Demonstrators flooded the streets of Managua and other cities throughout Nicaragua on 18 April 2018 to protest against President Daniel Ortega’s (2007-present) proposed social security reforms that would aim to increase taxes and decrease benefits.

Now one of the largest protests in the country’s history, and the deadliest period of civil unrest since the end of the Nicaraguan Revolution, could it be Ortega and his Sandinista ideals that will be reformed?

More than 180 people have died so far in two months of violence, as paramilitary forces loyal to Ortega’s government continue the brutal crackdown. Meanwhile, talks have collapsed between demonstrators and the government.

A troubled past

In the 1980’s, Nicaragua was a symbol of the developing world’s struggle against US imperialism, and with Ortega as the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional), the Sandinistas made their way to power toppling the dictatorship of Luís Somoza. The irony of Ortega’s current government being labeled a dictatorship by some has not been lost on anybody in Nicaragua.

Ortega embraced the Castro-Chavista (a term used to describe the leftist regimes of Fidel Castro in Cuba and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela) development model; nationalising companies, taking loans from the Soviet Union and printing copious amounts of money. By 1986, five years of Ortega’s rule had caused hyperinflation.

With the Cold War at its peak, the US was concerned about Sandinista leadership, beginning to fund Contra, a right-wing terrorist group: “For our own security”, said Ronald Reagan in 1986. By 1990, Ortega was ousted and a new currency and conservative government had replaced him.

Ortega’s return

However, by 2006 Ortega had returned and won Nicaragua’s presidential elections, still following the same socialist doctrine that had earlier promoted universal access to health care and education. Ortega implemented a reformist agenda, and inequality declined: poverty has halved since Ortega won 72% of the vote in 2016.

Before these latest protests, Nicaragua was thought to be one of the most stable Latin American countries with a growing economy, stable political system, free medical care, and blossoming reputation as a new tourist destination – but suddenly that narrative completely changed.

Fatal mistakes

The removal of presidential term limits in January 2014 “undermined democratic order”, coupled with widespread allegations of fraud during the 2016 election, seemed to signal that things were unravelling for Ortega.

Suddenly, he was promoting propaganda videos in England and Spanish  in an attempt to attract foreign investors to Nicaragua, offering cheap labour: a stark ideological change from the Sandinista values with which he had become synonymous.

Although it seemed as if Nicaragua had a stable, growing economy, it was his own personal finances that were benefiting, and Nicaragua started to witness the formation of an unwelcome elite – the friends of Ortega. In March 2018, a social media law was introduced allowing the “ruling classes” to introduce censorship in radio stations and media to detect political activists.

This increased repression, and the controversial proposed changes to government benefits and social security reform meant that both businessmen and students saw an opportunity to protest after “10 years of oppression”, according to demonstrator Enrique Bonilla.

As part of his reforms, from 1 July 2018, as a way to improve the finances of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS), an employer’s contribution to the social safety net would be based on 21% of their salary – an increase of 2% on what had been paid before (19%). Workers would also have to pay their labour quota through deductions made by their employers, based on 7% of their salaries.

Daniel Ortega Nicaragua President
Daniel Ortega has bee a key figure in Nicaragua’s recent history. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Repression of protests

Even though Ortega announced that he would abandon these reforms after several days of unrest, the opposition to Ortega grew, demanding his resignation. Anti-government protests quickly became violent, with many demonstrators taking up arms such as homemade mortars to confront the police.

According to a report by Amnesty International released on 29 May, Nicaragua instituted a “shoot to kill” policy in dealing with protests that resulted in an “alarming number of deaths”. The report states that the government had violated citizens’ human rights by using “excessive force in the context of the protests” and possibly carrying out “extrajudicial executions in conjunction with pro-government armed groups”.

“Very quickly and dangerously [Nicaragua was] slipping back into some of the darkest times the country has seen in decades”.

The images being broadcast from Nicaragua are becoming increasingly similar to those from Venezuela – highways blocked by burning tyres and rebel groups using homemade mortars and grenade launchers.

Pinnacle of the violence

The death of Ángel Gahona, a journalist, on 21 April was the greatest shock to the nation. He was known for covering stories that involved drug trafficking, corruption and issues that other journalists would avoid.

“We believe the police killed Ángel to send us a message. To tell all the journalists here to shut up, to stop supporting or covering the protests,” said Hayzel Zamora, a fellow reporter who witnessed Gahona’s death. Even when Ortega started peace talks in Managua on 21 May, he was interrupted by cries of: “Justice for Ángel Gahona!”

Amnesty also released an article on the 30 May detailing an unprovoked attack on a demonstration led by the mothers of students and children who had lost their lives due to the violent state repression.

Rumoured US involvement

“It would not be a surprise [if the US had played some part in the repression], given our history,” said John Kotula, a NicaNotes writer. The US House of Representatives passed the NICA Act (Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act) in 2017, demanding the reestablishment of diplomatic institutions and that corruption be tackled, including investigating high-ranking officials.

“The 2017 Nica Act is just another threat” read Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s Vice President  and Ortega’s wife, at a press conference. “It is a new attempt to grant [the US] the right to destructively intervene in our national affairs.”

Despite Nicaragua playing a minor role in drug trafficking, having minimal gang violence and low migration statistics, the US still do not affiliate themselves with Nicaragua. It seems that “if a government doesn’t have neoliberal policies, then US view them as an enemy”, said Kotula.

What next for Nicaragua?

On 11 June 2018, The Guardian reported on Nicaragua’s oldest university, National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (Unan), where “resistance is the new curriculum”. Students have occupied the Managua campus and set up anti-government protest camps where they are self-sufficient with food, shelter and makeshift arms. Since 7 May 2018, 500 students have taken up permanent residence on the campus.

The dystopian atmosphere at UNAN demonstrates the will to end Ortega’s regime. Rolando Alvarez, a bishop of Nicaragua’s catholic church, predicts that unless Ortega offers immediate concession to the protesters: “it is very likely that Nicaragua will find itself caught up once more in a civil war”.

Many Nicaraguans are keen to close the chapter that has seen Ortega take hold of Sandinismo, and will do anything to see change enacted.

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