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MASAYA, Nicaragua – Alvaro Gomez was 17 when he volunteered to take up arms to defend President Daniel Ortega's Sandinista revolution against U.S.-backed Contra rebels in the 1980s. He lost a leg in an accident while on a mission.
Now 48, Gomez recently lost his 23-year-old son, also named Alvaro, who was fatally shot as police clashed with youths after confronting a student-led protest against Ortega's government in the Nicaraguan city of Masaya. Gomez believes riot police pulled the trigger.
"It makes you ashamed to say you defended the revolution," said the high school math teacher who supported Ortega when he lost re-election in 1990 and when he won the presidency again in 2006. "For what? ... So that they could come and kill our children?"
Ortega has long been able to count on students, organized by Sandinista Front leaders in campus governments, as some of the most reliable backers of his leftist administration. But now many students are turning on him, organizing independently to oppose his government, enraged by a deadly crackdown on street protests last month by police and Sandinista Youth gangs. Students form the backbone of a protest movement that has left his administration shaken.
How Nicaragua emerges from its political crisis will likely depend on the willingness of students like the younger Gomez to continue confronting Ortega's government. The new generation does not know war, though their parents and grandparents struggle to reconcile their memories and loyalty to the revolution with anger over what has been harsh repression against their children.
The non-governmental Permanent Commission on Human Rights on Monday put the death toll in the protests at 65, while other groups and the government have documented lower totals.
Gomez said his son, like other students, was angered by seeing Sandinista Youth taunt and attack a small group of pensioners who tried to march in opposition to social security cuts April 19 in Masaya. Police quickly blocked the march and support grew for the students.
The violence brought back bad memories for the elder Gomez, who is now fitted with a prosthetic leg. He recalls being 8 years old in 1979 and seeing the bodies of those killed by strongman Anastasio Somoza's National Guard lying in the streets of Masaya's Monimbo neighborhood not far from where his son was shot in the chest April 21.
The last time he spoke with his son, Gomez told him to come home, to stay out of harm's way.
But pushed into Monimbo by riot police and Sandinista Youth, the young protesters pried up paving stones to build waist-high barricades in the neighborhood of single-story homes and small workshops that make shoes and shirts.
The protesters hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails and fired homemade mortars fashioned from welded pipe segments. Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and, in some cases, live rounds.
Neighbors brought food to demonstrators and opened their homes to care for the wounded. The small neighborhood police outpost was sacked and burned.
Janice Gonzalez, a 21-year-old single mother studying business administration, said protesters responded when riot police blocked their path.
"I was outraged to feel that they were repressing us," she said. "Why not let us march to where we were going? We were not causing any harm."
Gonzalez found herself in a pack of people running from a cloud of tear gas. She recalled the stories of street battles told by her parents and grandparents.
"My grandmother was a guerrilla fighter. She taught me to shoot," Gonzalez said, adding quickly that she did not shoot anyone.
She said her grandmother was terrified of her being on the street and urged her to think of her child. "I'm trying to build a better country for my son," Gonzalez said.
A key factor in the staying power of this uprising will be the students' ability to organize.
All public universities have student governments that form the Nicaragua National Student Union — UNEN for its Spanish initials — but the protesting students say those bodies are made up of Sandinista Front loyalists and no longer represent them.
Luis Andino, president of the student union at UNAN-Managua, told local radio that at first the UNEN supported the demonstrations. But, he said, they "moved from a just demand to reverse the social security thing, which was achieved, to an attempt to throw out the government and that we don't agree with."
Two weeks after the worst bloodshed, students holed up inside the Nicaragua Polytechnic University in Managua regrouped after an overnight clash with Sandinista Youth and police. They said there were six wounded students, some of whom had been evacuated to medical facilities.
Protest leaders were exhausted from trying to wrangle the diverse viewpoints of students from multiple universities into one coherent voice. The weariness showed on the faces of the spokespeople for the April 19th Student Movement — not to be confused with the splinter April 19th University (Student) Movement.
On the third floor of a classroom building, Jeancarlo Lopez explained that they were living on the campus because they feared being killed if they left.
Converted classrooms housed a pharmacy, a storeroom for donated supplies and rooms for treating the wounded. Some young people dressed in scrubs moved between rooms with stethoscopes slung around their necks.
But the students had not organized sufficiently to express a list of demands or choose representatives for upcoming negotiations with the government, which the Roman Catholic Church has agreed to mediate. The church announced Monday that talks would begin Wednesday.
Jairo Bonilla, another movement spokesman wearing a black T-shirt with "#wearenotcriminals" on the front and "#wearestudents" on the back, provided the one point of consensus.
"We don't want (Ortega) to continue governing us," Bonilla said. "He can say which way he wants to leave, if he wants to leave in the formal legal way, in a just way like it should be, or in the way that he toppled the Somoza dictatorship."
Eden Pastora, an Ortega confidant and member of the current Sandinista government, considers the students rabble-rousers, pawns or mercenaries being manipulated by homegrown and international forces in an attempted soft coup.
Inside a home office decorated with revolutionary paraphernalia, the man better known by his nom de guerre "Commander Zero" rejected the idea that there are parallels between the fight he waged with Ortega against a dictatorship and what occurred in April.
"Here in Nicaragua we can do anything short of causing chaos, and these young people from certain universities put up barricades so that people couldn't get out to the streets, seeking to create chaos," he said. When police went to remove the barricades they were met with rocks and mortars, "so the police responded with violence."
Pastora alleged the rights groups' death tolls are inflated, but did not offer an official government count. The deaths must be investigated, he said.
Standing in front of an altar of flowers and a large photo of his smiling son, Gomez said the young man had not been politically active before. He was two months into a night job at a factory in a free-trade zone where he sewed logos onto shirts to finance his fourth year working toward a banking and finance degree.
His son liked playing basketball, listening to electronic music and hanging out with friends, Gomez said.
"What happened in Nicaragua was something spontaneous by the young people," he added, insisting they were not manipulated but moved by the attacks on elderly pensioners. "That is was what motivated the kids."
Associated Press writer Luis Manuel Galeano contributed to this report.