April 7, 2019
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
I want to dedicate these words to Nicaragua because it has been 12 months since the political crisis began. Between 350 and 500 people have lost their lives, more than a 1,000 have been physically injured, 779 people have been imprisoned for their participation in social protests (200 of them recently released), 70,000 have gone into exile, and there have been 700 acts of aggressions against journalists covering the protests, and 66 journalists went into exile – this is just to give some numbers.
Are the protests an attempt to overthrow a legitimate democratic government, carried out by an elite hungry for power? Is the crisis a civic insurrection, led by the people for the people, tired of years of corruption, abuse of power and dictatorship? What is the solution? Who has the solution?
And what does all of this have to do with you, as a Christian and as a U.S. citizen? Are you part of the solution?
Context and Background
First, I would like to offer some background information about Nicaragua and its recent political history. Nicaragua is primarily an agricultural country, the least developed in Central America and sadly the second poorest in the hemisphere. In Nicaragua, approximately 30 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day.
In many ways our fate as a nation is not much different than what happened to the majority of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. We are talking about lands owned and populated by indigenous people that were invaded by Europeans back in the 15th century. Nicaragua and other countries of Central America gained independence from Spain in 1821. From that time on, the local politicians put their interests before the interests of the people. People were first oppressed by the colonizers and then by the local elite in collusion with international agents of the neocolonialism. Considering this, it is no wonder why Nicaragua’s history is marked with repetitive periods of armed conflict, rebellion, and dictatorships, contributing to our chronic poverty as a nation.
I was old enough to live one of those moments of political upheaval, which was during last phase of the Somozas’ dictatorship. By the late seventies, following the path of his father, president Anastasio Somoza Garcia, and then his brother, president Luis Somoza Debayle, the third Somoza in power, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was challenged by a revolutionary movement. The Somoza family was ultra-corrupt, accumulating wealth and power like crazy and were also brutal with their opponents. This dynastic family owned almost a fourth of the land in Nicaragua while keeping the poor illiterate and repressed. The regime used the feared Guardia Nacional, or National Guard, to crackdown on dissidents.
I was 13 years old during a neighborhood protest against the Somoza dictatorship, making noise with pots and pans, as the Somozas’ police came down with their firearms and sticks. We all immediately ran to seek refuge in our houses, but my dad was slower and was intercepted by two officials. “Run” they told him, but he stood there afraid that if he ran they might shoot him. They only injured him with their sticks. Luckily the guardias were in a hurry and left him. The day after we knew of a neighbor from the other side of the barrio who was shot and killed by them.
The Somoza regime was overthrown in July 1979 by the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, the FSLN, whose leaders were inspired by the struggle of Augusto Sandino, a national leader who fought the U.S. Marine’s occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930’s.
One of the happiest days for me, my family and most Nicaraguans was when Somoza left the country and the Sandinistas took power. We were full of hope as we shared a vision to build a new Nicaragua in which justice, freedom for all, progress and equality could prevail. I was fully immersed as a youth in this revolutionary experiment and I was part of many social projects that were promoted by the new government. But, a few years later we were again facing another war: the Contra War of the 1980s, in which 25,000 people died. We were instruments of the Cold War superpowers. The Sandinista government was becoming more and more repressive of dissidents to the point that for many the Somoza dictatorship was replaced by the Sandinista dictatorship.
This war ended in 1990 after peace agreements were signed by all parties in conflict. We finally had free national elections, for the first time in our history. Daniel Ortega was then trying to be reelected president but was defeated by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the candidate of a coalition of political parties that opposed the Sandinista revolution.
The next 16 years, from 1990 until 2006 were run by right-wing parties, in relative peace, while the country tried to rebuild again. We celebrated presidential national elections every five years. Daniel Ortega always ran as the candidate for his Sandinista party, the FSLN. And he was again defeated in 1996 and 2001, but remained very powerful as the second political force, with significant presence of his people in the Asamblea Nacional (our national parliament) and in other State powers like the army, the police and the judicial system. The right-wing governments that came after the Sandinista revolution made important progress in terms of formal democracy, but could not deliver on their economic promises, despite some economic growth, and what is worse, many of their politicians again took the opportunity to benefit from their positions. The most corrupt figure of that era was Arnoldo Aleman, president from 1997 to 2001, to the point that he was prosecuted and sent to jail. Ortega took advantage of that and of his opponents’ divisiveness. With this and other political maneuvers Ortega came back to power in 2007; the majority voted for him in that election.
