By Noémi Gonda, Frédéric Huybrechs, René Rodríguez-Fabilena, Gert Van Hecken, and other political ecologists from Nicaragua whose names are not displayed for security reasons
For over 3 months, Nicaragua has been facing its worst political crisis in recent decades. The simmering discontent erupted as a full-blown crisis on 18 April 2018, when promulgated reforms of the social security system were met by peaceful protests, which were quelled by brutal government violence. An increasingly large part of Nicaraguan society no longer tolerates the government’s authoritarianism. That the protests of April were also sparked initially as a response to the government’s slow and secretive handling of heavy forest fires in the Indio Maíz Biosphere Reserve is not a coincidence. It shows how the current social resistance is partly rooted in environmental conflicts illustrated in recent years by continued peasant resistance against large-scale mining concessions and a 100-year concession given in 2014 to a Chinese millionaire to build a transoceanic canal. There is indeed a glaring contradiction between the official governmental discourse (respect for ‘madre tierra’ and ‘buen vivír’) and its practice, which is in fact largely a continuation of neoliberal and unsustainable development models introduced by earlier governments. In this sense, part of the Nicaraguan population is both disgruntled with the emergence of an autocratic and repressive government and heavily opposed to a development model based on the further depletion of natural resources (e.g. the development of large scale agro-industrial production systems for sugar cane, palm oil and tobacco, leading to the further encroachment on increasingly scarce forest areas) with the involvement of a government that hides its intentions behind a ‘post-neoliberal’ narrative.
In just a few days, the protests were met with the large-scale killing of mostly unarmed civilians by police and government-supported para-police forces. These state-supported violations of human rights and disproportionate violence resulted -at last count- in more than 440 confirmed deaths, over 2800 injured, and 718 disappeared. The victims are mainly unarmed university and high-school students from working class neighbourhoods, and farmers. Many more (supposed) protesters and dissidents are being threatened and live in constant fear. Those who can afford it try to leave the country. The aspiration of ending oppression, ensuring justice for the victims, establishing democracy and the rule of law, and reflecting on how to reconstruct ‘life in common’ –all of which resonates with preoccupations of many engaged political ecologists– has become an urgent and concrete political project and a gigantic challenge. In this, the Nicaraguan students and farmers who are currently heading the protests, bear a particular responsibility. Perhaps the most important challenge will be whether overcoming the crisis will go hand in hand with the transformation of the institutional foundations underlying the current development model towards more equity and justice for all social groups (including marginalized groups, such as indigenous people, small-scale farmers and women) within the principles of environmental justice.
We, the authors of this blog post who love Nicaragua and its people, are emotionally traumatised by the suffering experienced by our families, friends, and colleagues, as a result of the politics of fear and polarization that have been installed increasingly and perniciously by the Nicaraguan government over the last 11 years. Indeed, current President Daniel Ortega and his wife –and vice-president- Rosario Murillo’s populist measures and narrative have contributed to solidifying a system of extreme social control, nepotism and clientelism. This system of control and polarization has pervaded all levels of society; in the current crisis, the best illustration is perhaps that doctors working in public hospitals have been refusing, under orders of their superiors, to provide care for injured protesters.
The gravity of the situation has led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to visit the country and release a scathing report; the Organisation of American States to condemn the governmental killings; and many countries to issue statements condemning the actions of the Nicaraguan government, which continues to criminalize social protests in its official discourse, depicting protesters as criminals, vandals, terrorists and even Satanists. Under a new Terrorism Act, important leaders of the Nicaraguan peasant resistance have been imprisoned in July 2018, while national peace dialogues, mediated by the Catholic Church between the government and the protesters to negotiate the exit of the President and his wife have been stopped as they refuse to step down.
Despite the growing condemnation of the government’s actions at the international level, global public opinion remains largely polarized and split between supporting either the protesters or the Nicaraguan government. The Ortega-Murillo government is self-proclaimed Sandinista (pretending to continue the historical revolutionary movement which ousted the US-sponsored Somoza dictatorship in 1979), post-neoliberal and promoting buen vivír. The opposition against its authoritarian and dictatorial tendencies and practices has gathered a variety of groups. These include genuine critical historical Sandinista revolutionaries, defeated ultra-conservative political groupings supported by the US, farmers who have felt abandoned and marginalized by all successive governments since Somoza, as well as a younger generation of students and activists born after the 1979 revolution and averse of traditional political structures (political parties, trade unions, etc.). It is therefore an oversimplification and a pity to buy into the governmental discourse qualifying the protests as exclusively neoliberal, right-wing (derechista), supported by the US, and anti-revolutionary; which is what many international Left-wing movements and political parties seem to believe. Therefore, they avoid publicly condemning the Nicaraguan government’s repressive actions for fear of betraying what they think is international Left-wing solidarity. This is factually wrong, and for us ethically unacceptable.
The Nicaraguan crisis also gives new meanings and embodiments to concepts dear to political ecologists, such as ‘resistance’, ‘transformation’, ‘belonging’ and ‘care’. As political ecologists, we are interested in explaining how resistance can lead to transformations; and in supporting radical social and environmental transformation towards equity and justice. Therefore, we see our task as twofold: first, we need to inform the world on what is happening in Nicaragua. Second, we should put our insights and academic and activist energy at the disposal of the Nicaraguans who face the gigantic task of envisioning and constructing a new, democratic, just and equitable future.