MANAGUA—Sleeping in shifts during the day so the whole group can remain awake and vigilant at night, the 17 youth activists maintaining a permanent protest camp in front of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) are preparing themselves for what they fear is a possible setup.
Protest leader Jairo Contreras, one of the founders of so-called Broad Opposition Front (FAO), told The Nicaragua Dispatch this morning that his group is doing a video-recorded search of all the backpacks inside their protest camp to prove the group does not have any drugs. He says the group is taking the precautionary measures after they received a tip that a plan is in the works to plant drugs on the protesters as an excuse for police to raid the camp and haul them off to jail this weekend.
The FAO has reason to be a bit paranoid. Last Sunday, group member Lisset Sequeira was kidnapped and beaten by unidentified men who were reportedly demanding to know who was financing their protest activity. Sequeira lost her pregnancy as a result of her vicious attack, and is still suffering from health complications. Police started to investigate her case this week only after Police Commissioner Aminta Granera ordered her underlings to treat the case seriously following an outcry by the media and rights groups when officers initially refused to take a statement from her.
Contreras says suspicious movement is also on the rise in the park across the street from their protest camp, where a growing group of alleged municipal workers move dirt around, lean on shovels and keep a close eye on the protesters. The city employees forcibly removed the protesters from the park in front of the CSE on July 19 and have been occupying the area ever since under the guise of a mysterious park beautification project that no one in the municipal government approved. Contreras says the workers in the park grows each night, which has forced the protesters to switch to a diurnal sleeping shifts so they can all remain awake and ready for attack at night.
On the other side of protest camp is a line of police who stand guarding outside the palace gates of the CSE, which is only trying to “strengthen democracy,” as their institutional slogan informs.
Who are the leaders of FAO?
Jairo Contreras, 25, has been one of the most visible leaders of the youth opposition movement for the past year. A university graduate who says he is now studying law to defend himself, Contreras was active in protesting President Daniel Ortega’s controversial reelection in 2011.
Contreras made headlines on July 19, 2011 when he chained himself to the statue in front of the CSE to protest the elections and got sucker punched in the face by a member of the Sandinista Youth, who ironically timed his punch perfectly to go with the lyrics “Nicaragua will triumph because there is peace, and there is love” from Ortega’s campaign song, which blared loudly from the Sandinista rally across the street. (See Youtube clip here).
This past July 19 didn’t go much better for Contreras. He and his fellow protesters were forcibly removed and beaten by a large contingent of men dressed as “municipal workers” and driving around in back of a truck in the middle of the night.
Contreras says he’s not afraid of violence. His fear, his says, is for the future of his country.
“I am afraid to grow old and see my kids living in a poor country under a dictatorship. That is my fear,” Contreras told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “But right now, I am not afraid to act because my father fought in the revolution 30 years ago and today I have the same sentiments. We are talking about a cultural revolution, a revolution of thinking, a revolution where we say no caudillos, no to political handouts, and yes to national salvation.”
A newer—and yet older—face on the protest scene is Carlos Bonilla, a 34-year-old Nicaraguan who spent almost his entire life living in the United States but says he now feels committed to fighting for democracy in Nicaragua.
Bonilla’s story is curious.
He says he lived, studied and worked in Los Angeles, California for 21 years. Bonilla says he got an undergraduate degree in sociology from UCLA and then got a degree from ITT Tech in graphic design. Bonilla says he worked for years at a graphic design company in L.A. and saved up his vacation days for a trip back to Nicaragua late last year—his first visit to his homeland since his family left in 1990.
Bonilla, whose father was a member of the National Guard and killed during the revolution, says he was so appalled by the conditions he found in Nicaragua, he took a leave from his job back in L.A. and decided to stay to support the youth protest here.
“It’s necessary that we all get involved,” Bonilla told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “I come from a country where democracy exists, and where the laws matter and are followed. And when I came here I saw so much violation of the laws I made the decision to stay here and support these young people.”
Bonilla insists he returned to Nicaragua on his own accord, and was not sent back.
“I came back on my own. I have my life and work in the U.S. My wife and children are there.
He says his children—ages 10, 15 and 17—were “concerned at first” about his decision to stay, “but now they think I am their hero, their idol.”
Says Bonilla of his life-changing decision, “I thinks we all have to get involved, even the Nicaraguans living in the U.S. who are watching the news and saying, ‘What a shame what’s happening back there in my country’.”
Bonilla says he feels an urgency to do something for Nicaragua.
“The new generation is inheriting a political system that is dirty and corrupt with people who call themselves opposition leaders but themselves to the dictatorship. They sellout and negotiate,” he says. “The youth of this country must unite to change the future. The majority of the population in Nicaragua is young, so we have the right to fight for our future and the future of our children’s future.”
Bonilla acknowledges the risks involved in what he is doing, but says his mind is made up.
“I am proud and satisfied,” he says. “If I am going to die, it’s going to be for my country and what could be more proud that dying for your country?”
Bonilla denies he has a “martyr complex,” but says “I’d prefer to die for my country than get run over by a car or robbed on the streets.”
What does the FAO want?
Contreras and Bonilla say they have a short-term and long-term plan for their tiny protest movement.
The short-term plan is to prevent the municipal elections from happening in November.
“There won’t be elections. There won’t be. We are saying that now. There won’t be elections we won’t allow it to happen. We won’t allow them to again mock the dignity of the people,” says Contreras, determinedly. “We are not talking about violence, but we have strategies to neutralize this process.”
As Contreras is talking, on a typically blistering and life-draining afternoon in downtown Managua, reaction to the protest camp in front of the CSE is mixed. Some passersby—mostly teenage boys—shout insults at the youth protesters, while others—mostly adults—pass the demonstrators food out of car and bus windows. Several taxis honk in support.
Most who pass by, however, have that emotionless, weary-cattle look of people whose human spirit has been sapped by years of Managua’s public transportation system.
That rut-stuck exasperation is part of what the FAO hopes to change in Nicaragua. The protesters say Nicaraguans have become used to plodding through life as passive recipients of bad politics. They need to wake up to reclaim their government and country, Contreras says.
“We have a proposal for the nation—a proposal to rescue the rights of the people. We will be officially launching this proposal in the coming days,” Contreras says. “The other part of the strategy is to launch a series of activities to start a massive mobilization in the streets to bring a collapse to this dictatorial system of Daniel Ortega, but in a peaceful way because we don’t promote violence.”
While a massive mobilization against the Ortega government seems like a distant possibility at the moment, the FAO’s small but ambitious group membership says they are raising public awareness about democratic abuses—and that’s how bigger movements start.
The government knows this, Bonilla says, and that’s why the official party is determined to not let the protest movement grow.
“Look how a small group of young people made the Ortega dictatorship shake with fear,” Bonilla says. “They had to send 250 men to remove us (on July 19) after 25 days of protesting here. We represent all Nicaraguans who believe in democracy and don’t want the country to live under a dictatorship.”
Read part I of this series here.