Save the jaguars!
By C J Sommerfeld, Contributor
It seems as though us Vancouverites love to complain.
“There are too many vegans!”
“The Seawall is full of tourists on rental bikes!”
“Rent is a bank account vacuum!”
Unfortunately, the current air quality may inhibit a few last trots up the Grouse Grind before the summer tapers off, and strict liquor laws still prohibit breweries from having a patio, but really our problems are minuscule in comparison to the current events happening in other parts of the world right now—such as
the chaos which is suffocating Nicaragua right now.
Nicaragua is in total political, social, and economic unrest. A president widely regarded as a neoliberal authoritarian, Daniel Ortega, has led the country in a dictatorship for the past 11 years, most of which was spent without any major revolt from the Nicaraguan people. However, a string of events that took place earlier this year have finally caused a long-overdue uprising.
The Nicaraguan government has recently censored national television from broadcasting the current crises. I was only informed about these events due to good ol’ Facebook—videos, photos, and status updates from my friends living in Nicaragua made Vancouver’s dog days of summer and constant sweat mustaches seem not so bad.
Having lived and worked in Nicaragua for a short period of time in 2015, I reached out to a few of my friends and ex-co-workers who still live there (one of whom has just recently left the country) to gain firsthand knowledge on the crisis.
A few of the people I contacted were reluctant to participate, apologizing and telling me that they were afraid of the possible backlash from the government for speaking to the press. One person who agreed to participate asked if their name could remain anonymous due to the same fear. The following is the cumulative depiction of the current unrest from three people living in Nicaragua during this time of upheaval.
“The first disturbances were with the burning of Reserva Indio Maz,” Felipe Orozco, resident of Granada, Nicaragua said in an online interview with the Other Press. On April 3, a swathe of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve caught fire. This 110,000-acre span of rainforest is the most important biological reserve in the country as it is home to innumerable threatened plant and animal species, including the jaguar. The blaze continued for a week and a half and destroyed almost 13,000 acres.
The fire was reported by news outlets to have started due to illegal cattle ranchers and land traffickers who were carrying out their activities on Indigenous territory which was within this area. Perhaps the fire was caused by the farming practice of burning raphia palms prior to planting their crops to cycle the nutrients in the soil. While illegal crops and cattle farms are greatly disrupting the natural flora and fauna of the rainforest, they are reaping income, benefitting the economy and making the capitalist government happy.
Since this blaze was the byproduct of the abrasive, resource-extracting activity which had been taking place on Indigenous land—and had been doing so for a long time—it created a collective fury among the people of Nicaragua. The fire was a prime example of how the government was receiving fiscal gain from destroying its own rainforest and Indigenous territory, clearly showcasing the priorities of the government.
Shortly following this, Ortega announced a reform that many Nicaraguans considered the last straw.
On April 18, a protest began in front of Universidad Centroamericana. Jon Hanrahan, a long-term Nicaraguan resident and owner of Treehouse, Townhouse, and Lost Souls Bar and Eatery, said in an online interview with the Other Press, “In April the president announced a pension reform and many pensioners took to the streets. A lot of students jumped on board to show their support. They were met with police who were reported to use live ammunition and torture tactics. After that first day of protests the focus shifted from the pension, to justice for those killed and removal of president Daniel Ortega.”
Another source, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of government retaliation, also spoke online to the Other Press about these demonstrations.
“The protests initially started when Ortega wanted a social reform but it quickly degenerated into people manifesting for their rights to freedom and release from an oppressive government,” the source said.
In the following days more riots came about, including pro-government protesters who entered universities and began attacking students. Following this event, many universities closed. The country quickly turned from safe to the opposite. Protesting for freedom quickly monsooned into a fury of dangerous riots.
Our anonymous source described life in Nicaragua following the protests—areas of town residents knew to stay out of, warnings to remain inside to avoid demonstrations, and food shortages.
“All hostels and hotels were locked from the inside and you needed permission to go outside. Grocery stores were completely emptied, and most restaurants closed their doors, hence there [were] a lot less choices in foods. It became more of ‘eat what you can get.’”
Unfortunately, empty grocery stores and violence-ridden streets progressed from bad to worse, according to this source. “In the beginning of the manifestations I didn’t feel personally threatened. So long as I’d respect the hours I should be in, I’d be fine. The paramilitaries were killing about one to two people per day, which is terrible, but I did not feel targeted. As of August, the paramilitary were killing about 30 people per day with much more going missing never to be found again. It was becoming more and more dangerous. I was scared of the paramilitary, but I was also scared of the Nicaraguan people because war causes an economic depression.
“People who are in survival mode aren’t caring or nice,” said the unnamed source. “They will rob you, rape you, and kill you […] Not to say that 100 percent of the population turned bad but unfortunately and understandingly, war does change the character of many people.”
Hanrahan said, “So many people fought and died for a change but it seems at this stage, the current government have got their way.”
“[Prior to the political unrest] people in Nicaragua were happy and social. It was easy to talk to people. The atmosphere was mostly light and positive. At this moment in time, there’s almost like a collective depression going on. You can feel the atmosphere [is] emotionally heavy. The streets are empty, people who are in the street barely talk, or smile, or even look at you,” said the anonymous source, stating also that the capital city of Managua was full of shotgun-wielding paramilitary troops and that Granada was like a “ghost town” when demonstrations were not ongoing.
With violence suffocating the country, the government closed its doors to tourism. “Once the travel warnings were made and word got around it took just weeks for tourism to cease to exist. To this point I’ve had to close my businesses,” said Hanrahan.
Not only did this halt income to businesses that benefit from tourism, volunteers who were doing so within the country were sent home, and no others were able to enter the country.
Prior to the political unrest, there were a multitude of organizations speckled around the country where international volunteers assisted in bettering the country in areas such as education and construction. When these volunteers were asked to leave the county, the progress in these organizations nearly ceased. In an attempt to replace this lost help, organizations turned to Nicaraguans who had lost their jobs due to the political unrest to give their time to organizations which served the people.
“Over 200,000 people have lost their jobs, so we are trying to employ as many people as we can afford to,” said Hanrahan, who used his presence and popularity in Nicaragua to serve the community of Poste Rojo, an impoverished locality at the base of the Mombacho Volcano.
One unnamed organization said in an email to the Other Press,
“Due to the strict labor laws requiring full time employment, we don’t have the option of simply paying some extra helpers for the hours that we need them.”
This created a game of tug-of-war of morals and politics. “People who have lived here a long time say it’s similar to Nicaragua 10 years ago before its popularity took off,” Hanrahan said.
Nicaragua’s crises truly put Vancouver’s issues into perspective.
We may have our gripes about tourists in Gastown and bike lane etiquette, but one thing we can be thankful for is that our grocery shops are in abundance and we can walk without real worry.
“For anyone not living in Nicaragua I think the best way to support from afar would be to look online for smaller groups looking to help the country recover.” Hanrahan says.
If you are looking for an out to your local woes, consider making a student-sized donation to a Nicaraguan organization. There are two donation portals which I have previously volunteered with and highly recommend: