In Just a Week, ‘Nicaragua Changed’ as Protesters Cracked a Leader’s Grip


MASAYA, Nicaragua — The revolutionary, many Nicaraguans say, is suddenly facing a revolution of his own.

The insurrection that led to the rise of President Daniel Ortega and his Cold War struggles with the United States began here in Masaya 40 years ago. Mr. Ortega’s brother died fighting in this town, and an old national guard post still stands as a landmark to the uprising that brought their leftist guerrilla movement to power.

President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, in the capital, Managua, in 2016. Even Mr. Ortega’s remaining supporters acknowledge that he erred badly in giving so much power to his wife. Credit Esteban Felix/Associated Press

But in recent days, the guard post has been turned into a charred, vandalized mess. Protesters have even taken a famous war slogan and spray-painted it on the walls in a mocking warning to Mr. Ortega.


“Let your momma surrender,” it says.

Nicaragua is undergoing its biggest uprising since the civil war ended in 1990.

Faced with a presidential couple that controls virtually every branch of government and the news media, young people across the nation are carrying out their own version of an Arab Spring. Armed with cellphones and social media skills, their challenge to the government has astonished residents who lived through Mr. Ortega’s revolution in the 1970s, the civil war in the ’80s and the 30 years since then.

Demonstrators — many of them members of Mr. Ortega’s own party — have burned vehicles and barricaded intersections. Thousands have swarmed streets around the country, condemning government censorship and the killing of protesters. After fighting two wars, winning multiple elections and exerting very tight control over the country for years, Mr. Ortega has lost his grip on the masses and suddenly seems on the ropes.

“I have only ever voted for Daniel Ortega,” said Reynaldo Gaitán, 32, a baker who took to the streets in this town’s historic Monimbó neighborhood to denounce his former hero. “Daniel is over. His term ends here.”

In surprising fashion, Mr. Ortega — whose sway over judges and lawmakers has enabled him to stay in power by reinterpreting the Constitution and scrapping term limits — gave in to demand after demand from the protesters this week. Still, students who had taken over a local university were refusing to back down.

“Nicaragua changed,” said José Adán Aguerri, president of Cosep, the country’s influential business organization, which is pushing for dialogue with the government. “The Nicaragua of a week ago no longer exists.”

The protests started with a relatively narrow issue — a change to the social security system — but they quickly rose to a national boil when students began to die. Human rights organizations say that dozens have been killed, including at the hands of the police. A journalist and two police officers are also among the dead.

The sweeping protests have started to have international ripples as well. Just weeks after Travel and Leisure magazine called Nicaragua’s Corn Island “an underrated Caribbean paradise,” the State Department pulled the families of its embassy personnel from the country, and cruise ships were changing course to avoid docking here.

“They’re destroying the image of Nicaragua, with all that it cost us to construct that image,” Mr. Ortega said in a televised speech. “The image of Nicaragua was an image of war. War. Death. How much tourism and investment and jobs will this cost us?”

The Roman Catholic Church has agreed to serve as a mediator and a witness to talks, but the students who took over the Polytechnic University in the capital, Managua, had said they would not negotiate while the president was still in office. They decided early Thursday to join the discussions, providing certain conditions were met.

“We don’t want Daniel,” said Lester Hamilton, 35, who was struck by rubber bullets in protests last week and remained encamped at the university.

By “Daniel,” he was referring to Mr. Ortega, the former guerrilla fighter who was a main figure in the revolution against the right-wing dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.

The Sandinista guerrillas declared victory in 1979. Mr. Ortega then ruled Nicaragua throughout the 1980s, but war continued to rage, as counterrevolutionary forces tried to topple him. His adversaries, known as the Contras, received secret, illicit financing by the Reagan administration, leading to one of the biggest American scandals of the era.

Mr. Ortega agreed to elections in 1990 and lost. But even after giving up the presidency, he never gave up power. The Sandinistas still controlled student groups and unions and exercised important influence over the police, army and judiciary.

If presidents enacted policies that Mr. Ortega disagreed with, he would unleash students or unions to protest.

The funeral this week in Jinotepe, Nicaragua, for a police officer who died after being wounded during the protests. Human rights organizations say that dozens of people have been killed, including at the hands of the police. Credit Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters

“He always had veto power,” said Gonzalo Carrión, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights. “If he didn’t rule from above, he ruled from the bottom.”

A pact with an opposing party brought electoral law changes that allowed Mr. Ortega to take office again in 2007, after three consecutive losses at the ballot box.

Once president for a second time, he made important alliances with his former enemies, letting big business flourish while he tightened his grip on power.

“Leadership is necessary, and Daniel’s leadership is necessary,” said Alejandro Martínez Cuenca, a Sandinista economist. “It would be an error to disregard his presence, when we know this is a country that can easily fall into anarchy.”

He credited Mr. Ortega with “building a new model” for Nicaragua that included economic growth and a reduction in poverty. Nicaragua is safer than most Central American countries, and its residents have not fled to the United States border seeking better lives like their neighbors in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have.

But even Mr. Ortega’s remaining supporters acknowledge that he erred badly in giving so much power to his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is also his vice president. Few decisions seem to be made without her approval, making it clear that she is calling the shots.

The couple made institutional changes that allowed them to control the Supreme Court and the National Assembly and were accused of rampant electoral fraud that gave them power over the nation’s city halls, too.

“He made some very serious errors,” said Jaime Wheelock, one of the original nine Sandinista commanders. “One good thing about Daniel is that if he’s not right, he’ll back down.”

Mr. Wheelock cited Mr. Ortega’s willingness to dole out land titles and social welfare benefits. But critics say that while the president used money and oil from Venezuela to win over the poor, he also bought up television stations and took others off the air.

He gave plum jobs to union officials, effectively silencing voices of dissent. Middle-class groups and opposition parties often held protests, but they were beaten back by pro-government mobs and largely stifled.

So it was all the more remarkable last week when Mr. Ortega’s unpopular change to social security became the detonator for such an enormous movement. Protests exploded.

Mr. Ortega’s change to the broken social security system required workers to pay more and retirees to receive less. University students, who were already angry over a forest fire at a natural reserve that the government failed to extinguish, rallied against the changes. Then they were met by pro-government mobs that attacked them.

Students died at the hands of the police, human rights groups say, inciting even more protests. Then Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo dismissed the protesters as little groups of right-wing gangs.

“That just made us even more indignant,” said Enma Gutiérrez, a youth organizer.

More and more people joined the protests. And while the opposition movement is huge, it does not have any clear, national leaders, making it even more difficult for Mr. Ortega to tamp down.

On Sunday, when Mr. Ortega rescinded the social security measures, he failed to mention the students who died in the protests, focusing instead on how the demonstrations had been infiltrated by gangs that looted stores.

The speeches by Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo “are adding gasoline to the fire,” Mr. Carrión said. “If these people, this couple, were firefighters, they would be lighting the place on fire.”

Nicaraguans are furious that Mr. Ortega has not vowed to investigate the student deaths, although he released jailed students this week and put a cable news station back on the air. He was meeting some central demands, but the students insisted that it was not enough.

At the Polytechnic University in the capital, students had refused to leave and instead gathered in small groups over the weekend making homemade fire bombs. The residents of the Monimbó neighborhood of the city of Masaya also dug in their heels.

“They say this town was the cradle of Daniel Ortega and where he took his first steps,” said Mayra Pabón, a longtime supporter of the president who protested in Monimbó. “Well, he died here too in the moment that he ordered the killings of so many young people with such bright futures ahead of them.”

“He cannot step foot in Masaya ever again.”

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