Solidarity with Nicaraguan women political prisoners

“The political women are the great nightmare of Ortega.”
Mildred Largaespada, Nicaraguan journalist.

Marlén Auxiliadora Chow inspired the pico rojo lipstick campaign.

[More on Marlén Chow here, in Spanish.]

Recently Nicaragua’s repressive Ortega-Murillo regime imprisoned many feminists and women leaders who have been protesting the violence of the Nicaraguan government. This Confidencial article covers the subsequent beating of 17 of these women by a large group of hooded men who entered La Esperanza {“the Hope”] prison on the night of October 26. (Some Mexican coverage on this here) The government would not allow staff from MESENI to investigate the condition of the women, and it expelled human rights monitors from CEJIL from the country on the very same day.

The mother of one of the jailed women (Amaya Coppens, whose father is Belgian) speaks out about this in this video.

Rough translation of the audio:
The women are being beaten. It seems to me, as my colleague said here, it is really an act of cowardice. No woman has ever been beaten in my house. So it seems to me that it is totally intolerable that the most basic rights of women are being violated.

I hope that this situation really helps us to question if we want to go on living with our young women being hit. I think we have to think that we have a job ahead with our families and our children. But also here I make a call to the rulers of this country who have set a bad example recently.

I would ask [Vice President] Mrs. Rosario Murillo to to ask who has destroyed her life. It is time to put a stop to this. In other words, we cannot let men mistreat and destroy the future and the lives of our women or our girls.

[There are more video clips about the beatings on the Facebook page of former Sandinista commander Dora María Tellez.]

Environmental lawyer and human rights defender, Mónica López, received death threats in August, as did members of her family. Many other Nica women have been killed, abused, detained and persecuted since April.

What can Canadians do?

Many individuals have written letters or made calls to Chrystia Freeland,
Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. A range of Canadian activists signed this declaration I organized at the end of April, and a few hundred international figures, mostly from the Spanish-speaking world, signed this one. (For some inexplicable reason, the signatories all disappeared within a month or so on its original site, i.e. it may have been hacked).

Our federal government has taken some constructive diplomatic measures since the spring, and the Canadian Federation of Students has spoken out about the killings of Nicaraguan students (see this post).

Sadly, a significant bloc in the current Canadian <solidarity> movement remains mired in a 1980s Cold War mindset which mistakenly casts protestors as US or CIA puppets intent on a coup, and the Sandinista government as the valiant socialist victims of a capitalist conspiracy against them. They perceive events in Nicaragua and elsewhere in the world (Ukraine, Syria, Iran) through the dogmatic lens of <regime change>. Their silence betrays the values of solidarity, democracy and human rights. In the case of the beatings of female political prisoners, this silence ignores extreme sexist violence.

Common Frontiers is “a multi-sectoral working group which confronts, and proposes an alternative to, the social, environmental and economic effects of economic integration in the Americas.” This sounds like a coalition in favour of universal human rights and democracy, right?

No, their solidarity seems to depend on political affinities. In spite of the high level of state repression in Nicaragua since April (well documented by Amnesty International* [“Shoot to Kill: Nicaragua’s Strategy to Repress Protest” in English here; reportaje en español aquí, about students here and more recently here en español aquí]  and other human rights organizations), Common Frontiers has not made one single public statement denouncing extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture, disappearance, the loss of freedom of assembly, or media censorship on the part of the Ortega-Murillo regime.

Why have they not protested the Ortega-Murillo regime’s inter-oceanic canal project that poses threats to the environment as well as to peasant, indigenous and Afro-caribbean people?
[worth reading watching the video narrated by Gioconda Belli – even for non-Spanish speakers.]

Are they neo-Stalinists or <Machista-leninistas>?
[This is a better pun in Spanish than English – a jab leveled at defenders of the Ortega-Murillo regime by internationalist left wing feminists.]

The silence of Common Frontiers in the face of well-documented human rights abuses gives the impression that state-sanctioned murder, torture, disappearance and arbitrary detention may be crimes in some countries, but not in Nicaragua. However, it’s likely that few of their member groups have an accurate picture of the actual situation in Nicaragua, and that a small number of gate keepers at Common Frontiers have been spinning their own version of events that echo the Ortega-Murillo regime’s propaganda.

