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Why every American should pay attention to Nicaragua

(CNN) – “We all have a right to express our opinions, and if they are different than the government, that doesn’t mean we should be murdered or that we are terrorists,” Josefa Esterlina Meza, 55, told me. She was clutching a photo of her son Jonathan Sebastián Morazán Meza, 21, who was allegedly murdered by government forces while attending a protest in Nicaragua on May 30.

A young woman pauses after spray painting graffiti stencils of the faces of missing and imprisoned students on the street and on walls lining the route for the September 2 protest in Managua.

The government denies it had any part in his death, but Meza asks who else would have done it. On September 2, Meza took to the streets yet again to protest peacefully with some of the other “Mothers of April,” all of whom allege their children were murdered or imprisoned by forces loyal to President Daniel Ortega. She reflected: “We aren’t animals. We are thinking people, and we have the right to have an opinion.”

Sadly, the notion of freedom to protest felt like it was under siege further north, too.

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This week, as mothers gathered in the streets of Nicaragua to protest, women in the United States, some dressed as figures from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” stood outside Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing in Washington in silent protest.

The situation in Nicaragua that led to nationwide protests began in April, when the Ortega government, after years of suppressing freedom of the press and freedom of expression, proposed reforms to the pension system. Students, knowing that the reforms would endanger the welfare of their parents and grandparents, took to the streets to protest and support pensioners. On April 19, pro-government forces associated with the Ortega government murdered three protesters and in the following days and months killed hundreds more.

Protesters aren’t being slaughtered in the United States, but the country’s Handmaids still have much to protest as the Trump administration has sought to discredit free speech and peaceful protest. The administration has withheld tens of thousands of documents related to Kavanaugh’s judicial record, one that women worry means he will limit their sexual and reproductive rights should he be confirmed.

In response to the mothers gathered in the streets of Managua, Nicaragua, unidentified gunmen who protesters identified as pro-government operatives, opened fire. Although no one was hurt, the shots had all of us running for cover, videos of previous protesters who had been murdered fresh in our minds. Meanwhile, in response to the women gathered in the US, President Donald Trump said, “I don’t know why they don’t take care of a situation like that. I think it’s embarrassing for the country to allow protesters. You don’t even know what side the protesters are on.” Ortega, like Trump, has suggested that you don’t know what side protesters might be on, saying: “What is happening in our country has no name. The kids do not even know the party that is manipulating them.” He has even gone so far as to call protest a form of “terrorism.”

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Ortega has executed a plan to prevent protests at all costs. In August, Ortega, who has been in power with his wife, who is vice president, since 2006, passed an anti-terrorism law to criminalize protesters as terrorists. According to Gonzalo Carrión, the legal advisor for the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, government forces and pro-government groups have killed 311 protesters since April, most of them students, including 18 minors. Carrión explained that in Nicaragua “under a dictatorship, all forms of freedom of expression are repressed.”

Ortega, like Trump, has an Orwellian sensibility when it comes to the truth. For example, in July during a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention, Trump said of the media: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Ortega, in a similar rejection of reality, has accused human rights organizations of “inventing deaths.” I arrived in Nicaragua on September 1, and on that same day he expelled a UN team from the country after they published a report critical of his government’s violent repression of protesters.

When photographer Jacky Muniello and I covered the September 2 protest we found out firsthand what it feels like to have the government attempt to prevent protests: armed police tried to silence the peaceful protesters with threats, insults, beatings, gunshots and then we saw them set a truck on fire. I watched as mothers with young daughters stood up to the police, as a group of young women stenciled the faces of political prisoners onto the street, and all I could think of was the bravery of the protesters, risking their lives to peacefully request that the government respect the rule of law.

When President Trump suggests that he doesn’t think protests should be allowed, it is important that we ask him to define what he means. The history of our country is built on the selfless work of peaceful protesters who have taken to the streets to demand equality — from suffragettes to those demanding Civil Rights. In Nicaragua, citizens have paid the ultimate price for peacefully expressing their opinions.

Meza, who says she is threatened daily by the government after the murder of her son, has fled her home and sent her younger son to Costa Rica. As Trump continues his crusade against freedom of expression and freedom of the press in the US, we would do well to remember what the erosion of these rights look like in other countries.

Author Alice Driver is a freelance journalist and translator whose work focuses on migration, human rights and gender equality. She is based in Mexico City. Driver is the author of “More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

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