“Like a lot of Black women, I have always had to invent the power my freedom requires:
All my life I’ve been studying revolution. I’ve Been looking for it, pushing at the possibilities and waiting for that moment when there’s no more room for rhetoric, for research or for reason: when there’s only my life or my death left to act upon. Here in the United States you do get weary, after a while; you could spend your best energies forever writing letters to the New York Times. But you know, in your gut, that writing back is not the same as fighting back.
I know that the end of the twentieth century will finally belong to the majority— the First World peoples of the earth who look like you and me— or there will be no one left on the planet. This argument between the rich and the poor is just that serious. I know that the global lunging of First World peoples into power is everywhere opposed by a North American ‘foreign policy’ that depends, entirely, on my inertia and my tax money.
I had to go to Nicaragua… “June Jordan, Nicaragua: Why I Had To Go There (January 1984)
Like many, my foundational understanding of Nicaragua was in the context of a very surface-level understanding of the “Iran- Contra Affair” of the 1980s and its connection to the explosion of the crack-cocaine epidemic in colonized neighborhoods in the U.S. as told through docuseries and internet deep dives. As I began to study, more intentionally, the work of revolutions and revolutionaries, I would come across a series of Maurice Bishop speeches referring to Cuba, Grenada, and Nicaragua as the “triple axis” of threat to the expansion of U.S. hegemony in the region.
When I started to take more interest in Nicaragua, because of Bishop’s fondness for the country, I learned about the mystical legacy of Augusto Ceaser Sandino and the victory of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) ousting the Somoza family political dynasty dictatorship in 1979. I also learned about the many ways Sandinistas efficiently governed Nicaragua until 1981 only to be met with the anti-communist foreign policy strategies of the U.S. right-wing Reagan Administration. This new(er) policy for dealing with Latin America and the Caribbean, an extension of the racist Monroe Doctrine, made the Marxist- Leninist FSLN- led government of Nicaragua a direct target (alongside Cuba and Grenada). In attempts to isolate the Sandinista revolution, from 1981-1990, Reagan backed the right-wing rebel groups, known as the “contras”. As noted in Erica R Edwards, The Other Side of Terror: Black Women and the Culture of U.S. Empire, “Two years after the Grenada invasion, Reagan referred to the Contras who were fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua as “democratic forces” and “freedom fighters” who were deserving of Americans’ support.” Nicaragua was a test case for the Reagan regime’s shadowy network of global counterinsurgency.
“The Dark Years”, as Sandinistas refer to it today, was a period in Nicaraguan history when it fell under neoliberal rule for 16 years (1990-2006). The 1990 election being pushed by the U.S. exposed the special interests of certain sectors of society who only opposed the Somoza family dictatorship because it hindered their ability for acquiring and sustaining personal wealth. When a proposition called for Nicaraguan voters to vote for the U.S.’ preferred candidate or expect more military aggression, after witnessing the invasion of Panama, the people chose what they thought would be the peaceful route. However, the election of Violeta Chamorro ushered in over a decade of privatizing public services, overturning the post-revolution progress made by the Sandinista government. This was most evident in the education and health sectors, which instantly became for-profit institutions to the detriment of the people. Infant mortality rates rose as literacy rates fell. The Sandinistas would eventually return to power with the 2007 election of Daniel Ortega.
Why I Had To Go To Nicaragua
In August 2018, I was permanently suspended from Twitter while defending Nicaragua during a wave of online attacks in the aftermath of the attempted coup. In earlier months, an eruption of #SOSNicaragua hashtags suddenly hit the internet citing claims of “police repression”, “authoritarian dictatorship” and “a failed socialist state”. Suddenly, people online were swept up in a call for western intervention (including a call for U.N blue helmets) and regime change to defend the “human rights” of people in Nicaragua. Spearheaded by groups like The Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), the online propaganda campaign was also facilitated by numerous NGOs including the European-funded Centro Nicaraguense de los Derechos Humanos (CENIDH), the CIA-backed National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and U.S Agency for International Development (USAID).
