Students Protest Education Cuts

By Matilde Zimmermann, The Militant, Vol.60 no.5, 5 February 1996

MANAGUA, Nicaragua—More than 10,000 university students marched here January 16 demanding increased government funding for education and prosecution of the cops who killed two student demonstrators last month.

The Nicaraguan Constitution stipulates that 6 percent of the national budget must go for higher education. Hundreds of students wore T-shirts at the march saying, 6%, the struggle continues, or headbands on which they had written 6%. Even with formal compliance with this provision over the last five years, the universities have all suffered cutbacks in classes, teachers' salaries, and scholarships. In December, the National Assembly passed a law redefining the 6 percent in such a way that total funds allocated for education were cut by almost 30 percent.

A December 13 student protest against this move was attacked by the police. Students Porfirio Ramos and Jeronimo Urbina were killed by the cops. Another 60 protesters were wounded, including one youth whose leg had to be amputated.

One of the most common slogans on T-shirts and placards at the January 16 march was, We demand justice for Porfirio and Jeronimo. The students demanded that the police officials responsible, including national chief of police Fernando Caldera, be tried for murder.

A lower court recommended that homicide charges be brought against the cops in charge. But the Attorney General absolved the cops of all responsibility and called for an investigation of the student organizers instead.

Many of these student protesters were born after the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship; they were children during the decade that the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) led the government. The FSLN, which was voted out of office in February 1990, has supported the 6 percent campaign. But no banners or placards of the Front were visible anywhere in the student contingents, and none of the young protesters this reporter spoke with identified with the FSLN.

The police force here is no longer called the Sandinista Police, although police chief Caldera is a long-time member of the FSLN. It's not that the police and army go around killing people all the time, one student said in an interview. But when it happens—like it did December 13—then it's almost impossible to get them punished. The police presence at the January 16 demonstration was low-key. No incidents took place as the march proceeded from the Central American University to the National Assembly.

President Violeta Chamorro has attacked the university students as elitists. She claims her government is giving priority to extending elementary education.

Student leaders respond that the government has imposed fees that prevent many children of working-class and peasant families from attending school. It is their 6% campaign that is defending free and accessible public education at all levels, they argue.

The university students' campaign has also come under criticism from students and community leaders in the autonomous regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. Students from the Atlantic Coast, many of them Black and Indian, have demanded that their own two new universities receive a fair share of the 6 percent budget allocation, from which they are excluded in the constitution. They say that the BICU (Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University) and the URACAN (University of the Autonomous Regions of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua) are the only universities that teach subjects like rain-forest ecology and Caribbean culture. They also argue that Black and Indian students who come to the universities on the Pacific side are a small minority (less than 2 percent of the student bodies) and sometimes suffer discrimination.

Although some student leaders here in the Pacific region have spoken out in favor of including the BICU and the URACAN in the 6 percent allocation, the National Council of Universities has not taken a position. Student activists are pushing for a vote on their demands in the National Assembly before January 30. FSLN General Secretary Daniel Ortega has called for a moratorium on all strikes and social protests beginning February 1, in anticipation of the February 7 visit to Nicaragua of Pope John Paul II.