The origins of Nicaragua’s current political crisis are well known by now. It all started in April of this year when two sets of protests were met with contempt, only to be followed with outright repression by the government of President Daniel Ortega and his vice-president and wife, Rosario Murillo. The first protest involved young activists who called out the government’s negligence to stop a fire that destroyed more than 5,000 hectares of one of the country’s most precious biological reserves. The second involved university students, workers, and activists opposing a controversial pension reform that would increase workers’ contributions while cutting their benefits.
By the end of the month, the fire had been extinguished and Ortega had decided to drop the pension reform. The protests, however, had by then spiraled into more ambitious, radical, and ultimately, revolutionary demands. The governments’ use of indiscriminate force against demonstrators ignited thousands of Nicaraguans to demand that Ortega and Murillo step down and to call early elections, originally set for 2021. Building on the country’s revolutionary past, Nicaraguans have built barricades. They have taken their discontent to the streets and armed themselves with homemade weapons, confronting the police and paramilitary forces. The government has also pursued tactics from the past, including some of those used by Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorship and the contra-revolutionaries; namely police repression, forced disappearances, and paramilitary operations.
Today, Ortega claims to have returned the country onto a path to peace. His government recently regained control of the towns and university campuses that had been barricaded by protesters. Yet, he has done so only through the imprisonment, disappearance, and elimination of political opponents. The country’s National Assembly, controlled by Ortega’s party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), passed a new anti-terrorist law in July that is being used to criminalize political dissent. Next to this “legal” means of repression, illegal ones continue. Doctors are being purged for treating protesters; anti-government businessmen are having their lands invaded by pro-Ortega hordes; national and international journalists are being harassed, as are Catholic priests, artists, and political activists who have denounced the violence of the regime. Ortega’s “pathway to peace” is filled with violence.
Despite Ortega’s apparent optimism, popular discontent looms large, and Nicaragua’s political crisis is far from over. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at least 317 people have died since the beginning of the conflict. National human rights organizations have denounced hundreds of disappearances—estimated to be between 400 and 700—and Costa Rican authorities recently revealed that more than 20,000 Nicaraguan citizens have applied for asylum in that country, raising alarms about a potential new refugee crisis in Central America.
What lies ahead for Nicaragua’s future depends as much on the strength of the protesters as it does on the government’s capacity to retain power by effectively transforming the country’s already weak democratic structures into that of a dictatorship. Although legal and illegal forms of repression against protesters have given the government the upper hand, a look at Ortega’s rise to power since 2007 shows that, without the many sectors and actors that made his ascent possible, his path to dictatorship would not have been possible and might be reverted.
As with most repressive regimes, Ortega’s was built on negotiations and political agreements, rather than on sheer coercion. After having governed the country from 1979 to 1990 as one of the main exponents of the Sandinista Revolution, Ortega lost three consecutive presidential elections in 1990, 1996, and 2001. Each of these losses made him realize that without negotiating with his opponents, a return to power would be impossible. And so he did. In 2000, he brokered an agreement with the then ruling right-wing Liberal Party (PLC) and its corrupt leader, former president Arnoldo Alemán. Through this pact, Ortega was able to change the electoral law and win the presidential election in 2006 with only 38 percent of the votes. In time, the pact gave him control over the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Electoral Council. In exchange, Alemán’s 20-year corruption sentence was overturned; all while economic and political benefits were divided between the two strongmen and their supporters.
The Catholic Church came next. Ortega abandoned his anti-clerical stance from the revolutionary years and proclaimed his spiritual transformation. With Murillo, they together promoted a language of reconciliation, faith, and peace. His religious conversion received the blessing of one of the Catholic’s Church’s most influential figures at the time, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who officiated Ortega’s marriage with Murillo in 2005. In exchange, Ortega criminalized abortion and promoted a conservative agenda on social issues. When Ortega was reelected in 2011, the Catholic Conference of Bishops denounced the election’s lack of transparency. Both Catholic clergy and laymen criticized Cardinal Obando’s ongoing support of the regime and became increasingly vocal about the government’s undemocratic practices. By then, of course, Ortega’s courtship of Catholic’s beliefs and conservative ideologies had already paid off.
