Amaya Coppens, Liseth Davila, Delmis Portlcarrero, Susana Lopez, Marlen Chow, Socorro Corrales, Francisca Marchado, Nelly Roque, Jessica Rivas, dona Coquito, Yaritza Mairena are only a few of the hundreds of women who’ve battled against the brutal repression of Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship.
Eleven years of repressed indignation exploded in April 2018, leaving behind at least 325 killed, over 700 political prisoners, and thousands who’ve been persecuted, tortured and exiled. The civic rebellion that arose in Nicaragua has had a woman’s face as well.
In the barricades, medical posts, demonstrations and negotiations, women have been present. Initiatives like the Red lips challenge (#ElPicoRojoChallenge) highlight the ingenuity of women who’ve been fighting against machismo for years, and now are battling the governing regime.
In commemoration of March 8, International Women’s Day, we selected eight women who are representative of the civic struggle, although we know there are thousands more who’ve been involved in the protests.
Irlanda Jerez, the grassroots leader by Keyling T. Romero
“Ask the comandante’s pardon and we’ll get you out of here,” a guard at the Directorate of Judicial Assistance told Irlanda Jerez, days after her arrest.
“Twenty or thirty years may pass, but I’m not going to beg anyone’s pardon. If that’s the price I have to pay so that Nicaragua can be free, I’m going to pay it. But let me tell you something – someday all this will change,” she responded angrily.
Irlanda recounted this conversation to her husband, Daniel Esquivel, who hasn’t stopped fighting for her release since she was arrested on the afternoon of July 18th. Up until then, Irlanda had been one of the strongest voices among the small business owners. For that reason, “it was better [for the government] to lock her up in order to shut her up,” Esquivel believes.
But her history of struggle didn’t begin in April. At 15, Irlanda left her native Siuna in Nicaragua’s Caribbean region, and moved to the city of Leon to fulfill her dream of attending the university. She left by herself, carrying just a few changes of clothing in a sack on her shoulder. “I left to find a life,” she says when she tells this story. And she did fulfill her dreams: she graduated as one of the top students in the dentistry school.
“Irlanda is disciplined, perseverant and super optimistic. In Siuna, they called her a natural leader. She’s someone who’s on her feet at 5 am, and if there’s a need to work until midnight, she’ll do it,” her spouse describes her.
She worked for several years in her own dental clinic, but she also developed an interest in business and opened a clothing stall in the Oriental Market. Eventually, she decided to dedicate herself full time to her clothing establishment, and that was precisely her routine until, in April, she left it all behind to join the civic protest.
“Daniel, I’m turning my back on my business interests – you and my Dad can run them. I’m going to dedicate my time to this struggle, because what’s happening’ isn’t right,” she’d said to Daniel, who knew that no one could make her change her mind.
From that time on, Irlanda didn’t miss a single march. Soon, her leadership brought her to prominence as a representative of the struggle.
Irlanda’s been beaten several times in prison. In November of last year, a group of masked men entered the women’s prison and tried to remove her from her cell. When her cellmates refused to let her be taken, they were badly beaten. From that time on, the beatings have been repeated, and her stall at the market was even raided with no justification. Her family has denounced that they’re trying to kill her.
Francys Valdivia and the Mothers of April Association fight for justice by Franklin Villavicencio
Francys Valdivia pictures a museum of remembrance, where the name and face of her brother Franco Valdivia Machado could be displayed, together with the other 324 victims of the April repression. His death has impelled her to seek true justice, something the current Nicaraguan state can’t guarantee her. That dream has been her consolation after eleven months of pain and suffering.
Up until now, neither Franco’s death nor that of the others killed during the protests have been clarified, despite the fact that in many cases there’s definitive evidence that points to the guilty parties.
Francys’ voice has been raised during the past months of civic resistance. She’s the president of the Mothers of April Association, an organization made up of family members of the victims from the different departments in the country where the repressors did their killing. They’ve been met by a wall of silence and impunity, but this hasn’t stopped them from denouncing the assassinations of their family members.
“The fight for justice in Nicaragua brings a mix of impotence, frustration and disappointment. The Nicaraguan legal system is an absurdity,” Francys Valdivia states.
