Protesters at Summit of the Americas: ‘No more dictatorships’

As many of Latin America’s leaders gathered in Los Angeles on Monday for the start of the Summit of the Americas, a handful of immigrants and their supporters took to the streets, waving flags and placards to vent their political differences with their countries of origin.

The dominant message? No more strong men. No longer mano dura (safe hand).

“We don’t need countries where dictatorships exist,” cried a group of Nicaraguans who had gathered on Figueroa Street and Pico Boulevard in front of the Los Angeles Convention Center, the main venue for the summit. “No more dictatorships in Latin America!” they shouted in Spanish.

A few yards away, Salvadoran protesters repeated the refrain: “We don’t want dictatorships!”

Almost all of Monday’s protests in front of the convention center were directed against either Nayib Bukele from El Salvador or Daniel Ortega from Nicaragua. According to census figures, Los Angeles is home to an estimated 425,000 Salvadoran Americans, the largest concentration in the United States, and an estimated 39,000 Nicaraguan Americans.

The political realities of Nicaragua and El Salvador are somewhat different. Nicaragua is ruled by a former Marxist guerrilla leader; El Salvador is governed by a populist former mayor and businessman.

But some Central American immigrants now living in Southern California believe that for all their differences, Ortega and Bukele are mirror images. And the tactics of their critics in the States are also similar.

In 2018, Grettel Campbell founded the organization Nicaragua Libre LA after waves of protests against changes in the social security system that were violently repressed by the Ortega administration, left more than 300 dead and thousands injured and heightened international concerns over human rights abuses.

“The goal is to denounce,” said the managua native and now LA resident. “The main goal is to get Ortega out.”

Twenty years ago, Dámaris Rostrán left Nicaragua for New York. Today she is one of the leaders of the New York and New Jersey Work Table, part of a network of 23 US entities that raise awareness of events in Nicaragua.

“The United States must turn its gaze to Latin America,” the activist said while standing in Figueroa and Pico.

Rostrán pointed to a group of Salvadoran protesters a few yards away and said the kind of political repression that has long gripped Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela is also sweeping into El Salvador.

“What Ortega did in 10 years, Nayib Bukele did in two,” said Rostrán, who is from Managua.

Launched in 1994, the Summit of the Americas aims to bring together the continent’s heads of state, civil society organizations and civil society leaders around common regional goals, including the promotion of democracy and human rights – at least in theory.

But this year’s summit was surrounded by controversy and exasperation after the United States declined to invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua and the presidents of Mexico and Honduras opted not to attend in protest at their counterparts’ expulsion.

President Bukele remains well liked, both at home and among Salvadoran Americans, and his supporters support his government’s tough-line actions. In a recent poll conducted by Central American University, 66.2% of respondents said the Bukele administration’s mass arrests had improved security. But 24.8% saw such measures as an attempt by the government to polish its popular image.

“How long will the arbitrary arrests last?” asked Salvadoran Ana Flores, who was carrying a sign written in English and Spanish.

“Bukele has my brother in jail,” read another placard carried by Álex Henríquez, who said his sibling was jailed under the state of emergency declared in late March that human rights activists and media reports claim has led to Arrests without a court order of thousands of suspected gang members, as well as many innocent people.

Amnesty International recently denounced the emergency order that has left more than 36,000 people detained, “gross human rights abuses” including instances of torture and at least 23 people dead in captivity.

The Salvadorian group Democratic Diaspora in Resistance has made these allegations the focus of its messaging campaign.

“How long will Bukele continue to violate the fundamental rights of Salvadorans?” reads a billboard on a small moving van-like vehicle on Figueroa Street. For eight hours, this message was seen as the vehicle traveled down the Salvadoran Corridor to the El Salvadoran Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard and passed the Convention Center.

Lorena Aguilar, a San Jose resident and member of the resistance’s Democratic diaspora, traveled with a group of activists concerned about the direction of their homeland. Since the collective was formed in June 2021, people from Canada, Mexico and US cities such as Washington, Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles have joined.

“Some businessmen in Washington, DC donated the money to pay for the billboard. That helped us spread the message more effectively,” she said.

The group has also made an impact in El Salvador, working with teachers and lawyers to coordinate efforts to support those arbitrarily detained by the government.

“We unite in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe. We have representatives grouping Salvadorans who disagree with the regime,” Aguilar said.

Edith Anaya reached out to the group via Twitter, where she had posted her political views for many years. When she found out about the planned protest at the summit, she decided to join.

“There is a need to move from Twitter to action and unite to express our concern,” she said. “It is very important that the international community knows that the government is lying when it says there is democracy and that it respects human rights.”

Other members of the Latino and Latino communities took advantage of the opening of the summit to advance the issue of immigration reform. A young Salvadoran, Obbi Fénix, said he felt uncomfortable being surrounded by opponents from Bukele and Ortega.

“I don’t agree with them,” he said, referring to his countrymen and expressing his sympathy for Bukele.

“What I am asking of Nicaragua is the extradition of Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sánchez Cerén,” Fénix said, referring to the two former left-wing presidents who ruled El Salvador between 2009 and 2019 and who were granted Nicaraguan citizenship by the Ortega government.

As anti-Bukele protests began to die down, a small pro-Bukele faction briefly emerged on Figueroa Street.

“Long live Bukele!” they shouted before quickly crossing the street.

A woman from the anti-Bukele group immediately responded in a firm voice.

“Long live,” she shot back, “but outside of El Salvador.” Protesters at Summit of the Americas: ‘No more dictatorships’

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