To end a five-and-a-half-month protest movement against him, on 29 September 2018 Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega decreed protest demonstrations illegal. The protests had been met with vigorous repression by riot police and ‘paramilitaries’, off-duty police and party tough guys—called la turba/the mob—equipped with assault rifles. The government acknowledges that 192 people have died; La Prensa, the opposition daily, counts 450; while cautious commentators note at least 350 fatalities. In all cases the casualties were overwhelmingly protesters. Further, over 20,000 Nicaraguans are reported to have fled to Costa Rica. Efforts by the Catholic Church to mount a National Dialogue to bring the two sides together failed as the protesters demanded that Ortega resign and new elections be held within a year. The president refused.
It’s easy to explain why the protests began. President Ortega issued a decree on 18 April raising social security contributions while reducing the amount paid to pensioners. He did so for a good reason—a growing budget deficit. However, he acted without consulting the pensioners. This brought a loud and large demonstration led by pensioners, supported by university students not aligned with the president’s party, the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front). That Daniel, as he is universally known in Nicaragua, rescinded the decree the day after the protest suggests he recognised his error. Yet he did not modify his response to the protesters. Indeed, as time passed greater force has been used, protesters were charged with terrorism and doctors treating protesters were fired from their hospitals. To understand why, we need to examine Ortega’s political CV.
In 1963, 18-year old Daniel Ortega joined the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) to fight the then 26-year old Somoza family dictatorship. Four years later Ortega was imprisoned for bank robbery—fund-raising for the revolution. He served six years, then returned to revolutionary activities. By1979 the Somozas were deposed and Daniel was one of nine Commanders of the Revolution, hence part of the FSLN’s National Directorate: revolutionary Nicaragua’s policy-making executive. He was also the co-ordinator of the Governing Council for National Reconstruction (JGRN), a five-person, appointed, formal executive representing the various groups who opposed the Somozas.
In 1984 Ortega won the presidency in free elections. The1987 constitution gave him extensive powers, which he enjoyed until 1990 when he lost to Violeta Chamorro of the UNO (National Union of the Opposition). He would lose twice more—in 1996 to Liberal Arnoldo Alemán, and in 2001 to the Liberal-backed Conservative Enrique Bolaños. Ortega, though, used those 16 years to consolidate his control over the FSLN and begin the process of installing Sandinista judges in the judiciary. Ortega also saw the constitution amended to impose a presidential term limit (no immediate re-election and a two-term lifetime limit) in 1995. However, he struck a deal with President Alemán in 2000 to enact amendments that began rolling back constraints on the president, a process that concluded with the constitutional amendments of 2014 that eliminated all limits on presidential re-election.
Critically, during those years, Ortega also changed his politics. The one-time revolutionary leftist now supports Nicaraguan capitalists, a class that now includes him and his family. He and his wife Rosario Murillo, currently his vice-president, also mended fences with the Catholic Church, a determined foe of the FSLN in the 1980s and 1990s, when Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo married them in a church ceremony in 2005. More telling, though, was the FSLN’s support for the criminalisation of abortion shortly before the 2006 elections.
Despite taking just 38 percent of the vote in 2006, Daniel regained the presidency, as two Liberals split 55 percent of the vote nearly equally between them. Since his inauguration in 2007, Ortega has solidified his support by enacting redistributive policies, something not seriously undertaken since 1990. Unfortunately, he has also turned to electoral manipulation to assure his success. There is evidence indicating that electoral manipulation quickly became commonplace– aided greatly by the FSLN’s control of Nicaragua’s Electoral Council. However, it was the 2008 mayoral vote in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, that provoked the strongest protest and brought a violent response from the government, though no deaths were reported.
Assuring electoral victory was only the first step Ortega took. The term limit provisions of the 1995 constitution meant that Daniel would have to leave the presidency in 2011. He could not amend the constitution, as that required the votes of 56 National Assembly deputies, and the FSLN had only 38. He could, however, use his control of the judiciary to produce a work-around. In 2009, the Constitutional Division of the Supreme Court ruled that Ortega’s right to political participation was illegally circumscribed by the constitution’s no immediate re-election clause and declared that it did not apply to him or to similarly affected Sandinista mayors; but no one else. And when protests arose in 2013-2014 over a now abandoned canal project, the Sandinista government responded with harassment and intimidation, but not the violence we see in 2018.
The final step in Ortega’s amassing power in his own hands came in 2014 via amendments to the Military Code and National Police Law that shifted administrative control over both the military and police to the president. Of course, 2014 also saw all limits on presidential re-election removed. Thus in 2018, Daniel Ortega has acquired an effective monopoly over state power. He is a personal ruler and an uncommonly powerful president. Observers of Nicaraguan politics, both supporters and critics of Daniel, believe that Rosario Murillo will succeed him and that their son, Laureano, will succeed her. This was the Somozas’ model from 1936 to 1979 and it bodes ill for Nicaraguan democracy. Similarly, the violence his government currently employs against protesters also echoes the Somoza era. Ortega has been able to make state institutions work for him. In doing so, he has adopted the methods of the very Somoza dictatorship he and the FSLN overthrew in 1979.