For the first time since 2009, thousands of university students took to the streets of Managua Wednesday to participate in what was once considered a collegiate rite of passage: the annual 6% protest march, a traditionally violent and messy dustup.
According to Nicaragua’s Constitution, 6% of the annual budget is supposed to be earmarked for higher education. But lawmakers historically have a hard time remembering that, prompting students to fire homemade mortars at the National Assembly and burn car tires in the street as a gentle reminder to not scrimp on university funding.
This year’s 6% protest, however, was a much tamer affair than the enthusiastic bouts of extracurricular violence against the previous governments of Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños.
The first difference was that this year’s march was held in May rather than November, when lawmakers debate the annual budget. Secondly, the protest was remarkably more peaceful—more students where texting on their cell phones than firing homemade mortars. Thirdly—and most importantly—this year’s 6% march was not directed against the government, rather aimed at the nebulous concept of “neoliberal meddling” by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
To improve Nicaragua’s underachieving public-education system, the IMF recently suggested that Nicaragua use some of its 6% higher-education budget towards the country’s underfunded primary, secondary and technical schools, so more students will actually have a chance to make it to the university level. That suggestion was immediately decried by university students as “foreign meddling” and neoliberal nonsense.
“That position is interventionist and violates our dignity,” said Telemaco Talavera, president of the National Council of University (CNU), which is charged with the responsible task of managing the 6% government funding. “Out of respect for our dead, we will never accept this.”
When the group of students and professors marched to the National Assembly Wednesday, Sandinista lawmaker Edwin Castro came out and assured the docile protesters that they could count on the Sandinistas’ support.
“I want to affirm to the university community, and to all youths, that this National Assembly, this group of lawmakers of the people, is very respectful of the Constitution of Nicaragua and the 6% is a constitutional norm that cannot be modified,” Castro said, managing not to get hit in the face with a bag of water, like he did the last time he delivered the same speech during a 6% protest.
Protest or Theater?
Critics of the government claim Wednesday’s 6% march was nothing short of “Sandinista political theater.”
The fact that the Sandinista-dominated student unions are also demanding “a progressive tax reform” and Social Security reforms of the Sandinista-dominated National Assembly (which was recently given the same task by the IMF), was noted as rather suspicious behavior.
“This was a very unusual protest; I’ve never seen a pro-government 6% protest before,” says former student leader Gonzalo Carrion, one of the principal organizers of the 6% whoop-ups in the early 1990s. “This march was more like bringing flowers to the president.”
In reality, Carrion says, the Sandinista government has become the “IMF’s best student,” so protesting its neoliberalness smacks of silliness.
Francisco Aguirre, an international consultant and former president of the National Assembly’s economic and budget commission, says Wednesday’s march was another act in Nicaragua’s “theater of the absurd.”
Aguirre says the Sandinista Front, when it was an opposition party, criticized the IMF tenaciously for its neoliberal streak. But, he says, now the Sandinista government and the IMF “go together like hand in glove.”
In 2006, Daniel Ortega said the IMF would be out of Nicaragua within five years, but now his government is working hard to negotiate another economic aid package. As a result, Aguirre says, Wednesday’s march was a “charade.”
Still, for a government that’s being outed as closet-case neoliberal, reviving the 6% protest was a good show. It’s probably a battle the administration can win. On the IMF’s list of structural-adjustment requirements for the Government of Nicaragua, the redistribution of the 6% higher-education funding appears to be more of a wish than a demand. In fact, it’s such a lesser concern that it wasn’t even mentioned in the IMF’s final mission statement released at the conclusion of its Nicaragua revision on May 15.
The IMF statement did, however, insist on social security reform and tax reforms—two issues Sandinista student unions suddenly seem passionate about.
The students’ position suggests the Sandinista government might be willing to give in on the IMF’s main demands and still try to claim a lesser victory in its defense of the 6% university funding. But as with most things in Nicaragua, only time will tell.