The life of this attorney turned upside-down on April 20, 2018, when they killed her brother In Esteli. He was one of the university students who was protesting peacefully in the city’s central park. From that time on, and amid her grief, Francys confronts a state mechanism that doesn’t even concede the data that different human rights organizations have reported and confirmed.
She and the other April Mothers have proposed paths and mechanisms to bring justice. They’re also pioneers in proposing policies of remembrance “so that these things aren’t repeated.” Francys has visited museums dedicated to the victims in other countries such as Argentina, and hopes that one day such a museum can be built in Nicaragua.
“El Chipote, for example, must be eliminated. It should be converted into a museum set up with the direct participation of the victims’ family members,” she highlights.
The tireless Vilma Nunez by Yader Luna
Even as a child, Dr. Vilma Nunez was accustomed to visiting jails. One of her earliest childhood memories is being taken to see her father, who had been arrested by Somoza’s National Guard. In 1958, she became part of the student movement in Leon where she was studying Law. She also joined the Committee for the Liberation of the Political Prisoners – those detained under the dictator Somoza. Sixty years later, she found herself once again forced to accompany dozens of family members who were searching for their children in Nicaragua’s jails, detained for protesting against the government of Daniel Ortega.
To this tireless advocate for human rights, the situation that Nicaragua is experiencing reminds her of the Somoza dictatorship, when intolerance for any kind of rebellion was expressed by brutal repression. She’s a survivor of the student massacre of July 23, 1959. In 1979, four months before the Sandinista Revolution overthrew Somoza, Vilma Nunez was jailed, tortured and submitted to a legal process, accused of arms trafficking.
She’s felt in her own flesh what it means to be jailed for crimes you didn’t commit, only because you were protesting. At 80, it’s now her lot to suffer again the assaults of a dictator. “Of a wounded beast,” as she calls Ortega.
Dr. Nunez insists that Ortega knows his days in power are numbered, and for that reason he doesn’t care if he destroys everything in his path. At the end of last year, the regime ordered the nullification of the organization she founded in 1990, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (Cenidh).
“They’ve struck us a blow, but it doesn’t bother us,” the Cenidh president declared, unbowed. “A serious human rights organization can’t be dissolved by a resolution of an institution with no autonomy or independence, nor can our commitment and our accompaniment of the Nicaraguan people be dissolved,” she said of the National Assembly’s decision to take away their legal status.
Her work as a human rights advocate has won her great recognition, on both a national and an international level. Personally, she’s accompanied many people who have denounced violations to their human rights, including Zoilamerica Narvaez, who in 1998 filed an accusation of sexual abuse against her stepfather, Daniel Ortega; the farmers from a community where the Army is accused of a number of murders; and recently the family members denouncing the killings and abuses perpetrated by the dictatorship.
Nunez affirms that she won’t stop working to oppose the dictatorship’s abuses and will continue to denounce all violations to human rights in Nicaragua.
Brenda Gutierrez: The cry of the mothers by Keyling T. Romero
Over the last year, Brenda Gutierrez has suffered the hardest blows of her life. First, the arrest of her 21-year-old son, Rodrigo Espinoza, a university leader, and afterwards the reading of a sentence condemning him to 17 years and six months in prison for the supposed crime of “terrorism”. Those blows have cut deep, but they have also given her the strength to demand the liberation of her son and of the more than 700 other prisoners of conscience in Nicaragua.
She does this from the platform of the Committee for the Release of the Political Prisoners, an organization that brings the mothers of the prisoners of conscience together to denounce the abuses that their children are suffering in the country’s jails.
“I told him: ‘I don’t want you to be there’ [in the protests], but he replied: ‘don’t be selfish. Don’t think only about yourself, we have to fight, we have to fight.’ It made me feel desperately anxious, but I couldn’t stop him,” recalls Gutierrez.
Since July 18, 2018, when her son was abducted by the paramilitary, Brenda Gutierrez has found strength that she didn’t know she had. She speaks slowly, and only for brief minutes does her voice break; then she recovers her calm and gives details of the Cavalry that her son has had to live through in the country’s jails.
Gutierrez has endured long hours of waiting to be able to enter the prison where Rodrigo is being held, and she’s been subjected to countless humiliations in the prison for being the mother of a “coup plotter”.
