Carlos admits he’s on the wrong side, and he repeats this realization five times during our conversation. ”I know I’m on the wrong side: I know it, and my wife knows it. It makes me ashamed,” he states. For three years, Carlos – whose name we’ve changed to protect his identity – has been working in the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute. Prior to the socio-political crisis that erupted in April, he would attend the massive government gatherings only to commemorate important dates. “I very happily attended two July 19th celebrations (marking the anniversary of the revolutionary victory). My third time was this last July, but this time I attended with shame,” he tells us.
“I felt bad being in that plaza, and holding up a flag bathed in blood,” he affirms. Carlos’ discomfort stems from the government repression exercised against hundreds of thousands of protesting citizens, a repression that has left a confirmed toll of 325 dead, another 2,000 wounded, dozens missing, and more than 400 political prisoners languishing in the jails of the prison system.
For eleven years, Daniel Ortega has imposed an authoritarian government, reducing the spaces for opposition. The civic rebellion tore away his control of the streets, and he now is attempting to reassert it by criminalizing protest at the same time that he increases the mobilizations of his party.
In September alone, the government held eight marches in Managua and multiple caravans in the departments.
Carlos was obligated to participate in all the mobilizations
“I tried to refuse once, but a workmate told me that if I did, I was going to be viewed as a traitor. I had to listen to him,” Carlos comments.
According to him, the majority of the workers are forced to attend, and if they complain, they’re fired. They don’t discuss these things in the office, “because the walls have ears.” He’s aware, that they go out on the streets to “boycott” the “blue and white’s” – the citizens who have organized themselves and risen up against the regime.
The image of public employees has been tarnished
On the street, many Nicaraguans have a negative perception of the state functionaries. According to the latest CID Gallup poll carried out from Sept. 6 – 18, 65% of Nicaraguans believe that public employees have gotten their jobs through influence trafficking; only 21% believes that they’re contracted for their capabilities.
In addition, 54% believe that the public employees don’t have a service mentality, and 68% admit that they’ve given a state employee a “tip” to receive better service.
“To be a government employee now even makes you a target of insults and name-calling. State employees should serve the public and not a specific government. But during this period, the public service function has been completely destroyed; in saying this, I’m referring to the fact that what’s being imposed and what prevails is party loyalty, above one’s real function as a worker,” criticizes Gonzalo Carrion, legal director of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (Cenidh).
For his part, Carlos states that working for the Social Security Institute is complicated. “People are focused on gossip, on ‘ratting each other out.’ And after all that happened in April and the whole massacre, it’s gotten worse,” he relates. However, for now he has no other job prospects.
Since the protests erupted, at least 347,000 Nicaraguans have lost their jobs according to data from the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (Funides).
“I’d like to leave, run away and stop working for a government that’s corrupt, inefficient and murderous, but my hands are tied,” Carlos laments. “And if I put in my letter of resignation, I may not even receive my severance pay,” he adds. Family and personal debts have chained him down.
Carlos complains about having to participate in the obligatory pro-government marches. “There are a few who are fanatics and love wasting their time. But many of us aren’t in agreement. You’re out there risking your life, you’re there because you have to be, you’re being watched and if you say “no”, you can be fired,” he sums it up.
According to the CID Gallup poll, 58% of Nicaraguans believe that the salary of a public employee depends on their “contacts”, and 55% feel that their level of honesty is “little to none.” Six of every ten Nicaraguans feel that those who work in the government institutions don’t respect the Constitution.
Carlos’ wife has asked him to resign. She wants her home to be peaceful, even if he earns less. Carlos says that he’s tried.
“My wife doesn’t know, but I’ve looked for work elsewhere. One day I went to a photocopy place and printed out some twenty copies of my resume. I left these copies with a number of companies in hopes that they’d call me and I could leave this job that’s making me sick,” he says.
Carlos is tense. We meet in a Managua shopping center, but he doesn’t stop looking all around. He’s afraid that someone will recognize him, and asks that we go somewhere else. He says that on the street he feels he’s being followed, and he assures us that his telephone is being bugged because “sometimes it makes a strange noise.”
“Do you consider yourself a hostage of the government?”
