Debate amid Nicaragua unrest: Was the revolution fulfilled, or betrayed?

Alfredo Zuniga/AP
Anti-government protesters wave Nicaraguan flags in Managua, Nicaragua, on May 9, 2018. Nicaraguans took the the streets Wednesday in one of the largest protest marches so far against President Daniel Ortega's administration.
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Supporters of President Daniel Ortega stand outside the National Assembly on a recent afternoon in front of a hulking memorial to Hugo Chávez. “Nicaragua is the promised land!” they chant. But in recent weeks, as antigovernment protests have swept the country, it’s clear just how many Nicaraguans – particularly young ones – disagree. Their parents' and grandparents’ generations participated in the 1979 revolution, which saw Mr. Ortega and other socialists bring down a US-backed dictator. Many of them grew up learning that the Sandinistas fought for equality and freedom. Today, some say, the administration’s increasing authoritarianism makes Nicaragua look more like the very government it replaced four decades ago. Ask supporters, though, and Nicaragua today is still on its revolutionary track. Many have benefited from the government’s social programs and praise the president for bringing stability and growth. Members of the Sandinista Youth, a government-funded organization, have attacked and even been accused of killing protesters, and nearly 50 people have been confirmed killed during the unrest.

Why We Wrote This

Generations are defined by the experiences they share, from watching the first moon landing to grieving the events of 9/11. But that doesn’t mean individuals take away the same lessons – or pass them on to their children. Those differences are under the spotlight today in Nicaragua.

Andrea, a 20-year-old student, slides her bright pink Sandinista Youth membership card across the table in a crowded café in central Managua on a recent afternoon. It features the face of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and is emblazoned with the word “militant” in bright-yellow capital letters. Her picture, name, and address are on the back.

The card showed up in the mail unsolicited five years ago, but she was happy to claim membership. Growing up, she was taught about President Ortega’s role in the toppling of a dictator and his Sandinista movement's fight for equality and freedom. She was raised “a diehard loyalist” of Ortega, but, these days, she’s not sure what to do with her card.

When an independent youth movement – students angered by a proposed social security reform and Ortega’s increased authoritarianism – took to the streets April 18, she felt a pull to participate.

Why We Wrote This

Generations are defined by the experiences they share, from watching the first moon landing to grieving the events of 9/11. But that doesn’t mean individuals take away the same lessons – or pass them on to their children. Those differences are under the spotlight today in Nicaragua.

The Sandinista Youth is a government-funded organization of avid Ortega supporters, sometimes described as a paramilitary force for the government. In recent weeks, as anti-government protests have swept the country, the group has attacked, and even been accused of killing, anti-government protesters.

“I was ecstatic when Ortega won in 2006,” Andrea says of his return to office, after governing the country from 1979 to 1990. “But my frustration has been slowly building. Bit by bit he’s made changes not for the people, but about enriching himself and his wife, staying in power, and hiding the truth,” she says.

“I began to see the difference between being pro-Sandinista, supporting the ideals of the revolution, and being pro-Ortega.”

Like all young Nicaraguans flooding the streets lately, Andrea is a child of the 1979 revolution, which saw Ortega and other socialist guerrillas bring down a US-backed dictator. Her three aunts and mother fought in the revolution, and like most young people her age, she grew up hearing their bloody tales of revolution and the decade-long war that followed. The importance of standing up for democracy and freedom was hammered into her generation.

But today, the children of these revolutionary fighters are deeply divided over what it means to preserve the principles their parents fought for. Some, like Andrea, feel Ortega has traded in his socialist ideals for the type of authoritarian power he fought 40 years ago. Others benefit from his government’s social programs, and praise him for bringing stability and growth when many neighboring countries are struggling. These divides speak to the controversial figure that Ortega has become, as a new generation questions his legitimacy. But the divides may be less about their revolutionary ideals than their economic perspectives. 

'The promised land'?

