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'Nicaragua deserves peace'

Gabriela Selser
April 19, 2019

Madelaine Caracas is a leader in the Nicaraguan student movement that last year launched protests against President Daniel Ortega's government. Now living in exile, she's still fighting for democracy in her homeland.

Madelaine Caracas
Image: privat

Twenty-year-old Madelaine Caracas hasn't seen her mother for 12 months. In mid-April last year, she was in the final term of a communication studies degree and was an avid oil painter. When the student protests erupted in Managua, she abandoned her books and joined the young people who were building barricades on the streets and confronting heavily armed police.

May 16, 2018, was the start of the first round of national dialogue talks. They were broadcast live on television. Thousands of Nicaraguans saw and heard Caracas read out the names of her fellow students who were killed during the protests. They also saw the stony faces of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, as they listened.

A few weeks later, Caracas was forced to flee the country. She went into exile in Costa Rica, which has taken in more than 50,000 Nicaraguans in recent months.

DW: How badly has this political crisis affected you personally? What have you won or lost? Can one even be offset against the other?

Madelaine Caracas: That's a very difficult question, because the crisis affects all of us in many different ways. In my case it's exile, threats and the extent of public exposure that have done the most damage. It's the psychological torture and intimidation. The fact that I'm in exile, and that my parents have no work anymore, that they've had to go into hiding and can't go home, creates an emotional stress that's very hard to bear.

It also upsets me to know that my friends are in prison, and at the same time I'm lending my face to an international campaign denouncing this. Suddenly I feel guilty that I'm still alive. It's terrible when you start asking yourself the question: Why am I still alive?

I've gained a lot of experience, too, because I would never have imagined that, as a 20-year-old, I would suddenly become a human rights activist. I've addressed the European Parliament and the United Nations. I have a very big family now, as I've always stayed with the families of Nicaraguan migrants when I was traveling. They're all my family now. I have a lot of mothers who worry about me from afar, and I have places of refuge in many different countries all over the world.

I don't think there are any advantages to all the unhappiness and pain; rather, there are lessons to be learned. I would never have thought I would have to learn so much in such a short time, and so early, about politics, diplomacy, history and international relations.

Nicaragua Managua protests
More than 300 people have been killed since protests against the Ortega government began last yearImage: Image/Agencia EFE/J. Torres

What happened with the students in Nicaragua in April 2018? Was there a sudden awakening of social consciousness, or had they had enough of the power structure in the country?

Before April 2018 there was no independent, autonomous student movement that represented students' true interests. However, we young people started questioning our role in this country. We asked ourselves why it was that we were allowed to vote, but the president was always the same — in a country where there is voter fraud, where daily violence prevails and every government entity is riddled with corruption; a country where there is no justice for abused women, where the army kills farmers and there's no response from the police or the judiciary. 

Many people thought we young people were indifferent to this, but last April the country was like a pressure cooker about to explode. The blaze in the Indio Maiz reservation in the south of Nicaragua started on April 3. The fires were started by settlers who have government protection. This was what sparked the initial protests. Then came the demonstrations for old age pensions, for women's rights, environmental protests. Many of us were sick and tired of a president who considered himself above everything and never listened to the people.

What future do you see for Nicaragua?

I'd like to be optimistic, but I'm sure the process of establishing the kind of country we want is going to take many years. The biggest challenge will not be getting rid of President Ortega, but establishing a state with new institutions, without corruption or impunity, and a new political culture based on justice.

We have to lay the foundations for overcoming the past, so the past doesn't repeat itself in 40 years' time and we end up with a dictatorial regime again. Nicaragua deserves peace, democracy and change — to move away from authoritarianism, machismo and corruption toward a pluralist and more diverse nation where all of us have a voice.

Madelaine Caracas is one of the most prominent representatives of the student movement that led the protests against the government in April 2018. She has since left the country, along with about 50,000 of her compatriots.