During the coup attempt, extremists complicit with reactionary Priests of the Catholic Church hierarchy beholden to western policy engaged in a campaign of terror in Nicaragua, hunting down Sandinista activists, injuring, torturing, and killing hundreds more. Between the months of April and July 2018, criminal elements erected dozens of barricades (blockades), in various parts of the country (from the cities to the mountainsides), waging a low-intensity civil war against the Sandinista government. Recognizing that the coup-mongers were not only backed by the U.S. but openly calling for international intervention, Ortega ordered police to remain in their stations to avoid any actions giving validity to the calls. This, unfortunately, led to a besiege of cities, towns, and Nicaraguan police stations attempting to create months of instability in the country. Those attempts, however, failed as the months continued and opposition could no longer sustain the online disinformation campaign growing weaker. Empowered workers began, with the support of the government, to build back under the slogan, “No Pudieron Ni Podrán” (they couldn’t and they won’t be able to); vowing never to return to the “dark years” again.
Since the 2018 attempts to topple the state and oust Ortega and the Sandinista government from leadership, Nicaragua has been continuously attacked. One week before elections were held on November 7, 2021, the US congress passed the RENACER ACT, alleging Human Rights abuses. On January 10, 2022, the day of Ortega’s inauguration as president of Nicaragua (and his wife, Vice President Rosia Murillo), the US and the EU announced new sanctions with claims of “illegitimate” elections. In the summer of 2022, Nicaragua was excluded, alongside Cuba and Venezuela, from attending the Summit of The Americas by the U.S. State Department. In October, Nicaragua was hit with more sanctions specific to trade-related measures intended to support the State Department’s efforts to “hold the Ortega-Murillo regime accountable.”
Often the State Department evokes a flippant use of “human rights” to destabilize nations in the crosshairs of U.S. imperialism. With close introspection, those “rights” do not consider anything more than the individual and what they are allowed to do, as opposed to what they are guaranteed to have. Because individual rights are prioritized in Western culture, liberals are very eager to engage in “human rights” advocacy. In contrast, Ajamu Baraka has contributed much to establishing a framework of People’s Centered Human Rights (PCHR) that helps guide how we can maneuver through the rhetorical hypocrisy of the West’s use of “human rights”. A politics of being whole, this framework is “an approach that views human rights as an arena of struggle that, when grounded and informed by the needs and aspirations of the oppressed, becomes part of a unified comprehensive strategy for de-colonization and radical social change.” This framework distinguishes itself from the erroneous and prevalent use of “human rights” by requiring 1) an epistemological break with a human rights orthodoxy grounded in Euro-centric liberalism; 2) a reconceptualization of human rights from the standpoint of oppressed groups; 3) a restructuring of prevailing social relationships that perpetuate oppression; and 4) the acquiring of power on the part of the oppressed to bring about that restructuring.
In this way, PCHR not only exposes the empty platitude of “human rights” but fixates it within the structural connections forged through global capitalism, militarism, and police violence, and the multinational machinations of organizations that serve as proxies for U.S. economic and political power. This includes the Core Group, the United Nations (UN), the Organization of American States (OAS), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) interfering with the self-determination of the entire Americas. Organizing around the concept of “Nuestra (Our) Americas”, when offered the opportunity of a partial scholarship to go to Nicaragua, I had to go.
There’s a lot of “discourse” in the U.S. that convolutes and flattens issues. Subjectivity is prioritized and turmoil, as opposed to actual struggle to smash contradictions and build up political power to contend with the state, is normalized. As such, pertinent issues are approached entirely as single issues. The ten days spent on the Women In Nicaragua: Power and Protagonism delegation organized by the Jubilee House Community – Casa Benjamin Linder and Alliance for Global Justice showed me that there is another way.
Nicaragua functions with an ethic in favor of life that prioritizes the well-being of its citizens with participatory democracy. Nicaraguan solutions for Nicaraguan problems have resulted in the prioritizing of women, trade skills, education, healthcare, and child care, as well as equity in political representation and emphasis on unionization across sectors (including street vendors). Throughout the country are subtle reminders on billboards and murals of “Cristiano, Socialismo, Solidaridad” (Christianity, Socialism, and Solidarity)— the tenets that guide and shape the nation. Establishing family and community-based models through these tenets was key for the Sandinista government to reestablish and recover national sovereignty following the 2018 coup attempt. More than that, it has helped empower workers, communities, and families by facilitating organized networks rooted in community.