The fluency (or lack of fluency) in Spanish of the representatives of various unions and organizations who make up Common Frontiers may be another factor in their awareness (or lack) of critical analysis of Nicaragua in the international Spanish press. This in turn may lead to tacit support of Common Frontiers’ position – or avoidance of a position – on Nicaragua.

Even though state forces, paramilitaries and armed pro-government gangs have killed over 500 people since April, 2018, news about Nicaragua is almost entirely absent on the Common Frontiers Facebook page. The one article about Nicaragua that they posted on September 29 is selective, poorly researched and offers a feeble defense of the Ortega-Murillo regime. The author attempts to discredit Amnesty International’s spring report on Nicaragua, but offers no substantial evidence, apart from a link to an Orteguista critique posted by pseudo-journalist and conspiracy theorist, Max Blumenthal.

NACLA has published many other articles about Nicaragua over the years which Common Frontiers has not shared since April when state repression skyrocketed, for example:

Strange Bedfellows: The Aleman-Ortega Pact (September 25, 2007) by Alejandro Bendana
Nicaragua: A View from the Left (July 25, 2018) by Jeffrey L. Gould

In Nicaragua, the Latest Zombie Megaproject – The Interoceanic Grand Canal is a threat to the environment and to the Nicaraguan people (May 20, 2016) by Jennifer Goett

A Tale of Two Dictatorships/ Un Cuento de Dos Dictaduras (August 15, 2018) by Laura Blume
Deciphering the Nicaraguan Student Uprising/ Descifrando el levantamiento estudiantil nicaragüense (June 15, 2018) by Lori Hanson and Miguel Gomez

[Canadian Lori Hanson has spent 35 years building solidarity connections in Nicaragua and wrote this piece in late August about the impact of repression on health care: Side Effects: Persecution of Health Workers in Nicaragua .]

Those who persist in describing the Ortega-Murillo regime as socialist and progressive have not been paying attention to their actual fiscal policies. The Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt critiques them here [en español aquí] as has Envío which has been publishing solid research and analysis from the University of Central America in Managua for decades. Here’s a recent example of their perspective:
“A cornered regime is shooting at a mounting civic revolution.”

In fact, hundreds of articles about Nicaragua have been published in Spanish, English and other languages since April. Many of them denounce state violence in Nicaragua and the refusal of certain left wing sectors to call for an end to the human rights abuses of the Ortega-Murillo regime. Here is an unsorted sampling from my bookmarks folder.

Common Frontiers uncritically posts links to material from the US-based Alliance for Global Justice (AGJ), which openly supports the Sandinista regime and believes in the US conspiracy theory, regime change and an attempted coup instead of recognizing a legitimate, diverse, grassroots quest by hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans for their basic human rights.

Solidarity by definition can never be selective. It’s time for the member organizations of Common Frontiers to evaluate its position on Nicaragua. I believe that if the members examine the evidence, they will ask Common Frontiers to speak on their behalf in support of democracy and human rights in Nicaragua.

If you belong to one of these Common Frontier member groups, and if you support universal human rights, please ask your organization to make its own independent assessment of the situation in Nicaragua, and to call upon Common Frontiers to speak out about the violence of the Ortega-Murillo regime.

We can also write Common Frontiers Canada directly at:
26 Willow Tree Street
Maple, Ontario L6A 2S2
Tel 416-522-8615
comfront@web.ca

Oxfam Canada has projects in Nicaragua and their mission is to build lasting solutions to poverty and injustice with a focus on improving the lives and promoting the rights of women and girls. We can ask Oxfam to protest the abuse of imprisoned women and girls. Contact them via

39 McArthur Avenue
Ottawa, ON, K1L 8L7
Tel: +1 (613) 237-5236
Toll Free: 1-800-GO-OXFAM
Fax: +1 (613) 237-0524
General Inquiries: info@oxfam.ca

CoDevelopment Canada supports projects in Nicaragua, including Movimiento Elena Cuadra whose leader Sandra Ramos has been critical of the Nicaraguan government. CoDev finally made this statement after eight months of repression, which is a positive step, but they not taken taken steps to mobilize their base. We can ask them to do so, and to protest the mistreatment of political prisoners and the violations of human rights. Contact them via

260 – 2747 East Hastings Street
Vancouver, BC V5K 1Z8
(604) 708-1495
Fax: (604) 708-1497
codev@codev.org
Twitter: @CoDevCanada
Facebook: /CoDevCanada

Or if you are a member of CoDEV’s Canadian partners and supporters among these unions and organizations, please contact them.