What has happened in the last 12 years of Ortega´s government that has led to the current political crisis? His supporters would tell you that all these years have seen economic growth, which has brought progress especially to the poor. His detractors would tell you that Ortega´s social and economic policies are pure clientelism. Even worse, for many Ortega has been gradually centralizing all power in a close circle around the now-presidential couple, as Ortega´s wife, Rosario Murillo, is the vice president. Because of his control of the legislative body, the electoral system and judicial system, he was able to bypass the constitutional limits on reelection, and therefore he ran for the presidency again in 2011 and again in 2016, committed fraud and has been preparing his wife for the presidency in 2021.
The Ortega-Murillo regime does not tolerate any dissidence. During their 12 years in power, they gradually have taken possession of the principal TV channels, radio stations and newspapers. They also have been controlling the city streets and village roads, impeding social protests with their turbas or mobs, ready to attack any public expression of dissidence. The regime got rid of all the serious political parties that opposed the regime. And of course, the Ortega-Murillo family, like the Somoza family, has increased their wealth immensely.
The Nicaraguan spring
In 2017, after Ortega’s second consecutive reelection, the Ortega-Murillo regime looked like a perfect dictatorship, a functional one. But suddenly all of this changed in April of last year. There were two small scale-protests, the first organized by young environmentalists protesting the government´s neglect in taking action to stop a forest fire in the South of Nicaragua. A few weeks later another protest took place due to changes in the social security system. As usual the government responded with violence. But this time something was different. The images that went viral on social media of progovernment agents AGAIN attacking peaceful protesters and journalists was the last straw. These new attacks made people patience went away and instead of running to their houses in fear of the pro-government bullies, this time more people joined the protests, and people started demanding not only a reversal of the social security measures, but the very resignation of President Ortega.
These were moments of immense excitement. It seemed incredible that the perfect dictatorship was finally challenged. Unfortunately, the Ortega-Murillo regime instead of acknowledging that something had gone profoundly wrong with their government, and instead of respecting the people´s right to civic demonstrations, opted for more repression. They killed and terrorized their own citizens, the ones that they are supposed to protect, because they were a threat to their power.
Competing but very unequal narratives
You may remember my questions at the beginning of this sermon. Are the protests an attempt to overthrow a legitimate democratic government, carried out by an elite hungry for power? Is the crisis a civic insurrection, led by the people for the people, tired of years of corruption, abuse of power and dictatorship?
Probably by now you can guess what my response to these questions would be. The Nicaraguan government argues that they faced an attempted coup and they labeled protesters as terrorists, murderers and coup promoters. Not many people and countries believe this narrative, apart from their loyalists. At some point the government had to accept the coming of international human rights bodies into the country to perform an independent assessment of the human rights situation in Nicaragua. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) visited in May of 2018 and issued a first report called “Gross human rights violations in the context of social protests in Nicaragua.” The report clearly condemns the government for the overwhelming majority of these human rights violations.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) came in August 2018, and its report, titled “Human rights violations and abuses in the context of protests in Nicaragua. 18 April-18 August 2018” points the finger at the government as the party mainly responsible of the crimes committed. The Organization of American States, in agreement with the Nicaraguan government, created what was called an “Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) for Nicaragua,” to support the investigations of the violent acts that had occurred since April 2018. The Ortega government did not like any of these reports and expelled these missions from the country.
A mission from the European Parliament also visited the country early this year. The European Parliament has adopted two resolutions strongly condemning the Nicaraguan government and recommending “targeted and individual sanctions, such as visa bans and asset freezes.”
The Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) also has been monitoring the situation of Nicaragua and are a few steps away from expelling Nicaragua from this regional body. In December last year the U.S. Congress approved new sanctions against the government of Nicaragua, and President Trump has signed the measure.
