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How Nicaragua protests snapped Ortega's power grab

More than a week of rare nationwide protests in Nicaragua have forced President Daniel Ortega onto the defensive after a decade of increasing authoritarianism. Church leaders are mediating talks with civil society. 

Jose Cabezas/Reuters
People participate in a protest against police violence and the government of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega in Managua, Nicaragua, on April 25, 2018.

On a grassy embankment in Managua, dozens of metal crosses with black flags honoring the dead and disappeared stand as a coda to more than a week of anti-government unrest. Beside the makeshift memorial, protesters dressed in black chant, “They weren’t criminals, they were students!”

Amid a cacophony of clanging cymbals and honking klaxons, Maria, a chef in her late 50s, stands in front of one of the crosses. She laments her silence during the long and increasingly repressive rule of President Daniel Ortega, a Socialist revolutionary who joined the fight to oust a US-backed dictator in 1979.

“With this government, we’ve been quiet,” she says. “We thought that these people who have power now were saints. They aren’t saints, they’re criminals.”

Over the past nine days, protests have rocked this tiny nation, often viewed as an island of stability in Central America. Hundreds of people took to the streets to oppose social-security reforms that would require workers to pay more and receive fewer benefits. Protesters and analysts here say that the reform – since reversed by Mr. Ortega – simply ignited the flame of anger and frustration that’s been smoldering for the past decade, as Ortega has centralized power, curbed media freedoms, and made his wife the vice president.

The government’s violent response to what started off as small-scale student protests has led to nationwide calls for new elections, raising doubts over the survival of Ortega and his Sandinista movement.

“The Sandinistas stopped being a revolutionary party long ago. It has forgotten its ethical principles and created an elite,” says Cirilo Otero, a sociologist and columnist for national newspaper La Prensa. “The social security was just the trigger, and then this is the spontaneous combustion.”

Another factor: Venezuela, an aligned leftist regional power, is pulling back aid and falling into its own political tailspin, making Nicaraguans think twice about going down the same path.

'I can't just cross my arms'

On Wednesday afternoon, students gathered in front of a police line guarding El Chipote prison to call for the release of scores of young protesters who have been detained without criminal charges over the past week.

Human rights groups say over 30 people have been killed, an unknown number are disappeared, and hundreds more have been detained during the unrest, while those in custody have reportedly been abused. Unarmed street protesters were beaten by police and pro-government militias, which Ortega claimed was the work of provocateurs trying to undermine him.

“For me, it’s simple. People have let history repeat itself,” says Sophia Paz, a college student waiting in front of the prison. She says the curbs on political rights under Ortega echo the dictatorship the Sandinistas overthrew in 1979, a struggle that her own parents joined.

“I have in my mind that there’s a chance I won’t return home, but if I don’t [protest] what is going to happen – let them take advantage of us more?” she asks. “Our parents stood up and fought and now we need to. I can’t just cross my arms.”

Students have been at the heart of the protests, in large part because their parents and older generations had been afraid of speaking out against the government. Nicaraguans under the age of 35 make up nearly two-thirds of the population of 6 million, and their frustration over their educational and job opportunities has been building for years. Young Nicaraguans are also more likely to be digitally connected, and to follow global political news. This is partly Ortega’s doing: Public parks now offer free internet access.  

For Lilly Arellano, a middle-aged doctor turned protester, Nicaraguans’ quiescence has long been grounded in fear, a spell that appears to have been broken. “They’ve always threatened people’s livelihood if they go against the government and repressed protest with these paramilitaries that they support. We had responsibilities, so we kept our mouths shut.”

A role for church mediators

As political tensions have risen, the Catholic Church agreed Tuesday to mediate negotiations between the government, students, and other private sectors, including COSEP, the powerful business chamber that has largely stood by Ortega. Students initially refused to participate in the talks, but agreed late Wednesday to join if the government meets certain conditions, like investigating protester murders. They say they will continue their demonstrations.

A 2016 survey by Vanderbilt University shows that Nicaraguans have become more cautious about expressing their political opinions, even among friends. Kenneth Coleman, who helped gather data for the survey in 2014, says this speaks to the hollowing out of democratic institutions and freedom of expression under Ortega. “Everyone is using veiled language” when criticizing his weakening of the judiciary and other checks on power, including COSEP, an unlikely capitalist ally for Ortega’s socialist regime.

That Ortega leans on Nicaragua’s business class may yet be his Achilles’ heel. Last Friday, COSEP issued a supportive statement for the students taking to the streets. In an interview, the president of COSEP said that the government needed to change course if it wanted to avoid inciting further unrest.

“What’s been happening since Wednesday is a bit of a surprise for us – especially how the security forces are repressing” citizens, says José Adán Aguerri. “If they don’t create a base of change and respond to the people, we are going to end up in the same spot again.”

Venezuela's gusher runs dry 

Ortega has long cultivated Venezuela’s socialist rulers as patrons. But after a decade of subsidized oil and cheap loans the gusher has gone largely dry as Venezuela’s economy has crashed. That’s made it tougher for Nicaragua to fund social programs that have long placated the country’s poor. It’s also painted a vivid picture of what Nicaragua could become if its leaders are allowed free reign to concentrate power and quash civil liberties, observers say.

“People are discontent. And now they look around and think, ‘If we stay on this path, we could end up like Venezuela, with a dictator who has concentrated power and made it disastrous to recuperate,” says Ricardo de Léon Borge, a political analyst in Managua.

Students are calling for Ortega, who has been president since 2007 and changed the constitution to allow him to stand again, to step down before the end of his current term in 2021. Even if Ortega agreed to early elections, there are no obvious opposition candidates at this point. Most students are disillusioned with political parties, saying they have no interest in running for office themselves, says Mr. de Léon Borge. “If Ortega is smart about it, he could call early elections and play those divisions to his political advantage.”

Arturo Cruz, who served as ambassador to the US and Canada under Ortega between 2007 and 2009 who now teaches at INCAE Business School in Costa Rica, says he would prefer that the president finish out his term before leaving office so that the transition can succeed. “History in Latin America shows that your legacy is determined not by how your rule, but by how you leave,” he says.  

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