One can not over-express the importance of organization in Nicaragua. Their approach to healthcare (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) was a remarkable example for me. With over 90% of the population over 2 years old vaccinated (thanks to Cuba, China, and Russia) in a nation that could not afford to “lockdown” and no reported COVID deaths since May 2022, community efforts at organized popular education helped lessen any potential pressure the pandemic may have caused.
Visiting the Nueva Vida Clinic in Ciudad Sandino, we learned members of the community are utilized as health promoters. Everyday people are tasked with helping to (re)educate about the necessity of being healthy, visiting the clinic, getting vaccinated, and even family planning. In conversation with the health promoters and doctors, it was clear that Nueva Vida was seen as a vital part of the community. However, they were clear to express that, “yes, Nueva Vida is a part of our community, but it is our community that makes Nueva Vida what it is—- providing for one another.”
During our visit to Hospital “Dr. Fernando Velez Paiz” in Managua, we met with doctors and surgeons who spoke with us about the advances being made. This state-of-the-art facility provides quality healthcare to the entire population of Nicaragua. In the last 5 years of operation, the hospital has provided around a million and a half services to the general population in all specialties, performing around sixty thousand surgeries (twenty thousand general surgery procedures and more than twelve thousand Orthopedic surgeries among children and adults). In addition, Nicaraguan women have received around 16,000 procedures, the hospital has carried out almost 50,000 imaging studies (of which 213,094 ultrasounds stand out, a total of 63,000 tomographies), more than 200,000 x-rays, and around 16,000 mammographies. All of these procedures are guaranteed rights for the people to receive without payment. Painted pink (Vice President Rosario’s favorite color), this facility is one critical example of the “ethics in favor of life” community-based organizing that has assisted in not only the minimal impact of COVID-19 but overall favorable health outcomes that stretch as far as the autonomous coasts, providing equity.
There are Casa Maternas throughout the country, which provides care and education for low-resource mothers during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum periods through a mix of traditional Mayan customs and Western medicine. There are 1,000 weekly health fairs in communities and 67 mobile clinics operating permanently in areas of difficult access, like the autonomous coastal regions. “Hospital day” is brought into local communities that can not travel for checkups and offers specialized care in rural areas as well. These strategies have allowed doctors to get closer into communities and familiarize themselves with the needs of the population. Bringing specialists into these communities, the mainland hospital also coordinates with the autonomous regions’ own healthcare system, incorporating an intercultural health model.
The healthcare efforts, like all of the progressive efforts we were able to witness, were made effective by ‘block by block’ community-wide organizing supported by the Sandinista government pushing cross-collaboration between ministries. The Nicaraguan government has 51% representation of women. Yet, this is not “representation in government” the way it is pushed in the U.S. Written into the constitution, the ideological framework of the Sandinista party dictates how representation in government is utilized and to what end. Because women make up half of the parliament and citywide/regional governments, more attention is paid to things like gender equity studies being implemented on every level of schooling. There are also institutionalized campaigns on gender and emphasis on community-based popular education programs on the safety of women and leadership within unions. In order to garner rights for and ensure the safety of women, the ministries of health, education, women, and policing are in constant communication and collaboration. There was a widespread understanding among the people we engaged that all of these things were interconnecting struggles and approached them as such to find a resolve. There is no single-issue approach.
One of the most stark examples is their attitude towards the police. The national police force prioritizes being proactive, preventive, and community-based which makes them an ally to organizations like Fundación Destrevas Para Salvar Vidas (Skills To Save Lives) in Matagalpa. As we witnessed, this incredible organization utilizes the police in the program when saving women from abusers, and were proud to say it. This may confuse some in the U.S. who only understand policing in a particular way in relation to its own ruling class.