On March 19, the Human Rights Council, the highest United Nations entity on human rights, adopted a resolution stating, in the first two articles:
The Human Rights Council,
- Expresses grave concern at reports of serious human rights violations and abuses, beginning in April 2018 with the disproportionate use of force by the police to repress social protests, and acts of violence by armed paramilitary groups, as well as reports of ongoing unlawful arrests and arbitrary detentions, harassment, and torture and sexual and gender-based violence in detention;
- Expresses concern over the increasing restrictions on civic space and expressions of dissent in Nicaragua, including the closure of independent media outlets and the cancellation of the legal registration, and seizure of assets and goods, of a number of civil society organizations, particularly targeting human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders, and over reported acts of intimidation and reprisal;
Right now, the negotiations between the government and civil society are at an impasse because of the government’s refusal to discuss and agree on matters related to justice and democracy. All parties agreed on the release of the political prisoners and on restoring constitutional rights such as the freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and public demonstrations. But the government does not want to talk about electoral reforms and early elections, which are critical elements for a peaceful solution to the crisis. In matters of justice, the Ortega regime came to the negotiation table with an insulting proposal of relying on the state institutions, including the police, to investigate the crimes committed. This is as if you would accept that your perpetrator establishes truth and imparts justice on your behalf.
Another central element of the government’s narrative is that these protests were violent, and included vandalism against public properties. They argue that many police officers were killed by the demonstrators. These statements may contain some truth. However, for the most part, the protests were peaceful and the overwhelming majority of people on the streets did not carry arms, while the police and paramilitary were used weapons of war, including snipers who shot to kill. This was not a war with two armies fighting equally. This was a state sponsored violence.
I was reassured that there were voices within the country that brought the critical reflection regarding not using the same violent methods of your oppressors, lest you become like them. But yes, some protesters resorted to violence, either to protect themselves or to express their dissent. And yes, among the more than 300 victims we mourn the loss of 20 police officers, and we pray for their grieving families as well as for the other 300 families. As of now, we don’t know who killed these officers. There is the suspicion that some of them may have been killed by the government. These crimes should also be investigated.
The protagonists and the new heroes
One year ago, before the social protests, nobody would have imagined that today this apparently invincible regime would be in such a critical condition. This is primarily thanks to the Nicaraguan youths who went out to the streets fighting peacefully for authentic democracy in their country. The youths were not alone; the rest of the society joined them.
The Nicaraguans who don’t live in the country are also making their contributions to the civic insurrection. Just here in the greater Washington, D.C. area, more than a 100 Nicaraguans have made numerous protests in front of the Nicaraguan embassy, have gone to the Organization of American States premises, have reached out to member of the U.S. Congress, and met with human right institutions in D.C., to advocate for our country.
The Nicaraguan diaspora have been providing financial and emotional support to our brother and sisters victims of the repression and have organized numerous fundraising events to that end. Last year our church supported the Alianza Democrática Nicaragüense, one of these Nicaraguan groups in the region, offering this space for a concert in solidarity with Nicaragua. This year Seekers is donating funds to both the Alianza and to another Nicaraguan group, the Asociación Cívica Nicaragüense who in turn are providing humanitarian assistance to Nicaraguan refugees coming here to the US and to Costa Rica.
The strength, resistance and the dignity demonstrated by the political prisoners is something of amazing value. They keep protesting within their prison cells despite the reprisals that follow. They sing the national anthem, which is a symbol of protest in Nicaragua. Some of them went on hunger strike. A group of them managed to climb to the roof of the prison and from there started chanting slogans. After that they were punished and sent to maximum security cells. These people exemplified the message of Jesus teaching to turn the other cheek, standing up to evil with dignity and strength.
The Lectionary psalm for today is Psalm 126. I wish our political prisoners could meditate on this prayer, which is a song of hope. When Ramón Jáuregui, a member of the European parliament, visited the Nicaraguan prisons and met with the journalist Miguel Mora, who now has been incarcerated more than 100 days, the journalist asked him for two things: a bible and a lamp. Like Miguel Mora, most of our political prisoners draw strength from their faith. Psalm 126 speaks about liberation, about coming back home from the exile or from imprisonment. It also establishes a causal relation between times of sacrifices and times of joy. “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” And although most Nicaraguan people, especially those persecuted by the dictatorship, are now experiencing pain, we hope that these sacrifices will lead to better times. They are taking the pain to benefit us all, in the same way that Jesus did.
The solution to the crisis
Now I want to address these questions that I posed: What is the solution to this crisis in Nicaragua? Who has the solution?
This is a complex situation that requires the commitment of all stakeholders in Nicaragua, with the support of the international community. The government is negotiating only because it has been pressured from within the country and from abroad. They fear international sanctions and most importantly they fear losing their extensive power and control over the country. Such power is what has allowed them for so long to violate the Constitution, commit fraud and corruption, and assault their citizens without facing consequences. They will do whatever they can to remain in power. They may lack ethics and values, but they are very smart and politically astute.
