For months, President Danny Ortega has held on to power against all odds. His worrying disregard for democratic institutions and human rights have led many to conclude that his regime is definitively authoritarian. But that keep the country’s idealistic students and youth from taking to the streets, demonstrating and calling for a better Nicaraguan future.
MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Hector Saballos, a member of the underground student movement here, sits at a table in a safe house planning how to deliver rice, beans and medicines to friends in hiding. Blood stains his boots, and his finger is broken from a recent shootout. He worries about his girlfriend, who is in a hospital recovering from gunshot wounds.
A few months ago, Saballos, 29, was studying mechanical engineering. When the government of President Daniel Ortega announced changes to the social security system, setting off protests throughout the country, Saballos joined the marches. As security forces began to kill protesters, he manned the barricades, fighting with mortars, guns and rocks.
Now he is a wanted man.
“I had no preparation for this,” he said. “I have no military or tactical training. I grew up on a farm, so I do know how to use a gun. But Ortega is destroying human rights in this country. He is ignoring the separation of governmental powers. We can forgive much of what he has done, but we can’t forgive him for killing his own people.”
Students are at the heart of the movement opposing Ortega, who has been in office since returning to power in 2007; he was last reelected in 2016. In recent years, he has grown increasingly authoritarian, punishing those who speak out against him and cracking down on protests. More than 300 have been killed, many of them young people, since the demonstrations started in April, according to human rights groups.
Students have been prominent in Nicaraguan politics for decades, with university campuses acting as centers of activism during the Sandinista revolution that triumphed in 1979, driving out dictator Anastasio Somoza and bringing Ortega and his comrades to power. Ortega was voted out of office in 1990 and returned to the presidency in 2007.
Until recently, though, students had not taken center stage in opposition movements, although they at times took on issues such as the environment.
“I thought they were just millennials who cared mainly about video games and lived their lives online,” said Marie Antonia Bermudez, a literature professor at the University of Central America (UCA). “But I was wrong.”