So many protests against U.S. involvement in Nicaragua took place at the 24th Street BART station in the late 1970s and 1980s that it became known as Plaza Sandino. Nicaraguans will return to the plaza on Saturday — this time, to call for the ouster of President Daniel Ortega, a leader who was one of the revolutionaries that in 1979 overthrew the dictatorship of General Anastasio Somoza.
In the 40 years since that revolution, there has been a U.S. backed counter-revolution (in the 1980s) and elections in 1990 that ended the Sandinistas’ rule to install a series of presidents. Then in 2006, the Sandinistas, returned to power with the election of Ortega.
Almost immediately, Ortega offered a different, more personal and increasingly autocratic style of government. And, when he proposed cuts to the Social Security system earlier this year, unhappiness with his leadership exploded into protests around the country.
This week, the complexities of that history became evident in the discussion around the tee-shirt to be worn at Saturday’s protest in San Francisco.
Jose Maria Ibarra, who owns a printing business on Valencia Street and fled Nicaragua in 1983 during the U.S. backed contra war, was busy coordinating with members who favored black or red shirts, the color of the original Sandinista movement. Others wanted the white-and-blue schemes found on the national flag.
But all of the organizers — including Werner Eger, who arrived to San Francisco as a student in 1979 — agree: country above politics.
“We want the president to call elections, soon. That would be the best thing for all Nicaraguans,” Eger said.
Ortega did away with term limits and won a third term as president in 2016 with his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his vice president. Few considered the elections fair, as Ortega maintains tight control over every level of government and much of the media. In a sense, the protests flaring now have been building for years.
Even after giving in to some initial demands from the opposition, the protests continued using the hashtag “SOSNicaragua.” The national police have responded with force and, so far, 70 protesters and one journalist have been killed, according to Ibarra.
In response, the unrest has spread.
The fear, Ibarra said, is that the country could fall back into civil war.
The youth have a saying: “They have taken everything from us, even our fear,” Ibarra said. “The people aren’t scared anymore.”
“What people always say is that the capitol is pretty. It’s all cosmetics. The reality is there is a lot of need and unemployment,” Ibarra said.
Ibarra and other first-generation immigrants are organizing Saturday’s protest to speak out against violence and raise awareness about the events unfolding in Nicaragua.
Erik Leiva, founder of the organization called “Chavalo,” said he and his fellow members are concerned about humanitarian needs of the protestors. They want to send supplies, aid and even foreign doctors to care for injured protesters, many of whom are students. Chavalo is a nonprofit organization that means “youngster” and organizes cultural events and lectures, and provides support for youth in California and in Nicaragua.
With demonstrations sparking across the country, Leiva said the movement has grown even bigger.
“The Social Security issue is non-issue, the straw that broke the camel’s back. A lot of events that led up to it, the main issue is now who is taking responsibility,” Leiva said.