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Francisca Ramirez: “Ortega is Very Afraid of the People”

From her temporary agricultural camp in Upala, Costa Rica, the rural leader demands conditions for the secure return of those in exile

Cindy Regidor

10 de marzo 2020


The beans are ready to harvest, and so is the malanga. The pigs in the improvised farm have reproduced. These are part of the fruits that Francisca Ramirez, together with 80 other Nicaraguan farmers, have reaped over the past eight months, after they created an encampment to live and survive in Upala, a region in the far north of Costa Rica that extends to the border with Nicaragua.

All the residents are exiles who fled the repression and political persecution unleashed by the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. All of them participated in the civic rebellion that began in April 2018, and in which the farm movement played a fundamental role. It wasn’t the first time that the rural population had challenged Ortega. Since 2013, the farmers have protested against the government that passed an onerous law for the supposed construction of an inter-oceanic canal, a now-defunct project that would have entailed the expropriation of their lands.

Francisca Ramirez, ex-president of that rural anti-canal movement and one of the most recognized leaders of Nicaragua’s social movements, had to leave the country. In doing so, she joined tens of thousands of Nicaraguans who opposed the government at the most pivotal moment of the state repression in 2018, a repression that left in its wake hundreds of deaths, thousands of wounded and dozens of imprisoned protesters.

“Dona Chica” as she’s also known, arrived in Costa Rica on September 20, 2018. She left Nicaragua with nothing, fleeing the persecution and death threats. Once in exile, she didn’t sit with hands folded. “We decided to begin by renting some land so we could continue working. And today we can tell you that we have beans, and there are several hectares of plantains that are bursting out,” she shared with pride.

Upon reaching Costa Rica, Ramirez encountered a humanitarian crisis among the Nicaraguans who had fled due to the crisis. The needs were many, and assistance from the Costa Rican government and local and international organizations was slight. “Dona Chica’s camp”, as it’s known in the area, was born from the determination of a group of farmers.

An NGO helped them build a meeting room and a kitchen. Another assisted them in planting just over 34.5 acres of beans, plus areas of rice, yucca and plantains.  However, they themselves bankrolled most of what they’ve built. They even managed to buy a truck on credit to transport the harvests.

The return to Nicaragua

In the camp there’s already food, running water, and electricity. The thirty children that live there attend the nearest school. But if someone gets sick, they have no access to medical attention and there’s no medicine. Three babies have been born in the camp. Some of these basic needs are being resolved and life goes on, but the conversation is always centered around Nicaragua.

Amid the difficulties and the uncertainty, plus the routine of working the land: cleaning the beans, feeding the pigs, cutting back the plantain plants or brewing the morning’s coffee, there’s always some time to talk about what’s happening in the country they left behind. One of the topics is their return.

Francisca Ramirez, together with other exiled farmers in Costa Rica, clean and hand-select the beans in the camp they’ve set up in Upala. Photo: Gerall Chavez

“We believe that we’re going to return towards the end of 2020 or in the early part of 2021,” says Ramirez. The date is tentative. Their preparations have begun and their return could be sooner, if at least one of their requirements were met. “We’re demanding that there be organizations to safeguard the citizens, so that we could return. We’re knocking on the doors of the international organizations to look for a mechanism,” she explained.

The National Coalition

Last February 25, 2020, a national coalition was constituted, composed of seven political groups that joined forces against the Ortega regime. Among those participating is Medardo Mairena, the current president of the Rural Movement.

“You’re asking me about the Coalition, but we don’t have any information about it, because once again they’re falling into a political game where just four people are making the decisions,” Francisca Ramirez criticized, at the same time that she expressed her thoughts on the issue: “We only see quantities of old people, there are no spaces for the youth from the universities, for the others, other people.. We see in it more the same old thing instead of something new, and that creates a lot of doubt for us,” she admitted.

Ramirez hopes that “the Coalition will continue to open up, so that people really feel represented. Because what’s there now are a few sectors that I feel don’t represent me. The PLC (Liberal Constitutionalist Party) is a political party that doesn’t represent me, and there’s no one from civil society that can be transparent,” she stated.

However, she adds, “we hope this comes together, because we’re not counting on it failing. We’re betting that such a Coalition really does get formed, where all Nicaraguans feel represented.”

