What has happened? Just a few months ago Nicaragua was considered one of Central America’s safest and most stable nations with a growing number of tourists flocking to the “land of lakes and volcanoes” wedged between Costa Rica and Honduras.
But since mid-April, the country of 6 million has been plunged into crisis with the eruption of a nationwide revolt against President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo.
More than 350 people have so far died, killed by government forces and thousands injured. All but essential travel to Nicaragua is not advised. The United States has ordered all non-emergency government personnel to leave and told its citizens to consider doing the same.
What is driving the uprising? Ortega, now 72, has been at the center of Nicaraguan politics for decades. He came to power during the 80s thanks to his role in the 1979 Sandinista revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship and his subsequent cold war struggle with Washington.
“He looked like a bookworm who had done a body-building course,” Salman Rushdie, one of many sympathetic international observers, wrote after a 1986 encounter with the poet-cum-guerrilla, known to his supporters as “(Comandante) Daniel”.
After a brief absence from the center stage, relegated to the opposition for more than a decade, Ortega was elected as president in 2006. His previous term was an appointment as the leader fo the nation, losing the democratic election in 1990 to Violeta Chamorro, known for ending the Contra War.
Since retaking command of the nation, Ortega was seen as doing great things for Nicaragua, his Sandinista support growing stronger. But in recent years critics accused Ortega of eroding democracy and human rights and becoming the kind of brutal and corrupt tyrant he once battled.
Anti-government protests broke out on April 18 over controversial pension reforms and have since grown into a full out rebellion designed to remove Ortega and Murillo, from power.
What has happened since those protests began? The initially student-led protests in April were met with police bullets and since then Nicaragua has been gripped by a wave of violence and government repression. Victims have included children and numerous young, some teenage, protesters as well as police officers and some government supporters.
Critics of Ortega’s government have been targeted or threatened. Cities, including the former Sandinista stronghold of Masaya, have been battlegrounds between the protesters, police and paramilitary government forces.
Major roads have been blocked, thousands of trucks caught in between barricades, shutting down the transport of goods in and out of the country.
Recent weeks have seen violence intensify as the government forces began clearing the roadblocks, firing on unarmed protesters.
“It is an ugly moment,” said Geoff Thale, a Central America expert and activist from the Washington Office on Latin America advocacy group. “Paramilitary groups and snipers and others have aggressively … tried to dislodge people from the National University (UNAN) They’ve tried to dislodge tranques [roadblocks] in Masaya. They have pushed around priests, they have gone into churches. It is really pretty intense.”
Meanwhile, Nicaragua’s government and its supporters have blamed the bloodshed on “coup mongers”, “terrorists” and “criminals”.
The Ortega government has repeatedly cast protesters as criminals and “terrorists” involved in a US-backed conspiracy. Vice-president, Rosario Murillo, has accused the “satanic” opposition of driving the violence and attacked what she calls a “false” anti-Ortega media witch-hunt.
However, there is widespread and growing consensus within the international community that Nicaragua’s government is in fact largely responsible for the bloodshed.
This week 13 Latin American countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay – called for an immediate end to the repression and the dismantling of paramilitary groups and denounced “the acts of violence, intimidation and the threats directed towards Nicaraguan society”.
The United Nations Organization of American States (OAS) has accused Ortega’s government of “a wide range of human rights violations … including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detentions, and denying people the right to freedom of expression. The great majority of violations are by government or armed elements who seem to be working in tandem with them,” an OAS spokesperson added.
So what is the purpose of such claims? It is believed that Ortega’s increasingly isolated government had launched an “international propaganda blitz” designed to blunt criticism abroad. They are feeling the pressure, they are trying to push back and persuade the world, “that it is not a matter of innocent students being attacked by a brutal government, it is a matter of a government defending citizens … from criminals and thugs who are being paid by the extreme right.”
Such claims were coming not only from the government but also from sympathizers in Nicaragua and abroad, including some foreigners and religious workers.
In Havana, Cuba, during the 24th Meeting of the Sao Paulo Forum, from July 15 to 17, Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro, claimed the United States is financing the protesters against Ortega.
Such allegations are not supported by fact. There is no credible evidence of an organized effort by the extreme right who has hired organized criminals and foreign thugs.
Ortega seems to be taking a page from U.S. President Donald Trump’s bid to blame “both sides” for white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year.
There has been violence on both sides. Protesters, as well as police, have died. There have been cases of cruelty to police and paramilitaries by protests groups. But the majority of the deaths have been of protesters and people associated with them.”
What comes next? Ortega appears to be digging in. The wave of growing international censure has brought out Comandante Daniel to the front after weeks on end keeping quiet. Before this past week or so, Ortega had not been heard or seen in public since the first day of the National Dialogue, when confronted by the student leadership.
His public appearance in Masaya last week and bloody clearance of roadblocks and retaking of Masaya in recent days is his proof that the government is regaining control and the opposition is running out of steam.
The opposition – an unusual coalition of students, campesinos, millionaire entrepreneurs, business people, bishops of the Episcopal Conference and former Sandinistas – has vowed to fight on but has struggled to outline a clear, unified roadmap for a future without Ortega.
Some would like to see Ortega forced out immediately and for an interim government to take over; others want presidential elections currently set for 2021 brought forward to March next year.
Ortega has rejected both demands.
Terrible to say, but all the signs point to Ortega to grind on for some time to come.