Nicaragua: Social and Political Crisis

A woman holds a sign that reads in Spanish "Ortega Out," during a protest against the government of President Daniel Ortega, in Managua, Nicaragua, Sunday, April 11, 2018. President Ortega has withdrawn changes to the social security system that touched off protests across the Central American nation that escalated into clashes with police leaving dozens dead. (AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga)

I started writing this article a few weeks ago. At the time, the violence in Nicaragua had made 53 deaths. As of today, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) reported to AFP that the death toll had increased to 137 since the beginning of the protests in mid-April, and probably more by the time the analysis is published.

Understanding Nicaragua’s Crisis

Everything began on April 18th when groups, mostly consisting of students and members of the civil society, gathered in the streets to denounce a reform of the pension system. The reform in question suggested an increase of contributions from employers and employees, and a 5% cut of pensions in order to reduce the Social Security deficit. For protesters, it was a shame to touch the many years of work of the now retired people, especially when the decision comes from a self-defined socialist government.

A demonstrator fires a homemade mortar towards riot police during a protest over a controversial reform to the pension plans of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS) in Managua, Nicaragua April 21, 2018. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

However, the strength with which the authorities repressed the protests brought the crisis to a next level. The authorities were surely pointed, but the instructions had to come from a higher level. Hence the movement against the reform of the pension system has now become a denunciation against the centralization of powers in the hands of one man: Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega Saavedra. After weeks of protests, the president accepted the proposition of the Nicaraguan Church to open a “Diálogo Nacional” with his people, a national dialogue that quickly resulted in a failure.

Nicaragua Now

Until recently, Nicaragua was known for its relative stability in a region where “narco business” has been flourishing for years. This stability might just be attributed to President Daniel Ortega’s way of governing, but after years in power, the Nicaraguan political system has been increasingly labelled as a “dictatorship.” It makes no doubt that the fact the same administration has been in power for almost 40 years (with an interlude between 1990 and 2007) is suspicious.

Banda detenida el viernes en Nicaragua. Imagen cortesía del canal 100% Noticias
Banda detenida el viernes en Nicaragua. Imagen cortesía del canal 100% Noticias

However, even though Daniel Ortega has always been democratically elected, protests against him have increased since last April. The protests that initially started with the suggested reforms, shifted to protests against the repression, then him, Ortega, then his administration, and finally the whole Nicaraguan political system. Indeed, for most observers, reforms were surely an issue in the beginning of the protests, but the table had been set for years for eventual troubles. Only a spark was missing, but the forest was ready to ignite. People had a lot against the one who, now surprisingly, had won the latest election with a strong 72%.

Ortega: El Socialista?

The Nicaraguan President is a man who is proud to be represented as very close to his people. However, this depiction of the man might not be all correct and people are being increasingly doubtful about his positions. Ortega, the populist, Ortega the marxo-socialist, is still the leader in the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the organization that overthrew the regime of President Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. But Ortega is not the common Nicaraguan individual, nor does he live with close to the Nicaraguan average wage, but who could blame him for not to? Ortega could be rich and still fight for his people’s rights and equity like he used to defend, but here is the problem.

As the leader of the FSLN, we had been accustomed to a certain insolent and critical tone from Ortega towards neoliberal institutions and their impositions. So when Ortega proposed his controversial reforms at the beginning of this year, hundreds of people, then thousands of people wished to remind him they had never voted for those reforms. Therefore, they did not reflect at all their vote to Ortega. Yet, the decision that has since been abandoned did not surprise the people who have been monitoring Ortega’s orientations over the last years. In fact, during his last mandate, Ortega took many decisions that did not necessarily follow the traditional party stances. So when the International Monetary Fund “suggested” to raise pension contribution and cut pensions, before Ortega’s endorsement, Nicaraguan people was more than astounded.

Widening of a Crisis

But the protests are now more broad-based. There is nothing unusual about people manifesting in the streets, it is however unusual when people are injured and killed at every protest. The authorities’ decision to repress protesters with such strength has now become its weakness. Even people who had little opinion on Ortega’s reforms proposition may now have set their mind on the way the government has decided to repress its people’s voice.

A demonstrator holds a crucifix during a protest against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government in Managua, Nicaragua, May 15. (Credit: Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters via CNS.)

Witnessing such crisis, the Nicaraguan Church made a proposition for a National dialogue last May. Given the quick failure of the dialogue, it now calls for peace and unity. The institution will definitely play an important role in the resolution of the crisis. In the week that followed the first protests, the president of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua (CEN), Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, was placed as a mediator in the conflict that opposed the President and his people. Very close to the power, the Catholic Church will attempt today to please the people, while assuring President Ortega (or a successor) that he will stay in power to maintain stability. However, to this end, Ortega needs a legitimacy, one that can offer the Church, only if the man decides to listen to the Church’s recommendations. Yet, after the repression violence’s have broken news and local people have published videos in social medias, it will be hard for such an instance to endorse the violence from the Nicaraguan authorities. Ortega will have to give a lot, otherwise we will see the Church pull away and dissociate itself from the State, taking the people’s side. The situation would change the Nicaraguan political horizon, as there has always been very little separation between the Church and the State, whether it was under the Somoza or the Sandinista regimes. In fact, this close relation has been part of the regimes and has helped both the Church and the State keep a hand on the power, building a “win-win” relation of protection and legitimacy. Let’s not forget Ortega won the 2016 election with the slogan: “Christian, socialist, solidarity.”

Modest Views

The United Nations has pressured the international community to denounce the extraordinary increase of violence in the country. Even though the United States made a statement, took diplomatic measures, and raised the threat level in the country, it would be unlikely to see the U.S. take a more substantial stance. The memory of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the CIA supporting the Contras, the rebel group that fought the FSLN following the uprising in 1979, is still fresh in people’s minds. Moreover, the case of Nicaragua v. the United States of America (1986) is often presented as a classic violation of public international law case and may just be another trauma in the American foreign policy history. Thus, unless the administration of Daniel Ortega reaches a point that really crosses a hypothetical “red line,” the U.S. will most likely remain cautious in its stances over the Nicaraguan situation.

What to expect?

Even if he’s assured to stay in power in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega should fear the surge. If he agreed on the opening of a national dialogue with his opponents last May, he would’ve needed to allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) to investigate the murders and violence the crowds in the streets has been suffering. Furthermore, the army announced it will not repress the protestors, dissociating itself from the police actions. It will hence be interesting to see if the extent that has taken the movement, even after the government abandoned the reform of the pension system, will unwind or keep growing until Daniel Ortega steps down. And even if the President decides to step down, it would not be surprising to see a successor put in place by the actual regime, a successor who would, at least, temporarily, satisfy both the regime and the people, not to forget the Nicaraguan Church.