The peasant and student movements are the principal movements behind the uprising, the peasant movement first starting in June 2013, when they organized against the canal project. They then decided to support the student movement in April 2018. Both of them have paid a heavy price for their opposition, yet their views receive less publicity in the media, and issues have been raised about their representation in opposition alliance bodies. This interview of a peasant leader, who also was a political prisoner, touches on these issues.
Freddy Navas: “Arnoldo Alemán should be in jail”
By Ana Cruz in La Prensa, Sunday January 25, 2020
The leader of the Peasant Anti-Canal Movement reveals the origins of the internal conflicts of the group, the discontent with the groups that compose the National Coalition, and the strategies that they are implementing to confront the regime of Daniel Ortega.
Before the April 2018 protests started, Freddy Navas had a peaceful life in the countryside. He planted watermelons, rice and beans on Ometepe Island, Rivas, and on some rented land in Malacatoya, Granada. His experience with social protests comes from more than 90 marches that the Peasant Anti-Canal Movement held since 2014. He supported the demonstrations of 2018, and that is why he spent 7 months in jail, where he was tortured and treated poorly.
In this interview he talks about his participation in the peasant struggle for the repeal of Law 840, the Canal Law, the problems that emerged within this entire struggle of the Peasant Movement, the difficulties that he experienced after supporting the April protests, and the perception he has about the new National Coalition, which he states he will not be a part of until they finish consulting their bases. He states, nevertheless, that the former president Arnoldo Alemán “has nothing to do” with a Coalition, because he should “be investigated and pass his last days in jail.”
How did the Peasant Anti-Canal Movement come to be formed?
The first marches happened first in Tolesmaida and Ometepe Island, in Rivas, in which I participated. Almost immediately they were replicated in El Tule and Nueva Guinea. Small marches took place, small ones, but each in their own place, in their communities. I only went to the ones in Rivas. On November 26, 2014 the Fundación del Río called the leaders from nearly all the zones together, and we met in a hotel in Managua. In that meeting we talked about uniting into one movement, and from there came the name National Council in Defense of Our Land, Lake and Sovereignty. Lombardo Madríz proposed that, from Juigalpa, Chontales.
Who at that moment represented the Peasant Movement?
There were 23 of us. Octavio Ortega Arana was elected as coordinator of the Council.
Were Francisca Ramírez and Medardo Mairena part of that National Council?
Yes. There were Octavio Ortega, Medardo Mairena, Pedro Meno, Nemesio Mejía and myself in that founding moment at that time. Doña Francisca Ramírez also was within that National Council.
In terms of the members of the Peasant Movement, were there former members of the Nicaraguan Contras or Resistance among your members?
Yes. Gilberto Gadea, from La Fonseca, we know that he was part of the Contras back then. I know that in the territories, yes there were many peasants who were from the Contras and they joined this struggle against the expropriation of our lands.
How did it help, the fact that people with this type of experience in the fight against the Sandinista Front joined the Peasant Anti-Canal Movement?
It was not something premeditated that they were with us in this fight for our lands. What happened is that they also saw themselves affected by what Law 840 stipulates, so among us peasants we do not have any problem, because one problem united us, one struggle.
What united you then to the struggle that was triggered in April 2018? How is it that you decided to participate?
At that time, we had scheduled holding a march in a place called Punta Gorda (in the Southern Caribbean of Nicaragua), and we were doing all the planning for the costs of the demonstration. So, when April 18 and 19 happened, we began to call one another, and we talked about what was happening. April 21 was a decisive day, and we agreed that we would call the communities to inform them that we were going to get ready to join the current protests where university students were being killed.
What was the first march that the peasants supported?
The one what we came to in mass (in Managua) was the one called by the Church (April 26, 2018) to ask for peace in Nicaragua. We went in trucks, and we even stayed and slept in Managua to leave the next morning. Then we joined all of them, many from their territories. Even though in our more than 90 marches they had not supported us, we felt the obligation to support them in their demands for respect for the same rights that the government was denying us.
What was the hardest thing you experienced as a Peasant Movement in those years that you indicated you were not supported by the population that was not affected by Law 840?
