What’s Happened to the Icons of Nicaragua’s Civic Protests?

Left to right: Miriam Matute, known as dona Coquito; Flor Ramirez; and marathon runner Alex Vanegas. Photo: Carlos Herrera, Franklin Villavicencio / Niu

Without this being their intention, Alex Vanegas, Flor Ramirez and Dona Coquito became symbols of the civic rebellion. As a result, they’ve been persecuted by the dictatorship. In the last few months, they’ve been besieged, beaten up and jailed.


By Keyling T. Romero (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – The last time that Alex Vanegas, 63, ran through the streets of Managua was last November 2nd. That day he put on his white athletic shoes, a blue and white shirt with shorts of the same color, and left together with Flor Ramirez – known as the patriotic dancer – for the Milagro de Dios [“God’s Miracle] Cemetery.

There, they visited the tombs of Matt Romero and Orlando Cordoba, both teenagers who were killed by the Ortega regime. They also paid their respects by the graves of the family of six that perished in a fire last June in the Carlos Marx neighborhood of Managua.

That action led the police officials to arrest him for supposedly disturbing the public order. Nearly one hundred days have passed since then, during which Alex Vanegas is currently locked up in the La Modelo prison, enmeshed in a murky judicial process.

Marathon runner Alex Vanegas, hours before being arrested for “disturbing the public order”. Photo: EFE / Niu

Alex became a well-known figure at the beginning of May 2018, when he began to run as a means of protest: first as a way of supporting the students at the barricades, and later, during the marches, as a way of protesting the killings.

In that month, Miriam del Socorro Matus, known as Dona Coquito, also became a well-known personality. She was an elderly woman of 78 who would give out little bags of cold water from her store to the women who came to demand justice outside the “Our Lady of Fatima” National Seminary where the National Dialogue was being held.

Still later, the figure of Flor Ramirez rose to prominence. She’s also an elderly woman who would go to the protest marches in the traditional dress known as a huipil. The three became symbols of the civic struggle, causing them to also become targets of the dictatorship.

Flor Ramirez was attacked recently in the San Judas neighborhood. She stated that she was struck in the face and head, and the beating caused her to lose consciousness for several hours. Her last recollections were from 7:30 at night on January 22. Although she doesn’t remember much about how she was beaten up, she’s sure that the perpetrators were Sandinista sympathizers, since she’d already received threats.

Flor Ramirez. Photo: La Prensa

“I was out of it, totally out of it, and so I just started walking. When I came to my senses, I was in the area called El Zumen (in the west part of Managua). I don’t know what route I took out of there, but I left the area almost running and just kept walking the whole way here (her neighborhood, Waspan Norte). I wasn’t conscious of what I was doing. It didn’t occur to me to flag down a car, I just walked and walked and walked,” she told the newspaper La Prensa.

The vendetta against her began several months ago. According to her assertions, men on motorcycles have chased her, she’s been threatened in the street, and the National Police have even detained her. The last time this happened was in September, when she and dona Coquito were arrested for participating in a march.  She states that on that day a police official told her: “if you don’t shut up, I’m going to put a bullet in you, and you’re going to disappear.”

In the face of these threats, Flor has opted to protest in the few spaces left to her. She’s not using her folklore costume anymore, the one that made her a popular figure, because she fears being arrested. The same has occurred with Coquito. A week ago she confessed to feeling depressed, because officially it’s a crime to protest. She also stated that she’d been greatly affected by the arrests of journalists Miguel Mora and Lucia Pineda Ubau and by the exile of more than 50 Nicaraguans who work in the communications media.

Dona Coquito’s health has deteriorated

“I’m feeling very low. They’ve lowered my morale – not because I’m afraid, but because we can’t talk anymore with any of the media outlets. We can’t say what we think, what we want. All of this has made me very ill, very exhausted; I feel like I have no worth. Every day I feel worse for not being able to struggle, for not being able to go out and march. The marches gave me strength, they gave me courage. And at times I wish I could die because I’m not out struggling in the marches, which is what I love,” she told the journalist David Quintana.

Since the beginning in the protests, dona Coquito has received support from the self-organized citizens. Singer-songwriter Carlos Mejia Godoy even wrote a song inspired by her.  However, becoming an icon of the civic protests has caused tension in her family.  She recounts that two of her children have stopped speaking to her, and in her neighborhood they point the finger at her, because the majority of her neighbors are Sandinista sympathizers.

“I’ll fight for this youth that I love so much, and if it’s my lot to die for them I’ll die, but Nicaragua will be free,” assures the so-called “grandmother” of the demonstrators.

Of the three, Alex is probably the one having the hardest time. First, he was detained for two months in the jail cells of the infamous El Chipote interrogation prison. There, his son Byron Vanegas says, he was beaten by the police and was kept isolated in a dark cell. This has caused him visual problems. Later, he was transferred to the prison known as La Modelo, and there they’ve even forbidden him to exercise. On February 10, he’ll mark one hundred days in prison.

“His case has been controversial, his lawyer Maria Oviedo explains, because there’ve been a number of anomalies. To begin with, his detention in itself is illegal, and he’s even been accused of being in a state of contempt for not attending his hearing before the judge, even though he was locked up at the time.

“In the first hearing, the judge decided behind closed doors to declare don Alex in contempt, asserting that he hadn’t presented himself at the appointed hearing. I presented a writ, but she said that she had no knowledge that Alex was in custody, Oviedo affirms.

Last Wednesday, when the initial hearing was resumed, the presiding judge of Managua’s Third Local Penal Court, Nalia Ubeda, retired from the chamber and sent the secretary to say that the hearing had been suspended for reasons of a higher order,” said Oviedo.

Like Dona Coquito, Alex Vanegas has also offered his life in honor of the civic struggle. “If they’re going to kill me for running, then let them kill me,” he stated months before being arrested.