I encourage friends to follow the FB page of Iniciativa Nicaragüense de Defensoras DDHH de las Mujeres (Nicaraguan Initiative for the Defense of Women). You don’t need to speak or read Spanish to understand many of their posts or memes. A Mexican interview with one of their members is here. An excellent summary of the role of Nica feminists in the resistance to the Ortega-Murillo regime is here.

Here is a small gallery of photos, memes and graphics from the ongoing efforts of Nicaraguan women to free themselves and their country from violence and repression.

These women deserve moral, diplomatic, economic and political support from Canadians, especially from organizations and individuals that espouse solidarity with Latin America.

#SOSNicaragua Canada

*Full disclosure: I was the Central America Special Action Coordinator for Amnesty International’s anglophone groups in Canada from 1979-81.

Nicaragua, Nicaragüita

Why do I post so much news about Nicaragua?

Nicaragua and its people played a significant role in my life, in Claire’s, and for many of our friends. We made some wonderful, life-long friends there and learned a lot about the wider world. Thousands of internacionalistas went to Nicaragua to volunteer or to work with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) after the Sandinista revolution overthrew the brutal, corrupt Somoza regime in 1979.

Delegations from Canadian unions, teachers, farmers, health care workers and left wing organizations visited Nicaragua, organized exchanges between our countries, sister communities, and set up speaking tours around BC and other provinces. The BC Teachers Federation, BC Federation of Labour, Trade Union Group, Oxfam, CUSO, Tools for Peace – these and many more were involved in myriad ways. Many drew inspiration from the Friereian national literacy campaign, the role of women in the revolution, and the influence of liberation theology.

In the 1980s, Canadian musicians such as Bruce Cockburn and Nancy White recorded original songs inspired by the Nicaraguan revolution. Chris Brooks reported often from Nicaragua on CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning program.

Gene Hackman, Ed Harris and Nick Nolte starred in Under Fire, a film about the assassination of inspired by the murder of ABC reporter Bill Stewart and his translator Juan Espinoza by Somoza’s National Guard. Salman Rushdie visited Nicaragua and wrote The Jaguar Smile; in 1985 Mario Vargas Llosa wrote the essay Nicaragua at the Crossroads about his time there (New York Times Magazine). US actor Martin Sheen visited; Peter, Paul & Mary toured. The Clash produced their Sandinista album. Nicaragua was a magnet.

Claire’s involvement began in the late 1970s when she helped establish a Nicaragua Solidarity Committee in Vancouver. I was Amnesty International’s Central America Special Action Coordinator for anglophone Canadian groups from 1979-1981 during the worst chapters of the Guatemalan genocide. The civil war in El Salvador was peaking and demonstrations, benefit concerts and fundraising took place continually in Vancouver where we lived.

[That Panzos ceremony was one of the ways I met Claire, because she was the Ad Hoc band’s contact that month for loaning their PA system!]

In Nicaragua, new literature, visual art, theatre and music burst forth. Jackson Brown produced the volcanto album called Si Buscabas (If You Were Looking) by Duo Guardabarranco, a brother-sister duo, Katia and Salvador Cardenal. They went on tour with Salvador Bustos who had just put out his Tragaluz (Skylight) album, performing at gatherings such as the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.

In 1985, Claire was invited to design postage stamps at TELCOR Filatelia in Managua and after 9 months, with the help of family, co-workers, many friends and groups, we had raised enough money to cover return airfare and a budget of $100USD/month to cover our food and rent for a year. Guardabarranco played a benefit concert for us at La Quena in East Vancouver with Salvador Bustos. Imagine, three Nicaraguans helping raise money for two Canadians! A profound level of generosity of spirit.