One of the hardest events for our members happened on December 21, 2014 when they inaugurated the Interoceanic Canal project, and we decided to put up the first roadblocks. We put up barricades in El Tule, in Nueva Guinea and in Rivas. Those actions had as a consequence that we had several people wounded, beaten and several were detained and taken to El Chipote (Judicial Support Office in Managua), but all were freed.
Did those peasants who were detained and taken to El Chipote suffer any type of torture?
Yes, I remember that one of the members of the Council in Rivas had their whole family detained. Octavio Ortega, who was the coordinator, came out with a broken arm and swollen eyes. One of the peasants from El Tule had to resign, because he suffered serious consequences from the beating they gave him, and we gave up Lener Fonseca for dead, who was not part of the Council but was already in the protests against the Canal.
The peasants seem to be united in these years of struggle, but now several discrepancies have emerged between leaders like Medardo Mairena and Francisca Ramírez. What is your opinion of each of them?
In the case of Doña Francisca Ramírez, we undeniably elected her. Octavio Ortega finished his period, and we elected her. We did a tremendous work, but those who went out to the terrain to organize was another team that she was not a part of, and it was not just in the canal strip, but included northern Nicaragua. Time went by and there had to be a change. We elected Medardo Mairena, and since he was a man, we put in two women as coordinators, but then the first problem emerged.
The problem was that Monica López said that she was not an advisor to the Peasant Movement, but that she was the adviser to Doña Francisca Ramírez, so the differences began. Through the Articulation of Movements began a media attack against the new leadership of the Council. An entire smear campaign happened against several from the Council.
The problem started then, when Monica López withdrew, and said that she was not an advisor to the Peasant Movement, but to Francisca Ramírez?
Yes. She (Monica) did not like the change that was made from Doña Francisca to Medardo, because she said that he came from the liberal tendency, that supported the pact, that we were followers of Arnoldo Alemán.
Besides Ramírez and López, did the members of the Peasant Movement at some occasion show a certain distrust over the political currents that Medardo Mairena supported at one time, who ended up being a regional councilperson of the PLC?
No. The truth is that when Medardo Mairena entered the Peasant Movement he was already a regional councilperson, given that up until very recently he was unknown by Nicaraguans. Medardo was noticed when he became a leader of the National Council. A media campaign began through communications media that was promoted by Monica López. It was a dirty campaign against us, they accused us of being Liberals, of supporting Arnoldo Alemán, but it did not work.
You said that Francisca Ramírez, consciously or unconsciously, tried to dismantle the Peasant Movement. Is Francisca Ramírez part of the Movement or not, after what you think she tried to do?
We cannot say that she ceases to be a peasant. She was a great leader, and the work that the people coordinate in the territories is not noticed much. She now says that she is an environmentalist and, well, we cannot say anything about that.
Do you have contact with her?
The truth is very little. I do not have her [phone] number, but we know that she is in exile, and that she suffered a lot when she was out in the struggle.
Have you tried at some point to smooth things over between Mairena and Ramírez for the good of the Peasant Movement?
Yes, many times. Once, since they did not believe us that we were taking it to heart, we took two people from her place as witnesses and guarantors, to demonstrate that we were acting in good faith. It was in Nueva Guinea around the end of 2017, maybe a little before. We talked about the conflict, and we clarified that we were not, and are not, spies of Alemán, that we do not obey the PLC (Liberal Constitutionalist Party).
I notice that you included yourself when you referred to the fact that they accused Medardo Mairena of supporting Arnoldo Alemán. Were you a member of the PLC, or currently are a member of some party?
I include myself because they accused me as well of supporting the PLC, they said that I was the one who carried the messages. But I have never belonged to any party. I was not involved in politics, until now that I see myself immersed in this upheaval. I have never been immersed in politics or a political party.
You talked to me about pressure from Monica López on Francisca Ramírez, but did they feel at some time that Medardo Mairena was being pressured by the PLC? Did he at some time try to implant liberal ideas or ideas of Arnoldo?
Octavio Ortega, the first one who coordinated the Peasant Movement, was from the MRS (Sandinista Renovation Movement) and never tried to take us to that party. When Francisca Ramírez was in that position, in spite of the fact that we had good relations with the movements of the Articulation of Monica López, she did not take us either to be a member of that. Medardo also did not try to take us or implant the ideas of the PLC, never ever. I am one of the most critical people of political parties, and I can assure you that they have not tried to impose on us the figure of Arnoldo Alemán.
