Unexpected Uprising: The Crisis of Democracy in Nicaragua

May 14, 2018

How did recent protests over social security cuts in Nicaragua turn into a nationwide grassroots mobilization against President Daniel Ortega? 

Protestors in Managua, Nicaragua on April 24, 2018. (Wikimedia Commons/Voice of America)

Over the last two weeks, tens of thousands of people—university students, pensioners, environmentalists, feminists, religious leaders, black and Indigenous activists, journalists as well as left-wing and right-wing opposition groups—

have flooded the streets of Nicaragua, calling for the resignation of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. The protests have shocked the world and shaken Nicaraguan politics to its core. The unfolding crisis has taken many, including the government, by surprise. Yet the conditions for this uprising have been in the making for more than a decade and reveal a deepening crisis of legitimacy for the Ortega administration.

On April 18, Ortega announced that the government, under executive order, would institute a series of reforms to the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS), which manages the nation’s pensions fund and is teetering on the brink of insolvency. The reforms would increase the amount that employees and employers have to pay into the system, while cutting benefits to elderly pensioners by 5%. As Jon Lee Anderson notes in The New Yorker, public response was “furious and swift, with demonstrators taking to the streets to protest” the following day, April 19. University students, many of whom had been involved in protests earlier in the month following the government’s mishandling of a wildfire in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve on the Caribbean Coast, joined with outraged pensioners to protest the government’s actions.

The government’s reaction to the demonstrations escalated rapidly into violent repression. The state shut down multiple television stations broadcasting live coverage and ordered anti-riot police forces to disperse the demonstrations, firing live rounds into crowds of protestors while ordering the mass arrests of student activists and attacking universities in Managua. Pro-Sandinista gangs, known as turbas, and members of the Sandinista Youth also attacked demonstrators with mortars and other arms; there are reports of turbas assaulting protestors as the police stood by and failed to intervene.

By the end of the first week of protests, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) had confirmed 43 deaths, two people in critical condition, and hundreds more wounded; other groups, relying on official and unofficial reports, estimate approximately 60 deaths. Among the dead was a journalist, Angel Gahona, who was shot and killed while live streaming coverage of protests in the Caribbean coastal city of Bluefields on Facebook. The Nicaraguan Red Cross reported that it assisted 435 people, 242 of whom had to be hospitalized.

The Ortega Administration on Thin Ice

The administration’s response to the protests was alarming and revealing. On April 19, Vice President Rosario Murillo spoke about the protests during her daily midday address to the nation. In her talk she described the protests as an effort to “promote destruction [and] destabilization,” and decried the protestors as “tiny groups that threaten peace and development with selfish, toxic political agendas and interests, full of hate.” President Ortega responded two days later in a televised speech that echoed Vice President Murillo’s earlier comments. In his speech, he claimed that the protests had been infiltrated and were being manipulated by narco-traffickers, gang members, and delincuentes covertly equipped, financed and directed by conservative political elements in collusion with the radical Right in the United States. “I understand that the mobilized student groups probably do not even know the party that is moving all of this,” he said.

If Ortega’s comments were intended to restore law and order, they had the opposite effect, further inflaming public sentiment. Protestors observed that Ortega never mentioned the protestors that had been killed or addressed ongoing allegations of police abuse. Instead, he appeared to be more concerned about the economic impacts of the protests on Nicaragua’s image as a safe and attractive tourist destination. For many, Ortega’s response proved that he was out of touch with the public. Even his own Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) supporters including Jaime Wheelock and Bayardo Arce, Ortega’s current economic advisor, have admitted that “Ortega made a mistake” in his handling of the protests.

As the protests continued to escalate, calls for peace and calm came from the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), Nicaragua’s most powerful business association, and the Catholic Church, which later agreed to serve as a mediator in talks with the state. On April 22, Pope Francis, speaking during his Sunday address to thousands of the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City, expressed his concern about the crisis in Nicaragua and the deaths of protestors and police officers. He called “for an end to every form of violence and to avoid the useless shedding of blood” and urged that political differences be “resolved peacefully and with a sense of responsibility.” Meanwhile, on April 23, the United States Embassy in Managua announced it would cease routine operations and family members of embassy staff were ordered to leave the country.

