Nicaragua: A Vandalic Granny against the Invisible Men

Miriam del Socorro Matus (Doña Coquito) at her home after being released from jail. Photo: Ivan Olivares / Confidencial


“Dona Coquito”, provider of water to demonstrators, as well as Dona Flor and marathoner Alex Vanegas, have become symbols of the rebellion.


By Jose Luis Rocha  (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Why does a government that has more than 20,000 guardians of (dis)order—between the Police and the military—and several thousand paramilitaries need to detain with an excessive use of force, as if it were Osama Bin Laden resurrected, a 78-year-old lady that was doing nothing more than providing water to participants in the protest demonstrations?

Dona Coquito went to the marches to give away small bags of water from whose sale she usually obtains her income. That is why she was stopped last weekend by a police squad, no less than five, maybe as many as ten furious and uncoordinated officers. However, she has not proclaimed anything. She does not ask for anything. She does not raise her hand as a sign of protest. Never has she uttered a word against the regime in public. She simply distributes water to the thirsty protestors. Even when interviewed about her detention, she did not throw curses at the regime. Her story only adheres strictly to the facts: “they call me a vandalic old lady and threw me in the pick-up truck like a pig.”

Dona Coquito, provider of water to protestors, along with dancer Dona Flor and marathon runner Alex Vanegas, have become symbols of the rebellion. Almost dragging her “huipil” (native dress), Dona Flor was pushed to a police patrol and then to the feared El Chipote interrogation prison for dancing folklore in the marches against the government. Marathoner Alex Vanegas, who at his 62 years tours the country calling for the release of political prisoners, already has two arrests.

Three characters of the rebellion. They are not leaders. God forbid—they would say—such pretension. They only provide water, dance and run. Three activities that terrorize the wealthy family entrenched in its gigantic housing complex that includes cooking service with an a-la-carte menu.

How have these seemingly innocuous people and activities have become famous? In his retrospective book, Liquid Generation, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman states that “celebrities are known because they are talked about a lot, but even people with the most beneficial ideas must make a name for themselves if they want their proposed ideas to be read, heard or debated with seriousness. Internet dismantled many of the barriers erected in the past around access to the public sphere, which in too many cases amounted to informal censorship. It was not possible to appear in public if one had not earned the favors of a television channel (…). These barriers, these rigid restrictions imposed on access to the public sphere, are already a reminder of the past.”

Dona Coquito, Dona Flor and Don Alex are some of the “ordinary people” that have with courage and grace become the protagonists of the April 19th Movement. These are people motivated by their values and catapulted by events—repression, first of all—to the eye of the hurricane and the great scenarios of politics. Some 30 years ago they would have been nothing more than an anecdote that perhaps would have circulated from word of mouth. Today, they are three colossus of the rebellion. Social networks have made them visible and audible. An experiment is enough to prove it: by writing “Nicaraguan marathoner” in google, the first 21 entries refer to Alex Vanegas. He is the Nicaraguan marathon runner par excellence.

These three ordinary people do not lead anything. They do not aspire to any ministry, embassy or other perks. No manifesto has come out of their pens and up until a week ago they had not set a foot in a television studio. Nevertheless, they are champions of the movement. Both, the aforementioned actors and the university students appeared first in social networks and from there they jumped to the television channels: they debuted on the miniscule screens of cell phones before reaching the television screens. In some way they were “voted” in the social networks and identified by the regime as dangerous people.

On the other corner are their rivals: the paramilitaries, superheroes of the regime. They are not only the antipodes because of their support for Ortega and his brutal methods. They are their opposite because they cover their faces. If Dona Coquito, Dona Flor and Don Alex are effective because they are famous, the paramilitaries draw their strength from their anonymity. They are the invisible men. Their hoods do not only make them unknown to the rest of citizens. Their function is to make them unknown among themselves.

Philip Zimbardo, a US psychologist specialized in human behavior and particularly on how good people can be induced to pernicious behavior, conducted an experiment in 1969: he dressed a group of girls with hoods and robes like those of the Ku Klux Klan and placed them in front of another group without disguise or any other concealment to which he gave labels with their names. He asked both groups to supply electrical shocks to their rivals. The result was that those who operated in anonymity inflicted more prolonged and therefore more painful discharges. Their lack of “individuality” allow them to distance themselves from factors that normally inhibit socially despicable behavior. Edward Diener, also a psychologist, argued that lack of individuality reduces self-awareness and therefore reduces access to internal norms of behavior.

The April rebellion, which has lasted until October, has two opponents: those who operate with their faces and chests exposed, and those who hide under hoods to be unknown to the public in general and to themselves. Those that show themselves and those that hide.

One side acts moved by compassion. The other commits crimes that they do not want to confess even to themselves. However, the thousands of paramilitaries that hide their identity and place their consciousness in mute have not been able to intimidate the opposition. And in contrast, the regime feels insecure if a bare-faced 78 year old woman is circulating in the streets providing water. Who said “fear”?