By the way, what is your opinion of Arnoldo Alemán?
I think that he is a man who should be in jail for all the acts of corruption that he has committed.
Talking about jail, how was it for you the moment that they detained you?
I do not know how my [upcoming] detention leaked out. I just arrived home, and I received a call from someone who I completely trusted who said to me, “There is an arrest warrant against you, where are you? Come here where I am, because I am sure that they are going to come for you. Leave the country.” I responded that I had not done anything wrong, and twenty minutes later they came to take me. Police, paramilitaries came, and they say that they had the entire block surrounded.
Were you alone when the detention occurred? Did they beat you?
No. I was with my wife at home in Managua, and I said good-by to her. I broke the cellphone, while they were taking the padlocks off the principal gate. They came in and disputed everything. They beat me. There were so many punches that they broke my ribs and nose, I was left unconscious and that is how they got me into the patrol car. They took away a car that I had parked there, and took me directly to El Chipote.
How long were you in El Chipote?
Two and a half months, from November 17, 2018 to January 29, 2019.
Did they torture you in El Chipote?
Yes, they locked me up naked in a dark isolation cell that left me nearly blind. They took me out for interrogations on 15 occasions.
What did they ask you in those interrogations?
The same (questions) that they asked the others. They asked me who financed me, who gave us orders, who gave us money and that type of things. They asked me to record a video, and that I blame others in order to be freed, that if we did not do it, then we were going to rot there in jail. That was in the first days. Later they left me alone in the isolation cell until they moved me, the very day of my birthday (January 30), to La Modelo.
Did the conditions change in the Penitentiary System?
It was better because I had more accompaniment, even though there (in La Modelo) I realized that I was nearly blind. Now I cannot read without glasses because of the damage that it did to me to be in the dark for so long.
Did they torture you in La Modelo?
They did not beat me as such, but I was a witness to the suffering and beatings that the guards gave to other political prisoners.
What was the worst moment that you experienced in La Modelo?
That fatal May 16, when they killed Eddy Montes. I remember that with Don Eddy we used to play chess in the afternoons, but at 3pm we had a group that prayed the Divine Mercy, so, that day that they killed him, he stayed playing chess while I went to pray the Divine Mercy. I was in the quarters and I heard them shouting, “They shot one, they shot one!” The young people took off running to try to give medical assistance to Don Eddy. It was hard for all of us.
What happened after the death of Don Eddy Montes?
On May 20 they released the first political prisoners. We all began to “lower the gas” on protests, because we were fewer, and we began to believe that we could go free, but we continued to be filled with sadness, with grief.
When were you released?
I left on June 11. I left with the group which Medardo Mairena and Pedro Meno were in. They got us up at 3 am, they put us on little buses, and they left me in my home in Managua.
Are you harassed now that you are a former political prisoner? Is the harassment worse in the countryside?
The harassment is all the time. I go to church, and most of the time I know that they are watching me. I change churches, and I see them again there. Patrol cars pass by my house. I went to Radio Corporación, and they sent four patrol cards the moment that I left. The truth is that that affects you psychologically, even living in Managua, because in the countryside one suffers worse. As a member of the Peasant Movement I have known cases where the Army of Nicaragua has been used to harass peasant families who oppose this regime. In the countryside when they harass you, what you do is abandon the land, abandon the farms, because there is a lot of fear that they might come back and kill you.
How many deaths have you counted as a result of this harassment and persecution against peasant opponents of the regime of Daniel Ortega?
We have counted more than 100 peasants murdered in the context of this crisis that started in April 2018. Those who have been murdered in one way or another have been leaders or opponents of this Government, not just members of the Peasant Movement. We have cases that were not publicly disclosed but were reported to us as a Movement.
Do you have any data on the number of those in exile?
No, we have a record as such, but we know that the great majority of those exiled are peasants. I would dare to say that half of the total number of exiles are from peasant families. They are people who have fled because of the harassment, because in the countryside they do not pursue you to jail you, or interrogate you, no. In the countryside they look for you to eliminate you or rape you. This is difficult to document because many people do not publicly denounce it. Many choose to bury their dead quietly. It is because of these types of things that as peasants we are united, fighting for our rights.
