What's taking the blue helmets so long? A friend in Nicaragua gives a first-hand account of what
Former guerilla leader Daniel Ortega is serving his third consecutive term as Nicaragua’s President. In 2014 Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) eliminated presidential terms limits and in 2016 Ortega appointed his wife Rosario Murillo as the country's Vice-president.
On 18 April 2018, demonstrations against reforms to Nicaragua’s pension scheme were crushed by pro-government groups – also known as grupos de choque - leaving 26 people dead. Thousands have been injured by the police and paramilitary groups in the past 3 months while the number of deaths is currently around 320.
Here is the situation as seen through the eyes of a friend of mine in Granada, Nicaragua.
I’m vacationing in Italy as a message from a friend in Nicaragua ticks in. “Safer if you call me” it reads. I contacted him earlier today to ask for an update on his situation.
The connection on Messenger is good. I can hear the birds sing in the background and for a split second, I feel reassured. It sounds like the Granada I know. The colorful, colonial city I last visited in February 2018. Six weeks before the crises began.
I ask him where he is right now. “In the patio of my house” he replies. “I’ve been sitting here every day for the past two months. If I leave the house, I risk being stopped by them. And if they find out that I sympathize with the anti-Sandinistas, I will not only get arrested but also get kicked out of Nicaragua”.
He is talking about the police who, In close collaboration with special forces and Juventud Sandinista, the youth organization of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) raid people’s houses without warning to see if they are hiding members of the anti-government student organisation Movimiento 19 de Abril. Ruthless checks of phones and social media are also being carried out and a simple like on Facebook of a video showing violence by the pro-government groups will get you arrested. Or what's worse, massacred.
Beyond the barricades
Peter fears for his and his family’s lives every day. Only yesterday, his neighbour's 16 year-old daughter, an innocent bystander, bled to death after she was hit by a bullet right outside their house. He sends me a video someone recorded of the horrific event.
Peter sleeps with his clothes on and with a sharp knife within arm’s reach. He is a foreigner but his wife and children are Nicaraguans and although most "gringos" have left the country, that is not an option for Peter who has called Nicaragua home for the past 15 years.
He used to run a successful company in Granada. But after the riots started in April this year, it was too dangerous for staff to get to work. Consequently, the production came to a standstill and he had no choice but to close the company and fire all 18 employees. “It broke my heart to do it” he says. “The only way I can help them now is by buying them rice. There is a small supermarket down the road from where I live" (all larger supermarkets have been looted) and that is about as far as Peter dares to walk.
However, he sometimes makes exceptions at night, bringing coffee to the people who are keeping watch at the hundreds of barricades that have been built to block the roads for police and special forces.
Surviving on almost nothing
Most of my friends in Nicaragua live in Granada, Nicaragua’s number one tourism spot where close to 90% of the population works in the tourism sector. Granada is normally buzzing with life. But sounds of gunfire and violence have replaced the music and the calling of street vendors. The city’s main square Parque Central is empty. The horses and carriages that used to be lined up for tourists have vanished. There is not a backpacker in sight, most hotels and restaurants are closed and only one or two of dozens of bars and restaurant in the once lively Calle La Calzada are still open. The population is desperate. Let’s not forget that Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Before the crisis, the horses in Parque Central were already awfully skinny, many children were already forced to beg in the streets and almost every person here was scrambling to survive as it was. Together with Peter, I reflect on Nicaraguans’ ability to survive on almost nothing. My friends in Granada tell me that they are trying to find ways to get by while riots and violence are ravaging their country.
They try to use as little electricity and water as possible and keep food expenditure to a minimum. They've also told me about a trick that is widely used among the hungriest: apparently if you drink a big glass of water in 50 small gulps – one after the other – you can trick your stomach into believing that it’s full.
Waiting for help
Peter is frustrated that the world is not reacting. And he is not alone. “We need an intervention, and we need it now” he says and adds that he has heard several people ask “Cuando llegan los cascos azules” ("When are the blue helmets coming”).
While Nicaraguans wait for the UN (or just someone, really) to intervene, many try their luck across the border in Costa Rica or Guatemala.
In the meantime, those left behind are witnessing something that is fast approaching a second civil war in Nicaragua. A war where a mere 10% of the population has taken control. Ortega pays them to make sure that no one fights against the government. He pays them to spread terror and provides them with sophisticated weapons such as AK-47s and long-range rifles
while civilians are fighting back with their slingshots, paving stones or homemade metal mortars.
Please help Nicaragua. And thank you, readers, for spreading the word.
Peters name has been changed to protect his identity.
More about my relationship with Nicaragua:
In Memorarium, Peder Kolind (in Danish)