The private sector played also a key role in Ortega’s rise to power. Ortega had learned to tame his political messages, be it by reducing his attacks on the United States or by moderating his stance towards the private sector. Yet, his most important transformation happened behind closed doors. Ortega had become a wealthy businessman since the beginning of the 1990s when he and other Sandinista politicians enriched themselves by seizing state properties in what has been since popularly known as “la piñata.” When he returned to power in 2007 he called upon Nicaragua’s businessmen to sit at the table with him. He offered a stable regime, with lush perks for investors and private companies. In return, the business sector supported Ortega’s government, going as far as sitting in committees organized by an increasingly autocratic regime. Only on April 18, 2018, with the state’s repression against protesters already mounting, did Nicaragua’s Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) finally confront the government. Their complicity, however, had already paved the way to Ortega’s quasi-dictatorship.
To this complex web of complicities we can add many others. Within the country, there are those who have benefited from the government’s selective and entirely politicized social programs. The most radical of them have joined the ranks of agitators and counter-protesters acting against political dissenters. Dozens of state employees have done the same either out of conviction or out of fear of losing their jobs. Outside of the country, the silent complicity of the international community also did its part. In a region ridden by crime and gang-related violence, Nicaragua was praised as an example of citizen security and community policing. Next to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and even Costa Rica, Nicaragua was seen as a role model for its low levels of crime and lethal violence. Ortega happily wrapped and sold this image of the country, which benefited, if not all out propelled, the country’s economy and guaranteed his undemocratic policies; including his fierce control of civil society and persecution of independent media.
Ortega’s centralized and suppressive power was made possible by these many complicities and silences. But Ortega seems to have forgotten this. One by one, he has begun to undermine the very alliances that made his ascent to power possible. Most notably, he openly attacked the Catholic Church, which he had invited to serve as mediator in the conflict, calling Nicaraguan bishops “golpistas,” or coup conspirators. More so, he severed his alliance with the business sector by sending his supporters to occupy the lands of members of the economic elite that had dared to criticize his government. Only the puppet-like political parties in Nicaragua’s National Assembly and his tightly controlled group of loyalists in the state apparatus remain firmly behind him.
In a heavily Catholic country, Ortega’s open attack on the Catholic Church will come at a high cost. His recent confrontation with the private sector is already undermining the economic stability that had allowed him to shield his political abuses. And, Ortega’s reliance on thugs, paramilitaries, and agitators is quickly generating the type of criminality and disorder his government had allegedly averted all these years.
The future of Nicaragua’s political crisis is still uncertain. But if history can offer a lesson, it is that the same actors and sectors that brought Ortega to power can now contribute to his demise. Just as the private sector, the United States, and the Catholic Church eventually helped overthrow the last Somoza in 1979 after having supported him, so can those actors and sectors that were once silent and complicit with Ortega contribute to the downfall of his regime. Nicaraguan bishops have denounced and protected those suffering under the government’s repression. The private sector has abandoned its comfort zone and openly called for early elections. And the international community, including the Organization of American States, the US, and human rights organizations, are exerting considerable pressure on Ortega’s government.
At the vanguard of Nicaragua’s uprising are the thousands of young protesters who have and continue to risk their lives. To them belongs the laurel for having exposed the path to dictatorship that, under a democratic veil, has been advancing in Nicaragua. The young protesters behind Nicaragua’s uprising do not belong to a political party, nor do they subscribe to any of the main political ideologies. One main challenge for them and those resisting Ortega’s government is to create the leadership necessary for a viable political force. If their call for early elections succeeds, this will become of outmost importance. In 1979, a coalition of several forces enabled the revolution to oust the dictatorship and institutionalize social change. Perhaps history will repeat itself.
As many dictators before him, the quasi-dictator Ortega has forgotten that in order to get to power, he depended on others. Even if he temporarily silences dissenters, the bases of his dominion have been dramatically and irrevocably shaken. What remains to be seen is how his regime will fall. One can only hope that democracy in Nicaragua will be restored by the instruments of an “electoral” rather than an armed revolution.
Gema Kloppe-Santamaría is Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Loyola University Chicago. She is the editor, with David Carey Jr., of the volume Violence and Crime in Latin America: Representations and Politics.