MANAGUA—Leaning heavily on his cane, Roger Velasquez, 77, stands off to the side of the protest scuffle, too feeble to join in the shoving match with police officers one-third his age.
“They are siccing the National Guard on us,” Velasquez says in a quiet and tremulous voice, referring to the National Police as if they were the former state security agents that protected the Somoza dictatorship.
Velasquez, a doddering and white-whiskered former construction worker who paid into the social security system for more than a decade of formal employment, says he has no income in his old age. That’s because he lost his job at the construction firm one year before completing the mandatory 750 weeks of required pay-in to be eligible for a government pension. Now he lives off of charity from others.
“In the name of God, people give me 10 cordobas or 20 cordobas, and with that I buy food,” he says.
Though too unsteady in body and voice to mix it up with police officers or join his cohort in shouting revolutionary protest slogans, Velasquez hobbled to Thursday’s protest in front of the barricaded offices of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS) to show his support for the thousands of other senior citizens who are demanding partial pensions from the government.
“Police, enemy of the poor!” yelled one elderly woman, shaking a bony fist at the police line that was holding the perimeter one block from the INSS office in downtown Managua.
The government’s social security institute has been closed since Tuesday, when a group of 100 senior citizens occupied the building to demand access to partial pensions—a cause they’ve been demanding for more than four years.
Police responded to the occupation by declaring a state of siege, shutting off power and water to the building and blocking others from bringing food, water or medicine to the elderly demonstrators inside. The protest grew increasingly tense throughout Wednesday, as angry demonstrators—both old and young—tried to break through the police line to bring supplies to the senior citizens. A group of youth activists climbed onto the roofs of neighboring houses to try to throw food and bottled water over the building into the courtyard, prompting police to climb up on the roofs and chase them down.
In the ensuing dust-ups in the street below, a few heads were cracked and half a dozen protesters were detained by police, dragged off in chokeholds. One of the detainees from Wednesday’s protest told The Nicaragua Dispatch on Thursday that he was beaten by police and held overnight in the infamous jail cells known as “El Chipote,” where some of the worst abuses of the Somoza regime were committed.
On Wednesday evening, university students from Managua joined the demonstration in solidarity with the senior citizens, using the social media hashtag #OcupaINSS to mobilize others. Confronted with a growing protest, police forcibly removed the elderly demonstrators from the INSS building at 1 a.m. on Thursday morning. Most of senior citizens were brought to the hospital where they were registered and examined by medics and then released.
But their ouster from the INSS building didn’t slow the protest, which resumed on Thursday morning as senior citizens and youth activists returned to the scene to clash with police, who held the line one block from the closed government offices.
“How can it be that the government is using young people to repress the elderly!” yelled 65-year-old protester Francisco Castro. “I am a veteran of war. We sacrificed our youths to have a better country for future generations. But not for this!”
“The police are supposed to protect the people, not Daniel Ortega!” yelled another protester.
“Don’t any of you have grandparents?” shouted another.
On the fringes of the protest, exhausted senior citizens slumped onto the curbs or under trees, trying to find some shaded reprieve from the scorching midday sun.
An aging struggle
According to the National Group of Senior Citizens, an organization of elderly who are seeking the right to pensions, there are at least 15,000 senior citizens who paid into Nicaragua’s social security system for a minimum of five years but weren’t able to complete the mandatory 750 weeks of payments to collect a check in retirement. For the past four years, the group of senior citizens—many of whose working careers were cut short by the war, which devastated the economy—has been demanding a legal reform that would allow them to receive a partial pension for their years of payment into the system.
In 2011, President Daniel Ortega was able to temporarily quiet the protest by offering the senior citizens monthly food baskets and a “Christian, Socialist and Solidarity bonus” that ranged from $40 to $114 a month, depending on how long the each pensioner paid in social security during their careers. In exchange for their monthly bonuses, the seniors were expected to support the Sandinista candidates in the 2011 presidential campaign and 2012 municipal campaigns, according to the protesters.
“We are the ones who put them in office!” says Santos Davila, 63. “And this is the thanks we get in return.”
Other protesters, many of whom wore Sandinista t-shirts at Thursday’s protest, said they felt betrayed by their government.
“We all voted for (Daniel Ortega) because he promised us that if we voted for him he would resolve our problem,” says Julio César Feliz. “I was a Sandinista. We were the ones who paid the price during the revolutionary struggle, and now they are repressing us.”
Despite the political promises of campaign season, once the elections passed the government reportedly started to take away the handouts, the senior protesters claim. They say first the food baskets were suspended, and now the bonuses.
That’s why the aging activists want their partial pensions written into law. Opposition lawmakers presented a pension reform bill six months ago, but it was shelved by the majority Sandinista Front and never brought to vote in the National Assembly, according to Liberal Party lawmaker Eliseo Núñez, who joined the protest on Wednesday along with opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre, who was tossed on the ground by police.
“The Sandinistas have no interest in reforming the pension law,” Núñez says.
Sandinistas call for countermarch
While the INSS remains silent amid the protests, and government spokeswoman Rosario Murillo spent the afternoon talking about her government’s efforts to “construct social justice and a future that is Christian, Socialism and in Solidarity,” Sandinista lawmaker and union boss Gustavo Porras addressed the pension protest on behalf of the tight-lipped ruling party. Porras insisted that the INSS doesn’t have the money to pay the pensions demanded by the senior citizens, but said the administration will continue to pay monthly “solidarity bonuses” to 8,000 senior citizens.
Porras claims the pension protest is part of an alleged right-wing plot to destroy Nicaragua’s social security system and destabilize the government. He dismissed the senior citizen’s protest as a “media show.”
“We have come to the clear conclusion, it’s totally clear, that this is a manipulation of a just demand, but there is manipulation, a clear political manipulation by the rightwing to destroy social security, that’s the idea and the conclusion that we have arrived at,” said Porras.
The Sandinista lawmaker claims the protest is a manifestation of the opposition’s frustration with how wonderfully everything is going for President Ortega.
“The rightwing feels bad when the people prosper, they feel bad. It’s like with the canal, which makes people hopeful and there is a positive attitude in general terms, as we advance in different areas, as we have been restituting rights, as Comandante Daniel Ortega has been providing answers, little by little, to all the aspirations of the people,” Porras elucidated.
The Sandinista union boss called for a massive Sandinista march on Monday in defense of President Ortega’s government.