Anti-Ortega protests leave Nicaraguans living under the volcano
Fragile calm returns after roadblocks are broken up but few believe unrest is over
At the foot of Masaya volcano in Nicaragua, shoppers and children in school uniform bustle about town. But the ominous rumble from deep inside the crater is a reminder that it could blow at any time
At the foot of Masaya volcano in Nicaragua, shoppers and children in school uniform bustle about town. But the ominous rumble from deep inside the crater is a reminder that it could blow at any time.
The same could be said for the town itself, still recovering after four months of protests against President Daniel Ortega. While a fragile calm has been restored after paramilitary forces loyal to the government broke up protesters’ roadblocks last month, few believe the unrest here and across the country is over yet.
“Things are not normal, and we don’t know whether they will get better or worse,” sighed Kenex, 32, a social worker who, with his wife Ingrid, was one of only a handful of visitors to the normally busy volcano national park on a recent public holiday.
Once upon a time the dramatic volcano, just a 20-minute drive from the capital city of Managua, would have drawn hundreds of visitors a day. No longer.
Terrified by attacks on protesters after demonstrations against pension reform began on April 18 and swiftly snowballed, Ingrid had not ventured farther than her home, her work and her mother’s house since the crisis began.
“People aren’t calm. It’s terrible to have seen so many people suffer, so many mothers cry,” she said, standing near the deserted site museum where a forlorn fruit seller and souvenir stand also had no takers. “The scars are still open.”
Mr Ortega, a Sandinista revolutionary who helped topple dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, then headed the junta that ruled Nicaragua and is now on his second term as president, is under fire at home and abroad for a brutal paramilitary crackdown on civilian protesters. ANPDH, a rights group, says nearly 450 people have died, including police.
The government has put the death toll at 197 and blames the violence and economic damage on coup-mongers. Nicaragua’s legislature, which like other state institutions is under presidential control, last month rushed through a bill to try protesters for terrorism.
Mariela Cerrato’s daughter, María Adilia Peralta, jailed three weeks ago, faces trial on terrorist charges on August 24 for her role in protests in Masaya. “She said, ‘How long will they give me, 30 years?’ and started crying,” said her mother, who had been allowed a brief recent visit. “I told her, ‘Yes, but you won’t serve it . . . because Daniel will be out this year’.”
Many share her optimism that the protests — which are still continuing nationwide, though in smaller numbers — are the beginning of the end for the 72-year-old president. But by breaking up the roadblocks that protesters had thrown up across the country, Mr Ortega appears to have strengthened his hand. Even at this low point he has a solid base of about 30 per cent support, according to a recent poll.
“It’s better for him to stay, to avoid a war and more bloodshed,” said
José Ramón Centeno, in Monimbó, an indigenous neighbourhood of
Masaya that was both a Sandinista stronghold in 1979 and the last bastion of the roadblocks in this year’s protests. “Things are looking better,” he said. “For me, the terrorism was when there were roadblocks.”
The roadblocks are gone but fear persists.
Vladimir Gómez, a primary school teacher in Monimbó who became involved in the protests “because it was necessary”, said that only 20 of the 250 students enrolled at his school in the mornings were attending class. School hours have also been cut.
It is not just in Masaya that normality is only skin-deep. In Managua, “for rent” signs have mushroomed. Bars and restaurants are shut or empty and traffic is light as the economy quietly crumbles. “Consumption is down, there are daily lay-offs,” said Mario Arana, a former central bank president and finance minister. “The adjustment we’re going to have to make is going to be brutal.”
The government has trumpeted a return to normal but at the same time rushed to pass draconian budget cuts and approve the issue of emergency domestic bonds to guarantee financial stability. Indignation at Mr Ortega continues to seethe despite the veneer of business as usual. “It’s like a pot on the boil with a thin lid that bursts off,” said Ms Cerrato. “There’s no going back until he goes.”
For Alfredo Dávila, an out-of-work lecturer from Monimbó who praises the paramilitaries for clearing out “delinquents”, the future looks rocky.
“To say this is over, no, I don’t see it like that,” he said. “There’s a lot of effort going into trying to bring down the government, not peacefully but with hate.”
A masked protester shoots off his homemade mortar in the Monimbó neighbourhood during clashes with police in Masaya in June © AP