White House

Nicaragua's Ortega clashed with students. They want Trump's help in ousting him.

Nicaraguan student leader Zayda Hernández explains why her and other student advocates need President Trump's help to topple Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega.  L-R, Migueliuth Sadoval Cruz, Fernando Jose Sanchez, Hernández, Victor Cuadras
Nicaraguan student leader Zayda Hernández explains why her and other student advocates need President Trump's help to topple Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. L-R, Migueliuth Sadoval Cruz, Fernando Jose Sanchez, Hernández, Victor Cuadras McClatchy

College students have emerged as the most potent opponents to Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega, and this week, three of them are visiting Washington to ask for help from President Donald Trump and Congress in toppling the autocratic leader.

The peaceful protests in Managua that quickly turned into a political uprising two months ago has now led to the deaths of at least 113 people and more than 1,000 injuries. These include classmates of Zayda Juniette Hernández, a 24-year-old chemical engineering student and one of the most outspoken leaders in the unexpected student movement — the biggest threat to the Ortega presidency since he was re-elected in 2007.

Just a few weeks ago, Hernández was returning back to school in Managua after playing tour guide for friends visiting colonial Nicaragua when she learned of classmates in a standoff with Nicaraguan security forces.

“That morning, I never imagined I would end up at the door of my university throwing rocks to defend myself,” Hernandez said. “I was on my way home to clean my house, maybe workout and take a nap before returning to my daily life. And then I was confronted with this new reality.”

Hernández is one of three college leaders from Nicaragua who are in Washington this week seeking the help of Trump and members of Congress to build international support.

Like the Parkland students from Florida who have become outspoken gun control advocates, the Nicaraguan students are intelligent, articulate, angry, and determined to bring about changes that generations before them have failed to bring about. And they are taking personal risks in confronting Ortega, whose allies have been accused of assaulting and killing opponents.

“You have to understand we’re at the center, in the eye, of the hurricane,” said Victor Cuadras, 25, a chemical engineering student leader of the 19th of April Student Movement, named for the day students began dying at protests. “One that fills you with so much responsibility and plunges you in an emotional, existential crisis over life, but also that dumps on your shoulders a political, social and economic obligation.”

The Trump administration has promised to take action, including sanctions, against the Nicaraguan government if it fails to properly address the concerns of the students and other civic groups about the increasing violence and political repression.

A senior administration official told McClatchy the United States is not directing the students efforts, but supports their efforts. They also must be careful in how its shows its support given the Ortega’s past accusations of U.S. imperialism.

“This is a country at the government level that takes a fair amount of joy of poking us in the eye at any opportunity they get,” a senior administration official said. “The danger is if we get too rhetorically in front of where the situation is on the ground, than we risk undercutting it.”

The students are meeting this week with, Ambassador Michael Kozak of the State Department's Bureau of Democracy Human Rights, and Labor and USAID administrator Mark Green.

In an interview with McClatchy, Green said he was inspired by the students' courage and passion to confront the brutality that, in his view, has cast a "dark cloud" over Nicaragua. Green said he’s particularly concerned by new allegations this week by the Nicaraguan government against civil society activists, such as Felix Maradiaga, director of the Institute of Economic Studies and Public Policies, and journalist Anibal Taruna, as well as the jailing of human rights defenders.

Green told the students that this is their fight and they must lead. But he said the Trump administration, USAID and State Department will to find the right ways to support their efforts.

“I want to be careful, obviously, at this point, but as I told them we will not walk away from them,” Green said. "We need to stand with those who are standing up for things that we need to believe in.”

On Monday, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Nicaraguan police and government controlled army who, he said, “have killed dozens, merely for peacefully protesting.”

During a Monday night reception with foreign ministers across the hemisphere, Vice President Mike Pence called on allies to unite against “the terrible violence” in Nicaragua.

“The violence must end, and the violence must end now,” he said.

Like the Parkland students, Hernández, Cuadras and the other student leaders have surprised most everyone, including themselves.

Within six weeks of the demonstrations start, the efforts have led to international calls for dialogue and sit down with the Ortega government.

Since the first demonstrations, Hernández and the other students haven’t slowed down. They’ve maintained their studies as best as they can, but they say they feel they have no choice but to carry the heavy weight that has been thrust on them.

Fernando Jose Sánchez, 20, a communication student, said before April 19 he was thinking about graduating and finding a good job, but destiny has a way of challenging you.

“Never. Never did I imagine I’d become an activist,” Sanchez said. “But this is about our country.”

Hernández said that things are changing so fast for the group, for Nicaragua, that she can’t keep up.

“We don’t know what day it is? What time it is? We don’t know whether we’re going to be arrested when we return to Nicaragua,” Hernández said. “The only thing we know is that we’re waking up alive and are going to take advantage of every minute we can.”

The students also met this week with Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., and Ted Cruz, R-Tx., and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fl, who lead a bipartisan letter Tuesday calling for more sanctions against Nicaraguan officials.

"These are students who should be focused on finishing their careers, and living a normal life, but Ortega is holding on to power," Ros-Lehtinen said.

Caudras said they’ve come to Washington with a short, but strategically targeted list of requests that they believe are key to their success. One, they want Trump’s public support for their cause. Two, they want specific financial sanctions against six key leaders of the Ortega regime who are responsible for clamping down on peaceful protests and preventing hurt demonstrators from getting care.

The students are targeting several top officials for sanctions including Francisco Lopez, head of the private company Albanisa, a joint venture between the Venezuelan state owned-oil company, PDVSA, and its Nicaraguan counterpart, for money laundering and corruption. They are also targeting Francisco Diaz, who leads the National Police, for orchestrating the repression and killing of Nicaraguans, and Health Minister Sonia Castro, which the students said have prevented hurt protesters from getting treatment.

The students are joined in Washington by the wife of slain journalist Eduardo Gahona Lopez, 42, and leading their calls for an independent international investigation of those who died during the demonstrations.

Migueliuth Sandoval Cruz, 30, said those who are responsible must be held accountable.

Two suspects have been arrested for the murder, but Gahona’s wife said the family doesn’t believe the young men are responsible and are themselves victims of a cover-up. She’s asking Trump for the administration’s assistance in launching an independent, international investigation into the deaths of her husband as well as the others who have been killed in the demonstrations.

“We want justice,” she said. “The people who are really responsible must be held accountable.”

And, finally, the students want the Trump administration’s public, private and diplomatic support for new, independent presidential elections in Nicaragua by the end of the year.

Hernández said there are plenty moments where she is nervous, moments that she’s unsure of what will happen next, but she’s not scared.

“We have a huge responsibility. We have to deliver a message for the entire Nicaraguan community. It’s one of the biggest roles us as young people will undertake. But that’s what we’re doing."

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez
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