This article was originally printed in the Winter 2019/2020 issue of IDEAS: the Magazine of the Aspen Institute.
In April 2018, a small group of university students in Nicaragua held a protest in response to President Daniel Ortega’s government reforms to the pension system. The protest was crushed violently by a pro-government group. The footage of this violence went viral, more protests erupted, and the government again responded violently—a vicious cycle that led to a swift fracturing of the country. In response to the violence and violations of human rights, many Nicaraguan citizens called for democratic reforms and sought to hold the Ortega regime accountable. Now, more than a year and a half later, the government’s forces continue to oppress citizen opposition. To date, more than 300 people have been killed, over 2,000 injured, more than 500 unjustly detained, and thousands have fled the country.
Shortly after the conflict erupted, Catholic bishops and civilians from all parts of Nicaraguan society joined the movement to bring stability and democracy back to their country. But progress came to a halt in July 2018. It was not until February 2019 that negotiations began again, this time with a smaller group of six government officials and six opposition members. These dialogues proved successful in securing the release of hundreds of political prisoners—but reached an impasse. While tension remains high, and violations of human rights are still being recorded, there is hope that through dialogue peace can come to the nation.
Moved by this crisis, a group of fellows from the Aspen Global Leadership Network are making peace and justice in Nicaragua their top priority. In July 2018, a number of fellows and leaders, including former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, gathered at the Resnick Aspen Action Forum to discuss potential strategies to stabilize the situation. From these conversations emerged collaborative efforts by fellows designed to aid the country.
Central America Leadership Initiative
CEO, Corner of Love
In March 2018, CALI fellow Tanya Mroczek-Amador was leading Corner of Love, a 27-year-old organization in northern Nicaragua dedicated to providing education, health care, and clean water to rural families. When the crisis broke out, her world changed. With rising violence, Mroczek-Amador and her husband made the difficult decision to relocate to Costa Rica and shift their focus toward alleviating the suffering of refugees fleeing the country.
At first their work began organically, with the two greeting groups of five or 10 at the border. But demand required the couple to scale up rapidly, turning their initial outreach into a new international base of operations. Today, Corner of Love–Costa Rica serves as many as 180 migrants per day. Doctors, dentists, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, and volunteers all work to provide migrants with the basic necessities for life in a new country.
Along the way, Mroczek-Amador enlisted the help of other fellows around the Aspen Global Leadership Network. At a February AGLN seminar, she presented her challenge to fellows from China, Europe, the United States, and South Africa. They provided strategic advice to help move Corner of Love, and the refugees, forward. To date, Mroczek-Amador has reached more than 10,000 refugees and hopes to build a permanent facility near the border and expand her work into the capital of Costa Rica.
In addition to humanitarian aid, Mroczek-Amador is providing the space for the refugee community to come together to share their stories and to feel valued. By honoring their experiences, she is creating the conditions for healing to begin.
JUAN SEBASTIAN CHAMORRO
Central America Leadership Initiative
Executive director, Civic Alliance for Democracy and Justice
Central America Leadership Initiative fellow Juan Sebastian Chamorro is the executive director of the Civic Alliance for Democracy and Justice. As an expert on both the importance of the rule of law and the long-term economic health of Nicaragua, he was approached to be a leading voice for peace after the crisis broke out. He joined the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, a large group of civilians, including many CALI fellows, working in both the private sector and nonprofit community to bring about a radical new approach to restoring order to the country: dialogue.
The goal is twofold: bring democracy back to Nicaragua and seek justice for the human-rights violations committed by the regime. The process has not been easy. The first round of negotiations was suspended after only a month. However, thanks to the pressure imposed on the Nicaraguan government by the international community, the Ortega regime opened itself up to holding further dialogue and formal negotiations. Chamorro was selected in early 2019 as one of six members to sit at the table with government officials and attempt to negotiate peace.
He and the Nicaraguan people recently celebrated a major victory when the regime freed 620 political prisoners. Once these prisoners were freed, Chamorro began working with them to ease their transition back into society. Though the dialogue is currently suspended, he remains poised to return to the negotiation table and will continue to bring relief to those affected in the interim.
Central America Leadership Initiative
Editor-in-chief, La Prensa
From the onset of the Nicaraguan crisis, journalists have been one of the key targets of the Ortega regime, with more than 50 journalists in exile, three jailed, and others killed in an effort to control the flow of information. Central America Leadership Initiative fellow Eduardo Enriquez is the editor-in-chief of the oldest newspaper in Nicaragua, La Prensa. He knew that it was critical that he continue his work reporting on the government to keep the country informed.
This was no easy task. The Ortega regime controls the flow of resources in and out of Nicaragua, and quickly began limiting La Prensa’s access to ink and printing paper by holding their imports in customs. Advertising revenue, which made up 80 percent of La Prensa’s operating budget, was drastically reduced due to instability in the business sector. These pressures forced Enriquez to cut his staff from 100 journalists to 35 and to reduce the length of the paper from 32 pages to just eight pages of news. Despite the risks and challenges, Enriquez continues to lead La Prensa, now chiefly digital, and to report on the state of the government and the country.
In addition to his role at La Prensa, Enriquez expanded his journalistic impact by creating a new venture, 4tomono.com, an independent website dedicated to explaining the context of the news. The style of reporting is designed to help readers fully comprehend the economic and political situation by covering issues in depth. The organization is small and agile, allowing it to shift to meet the needs of an ever-evolving situation.
Henry Crown Fellowship Program
President and CEO, Renaissance Holdings
Costa Rica has a population of 4.5 million, with an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 Nicaraguan migrants—a number that has dramatically increased since the crisis began in April 2018. For over a decade, Henry Crown fellow Margarita Herdocia’s venture, Ticos y Nicas: Somos Hermanos (Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans, We Are Brothers), has promoted friendship and cooperation between Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans, studied migration and its true impacts on both societies and economies, and created a platform for positive influence.
Through Ticos y Nicas, Herdocia also established Las Becas HUG (Humanitarian University Grants), a scholarship fund to help Nicaraguan college students fleeing violence. The protests in Nicaragua were largely student-led, and HUG gives students a new chance to be leaders. Much of the fund, which covers 100 percent of tuition for students to attend the Latin American University of Science and Technology in Costa Rica, has been made possible thanks to the support of Herdocia’s Henry Crown Fellowship class—the Ninth Symphony—as well as many Central America Leadership Initiative fellows in living Costa Rica and
HUG scholars attend university full-time and meet one another outside the classroom for AGLN-inspired dialogues, moderated by Herdocia, to help them cope with their experiences. There are currently more than 30 scholars, with new classes selected each quarter. Herdocia has provided not just the opportunity for these students to study. She has given them a place to find support and friendship in an impossibly difficult situation.