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Column: In Nicaragua, Shootings, Roadblocks as a Presidential Crisis Hits All

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    In this May 26, 2018 photo, the Spanish word for "Murderer" covers a mural of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, as part of anti-government protests demanding his resignation in Managua, Nicaragua. As of June 6, the non-governmental Nicaraguan Human Rights Center says the death toll since the start of the unrest in April is 129. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix) Esteban Felix

For the Valley News
Published: 6/16/2018 10:20:06 PM
Modified: 6/16/2018 10:20:08 PM

If you find it hard to shake your sense that something is terribly wrong with our country when students and teachers face a growing fear of gun violence in their schools, you can probably imagine how Nicaraguans have been feeling lately. There, it’s as though someone called the police to protect their students, and the police joined forces with pro-government vigilantes to shoot and kill those students. Confirmed deaths in demonstrations since April number well over 120, mainly college and university students.

This nightmare began when older Nicaraguans protested a decree by President Daniel Ortega that increased social security taxes and decreased benefits. The unrest grew quickly into a nationwide protest of Ortega’s authoritarian rule after the government responded with violence against students who joined the older protesters.

Some of us are old enough to remember when President Ronald Reagan sponsored violence in Nicaragua. He opposed the Sandinista government, which had overthrown dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 and then developed a warm relationship with the Soviet Union. So the Reagan administration provided support to the Contras, who were fighting the Sandinista government. This support defied the U.S. Congress and produced a scandal sometimes called “Irangate.” It also fueled a “low-intensity war,” as some strategists in the U.S. called it. And when the U.S. invaded Grenada in October 1983, many of us protested because we feared our government might intensify the war in Nicaragua with an invasion.

We didn’t invade, but the Iran-Contra scandal got its Middle Eastern seasoning because the low-intensity war, coordinated out of the White House by Oliver North — recently elected president of the NRA — involved secretly funding the Contra war against the Sandinista government with money from our country’s sale of military hardware to Iran.

U.S. presidents, especially Republicans, have long been willing to intervene in the affairs of Latin American and Caribbean nations. But even though Vice President Mike Pence and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Hailey have criticized Ortega’s brutal use of the police and paramilitaries in Nicaragua, President Donald Trump has said virtually nothing about it. One likely explanation: Putin’s Russia has been supportive of Ortega. They have provided, among other things, military equipment.

It’s not been easy to get a feel for what has been happening in Nicaragua, maybe because Ortega hasn’t welcomed journalists from outside the country or because Trump hasn’t seemed to be interested. But my daughter runs a small and vulnerable nonprofit in Nicaragua, Artists for Soup, and a friend of hers provides updates almost daily.

Revealing how even the lives of Nicaraguans whose homes are outside the troubled cities are changed by the presidential crisis, he describes a tense, roundabout trip to Managua from his home in the countryside and back. Normally, it would be a three-hour round-trip on the bus. But on June 4 it required several more hours by bus and on foot, including a last leg, walking through Masaya.

“A little stroll of five miles on pavement under tropical sun,” he writes of that walk, “past literally dozens of roadblocks for every front and side road in the city, broken glass spread about to stop motorcycles getting past where cars cannot. In the past three days there have been eight confirmed deaths during protests in Masaya and perhaps as many as 11. Almost all the violence has been at night, but Masaya’s police are not usually out on the streets by day out of fear, as they are despised by much of the populace for the murders of protesters.”

This takes place after the violence is generally thought to have diminished, and a more recent report says roadblocks have increased nationwide in response to the violence in Masaya. One result is gas and food shortages in several areas. Nicaraguan business leaders, the Catholic Church and protesters called for a 24-hour nationwide work strike, beginning at midnight on June 13. It appears to have begun peacefully. In addition, the Catholic bishops announced an effort to revive negotiations between the government and its opponents on June 15. The clergy promised to reintroduce their mediation offer to Ortega, which they presented more than a week ago.

The violence and instability in Nicaragua illuminate a challenge faced by citizens of the U.S., given our predicament. Despite the global chaos our president threatens daily and our need to resist it, millions of us remain, so far, essentially unaffected by it. Few people living now in Nicaragua are untouched by their presidential crisis.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at

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