Bearing witness to a human rights crisis in Nicaragua

Scroll down for a Dec 2018 update.

It’s been six months since a wave of protests in Nicaragua sparked violent reprisals by the government of Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo. So far, police and paramilitary forces have killed some 350 people with impunity. The terror shows no sign of abating, with Ortega taking advantage of the fact that the world has bigger concerns right now than his small Central American country.

Artist Pedro Molina is determined to change that. I meet him in Sacramento, California, two days before Cartoonist Rights Network International was due to confer on him its Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award.

He sets the record straight: “I do not have courage. I don’t want to be a hero, or a martyr. I am afraid, like everyone else in Nicaragua.”

He adds, “I am not in more danger than anyone else in Nicaragua. Everybody is in danger right now.”

He is furious that the government has characterised what’s going on as a confrontation between armed groups. “That’s a lie,” he says — the protesters at the receiving end of the state’s brute force have been defenceless citizens.

His cartoons depict Ortega and Murillo as crazed despots. He likens the paramilitary to ISIS fighters.

It may seem like he is taking plenty of artistic licence. But these are not wildly exaggerated caricatures, he says. “They are out of their minds, there’s no doubt about it,” he says of the president and his wife, the vice-president. “That’s why they are so dangerous. There is nothing they will not do.”

In addition to presiding over the on-going violence, the Ortegas are guilty of shocking excess in Latin America’s second poorest country. Vice president Murillo, a fan of the artist Gustav Klimt, has erected more than a hundred extravagant outdoor sculptures inspired by Klimt’s “Tree of Life” painting. This has become such a symbol of the regime’s blindness to ordinary people’s needs that many of the sculptures were attacked by protesters.

Molina has turned the Tree of Life icon into a cheeky leitmotif. Its whirly pattern appears in practically all his cartoons, including earning a permanent role as an isolated wisp of hair on Ortega’s balding pate.

As for the paramilitary, they use the same white Toyota pickup trucks, weapons and masks as ISIS, he says. He tells me how paramilitary elements razed a house because the family would not let the men use their second floor as a sniper’s nest. Two babies were killed.

But if Ortega and gang are so deadly, why does he continue to court danger by poking them in the eye?

Part of the answer is cultural. Even under the Somoza dictatorship, Nicaragua had a tradition of great critical cartooning, he says. He also feels a sense of responsibility to speak for people who feel the same way but are not able to say anything. “If I can do it, I must do it,” he says.

In this video he tells me why it’s important to remain in Nicaragua to bear witness.

Ortega’s fate will have ramifications beyond Nicaragua, Molina is convinced. If he continues to loot and kill with impunity, other authoritarian leaders in the region will be emboldened.

It is vital that the United States does more, he says. But he knows it will be tough to turn the spotlight onto his little country. “We are now fighting so many cruel things happening around the world, from Venezuela to Syria,” he notes. And the American media is understandably focused on Trump.

Recently, Molina spotted a suspicious person outside his home in the middle of the night. He appeared to be carrying something. He ran off when Molina turned on the outside lights. A couple of days later, a neighbour’s wall was spray-painted with the word “plomo”, meaning the metal lead — a threat that they would be shot.

Last week, trolls on social media suddenly mentioned his wife’s name. It was clearly meant as a signal to him, that they know him. With his latest award, more people will know Pedro Molina. Perhaps the international profile will give him some measure protection, he says; or perhaps not.

“Nothing is for sure right now.”

Cherian George. This is an extract of an interview conducted in Sacramento, California, in September 2018 for a book project with Sonny Liew.

Update: 17 december 2018

Attack on Confidencial

Email from Pedro Molina

Hi Friends, colleagues and professional organizations. I’ll try to make a little resume of the recent events about (where I work as staff cartoonist) at this point:

Last Thursday in the middle of the night our offices were assaulted by the police forces of the dictatorship Ortega/Murillo. They took everything they could get their hands on, among other things they took more than 20 computers and hard disks with information, paper documentation, monitors, cameras, mics, security recorders, even some bulletproof vests journalists used in their coverage, they took everything they could and left.

Friday night police forces returned to our offices, kicked out the security guards and left fully armed officers permanently inside the building. They confiscated the building and everything inside (TV sets and some other cameras plus everything they could not get out the night before)

Saturday morning our director (Carlos Fernando Chamorro) together with national and international journalists went to the building to demand an explanation, a legal order, anything that could explain why they were doing that. There was not any answer. So he and the rest of journalists went to the main office of the national police to demand the explanation. (I’m aware this kind of actions may not look specially brave in some other countries, so just to give you an idea…  we are talking about a country were people have being put in jail just because they were carrying a national flag or sing the National Anthem in public, let’s not say protesting… ) They didn’t let them in, they were told to wait outside for an answer. After 20 minutes or so, the “answer” came in the form of a team of riot police who beated, pushed and insulted all the national and international journalists who were there.

Sunday the media outlets and troll army of the dictatorship started a smearing campaign directed to our director, his family and at least one of our journalists… don’t know if the rest will follow. However the team with the help of some media friends managed to put out as always the weekly analisis and news TV show we put out every Sunday. Even when some local cable providers kicked off the air the signal of the Tv channel who transmitted the show in some places of the country (for example, my hometown) The show was also broadcasted in internet.

So, we are starting this week without computer, TV or any other other journalism equipment, without access to our building. The team met in some improvised newsroom over the weekend and they are meeting in some other place today. The places of reunion are being keep secret for security reasons. I’m incredible proud of my colleagues, mostly young but brave journalists for their commitment to produce quality journalism under the current circumstances.

As you can see, the velocity of the repression is something to be very worried about. We don’t know what else the dictatorship could do the next hours or days.

What we need?… We need this situation to be known by the people who can put pressure in Ortega and Murillo govt. to give back our building and equipment and stop the harassment against journalists. Any help or advice your organizations can offer in this moment will also be well received.

In a more personal note, I’m thankful for your interest in my security. Some of you have strongly suggested I should consider an evacuation plan. I have being threatened by social media messages a lot because of my cartoons, including death threats and got a couple of events near my place sometime ago (The irregular situation in my country has been worsening the last 7 months) that caused alarm in my family.