“My son is innocent and I trust in the innocence of the others, who only raised their voices and a flag, the one that covers us all, to cry for freedom. If that’s the reason they’re imprisoned, if that’s the reason they’re accused of plotting a coup, well then, we’re all guilty in this country,” she insists in every interview.
Currently, she states, “what they’re doing to Rodrigo is exercising emotional blackmail.” They threaten him that they’re going to kill his mother, because she talks too much.
“He tells me that he can’t go out on the streets, but I can. ‘It’s all a question of taking care of yourself. Be careful,’ he tells me, ‘but be our voice, be the voice that defends us and that’s going to get us out of here,’” she affirms. She always calms him down and tells him, “take it easy, you stay calm here inside, and I’ll be easy out here.”
Lucia Pineda and the “crime” of reporting the facts in Nicaragua by Franklin Villavicencio
“It’s a grave mistake to keep journalists in jail,” were the last words that Lucia Pineda Ubau spoke to a cellphone camera at the end of January, when a commission of deputies from the European Parliament visited the La Esperanza women’s prison. The journalist had been abducted from the newsroom of 100% Noticias on the night of December 21, together with the station’s director, Miguel Mora.
Minutes before, her voice had gone on the air with a “breaking news” alert. When the police encircled the channel’s headquarters, Pineda reported right up to the last moment of her freedom. “Urgent! Urgent! There are paramilitary here inside. We’re reporting the presence of riot squad members, and they want to get in to 100% Noticias,” she declared live.
From that time on, Lucia didn’t return to the public eye until Jose Inacio Faria, a deputy in the European Parliament, made public the videos from his visit to Nicaragua, where the correspondent appears denouncing her illegal situation.
Her crime was to report with full details the Ortega regime’s repression, from the time that the protests begun on April 18. The Prosecution terms this “provocation, proposition and conspiracy to commit terrorist acts.”
The reporter’s family members have denounced the subhuman conditions she’s being kept in. She’s been subjected to long interrogations, is allowed out into the light very little, and remains in a dark cell.
“The last time we saw her was on February 18 and her health was clearly being affected. They’re applying every type of psychological torture,” affirms Alejandro Ubau, Lucia’s uncle. Lucia has dedicated herself to journalism since 1995 and is considered one of the most popular media figures of the last few decades on national television.
“We’d like to commemorate in an atmosphere of peace and rights the historic sacrifices that women around the world have made. However, reality teaches us that in Nicaragua they’ve been murdering our women,” Alejandro reflects.
Madelaine Caracas and the student rebellion by Yader Luna
Before the April rebellion, Madelaine Caracas was studying communications. Despite her shyness, she was preparing to interview political figures. She never imagined that she would shortly be the one giving press conferences, drafting communiques, and granting requests for interviews. She also never thought that she’d be facing Daniel Ortega and confronting him during the National Dialogue.
On May 16 of last year, during the first session of the National Dialogue, Ortega tried to cast doubt on the murders committed by his regime. The students present were infuriated. Caracas grabbed the microphone and said: “They asked for the list of the students, [who’ve been killed] and we have it here.” She then went on to read the names of the 65 dead up until that moment.
“Presente” [Here with us], yelled the students after each name that the young woman read in a trembling voice. “Mentioning each one by name was one way of keeping them present,” this young girl, who had put her studies aside to struggle against the regime, stated later.
Shortly afterwards, Madelaine traveled to Europe as part of the Informational Caravan of International Solidarity with Nicaragua to denounce the massacre committed by the dictatorial regime. After that, she couldn’t return to the country and had to go into exile in Costa Rica.
“Every day I get up wishing I were in Nicaragua, back in my old life, finishing my career, being with the ones I love, and watching my nephew grow. Dealing with all this and feeling like an outsider in a country every day is very complicated. It’s a way to come to know yourself in some new way, but it wasn’t a choice: they forced us to act to save our lives,” Caracas recently stated.
This girl of 21 was named by the international magazine Estrategias & Negocios [Strategies and Business] as one of the most defiant women during the Nicaraguan protests. “My face is just one face among many women who are fighting for this country on all fronts. We women are in the struggle, and we’ve always been there,” the young woman posted on her social networks when she learned the news.