Within a few months of our arrival in Managua in October, 1985, I began teaching a paper making class at the national art school, Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas. Our goal was to identify local plant fibres that might make decent papers during a time of scarcity because of the US embargo. Pita cactus fibre (used for hats, mats and tapestries), plantain bark and the long leaves at the base of pineapples were the best. Claire designed two series of stamps: Latin American Writers (in conjunction with the National Libraries Campaign) and Butterflies of the World. She also created various designs for cards, posters, etc.

We spent an intense, but rich and rewarding year there. Nicaraguans were incredibly warm and generous towards us, with acquaintances and co-workers inviting us into their homes and including us in excursions and social gatherings. Our dear friend Liliana introduced me to Nicaraguan literature such as Sergio Ramírez’s Charles Atlas También Muere (Charles Atlas Dies, Too), and taught me how to make nacatamales. We received so much more than we could give through our own work.

For a couple of weeks we picked coffee near Matagalpa as part of a brigade from the Ministry of Culture (we weren’t very good pickers). In our last months, we hitched onto a couple of tours of Canadian unions and other groups which enabled us to see more of the country.

Upon our return, Claire created a series of paintings and collages that Tools For Peace printed in two fundraising calendars, and CoDev printed as cards. Most of her originals sold, but we kept a few, such as Wedding in Santo Domingo.

The 1980s were a time of ferment and hope. As well as the brutal dictator, Somoza, the Shah of Iran had been overthrown and Zimbabwe was free, though repression in those countries lay not far ahead – as yet out of sight. Nicaragua seemed like a beacon at the time. Footage of this 1983 concert in Managua conveys some of the energy and optimism of the era:

“y ahora que ya sos libre Nicaragüita, yo te quiero mucho más” translates as
“and now that you are free, dear Nicaragua, I love you so much more.”
What a beautiful song to a country and its people.

A line in Yo soy de un pueblo sencillo (“I am from a simple town” or “I am from a simple people/country”) says “Juntos somos un volcán” (“together we are a volcano”) which became the slogan of many marches this summer. Claire created two images from this phrase which I digitized this summer in the blue and white colours of the Nicaraguan flag:

But I’m getting ahead of the story. Back in the 1980s, Carlos Mejía Godoy wrote many other revolutionary songs, including “Vivirás Monimbó” (Monimbó, you will live/survive) about the heroic resistance of that indigenous neighbourhood of Masaya as seen in this video montage of music with historical scenes from the insurrection in 1978-79.

In 1990 we returned for the month of April to visit and stay with friends during the transfer of power from the Sandinista government to the UNO opposition coalition that had won the February election. Times were tense.

Transfer of power from the Sandinista government to the UNO opposition coalition, Managua, April, 1990.

In 2007, Daniel Ortega regained power after making deals with the conservative Catholic hierarchy and the corrupt right wing businessman, Arnoldo Alemán. He sold out feminists and began a process of undermining the autonomy of various institutions to consolidate his power, including changing the constitution to allow his wife, Rosario Murillo to become his Vice President, and to extend his terms of office. He embarked on a destructive interoceanic canal project in cahoots with a Chinese businessman which campesinos, indigenous and Afro-Caribbean people have been resisting and meeting violent repression. (Spanish language report from Amnesty here.)

In April, 2018, after years of increasing corruption and authoritarian measures, the Ortega-Murillo regime responded to protests with lethal force; see also this update, this  report from Amnesty International and this Urgent Action concerning a wave of student arrests. Sandinista police, paramilitaries and armed gangs have killed several hundred Nicaraguans, many of them young people, including minors and an infant. Thousands have been injured, hundreds subject to arbitrary detention and there are many reports of torture. Thousands of people have fled the country. Last week the government took steps to completely criminalize all forms of protest.

However, people have lost their fear and continue to resist. They have replaced the old Sandinista slogan, Patria Libre o Morir (“Free Country or Death”) which is the acronym for plomo, the word for “lead” which implies bullets, with Patria Libre y Vivir (“Free Country and Life”). Demonstrations continue to take place throughout Nicaragua and around the world. Many former comandantes, revolutionaries, artists, musicians and writers have left the Sandinista party since 1990. Those who are not in exile have been in the streets with the people.

