First Lady Rosario Murillo wants the Sandinista Youth to assume a greater leadership role in the next government of President Daniel Ortega.
But first they must answer a riddle for her.
“How do we continue filling with colors, and invent new colors in the polychromy of our minds, of energy, of illusions, of the experiences of so many youth? How do we connect, and keep connecting to this formidable universe of instincts and shortages, for which we work, converting it into tools to plant and harvest?” Murillo wrote in a strange and semi-lucid letter to the Sandinista Youth.
Murillo’s trippy epistle, published Nov. 14 on Sandinista media sites under the tautological title: “And once again…And once again…We will triumph…Nicaragua will triumph,” referred to the Sandinista Youth as “young revolutionaries” and “vanguards” of Nicaragua’s youth. Murillo said the Sandinista Youth will be responsible for “planning our new battles” and “writing our new words.”
And judging from the rambling prose of her missive, any “new words” would help.
“How to be a young person in all languages, in all idioms, in all colors, in all times, in all seasons, in all forms, in all modalities, in all mentalities, in every expression of this Nicaragua, which day by day flourishes from its youth?” Murillo blathered. “It’s up to you to decode these codices and codes to create the path, to keep the path, animated, protagonists of this revolution, which belongs to you by your own right, and which today you should assume in your beauty and your defiant complexity. Because beauty is not remote, nor impossible. Beauty is work, a task, a happy responsibility, for every day.”
While the Sandinista Youth try to figure out what the first lady is talking about, opposition youth are facing a riddle of their own: how to organize a civil-society protest movement without repeating the same vertical command structures they abhor in the political parties.
“We are trying to change the political culture of this country,” says Leonor Zuñiga, a youth organizer of the movement Nicaragua 2.0. “This is a serious process and takes time to form an effective and democratic organizational structure, while at the same time expanding our base of support.”
Nicaragua 2.0: a Facebook phenom
Nicaragua 2.0 formed in early April, following a frustrated civil society protest that was blocked by riot police protecting a not-coincidentally timed Sandinista carnival for peace and love that occupied the same street space where the opposition was supposed to march.
The Nicaragua 2.0 group (the “2.0” refers to web interfaces that allow for user-generated content and information sharing) argues that traditional civil society movements have become too slow and cumbersome to mobilize effective protests given the Sandinistas’ penchant for countermarches. What is needed, the 2.0ers say, are new ways of thinking and new ways to organize people.
The Nicaragua 2.0 group, which preaches non-violent protest, started out small, with 15 people, a logo, a box full of T-shirts, and a Facebook page. But they quickly gained media fame when they organized an unannounced protest on the MetroCentro pedestrian bridge and waved signs excoriating the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), located across the street.
The police responded clumsily and tried to remove the group by force, resulting in a ludicrous Keystone Kops moment where the officers staggered and stumbled as they struggled to take control of the pedestrian bridge. The incident was captured in photos and video, and became an Internet recruiting tool for the youth activists.
Nicaragua 2.0’s Facebook “likes” quickly jumped from the dozens to the hundreds to the thousands. The group then started to organize several other theatrical events, giving out the “golden brush” award (equivalent to a boot-kisser award in Nicaragua) to the president’s top sycophants. Each week the group would vote online to see who should get the next raspberry recognition.
But not all the protests led to funny YouTube moments. A Sept. 14 protest in front of a stage where Ortega and Murillo sat amid a pleasant floral arrangement led to a vicious and indiscriminant beating for everyone within reach of the president’s private security force, known as the “blueshirts.”
Undeterred by the fists and elbows of brutish men, the group has continued its protests. And they’re apparently resonating with a growing number of young people.
Since the Nov. 6 general elections, which the opposition claims were fraudulent, Nicaragua 2.0’s Facebook membership has nearly doubled, jumping from 2,600 to 4,800.
But now the group is facing unexpected growing pains, Zuñiga says. The dramatic increase in support has put new demands on the group to deliver a coherent product.
What started as an informal group on Facebook must now evolve into a structure that can accommodate real people and articulate a real agenda, she said. Making matters even more complicated, she said, is Nicaragua’s “authoritarian political context” that she claims is “trying to destroy us.”
“The context is complicated and we have to respond to the demands of the youth,” she said. “There is a time for marching and a time for protest, but there’s also a time for organizing and developing proposals.”
In its effort to be better than the system it’s struggling against, Nicaragua 2.0 also must have a strong vision of gender equality, Zuñiga says. She notes that three of the organization’s five working groups are led by women like herself.
“The most influential people in this group are women; and it’s not because we have been given the space, it’s because we took it,” says Zuñiga, a sociologist.