In terms of unity, what is your opinion of the National Unity and the Civic Alliance? What is the relationship like between the Peasant Movement, and the recently announced National Coalition, which we know that you are not yet a part of?
When we were prisoners, we learned that the Civic Alliance and other groups came out with that National Unity. We understood how they (the Alliance) gave birth to, or created, the UNAB. But then this group (UNAB) went above the Civic Alliance. We were released (former prisoners) and we saw that the UNAB was the renovated left of Nicaragua. Now, we were already part of the Civic Alliance, which has not been easy for us, because it is composed of several businessmen who applauded and were in China applauding the Great Canal Project, nevertheless, we accepted being there because we want a civic and peaceful solution to the crisis that the country is experiencing.
You refer to the fact that it has been difficult being within the Alliance. Do they not give you the spaces you want in decision making?
Yes, we have always said that, and it can be seen in the press conferences that they do. You never see a peasant in the principal seats, they only leave us at the end of the table, sometimes they do not fit and are left standing, or simply they have to stand with the public. Many times, we do not participate because of that lack of inclusion. Many times, we do not even know what it is that they propose be signed. So, it is not easy. We have wanted to have unity, but not how they predicate it or other people, who only say unity, unity.
Does this mean then that you do not intend to be within that great Coalition?
What we mean to say is that we are going to explain to our bases the options that they have. This foundational alliance that they want to put on whoever enters or leaves, when many have dark pasts, is not fully satisfactory for us. We are saying that we are open to all.
You say that as a Peasant Movement you are open to all, does this mean being open to accepting people who have been widely recognized for acts of corruption and alliances with Daniel Ortega himself?
We have always said that there is no saint without a past, nor sinner without a future, and from 2018 to now, I believe that this is a different Nicaragua. I believe that every organization has to be completely different to what it was given what has happened from 2018 to now. The people know and recognize who is who. Here there are people who died, and others who are in exile or in prison for having provided a bag of water. Meanwhile there are many who say that they represent us, who were never in a barricade or participated in protests.
I want to insist, does this mean that you would accept as the Peasant Movement people like, for example, Arnoldo Alemán, within a proposal for a Coalition?
What has Arnoldo Alemán done from April 2018 to now? Nothing.
So do you see his presence acceptable because he was not in charge of repression?
No. I say that he has not done anything. I cannot judge people for their past, I can judge them for their present. But Arnoldo Alemán does not have anything to do in a National Coalition. What has to happen with him is that he should be investigated and go back to pass his final years to jail.
What does it mean then the “non-exclusion” that you propose as the Peasant Movement?
Not excluding the bases who were from “x” or “y” current. Not necessarily the leaders, because they must pay for their acts of corruption. That is why we are telling our people the options that they have.
What options are you presenting to them?
We are telling them that they have in the UNAB a renovated left or socialism, and in the Alliance professionalism, multi-linguists, people who speak several languages and representatives of big capital. We are telling them that if they decide for one, we are going there, but if they say that we as peasants should be leading, well, there we will see if the others will have the decency to let us lead.
If they tell you that they want the three of you in one joint effort?
We are going to accept whatever the people say.
When do you plan on finishing these consultations that will help you to decide whether to join the National Coalition?
We do not want to go beyond November without having the results of our consultations.
Before that, you will not be part of the National Coalition?
No. We are part of the Civic Alliance. We are autonomous and independent. We are going to wait to see what our bases from the Peasant Movement tell us. Until we see real and true love for country with respect to all Nicaraguans, until we see that they quit fighting over personal interests, we will continue doing our consultations with the bases of the Peasant Movement. For our part we are going to respect what the bases tell us.
Freddy Navas, 55 years of age, was jailed for seven months for protesting against the Ortega regime.
He was born on January 30, 1965 in Ometepe Island, Rivas. In the 80s he tried to study sociology, but he was required to do obligatory military service, which is why he was not able to attain his dream. He is the father of three children and has only been married once in his 55 years. Among his favorite foods are vigorón and gallopinto. He comes from a family of farmers and on the lands that he has on Ometepe Island, Rivas, he plants rice and beans. He likes to read. One of his favorite books is the Confessions of St. Augustine. One of his goals, when Nicaragua is free, is to have a hotel, plant his lands in Ometepe, and live for once in peace and tranquility.
 Name of the national penitentiary for men.
 =Blue and White National Unity