Past and Present Student Protest in Nicaragua

Students at Nicaragua’s largest public university UNAN. Photo: Carlos Herrera / Confidencial


Nicaragua’s modern-day university students are larger in number but face a greater challenge than their predecessors: they are facing off a bloodier dictatorship.


By José Luis Rocha  (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Nicaragua’s April uprising, largely spearheaded by university students, can be understood by comparing it to past student protests against the first two Somozas. As befits any historical comparison, there are differences that come to the fore.

The degree of insertion of Nicaraguan universities into the logic of capitalism is one point of contrast. Almost half a century ago, in April 1968, when Carlos Fonseca publicly encouraged students to engage in more militant protests tactics that went beyond the usual public proclamation of outrage, he attributed the lack of student activism to higher education’s cooptation by capitalism. 

Fast-forward to 2018 and capitalism is far more embedded into Nicaragua’s university system.  Nicaragua’s higher education system now has not two, but nearly fifty universities competing against each other. Some are obsessed with obtaining international accreditation, which they seek through publishing barely intelligible dissertations and graduating semi-literate PhDs.  

International university accreditation agencies measure quality by the numbers of graduates, study programs, bylaws, burocratic procedures, number of publications and other variables. Previously non-marketable, education has become a marketable commodity. Paradoxically, students today are earning diplomas with a price tag that does not compensate the salary prospects of a job market that does not place a premium on their credentials. As higher education becomes more commodified, its products become less valuable in the market. The more universities become like businesses, their diplomas are worth less in the job market.

Whether they like or understand it or not, university students today are playing this game. None of the groups nor spokesperson have questioned its’ underlying rules. Their fight has an immediate and separate goal: to end Nicaragua’s dictatorship. In this, they coincide with the first Anti-Somoza student movements in the forties and fifties, in that their goal was to prevent the reelection of the first Somoza. It was only after the formation of Marxist and Liberation Theology study groups that their scope widened to a struggle against capitalism itself.

The second point of contrast with the past is that the Anti-Somoza university students of the fifties, and more so the sixties and seventies, could point to a concrete horizon: the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc and revolutionary Cuba. Their political aspiration was (anti)systemic and concrete, their politics leading edge and not out-of-touch. Nicaraguan university student today seem content with achieving a representative democracy; a modest goal for their predecessors but unfortunately ambitious under the current circumstances.

Instead of facing off a state protected by a private army like the one the Somozas presided, Nicaragua’s modern-day utopian-less students have had to confront a mafia state. In times of trouble, Nicaragua’s FSLN mafia state draws on ex cadres, who it previously sidelined and abandoned, and provides them with weapons and license to kill. The effects are in plain sight. In the past, Somoza’s National Guard had limits. Not everything was permitted against peaceful demonstrations. Today, the scale of state repression baffled even experienced political analysts.

In his memorable message from April 1968, Carlos Fonseca numbered the students killed in the previous decade to 23. This figure included those killed in the traumatic massacre of July 1959. On July 23 1959, a platoon of National Guard soldiers fired live rounds against a student march in Leon and killed four students, a women and a young girl. Journalists at the time called it “a mass murder”. In the April 2018 uprising, 18 people were killed during the Mother Day’s march alone. The Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH) has counted 448 killed, the majority of which murdered by paramilitary and police forces. “Mass murder” seems to fall short to describe the current state of affairs.

The difference in the scale of past and current state brutality cannot be ignored. The simplistic explanation would be that Ortega is more bloody-minded than Somoza. There is a truth to the saying that individuals, especially those that can determine the course of history, make a difference in the quality of events. However, Luther’s Reformation cannot be explained without German nationalistic opposition to Rome’s pecuniary exactions nor can Hitler’s rise be understood without the widespread anti-Semitism of the day. Context is a determining factor in the unfolding of history. The difference between past and present contexts can provide us with some cues for greater understanding.