In the past, the solutions to political crisis involved force: an insurgent movement that ousted the Somoza dictatorship and an irregular army (the Contras) that challenged the Sandinista revolution. The price we paid was extremely high. The estimation is of 60.000 deaths adding the two wars. Apparently, we as a society moved on with our lives, but deep down the wounds never healed. That is why in today´s crisis most Nicaraguans reject a military solution.
But it is extremely hard to carry out a peaceful struggle against a violent and oppressive government. The government lies shamelessly, disregards the recommendations given by the international human rights institutions, and breaches the few agreements it has made.
The Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco, the biggest coalition of organizations and leaders that opposes the government, is demanding the release of all political prisoners, is calling for increase of the international pressures against the Ortega´s regime, civil an fiscal disobedience, better community and civic organizing to resist the regime, and the return to the country of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), because we don´t trust the government and we need international observation in these negotiations.
Nicaragua needs not only actions to resolve the current political crisis, but also a long-term solution to heal and rebuild as a society. For that we need to learn from the past to avoid repeating old mistakes. In the past, in Nicaragua those who committed crimes in the context of political conflicts either got away with them or were harshly punished and socially ostracized. Neither of these outcomes brings transformation.
We need another form of justice. Instead of punitive justice or rampant impunity, we need a process of transitional justice and the values of restorative justice in which truth, accountability, reparation, reconciliation, conflict resolution and democratic participation are upheld. We cannot afford to forget what happened. We can’t move forward without recognizing the pain and the needs of victims for reparation. At the same time, we should not use revenge and the old rule based on “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”.
Are you part of the solution?
What does all of this have to do with you as a Christian and as a U.S. citizen? And are you part of the solution?
In our Prayer of Commitment, which we pray every Sunday in Seekers, we say aloud:
O Holy One, (…)
Give us strength and discipline
to nurture our relationship with you;
to care for every part of your creation;
to foster justice and be in solidarity with those in need;
to work to end all war, and violence, and discord;
and to respond joyfully when you call,
freely giving ourselves as you have shown the way.
To me, this prayer explains why you have been already part of the solution. You have shown solidarity with Nicaraguans right from the start of the crisis and I want to thank you for that. I want to thank you for all your prayers for Nicaragua; for always checking with us how we are feeling about the situation there and how our families are doing; for offering this sacred space for a concert in solidarity with those Nicaraguans in need; for your personal financial contribution to the fundraising campaign we organized last year on behalf of a human rights center in Nicaragua; for signing as Seekers Church the petition letter that went to members of the Human Rights Council in Geneva so that they convene a session about Nicaragua and adopt a resolution (which happened last month); for including Nicaraguan organizations within the Domestic Giving and the International Giving program. For all of that and for more small gestures of solidarity we feel blessed to be part of this Christian community.
Seekers have been supporting many good causes here and abroad: in Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, South African, Uganda, Israel and Palestine. This work is also part of the solution for Nicaragua, since we are all interconnected. Likewise, your support to projects within the U.S. around housing, education, advocacy and more, contributes to Nicaragua. The more you do as an American citizen and as a Christian to heal the United States and to influence good domestic and foreign policies, the better chance we will have in other countries. Even the former U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua, Laura F. Dogu, recognized that her country was in the past part of the problem.
Other actions you can take, if you have the means and time to do so, is to reach out to your representatives in Congress and remind them of the need to keep up the pressure against the Ortega-Murillo regime as long as they continue breaching agreements and committing human rights violations. You can also speak up, wherever and whenever you can, about the crisis in Nicaragua, to inform, share reliable news and analysis, raise awareness and invite more solidarity, which could be via informal conversations, through any media or social outlets. You can also write an open letter or a private letter to Nicaraguan victims of the repression, to let them know that you care.
You can also offer your expertise, your skills, your passion, as a form of help—being explicit about your limits. For instance, if you are good writing grant proposals, or proofreading written documents, you can let us know and we may put you in touch with solidarity groups who need those skills. You can offer your house, your patio, or your workplace for a meeting or event in solidarity with Nicaragua. Or you can suggest others who may want to support about these ideas and connections.
Thanks again for all you do!!!