These are not the first protests that Ortega has faced while in office. In 2013, a coalition of environmentalists, human rights organizations, black and indigenous activists, and mestizo campesino activists mobilized to protest the passage of Law 840, which granted a concession to the Chinese corporation Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Company (HKND Group) to build an interoceanic canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific to rival the one in Panama. Activists filed 38 suits against Law 840, the largest number of cases to be brought against a single law in the nation’s history. Opposition is nothing new for Ortega—he’s dealt with it his entire political life during his first term as president in the 1980s and three terms since 2007. But the recent INSS protests, which have become known as the 19th of April Movement, mark the first time that so many different sectors of Nicaraguan civil society have united to oppose him.

On April 22, in response to mounting public pressure, Ortega announced in a televised speech surrounded by representatives of the business community that the government had rescinded the reforms. He called for peace, stating: “We have to restore order. We cannot allow chaos, crime and looting to prevail…and we will act under the rule of law and under the Constitution to ensure and guarantee the restoration of stability and social peace so that workers can peacefully go to work.” He also announced the mass release of detained protestors and agreed to participate in a “dialogue,” but only with the business community. Regardless, the reforms, along with the state’s brutal crackdown on protestors, have done considerable damage to the government’s public image.

This is reflected, for example, in the protestors’ targeting of the most potent symbols of the administration. They have burned billboards featuring portraits of the president and party propaganda and toppled the massive “Tree of Life” light installations that line major thoroughfares throughout the capital and the nation’s major cities. The trees (140 in total) have been a pet project of Murillo in her rebranding of the FSLN as a party of love, reconciliation, Christian charity, and solidarity. Described as a “gift to the Nicaragua people,” each tree costs $25,000 to install and collectively they generate $1 million in annual energy costs. The public assault on these critical symbols of the Ortega-Murillo administration reveal that the protests have expanded far beyond anger over the austerity reforms and have given way to a much deeper set of political demands. As one protestor at a demonstration held by the Catholic Church on April 28 told reporters, “the changes in social security were the last straw. But they were doing so many things before—stealing elections, stealing government money, so much corruption.”

From Radical Revolutionary to Quiet Caudillo

Nicaragua's current crisis is tragically ironic, considering that 40 years ago, Ortega played a central role in leading the armed movement that toppled the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. He served on the nine-member National Directorate that governed Nicaragua during the transition from the Somoza dictatorship to the revolutionary government. He was elected president in 1984, which he held until the Sandinistas lost the presidential elections in 1990 to the United National Opposition, a coalition of right-wing parties. Ortega thus became the first Nicaraguan president in history to peacefully cede power to an opposition party.

Over the next 16 years Ortega would transform himself from a revolutionary to a political strongman who wielded decisive political influence in both the FSLN party and in national politics. During this time, he consolidated his control over the FSLN, purging the party of dissidents who questioned his actions, brokering pacts with rival political leaders, and stacking the National Assembly, the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ), and the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) with his supporters. Upon his re-election in 2006, made possible by changes to the nation’s electoral laws that allowed Ortega to win the presidency with only 38% of the vote, he quickly set about consolidating his hold on state power. The Ortega administration currently controls all four branches of government, the military, and the national police force, and has effectively transformed Nicaragua into a one-party state.

The recent protests have prompted comparisons to the Sandinista Revolution. When protestors chant, “Ortega y Somoza son la misma cosa,” (“Ortega and Somoza are the same thing”), they highlight the fact that Ortega, the former revolutionary, has evolved into a would-be dictator. Certainly his use of cooptation, party patronage, and political repression seems to be taken directly from Somoza’s governing strategy. For more than 40 years, the Somoza family ruled Nicaragua with an iron fist and enjoyed the full backing of the United States government. From 1936, the Somoza-controlled Liberal Party dominated Nicaraguan politics through a system of corruption, bribery, constitutional manipulation, clientelism, and—when that failed to quell dissent—violence, imprisonment, and political assassination. In the 1960s and 1970s, following the Somoza regime’s mishandling of a 1972 earthquake that displaced thousands of people combined with outrage over the government assassination of a respected journalist, thousands of young men and women joined the FSLN to overthrow Somoza in an unlikely revolution that many people, both inside and outside of Nicaragua, never saw coming. Ortega’s seeming inability to realize the full implications of the protests and his initially tone-deaf response to the public may prove to be his greatest mistake, echoing Somoza’s underestimation of the FSLN, which proved to be his undoing.

