Nicaragua: Feminism as an exercise of autonomy and fight for freedom

This interview of María Teresa Blandón was done by an Argentinian feminist organization. María is one of the key feminist leaders in Central America, and for years has taught in the graduate program at the UCA in Managua on gender studies. It provides a larger historical and gender perspective on the crisis in Nicaragua today.

Nicaragua: Feminism as an exercise of autonomy and fight for freedom

December 23, 2018

by Claudia Korol

in Marcha: una Mirada Popular y Feminista de la Argentina y El Mundo

We talked with María Teresa Blandón, teacher, activist of the feminist movement in Nicaragua, Director of La Corriente, who reflects on the political moment of this Central American country and tells us, “We Nicaraguan feminists are going to continue denouncing”

Daughter of a peasant and a teacher, María Teresa Blandón joined the Sandinista Revolution at the age of 17, and then the feminist movement. It is she who tells us about the difficult controversies between the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), since it was taken over completely by Orteguism, and the women´s movement, feminism, but also the human rights and youth movements, independent journalists and community media.

This is the first of a series of interviews of well known activists in Nicaragua, who give us a closeup on the dilemmas that they are experiencing in the country that gave us one of the most beautiful revolutions.

What was the process that led to the FSLN distancing itself from the revolution that we fell so in love with in Latin America?

The truth is that it was a very long process. From that revolution of the 80s that stirred up so much emotion, so much hope in Latin America, nothing has been left for some time now. Since the Sandinista Front divided, the more authoritarian part, more warlike, more violent part was left with the political control, and usurped the collective Sandinista memory. That part of Sandinism is very compromised by corruption. The “piñata” of the 90s was the kill shot to a marvelous struggle of Sandinism, but it seems that many people did not realize it. (When the FSLN lost the elections of February 25, 1990, it redistributed among the Sandinista leadership state assets that had been confiscated from sectors in power at the moment of the triumph of the Sandinista revolution. From those processes a “Sandinista bourgeoise” was formed, composed of several of the principle leaders of the FSLN. The plundering of the state assets is known as the “Sandinista piñata”).

In 1998 Zoilamerica denounced Daniel Ortega for sexual abuse. (Zoilamerica is the daughter of Rosario Murillo, current spouse of Daniel Ortega and Vice President of the country. Daniel Ortega adopted Zoilamerica, was accused by the young woman of having suffered sexual abuse and sexual violence by him, who was a Sandinista deputy at that time). When Ortega returned to power after having been denounced for sexual violence, there were still people who thought that he was a revolutionary.

We who were here in Nicaragua, and we feminists in particular, said that that was not so. The nearly twelve years since the return of Daniel Ortega to power have been years of a lot of reversals for women, for society as a whole. For democracy, for women´s rights, for citizen participation, for freedom of expression. It is a government that has built its project on populism, while it provided assistance to poor people, maintained a solid covenant with big private enterprise, to the point of turning this state into a corporate state. It is the reality that we have been experiencing in these years, and that starting in April went into crisis, because there was an accumulation of injuries, restrictions on freedom, persecution, corruption and non-transparent public policies.

What was the conflict with the feminists?

We already had problems since the decade of the 80s. In the 90s the feminist movement completely separated itself from the Sandinista Front, over the previously mentioned issues. In the 90s the movement already had the possibility of flying on its own wings, and we needed more. Issues dear to feminism like machista violence, we were not able to address them from Sandinism. We left the Sandinista Front. The “coup de disgrâce” was when Zoilamerica in 1998 denounced Daniel Ortega for sexual abuse. It was a critical point for Nicaraguan feminism. It led us to deepen the debate on machista violence and its structural causes, but also it confirmed for us that Daniel Ortega had not just been an aggressor, but also an accomplice and an abettor of machista violence. This for us explains why his wife, Rosario Murillo, has had so much bad blood toward the feminists from the 80s up to our times.

The policy of alliances of Daniel Ortega with the most corrupt leaders of Nicaragua, the pact that he signed in 2000 with Arnoldo Alemán, who is the iconic figure for corruption in Nicaragua, ended up confirming for us that the Sandinista Front was a machine without a political project, without a policy for the country, that had become an end in itself to return to power. The alliance with Alemán was what allowed Ortega to come to power. He got control over the electoral branch and made changes in electoral justice that allowed him to come to power with 38% of the votes.

