For the past several weeks I have struggled to come up with the right means of expression to describe how I feel about circumstances in Nicaragua. In the shadow of killings and abductions and fear, Nicaragua would seem to be quite unlike the country in which Winds of Peace has worked over the past 35 years. Pictures of massive protests in the places I know, photos of masked shooters in the neighborhoods where I’ve been, blood in the streets where I’ve walked: these are surreal images that choke the words I should say. I have not traveled to Nicaragua since February, and I feel as though I’ve been away even longer.
The development continues, nonetheless. Loans are being made: last week, two women’s cooperatives received small, initial funding for local agriculture. Grants are being given: despite the vastly reduced attendance in schools over recent months, elementary-age reading initiatives are being redirected through community sites and churches Repayments are being made: even where full repayment might be delayed, partners are reworking payment plans to honor their obligations as best they can. There may be few causes of great joy within the current turmoil of Nicaragua, but there are hopeful moments.
Of course, what matters in this crisis time is not the impact upon a small U.S. foundation; Winds of Peace is just fine. Of importance is the real-life upheaval being lived out daily by Nicaraguans who struggled for daily survival long before the first protests were launched, and who now find themselves threatened with even greater hardships than before. Most North Americans would have a difficult time fully comprehending Nicaraguan poverty prior to April 18 of this year. We have even less likelihood of understanding their realities given the way things are today. And my words are simply insufficient to the cause.
So I invite readers to shift their attentions to the “Nica Update” entries at this site. They are frequent updates on the status of the confrontation and the contain the observations and experiences of men and women caught up in current struggle. They are words of passion. They are expressions of the most deeply-held beliefs of Nicaraguan people yearning once again for peace and equity. They are the fluent articulations of a people’s soul, in a time of deep distress.
Over the din of bullets and bulldozers, emerge words of eloquence and meaning….
Now in the fourth month of discord in Nicaragua, there is no end in sight. Statements and actions of the president indicate no capitulation to the demands of the protesters. The demonstrators show no weakening of will or purpose in their stand against the government. Other voices from outside the country weigh in on both sides. But there are other voices, unheard, who are paying a steep price indeed for the impasse that is Nicaragua today.
There’s an entire population, urban and rural alike, which survives hand-to-mouth in the Nica economy, and the upheavals that have occurred over the past several months have all but quieted those hands. Tourism, an important component of the economy everywhere in the country, has ceased. Rural producers, who have labored hard and diligently sought to learn improvements for their yields and their markets, have watched their momentum slip away once again, not due to rainfall or drought or crop infestation, but from politics. The improved road infrastructure throughout Nicaragua was rendered inaccessible for long periods of time during the protests, as barricades achieved what they sought to achieve: the halt of commerce. Markets demand goods, and goods must make their way from the farms. As a result, credit obligations have sometimes not been met. Materials for a new harvest cycle cannot be bought. Collateral has been called. Sources of credit have evaporated.
In the words of Sergio Ramírez, former Vice President for Daniel Ortega:
“The universities have been closed for three months and the high schools as well. 10% of the public schools are functioning, no parent thinks about sending their child to school. Life ends at 5pm, everyone looks to get home. There is no night life in Managua, being out on the street after 6pm is putting your life at risk. Social life has changed a lot, so it is a situation of seclusion.”
This is not a life of vibrant progress, but of loss.
To be sure, some of these voices have joined the chorus either in support or defiance of the government. But the “silent majority” of Nicaragua, as usual, has little opportunity to speak its reality. As always, those in the countryside are paying an enormous price for that reality. The disappointment must be immense; hard work perhaps does not always pay off. Still, they persevere. What else is there?
The litany of matters which have oppressed and stalled Nicaraguans for portions of two centuries are long and diverse. Some were natural disasters. Others were the result of outside forces seeking to own the beauty and the richness of the country. And often the sources of the inequities and the impoverishment were the legacies of leaders who could not envision leadership without autocracy. As the saying goes, “There’s always something.”
