For the past two weeks, the Central American nation of Nicaragua has been wracked by protest. The police and paramilitaries loyal to socialist strongman Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) have repeatedly clashed with protestors, leaving at least 63 dead. The demonstrations began over pension reform, but soon they became a forum for expressing national dissatisfaction with the long-ruling FSLN boss.
The protests began on April 18, spurred on by anger at proposed increases in contributions to Nicaragua’s ailing pension system. The protests quickly became a bloody confrontation: police fired on demonstrators with live ammunition, and pro-FSLN agitators pelted them with rocks. A journalist named Ángel Gahona was shot dead in the city of Bluefields, allegedly by a police sniper.
Ángel Gahona was livestreaming police moving through the streets of Bluefields. This video shows the single gunshot that killed him. Viewer discretion is advised.
After two weeks of violence and tension, both sides have called for an end to violence and for a national dialogue between the FSLN regime and the democratic opposition. However, this could be a dangerous game for Nicaragua’s democratic forces: will Ortega and his authoritarian cronies enter a dialogue in good faith, or simply use it to shore up their own power base?
Ortega is no newcomer to managing the stresses on a hybrid authoritarian regime. His political life began as an urban guerrilla in the 1960s. At this time, the Sandinistas were a Marxist-Leninist insurgency fighting the dictatorial Somoza regime. After Somoza’s overthrow in 1979, Ortega became de facto dictator. Soon, a bloody war of resistance began: the infamous Contra War of the 1980s. When the war finally ended with a brokered peace, Ortega agreed to an election—which, to the shock of many, he lost to the liberal opposition leader Violeta Chamorro.
In 2006, Ortega became president once more (this time, in a fair election). But since his 2006 election, he has intently and methodically dismantled the fledgling democratic institutions of postbellum Nicaragua through cronyism, fraud, and what Mark Weyland calls “discriminatory legalism.”
First, Ortega weaponized the national electoral regulatory authority, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE). In the Nicaraguan general election of 2008, Ortega used the supposedly-independent CSE to forbid two opposition parties’ participation, and then banned election monitors from observing the polls. In the wake of outside monitoring, many—including the OAS and the US State Department—alleged that voter fraud had happened in the FSLN victories. Similar charges were levied against Ortega in the 2011 presidential election.
Second, he has also suborned a Sandinista-majority supreme court, which amended the Nicaraguan constitution (in a legally questionable manner) to allow Ortega to run for a second consecutive term in 2011 and then a third in 2016. The court also scrapped a 35 percent minimum vote threshold and removed bans on uniformed military and police officers holding certain government posts.
“These reforms are not necessary,” opined Eduardo Montealegre, leader of the Liberal Independent Party (PLI) about the supreme court’s 2014 rulings, “[but] perhaps they’re important for the president because they give him absolute power.”
Montealegre was prescient: in 2016, the supreme court removed him from the legal representation of PLI and replaced him with Pedro Reyes, who was widely perceived in the country to be a crony of Ortega and soft on the FSLN. Some twenty parliamentary seats were vacated by the court on a technicality—and they were given to Reyes to fill with his chosen candidates. Independent-minded Nicaraguans felt that a single-party regime had been instituted under their noses and grew disillusioned with electoral politics as a way to fight back against orteguismo.
Economically, Ortega has been careful to govern with more pragmatism in his second act. For example, land expropriation in the early 1980s was a key factor in igniting the Contra War. Rather than fall back on Marxist economic dogma, Ortega has cultivated allies among the private sector through cronyism and government investment. In 2011, The Economist noted that Ortega was making inroads in the private sector and had even been praised by the IMF. Deal-making in this arena has paid off—COSEP, the largest business federation in the country, is staunchly backing Ortega against the opposition. (It bears mentioning, however, that Nicaragua’s economy has been underwritten by Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, whose annual loans have buoyed FSLN social programs and distributive largesse.)
Ortega has even made conciliatory gestures toward the Catholic Church, one of the most powerful transnational institutions in Latin America—and one whose hierarchy was an ardent foe of the Sandinistas during the 1980s. In 2006, Ortega gave his imprimatur to a total ban on abortion, and in subsequent political campaigns adopted ostentatious religiosity in his rhetoric.
Nevertheless, Ortega is still emulating his old patron Fidel Castro: he has installed family members in key positions throughout the regime. In fact, his vice president and de facto co-ruler is his wife, Rosario Murillo. Eight of their children hold high positions in the regime. Two sons, Rafael Antonio Ortega Murillo and Laureano Facundo Ortega Murillo, control agencies that court foreign investment in Nicaragua.
Because of his arbitrary methods of rule, rampant cronyism, and shameless dynasty-building, many Nicaraguans feel that the hated Somoza regime has been reincarnated in Daniel Ortega. Protestors have been angrily chanting, “¡Daniel y Somoza! ¡Son la misma cosa!” (Daniel and Somoza! They are the same thing!)
Others have been event more direct: “¡Que se vayan!” (They must go!)
With all of this in mind, it comes as no surprise that after Ortega announced the repeal of the pension overhaul, the protestors continued demonstrating—now in even bigger numbers—to march for justice, democracy and peace. Protestors are calling for Ortega’s resignation, and that of his wife as well. The economic factor was the trigger, but the real cause of the demonstrations is to be found in the despair of the society resulting from the obliteration of the democratic institutions in the hands of a corrupt and nepotist regime.
The way ahead for opposition elements is risky. If the dialogue begins and fails, it could shatter the nascent, student-led grassroots opposition. Failed negotiations could also intensify street violence and provide an excuse for Ortega to crack down with the army and police. But with risk there is also opportunity: the chance to end orteguismo in Nicaragua through peaceful democratic activism. There is a path open to Nicaraguans to return to vibrant, pluralist, liberal democracy—and the only thing standing in their way is the regime of Daniel Ortega.