In the 2005 campaign the feminist movement of Nicaragua was unanimously against the candidacy of Daniel Ortega. There were differences over who to support, but we were against him riding into office again in the government. The issue about him being a sexual abuser was not a small issue when we were bringing machista violence into discussion. For us it was a terrible blow that a lot of people were quiet about that. Political leaders were silent, the Catholic Church also silent. Only us Nicaraguan feminists were speaking out.

For these 12 years we received blow after blow. The penalization of therapeutic abortion was the work of the Sandinista Front. The naturalization and coverup of sexual abuse, each year the amount of pregnant young girls, the result of abuse. The issue of having dismantled the institutional path for filing charges, the punishment of aggressors. A total space of impunity: the complete rejection of this government of sexual and reproductive rights. Their alliance with the most inflammatory groups of the Catholic Church, the Evangelical Churches. These are some of examples of the treatment that we feminists and defenders of women´s rights have received.

How has that alliance with the churches been, and how is it now?

Even though during these twelve years Daniel Ortega was able to keep most of the evangelical churches on his side, who have a pretty serious history of corruption and opportunism, and he has coopted part of the Catholic Church, above all in the last 5 years sectors of the Catholic church have begun to have a concern – not on the issue of women´s rights, because they were in agreement on that – but on the closing down of spaces for citizen participation, censorship, non transparency of public policies. It also happened that the Ortega-Murillo government competed with the Church even over the Catholic rituals most dear to the Church. Rosario Murillo turned herself into a pretty strange type of priestist. She was the one who read the Bible every day, she celebrates Christmas, spends millions of cordobas of the National Budget to celebrate the Immaculate Conception of Mary. She took charge of buying off a part of the Catholic Church. Part of the hierarchy took a position in favor of the government. Now the relationship is pretty strained.

In April with the outbreak of the crisis, this relationship was broken, even though from below the Ortega-Murillo couple continues having strategies for cooptation and blackmail. Ortega asked the Episcopal Conference to be the mediator in the dialogue, to gain time and stop the citizen protest that was gaining more and more strength. When that dialogue attempt was made, part of the Catholic Church came out to defend the youth who were in the barricades defending rights, and Ortega responded with arrests and murders, this tense relationship was irremediably broken. So at this moment the Ortega-Murillo government has declared the Catholic hierarchy its enemy, and has launched a stigmatization campaign, threatened the bishops of the Episcopal Conference, ordered priests to be persecuted. The precarious connection that they maintained, out of interests on both sides, was broken.

What information is there about political prisoners?

The total universe of prisoners is enormous. We have more than 500 political prisoners. There are currently nearly 50 women prisoners. The situation is terrible, because they have abducted them, there has been no general [legal] process for apprehending these young people. Police and paramilitaries have participated in the detention. In no case has there been an arrest warrant. A group of around 10 judges, who are faithful servants of the Ortega-Murillo regime, have held completely irregular trials, with false witnesses, bringing in police to testify. They accuse them of absurd things: terrorism, possession of powerful weapons. Completely irrational things.

In the case of the women prisoners there is a notable, profound machista misogyny. There are women who were freed, but others continue in prison. What they have denounced is that they have been sexually abused, that they are forced to strip themselves naked, that they have been groped by police officers. There are at least three cases of women who aborted as a result of the bad treatment and torture that they received. Some are imprisoned in the jail in El Chipote, a place where Somoza used to torture political prisoners. There are women prisoners who have serious infirmities. Their relatives have asked that they be seen by some specialist, and that has not been possible. Some months ago at least 16 female political prisoners who are in the La Esperanza jail were savagely beaten by men who were not part of the staff of that jail, because they resisted them taking Irlanda Jérez to some unknown place, an iconic young leader who put herself in front of the protests in the eastern market [mercado oriental], one of the largest markets in Central America. When they wanted to take her out to be interrogated by those men who were not from the prison, the other prisoners defended her. All of them were injured, and the authorities have not allowed doctors to see them after that beating. They have told, in the few moments when they saw their families, that they spy on them, denigrate them, treat them badly, do not allow them their medications many times, they do not allow them the time needed to speak with their families, they do not give them the time established to go out into the yard to get some sun. They have not allowed the female nor the male prisoners effective defense. They have wanted to impose court appointed lawyers on them, that we already know are lawyers chosen by Ortega-Murillo. They have harassed and boycotted the lawyers of the human rights organizations who provide legal advice to the prisoners.

This last week has produced the closure of NGOs that defends human rights, feminists, environmentalists, and independent media [Dec 13-17, 2018]. The reality is that the repression has never ended. After dismantling the barricades and the road blocks at gunpoint, which left us a toll of deaths that we still have not finished counting exactly, came another form of repression that was to prevent at any cost that we Nicaraguans would take to the streets.

