By Allen Jennings
MANAGUA — "It was an unforgettable afternoon. The sound of fireworks and cries came from outside. The university rectors looked like children dressed up as old men as they raised their arms and jumped from their seats with childlike gestures. The hunger strikers, wearing their red '6%' T-shirts, cried, hugged each other, and waved blue and white flags." — Barricada
These were the emotional scenes in the Nicaraguan National Assembly after a majority of its members had voted on August 18 in favour of the universities' legal claim for 6% of the national budget.
In the streets outside, thousands of university and school students, teachers, university staff and supporters who had participated in a giant march earlier in the day and then waited as the six-hour debate drew to its tense climax, celebrated when they realised they had won the historic victory.
After 47 days and nights of persistent, militant and imaginative protest, the university community has changed the national budget. The government must now, and in the future, allocate a minimum of 6% (including foreign donations and loans) to higher education.
After a decisive "no" from the government several weeks earlier and having confronted an unprecedented government smear campaign, the students, by occupying universities and suspending classes, by explaining their cause door to door, by setting up their own clandestine radio station, won over public opinion — and, more surprisingly, the votes of 18 right-wing politicians.
The university community, especially the students,
have gained respect and self-confidence. At a time when many Nicaraguans feel impotent against the financial restrictions imposed by the international lending institutions, they have given an example of how to influence the government through militant yet non-violent means.
The vote surprised everyone. The university community clearly understood that they were up against, not only the government, but also the flow of neo-liberal policies inundating most developing countries. But they won. It was a truly historic victory against all odds.
Along with the victory there have also been less obvious achievements. "There have been various gains", says Mariano Malta Diaz, a sociology student, "but I think that one of the most important is the opening up of new democratic spaces which had been prohibited to students, the grassroots sectors and Nicaraguans in general".
"I have learned how to debate", says Carolina Garcia, a journalism student. Against a concerted propaganda campaign on the part of the government they have learned, not only to debate, but to find alternative methods of spreading their message and of organising.
They have also reached out for, and gained support from all social sectors, including peasants, public servants, merchants, unions and even right-wing politicians. We have heard stories of miners in the farthest corner of the country glued to their radios waiting for the latest progress in the students' struggle.
More and more, Nicaragua's economic policies and important political decisions are being determined from afar. (The government has just announced that the Sandinista head of police is to be replaced, after a direct demand from a group of members of the US Congress.) Nicaragua's sovereignty wasn't completely handed over after the 1990
elections but, bit by bit, it is being taken. If the government is not willing or able to defend the country's sovereignty, the grassroots organisations will step in.