The massive protests have been led by university students, who also are key players in the National Dialogue. This is an interview of one of those student leaders
University Alliance warns: they want to “advise” us and “impose agendas” June 11, 2018
(translation of article published originally in El Faro, republished in Confidencial:
Harley Morales lives today in a type of cloister. This 26 year old young student of sociology at the Central American University (UCA) in Nicaragua sleeps in a safe house, along with 40 other university student representatives of the student groups that emerged in the current political crisis.
Harley Morales is a member of the political strategy committee of the University Alliance, one of the five student movements that make up the University and Civil Society Coalition, a group that is leading the political struggle that is demanding the departure of the current rulers. NGOs and business groups have joined this coalition.
The crisis started less than two months ago, on April 18th, due to the cut in the social security pensions. The protests turned massive due to the attacks of the National Police and the progovernment forces. When the dead began to be counted, the protests ceased being for the pensions, and were directed against state repression. The university students entrenched themselves in the universities and churches, and a significant sector of the population accompanied them, demanding the resignation of the rulers. This was the beginning of the current political and social crisis in Nicaragua. Barely seven weeks ago. Since then, more tham 130 people have died as a direct consequence of the conflict, and every day that lists gets longer.
More pushed by circumstances that by a deliberate decision to lead a popular revolt, the students had to move in the midst of a full street protest to a new stage: that of organization. “Since April 19th itself committees began to be organized and movements built; we were worried that the protest would dissipate,” said Harley Morales. His University Alliance arose out of what he called “the hijacking of the cathedral”: on April 19 in full retreat, fleeing bullets, hundreds of students and civilian took refuge in the Managua cathedral and had to stay there several days, under siege. Within the church they organized, and the first leaders emerged. In a similar fashion another four groups were formed in several universities.
These students leaders mutated in a few weeks from social agitators to political actors. If before (barely a month ago) you could find them on a street with a megaphone in hand, or organizing logistics on campus, now they are living together, as if they were in confinement, isolated, surrounded by advisers and with tremendous pressure from different sectors to take postures in a very complicated process.
They are, then, a true spontaneous generation, trying to adapt to their prominence in one of those moments that close and open chapters in history. They continue being, along with the church, those who legitimize each step of the process and have won national and international recognition since the moment in which, during the installation of the national dialogue last May 16th, a 20 year old student called Lesther Alemán said to President Ortega that the only thing they were going to negotiate at that table was his departure. That video was seen around the world.
The Ortega government consider them to be part of a “right wing coup conspiracy”, and more than a few suspicions have been caused by the sudden economic capacity of the students to hold press conferences in luxury hotel meeting rooms, or maintaining a new lives without having income.
Harley Morales does not shy away from responding to these questions and clarified the origin of the funds for his support. But they know, he says, that these funds come with a trapdoor from sectors that are trying to move their agenda through the students, who have won legitimacy in the streets. They are young people without experience, at times naïve, who are trying to walk through a forest with a lot of threats, more than a few of them walking right alongside them.
Last week a delegation of these students visited Washington to attend the General Assembly of the OAS, and just afterward they met and were photographed with three of the most extremist US republicans: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ileana Ross-Lehtinen. The photos surprised everyone in Nicaragua and were seen with reservations not just by sympathizers of Ortega, but also by opponents of the regime, liberals and ex Sandinistas. “It was terrible”, he says. “They are the extreme Republican right. We are very unhappy with that trip, that was paid for from the United States, and an agenda was imposed on them. It has given us a terrible image. We are going to have to correct mistakes.”
El Faro has confirmed that the trip to Washington was paid for by the organization Freedom House, based in Washington, who in addition set the agenda for the students, including the polemical visits to Rubio, Cruz and Ross-Lehtinen. Carlos Ponce, director of Latin America for Freedom House, argued that they asked for meetings with other congresspeople and senators, but only those three accepted. “It seems that they are the ones most interested,” he said.
The photos with the Republicans were ill-timed, given the situation in Nicaragua: the government of Ortega accused the students of being instruments of an international right wing conspiracy. The mistake has not discredited them, but it has left them some of their first lessons in politics, as Harley Morales admits. The principal one, probably, is that there are a lot of people around you wanting to impose an agenda that is not theirs.