University students have been the driving force behind the protests that began after Ortega announced changes to the country’s social security system, which would have raised taxes and cut pensions. Frustration had already been mounting over how Ortega has destabilized democratic institutions since becoming president in 2007: appointing his wife as vice president, ushering in the end of presidential term limits, and cracking down on the media.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, calling for Ortega to step down and demanding justice for the nearly 50 people confirmed killed in the unrest and violent crackdown. (Ortega has abandoned the proposed changes to social security.) 

The Catholic Church has agreed to mediate talks, and the National Assembly plans to set up a truth commission to investigate the crackdown. But anti-government activists say they won’t come to the table until an independent commission is established. Meanwhile, Sandinista Youth members are digging in their heels, and have been accused of attacking protesters and the media covering anti-government marches.

On a recent afternoon, down the road from the country’s National Assembly, Ortega supporters stood in front of a hulking memorial for Venezuela’s late leftist President Hugo Chávez, chanting “Nicaragua is the promised land.”

Mario, an analyst for the country’s tax collection agency, says Ortega has done what is necessary to keep the country peaceful and moving ahead economically. In his late 20s, and a member of Sandinista Youth, he sees things differently than Andrea. (Neither wanted to use their full name, given the political tensions and violence.)

“I grew up being taught the Sandinista flag defends the poor,” he says. “I’ve basically been a Sandinista Youth since I was born.”

From a marginalized neighborhood on the outskirts of Managua, Mario is one of many who have been helped by Ortega’s social programs, which until recently benefited from millions of dollars in aid from Venezuela.

For Mario and other members of the Sandinista Youth, the students voicing their opposition to Ortega simply don’t understand the realities of poverty here. A lot of the gains Nicaraguans have seen under Ortega might be imperceptible for wealthier families, he says.

“I grew up poor – but things have gotten better for us” under Ortega, he says. “Those with money don’t need support…. But, with this government, I’ve studied and risen in the ranks in my job.”

Both of Mario’s parents died when he was young. He was raised by his grandparents, who fought in the revolution and after the war held low-level positions in government ministries. Mario is the first in his family to go to college, something he attributes to Ortega’s policies.

A cross-class alliance

Young people who support Ortega tend to directly benefit from government programs, says Félix Maradiaga, director of the Institute of Strategic and Public Policy Studies in Nicaragua, citing his think tank’s recent research. These youths see Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo’s centralization of power – which has come under fire during the current protests – as a second phase of the revolution, he adds.

“These are people whose parents fought in the revolution, [they] grew up hearing the movement was hopeful, and they continue to depend on the government,” Mr. Maradiaga says.

In fact, the mixed socio-economic makeup of the revolution explains some of the divisions among Sandinistas today, and more generally across the political landscape.

The Sandinista Revolution wasn’t “the poor and dispossessed rising and taking up arms and doing it on their own,” says David Close, professor of political science at Memorial University of Newfoundland and author of “Nicaragua: Navigating the Politics of Democracy.” “There really was a cross-class alliance there,” he says. Yes, the Sandinistas always talked about helping the poor and the excluded, but the idea of being the party of the poor didn’t become its “calling card” until the 2006 election, Prof. Close says.

The Sandinista Youth has a stronger presence in poor, urban areas where government spending on social programs is concentrated; the group often delivers food aid or carries out other social projects. Outsiders describe them as Ortega’s “goons,” deployed as enforcers of the government’s will, to repress public protests and report on dissenters.

They believe in the government’s ideology and policies, says Eduardo Enríquez, editor of newspaper La Prensa. “They are building houses, so they think they are helping poor people.”

“Those who still support the government [are given] preference for jobs with the state and other benefits,” Mr. Enriquez says, explaining why he believes many youth have remained loyal to Ortega.

But some say that loyalty is slowly chipping away – even for those who have benefitted from his time in office. When police and pro-government militias started attacking protesters last month, Maradiaga says it was a wake-up call.

“The mask of authoritarianism is off and a big part of the Sandinista Youth, seeing all the killings and repression, are getting tired of being manipulated and called on by the government,” he says.

“Those protesting who believe the revolution has been betrayed,” he says, that “group is growing.”

Whitney Eulich contributed reporting from Mexico City.

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