The installation of free Wi-Fi in Nicaragua’s parks and other public spaces is attributed to the express will and unquestionable orders of Rosario Murillo. Starting in 2014 the government paved virtual spaces with superhighways.
I have no idea if there was personal gain behind this generous decision. Somoza carpeted the streets of Managua and other roads with paving stones produced in his own factories: Somoza the statesman bought paving stones from Somoza the businessman.
Over time, these paving stones became the ubiquitous raw material for the insurrectionists’ barricades that helped bring down his regime, Wi-Fi was to the April uprising what paving stones were to the anti-Somocista insurrection of 40 years ago. Both virtual and physical streets provide many opportunities for horizontally spreading discontent.
Why did Murillo send signals in March, just ahead of the April uprising, that she saw danger in the social networks?
Over the last two decades, young people—the main users of this public unsecured Wi-Fi in the parks—had been the object of reproaches revealing more about the nostalgia if the analysts doing the reproaching than about the real moral and political fiber of these young people’s character.
A few years ago various studies portrayed Nicaragua’s youth as apathetic, apolitical and comfortably disengaged from the country’s reality. In the sardonically-coined words of a Costa Rican historian, whose intention was to reveal the intricacies of the turn taken in our political culture, youth had substituted the battle-hardened cry of “Patria libre o morir” (“Give me liberty or give me death”) for the more prudent “Patria libre o lesiones menores” (“Give me liberty or give me minor injuries”).
Some studies and analyses didn’t even give them that much credit. The youthful affinity for social media was interpreted more as evading the national than delving into the global; the global virtual reality had merely estranged them from the real country.
The analyses that attributed political apathy to Nicaraguan youth weighed their actions using old scales of what constitute political: political actions and resources for social mobilization.
These analyses and studies had not bothered to explore the wellsprings of young people’s political awareness because they were based on a system of values that didn’t exactly match that of youth in the seventies.
Diverse voices reported that five years ago, during the #OcupaINSS uprising, which was also organized over social networks, what most moved the young people was seeing retired elderly people beaten by thugs as the police stood by.
They say that what lit the fuse now in León was seeing multiple images on social media of Sandinista Youth members knocking over a hypertensive and diabetic old man who had taken to the street in protest over the 5% reduction in his pension. He was walking peacefully with others when they violently threw him to the ground.
In such a narrow conception of what defines politics, the complaints youth made on the social media were not tallied as political actions. At its root this blind spot comes from ignorance of the potential and types of struggle inherent in the new information-age tools, an issue to which Manuel Castells has dedicated thousands of pages, also applying his theoretical framework to recent social movements.
According to Castells, the Indignados movement in Spain began on the Internet via the social media, which provide autonomous spaces largely beyond the control of governments and corporations that throughout history have monopolized communication channels as the bedrock of their power. He describes how individuals shared pain and hope in the public space provided by the networks, connecting among themselves and envisioning diverse projects stemming from different origins, thus forming networks independent of their personal opinions and allegiances. They came together.
Castells adds that their union helped them overcome fear, that paralyzing emotion by which the powerful thrive and multiply, using intimidation, dissuasion and, if necessary, brute violence displayed or imposed by institutions. From the safety of cyberspace, people of any age and condition dared to occupy urban spaces in a blind date with the destiny they wanted to forge, reclaiming their right to make history—their own history—in a demonstration of the self-awareness that has always characterized great social movements.
April’s rebellion in Nicaragua followed this script. Their social networks were the tool young people used to overcome the pressure the Ortega regime has inflicted on the traditional media outlets for years and the censorship of various channels imposed in April. Their networks also enabled them to conquer the fear instilled by the presence of the paramilitary mobs and anti-riot police that for years have controlled the country’s streets.
Victory over fear and a growing rage were the impetus for taking back the streets, where for 11 years this dramatic, overwhelming rejection had been absent.
As a friend remarked, when young people took the leap from Facebook to the real country, the struggle leaped from cyberspace to the streets of Managua, León, Masaya, Bluefields….
And as this struggle played out on two stages, the virtual and the street, it brought about a reality that had previously been virtual simulations: the destruction of the “chayo trees,” the emergence of new leaders, innumerable memes mocking Ortega and Murillo, feelings of companionship and of nationalism expressed in thousands of blue and white Nicaraguan flags and initiatives to paint curbs, poles, benches and walls in blue and white, all over the country.
Neither leaders nor political parties. The actions that took place in physical spaces were conceived and planned in cyberspace. In a continuous virtuous circle, social media reflected and amplified events on the streets, enhancing them in audiovisual touch-ups and turning them into giants with a kind of national and global megaphone.
Within days, the social media were the platform from which powerless citizens who up to then had lived lives harmless to the regime, suddenly stood out as legendary leaders: the resistance of the people of Monimbó and Comandante Monimbó (Fernando Gaitán, also nicknamed Comandante Caperucita, Spanish for Little Red Riding Hood); sellers in the Mayoreo Market who threatened the paramilitary mobs with their pistols and machetes; students barricaded in the Polytechnic University (UPOLI), interviewed on CNN; resistance in hundreds of videos from the neighborhoods surrounding this university; and “Plomo” (Lead) in which rapper Erick Nicoyas González summed up the epic period and fueled spirits. These are just the first few of the revolt’s many displays, characters and outbursts that flew around the world on social media and only later appeared in traditional national and international media outlets.
Social networks made it possible for this rebellion to take place without designated leaders. Of all the attending advantages and drawbacks that implies, the greatest advantage is that it was a revolt of common, everyday people, not of party militants or established social movements.
The Nicaraguan tiger’s revolt is of a piece with that of Spain’s Indignados and the Middle Eastern movements, none of which identified with any political party or had formal representatives. It also shares two other striking characteristics: lack of money and lack of fear.
Rapid construction of common sense. Another sphere the social networks played in that was key to the April uprising was the construction of quick consensus. In the case of the April 23 mega-march, for example, the process developed roughly like this: the business leadership under the COSEP umbrella put out a communiqué calling for a march led by employers and employees, but inviting the students, by then the heroes of the hour.
The call spread within minutes via Whatsapp, followed by comments, rejections or jokes, including a sprinkling of analytical articles… Within hours a verdict was reached about what the business sector was up to or perhaps what it knew… In the end, the march wasn’t just the business sector with a smattering of students. Everybody went. It was at that point the largest mega-march ever seen in Managua.
Nicaragua is simply not the same. It’s no longer an issue of “a” problem and a particular political error. It’s a saturation of problems that called into question the entire political system.
The country changed, the system must change. This turnaround, this “changed country,” this conclusion, was reached through a combination of the youths’ sensitivity towards multiple causes and their use of social networks.
The youth started with social demands that the system could have answered one by one and reabsorbed (a badly managed forest fire, needed social security reforms…). But instead they quickly got rerouted by the escalation of events onto a path that joined with other demands, establishing a relationship of solidarity that stirred up still other demands that have turned into a demand against the entire system.
The fact that the FSLN of Ortega-Murillo embodies that system greatly facilitates the convergence of multiple struggles into one. Trying not to notice that the social networks—also the vehicle for denouncing the killings and tortures—had made possible the leap towards the anti-systemic logic of equivalence, Ortega wanted to return to the logic of difference and respond to one of the individual demands (the social security reforms), but that train was no longer at the station.
That leap had occurred through rhizomatic reflections circulating through the networks and being strained through consciences until forming an also rhizomatic knowledge: a horizontal one of indefinite expansion from small sprouts of discomfort that add to the original starting point.
The Ortega-Murillo government is determined to continue operating as before, pretending a common sense had not been formed that placed us in the logic of equivalence. Out of that monumental ignorance it’s putting together a strategy that can only lead to more bloodshed.
José Luis Rocha is an associate researcher at the Institute for Research and Social Projection on Global and Territorial Dynamics of Guatemala’s Rafael Landívar University and El Salvador’s José Simeón Cañas Central American University