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Youth in Nicaragua – a Political Outlook

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Youth in Nicaragua has always been an important political force. From the populist revolution in the 1970’s led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to today, youth have been instrumental in pushing the country forward. With 48.5% of the population being under 25 and the median age being 25.7 years old, youth under 30 represent a significant portion of the voting populous [1]. However, as of April 2018, the political crisis happening in Nicaragua has been testing how youth politics has evolved and changed since the 1970’s. While the older generations are still involved in this crisis, the youth have been particularly influential. The use of social media among youth has helped to spread news of human rights violations throughout the country. Many older generations in the rural areas on the Pacific coast who do not use social media continue to view the government as one that helps the poorest communities, which has led many to continue their support of the government. However, younger generations are not easily bought through short-term government support. They are looking forward to a future with more opportunities rather than government handouts.  When we look at rural areas the Pacific side, like Tola, the current government is perceived as "helping the poor" and therefore continues to have support, especially among older generations who have little access to Facebook and other social media. Younger generations don’t seem to be as easily "bought" with a chicken, a new roof, or other types of government support, since they see their futures as having more opportunities than that of their parents, and thus don't expect to rely on government handouts.

Many youths in Nicaragua who would have traditionally supported the FSLN, have been fighting against Daniel Ortega and his government’s policies. For example, Cinthia Membreno, a journalist from Nicaragua, voted for Ortega in 2006 when she was only 17. She, like many other young Nicaraguans, was strongly influenced by the stories her parents had told her about the Sandinista Revolution and Ortega’s struggle against Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorship and the U.S. backed contra rebels in the 70’s and 80’s. While many are not old enough to have any personal memory or experience of the hardships, trauma, loss, and struggles of the Sandinista-Contra conflict, that conflict/revolution is part of the cultural heritage and national identity.

On the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, there is long-standing distrust towards the Sandinista regime dating back to the 70s and 80s. More recently there has been conflict regarding the recolonization of indigenous lands and autonomous regions. It seems that in the past decade, Membreno and other young people have stopped seeing Ortega as a revolutionary hero but rather as a dictator himself [2].

The current political crisis was sparked on April 18, when Ortega decided to approve a decree to transform the social security system, requiring that workers and companies increase their financial contributions, while simultaneously decreasing pensions paid to the elderly.  As young people started to protest this decree, the government responded violently toward protesters. Government initiated violence during peaceful protests changed demonstrators and civil society’s demands. They now want Ortega’s resignation, new elections, and an independent investigation into human rights abuses [3]. As of June 20, 2018, at least 180 people have been killed, thousands more injured, and hundreds arrested [4]. However, there are also more fundamental causes of this political unrest. Many Nicaraguans believe that Ortega is corrupt, has undermined democratic institutions, and has eliminated political opposition for his own gain. Not only that, the government plans to confiscate large tracts of land to build a commercial canal has made many unhappy [5], especially those who are concerned with the environmental impact and impact on tourism. Clearly, this political crisis is extremely multi-faceted and complex.

However, not every young person in Nicaragua is against Ortega. For example, 36-year-old Selene Reyes believes there is corruption in Ortega’s government but does not think that is a reason why he should be overthrown. She thinks that the university students who are protesting Ortega may be financially supported by opposition parties [6]. According to human rights groups, Sandinista affiliated youth have been acting alongside the police in violently suppressing anti-Ortega demonstrations [7]. This shows how the youth in Nicaragua is not monolithic, but rather has differing political opinions and beliefs.

Regardless of political opinion, there is a sense of urgency in halting the crisis. With recent events, the tourist industry has taken a severe hit, with occupancy at major hotels being severely reduced and some international airlines canceling flights [8]. In areas like Tola that have been booming from tourism, many are hoping that the crisis ends and the tourists come back. There are nationalistic concerns about foreigners buying up Nicaragua’s coasts, people realize that tourism and ex-pats are an important source of jobs for both skilled and unskilled labor. The recent crisis has driven home the fragile reality that without the tourists, the economy dries up.

Many young people believe the route to economic prosperity is entrepreneurship.  Even with a college degree, opportunities in the formal sector are scarce and poorly paid, so they see the informal and formal commerce sectors as being the best way to achieve success.  During this crisis, all business sectors have taken a big hit economically, leading many young people to contemplate migration for the first time.

There is no doubt that the political crisis in Nicaragua is also a humanitarian and civil rights crisis. Politics aside, the violence must stop, and protests should be protected by the government, not violently repressed. Given the complex history of U.S. intervention in Nicaraguan politics, foreign agencies and governments should act as mediators and peacemakers.  They must also ensure that humanitarian aid benefits those affected, regardless of their political beliefs, and that it does not further anyone’s political agenda.

Organizations like Foundation for Sustainable Development will continue supporting community priorities, which have shifted dramatically since protests began on April 18. While staying mindful of government and community relations, FSD will continue working with our community partners to provide support, including food, supplies, and counseling services. The ultimate goal is still to assist partners in creating long-term development projects for the overall benefit of the community.

To find out how you can support Nicaragua during this turbulent time, please visit our fundraising page here.

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This article was written with contributions from Adrien Hanley