Mideast Unrest Spreads to Nicaragua — Virtually

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Oswaldo Rivas / Reuters

Inspired by the protests in Egypt and Libya, Nicaraguan activists take to Facebook to challenge a re-election bid by President Daniel Ortega

Under the banner "We Will Not Remain Quiet: No More Reelection," some 16,000 young Nicaraguans joined forces on Friday to protest the re-election bid by President Daniel Ortega.

Inspired by the recent uprising in Egypt, the protest against the Sandinista leader's candidacy — expected to be announced officially on Saturday despite a constitutional ban on consecutive terms — was the largest demonstration against his rule in more than a year.

But if you weren't logged on to Facebook, you probably missed it.

That's because the protest was Nicaragua's first virtual march. Throughout the day, activists joined the cyber-revolt ("Marcha Virtual en Nicaragua!!!!") by swapping their Facebook-profile photos for a common protest image and turning their status updates into a picket line: "Our Heroes and Martyrs Didn't Fight and Die to Replace One Dictatorship with Another!," "Down with Mubarak, Gaddafi, and Ortega!" and "No to Idolatry!" It's not a stretch to lump Nicaragua's President with the Libyan strongman: Ortega, who admitted to receiving personal financing from Muammar Gaddafi before returning to office in 2007, has publicly offered Nicaragua's "total solidarity" to his longtime ally, saying Gaddafi is "waging a great battle" to defend Libya. Last year, Ortega was awarded the Muammar al-Gaddafi International Award for Human Rights.

While joining the Facebook demonstration didn't exactly take the guerrilla grit of hurling Molotov cocktails at army tanks or throwing rocks at riot police, analysts say the event's significance shouldn't be downplayed for a society in which social-networking websites are becoming increasingly widespread and influential.

"The virtual march is creating conscientiousness and animating youth who many thought were indifferent to politics," says Carlos Tünnermann, a leader of Movement for Nicaragua, a nonpartisan pro-democracy group. "The message of the youths who participated in the virtual march was one of total rejection and repudiation of the candidacy of Daniel Ortega, which is illegal and illegitimate. I think this energy will translate into greater youth participation in upcoming street marches and at the polls on election day in November."

Yet it may be premature to expect the cyber-conspirators to take to the streets. While Sandinista supporters and antigovernment demonstrators clashed often during the early years of Ortega's rule, the protesters appear to have gotten the message: there haven't been any big, organized marches for more than a year.

Javier Baez, the 27-year-old blogger who organized the Facebook march, says the strong turnout shows that people are scared; the only place young people feel they can demonstrate safely against Ortega is in cyberspace. "There will always be some brave people who protest in the streets, but this government has been good at creating apathy and fear among the rest of the population," Baez says. "Every time a protest march is organized, the Sandinistas call for a countermarch that ends in violence."

Indeed, the fear of reprisal in Nicaragua might even have affected turnout to the cyberprotest. More than 2,200 Facebook users invited to attend the march clicked "maybe" — if, one assumes, it didn't conflict with other virtual commitments on their calendars — and 76,800 didn't respond at all.

Still, the show of support was more than Baez ever imagined. A political science graduate who works on freedom of expression issues at Managua's Violeta Chamorro Foundation, Baez started the initiative with invitations to 500 of his Facebook friends. It quickly went viral, growing to more than 100,000 invites in less than two weeks including the sizable communities of Nicaraguans living in the U.S.

That response, in a country where only 60,000 people are on Facebook, generated hopes that the virtual march would create a wave of protest that would spill over into the real world — and prompted the Sandinista Youth to delcare a counter virtual march, which it called the March of Happiness.

In celebration of Ortega, some 4,000 of his supporters changed their Facebook statuses to reflect pro-government campaign slogans and hurled message-board insults at the anti-Sandinista protesters. They argued that thanks to the infrastructure development Ortega has spearheaded, Nicaraguans can now settle their differences in cyberspace, rather than use the traditional method of throwing rocks at one another in the streets.

In some ways they're right. Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the hemisphere, has one of the highest Internet-connectivity rates in all of Latin America, says Edwin Garcia, president of the Internet Association of Nicaragua. While a majority of the country is still offline, 97% of Nicaragua is wired for broadband, and the number of users is increasing exponentially as cybercafés pop up in rural areas and cell-phone providers offer pre-paid Web browsing. As a result, Garcia says, Nicaragua now has 3G technology in corners of the country that don't even have roads, electricity or running water.

The increase in online users is translating into an increase in online activism. A similar anti-Ortega Facebook protest in 2008 attracted only 1,600 followers — a tenth of the number that joined Friday's virtual march.

But has Internet connectivity reached a critical mass in Nicaragua? And does Facebook protesting really count? It's too soon to say. Martin Mulligan, a social commentator who blogs under the name Emilia Persola, says that unlike in the Middle East, cyberprotesters in Nicaragua are unlikely to take to the streets right away. "This still won't translate into a tactical advantage for the opposition," he says.

Indeed, the fact that Ortega doesn't use Facebook or Twitter like leftist leaders such as Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro might be an indication that Nicaragua's social-networking sites have yet to fully catch on.

Still, for Baez, who says he's planning future events on his Facebook page, Cyber Activismo en Nicaragua, the lesson learned is that any initiative in defense of democracy counts. "The politicians want us to remain apathetic," he says. "So my message to others is: do something. Act on your ideas."