The Birth of the 19th of April Movement

The 19th of April Movement shares many characteristics with similar popular democratic movements that have emerged in recent years. Like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for Black Lives, and the Zapatista movement, this mobilization is defined by its diffuse, collective leadership model, strategic use of social media as a tool for collective protest, and the reclamation of public space as a site for direct political action. The flexible structure of this emergent political formation has opened a space for many different kinds of political voices to enter these debates and frame their critiques of the government from their specific social location.

Black and Indigenous activists from the Coast, particularly after the murder of Angel Gahona, have emerged as some of the most militant critics of the Ortega-Murillo party-state. While they are explicitly critical of the administration’s assault on the nation’s democratic institutions, they have also criticized the state for its undermining of the nation’s multicultural constitutional reforms as well as recent attempts by the government to charge a group of young Creole men with Gahona’s murder despite eyewitness accounts that allege he was murdered by local police. That costeños, or coast residents, have been able to articulate a place within this broader political formation suggests that the movement presents an exciting opportunity for rethinking the racial politics of Nicaraguan nationalisms in ways that were previously unimaginable.

But this model also produces its own political challenges. It is unclear, for example, whether the student protestors will be able to translate the gains that they have achieved in the streets into meaningful institutional transformation and democratic policy reforms. A small group of university activists, many of them from the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua (UPOLI), have agreed to participate in dialogues with the national government. But they have remained wary of the government and have stated that the government must immediately cease its repression of protestors and release all detained protestors before they will engage in talks. Older activists, many of them former Sandinistas, have warned that the government will attempt to use the talks as a strategy to neutralize and coopt the students.

These concerns are warranted. Daniel Ortega is an experienced and skillful negotiator who cut his political teeth brokering a truce with the Contras and Miskitu resistance fighters during the civil war in the 1980s. Ortega’s biographer, Kenneth Morris, argues that his political opponents have tended to underestimate him—to their own detriment—and Ortega has masterfully used this to his advantage, presenting himself as an unassuming political figure while quietly brokering pacts with allies and opponents and increasing his own power.

Many protestors have claimed that the movement is neither Left nor Right, rather it is an expression of the collective discontent of the Nicaraguan people and thus occupies a moral space above the fray of party politics. Given the way in which political parties pervade the most mundane aspects of daily social life—determining access to employment and educational opportunities and the benefits of government-sponsored social programs—it is striking that protestors have opted to frame their dissent using the moral discourse of nationalism and citizen leadership that refuses the disciplining and constraining logic of party affiliation. The politics of refusal embodied in the repudiation of party politics signals a radical rethinking of the meanings of Left and Right, liberal, conservative, and revolutionary. What does it mean to define oneself in these terms when it is clear that authoritarianism is operable across a range of divergent ideological standpoints? What do we make of the project of post-revolutionary neoliberalism and managed democracy that has unfolded under the Ortega administration?

Rebranding the FSLN

Political analysts inside and outside of Nicaragua argue that it is a misnomer to refer to the FSLN as Leftist party. Since returning to power in 2007, Daniel Ortega has reinvented himself as a reformed revolutionary willing to do business with the private sector and to accede a certain amount of political power and influence to the Catholic Church in order to secure his own claims to state power. Prior to his re-election in 2006, Ortega oversaw the approval by the National Assembly of one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the hemisphere, which bans abortion even in cases of rape and incest. He has proven to be an adept neoliberal, quietly honoring free trade agreements, increasing foreign investment and the influence of the corporate sector while publicly railing against capitalism and imperialism. Upon taking office, his administration launched a vicious public media campaign against the women’s and feminist movements in Nicaragua, vilifying them as a group of lesbians, pedophiles, witches, and abortionists bent on destroying the heterosexual, nuclear Nicaraguan family. The administration launched a similar attack on the independent media, buying up newspapers and radio and television stations and denying or withdrawing permits for independent media organizations that are critical of the state.

