Left to right: activists Julio Martínez Ellsberg, Claudia Ochoa and George Henriquez hold a Nicaraguan flag in front of The Women’s Building in San Francisco on Sept. 6, 2018. Courtesy: Luis Calero

Nicaragua is in political crisis. Nicaraguans have been fighting the oppressive regime of President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo since April; so far 512 people have been killed according to the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights.

Nicaraguan activists in the Bay Area, led by Bay Area-based community organizer Amy Bank, held a series of conferences Sept. 5-6, to raise awareness and call for help from the American community. Panelists included Claudia Ochoa, a young student and activist; George Henriquez, a researcher and human rights activist for Nicaragua’s Afro-Caribbean communities; and Julio Martínez Ellsberg, an activist and the grandson of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers.

San Francisco State University hosted the Sept. 6 event in a conference room inside the Ethnic Studies and Psychology building. The panelists—starting with Henriquez and finishing with Martinez Ellsberg—went one by one and told their experiences in Nicaragua, offering a unique perspective on the current crisis.

Henriquez focused on the often overlooked narrative of Caribbean Coast Nicaraguans and their long history of oppression. “There are cultural differences between the Caribbean Coast and the Pacific Coast. Nevertheless, we are one country,” said Henriquez at the beginning of his talk. Ochoa reflected on how Ortega has suppressed freedom of expression and controlled the history taught in schools.

Martinez Ellsberg spoke about the impact of the youth, the students and social media in protesting Ortega. “Some of these students are in jail, these are friends that were part of the march about two weeks ago, and because their faces have already been in tables like these, denouncing the government … They were picked up, nobody knew where they were, except when we heard that they were in jail.”

It isn’t the first time the Central American country has fought a repressive dictatorship. Four decades ago, the Nicaraguan people—organized by the Sandinista National Liberation Front—overthrew the authoritarian government of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, starting the Sandinista Revolution.

Nicaraguan citizens protest the government of President Daniel Ortega in April 2018. Courtesy: Pamela Harris

“It is like a déjà vu,” said Daisy Zamora, a professor at SF State’s Ethnic Studies College, who was also a revolutionary in the Sandinista movement. “We are reliving this. And it is very hard, the time that we have in the world is not very long, and life goes on fast and having to endure something like this is terrible.”

Zamora—who was introduced by the panel’s organizers as a guest speaker—was part of the first insurrection in the Nicaraguan Revolution and was a mainstay on Radio Sandino, the Sandinistas’ clandestine radio. Eventually, she became vice-minister of culture in which she was part of many positive changes to the country, like the literacy campaign that started in 1980, the year after the triumph of the revolution.

She sees glaring similarities between the Somoza dictatorship and that of Ortega. “He’s acting like Somoza,” she said. “Repressing the youth, denying any kind of protest.”

The problems Nicaraguan people have with Ortega’s government are very similar to those of Somoza’s government more than 40 years ago, which is ironic given that Ortega and his wife were part of the Sandinista movement and fought for the overthrow of Somoza. Nonetheless, other former members of the Sandinista movement believe that what is happening is not Sandinismo, it is rather “Orteguismo.”

Most Nicaraguans just want new and fair elections, where the current administration cannot participate. They’re also asking for the preservation of the country’s natural resources, taking into account past events such as the burning of the Indio-Maiz reservoir and allowing construction of the interoceanic canal by a Chinese businessman. Furthermore, they request for an end to the corruption, oppression and impunity that they have been living under.

“He [Daniel Ortega] sells himself as a nationalist and a defender of Nicaragua’s sovereignty and a Sandinista, when in reality it is absolutely the opposite,” said Zamora. “He, in the first place, kidnapped the movement. The true Sandinistas, the people that eventually felt left behind because [Ortega] did not let them contribute during the changes, started to leave. Then, [Ortega] seized of the Sandinista front, denaturalized it and made it into a party. He did exactly what Somoza did with the liberal party.”

Nicaraguan citizens protest the government of President Daniel Ortega in April 2018. Courtesy: Pamela Harris

But Zamora also sees some important differences between now and then. “Somoza is different from Ortega. Somoza represented all the tradition of Nicaragua, because we had a tragic history in Nicaragua and the main perpetrator has been the United States,” she said. “Somoza had this connotation [about his nickname being “The Last Marine”] because he represented all of the interest of the Yankee empire.”

After the panelists and Zamora finished speaking, there was a open space for questions from the public.

Luis Alfaro, a representative of the youth advocacy group SOS Nicaragua San Francisco, asked the first question.

“I would want you to tell us, to all the Nicaraguans here, what is Nicaragua asking for? What is Nicaragua demanding?” he said in a hostile tone.

Alfaro seemed to be angry that his group was being left out of the panel’s narrative about  aiding Nicaragua from the United States. He was quick to point out that SOS Nicaragua already has a presence in the Bay Area and had been taking action.

Although the tension in the room was felt by coordinators and the general public because of Alfaro’s interruptions, it didn’t derail conference’s main topic: the unity of the country and the search for help and a peaceful resolution in Nicaragua.

Zamora believes the fact that the youth are waging a peaceful fight actually increases their chances of danger. Fighting an armed government made up of members of the police, military, and paramilitaries, can turn very violent against the people that are protesting for their rights.

“This way of protesting is an advance, [it] is a very 21st century protest. It is made of technology and the technology is at the service of the cause,” said Zamora. She added that the use of social media has been vital in informing people about what is happening in Nicaragua. The videos, photos and posts of the protesters have helped as a call to summon the rest of the community. Demonstrators have also been able to act as citizen journalists, documenting events as they happen.

At the same time, Zamora considers that the current insurrection will have big consequences for the Nicaraguan people in the long run.

“If there is one aspect that this dictatorship has created, it’s that it’s going to be a burden, a consequence in Nicaraguan society that we did not have before, and that is because they have formed paramilitaries,” she said. “And these paramilitaries, once the situation changes, they are going to introduce Nicaraguan society what we didn’t have before, which are the Maras and gangs.”

The Nicaraguan people have not given up, but they need more allies to fight Ortega. Although Costa Rica has helped, the situation has been largely ignored by the countries with power to actually change things. Nicaraguans are caught between wanting to receive foreign aid to help in establishing their own democratic procedures, and wanting to ensure that Nicaragua remains a sovereign nation.

Zamora remains hopeful though.

“I trust in the creativity of the Nicaraguans, which they are really a community that, maybe, because of the history that we’ve had, we are capable of getting something unexpected out of it to reach our goal.”