There is likely a limit to human resilience for most of us. These is a saturation point beyond which even our tenacity and determination will not permit us to go. I worry about Nicaragua a lot these days. I anxious for the lives of those who are on the front lines for a cause in which they believe, for whatever reason. My heart aches for the places I have come to love in Nicaragua, some now relegated to battlegrounds once again. But my greatest fear is for the steadfast endurance of those in the countryside, for whom every day is both a blessing to be celebrated and a threat to be confronted.
The number of physical victims in the Nicaraguan turmoil of the past three months continues to grow. Some estimates have the number of dead at more than 300, the number of “disappeared” at more than 750 and many thousands of others injured from the attacks from paramilitary forces. No matter what the actual count, the costs have been extensive thus far, with no end in sight. These are the dramatic affronts that deserve our tears and our prayers. But the price being extracted is strangling all Nicaraguans….
Periodically, I have written letters between the U.S. and Nicaragua through two made-up pen pals. The correspondence is intended to reflect the views that a U.S. citizen might have about his/her own country, as well as Nicaragua. What follows is the latest of these, a response to a letter from Nicaragua on July 1.
Thank you very much for your last letter. My whole family enjoyed hearing from you and hearing that you are safe. Like you, we have had some very heavy storms here in our part of the country. The rains have not really affected the crops very much, but there has been some flooding in towns close to rivers. You know all about that! I remember the stream that flows down the hillside near your home and how it swelled during the heavy rains that fell during my visit a few years ago!
I read with interest every day about the confrontations in Nica. Mostly we are getting our information from La Prensa, since the U.S. news outlets provide very little coverage of events in Nica. I am really sad to learn of police shooting citizens who are protesting. Here, there is usually no worry about the police unless maybe you are African American or Hispanic. Don’t worry- if you ever come for a visit we’ll make sure you are safe with us!
I am disappointed to hear of the allegations made against the president of your country. I don’t know whether he has told the truth about the latest violence against the protesters. We do know here what it is like to have an elected leader who lies. Our current president tells lies or misrepresentations most of the time. At one of his campaign rallies, he made 98 statements and 76% of them were either false or misleading! The Washington Post newspaper has counted up more than 3,000 lies told in 500 days. So we know what it feels like to have a leader who says whatever suits him. The good news is that the press reports on it and the people get to decide what they believe.
I am particularly sad about the deaths of so many young people there. I have met so many wonderful people, just like you, with beautiful families and loving homes. To think that even one of these has been torn apart by violence is hard to imagine. Maybe you have heard about some Nicaraguan families being separated by the U.S. Border patrol at the Mexican border. The difference here is that the children are mostly young- under age 15- which makes the separation almost as hard as what you have experienced. But each one of us is somebody’s son or daughter, so the pain is universal. I hope that the killing stops.
You asked me about human rights in this country and whether the U.S. is somehow less interested in them than before. I cannot say for sure, because of course I am not involved in making policy. I know that I still care about it. But the politicians end up doing whatever suits their own interests, which is why I haven’t even voted in recent years. It’s not like I have any voice. I think we still care about rights, but I don’t know. What organization was it that the U.S. dropped out of? I did not hear about that. But I have read that our president continuously asked his top advisers about overthrowing Venezuela’s president to stop the growing problems that his leadership of that country has created. I think maybe that has to do with human rights there, but I’m not sure.
I can’t imagine another war in Nicaragua! It’s too hard to think about the people I’ve met and the beautiful places I’ve seen being in the middle of bombs and guns. And all the great shopping markets, like at Masaya. I don’t think a civil war will happen, do you? What would you do? I think I agree with your brother, that the conflict is mostly in Managua and some of the other big cities. Getting involved could be dangerous! And would you really want to fight? In the end, I always feel like things will work out the way they’re meant to be.
I would love to come back to Nicaragua for a visit! I hope that things settle down there and that you can get back to selling your harvest without any trouble. Do you know anything about NAFTA? I was going to ask you if were affected by it. Our president thinks it’s really hurting the U.S. and he wants to re-do the agreement. I suppose that would not be good for you, but maybe Nicaragua has been benefitting from it for a long time and it should be evened out. Oh well, I just wondered.
