MANAGUA—With furled flags tucked under their arms and folded poster board signs held over their heads to fend off the afternoon sun, hundreds of somber-faced Nicaraguans walked quietly up the sidewalks and side streets of Managua, making their way home after Saturday’s march against election fraud.
The scene in the capital following the Dec. 3 protest march was quiet, almost mournful. There was no residual buzz or excitement in the crowd. Instead, the atmosphere was one of weary-cattle resignation. No one talked, shouted or laughed. The mood was decidedly un-Nicaraguan.
The streets were closed to traffic, so no car horns, radios or maniacal drivers disturbed the peace. All remained silent and oddly serene, except for the birds chirping loudly in the sunny treetops overhead.
That’s how the opposition’s first attempt at holding a massive demonstration against election fraud ended on Saturday afternoon—not with a bang or a whimper, but with an orderly, silent and purposeful exit, like well-behaved school kids during a fire drill.
The march—organized by civil society and former presidential candidate Fabio Gadea—drew somewhere around 10,000 people from across the country (give or take 5,000, depending on who’s guessing). Even by generous estimates, the turnout was shy of the 70,000-80,000 the opposition had hoped to put on the streets.
Is this the beginning or the end?
The “Arab Spring” that brought democratic change to Northern Africa and the Middle East earlier this year is starting to look like the “Nica Autumn” here.
Still, those who participated in the underwhelming march are trying to put on a brave face.
“It was a good turnout; the people are losing their fear,” said Pedro Antonio Blandon, as he walked up the sidewalk with his wife.
The demonstrators’ quiet demeanor as they slipped through the streets on their way home was a bit misleading. Just 30 minutes earlier, many of them had been shouting angrily with raised fists, denouncing election fraud and calling for an electoral do-over with authorities who don’t get self-conscious about counting ballots in front of observers.
Many said Saturday’s march was a promising first step towards democratic activism.
“Today’s march was a success because there was a lot of participation from across the country, and we did it without any money or transportation to mobilize people,” said Marta Matey, 25, who traveled all the way from Muy Muy, Matagalpa, despite various Sandinista roadblocks to prevent a larger turnout from the countryside.
“This march surpassed our expectations, considering we didn’t have any busses to mobilize people,” said Maria Auxiliadora Lacayo, a distinguished-looking older woman returning from the march with her husband. “This was both an accomplishment and an obligation for the opposition. We had to participate because we are now living under a dictatorship and this is the beginning of the resistance.”
March-goer Humberto Castilla, 39, also thinks the protests will grow. Dressed in a matching Independent Liberal Party (PLI) hat and shirt, Castilla called the Nov. 6 elections “a shameless robbery of the people’s vote.” He said Saturday’s march was the beginning of a popular uprising against “tyranny,” such as the recent shakeups in Egypt and Tunisia.
Several protesters said they hope Saturday’s march, which was conducted peacefully without any repression from police or Sandinista goons, will encourage others to come out next time.
“People are still afraid of repression from the Sandinista Youth and don’t trust the police to protect them. When people lose that fear, these protests will become massive,” said José Antonio Brenes, 71. “If there were freedom of expression in this country, today’s protest would have been different.”
Though the Sandinistas had threatened with a countermarch, none materialized. There were, however, Sandinista “reservists” waiting nearby. Two blocks from the opposition march, a sizeable group of several hundred Sandinista Youth— dressed piously in identical state-issued T-shirts—loitered noisily in the road, which they blocked to traffic by parking a bus perpendicularly in the middle of the intersection.
Meanwhile, in Venezuela, President Ortega mocked the protesters, saying that if there were an election redo he’d win with 70 percent. In one of his mansions somewhere in Nicaragua or Costa Rica, electoral president Roberto Rivas was probably nodding.
What’s next for Nicaragua’s opposition?
March organizers claim they will continue to build on the momentum from last Saturday’s march.
“This was a first step, and it was a success because lots of people participated from the urban sector,” said Eliseo Núñez, former campaign manager for Fabio Gadea. “From now on, we are going to decentralize and multiply the protests, with a focus on urban centers.”
Violeta Granera, coordinator for civil society group Movement for Nicaragua, claims last weekend’s march “totally surpassed expectations,” especially since most people are burned out after a long and frustrating presidential campaign.
She said the struggle is going to be difficult moving forward, but insists it will only get harder the longer it’s pushed off.
“There will be tough moments in this struggle, but nothing will be tougher than if we allow this to evolve into a dictatorship and then have to turn back a situation of conflict,” Granera told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “We already know the pain that has caused Nicaragua.”
As the final protest stragglers returned home quietly along the sidewalk, a passinging drunk raised his arms and voice in angry protest, apparently over the orderly and uneventful end to the march.
“This isn’t over yet! This is just getting started!” he slurred, as he stumbled off down the street, perhaps in search of a place to sleep it off.