Carlos Mejía and his brother, Luis Enrique, have written new songs in solidarity with the people resisting state repression in Monimbó and other locations, with students and madres vandálicas (“Vandal Mothers” pokes fun at Daniel Ortega’s wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, who has tried to dismiss protestors as a handful of criminals).

Former Sandinista Minister of Culture, Ernesto Cardenal, dedicated his recent award of the international Mario Benedetti prize to the Nicaraguan people. Former Sandinista Vice-President, Sergio Ramírez, dedicated his award of the Cervantes prize “to the memory of the Nicaraguans recently killed on the streets while demanding justice and democracy, and to the thousands of young people still fighting with no other weapons than their ideals so that Nicaragua once again becomes a Republic.”

Sadly, some unions, churches, NGOs and individuals who were strong supporters of Nicaragua in the 1980s have not paid attention to the steady degradation of Sandinismo into Orteguismo since 1990. Perhaps they have not noticed the number of brilliant thinkers who have quit or been driven from the Sandinista party. Perhaps they still believe that the Ortega-Murillo regime is somehow “progressive” or they have fallen for the pseudo-journalism and propaganda of sources such as Max Blumenthal and TeleSUR who frame the repression as an excusable response to a “soft coup” financed by the CIA. The regime operates extensive disinformation networks, as well as fake social media profiles to harangue and threaten opposition activists inside and outside the country.

They probably haven’t read Indefensible – Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism by Rohini Hensman or What Went Wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis by Dan La Botz. They face ridicule in Spanish-speaking media and social media as the “Jurassic Left”, the “Rancid Left” and – from young left-wing feminsts – as machistas-leninistas (macho-Leninists)(better in Spanish!).

Claire and I have started to “repurpose” some of the art we made after our year in Nicaragua, in solidarity with the friends we love so much more because they yearn to be free and continue to fight for that right. Here’s a video of repurposing a silkscreen portrait of Daniel Ortega; audio in Spanish.

Many friends have responded to our call for solidarity, by signing this declaration. The Canadian Federation of Students recently issued this letter:

Hopefully more organizations, especially those with historic relationships with Nicaragua, will speak out as well. In the meantime, Canadians can contact The Right Honourable Chrystia Freeland, MP, Minister of Foreign Affairs
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6
Fax: 613-996-9607  Chrystia.Freeland@parl.gc.ca

cc: The Hon. Hélène Laverdière, MP
Fax: 613-995-8461 Helene.Laverdiere@parl.gc.ca

The Hon. Erin O’Toole, MP
Fax: 613-992-2794 Erin.OToole@parl.gc.ca

…to ask that Canada demand that the Nicaraguan government immediately disband its paramilitaries and guarantee basic human rights such as freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and safety of person.

There are other recommended actions in this Amnesty report. To learn more, you can visit various Facebook pages such as Sos Nicaragua Global -English, Stand with Nicaragua, and news sites that monitor Nicaraguan affairs such as 100% Noticias (on the web) and the venerable Envío that has been publishing since 1981. The Group of Independent Interdisciplinary Experts issued this comprehensive, damning report in the fall.

Lori Hanson, a Canadian health care worker and educator with long, deep ties to Nicaragua, wrote Side Effects: Persecution of Health Workers in Nicaragua in late August, and with Miguel Gomez in June, wrote Deciphering the Nicaraguan Student Uprising for the North American Congress on Latin America. Dr Mary Ellsberg published A Massacre, Not a Coup: A Response to Misinformation on Nicaragua in August. Niú Review published an excellent photo essay after 100 days of the uprising. The young feminist “Comandante Macha” speaks from exile here. These links represent a tiny sampling of coverage and analysis of what has been taking place there.

The young leaders, feminists and environmentalists, the campesinos, indigenous and Afro-Caribbean activists are inspiring solidarity around the world with their courage, vision and smiles. Today, a large group bravely gathered in Managua, most with no face masks to protect their identities in front of live video to announce the formation of Unidad Nacional Azul Y Blanco (Blue & White National Unity).

We believe that Nicaraguans will eventually free themselves. These days, anyone can lend a hand in many ways, no matter where they live.

Solidarity with Nicaraguan political prisoners, Wells, BC Canada, Lhtako Dené Territory, September, 2018.

#SOSNicaragua ¡Nicaragua vencerá! (Nicaragua will win)