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From Nicaragua to Tulsa

A local take on revolution, migration and violence in Central America

Joseph Rushmore

My mother is from the colonial town of Granada, Nicaragua. During the 1950s, she worked in nearby Managua at the newly-established Social Security agency as the country entered a new era of modern reforms and institution building. Last April, proposed cuts to social security benefits prompted an uprising that was met with brutal violence by the regime of President Daniel Ortega.

As of the time of this writing, it is estimated that more than 300 people have been killed by the regime’s excessively repressive tactics, including the deployment of snipers to kill student protestors and terrifying patrols by heavily-armed, hooded gunmen roaming through villages and marketplaces.

Because of my mother’s deep roots in Nicaragua, my brothers and I spent every summer there with our relatives. During the summer of 1978, we witnessed the triumph of the Nicaraguan Revolution firsthand, as the Sandinista Liberation Front ousted the long-running Somoza dictatorship. Now, nearly 40 years later, a massive uprising surges against the very government that betrayed that popular revolution.

Witnessing the Nicaraguan Revolution as a child was so transformative that I went on to study Latin American politics at the University of South Florida and the New School for Social Research in New York City before coming to Tulsa in 2006, where I now serve as the project director at New Sanctuary Network Tulsa.

I have always been interested in transnational migration—how people move, why they move, and what happens to them in their adopted cities and the communities they leave behind. I am a believer in the freedom of movement, including the right to cross boundaries and borders to pursue dreams and reach goals. The world seems to be doing the opposite, though, putting up more barriers and restrictions to the freedom of movement.

At New Sanctuary Network Tulsa, we are trying to prevent the deportations of undocumented immigrants who are too often vilified and criminalized for not having “the right papers.” Their lives are flattened by an incident—sometimes a small infraction, like driving without a license—deeming them unworthy of living safely in this country, despite having made a life here as they buy homes and raise families like everyone else.

We also help asylum seekers fleeing horrific situations in their home countries seek refuge and safety by connecting them to a sponsor. It is tremendously moving to hear stories between tears and expressions of utter despair by grown men and women who recount their journeys by sea, desert, and other dangerous terrain to seek refuge. I feel very proud to work with a group of people who, despite language barriers, can see the sincerity of their stories and heartfelt pleas for help. Most people don’t want to leave the places they are from. They leave because they have few other choices.

Since the popular uprising erupted in April, thousands of Nicaraguans have fled—mostly to neighboring Costa Rica, which has graciously tried to accommodate thousands of refugees. Living in makeshift shelters in parks and along highways, the Nicaraguan refugees are hoping peace and safety will be restored so they may return to their lives on the other side of the San Juan River. Some of the refugees have fled because a loved one has been killed by the paramilitary forces or personally threatened with death by the Ortega government. Fear is the essential driver.

As a Nicaraguan, American, and human rights activist, I am deeply troubled over the increasingly volatile political situation in Nicaragua. Having grown up as a Sandinista sympathizer and having admired and studied at length the Sandinista Revolution and its ideals—I even served as interpreter to Daniel Ortega during one of his fundraising tours in New York City in the mid 1990s—it was enraging to see how the  movement was corrupted by power-hungry, self-proclaimed “owners” of the revolution using the very tactics they once abhorred in their fight against the Somoza dictatorship. Most Nicaraguans can see right through this hypocrisy. The parallels are too obvious.

Nicaragua has produced many greats, including literary giants, world-class baseball players and boxers, poets, and revolutionaries. I am confident it will produce a new generation of social justice and civic-minded leaders to build a new path forward for Nicaragua.

In the meantime, I worry about the refugees: the thousands of displaced people who are the victims of greed and lust for power. Six Nicaraguan asylum seekers who made it to the southern U.S. border in May were transported to David L. Moss detention center here in Tulsa. Two of the men “passed” their credible fear interviews. The others were denied and deported. I worry for the fate of those deportees.

I ask that if you have any connections to Nicaragua, if you have ever done mission work there, surfed the beaches, participated in eco-tourism, toured with your students, bought fair trade coffee, chocolate, rocking chairs, maquiladora made jeans; or if you’ve ever enjoyed a Flor de Cana rum or a Toña beer—yes, they sell them at Soul City—that you take a moment to think about the lives behind those commodities. And if you have a chance to sponsor someone, do it.