Hyperbolic slogans like “all cops are bad”, would cause many to overlook how the Nicaraguan national police force came to be. They derive out of a revolutionary process. Historically, Nicaragua never had a police force, but instead a national guard that the Somoza family dictatorship wielded to do their bidding. The Nicaraguan national police are the result of the Sandinista revolution and the government that completely overhauled society post-revolution and ensured this constitutionally. The prevention-first framework that guides policing in Nicaragua not only ensures that police are oftentimes unarmed but allows for women in policing to work in tandem with women in community to combat machismo, gender-based violence, and child abuse. In fact, violence is taken on as a public matter that requires a collaborative solution. All members of the police have been trained in trauma response and violence against women. This has proven to be a cohesive strategy in the fight against femicide by making violence a public matter that requires multi-prong solutions as opposed to a private matter to be resolved within the home, placing women in more danger.
At the women-led Gloria Quintanilla Cooperative in Carazo, we heard stories from women who have come out of years of abuse and not only established an intergenerational strategy of owning the means of production but creating zones of power to sustain those means. From elders to youth, collectivism emphasized how they learn and teach as well as how they protect one another. While a small-scale example of community control, it is both successful and impactful. They are self-sufficient, have established a school for the children, they have a new water pump they were able to raise money for, and sell what they farm and produce.
The ethics of life framework is foundational to the intergenerational approach to how communities sustain themselves. We had the chance to encounter the powerful women of Fundacion Entre Mujeres (FEM) in Esteli. They offered a view of their take on decolonial feminism, emphasizing having studied the works of African decolonial feminists. As self-described Campesinas Feministas (peasant feminists), these women use theoretical approaches to support the work of the FEM. They explore the relationship between feminism and agroecology (women and seeds) through ideological, economic, and organizational empowerment routes to develop a specific bottom-up approach to empower women of the peasant class which is distinct from the working class. With an emphasis on “Managua feminism” (mainstream) vs peasant feminism, these women were clear about the radical alteration of power relations, promoting the articulation of women in the community through local committees and agroecological networks, communication, community, and environmental defenders. FEM’s headquarters, Las Diosas, established in 2012, consists of 420 women members (across ages) of eight cooperatives adding value to three agro-productive chains.
As Camilo Mejía, a Nicaraguan and conscientious objector in the US army during the Iraq war noted, “the rights that you all are fighting to get in the US is what we are fighting to DEFEND in Nicaragua.” While it is true that Nicaragua has a long way to go, it has come very far. Since the Sandinistas were reelected in 2007, the well-being of the Nicaraguan people has improved significantly. By 2021, infant mortality was reduced by 55% and maternal mortality by 66%. Today, less than 3% of the population is illiterate compared to one in four people during the U.S.-backed neoliberal years. Nicaragua is virtually food sovereign. There are new roads and bridges, new homes being constructed, and new playgrounds and stadiums. Unlike what is said about Nicaragua being “unsafe”, 73% of Nicaraguans say they are always “at peace”. Many of the people we met say “el pueblo presidente” ( “the people are president”) because there is an acute understanding that they are empowered and supported by the government in making Nicaragua what it needs to be for them. There’s no “strong man” dictatorship. They refer to their President and Vice President by their first names, Comprenaro Daniel and Comprenara Rosario, out of fondness and respect for the changes that have been made with their leadership, not out of fear.
There are many lessons to be learned from how Nicaragua has organized its society on every level. Creating a better society for women has created a better society for children who develop into whole adults. It is no surprise why Nicaragua is considered a threat. Not because of any alleged political or religious repression, not because of any alleged abuses of “women’s rights” and certainly not because it’s “unsafe”. The real threat Nicaragua poses is a model for struggle, self-determination, and sovereignty rooted in participatory democracy ensuring needs are met. A threat to the imperial expansion of Western hegemony.
“As I make my way home, my head throbs with Nicaragua: how very green it is. How may different ways it seems good and growing, everywhere. How easily the people laugh. How the heat never stops, even at night; how it stays hot so you lust for anything to drink. How hard it is to boil water when you first must find the water and then you must find the wood for the fire.
How many of these gentle people have I helped to kill just by paying my taxes? How could these people living in this poor country where so many dreams arise from the facts of so much horror, how could they ever hurt me or ever hurt any of us, up here, in the chill indifference of North America?
They have given to me and to all of us an amazing example of self- love. With their bodies and their blood they have shown us the bravery that self- love requires. They persist…”June Jordan, Nicaragua: Why I Had To Go There (January 1984)