When President Daniel Ortega announced a reduction in social service programs along with an increase in related taxes back in April, the proposed rollback tipped the scales for a public already burdened by more than a decade of government actions aimed at consolidating power. Nicaraguans reacted with outrage, and took to the streets and university campuses. The demonstrators, largely youths and young adults, were demanding democratic reforms through peaceful protest. Yet they were met with fierce, even lethal, force as Ortega’s government resorted to violence to squelch any dissent and re-establish its authority. In the first four days of protests, 25 civilians were killed by government forces, including Álvaro Manuel Conrado Davila, a 15-year-old student from the Jesuit Instituto Loyola in Managua, and Ángel Gohana, a journalist who was reporting live via Facebook. At least 67 people were injured by rubber bullets or beatings, and 43 people were reported missing, either kidnapped or murdered.
Within days, Ortega reversed his decision, yet the demonstrations have continued and have sparked a broader movement to address the history of corruption, repression, and injustice under the current regime’s leaders—they have dismantled checks and balances; revamped the judiciary and national assembly; manipulated mayoral races and possibly fixed last year’s general election; and implemented constitutional revisions, such as the elimination of term limits. It is the largest popular uprising in the country since the Civil War ended almost 30 years ago, and as the rallies and campus occupancies have persisted, so has the state-sponsored violence targeting demonstrators and their defenders, including Catholic clergy. In reaction, Ortega has denied responsibility, denounced the Church even as bishops and cardinals have worked to mediate the conflict, and characterized the protesters as “criminals,” “delinquents,” “coup-plotters,” and “terrorists.” (A recent “anti-terror” law allows almost any type of political dissent to be classified as terrorism.) Now in his third consecutive term of office—he was president in the 1980s and voted out in 1990—he is intent on restoring “order” by fomenting chaos, and has authorized the ongoing crackdowns (as verified by several external sources).
LIFE-THREATENING AGGRESSION: The violence has surged and ebbed for months as parapolice and national law enforcement respond to protests by firing on civilians, breaking through protective barricades, ransacking churches, preventing medical personnel from reaching the injured and killed, and standing guard in town squares after the bloodshed. Such was the case at the Universidad Centroamericano (UCA), a Jesuit university in Managua, on May 27, when hooded men in pickup trucks fired a mortar at the main campus entrance where two security officers stood watch, the same location that was attacked when the government onslaught began on April 18. Though there were no casualties, UCA president Father José Alberto Idiáquez, S.J. issued a statement calling for peace and justice for those murdered by government forces.
On July 13, parapolice invaded the brick and barbed-wire barricades at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN), a major stronghold of the protest movement in the capital, driving approximately 200 students, equipped with only stones and homemade mortars to fight back, to the nearby Church of the Divine Mercy for safety and first aid. Though the students withdrew, the police followed them to the church, blocking the only exit, and firing on them in a siege that lasted 18 hours. It ended when high-ranking Catholic clergy negotiated for the students’ release.
This is now life in Nicaragua, from the capital of Managua to smaller cities and towns. Non-violent demonstrations are followed by lethal government force; mayhem, injuries, and deaths are followed by standoffs; negotiations are followed by arrests. Lack of cooperation can prove fatal. One family’s home was burned to the ground—while they were inside!—because they refused to allow it to be used as a sniper’s perch. Humanitarian groups, international media, and U.S. government agencies place the death toll between 300 and 450 since April. There have been more than 2,000 injuries, over 500 arrests, hundreds of disappearances, and possible evidence of clandestine graves. Though the protests have been largely non-violent, 19 police officers have also died.
THE INTERNATIONAL OUTCRY: The international community—from the United Nations, outside government agencies, and humanitarian organizations—has condemned the government crackdown in Nicaragua, calling for an immediate end to the violence, repression, use of parapolice, and Ortega’s resignation or early elections to replace him. In April, Pope Francis appealed for “an end to every form of violence and to avoid the useless shedding of blood.” A joint statement from the Provincial of the Jesuits’ Central American Province and the presidents of two Jesuit educational institutions in Nicaragua denounced the crackdown and defended the protesters, a position that has endangered Catholic clergy in the country, some of whom have received death threats.
In May, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) was permitted entry into the country, and issued a report documenting much of what is reported here. According to Amnesty International’s deputy director Catalina Jiménez, “The evidence shows a pattern of excessive, lethal use of force. This is state-sponsored violence and certainly many of the people fleeing now could be seen as in need of international protection.”
MIGRATION AND ASYLUM: The situation in Nicaragua is untenable, unpredictable, and hazardous—truly anyone living there is in danger. Since the unrest erupted, 23,000 Nicaraguans have migrated to neighboring Costa Rica—8,000 people have applied for asylum thus far, and 15,000 more have been given appointments for later registration—hosted by the more than 100,000 Nicaraguan families already living there. Immigration offices in Costa Rica are overwhelmed, processing an average of 200 asylum applications each day, their current capacity, though the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has offered support to raise their capacity to 500 applications per day. Meanwhile, there are over 700 refugees and asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras currently living in Managua who must now decide if, how, and where to journey in search of safety.
Comparatively fewer Nicaraguans are seeking asylum in the U.S., though the KBI has received some nationals with ties to the U.S. who hope to do so. It’s uncertain if the reception will be a welcoming one. In November, the Trump administration announced that it would not renew Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 2,500 Nicaraguans living in the U.S. for close to two decades. (TPS is an immigration status granted to individuals from countries in the throes of armed conflict or natural disaster, allowing them to live and work in the U.S.) On the other hand, in announcing that domestic and gang violence would no longer be considered grounds for asylum, Attorney General Sessions minimized the gravity of those grounds by specifically contrasting them with persecution by one’s government, exactly the situation Nicaraguan asylum seekers would be fleeing.
A group of lawmakers sent a bipartisan letter to the president asking for the reinstatement of TPS. It read in part: “Over the past three months, your administration has continuously spoken out against Daniel Ortega’s many abuses. [W]e believe it would be irresponsible to send these individuals to Nicaragua to face violence, chaos and oppression.” Despite the verbal condemnation, the administration has also been working with the Nicaraguan government since a week before the protests started, setting up a system to share travel documents in order to facilitate the eventual deportation of U.S.-based Nicaraguan citizens. TPS for Nicaraguans will end on January 5, 2019, and unless the program is reinstated for this group of immigrants, they will be in danger of being deported.
STANDING WITH NICARAGUANS: As more and more Nicaraguans flee the pervasive violence of their country, the Jesuit Migration Network (a consortium which includes the KBI) has offered aid, shelter, and accompaniment to those in need of pastoral support, protection, and solidarity, undoubtedly saving lives in the process. These KBI partners have been a source of news as well as alerts and updates about the most recent events, even as U.S. media outlets have failed to cover the crisis in Nicaragua thoroughly. We will continue to keep you informed, and we ask that our readers in the U.S. join us in supporting proposed bipartisan sanctions on the Nicaraguan government until the senseless violence ceases and a just political solution is forged. Please check out this month’s Call to Action to find out how to contact your senators to raise your voices and concerns: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/call-to-action-support-human-rights-in-nicaragua/. Thank you for your advocacy and support!