Nicaragua 2.0 also wants to be inclusive of Sandinistas, she said. The group, she insists, is not anti-Sandinista or even anti-Ortega. Instead, it’s against the political culture that gives rise to those like Ortega.
“We are not against the FSLN; we want to open society, not close it,” Zuñiga says.
Coherent is good, institutional is not
While Nicaragua 2.0 frets over the direction of its movement’ evolution, others in civil society youth organizations warn about the pitfalls of becoming too formal too fast in Nicaragua.
Marlia Avendaña, 26, created a pro-democracy activist group called “Youth for Democracy in Nicaragua” in 2006. But ever since she registered her group as an official non-governmental organization, her activism has put her in the line of fire. Literally.
“After we criticized the 2008 elections, a man on a motorcycle did a drive-by shooting of our office in Managua,” she said. “I’ve had my tires slashed several times and the DGI (state tax authority) has harassed us repeatedly with exorbitant fines.”
As a result of her organization’s repeated problems, she advises other youth activist groups like Nicaragua 2.0 to remain informal, independent and fluid.
An eye for an eye
Though Nicaragua 2.0 has become the darling of youth opposition movement, it’s not the only group organizing.
And among the groups, there’s a wide range of visions, strategies and socio-economic backgrounds. Groups such as Rejudin—a group comprised mostly of Sandinista dissidents— started off promising non-violent protest. But after being on the receiving end of a couple Sandinista whoop-ups—as well as several “preventive detentions” by police—the group has become slightly more militant in recent weeks.
Another opposition group that scoffs at non-violent protest is the Pedro Joaquin Chamorro (PJC) movement, which is decidedly more roughneck.
“Nicaragua 2.0 is middle class, but we are barrio,” says Marvin Parrales, president of the PJC movement. “We’re not a violent group, but if you hit me, I’ll hit you twice.”
Parrales says his group has remained on the sidelines since the Nov. 6 elections because they don’t think any politicians in this country are worth throwing rocks for. In fact, his movement is demanding that the opposition political parties prove they are serious about denouncing election fraud by renouncing all the legislative seats they won in the polls.
But Parrales doubts the opposition politicos will back up their words with actions, which is why he says it’s not worth going into the streets to defend them now. Once the blow-hard politicians quiet down in coming days, he says, the PJC movement, which he claims is 100 strong, will take to the streets “to defend the Constitution.”
“We are going to fight against the system, but we are not going to defend the vote for the opposition politicians,” Parrales says.
The need to organize
Regardless of political colors and party ideologies—or lack thereof—many young people say there is a genuine desire among Nicaraguan youth to organize and become a part of something.
Roberto López, 22, says President Ortega has taken advantage of that desire better than anyone else.
“What happens in the barrios is this: You know that Daniel Ortega has all the economic power, so the Sandinistas come into the barrio and say, Let’s form a soccer league. And when you are young, you don’t care about anything. You want the T-shirt and want to be in the league. So they come in with that promise, and then they eat your brain,” López said.
“The Danielists are very intelligent; they’re going into neighborhoods and areas that no other government has gone before, and they give T-shirts to everyone,” he said. “And people are confused because they think it’s a gift, but it’s not for free. And that’s when they start to use people for their political actions.”
The Nicaragua Dispatch tried unsuccessfully to talk to ranking members of the Sandinista Youth, but phone calls went unanswered and emails unreturned. The Nicaragua Dispatch also tried to interview Sandinista Youth votaries last week following the elections, but most requests for comment were dismissed with an “I’m not authorized to answer,” or with a glassy-eyed drunken stare.
Those who did answer let their party’s rhetoric and campaign slogans do the talking for them.
“We will continue changing Nicaragua for more triumphs and more victories and we’ll keep moving forward with the Sandinista Front,” said Katherine Jarquín, a bright-eyed 19-year-old university student.
Avendaña, of the Youth for a Democratic Nicaragua, says the Sandinistas have found easy recruiting in marginalized neighborhoods.
“The Sandinista Youth is recruiting teenagers who are excluded from society,” she says.
While that may sound noble, she says in practice it’s dicey. Avendaña claims the Sandinistas “manipulate” the marginalized teens by using them as reservist thugs to intimidate the opposition and rough people up when the party needs some dirty work done.
“They keep these kids living in an atmosphere of violence and confrontation,” she said. “And that’s not love, peace or reconciliation.”
Nicaragua 2.0’s Zuñiga agrees. She says even the leaders of the Sandinista Youth are limiting their growth potential by “inserting themselves into the old system and a vertical power structure that gives them no autonomy or possibility to present new ideas.”
She says the group’s entire political formation seems to have been reduced to shouting “Daniel!” and “Juventud!” in the streets.
“They are not progressive and they don’t propose any ideas,” Zuñiga said. “They are more reactionary than revolutionary.”