What are the figures on the dead that you have since the campaigns of April?

The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights talks about 325 people murdered since April – which coincides with the data that the IACHR has provided. Another figure is from the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (APRODH), that has around 500 murdered and an imprecise figure for the disappeared. The IACHR has had a lot of difficulties in doing its job of investigation. The MESENI (Special Mechanism for Follow up for Nicaragua) also has not had much opportunities. The government had systematically denied providing complete information on those murdered. As long as this regime continues in power we are not going to be able to know the truth. That will happen after they have left.

What were the other forms of repression?

Since we had been having an avalanche of popular demonstrations throughout the country, the Ortega-Murillo regime carried out a strategy of persecuting youth, threatening people, putting up signs on the walls calling them: “coup monger, we are coming for you, we are going to fill you with lead and these things”, etc. In addition to this, each time that we went out to demonstrate, they would send out the anti-riot police on us. So much so that in the last two and a half months each time that we have tried to march, the regime militarized the cities, harassed the people, blockaded us and prevented the demonstration. Even in some marches that we did in the month of September, they sent paramilitaries on us to fire in full view of the police. So people quit taking to the streets because the repression was getting worse and worse. This was another way of repressing us. Even when we went to the churches to try to demonstrate, they waited for us on the way out to pursue us and to stop some of us, especially young people, who were always their principal or preferred objective.

The attack on the NGOs is a new moment of the repression. In spite of the fact that it is already very difficult to go out on the streets to protest, we have continued talking, we have continued being in the media. NGOs, especially those who work in the human rights sphere, have been denouncing human rights violations, and in this new stage, the strategy of repression is going against journalists and the few independent media that are left, against human rights organizations, and against non governmental organizations, including also feminist organizations. This is the stage of repression we are in.

On November 28th they summoned Ana Quiros, a Costa Rican feminist who had become Nicaraguan, who has lived in this country for three decades. They summoned her to the Migration office, without providing any explanation, and there they handcuffed her like a criminal and took her to the border with Costa Rica, her country of origin. Then they raided the offices of her organization (CISAS), a Center that has been working on issues of Community Health for three decades. They took away their equipment. They just now took over the place again and said that their assets are now confiscated.

There are communications media who are being permanently surveilled, there are journalists who have been captured, journalists who have been beaten. Radio Darío was burned down, now they raided it again. There are some radios that have had to close. The most recent one is the River Foundation [Fundación del Río], that works on environmental issues. This happened last weekend. Not only did they cancel the legal status of eight non government organizations, including CENIDH, but without any legal procedure raided their offices and declared that the assets would be confiscated by the State. In addition to this, they raided a communications enterprise that has nothing to do with the NGOs. It is a commercial enterprise, that is called Confidencial, and produces two television programs, owned by Carlos Fernando Chamorro, son of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, who was murdered by the Somocista dictatorship. They went into this office, raided it, stole everything that was there. When the team of Confidencial went to the police to tell them to explain why they did this to a private enterprise that has nothing to do with the law of non-profit, civil associations, what the police did was to repress, beat, threaten and insult the journalists.

In the case of CENIDH (Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights) which is a very iconic organization in this country, which has accompanied the struggles of women, youth, peasants, the police broke into their office like criminals, destroyed everything, and when Vilma Nuñez, the Director of CENIDH, and the rest of the team tried to enter their offices, the police prevented them. At the height of cruelty, they even prevented the Director from making statements to independent media. As Paulo Abrao from the IACHR said, we are living in a state of exception, that has trampled on all citizen rights. The right to free expression, freedom of movement, civic protest, freedom of organization. It is a state of exception, which has not been legally declared but that has been implemented de facto.

Do you want to say anything more?

One thing that I want to say is that we Nicaraguan feminists from the first moment that this crisis exploded have counted on the support and backing of Latin American feminists, and also feminists from the state of Spain. They have given us a ton of support. We profoundly recognize the level of commitment that they have shown during this entire time. Without them, for example, the Caravan for Solidarity that has toured all of Latin America and a good part of Europe would not have been possible. This enormous effort we owe to them.

On the other hand, I would like to tell you that we Nicaraguan feminists are going to continue denouncing, we are going to continue fighting, we are going to continue defending our freedom, and also that of the entire Nicaraguan society. In this road that lies ahead of us, which we trust will be shorter, we hope to continue counting on the social movements of Latin American and the Caribbean, and continue trusting that men, women journalists, committed to just causes, can continue exposing this terrible situation that Nicaragua is experiencing in these times.

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