In the camp, there are different opinions about the formation of the Coalition. Freddy Mairena, former grassroots leader of the Rural Movement from the town of San Miguelito in the Nicaraguan department of Rio San Juan, complained: “the members of the Council (for the Defense of the Land, the Lake and Sovereignty) haven’t consulted with us about the Coalition.” He asserted that he doesn’t feel represented, “because they have taken us into account.”

Francisca Ramirez, farm leader exiled in Costa Rica. Photo: Gerall Chavez

“We worked in one way all these years: that decisions had to be consulted across all the territories,” Mairena added.

Nonetheless, there are also some who look with optimism upon the Coalition’s first steps. One such person is Rene Calero, former member of the Nicaraguan Resistance and former assistant Mayor of the town of Nueva Guinea, elected through the Liberal Constitutionalist Party. “There’s hope now that they’ve signed on with a Coalition. I feel that now the job that lies before the people of Nicaragua is to go back and recover democracy through elections. It seems excellent to me that the PLC is part of the Coalition, because practically speaking this isn’t a party struggle now. Now, it’s the struggle of a nation, right? So, we’re all obliged to be involved in recovering that democracy that cost us so much,” he declared.

Return to the streets

The exiled farmers demand to be heard in the opposition National Coalition. Ramirez tells us that they recently organized an assembly as part of a series of activities in Costa Rica, to define mechanisms of collaboration and because they want to be listened to. Some, she stated, thought they should organize a movement of rural people in exile and be represented in the Coalition that way. “We need them to keep us informed, that they’re making demands from within, that they say what it is they’re thinking,” she maintained.

“Would we see you as a figure in the Coalition?”

“If the people demand it, and the people feel that my voice is necessary, I’ll be there. Because I’m going to be where the people demand, where the people want to be represented,” Ramirez responded.

Fatima Duarte from San Jorge in Rivas department was a Sandinista militant and a member of the city council for that party. Now, she opposes the Ortega regime, and, like Ramirez, she wants to return. This inclines her to support the Coalition in what she knows best how to do: organize and mobilize people. “I was the one who got people out, ordered the buses and was there for the July 19th celebrations. I got people out for the issue of the canal. I got people out recently for the roadblocks too…

And now I’m communication with the people, I’m going to Nicaragua to meet with people and gather people, according to what we see as viable for us Nicaraguans. We’re going to follow that line, we’re going to oppose corruption; we’re going to look for a way to form one voice, one path, as long as everything stays above board,” she said.

Francisca Ramirez

Before speaking about the presidential elections, these refugees demand the re-estabishment of civil liberties, respect for human rights and the disarming of the paramilitary forces that repressed the citizen protests.

In the camp, while they work to subsist, they think about their next steps. “We’re totally desperate to return, to go back, but we also have the calm to wait for the right moment,” Ramirez assured.

“We’ve seen that there’s a jockeying for power right now, and that jockeying brings division. So, it’s helped us more to be a little removed, watching what’s going to happen and seeing things in their moment. Because, yes, there’s one thing we’re sure of: if we don’t organize ourselves – those within Nicaragua as well as those of us who are in exile – Ortega’s going to stay in power,” Ramirez declared bluntly.

She added: “we don’t want Nicaragua to fall into extreme poverty, to fall into a humanitarian crisis, a food crisis. We know that while Ortega remains, this is going to keep happening. He feels that he’s now well seated with the weapons, with the repression, but he’s also very afraid of the people.”

For that reason, from the camp in Upala, but with her gaze set on returning, Francisca Ramirez maintains her challenge against the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship. “I’m going to continue being committed to human rights in Nicaragua. I’m going to continue demanding that they respect our rights, and I’m going to continue in the streets pressuring them so that we reach our goal – to attain a true democracy.”




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Cindy Regidor

Cindy Regidor

Periodista nicaragüense desde 2007, con experiencia en prensa escrita, televisión y medios digitales. Tiene una especialización en producción audiovisual y una maestría en Medios de Comunicación, Estudios de Paz y Conflicto de la Universidad para la Paz de las Naciones Unidas. Fundadora y editora de Nicas Migrantes, proyecto por el cual ganó el Impact Award 2022 del Departamento de Estado de EE. UU. Ha realizado coberturas in situ en Los Ángeles (Estados Unidos), México, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua y Costa Rica. También ha colaborado con France 24, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, BBC World Service. Ha sido finalista y ganadora de varios premios nacionales e internacionales, entre ellos el Premio Latinoamericano de Periodismo de Investigación Javier Valdez, del Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), 2022.