Our family thinks of you often and wishes you peace and prosperity. I hope you will write to us again.
We didn’t know their names. We hadn’t seen their faces. We really didn’t know much of anything about them, except that there were twelve soccer players altogether, accompanied by their coach. They had crawled up into the inner reaches of a cave, exploring with the excitement and energy that 12-year old boys seem to have, when outside rains created rising waters inside the cave, submerging the very passages that the boys had used hours before. They became trapped.
We all know the story by now, as it became a topic of international attention. News sources from around the world featured daily updates about the fate of the boys; indeed, nine days elapsed before rescuers even discovered the boys still alive, but each and every day we received updates about rescuers’ progress. It was no less than a miracle that the team survived so long underground. And then we waited and watched as rescue teams- made up of Thai, U.S. and other international support- completed the meticulous planning and execution of the rescue itself. In the end, there was a universal sigh of relief from all corners of the globe that these young lives had been saved. Maybe the world needed a unified success in something, anything, at this time of extreme nationalism and name-calling.
The international interest and support puzzles me. I readily understand the empathy and emotional attachment that we feel: imagining one’s own children in such dire circumstances is a nightmare that most parents have, and to which even non-parents can relate. The anguish and outrage expressed in the U.S. on behalf of children separated from their parents at the border with Mexico demonstrated our ability to activate on behalf of kids. But the capture of the entire international conscience over the fate of 12 boys astounds me. There have been and continue to be almost daily events which threaten the lives of children, in many cases far more than a dozen young lives, and for which we show almost casual interest at best. Sometimes the young lives are lost, and the world takes little note. Middle East violence has destroyed young lives as a matter of policy. Syrian war has made no distinctions between use of nerve gas on adults or children. In Nicaragua, young people are being killed or “disappeared” each day during the current political turmoil, and the world barely knows of it. What made the Thai soccer team so different for us?
Was it the uniforms? Was there something about the context of a boys’ athletic team? Perhaps the difference was due to the nature of the threat: not imposed by politics or other man-made conventions, but rather from Nature herself. Maybe it’s easier to root for people confronting the forces of natural calamity than to be forced to choose sides in a conflict. Someone suggested to me that we have a limited capacity for empathy in crises, and that we are more capable of emotion for smaller numbers of victims: we can handle our fears and grief for 12, but it’s much more difficult for, say, 1,000. For whatever the reason, we seem to pick and choose the victims who we will care about. It baffles me. And I feel badly for those other victims who wait for the caress of human accompaniment, prayers and support, even when it never comes.
My reflections over this brought to mind a scene from the movie, “Schindler’s List,” where Schindler is in despair over Jews he could not ultimately help away from Nazi danger, despite his urgent desire to save them:
“I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know. If I’d just… I could have got more…. If I’d made more money. I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I’d just….
“I didn’t do enough! This car. Someone would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t. And I… didn’t.”
Sometimes conscience is too slow, or too selective, and becomes numbed by the happy drama of boys being boys….
Periodically, I have written letters from Nicaragua to the U.S. through two made-up pen pals. The correspondence is intended to reflect the views that a Nicaraguan might have about his/her own country, as well as the U.S.. What follows is the latest of these.
Greetings from Nicaragua! I hope that this letter finds you in good health and happiness; may God bless you with His enduring love. I have not seen you now for many months so I will be pleased to receive any word you might send in response to this letter. My family is in good health and our farm is producing well, though the heavy rains and recent violence have given us worry.
Of greatest worry is the state of our country. You may be reading about the protests and demonstrations which have happened, and the government’s reaction. The violence which has happened seems to be every night and reports of more deaths reach us in the countryside each day. These are happening mostly in the cities, but we have had some troubles here with young people in cars yelling bad things. We don’t know if the violence will spread but it makes us worry.
It is hard to know what is happening for real. Some outside people have come here and said that our president has told lies. Many people within Nicaragua have said so, too. But the president and his people say that it is the protesters who have lied and that the violence comes from them. Sometimes it is very confusing, these different statements that are made. My son gave to me a report from a group called Amnesty International; maybe you have heard of them. They were not supportive of our president. They said that he has told lies. But he is our president and it is hard to believe that a leader would openly do that.
