Three years ago, in April 2018, a social security reform sparked a civic uprising in different cities of Nicaragua. An attack on young and elderly people for holding peaceful demonstrations, in the city of León, created such outrage that it led to a nationwide movement demanding the resignation of Daniel Ortega as president.
The national protests grew, and the government’s repression intensified, bringing us to where we are now: a country facing the third year of economic recession, about a hundred political prisoners, more than 300 dead citizens, several media outlets confiscated or under siege, and 100,000 Nicaraguans living in exile.
Despite the challenges that distance implies, Nicaraguan exiles and members of the diaspora have dedicated time and effort to raise awareness about the political crisis that their country is under. Five of them, based in Europe, talked to us about their motivation for doing political activism.
They come from different backgrounds and take different approaches to their activism, but they all agree that what is happening in Nicaragua is painful enough to get them involved in a cause aimed at driving political and social change. These are their stories:
A feminist approach to activism
A politologist living in Austria, Teresa Gruber got involved in Nicaragua’s civic protests because “it was the most natural thing to do”. Her friends were locked up in a church while handing water to a group of mothers who protested against the government. “The threat was so immediate (…) so you just acted. The motivation was almost intuitive”, she explains.
As in other parts of Europe, Nicaraguans in Vienna organized actions in order to raise international awareness. “We held vigils, remembering the people who had been assassinated. We also organized sit-ins in very public places in Vienna, to make what was happening visible, even though Nicaragua is a very small country,” she recalls.
You may also want to read:
- With safety at risk, moving to The Netherlands was their only option
- Slang words and nicknames helped me understand Nicaragua’s political context
Teresa takes a feminist approach to activism, which comes from her upbringing in a feminist household, often surrounded by members of the autonomous women’s movement. “The demands that arose in 2018 already existed. The first people who suffered political persecution in Nicaragua were the feminists and the autonomous women’s movement,” Teresa says.
Based on her expertise in political science and human rights, Teresa explains some of the challenges faced by activists abroad: “the energy of a self convened protest is momentary, it is not a project built in the long term. The energy inside the political protest is quite simple, and that mobilizes. And to maintain that in the long term is very difficult,” she warns.
Teresa notes that geo-politically or economically speaking, Nicaragua is not relevant for Austria, and that there are other political crises nearby, which have become more relevant than the one in Nicaragua. Organizing people becomes more difficult because “you have to do it from an ethical perspective,” she explains.
Teresa argues that the purpose of a political protest is to create a moment in which people say “no” to a political structure or to injustice. “A protest doesn’t have the purpose of creating the (political) aftermath and these movements don’t have the responsibility of presenting a political project for the future”, she says.
For the future of Nicaragua, Teresa hopes for a political process that will bring change. A process “that will take into consideration the trauma of what happened in 2018, that will find real justice, or at least the truth”.
Knowledge, skills and contacts for a political cause
Santiago Urbina has spent the past 22 years living abroad due to his work in international affairs and strategic communications. Despite living away for so long, Nicaragua continues to be his center. Everything that happens in his homeland affects him, says Santiago, who is now living in Spain.
Before 2018, Santiago noticed that people in Nicaragua would lower their voice when criticizing the government, whether it be at home or in public. “It was impressive because when we are in a bar or a restaurant, we are loud by nature (…) whispering dissidence seems catastrophic to me. April gave a voice to all of us again,” he remarks.
Throughout his career, Santiago has developed a wide range of contacts, including international organizations, members of the European Parliament, and politicians. He believes that showing the world what is happening in Nicaragua is important, and his contacts were a useful tool to mobilize this need, which is how Santiago got involved in activism for democracy.
Santiago’s message has a double purpose: to demonstrate that the Nicaraguan political crisis is a matter of democracy and human rights, not left or right wing politics, and that justice is a peremptory necessity that did not surge in April 2018, but even before 1979, the year of Nicaragua’s revolution.
Currently, the most important aspect of Santiago’s activism involves advocating for Nicaragua with international institutions and governments around the world, including the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Parliament. He is also a member and facilitator of the International Relations Committee of the Unidad Azul y Blanco (UNAB).
Urbina considers that the international community agrees on what is needed for Nicaragua. “We see how the office of High Commissioner Bachelet clearly expressed the needs of the Nicaraguan people, in order to get out of this crisis,” he says.
And although there is talk about the lack of unity in the political opposition in Nicaragua, Santiago expresses his optimism about the unity of our society. “You can see that in towns and cities, although there is a lot of polarization, there is also a cry for permanent unity,” he notes.
Santiago believes that all the efforts that are being made for unity — which does not have to be perfect, but should involve goodwill — are necessary, and that is the key.
“There has to be justice, there has to be reparation, and there has to be non-repetition in Nicaragua, otherwise we are not going to get out of the cycle,” he warns.
A testimony that changed a life
Luis Montoya grew up with parents who taught him that education was the only way to get ahead, and that Nicaragua could move forward through education as well. His father used to tell him that he had nothing to leave him but a good education. That was his inheritance.
Luis was not involved in politics and preferred not to complain before the political crisis of 2018. Instead, he looked for ways to contribute to the development of education in Nicaragua from Spain, by teaching free courses and providing the information that wasn’t provided to him when he was a student in 2006.
