes there were seemed directed mostly at the media and protesters. When Ortega announced that in three days’ time he was starting negotiations to deal with the crisis, but without any media or crowds of people present, the audience cheered uproariously and most of the local journalists present looked to the floor. With so many of their number in jail, it was not really a laughing matter.
I was not finding things that easy either. Although I managed to obtain a guided tour with a Sandinista student leader around one of the universities that had been occupied by protesters, I would spend the next two weeks waiting for the government to grant a series of interviews that never took place.
The day after my university visit I was called by my government fixers who told me that my requested interview with President Ortega was still waiting for approval – and that was the last time I heard from them, officially. From then, my numerous calls and messages would go unanswered. However, unidentified “minders” started appearing as I began to reach out to other Nicaraguans who might be able to shed light on what had been happening.
One of them was Luis Miguel Najarro, a feisty former Sandinista who had fought against the Contras in the 1980s and whose father had been a close associate of Anastasio Somoza, the dictator deposed by Ortega’s 1979 revolution. Luis Miguel had defied his father and joined the revolution, fighting for years in the jungle against the Contra-insurgency. But today he is one of Ortega’s fiercest critics.
Luis Miguel met me in the colonial city of Leon. Like the capital’s airport, it used to be thronging with tourists but was now comparatively empty. He carried with him a certificate of military service to help him talk his way out of any encounters with the police, who were everywhere on the streets.
“Animal Farm is indeed a good reference to understand what’s happened in this country,” he said to me as we drove through successive roadblocks.
Luis Miguel told me he had been protesting against “Ortega’s right-wing policies” for years when he joined the April 2018 demonstrations. He had many issues with the government. He claimed, for example, that Ortega and his associates had been able to seize control of the economy by creating companies from which they directly benefited. This, he said, was due to huge multi-billion dollar loans from Venezuela.
“In spite of Nicaragua getting subsidised oil from Venezuela at extraordinarily low prices, Ortega’s own oil distribution company sells it to the Nicaraguans at the highest price in the whole region. He’s made a fortune. It’s not for this that I and thousands of others fought!”
It was one of several similar such claims about the regime’s malfeasance I was to hear over the next couple of weeks. You don’t have to dig very deep in Nicaragua to find people critical of the government – even though for many, speaking out has come at a cost, either in terms of their own safety or because they were once loyal supporters of the Sandinista revolution and letting go of old loyalties is not always easy.
They were criticisms I would have loved to have put directly to President Ortega or his officials, but by now the authorities were ignoring me officially whilst covertly keeping a very close watch on our movements.
As we began to put this programme together – gathering material to explain what had been happening over the past months and filming secretly at times to evade our minders – I was hooked up with the clandestine student movement within the country and in neighbouring Costa Rica to which many of them had fled.
I was blindfolded to go to the first interview in a safe house and I even had to cross the border with Costa Rica on foot to avoid our footage being impounded. Many people spoke to us, as you will see in the film – some of them with their faces covered, some more brazenly – but almost all with a tale to tell about the state-sponsored repression that had come hard on the heels of the 2018 protests. Eventually, we were simply beginning to attract too much attention and it was clear it was time to leave.
Two weeks after I left in March 2019, protesters took the streets again and once more the police response was brutal. Another two people were killed. Meanwhile, talks to resolve the crisis have limped on with the government refusing for the most part to meet opposition demands. Now a year since the protests began, a country that was once proud of its revolutionary credentials in standing up to authoritarianism, seems to have once again become a police state.