It is helpful here to put things in context. These young people were children when Daniel Ortega won the presidency in 2006. They are university students without any political experience, who have been under the spotlights for two months and under the weight of leading an important transition in their country. It is not strange, then, that their naivete was revealed in their visit to Washington. But above all it is not strange that there would be so many sectors interested in isolating them, in influencing them, in advancing their own agendas through them. “We know that only we can legitimize this process,” says Harley Morales. Those who prowl around them today also know it.
This conversation took place on Friday June 8 in Managua.
How have you organized in seven weeks?
Since April 19 committees began to be organized and movements built. We were concerned that the protest would dissipate. Five movements were formed and later the University and Civil Society Coalition. When the Bishops Conference called for the dialogue, we held meetings with COSEP (Superior Council of Private Enterprise), with civil society organizations and others who were in favor of articulating this. COSEP is part of the Coalition, also AMCHAM (American Chamber of Commerce in Nicaragua); there are peasant organizations amd also the representation of the peoples of the Caribbean.
Why did you decide to unite with groups so different from your own?
We know that the way to defeat the regime is making a common agenda. The student movement already transmuted into politics. We are not fighting for scholarships nor for sector agendas.
And who is paying for your new life? Your upkeep, lodging, transportation, security, your trips…
We demanded a minimum of security to go to the dialogue and obviously the government would not give us that. We have to ally ourselves with other sectors, like the private sector and civil society. It is not just the private sector. Oxfam is there, the María Elena Cuadra Movement, agricultural producers and ranchers, etc…
How did the trip to Washington come up?
That trip was something very strange. We are very unhappy with that trip. Even with our representative. When we planned it there were already many actors wanting to intervene in the agenda. That happened from the beginning. I am refering to organizations, opposition politicians, some more from the right… That trip was financed from the US (Freedom House) and an agenda was imposed on them, and that was terrible. They were the ones who decided which students would go.
Why did you accept it then?
We did not accept it. We were going with a clear issue that they would attend the General Assembly of the OAS. It is terrible. We did not know about the meetings with Ted Cruz, Ileana Ross nor with Marco Rubio. We are very unhappy about that. When the young people come back, we are going to talk with them. We cannot cede on what is fundamental.
What are you refering to?
That they did not tell us that they were going to those meetings. It was very strange. All the movements now have advisors. People that get around. Offspring of politicians, businesspeople…They have a very clear political line. Of the three students that went to Washington, two are from the April 19th Movememt and one, Fernando Sanchez, yes is from our alliance.
And he did not tell you where he was going?
In the Coalition they no longer see us as groups. Someone called him and told him: we are going to take you. They did not communicate anything with the rest of us.
What is it that you do not like about the meetings with Rubio, Cruz and Ross?
We do not sell ourselves out! Not even in our own Alliance. We propose our points above the table. We have legitimacy and this alliance exists because of us, not because of the private sector, and we can discredit the alliance and leave. We are not the children of COSEP. I am from the left, I would not have gone.
How have those meetings been received within the University Alliance?
We are going to have to do a plan for correcting mistakes. We have created a terrible image for ourselves. If they were already saying we were children of COSEP; what are they going to say now, that we are the children of the US Republican Party? We have to talk about this when they return.
In your opinion are there actors interested in manipulating you?
Many. I was in the UPOLI (Polytechnical University, one of the first taken over by the students to entrench themselves) on April 22nd, and I remember then how many actors that I recognized were there already looking to talk to someone. There were many groups fighting over student leadership. And many trying “to advise”. That is the key word. The “advisors” that I think are making decisions and there are movements that are letting themselves be advised by certain people.
What is your relationship with COSEP in this situation?
We are very clear. We know that when COSEP does not need us, they are going to throw us away. But we have other plans.
Are you going to reveal them to me now?
Of course. History tells us that we should not submit ourselves to the political and economic agenda of the business sector, and we know that they will leave us in the streets. We know the risk that we run by receiving their support. They believe that they can ask us for something in exchange. We are insisting on justice and democracy, and there are some things that we say that they have not liked.
Is there no contradiction in that you, opponents of the system implanted by Ortega and the large business sector, are being supported by those same business people?