I think in your country you have had some problems like this with your president, no? We read here about some of the untrue things he says (like when he was elected and said that the number of people to watch him was the biggest ever) and I wonder how you react to them. Is it OK for North Americans speak out about these? Is it your duty? I am very uncertain here.
What I do know is that there are families that have been torn apart by the government’s policies. In some cases there have been arrests and even kidnappings and no answers about what has happened to the people taken. There have been more than 200 killed so far, mostly young people from the universities. There are many mothers and fathers who are deep in grief. I don’t know if I believe that university students have shot and killed one another, as the government claims. But if they did not, then who did?
My brotherAlfredo has a nearby farm. He says that what is happening in Managua and other large cities is nothing to do with us, that it is the university students and Daniel, and that we should not get involved. He says this will all go away in time and things will go back to normal. He does not want to get involved because maybe the party would do something to get even. He thinks there is not much happening in our part of the country. But twice we have had a hard time to get our harvests into the city to sell, with the roads being barricaded. I have a small loan through the cooperative and I must be able to pay it back in order to receive a new one. So these events are creating some problems.
The protestors are saying that the government has violated their rights and that is why they continue to protest. I would like to ask you about human rights in your country. I have read that the U.S. stopped being a member of a human rights organization that is world-wide. Is that true? Does this mean that the U.S. is no longer interested in what other countries do? And does it no longer care what other countries think about its eagerness to support things like what are happening here? I think this must be disappointing to the people here who have taken to the streets.
My hope is that there will not be another war. Our country still feels the wounds of the revolution and the Contra War. Maybe we are still a very poor country but at least we have been at peace. But maybe there has been a price for that which now is being paid. I know that you have planned to travel here once again and I would be happy with your visit. But I know that this might be difficult at this time. Do not forget that Nicaragua is not just the ones in authority, but mostly made up of good, peaceful people.
Meanwhile, I will send to you wishes for your health and that of your family!
Yesterday was Father’s Day in the U.S. , that commercial innovation designed to sell goods and greeting cards and, oh yes, to recognize the important role of dads in our society. The date also happens to be my wedding anniversary, that moment in time forty-six years ago when Katie and I formed our official Sheppard partnership. It’s a nice overlap. Certainly, the marital partnership led to the four children who called their father yesterday with thanks and good wishes. Marriage and fatherhood. It was a good day.
It seems conventional and predictable, to celebrate these kinds of events in our lives. That does not diminish their enjoyment, but it recognizes the expectation that celebrations of family are meant to happen, and often. I felt a special gratitude yesterday, maybe because I keep getting older, with an increasing awareness that, despite their regularity, these special days are finite in life. Or maybe there was a nagging awareness in the back of my mind about children elsewhere in our country being separated from their fathers and mothers in the name of the law. And that is disturbing.
My intention here is not to wade into the great immigration debate within our country; there are enough voices disagreeing about that already. But there is a distinction between enforcing border security versus tearing families apart as a punishment for border violation. The practice is not only philosophically reprehensible, even as a deterrent to illegal immigration, but carries an eerie similarity to the separation of Jewish children from their parents at Nazi concentration camps. Our nation’s posture on this matter is an expression of our values and our morality; I wonder whether this is truly a reflection of who we have become as a people.
The U.S. Attorney General has responded to the criticisms of this policy of separation by observing, “Well, we are not putting them in jail.” To excuse an abusive and inhumane practice by comparing it to something even worse is no excuse at all. At the end of the day, after all the explanations and defenses and rationalizations, children are being taken from their parents. In some cases, according to government personnel, they are taken under the pretext of taking them for a bath, and with no guarantee of ever being reunited with mom and dad. It’s a punishment which the children do not deserve in any context. But here in the U.S.?
Further defense of the practice falls along the lines of “the law,” that the law requires that this practice be carried out, and that if the practice is to end, it must be the U.S. Congress (noted these days for its inability to pass any kind of meaningful legislation) which takes the responsibility. But it must be noted that the immigration law being referenced in this defense was also the law under at least two previous administrations. In neither case was the separation of families used as a means of torture.
