Erendira Vanegas at “From Women’s Rights to Human Rights: The Struggle for Liberation in Nicaragua”

Image Caption: Erendira Vanegas spoke about much of her work with the New Haven-León Sister City Project at an event hosted by the Yale International Relations Association, touching upon key details about feminist history and social protest in Nicaragua.


The Yale International Relations Association hosted Erendira Vanegas, the Women’s Rights and Delegation Coordinator for the New Haven – León Sister City Project on Sept. 20. During the event, Vanegas primarily focused on the civil and humanitarian crisis currently unfolding in Nicaragua.

Much of Vanegas’ work has been focused on preventing domestic violence by hosting trainings and dialogues especially in the rural areas surrounding the city of León. The New Haven – León Sister City Project aims to promote education, sustainable development, public health, and human rights through community initiatives. The project also creates cultural ties between the two cities by sending volunteers and delegations from New Haven and León to help work in each other’s communities. The project was founded in 1984 when the United States under the Reagan Administration was funding the Contras, right wing Nicaraguan rebel groups fighting a bloody civil war against the Nicaraguan Government under the leftist Sandinista Party. The Sister City Project represented a form of grassroots foreign policy and an alternative to the actions of the U.S. government. The project’s mission statement is to “offer training for women and girls that includes a critical analysis of sexuality and social norms and builds greater protection from violence and sexual harassment.”

Vanegas also spoke about how the feminist movement in Nicaragua played a critical role in the 1979 Sandinista Revolution which overthrew the Somoza Family dictatorship, with women making up an estimated 30 percent of fighters. However, the election of Daniel Ortega as the first president in 1984 saw no efforts by the post-revolutionary government to advance women’s rights. Vanegas said that Ortega’s response to the women who had fought in the revolution amounted to “go home and have children.”

Daniel Ortega was in fact able to win reelection in 2006, and began to consolidate his control over the government. Ortega formed an alliance with the Catholic Church and enacted a total ban on abortion procedures. He was able to win over the country’s business elite through relatively laissez-faire regulation and encouragement of foreign, especially Chinese, investment in Nicaragua.

Vanegas described how Ortega uses his ability to dole out the benefits of state anti-poverty initiatives as a “tool of control” over poorer communities. In 2008 the Nicaraguan Supreme Court decertified  main opposition parties from participation in local elections. Further Court decisions in 2009 and 2014 expanded the President’s powers and allowed for indefinite reelection. Under Ortega, international groups have been prohibited from monitoring the fairness of Nicaraguan elections.

Protests erupted against the Ortega administration when his decision to overhaul the country’s Social Security system, which angered both business leaders and the working class, coincided with student and environmentalist complaints over untamed wildfires and an agreement with Chinese companies to build a canal through lakes and local communities. In a short period of time the Ortega government lost its mains supporters and inflamed its enemies.  

Students, businesses, feminists, and environmental groups all protested against the government From April 18th – 24th. Government violence followed, in which police killed several demonstrators and armed paramilitary groups such as the Sandinista Youth injured hundreds more. The Sandinista Youth, whom Vanegas asserts were recruited by the government, regularly use violence to intimidate locals and break up demonstrations. During protests on Mother’s’ Day at least fifteen people were killed by pro-government groups bringing the total to almost a hundred dead at the hands of police and paramilitaries at the end of May. Protesters responded by putting up barricades in streets, especially the capital Managua, to prevent government vehicles from navigating freely. More forces were eventually sent to remove the barricades leading to more violence.

Eventually, Ortega gave up on making changes to social security and called for a national dialogue in June, to be mediated by the Catholic Church. A diverse set of opposition groups attended the dialogue and demanded free elections, the release of political prisoners, and an investigation by a human rights commission.

Ortega himself, however, was mostly absent from the meetings and did not seem to seriously consider the protesters’ terms. “He asserted that the demonstrations were orchestrated by the United States,” Vanegas said of Ortega’s stance.

The dialogue initiative fell apart and protests and violence has continued since July, including a police siege of 300 students who were sheltering within the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua.

The unrest in Nicaragua, and especially the uncompromising stance of the government, has other states in the region and NGOs worried. “International Organizations are trying to stop Nicaragua from ending up like Venezuela,” Venegas said. Venezuela sets a grim example of what could happen if the violence in Nicaragua continues unchecked.

“We are not asking for a military intervention…everything has to be focused on human rights,” Vanegas said. “Yes, we are afraid, but we know we have to be in the street because I don’t want my kids to live in a dictatorship. My son said to me: ‘I am sick of this! I will join the protests so that we win faster, and then I can go to school and play soccer.’”

Human Rights groups currently estimate that around 500 protesters have been killed including 23 children and adolescents under eighteen. More than a thousand are missing or in jail and 23,000 refugees have left the country, primarily for Costa Rica.

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