Last Tuesday, about 30 UvA students and activists from Nicaragua protested at CREA Café as part of the SOS Nicaragua-Holanda movement. The event concluded with an act of solidarity.
Solange Saballos, a Language and Literature student and cultural reporter, joined the protest through the intermediary of Skype. Saballos fled from Managua to Guatemala after covering the protests at her university, from which she was expelled due to her activities in the protests.
Since April 2018, students have been at the forefront of protests against the government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. The government has accused the protestors of terrorism as a justification for the heavy repression by the police, which led to 512 deaths and 552 imprisonments.
However, local industries and some former revolutionary allies of Ortega have supported the protestors. The Nicaraguan President rose to power after the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s.
Activist Diego Coppens, a Nicaraguan-Belgian student living in Brussels, joined the protest on Thursday evening. His sister Amaya Coppens was imprisoned in September for participating in the protests.
Coppens’ family has lobbied the Belgian government to get support for her liberation in Nicaragua and was supported in this effort by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. This drew Belgium’s attention on the protests in Nicaragua and turned Amaya Coppens into a symbol of political prisoners’ liberation. However, according to her brother, she remains skeptical of this. “She did not agree to use her image only for her individually,” he explains, “if we were going to use her image, then it would be for all the political prisoners in Nicaragua.”
Belgium granted Coppens with the country’s citizenship, which has led to her being treated better in prison and gave the Belgian state some better leverage to achieve freedom for her. “Her case is more political than legal,” explains her brother. “That’s why the biggest obstacle for her liberation is the demission of President Ortega.”
Saballos’ case presents itself with further complications. Saballos not only clashed with the government, but also with other protestors. She first covered the protests by elderly people and later joined it when a group of students occupied the National Autonomous University of Managua. Saballos pointed out some problems in the opposition, which caused critics from the two opposing sides. “As an independent journalist, I do not have the protection of the human rights organizations of Nicaragua because I do not have the connections,” she explained. This led to her decision to flee to Guatemala together with her boyfriend.
“When I arrived in Guatemala, I didn’t have anything. We didn’t have any money, we barely had any clothes, we didn’t know what’s going to be next,” recalls Saballos. “But we found some people […] that gave us a room to stay.” The couple received help from the Nicaraguan community in Guatemala, for whom Saballos now volunteers and makes short videos to portray their work. “That’s something that gives me a lot of energy and happiness. It is very touching to be with my people.”
For both activists, the protests in Nicaragua are not just a consequence of Ortega’s government. “In Nicaragua, it is very difficult to have access to a good education,” explains Saballos. “We are brought up with a lot of fear to have our opinions because we are always punished, by our family or by society.” For them, the country also needs to solve the corruption and high insecurity rates to avoid a new dictatorship.
For Coppens, there is a failure in the approach of the international community. “Who do we want as our president? It is not the principal problem,” he says. “We cannot run an election when all the political system is involved […] and corrupted by the government.”
Event host Julienne Weegels, a postdoctoral scholar at UvA, has done research on the Nicaraguan prison system. Weegels wants to bring awareness to the current situation of the country. “Speak out and say something about how nuanced and complex the situation is,” she advised. “Try not to fall into what the government is trying to do to make it seem like a ‘left’ versus ‘right’ conflict.”
Weegels is an active member of the SOS Nicaragua-Holanda network, set up during the first protests in Nicaragua. She has helped in spreading the news and organize demonstrations in solidarity with the protestors in Nicaragua, and to combat the attempts of the government to cover up or misrepresent the protests. To achieve this, the network has held events such as the one at CREA last Thursday in various Dutch cities, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Leiden. The event aimed not only at information but also at involvement, as it concluded with the audience taking a picture together to express their solidarity.
SOS Nicaragua-Holanda started out as a self-organized movement of the Nicaraguan community in the Netherlands, which previously had been “very loosely organized just to go out and party sometimes”, Weegels says. “It came very organically as an expression of our utter surprise and shock at what was going on”. The network is self-funded and keeps its independence, even though it cooperates with other groups that work with Nicaragua in NGOs or politics.