Students at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua (Unan) have occupied the Managua campus and set up anti-government protest camps: ‘Our struggle is to eliminate this regime’.
The spike strips, barricades, molotov cocktails and masked rebels at its perimeter leave no doubt: school is out at the Managua campus of Nicaragua’s oldest university.
Banners demanding the removal of President Daniel Ortega deck the padlocked gates of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (Unan), behind which lurk bleary-eyed undergraduate insurgents bracing for an onslaught they believe could come at any time.
“Our struggle is to eliminate this regime,” said Armando Téllez, the first-year economics student running one of three such protest camps to have consumed local universities since anti-government demonstrations erupted on 18 April. “The people have woken up – and there’s no way of putting them back to sleep.”
Organisers say 500 rebel students have taken up permanent residence on the Unan’s campus since it was occupied on 7 May.
“You’re being watched by 20 or 30 people,” another leader, Jonathan López, explained as he offered a tour of the student stronghold’s improvised ramparts – metal, wood and concrete barricades manned by masked students equipped with hard hats and shields fashioned from empty steel drums. Some carry improvised “mortars” – homemade devices which fire small explosive charges to deter attackers.
“If I wasn’t with you they’d have let off five or six mortars already,” the 20-year-old added with a grin.
The Unan occupation is one front in a mushrooming nationwide revolt against Ortega, the onetime Sandinista hero who helped overthrow Anastasio Somoza’s brutal dictatorship in 1979 and has ruled Nicaragua since making an electoral comeback in 2006.
Such is the level of discontent with what critics call Ortega’s corrupt and authoritarian rule – and such is Ortega’s apparent reluctance to step down – that some fear Central America’s largest nation now stands on the brink of a new era of mayhem.
Rolando Álvarez, one of the most senior members of Nicaragua’s Catholic church, warned that unless the country’s 72-year-old president and his widely loathed wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, offered immediate concessions to the protesters “it is very likely that Nicaragua will find itself caught up once again in a civil war”.
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“It would be a disaster, a chaos that we do not want,” said Álvarez, bishop of the city of Matagalpa.
“I ask the Divine Spirit to illuminate the minds and the hearts of the president and the vice-president,” added Álvarez, a key figure in a recently suspended national dialogue that had been trying to find a political solution to the crisis but was abandoned because of Ortega’s failure to halt the violent repression of protests. “The cards are in the hands of the president. After God, he has the last word.”
With the body count rising, and Ortega showing no sign of resigning or agreeing to early elections, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, editor of the opposition newsletter Confidencial, said he also felt trepidation.
Activists say at least 130 people have been killed since the uprising began almost two months ago – the majority gunned down during police crackdowns or attacks by mysterious masked gunmen suspected of being government-backed paramilitaries.
“Daniel Ortega will resist until the very last moment. And this means more repression, more pain and situations that I don’t even want to imagine,” warned Chamorro, the son of former president Violeta Chamorro.
“I sincerely believe that we are living through a very dangerous moment because nobody – nobody – is safe today in Nicaragua. I’m not talking about me. No one is safe,” he added.
That is not news to the students of Unan, many of whom lost friends or relatives when demonstrations they were taking part in came under fire.
“I’ve seen something like 20 or 30 people die … Some people here have watched their own brothers die,” said López, a third-year economics student from the colonial city of Granada, the stage for deadly clashes last week.
The university has come under attack, with students reporting drive-by shootings at the roadblocks they have erected around the Unan. “A motorbike will come by and let off a whole clip. It’s happened several times,” claimed Téllez.
A 25-year-old anaesthesiology graduate who runs five clinics within the occupation said his volunteer medics had treated five gunshot wounds since students stormed the campus last month. “In the back, the neck, the arm and the face,” said the doctor, who asked that only his nickname, Veneno (Poison), be used. “I wish I could be at home taking cold showers and watching movies – but as long as the people don’t give up, we won’t either.”
The Unan may not be able to offer guests much in the way of security, but it does have an abundance of refreshments. A garage has been converted into a distribution centre for food supplies from sympathetic locals. The university’s sylvan grounds are overflowing with fresh fruit. “We’ve got mangoes, mamones, jocotes,” said Téllez. “We’re self-sufficient!”
The odd Nicaraguan beer has also found its way into the encampment, with empty cans of Toña littering one frontline barricade.
There is plenty of shelter, too. The Institute of Geology and Geophysics – a two-storey building filled with glass cabinets containing precious stones and fossils – is now a hospital-cum-dormitory-cum-canteen where protesters can dine alfresco on a small rectangular lawn before crashing on mattresses and sofas in its corridors. Outside, dozens more squatters camp out under black tarpaulins or in hammocks strung between trees.
“We feel tired, some are frustrated,” admitted camp commander Téllez, who said many of the protesters had not seen their families in weeks.
But messages of support have been posted around the occupation to lift spirits. One handwritten letter, from allies in the northern city of Ocotal, reads: “Dear students, We are grateful for the heroism and humanity of all those who are resisting in the Unan bastion.”
“As young people and Nicaraguan citizens we cherish the ideal of a more democratic society in which people can live together in harmony … You embody the ideal of an authentic, fair and non-violent struggle. The ideal of a fair and free Nicaragua … The truth and the people will always win out.”
Chamorro described Nicaragua’s rebel students as key members of a broader coalition that would been needed to force Ortega from office through a mix of dialogue, diplomacy, street protest and economic persuasion. “The solution requires an effort of maximum pressure.”
But the journalist, who worked with Ortega during the 1980s when he edited the Sandinista newspaper, Barricada, warned that those trying to topple the onetime revolutionary did not fully appreciate the cunning of a man who has dominated Nicaraguan politics for decades.
“Ortega cannot be underestimated. He is a political animal. He is a very determined political animal. And I’m worried … about how far he can go in terms of repressing.”
At the Unan, the millennial rebels defying their septuagenarian president were adamant they would not be cowed.
“We’re defending democracy in our country,” said a 28-year-old chemistry dropout who was manning a barrier at the campus’s south-eastern tip, his face hidden by a blue ski-mask and a knife strapped to his thigh. “I’m ready, physically and psychologically, for whatever disaster might come.”
A few hours later one did. At about 9.40pm on Thursday night, two SUVs carrying armed paramilitaries descended on one Unan fortification and began spraying it with bullets. Chester Javier Chavarría, 19, was hit in the chest and died as he was taken to hospital.
“His death will not be in vain. One way or the other they will pay for his death,” vowed a fellow student rebel. “[The government] talks about love, peace. But you don’t show your love with shootouts.”
Article originally appeared on The Guardian