We are at an immigration crossroads in our country. The topic has been discussed and debated, leveraged and used, with words couched in sympathy and actions devoid of empathy: more than 1300 children have been separated from their families thus far. The untruths about which political party is more to blame is meaningless. On Father’s Day, 2018, children are being separated from their families. That’s all we need to know.
I had a memorable Father’s Day and anniversary yesterday. It was a good day. But it could have been a lot better….
In the game of chess that is being lived out within Nicaragua right now, the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church has been visible and active as a mediator between the demonstrators and President Daniel Ortega. That role has persisted this week, even as the violence continues and, with time, both sides seem to have become even more intractable.
The country at large has become less navigable as increasing numbers of roadblocks have cut off nearly all travel, even through the most roundabout means. (You can see the map of blockades as of June 7 here.) Aside from the inconvenience created within a country where travel between points A and B is already a challenge, the roadblocks hinder the delivery of harvests to markets. That’s a significant economic threat to rural producers and to commerce in general. Of course, if the harvests cannot be sold at market, borrowers will face defaults on loans they may have taken to plant and grow the crop. Default with an organization like WPF may result in a renovation of terms; default with a commercial lender may result in the loss of property or other pledged assets, the country-in-crisis notwithstanding. So any thoughts about the demonstrations and disruptions being limited in impact to Managua or the universities are simply incorrect: this is a dangerous national matter.
The Bishops have sought to be intermediaries, to neutralize the rhetoric and to seek common ground as a starting point for discussion and resolution. But that has proven to be far more difficult than simply occupying a referee’s chair. The initial national dialogue which has sought traction under their guidance featured an angry interruption of Daniel Ortega’s opening comments by student leaders. Mr. Ortega himself has been absent from subsequent efforts at dialogue. The violence around the country has continued and grieving is once again a national pastime.
Most recently, the Bishops have sought to meet with President Ortega to formally make request on the most pressing matters fueling the demonstrations, as follows:
We the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, as mediators and witnesses to the National Dialogue, inform the Nicaraguan people that after listening to several sectors of national and international society, we are asking the President of the Republic of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega Savaadrea, for a meeting to deal with the issues so indispensable and essential for our country, concerning justice and democracy, on which peace always depends, with the purpose of assessing in the plenary session of the Dialogue the helpfulness of carrying it forward.
This meeting has been accepted by the President, it will be tomorrow Thursday June 7 at 3:00pm in la Casa de los Pueblos.
After that meeting, we will be reporting to the national and international community about the dialogue. For that reason we are inviting the press to a conference at 7:00pm on that same day in the Our Lady of Fatima seminary.
We ask our faithful to intensify their prayers for the success of that conversation.
In our office, Wednesday June 6, 2018, Year of the Lord.
THE BISHOPS CONFERENCE OF NICARAGUA
The meeting was held, and a second communique from the Bishops was issued yesterday:
We the Bishops of the Bishop´s Conference of Nicaragua communicate to the Nicaraguan people, that we have finished our conversation with the President of the Republic.
We have done it as pastors of the people of God who have entrusted this to us seeking new horizons for our Country.
The dialogue with the President happened in an environment of serenity, frankness and sincerity, where we set out to the President the pain and anguish of the people in the face of the violence suffered in recent weeks, and the agenda agreed upon in the Plenary of the National Dialogue on the democratization of the country.
We have handed him the proposal that brings together the sentiments of many sectors of Nicaraguan society, and expresses the longing of the immense majority of the population. We are awaiting his response in writing as soon as possible.
Once the President of the Republic has responded to us formally, we will call for a meeting of the Plenary of the National Dialogue to assess that response and therefore the feasibility of continuing the National Dialogue.
In the Seminary of Our Lady of Fatima, on the 7th day of June of 2018, Year of the Lord.
[Bishops signatures follow]
What the Bishops have succeeded in doing is to have tried again to formally focus the issues requiring address. Amidst the chaos and the shouting and the allegations and realties of the past weeks, at some point the process of address must begin. The Bishops have presented the President with the issues and an opportunity. The chessboard presents a lot of moves by both sides. The Bishops hope not to be used as mere pawns….