“I specialize in structural engineering, and there was not a master’s degree on that topic in Nicaragua. Through cooperation projects that I found here in Spain, it was possible to set it up at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN-Managua). It’s one of the first master’s degrees in Nicaragua of that rank,” he recalls.
- We recommend: What do signs tell you about Nicaraguan society?
Luis realized he could no longer stay silent when he heard the news of the first protesters that were killed by the government in 2018. Informing foreigners about what is happening in Nicaragua has been important to him. Therefore, he has contributed to the cause by making documentaries about the political crisis, and by participating in events and projects related to the visibilization of the topic.
For instance, Luis attended an event in which mothers of Nicaraguan citizens killed by the Sandinista government participated. The conference took place at the University of the Balearic Islands, where he works as a teacher.
Luis recalls being speechless after hearing the group of women, known as “Mothers of April” (Madres de Abril, in Spanish) talk about the children they lost. Together with other activists and the university, they were able to put them in touch with Amnesty International, media outlets, and teachers of international law.
The experience completely changed Luis’s life. He says that his Spanish friends have even asked him to take it easy because he has gotten overwhelmed at times. However, telling the stories of the Mothers of April has had an impact. His friends can’t believe that “this is happening in the world, in this century”.
Precisely because of that reaction he says he can’t stay calm. “I cannot stop (raising awareness), my conscience doesn’t allow it,” he explains.
A commitment with the “Mothers of April”
Before the crisis of 2018 broke, Sara Henriquez dedicated herself to eradicating gender violence and protecting human rights. She was part of Mujeral en Acción, a feminist collective that for six years held socio-cultural activities and events, known as “Los y las calalas”.
One of the locations at which the events were held, a cultural bar-cafe called La Olla Quemada, located in the city of León, was besieged by the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega, and forced to close down.
Due to her work as an outspoken member of the feminist movement in León, Sara experienced the kind of political persecution that Teresa Gruber referred to in her interview, aimed at feminist activists. “You could see the repression coming,” Sara says.
She experienced it as early as 2017, when the riot police were sent to stop a protest that was organized by the feminist collective outside of the Heodra Hospital in León, in November 2017. The collective demanded an explanation on the death of a young, pregnant woman who died due to medical malpractice, in the context of a law that forbids abortion in Nicaragua, even when it’s for medical reasons.
Sara joined and participated actively in the protests that took place in April, witnessing the violence and repression first hand. In July 2018, she was invited to a meeting of human rights activists in New York and spoke about the situation of Nicaragua with members of the United Nations.
In the meeting, she shared what it was like to see the pain and the tears of mothers while attending the church service and funeral of Sandor Dolmus, a 15-year-old altar boy who was shot in the chest by paramilitaries in June 2018, in the city of León.
Sara was unable to go back to Nicaragua due to threats and defamation against her. She moved to Italy and was able to get in touch with other Nicaraguans due to contacts she had established through her activism.
She participated in the creation of SOSNicaragua-Italia, a network that has organized political activities throughout Europe. They have helped victims of Nicaragua’s State repression, and work on raising awareness of the situation of her country.
Sara has faced several challenges while living in Italy, such as the language barrier, an ocean of distance, and the Coronavirus pandemic, which has put a pause on some political activities. However, she feels a commitment with the Mothers of April and continues to join forces with other activists to have a greater impact in Europe.
“My driving force and commitment is with the people who’ve lost the most, the people who’ve lost everything — that is to lose their loved ones. We have to give them the hope that there will be justice. But above all, we have to rebuild the country. That is the hardest part of the challenge we face,” Sara says.
For Sara, unity is the way out of Nicaragua’s political crisis. “It mainly depends on unity and unity depends on us (…) We want a peaceful solution, and that peaceful solution is the presidential elections,” she concludes.
Advocating for political prisoners
Thelma Brenes got fully involved in political activism when her father, Carlos Brenes, became a political prisoner. He was illegally detained, so she immediately flew from her home in The Netherlands to Nicaragua. She was shocked to see what political prisoners and their families were going through.
Knowing that several families of political prisoners hadn’t been able to see their relatives in many months, Thelma traveled to Nicaragua without the slightest hope of seeing her father, but she was able to do so. She was marked by the experience.
Given her personal experience, Thelma’s activism focuses on supporting political prisoners and their families. She is also a member of the Coalition for Justice in Nicaragua. Her role is to serve as a “bridge” between Nicaraguans in The Netherlands and the Association of Relatives of Political Prisoners.
Thelma expressed that political prisoners are the first and most important thing for her. What she witnessed in Nicaragua was very strong. “The horrible things that the (political) prisoners go through, and the trauma that the families experience (…) It is a great injustice, and so I said: we have to recognize what they go through there,” she recalls.
In 2019, when her father was in prison, Thelma traveled to Brussels to speak to the Members of the European Parliament. She told them about the situation of political prisoners before they went on a mission to Nicaragua. She did the same with members of the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights in Washington.
“You don’t know if what you say is going to have an impact, but if you can help, you do it,” says.
Thelma also thinks that it is important to ensure that what is happening in Nicaragua at the moment is not forgotten or denied in the future. That’s why she has dedicated time to document in detail the case of her father so that she can build memory for future generations. “That’s fundamental for me,” she explains.
Ana María Sampson is a Communication Science student at the University of Amsterdam and member of our staff*