MIAMI - When Miami Police Department officers arrived to follow a group of Nicaraguans who were marching Tuesday afternoon around Miami's Brickell neighborhood, 10-year-old Manolo was alarmed. He turned to his father and said in Spanish, "The police is here!"
Back in Nicaragua, the Central American country where Manolo was born, he had seen police officers, dressed in riot gear, who reminded him of the super soldiers in a video game he likes, "Halo: Combat Evolved." During protests, he said, he saw some of the officers behave like violent characters from "Resident Evil," a survival horror video game.
"My dad taught me police officers are supposed to be there to protect us. I know there are really good ones, but I have also seen some really bad ones," Manolo said in Spanish. "I was coming back from school. I saw how the officers beat this boy who was out protesting. He was bleeding. I didn't like how they treated him."
Manolo, whose parents didn't want to release his last name over fear of reprisal, said the Miami police officers earned some of his trust after he saw them stop traffic so he and the other protesters could cross Brickell Avenue. Two-year-old Andres Emilio Mesa Tijerino, whose brother has been in a Nicaraguan prison since June 26, 2018, said he wanted them to leave. He turned a flag's stick into an imaginary rifle, squinted one eye and aimed at the officers.
"Andres gets really scared around police. Like many children in Nicaragua, he has been through so much," said Andres' mother, Maira Tijerino, while holding his baby sister. "We are here protesting for his brother. He is a college student who shouldn't be in prison. Many of these children are witnesses of the government's human rights violations. They have to live with this trauma."
Maira Tijerino said they were forced to flee Nicaragua to avoid ending up dead or in a prison after she started to publicly demand the release of her 22-year-old son, Eduardo Manuel Tijerino, who was arrested June 2018 in Matagalpa, a city about two hours away from Managua, the country's capital. The distraught mother said the college student's only crime was to protest against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
Ortega's tax increase and pension changes in April 2018 ignited fiery protests. To appease the country, he withdrew the changes, but he rejected demands to free political prisoners. Eduardo Manuel Tijerino and the other students who dared to question Ortega's cutbacks on Social Security remain at La Modelo, known as one of the most brutal prisons in Latin America, just outside of Managua. Most of those who managed to get away from the persecution have fled to Costa Rica and the United States.
In Miami, Tijerino was marching with student activist Jeancarlo Manuel Lopez, a former computer engineering student at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua. The former member of a Microsoft student tech club rose to become an internationally known political activist as a representative of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, a Nicaraguan coalition organization.
"We are here because the persecution made it impossible for us to get anything done in Nicaragua. That doesn't mean that we are ever giving up," Lopez, 21, said in Spanish. "We have asked the United States to apply pressure and to help us get a peaceful solution now to the political crisis in Nicaragua. We dream of having peace and stability and we need the help of the international community to achieve that. We need to push forward with elections. Ortega has been there for way too long."
Ortega, now 73, is not a public servant who believes in term limits. He went from being a leftist guerrilla leader to the presidency in 1979, and he remained in power until 1990, when he lost a presidential election. In 2006, he was re-elected and has spent the last 12 years consolidating power with the help of his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.
Nicaragua's next presidential election is in 2021. Tijerino, Lopez and other protesters in Miami have put their hope for change on the Organization of American States, which will meet Friday to discuss the situation in Nicaragua. When a member state produces an alteration in the constitutional order that harms the democratic order, the OAS' Inter American Democratic Charter could be used to entirely suspend Nicaragua from the organization.
During the uprising last year, 324 people were killed, according to investigators with the OAS commission. Nicaraguan officials reported 21 police officers and 177 civilians died. The OAS investigators were expelled in December. Nicaraguan officials are criminalizing critics and continue to claim that opposition sectors in South Florida are supporting and financing terrorism.
"The protesters aren't terrorists. We want change. It's heartbreaking. They are hunting and killing kids. They are holding kids in prisons just over political dissent," said Gio Gomez, 42, while holding gruesome photos that went viral during the protests last year. "I am a Catholic and a Nicaraguan American. It's immoral not to stand against those crimes against humanity."
The exodus of Nicaraguans also includes former Nicaraguan government employees. Marcela Vega, a former employee of Nicaragua's Ministry of Health, was in tears at the protest in Miami. The 43-year-old mother said she and her children were so traumatized by the threats that for a while, they were afraid to leave their new house in Miami.
"My only crime was to confront the minister of health after there was an evil order to close the doors at hospitals and to turn away wounded students after the national police had attacked them with bullets and bombs," Vega said in Spanish. "I told her we were mothers and there were kids out there, dying. She said, 'They are not students. They are criminals.' I was persecuted."
Vega said she is tired of being in hiding and she misses her family and friends. She said she has to pick herself up because her children need her support. She and Tijerino talked to two employees from the Trinidad and Tobago consulate about the cruelty they have endured, while Manolo, Andres and others waited outside.
"Andres is saying he misses his dog. I left my cat. Andres shouldn't have to leave his dog and move. He shouldn't have to miss his brother, who is in prison. He shouldn't have to be afraid of police officers. He is too young. He shouldn't be afraid; he should feel safe," Manolo said in Spanish. "I protest because Andres deserves a better Nicaragua."
Groups of Nicaraguans living in South Florida were traveling Thursday and Friday to Washington to participate in protests at the embassy's OAS member states before the Friday meeting.
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