SÉBACO, Matagalpa—Twenty-two years after handing in their guns and retiring from the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS), thousands of former revolutionary combatants—many now in their 50s—are mobilizing once again in a peaceful yet forceful campaign to demand their rights to pensions, land, healthcare and other social benefits.
Under the banners “Victorious March: Sandino Vive!” and “Now or Never!”, a growing group of ex-soldiers has been coming down from the mountains of Jinotega, Nueva Segovia, Matagalpa and Estelí to reinforce a human roadblock at the Sebaco Bridge, 100 KM north of Managua.
The protest, which started two weeks ago with 400 ex-combatants, swelled this week to some 1,500 ex-soldiers at the Sebaco Bridge, before spreading Wednesday to similar roadblocks in León and Ciudad Sandino, paralyzing transportation on major roadways north of Managua.
By Wednesday afternoon, there was a backup of more than 5 kilometers of bumper-to-bumper trucks parked along the highway to Sebaco, unable to advance or turn around on the narrow two-lane road. As business owners complain about detained and spoiling merchandise, street vendors, bicycle taxis and prostitutes have been plying the stretch of highway parking lot trying to make a buck from truck drivers swinging in hammocks strung up under their 18-wheelers.
Amid rumors that the government is close to negotiating, the war veterans on the bridge insist their meeting must be with President Daniel Ortega, because they don’t trust others in his administration. If the president continues to ignore their call for dialogue, they say, the ex-soldiers will continue to intensify their protests in the Northern Zone and elsewhere in the country.
“We still have energy to defend this revolution,” says Oscar Olivas, a retired EPS military officer and legal advisor to the National Council of Homeland Defenders, a group of some 16,000 retired Sandinista soldiers.
“We are all Sandinistas who helped the government come to power in 2006 and we defended the vote in 2011. And now we are demanding the benefits that the law gives us,” he said. “We are alive and we have energy to continue struggling.”
A Sandinista protest against Ortega?
While some of the ex-combatants are accusing Ortega of turning his back on those who fought for the revolution in the 1980s and helped him return to power in 2007, protesters at the Sebaco Bridge say their problem is not with the president, rather the corrupt and incompetent officials in his government.
“Comandante Ortega has the good intention to resolve this problem, but not all of the officials in his government have that same mentality; there are some in this government who are not honest and who do not honor their promises,” Olivas told The Nicaraguan Dispatch, flanked by a group of several dozen EPS veterans, some armed with sticks and homemade mortars, and a few dressed in their old combat fatigues.
Olivas said his group’s demand is for the government to follow through on its promise to deliver pensions, land, credit, healthcare, education and housing. The National Council of Homeland Defenders also insists those benefits be institutionalized in a new law to benefit retired and injured soldiers from the 1980s.
“We are not here begging, we are here demanding our rights,” Olivas said, insisting that former EPS combatants should be entitled to the same benefits as military officials who retire today.
“It’s one thing to beg,” he says, “but it’s another thing to demand our rights.”
Demobilized and forgotten
In 1986, the EPS had 134,000 soldiers and reservists. By 1990, the EPS had been downsized to 86,000 troops. No soldiers who retired in those years received any pensions, benefits, training or land; they just handed in their weapons and were given a salute for their years of service.
From 1990 to 1992, in the years following the electoral defeat of the Sandinista government and the beginning of military’s transformation from Sandinista Popular Army to Nicaraguan Army, the armed forces were downsized again from 86,000 to 14,500 troops.
During those two years, 1,500 ranking officers were given a retirement package of money, land and job training in a three-phase plan known as PL 1, 2 and 3. But the rank-and-file foot soldiers were given nothing, according to Nicaraguan military expert Roberto Cajina.
The Nicaraguan Army did not start a formal pension plan for its officers until 1994, with the approval of the Military Code and the creation of the Military’s Social Welfare Institute, which received its initial $24 million in seed money from the sale of old soviet attack helicopters and radar systems to Peru and Ecuador.
The military’s pension plan is not retroactive, so it doesn’t include those who were retired before 1994.
“The issue is very complicated because it’s part of a deficient peace process, demobilization and disarmament in Nicaragua,” Cajina told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “Some were given land and benefits, and many were given nothing.”
In an attempt to address the inequality of the situation, the Sandinista government in 2010 made additional promises of pensions and social aid to disabled veterans. The government delivered on those promises during the campaign year of 2011, “achieving more in one year than the previous governments did in 16 years,” according to one former officer.
But following Ortega’s reelection last November, the programs stopped as quickly as they started.
“The truth is we haven’t received any benefits since last November—no roofing materials, no housing materials, no pensions, nothing,” says former Sandinista fighter María Antonio Quintero, from Estelí.
Quintero says First Lady Rosio Murillo, who likes to gush about the importance of women’s rights, should take note of the Sandinista women who are in the streets demanding the government respect their rights.
“As women, we call on Rosario Murillo because she talks about the vindication of rights but here we are, women who retired from the army, demanding our rights in the streets,” Quintero told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “And we aren’t here because we want to be, but because we are forced to be out of need.”
Murillo dividing Sandinista Front?
Retired Sandinista Army Captain Sergio Rafael Martínez says he thinks a lot of the Sandinista pushback—both from veterans and from historic party leaders who reject the imposition of unpopular mayoral candidates—has to do with the first lady’s attempt to make the party her own.
Martínez says Murillo is trying to “create a new authority in the party” that is loyal to her, because she doesn’t want her power to derive from her husband.
“The party is being substituted by the CPCs (Councils of Citizen Power) and the Committees of Sandinista Leadership—two groups that answer to Rosario,” Martínez said.
He says that internal power grab is being rejected by “historic groups and Sandinista leaders from the 1980s and ‘90s, when the FSLN still functioned as a party.”
Veterans protesting at the bridge confirm that the new generation of Sandinista leadership that answers to Murillo is not the same as the revolutionary Sandinistas from the past.
“All of us who were in the mountains always shared what we had: a piece of bread, tortillas or a little bit of beans; whatever we had. We shared everything and we all got to know one another in the frontline, which is where we formed our revolutionary conscience,” says former EPS solider William Martínez, of Matagalpa. “But they are not like that. They put themselves first, second and last.”
Olivas adds, “They are enjoying the fruits of the revolution, but they didn’t pay the cost in the ‘80s.”
Need for Resolution
As the group of protesting veterans grows in Sebaco, the leadership of the National Council of Homeland Defenders is urging President Ortega to take the situation seriously before it gets out of hand.
In a Tuesday night interview on Esta Noche, the TV news program of journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, National Council president Carlos Ramírez warned that the group of veterans has “nothing to left to lose,” after “losing our youth to the war and after 20 years of waiting” for promised aid.
He said that the EPS veterans have military training and, if push came to shove, could easily disarm the riot police waiting on standby near the Sebaco Bridge.
“This could be a waterfall that ends in chaos,” he warned, insisting that no one wants the situation to end in violence.
Back on the bridge, Olivas agrees the situation could get hairy if the situation is not resolved quickly.
“The number of compañeros here keeps growing and growing, and that’s dangerous,” Olivas told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “Those of us who are managing this activity have to be smart because this situation could get out of hand.”