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Latin America

A look inside defiant Nicaraguan students' stronghold

Anti-government street protests erupted last week in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, and quickly spread across the country claiming as many as 27 lives. Students barricaded themselves inside some university campuses which came under fire from police using live rounds. They are calling for President Daniel Ortega to step down.
23 Abr 2018 – 05:25 PM EDT
A masked Upoli student show bullet cartridge from police attack on the csampus on Sunday night. Crédito: Tim Rogers/Univision

MANAGUA— A torn banner stretched across the metal gate of Nicaragua's Politechnical University (Upoli) advertises open registration for Masters' degrees in Industrial Biotechnology. But inside the campus walls, students are getting an education of a different sort.

Over the past 48 hours, Upoli has become the last stronghold in the students' uprising against the authoritarian government of Sandinista President Daniel Ortega. The surrounding neighborhood of Villa Rafaela Herrera has been barricaded off from the rest of Managua with paver stones pried from the street. Molotov cocktails wait at the ready to repel the next incursion by Sandinista police. The streets are littered with burned tires, rocks, cartridge shells, broken glass and rocks — detritus from five nights of street battles between government forces and the student-led opposition.

"When the people rise up, nothing can stop them," a masked student told me.

A clash Sunday night left one Upoli student dead and 10 injured. That brings the unofficial death toll to 30 after five nights of fighting. The government claims the number is 10, but some people claim it's even higher than the unofficial toll.

"Five people were killed in my neighborhood, and none of their names are on the list of dead," claims Luis Benjamin Cazeres, 25, from the nearby neighborhood of José Dolores Estrada. "I was a diehard Sandinista, but no more."

The student leaders stress that their cause is much bigger than the infamous social security reform that sparked the massive street protests last week. The Ortega regime's violent response to last week's peaceful protests has turned the students' movement into a much bigger struggle for freedom and democracy.

Until now, Ortega's Sandinista Front has long enjoyed strong youth support going back to its glory days when it led the 1979 revolution that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza. But nowadays, the students mostly seem to view Ortega as an outdated autocrat, no better than Somoza himself.

Inside the campus gates of Upoli, classrooms have been turned into a field camp filled with donated water, food, and medical supplies. The students are not armed, and Catholic Priest Mykel Salvador, who had been in close contact with the students, insists the campus has not been converted into a "military barracks" for insurgents. It's main function, he said, is to provide medical care to Nicaraguans wounded in protest; one of the main class rooms has been converted into a makeshift hospital.

The students are, however, providing their own security as part of a greater effort to create a vertical command structure—the first signals of an emerging hierarchy in what until now has been a leaderless movement.

During a visit to Upoli campus on Monday, a small group of journalists waited to enter a glass-window office to talk to the students' all-male leadership group. The division of roles seems to be a work in progress, and not without some kinks. When reporters spoke to several young women about their experience holed up inside the campus, another masked woman came over and reprimanded them for talking out of turn.

" Muchachas, you're not authorized to talk. Only the leadership command," the woman said.

"But we're students, too! Our experience is just as valid!" protested one woman, before acknowledging the rules and requesting that her interview be deleted.

While there may still be some organizational hiccups, the students' mission is clear: defend Nicaragua's democracy against Ortega's authoritarianism.

"There are people who were killed fighting for and defending the rights of us Nicaraguans," said Vanegas. (All the leaders wear masks and use code names to protect their real identities for fear of reprisal). "Nobody, nobody, nobody is going to bring those lives back. They died for a cause and a truth. We demand the government steps down and that Nicaragua finally has free, fair and transparent elections."

"The Nicaraguan people don't want a reversal," echoed the student leader going by the nom de guerre Aguila. "We want to move forward. We want peace, but a peace with Daniel Ortega and Rosarillo Murillo out of power."

Ortega, 72, won a third consecutive term in office in November 2016 with 72% of the vote, though opposition leaders declared the election a "farce." On Sunday he backtracked from the social security reform package and offered to dialogue with business sector.

Aguila said his student group doesn't want to enter into any dialogue with the Ortega government while the repression and violence continues on the streets. At some point in the future they'll be announcing their conditions for dialogue, but for the moment are focusing on organizing, he said.

These young people are also still coming to grips with what it means to be a student insurgent in a school that has no plans to restart classes anytime soon.

"Part of me feels like my education has been wasted," says 21-year-old graphic design student Carlos. "But we're fighting for something we'll achieve. When this ends we will have peace and freedom in Nicaragua. And that makes me proud to be a student."