“I’ve never looked at it that way, but you could say that. If I don’t obey, they’ll put me on a “list”. And if I’m on that list, they could fire me. The only thing I can do is obey their orders.”
“What’s your plan?”
“Honestly – to keep going. Although I’m also giving out my resume to other places. Things are tough. Another option would be to go to Costa Rica.”
The telephone rings and Carlos answers it. He talks for more than ten minutes, then returns and excuses himself. “I have to go back to work. They could get suspicious,” he states. He heads for the nearest bus stop and is lost to view among the taxis waiting at the exit.
Andrea: “We’re the next victims”
Andrea, 30, has been working for four years in the Ministry of Education. She grew up in a Sandinista home, hearing about the revolution and Daniel Ortega. During her childhood and teen years, she identified with the red and black Sandinista party flag, and she was proud to be a member of the Sandinista Youth, (Juventud Sandinista 19 de Julio). She studied, graduated, and when the opportunity arose to apply for a position in the Ministry of Education, she only had to present the recommendation of the political secretary from her neighborhood.
“To me, Daniel was the figure that represented Sandinismo. I never imagined anyone else heading up the Sandinista Front, even though I understood that a process should exist for passing along control to the next generation. I couldn’t imagine this, because for me Daniel had carried the party on his shoulders when no one else thought it was worth a peso,” she tells us.
Since April, Andrea’s image of Ortega has changed. “We identify with that drawing in which Daniel Ortega is holding a gun to the head of a state employee. That’s how we feel: we’re the next victims, and we have to save ourselves,” she explains.
News of the first death from the government repression destroyed Andrea’s admiration for Ortega and unleashed a bitter taste for Rosario Murillo, his wife and Nicaragua’s vice president. “They need to leave power,” she thought. “They can’t continue to represent the FSLN.”
At Andrea’s workplace, the atmosphere also changed. Her boss, previously understanding, began acting like a soldier for Murillo.
“When the looting began, my boss told us that we had to stay and guard the Ministry of Education. I refused, and he exploded. He said: “Excellent! I’m glad to see who are the ones who don’t raise their hands, because tomorrow, when this shit hits the fan, I want to see who’s ready to die at my side.” [My office mates] and I was frozen. This person thought that I should die for the Ministry of Education, for a government that was doing something that wasn’t right,” she recalls.
According to Andrea, of the thirty employees in her office, only four are in agreement with the government’s new orientations, which have included suspending projects and even restricting internet connections. Instead of this, they have to serve shifts at the Managua traffic circles.
“People see us at the roundabouts, and they call us toadies, but they don’t understand that the majority are their under duress. We don’t want to do it, but we have debts to pay,” Andrea justifies her actions.
She also affirms that she and several of her office mates are tired. “To have them tell you that you have to go on a march isn’t easy. And it’s not easy to resign either, and just be in limbo with three children and a house you’ve recently bought. I understand that we should all resign, but it’s not all that easy,” she maintains.
“Who obligates you to go to the traffic circles?”
“In all the government ministries, the political aspect is overseen by the Sandinista youth coordinators. There are usually two of them. In the current situation, even Salvador Vanegas [the President’s advisor on education] must heed their orders. In our case, they’re two young guys who’ve been in the offices since 2011. They’re the ones who organize this.”
“So, they order you to go to the rotundas?”
“Before August, they would tell my boss and later he’d give us the schedules. Now they do it directly.”
Andrea says that during the first months of the crisis, going to the roundabouts wasn’t obligatory, but since June the orientation changed. Now, according to the schedules set out, a Russian-made bus comes to take them there, “be it raining, thundering or lightning.” Their mission, they’re told, is to support “President Ortega’s peace mission”. This protest is counted as part of their work day.
According to the agreements made, they need to arrive one hour previously. They’re always watched, sometimes by two lines or roped off areas with members of the Sandinista Youth. Other times they’re guarded by the riot police, who don’t let them leave until their time is up.
The coordinators, Andrea reveals, are very well-paid employees. “They have their homes in Ciudad Doral and their salary is over 22,000 cordobas a month (US $684). They’re loyal to the party, or more exactly, to Rosario Murillo. Their discipline is really impressive. In our group on the WhatsApp site, they’ve told us that we should denounce the “coup promoters” because they don’t deserve to have this job,” she relates.
To smile or not to smile
One Sunday afternoon in October, there’s a concentration of people at the roundabout known as El Gueguense. About forty people are there under two large canopies that shield them from the rain. Only a few of them are on the outside edges of the roundabout getting wet while they wave the flags of the Sandinista Front.
Those underneath the canopies have long faces. The atmosphere only improves a little when a pick-up truck from the Managua mayor’s office arrives to pass out dry t-shirts, caps and plastic capes to keep dry.
Andrea says that in the roundabouts she puts on her worst face. She argues that she can’t be a hypocrite and show joy for something that’s simply causing annoyance. Her workmates have similar attitudes, and the coordinators of the Sandinista youth have already asked them to be more enthusiastic.
“In the famous marches, they tell us that we should carry posters with messages alluding to peace or demanding justice, but it’s difficult to really feel it. What happens in the blue and white marches is completely different. There, people go whole-heartedly. They jump, they hop, they smile, they hug each other. The thing is that their feelings really come from their hearts, because it’s for a noble cause. In the government marches, they give us prefabricated signs to hold,” she compares.
Andrea feels that right now there’s no one person that represents her. Nevertheless, she feels some affinity for people like Socorro Matus, better known as “dona Coquito”, the marathon runner Alex Vanegas, or the population of the indigenous neighborhood of Monimbo that became a symbol of resistance in this peaceful revolution.
“The bishops also represent me. Even some of my workmates who aren’t Catholic recognize the important work that they’ve done, in taking the lead in everything that’s happened to us in these months,” she assures.
At the Ministry of Education, Andrea and her office mates continue coming to work to “do nothing”. They can’t even put USB memory sticks into their computers. In each area, the boss’ assistants keep watch over the employees: checking to see if they go to the roundabouts and fulfill their three or four obligatory hours. She notes that some of the employees have gotten sick because of the pressure. But the shifts haven’t been shortened.
“What do you think of Daniel Ortega now?
“He’s a dictator and an assassin – a coward.”
“What do you think will happen to the FSLN?”
“I was talking with my boyfriend, and I said to him that the FSLN had died, just like Somoza’s party was left dead and buried. That’s the future of the party. The day that Daniel falls, Sandinismo is going to go down with him. He and Rosario have taken it upon themselves to eliminate it.
Dozens of denunciations at the Cenidh human rights office
Daniel Ortega’s government has obligated the state workers to take shifts as demonstrators at the traffic circles of the capital, so that the “blue and white” demonstrators can’t occupy these areas. Since September, the script repeats itself every day in Managua. In the towns in the rest of the country, there are small mobilizations every weekend.
Gonzalo Carron, legal director of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (Cenidh), feels that the absolute control of government and the party orders issued to the public employees have destroyed their public function, because party loyalty is imposed above and beyond service to the citizens.
Cenidh has received dozens of denunciations from state workers forced to resign because they’ve been blackballed as “coup plotters”. They’ve also received complaints from functionaries who’ve been pressured and forced by their superiors to stand out in the rain or to defend their jobs by serving the political party.
“The state workers can’t stay in their jobs unless they show party loyalty, although there may well be functionaries or employees who don’t agree. One thing for certain: the base of support has eroded, but they’re also worn out from marching and being obligated to go out on the streets,” he warns.
Carrion assures that Daniel Ortega’s regime has assaulted the public institutions. In his judgement, the majority are functioning as a barracks for the Sandinista Front.
The public employees, he adds, are not exempt from the systematic and serious human rights violations that Ortega’s regime is committing. A recent investigation on the part of Confidencial revealed that the government is violating at least 18 of the 30 human rights violations contemplated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“They’re running a unique risk and are obligated to become instruments of repression. There are some that have done so of their own free will and have even joined paramilitary groups. The person who hasn’t done this for pleasure is the person who has suffered more. Participating in counter-marches, being an instrument to defend a government you’re not in sympathy with and exposing yourself to that kind of risks, is a violation of your rights,” denounces Carrion.