When most little girls dream of becoming a doctor, they probably don’t imagine that path will wind through an oppressive government regime, or a series of events that turns them into a political prisoner and revolutionary. Yet this is the story of Amaya Coppens, 32, born in Esteli, Nicaragua. This Nicaraguan and Belgian national, and former student of medicine at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua is also a member of the April 19 University Movement of Nicaragua, an activist movement led by students.
Last week, the Colorado Springs World Affairs Council hosted Coppens, a 2020 U.S. Department of State International Woman of Courage recipient, so honored for her active role in democratization protests against the Sandinista government. The Sandinista party has used violent repressive tactics against the Nicaraguan people since the 1970s.
Here’s just a little background on what Coppens has lived through:
According to Global Americans, a site dedicated to news and research that fosters political change in Latin America, “in a little more than a century, Nicaragua has experienced U.S. occupation, a liberal oligarchic regime, a repressive family dictatorship, a revolutionary regime of a socialist nature, a liberal democracy, and, since Daniel Ortega’s return to power in 2007, a hybrid regime that has combined democratic institutions with authoritarian elections and that, as of April 2018, has mutated into a new tyranny.” The country is now under the tightly clenched fist of this president.
From April to June of 2018, Global Americans reports, Nicaragua’s human rights crisis led to 448 deaths, 2,830 injuries, and 718 abducted Nicaraguans. It is reported that Ortega’s administration is responsible for 98 percent of those atrocities.
In September 2018, Coppens’ involvement in protests against Ortega’s government led to her arrest for alleged acts of terrorism and arson. She was expelled from school, and has since claimed that she and other students were first threatened by the Ortega administration that, if they didn’t work to stop others from protesting, their funding would be rescinded. Coppens says that the government’s official media often depict protesters with photoshopped weapons; and the country’s journalists who report the truth experience danger ranging from broken and confiscated equipment to disappearance and death.
[pullquote-1] Since her release from prison in June 2019, Coppens and her family have been under constant surveillance, concerned for their safety. In November 2019, Coppens was jailed again for handing out water to the mothers of political prisoners at a church in Masaya, Nicaragua, where they were holding a hunger strike. She was released in late December 2019.
During her visit to the Springs, she spoke with local justice groups and UCCS students in honor of International Women’s Day. The goal of Coppens’ tour is to raise awareness of state violence happening in Nicaragua, hopefully resulting in international pressure focused on the country’s abuse of its people during a time of political unrest. “They have not only used police officers and the military to oppress us… but also they took people out of prison… and give them lands… now these people are claiming lands are theirs and it’s leading to attacks to the rural zones and indigenous [people] that don’t have much [attention],” she says.
Coppens says many Nicaraguans live under constant fear of the police; even outside prison the persecution continues. “They [the police] are the ones that are responsible for torture and harassment in the streets. They mark our houses with the word ‘lead’… because bullets are made of lead,” Coppens says. The danger is real. After protests demanding Ortega step down over pension reforms, six members of one family died in an arson attack by pro-government, paramilitary forces.
The last few years of Coppens’ life have been interrupted in ways she never imagined, but she must keep speaking out for the liberation of her people. She says meeting with government officials, the military or police department for solutions to the country’s violence is currently an unimaginable concept in Nicaragua. Their greatest hope, she says, is to build coalitions that support grassroots activism.