Conditions in the country we serve, Nicaragua, continue to hearken back to a generation ago, when the administration in power faced enormous protests and demands for a new government. The confrontations continue today, just as they did all those years ago, leading to violence and deaths, denials, accusations, reprisals and lots of pain. It’s tough to watch in a country of such charm and character.
Two recent documents, written by The University of Central America and the Episcopal Church, provide both a news update as well as perspectives about how at least part of the population places its support. The following is a statement provided by the UCA following a Wednesday night demonstration:
“The University of Central America (UCA) reports that this Wednesday, May 30, at around 4:30 PM, there was an attack by the “shock troops” against the defenseless population participating in a civic march that had the UCA as its final destination.
The attacks took place in the vicinity of the gate closest to the National University of Engineering (UNI). In support of the people, the UCA security guards opened the gates so that the protesters could take refuge in the campus. Fleeing the attacks, more than 5,000 people managed to enter, while many fled in other directions. Countless injured people were treated by volunteers immediately on campus and ambulances took all of the injured to medical centers.
After 8:30 PM, volunteers and drivers from the UCA had managed to evacuate the majority of the refugees to different parts of the capital and, at the time of publication of this message, continue in this process. Despite the shooting, the refugees did not want to stay on campus because of threats received about attacks on the university.
The UCA, which stands on the side of the people in their struggle for justice, denounces this new criminal attack and demands from the authorities the immediate cessation of the repression that uses shock troops to assassinate with impunity, protected by the current misrule.
We urge human rights organizations, national and foreign, to take note of this situation that seriously affects the lives of citizens and to use mechanisms for the protection of human rights such as the Inter-American Human Rights System and the United Nations.
We urge the international community to stand in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua and to apply mechanisms which can help resolve this crisis, which has reached the level of a massacre against a defenseless population.”
The document quoted below was generated by the Bishops Conference of the Episcopal Church in Nicaragua:
To the People of God and men and women of good will:
We the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua have experienced with profound pain the violent events carried out last night by armed groups allied with the government against the civilian population. We energetically condemn all these violent acts against the exercise of peaceful free demonstrations and we absolutely reject this organized and systemic aggression against the people, which has left dozens of wounded and some people dead.
We cannot continue allowig this inhumane violence “that destroys the lives of the innocent, that teaches to kill and equally disrupts the lives of those who kill, that leaves behind a trail of resentment and hate, and makes more difficult the just solution of the very problems that caused it” (Centesimus Annus, 52).
We the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference condemn these acts of repression on the part of groups close to the government, and we want to leave clear that the National Dialogue cannot be renewed as long as the people of Nicaragua continue being denied the right to freely demonstrate and continue being repressed and murdered.
At this moment in which the history of our country continues being stained with blood, we cry out to Jesus Crucified, who on resurrecting from the dead conquered evil and death with the strength of his infinite love. “Oh, Cross of Christ, we teach that the dawn of the sun is stronger than the darkness of night. Oh Cross of Christ, we teach that the apparent victory of evil fades in the face of the empty tomb and in the face of the certainty of the Resurrection and the love of God, which nothing can defeat or darken or weaken” (Pope Francis, Holy Friday 2016). That Mary, the grieving Virgin, whose heart was pierced by a sword in the face of the pain of her Son on the Cross (Lk 2:35), consoles so many Nicaraguan mothers who suffer over the murder of their sons and watch over all our people with maternal love.
Issued in the city of Managua on the thirty first day of the month of May of the the two thousand eighteenth year of the Lord.
Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua
This communique was signed by the ten bishops of the conference.
(For those interested in tracking developments in Nicaragua, one source is La Prensa. The daily newspaper provides very current coverage of events in Nicaragua, as well as perspective on events elsewhere in the world.)
For those who know and love Nicaragua and the people there, this is a painful and sad time. It’s made even more so by how little the U.S. news media writes about it. Their lack of attention does not diminish the anguish and tragedy of what is occurring in the land of our neighbor to the south….