On Tuesday, April 26, in Managua, Nicaragua, I approached, face-to-face, a crowd violently protesting a 3-cent increase in the public bus fare — a rise triggered by the recent world oil price surge.
There had already been four days of violent street demonstrations centered around three national universities and orchestrated by the Sandinistas. Private buses and government vehicles had been burned and several policemen injured, two of them seriously. Public transportation had been paralyzed for several days and smoke from protesters burning tires in the streets wafted above the city, and the long-gone violent days of our history were remembered by our people.
The demonstrations were a carefully crafted trap designed to lure the government into overreacting in the use of force so it could be accused of human-rights violations and incompetence in solving the energy crisis. The outlines of the trap started to become clear when I convened a national round table to find ways to ease the effect of the oil price increase. The president of the Universities Council and the students delegate (both Sandinistas) refused to participate in the discussions. Instead, they were outside, heading the violent rallies.
We soon learned more details of the Sandinista plan. After a few days of street protests, the Sandinistas would convene a march on April 26 directly on the Presidential House, ostensibly to demand “a dialogue” with the president. We feared they might push through the police lines and strike the Presidential House. If that happened, the police would be compelled to use live ammunition or the Army special reaction force would spring into action. In either case, the objective was to instigate “human rights violations” by a “bloodthirsty” government and use the incident to spread protests and chaos throughout the country. Sandinista organizers in the provinces outside Managua lay in wait to spread the chaos.
I know complex problems often require simple solutions. On the night of April 25, I discussed the situation with my family, especially my most trusted adviser, my wife Lila. We all agreed a bold move, an audacious and complete surprise was needed.
The next day, as the protest neared the Presidential House, I announced to my startled Cabinet that I would go out to meet the protesters and invite their leaders to join a dialogue. My security chief immediately and vigorously protested. I told him this was needed.
My ministers and I drove near the protest and got out of our vehicles. With only my head of security at my side, I advanced toward the protesters, with my ministers 10 paces behind me. This gesture of an unarmed 77-year-old president calmly advancing toward the rowdy protest completely disoriented the protest organizers. They did not know how to react. Some members of the protest started throwing rocks and bottles of water and launching homemade projectiles at us.
I reached the protesters, held my hands out to them and made a public call for the four main protest organizers to join us in a serious dialogue to solve this problem of public bus fares.
With the rocks still falling, a group of riot police stationed a block away came to cover our return to the vehicles. There was only one casualty, not serious: my son, who was hit in the head with a rock and taken to the hospital for stitches.
The entire nation witnessed the incident on television. Within 20 minutes, the streets were vacant and the burning of tires and vehicles had stopped. When I returned to the Presidential House, my wife was waiting. She said, “I knew God would help us and it would all come out OK.” The next day all major leaders signed an agreement on the bus fare issue. The protests ceased and buses rolled again in the streets of Managua.
As president of Nicaragua, I am opposed to what the Economist magazine recently labeled an “unholy alliance” between the leader of the extreme left, Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista Party, and the leader of the extreme right, ex-president Arnoldo Aleman of the Liberal Party. Aleman is serving a 20-year sentence for corruption-related charges.
I am sure this alliance will continue launching fresh attacks on democratic institutions and procedures in my country.
But with God’s help, we will be able to face down each and every challenge to democracy as it arises.
Enrique Bolanos is president of Nicaragua.