Nicaragua could wake up Saturday morning (June 9) to a nationwide shutdown by thousands of former Sandinista soldiers if President Daniel Ortega's government doesn't take "concrete actions" in the next few days to respond to aging promises for military pensions, health care and land titles, according to Carlos Ramírez, head of the Camilo Ortega National Council of Homeland Defenders.
In addition to nationwide roadblocks, Ramírez says 70 former Sandinista combatants will declare a hunger strike in front of the presidential compound in Managua.
"We are tired of promises; we have signed 12 accords with the government since last year and still have not received anything," Ramírez said in an interview. "If we don't receive a real answer from the government by Friday, we are going to shut down the country. Then Daniel will have to sit down with us, because street protest is the only language the government understands."
It's not the first time the Sandinista veterans' group — named after the president's brother, who died in combat in 1978 — has pushed back against the Sandinista government after helping it get reelected last year. In March 2012, thousands of ex-combatants paralyzed the northern half of the country with roadblocks in nine cities. But the situation has suddenly taken a much more hostile turn. On May 31, riot police responded with full force, allegedly injuring two dozen veterans, during the Homeland Defenders' risky attempt to take over Managua's International Airport — a high-stakes pressure tactic that ended badly for the protesters.
"The FSLN is dead to us!" Ramírez thundered afterwards, while standing on the back of a truck to address his followers after a day of violent street protests. "They treat us like dirt, but we are not afraid. Next time we will be armed." FSLN is the Spanish abbreviation for the Sandinista Front.
Previous protests by Ramírez's group, which claims to represent 22,500 veterans nationwide, were resolved peacefully when the government agreed to address the group's demands for pensions, healthcare, funeral assistance and land. During the roadblocks last March, the aging revolutionaries—many dressed in their old combat fatigues and red-and-black Sandinista bandanas—stressed that their loyalty to Ortega and the Sandinista Front was unwavering.
"Comandante Ortega has the good intention to resolve this problem, but not all of the officials in his government have that same mentality; there are some in this government who are not honest and who do not honor their promises," Oscar Olivas, a retired military officer and legal advisor to the Homeland Defenders, said during March's roadblock at the Sébaco Bridge.
The group's position towards the president and the ruling party has changed dramatically since them. Ramírez said his group is now studying the possibility of forming a new political party of ex-Sandinista "defenders of the revolution."
Earlier this week, Ramírez met with lawyers from the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) to denounce political persecution against the leaders of his movement. He says the Homeland Defenders have been followed and harassed by police since last week's dust-up.
"We feel this is political persecution because police officers have been watching us, passing by our homes at all hours on motorcycles, on foot, and on bicycles. People have been calling our phones and hanging up," says Ramírez. "We are going to take this to court, but the courts here are controlled by the politicians."
In the meantime, he says, his group will not be taking any lessons from Gandhi.
"Next time we will be armed. And if blood is shed again, it won't only be ours," says the retired military captain.
Ramírez says his group is also seeking help and offers from other political parties, and also the U.S. Embassy.
The government denies there is any political persecution in Nicaragua. Police Chief Aminta Granera said last week that the 10 veterans who were detained during the protests were released the same day.
Still, Ramírez's heated public declarations last week probably didn't go over well among the leaders of the Sandinista Front. For a party with roots as a guerrilla movement, statements such as Ramirez's are akin to treason — an offense that was not taken lightly in the mountains. For the police, Ramírez's words could be interpreted as a threat against the government and against the peace. But for Ramírez, the traitors are those in the government.
Between 1986 and 1992, the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) was downsized from 134,000 soldiers and reservists to a standing army of 14,500 troops. During that time, only 1,500 ranking officers received pensions. The military's current pension plan didn't start until the mid 1990s. Those who received nothing for their years of service claim they should be entitled to the same benefits as soldiers who retire now.
"We were the ones who defended the revolution; we provided the dead and the injured in the 1980s," he says. "And today, after all the changes of government, we are still in the same situation—in fact we are worse off than before because now we're 50 years old, not 20."