While the government has maintained a series of successful social programs that are vital for the survival of poor Nicaraguan families, these programs serve a dual role. They are administered by local government agencies known as the Life, Community, and Family Cabinets. Though the Ortega administration claims these institutions reflect the government’s commitment to accountability and participatory democracy, in fact, they are a mechanism of party patronage that allows the FSLN party-state to provide direct social benefits to its supporters while excluding its critics from much needed resources. This has been a critical strategy in Ortega’s efforts to maintain the appearance of democratic rule and electoral legitimacy. Ortega’s wholesale cooptation and weakening of the nation’s democratic institutions contravenes the very values of Sandinismo that defined the revolution as a moment of utopian possibility. In this current iteration of the Sandinista Party, very little leftist ideology remains.

The FSLN and its domestic and international supporters have argued against the protests and claimed that the FSLN is the victim of a complex scheme by right-wing opposition groups to destabilize the country and seize the state. An op-ed piece published in Telesur, “Nicaragua: Next in Line for Regime Change?” claims that the protests “have been characterized by lethal violence from extreme right-wing shock groups trying to destabilize Nicaragua, just as they have done in Venezuela.” These critiques have found considerable support among the U.S. Left, which has a long relationship of solidarity with the FSLN. But Nicaragua is not Venezuela, and the crisis unfolding in Nicaragua is largely of Daniel Ortega’s own making. Despite the growing indications of an authoritarian turn under the Ortega administration, the international Left has tended to highlight the administration’s work for the poor and Ortega’s recurring success at the polls—by all accounts, he won at least 70% of the vote in the 2016 presidential elections.

Nevertheless, the concern among leftists that the Right may capitalize on this moment of political instability to push through a more conservative agenda is based on previous patterns of intervention and must be taken seriously. The current threat from the Right in the United States comes in the form of the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (NICA). In 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives passed NICA, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) and Representative Albio Sires (D-New Jersey), which opposes “loans at international financial institutions for the Government of Nicaragua unless the Government of Nicaragua is taking effective steps to hold free, fair, and transparent elections.” The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), has languished in the Senate since 2017, but it appears that the legislation enjoys at least nominal support from the Trump administration. Political analysts and activists have largely repudiated this measure, arguing that it will only harm Nicaraguans and do little to unseat the Ortega administration.

While no evidence has surfaced that substantiates the claims of the Ortega administration and its supporters, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that right-wing actors are attempting to leverage the moment to their own advantage. If history serves as any indication of the outcomes of U.S. involvement in this conflict, NICA would likely tip the scales in favor of a more conservative, pro-U.S., business-friendly administration. Yet it does not appear that NICA is the primary element behind the protests. The fact that the protests unfolded in the absence of a major foreign intervention illustrates that Nicaraguans stand as the real force behind the demonstrations, signaling the emergence of a grassroots, nationalist movement.

The People Have Spoken

The government recently launched a truth commission—staffed primarily by individuals with former or existing ties to the FLSN—to investigate the deaths during the first wave of protests. It has further committed to engaging in a “national dialogue” with a select group of representatives from different sectors of civil society, including the university students in the 19th of April Movement. The administration has refused, however, to allow representatives from the Organization of American States (OAS) to lead the truth commission investigation as activists have demanded, and it is difficult to see how the state can investigate and hold itself accountable for the crimes that it has committed against the people of Nicaragua, especially while government repression continues in various cities throughout the country. In the meantime, activists around the country are planning a national strike, suggesting once again that these protests represent merely the opening salvo in a much longer struggle against the Ortega administration.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has given the administration one month to respond to the protestors demands for dialogue. Regardless of their ultimate outcome, the protests have produced an irreversible shift in Nicaraguan politics. They have produced a crisis of legitimacy that may ultimately be the unexpected undoing of the Ortega-Murillo regime.

The people are speaking. It remains to be seen how Ortega will respond.


Courtney Desiree Morris is a visual artist and assistant professor of African American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. She is a social anthropologist and has worked on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua since 2004. She is currently completing a book on black women’s activism and the authoritarian turn in Nicaragua. For more of her work see www.courtneydesireemorris.com

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