“They’ve taken so much away from us that they even took away our fear,” Madelaine Caracas says. In all the platforms where she’s been able to denounce the regime, she stands out as the voice of thousands of Nicaraguans.
The thousand battles of Sandra Ramos by Keyling T. Romero
Sandra Ramos has been involved in the defense of women’s rights for decades. It’s a battle she assumed in her adolescence, and one she was entirely focused on until April, 2018. She’s the director of the “Maria Elena Cuadra” Movement for working and unemployed women. She’s now had to redirect her work somewhat: from her position within the Civic Alliance, she looks for a way out of the sociopolitical crisis in Nicaragua that has left hundreds dead or in prison and has done grave damage to the economy.
“Let’s leave behind hypocrisy and lies here; the road to peace and stability for this country requires a change. They can’t continue killing the young people in this country. They haven’t understood that they crossed a line, and that as a result, the people in the streets are demanding changes,” she declared energetically at one of the first sessions of last year’s National Dialogue.
Sandra has always been this way: a decisive fighter for just causes. During the seventies, she became involved in the student movements that demanded an end to the Somoza dictatorship. Later, she began her work within the union movements. As part of this, she traveled to Cuba in the eighties to study to become a union instructor. When she returned, she became one of the co-founders of the Sandinista Workers’ Center which centralized the unions and workers’ movements.
It wasn’t until 1994 that she founded the “Maria Elena Cuadra” Movement, together with 800 women workers who had split off from the CST. As part of that movement she’s fought for over two decades with the women workers from Nicaragua’s free trade zone, denouncing workplace violations and educating women on their rights as workers.
One of the national achievements of this movement has been the construction of an ethical code for the workplace that seeks to end the violations of workers’ rights. Similarly, the movement spearheaded the Integral Law against Violence towards Women, a landmark 2012 law that years later was weakened by the government.
Sandra Ramos was born into a large family in Masaya. She grew up surrounded by women: her five sisters, her mother and her grandmother, who were the pillars that taught her to fight for her rights and to rebel against injustice. In recognition of her trajectory in the social struggles she was chosen to be part of the National Dialogue table. From that time on, she’s been demanding justice for the dead and the political prisoners.
Francisca Ramirez: at the head of the rural struggle by Franklin Villavicencio
In 2013, a short dark-skinned woman from the rural community of La Fonseca challenged the most powerful man in the country and faced down an entire regime that was already showing symptoms of dictatorship.
Francisca Ramirez, known all over Nicaragua as dona Chica, has from that time on led the Council for the Defense of the Land, the Lake and Sovereignty, a rural movement made up of farmers who opposed the construction of the interoceanic canal. The latter project involved a foreign concession that the Ortega regime had awarded to Chinese magnate Wang Jing, a man who has subsequently disappeared from view, giving him extensive rights to usurp the land along the proposed canal route.
The Farm Movement went on to hold 95 peaceful protest marches. All of them faced repression from the government’s shock troops and the police. Nonetheless, Francisca Ramirez hasn’t surrendered in her struggle.
Dona Francisca joined in with the protests that began last April. These demonstrations were triggered by reforms to Social Security, but later cascaded into a general sense of being fed up by the regime’s repression. April 18th was a day that she won’t forget: that day the leader was listening to the news from her house in La Fonseca, while in the cities the students were rising up against the regime.
In subsequent days, the protests intensified and the civic movement took over the streets. A number of highways within the country were barricaded off, for a brief time asphyxiating the Ortega dictatorship. Dona Chica has paid for her leadership in the rural protests by having to go into exile in Costa Rica. Now she’s a refugee there, but continues “in the resistance”, solidifying the civic struggle from outside.
“The things that happened on April 18 we had already experienced five years previously, but at that time the people were blind. They believed in the presidential couple’s discourse, when they’ve been empty words to deceive the people. On April 18, the young students said “Enough!” and raised their voices after seeing so much injustice,” the activist told Confidencial last September.
This past March 6, Ramirez received the Homo Homini prize in recognition of her fight to defend the land. In the ceremony held in Prague, the farm leader arrived dressed in a blue and white traditional dress with a poster depicting the political prisoners from the Farm Movement.