- Robert Benson
Students Help Others Amidst Widespread Violence In Nicaragua
Updated: Mar 3, 2020
Above: bullet holes in the wall of one of our student’s homes and the bullet found inside.
In late April 2018, Nicaragua began experiencing the strongest civil uprising against the government since its civil war ended in 1990. Tens of thousands of protesters have regularly taken to the streets seeking reforms in government, only to be met with repression by pro-government forces. In an increasingly deadly spiral of violence, more than 300 people were killed over the past three months, while nearly 600 others "disappeared."
The past couple of weeks, the situation moved into a new phase. Thousands of masked gunmen now roam the streets in trucks to discourage further protests. A government agency has reportedly fired dozens of doctors who treated protesters wounded in the violence. Some semblance of stability has returned, but tension remains beneath a fragile surface.
During the past few months, I have spoken regularly with some of the college students that Love Forward sponsors in Nicaragua. Grief, anger, and fear have gripped many of their communications. But something else comes through, something that stirs deep within them: they love their country.
And what I have found most encouraging is that in the midst of the violence and chaos around them, they are serving alongside orphanages, churches, and other organizations to help others in their communities.
The future lies with this next generation. In time, the future will be theirs. They treasure their nation and their people. They yearn for true democracy. And therein lies a basis for hope.
As a non-profit, Love Forward does not take sides in political disputes. But we stand against violence, in all its forms. We support the basic human rights of each individual to freedom of speech, assembly, and self-determination. And we seek to advance love, compassion, peace, opportunity, and unity wherever it is lacking.
Advancing these values, Love Forward has been standing with its students during this trying time. We stand with them as they seek a peaceful solution to this crises. We stand with them as they help their communities and seek a better future for themselves and their children. And we will continue to stand with them as they create that future, despite any setbacks, circumstances, or opposition that may come.
Tragedies in Our Midst
Sunday, July 8, was the deadliest day since the protests began, with 38 people killed in clashes between protesters, police, and paramilitary groups. This brought the conflict particularly close to home – nearly all of the deaths were in Jinotepe and Diriamba, where many of our partner staff and students live. There were no sanctuaries or places of safety—pro-government forces even broke into churches and homes where protesters had taken refuge.
Before and after the clashes of that day, I received reports from people I knew, including students in the Love Forward program. I heard stories of how the gunfire kept them up at night, photos of bullet holes in the walls of their homes, stories of church bells ringing at 1 a.m. to wake-up students manning barricades so they wouldn’t be slaughtered in their sleep.
That was the day that Luis Acevedo lost his life. Luis was an English teacher and translator at La Roca church in Jinotepe, where some of the staff and children I know have worshiped over the years. Paramilitaries broke into his home in Jinotepe and killed him by shooting him three times. His crime? Bringing water to protesting students. He leaves behind his wife and three children.
But for us, the most tragic loss of recent months was the death of Eliezer on June 16. I had known Eliezer since he was only a year old, when he first moved into the children's home that I started in Nicaragua. Among his siblings and cousins, some are currently in college, several have children of their own, two have been supported by the Love Forward program, and his brother Hector has been battling leukemia through chemotherapy. Eliezer had a huge heart and most of stories I have heard in recent weeks were of times he helped other hurting kids.
At the age of 17, Elizier was murdered on the streets (a recent photo of Elizier is at left). A life ended far too soon. And an ending we seek to help every one of our students avoid by providing them a path toward a different future.
Background of the Current Conflict and Its Impact
Surrounding the grief that has impacted our students and programs is a broader national crisis that began to unfold on April 18, 2018. On that day, President Daniel Ortega announced changes to the social security system, which sparked waves of protests across the nation. But when several protesters were killed by pro-government paramilitary forces, and video footage went viral, it led to further protests, which were met with further repression.
After several days, Ortega scrapped the social security changes, but the genie was out of the bottle. President Ortega had been consolidating power for several years, keeping the outward appearances of democracy while, in the views of many, stripping away much of its substance. The situation had reached a tipping point, and what began as protests against a change in social security benefits evolved into a mandate for broader democratic reforms.
University students have been at the forefront of the protests, but what caused the protests to gain strength was that they gained the support of Nicaraguans from all walks of life and political affiliations. The deadly violence against demonstrators resulted in the Catholic Church and the business community—which had long aligned with the central government—aligning instead with the broader population in seeking justice, an end to the violence, and democratic reforms including early elections. Peace talks, often brokered by the Catholic Church, have been intermittent, often getting traction but then being derailed by fresh violence.
The current crisis is also taking a significant toll on the Nicaraguan economy. The Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development has estimated that 215,000 jobs have already been lost in the past few months—in a country of only 6 million people. Economic losses in the best case scenario, which assumes the crisis ends imminently, would still total about $638 million. If the crisis continues through the end of the year, the country’s economy could contract 5.6 percent and see up to $1.4 billion in losses.
Love Forward’s Response to the Current Crisis
One of the unfortunate consequences of the current civil unrest is that most of the schools in the country, including most universities, have been closed for onsite classes since mid-April, due in part to concerns for the safety of the students. At the same time, however, most our sponsored students cannot obtain paid employment during this crisis; they have no families to fall back upon, as they grew up in orphanages; and the cost of living has gone up substantially due to shortages of food and other staples.
Against this backdrop, we have continued to sponsor our college students under one of two scenarios. About half of the students were able to continue their studies by taking online courses that the colleges offered until onsite classes could resume. As for the other half of the students, we are continuing to support them until classes resume as long as they dedicate their time to an approved internship of at least 35 hours/week. Most of them have been serving at the orphanage they grew up at or working for another organization serving their communities.
For example, three of the college scholars that grew up at one of our partner children's homes were unable to attend classes in recent months. One student helped with a community program that provides meals and other support to poor families in the community, a second student devoted his time to teaching English to children in the children's home, and a third student helped staff one of the children’s homes where the resident youth need extra love and attention.
In this way, we have been able to stand by our students during this crisis and continue to walk with them as they transition to adulthood. And if they are currently unable to attend classes, we are supporting them in helping others in their local communities.
As of this writing, we are receiving news that many universities are resuming onsite classes in August 2018, for the fall semester, and some of our students will soon be able to resume their normal studies. Even so, we hope and pray that the ongoing violence will cease, that the voices of those who lost their lives will continue to be heard, and that Nicaragua will move toward our shared vision for an economically prosperous nation built on principles of democracy and freedom.
February 2020 Update: All of our students were able to resume their college programs by the beginning of 2019, but the Nicaraguan economy has continued to contract over the past couple of years. Unemployment and poverty are increasing. In the face of this growing downturn in the economy of Nicaragua - already the poorest country in Latin America - we are continuing to re-evaluate our strategies for supporting our students. For example, in addition to their college programs, we are placing greater emphasis on acquiring marketable skills (such as fluency in English) and internships that deepen their relevant work experience. But our commitment to each student and their long-term success remains.