Curiously enough, you would think that in our global human rights era, supranational organizations would have significant dissuasive power. Yet, these organizations were not able to stop the killings even as they happened right under their noses. You would also think that at the speed in which news travels around the world, a speedy intervention by international bodies would be in order. But that didn’t happen. For the simple reason that international organization still operate with the slowness of the pre-digital era. The regime’s henchmen, on the other hand, operate swiftly and effectively because they are not burdened with moral scruples nor by establishing the facts.

Cases of international inaction abound in the region. In Honduras, for example, a string of journalists and environmentalists have been killed without serious repercussions to that country’s public authorities.

Heinous as they are, the killing of Honduran journalists has been in dribs and drabs. Nicaragua, by contrast, saw a series of massacres in a short time span. Why? One of the reasons for Ortega’s excess and Somoza’s restraint (by comparison) has to do with contextual factors specific to Nicaragua. I propose three explanations. The first is that the FSLN resembles a cult rather than a political party.  The students who confronted Somoza did not face a political leader with such a devout following. An FSLN cadre of today is part of a cult that demands nothing short of undying devotion; something that unscrupulous members of the party have always taken advantage of. The cult-like character of the FSLN endows that party’s rulers with unlimited power to act as judges and issue verdicts without trial or appeal.

Secondly, the FSLN ruling couple’s fear of large numbers should not be underestimated. Panic often leads to drastic responses. In 1950, they were only 494 university students out of 160,658 between 18 and 25 years of age. Five years later, in 1955, the number doubled to 840 students. Nevertheless, university students were still the exception rather than rule among the 174,487 youths at the time. They amounted to only one out of 200 youth between the ages of 18 to 25.

In 2014, there were 123,220 university students out of 1,283,174 youths between 15 and 24 years of age. This amounted to 20 university students per 200 youths in that age range, which I am using because it is the closest to the official 18 to 25 age category. In other words, Nicaragua today has a large number of university students. The past protests against Somoza required high school students to participate to reach significant numbers. In the April 2018 uprising, the small percent of university students willing to expose their lives was enough to shake a country as small as Nicaragua.

The numbers are also favorable to university students vis-a-vis the security forces. In 1956, the year when the first Somoza was killed and three years before the July 1959 massacre, there were 970 students. That year, the National Guard had 4,391 members. That amounted to 4.5 guardsmen per student and 349 per 100,000 inhabitants.  Sixty years later, the combined ratio of the police and soldiers per 100,000 people increased to 454. However, the ratio was now 4.4 university students for every police and soldier. This massive number of university students strikes fear in the heart of the Ortega regime.

Thirdly, digital networks platforms have played a key function in magnifying and divulging the protest. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and the thousands of blogs that have sprung up since the start of the uprising are much cheaper, faster and massive than the mimeographed flyers of the past. The captions and videos uploaded to these networks are (almost) inerasable and reach a far larger audience. They are less prone to state control than improvised public speeches. This is not to say that today’s university students do not use these forms of communication, as in fact, they do. However, digital networks now allow them to surpass spatial and temporal barriers. The National Guard could seize and burn flyers. WhatsApp messages, on the other hand, can reach cities in other continents before being detected by Nicaraguan state security officials.

Enclosed in their bunker, Nicaragua’s ruling couple quickly appreciated the convening capacity of digital media in the massive numbers of people marching against them. The fact that vice president Rosario Murillo referred to the protesters as “minute leftovers” is symptomatic of her fear. In her April 19 radio broadcast, she used the word “minute” five times in the first nine paragraphs. The scale of state repression, which amounted to state terrorism, was symptomatic of her and her husband’s panic.

Though larger in number, university students today face a more complex political scenario than their predecessors. History has imposed a toll of 400 killed on their shoulders. They are facing a dictatorship that has proven to be more brutal than Somoza. The Ortega-Murillo regime is hell-bent on persecuting and making an example of them. They have proven their bravery. Unlike the student movements from the 40s, 50s and 60s, they have a great communication tool in Facebook, Twitter and other digital network. Though there is no such thing as technological determinism, these digital networks have expanded their possibilities. We now know that these tools have a magnifying effect. It remains to be seen if they can also speed up the unfolding of events.