Sounding the Alarm on Nicaragua
July 23, 2018
The situation in Nicaragua has become increasingly dire. The Nicaraguan regime has cracked down on dissidents, and reports that death squads have returned are shaking a country that has enjoyed relative peace and stability since its violent civil war ended 30 years ago. Finally reaching international press, the three-month uprising has continued to escalate, and it may get worse before it gets better.
On July 18, the Organization of American States (OAS) formally condemned the use of violence in Nicaragua and set forth recommendations for “an electoral calendar” that would trigger new elections. The resolution was overwhelmingly approved in the 34-member body, with seven abstentions and three absences. The Ortega regime denounced the resolution.
Q1: What is the situation in Nicaragua?
A1: Escalating violence and human rights abuses have rocked the small Central American country, as peaceful demonstrations have become targets of state-sponsored vigilante groups and police, who have killed over 300 civilians and injured more than 2,000 in the last three months. The poorest country in Central America, Nicaragua’s 4.5% annual GDP growth has not been sufficient to combat high poverty rates and underemployment, while huge economic disparities have concentrated Nicaragua’s limited resources in the hands of the elite. Protests first began on April 18, following President Daniel Ortega’s announcement to reduce pension benefits to cover a budget shortfall. A quarter of a million protesters took to the streets to condemn the regime, which immediately responded with violent retaliation. The 72-year old president has since ordered government forces, pro-government paramilitary groups, and hired gangs to use increasingly repressive tactics, including kidnappings, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and torture. With hundreds missing, the official death toll does not include those listed as abducted or “disappeared.”
Despite international condemnation by the EU, OAS, UN, and 16 separate governments, the Ortega regime has not modified its tactics. The government initially denied the existence of paramilitary groups in spite of video evidence, while the first lady (and vice president) said that the opposition is “inventing deaths.” While at least 19 police officers have been killed in the crisis, the violence remains largely one-sided; high powered rifles, RPGs, and snipers are being pitted against slingshots and homemade mortars. Recently recapturing one of the last opposition strongholds in Masaya, Ortega-loyalists are galvanized against the calls for Ortega’s resignation, conducting raids, burning houses, and continuing the crackdown as many opposition leaders are in hiding.
Q2: How has the crisis evolved?
A2: Although protests began in objection to unilateral reforms to the state’s pension system, the crisis now revolves around the longstanding corruption and authoritarian shift of the Ortega regime. An integral part of the Sandinista-led revolution and overthrow of Nicaragua’s U.S.-backed dictator, Daniel Ortega has presided over Nicaragua for 22 of the last 39 years. A committed Marxist, Ortega implemented a socialist agenda of land reform, wealth redistribution, and many social programs. He also repressed political opposition, cultivated support through corruption, and dismantled Nicaragua’s democratic opposition. Following the playbook of the dictator he overthrew, Ortega led Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, became president again in 2006, and was reelected in 2011 and 2016 amid allegations of fraud. Currently, Ortega has almost complete control of the national assembly.
The protests against the now-rescinded social security cuts have sparked a pro-democracy movement throughout Nicaragua. An opposition alliance has grown, composed of many disparate groups that have been affected by Ortega’s repression, including students, farmers, and business associations. Rebuffing calls for a peaceful transition of power from Nicaragua’s largest business lobby, Ortega has lashed out against neutral mediators, including the Catholic Church. The movement aims to oust Ortega and counter the alleged abuses of his regime, including controlling the media, abusing the justice system, engaging in electoral fraud, and establishing a “family dictatorship” by installing his wife as vice president.
The attacks have been building, with heavily armed pro-government forces (dressed as civilians) and masked paramilitary groups targeting protesters in small towns, universities, and churches on government orders. Ortega has dismissed the dissenters as “delinquents,” “coup-plotters,” and “terrorists.” On July 16, legislators pushed through a broad anti-terrorism law, which punishes those that fund and participate in activities seeking to “alter the constitutional order” with 15 to 20 years in prison. Parliamentary opposition leaders as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have denounced the law as a tactic designed to criminalize the protests.
Q3: What are the roadblocks to peace?
A3: Civilian and religious groups have attempted to convene a national dialogue to negotiate early parliamentary elections and Ortega’s resignation. In early June, Ortega accepted a meeting with local bishops and priests, but ultimately rejected their calls for early elections in 2019 and announced his plan to serve out his term through 2021 (presidential term limits were abolished by Ortega in 2014). A new general strike began in mid-July, as protesters deemed Ortega’s resignation to be the only acceptable resolution. Pro-government forces continue to attack in attempts to provoke non-violent protesters towards armed conflict, thus justifying a more aggressive strategy to quash calls for resignation.
Regional and international support for the protests has been limited. The OAS recently approved a resolution condemning Ortega. Unfortunately, the president-elect of Mexico has declared that he will adopt a non-interventionist policy towards the situation in Nicaragua. Cuban and Venezuelan foreign ministers, present with Ortega last week at a rally celebrating the 39th anniversary of the Sandinista victory, rejected any external interference within Nicaragua and accused protesters of plotting a coup.
Following months of government aggression, many within the opposition are in hiding for fear of retaliation. When addressing the media, they cover their faces and provide pseudonyms to evade reprisal. Resistance leaders camp out in safe-houses, as security forces accuse them of terrorism for opposing the government. Local groups such as the Civil Alliance for Justice and Democracy are taking a leadership role in navigating the crisis, yet this new coalition lacks the political experience and legitimate democratic channels to mount an opposition. Ortega is betting on such political inexperience and in-group fragmentation, coupled with international crisis-fatigue, to hold onto power.
Q4: What does the future hold?
A4: While the repression has damaged Ortega’s popularity—his approval rating has plummeted from 62 percent to 19 percent in four months—he still wields control of the government, the police, and the military and paramilitary forces. Ortega has repeatedly dismissed calls for a peaceful transition from power from notable former allies, including the business community and church.
Potential avenues for leveraging peace may exist—the IDB and World Bank have dozens of projects in Nicaragua worth over $1.6 billion, and they can begin to put overdue pressure on the regime. Simultaneously, the regime may be held accountable for its human rights abuses; the United States has already targeted three members of Ortega’s administration with sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, which punish individuals accused of human rights violations, freezing their assets and preventing them from using U.S. financial institutions.
From the perspective of the protesters, the only palatable option is for Ortega to step down. The alliance has a wide diversity of backgrounds, which has caused tensions and threatens to undermine their message of unity. Business lobby members are sitting together with university students and former Sandinista members. Juan Sebastian Chamorro, a U.S.-trained economist linked to the private sector, who is now a leader within the Civil Alliance, noted that, despite the different backgrounds, “we share a common and clear objective: democratize the country.” Trust in all political parties throughout Nicaragua has eroded over the years, and Ortega has accumulated significant power over his rivals by manipulating the electoral system. Taking back control will require tremendous institutional reform, beyond the simple departure of a regime. One opposition leader, using the name Guardabarranco—the national bird of Nicaragua—speaks with optimism, “if there’s something we Nicaraguans know about, it’s kicking out dictators. We kicked out Somoza, and we’re going to kick out Ortega, too.” For now, Ortega is maintaining his grip on power through firepower alone, a short-term strategy as the world looks on.
Richard G. Miles is director of the U.S.-Mexico Futures Initiative and deputy director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jacob Mendales is a research intern in the CSIS Americas Program.
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