Yes there is. There were two pacts that allowed Ortega to come to power: the one he made with Arnaldo Aleman, and the one he made with big business. When we started to dialogue with the business leaders, we did not do it with (José Adán) Aguerri (Executive Director of COSEP), but with Michael Healy (president of the Union of Agricultural Producers of Nicaragua, UPANIC) and with Álvaro Vargas from FAGANIC (Federation of Associations of Ranchers). We believe that COSEP now is in dispute. Healy´s chamber is the most belligerent. We have the business leaders as allies for the dialogue, but we do not trust them. Once we were very clear with them: we told them that we were afraid that the dialogue would be a show for the media and that the real dialogue would be happening under the table. That is still a fear. We are demanding justice and democracy.
And justice means having all the corrupt people in court? In other words, even the business people who end up being accomplices of the corruption?
Yes, of course! But first those responsible for all these murders have be tried.
If Ortega resigned tomorrow, as you are asking, and there was a call for elections, what would you do?
We are not longer committed to being a student movement, but a change for the corrupt political elite that has always watched out for its own interests. Maybe we might not be the ones who are going to lead the country in the short term, but we are going to be a belligerent force. If there were elections tomorrow, we would have to sit down with a lot of people. “Prepare the field”, as the OAS says. We are not only demanding transparent elections, but profound electoral reforms. We do not want just a change of elites. We do not want traditional parties. The Sandinista Front is not just to blame here, but the entire oligarchy and the political elite of this country, for complicity or for incapacity. We have made it clear to the business people that we did not want elections, but the resignation of the current rulers and the formation of a transitory ruling junta. Our struggle is also against all the traditional political parties.
So, how do you want to do it?
The FSLN right now is in crisis. Our fear is that if we give them more time to call elections, COSEP and the big business sector will make another tripartite pact [that is what they call in Nicaragua the agreement between Ortega, big business, and the unions, that has allowed Ortega to govern without counterweights, pervert state institutions and eliminate the opposition, with the blessing and complicity of big business which, in exchange, dictates the economic measures and benefits from the State]. We need guarantees that neither the political parties nor the business people are those who are going to take this. No one can impose their own interests.
But what would be, for you, the ideal calendar?
Private enterprise has asked for 14 months. That would allow them to pact with the regime or install themselves. We are asking for popular circumscription to participate in elections in alliance with other sectors.
But how, with whom, if you presume to not have leaders?
Every agreement of civil society needs today to be legitimized by us. We have to be pretty wise to know who are those called to exercise public posts. We are not approaching it with the logic of revenge.
Recently representatives of the OAS came and met with you. What did you talk about?
We talked. They did not say much. We clarified for them our positions and the scenario we are in. Ortega would like a pact with less belligerent actors. We know the love relationship between Almagro and this government. They say that the field will be ready for January, but they will have killed us by January. We presented our agenda to them. They told us that they are not accepting anything outside of the constitutional avenues.
And what was your counterproposal?
That in August there could be a call for elections. But first there has to be reforms. We did not accept any early elections.
All of this requires Ortega´s departure?
At the moment in which the dictator accepts our agenda, he would be surrendering. That we know. We would be twisting his arm. That depends on our capacity to get people into the street. Unfortunately we just played a bad role before the international community.
Let us talk a bit about your current conditions, closed in, with security…This has not made you lose your connection with the streets, that was precisely what you were able to win in April?
A lot. It has is cons but also its pros. It has allowed us to organize ourselves better, design strategies, lines of action. We have lost the contact with the barricades and our weakness is the UNAN (Autonomous University of Nicaragua), because it is very big. We are trying to integrate ourselves more into the Coalition. There was a moment when we were in the barricades. Now we are in another phase. It is no longer just entrenching ourselves. We are going to have to be very creative and learn from history.
You mention the word history a lot. Do you see yourselves as actors in a historic moment?
Yes, we know that. The circumstances demand making careful decisions and being disciplined. Calling this a revolution is beautiful, but that means changing structures. The priority now is that they do no kill us. Later, justice and democracy.
The dialogue rountable called by the Bishops Conference has been suspended. What happens if it is ended?
We are planning strategies so that the way of shutting down the country be more coordinated. A network of supplies. The possibility always exists for a shut down or installation of a ruling junta in liberated territory, like Masaya. They are ways of applying pressure.
(published originally in Spanish in El Faro)