Tag Archives: Daniel Ortega

Nicaragua – Daniel Ortega and the Protesting Pensioners

Daniel Ortega began 2018 governing a Nicaragua whose political system could described as hybrid-tending authoritarian. The president, his family and his party (the FSLN, Sandinista National Liberation Front) controlled the machinery of state, not least the courts and the electoral commission. Ortega’s family and friends also owned the lion’s share of Nicaragua’s media, but not all of it. There was still room for political pluralism in the media, and independent public affairs-oriented civil society groups existed and functioned acceptably well. In 2019, however, political pluralism has vanished and Nicaragua has joined the ranks of authoritarian regimes. Examining how Ortega’s administration responded to protest explains how the shift occurred.

In 2013 and again in 2018 Nicaraguan president Ortega confronted protesting pensioners, seeking to protect or improve their social security pensions. In both cases, Ortega used violence to end the protests. But where there were no fatalities in 2013, in 2018 the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights counted 455 deaths over a period of five-and-a-half months; the government counted 198, while the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organisation of American States (OAS) found 319. While protest not infrequently produces violent clashes between protesters and the authorities, it rarely leaves so many dead.

Ortega’s decision to employ lethal violence in 2018 instead of persuasion, negotiation, co-optation, the threat of jail or even routine, non-deadly violence to end the protest reflects the mind set of a personal ruler who chooses which laws and institutions to observe and which to ignore. Killing hundreds of people goes a giant step beyond even normal authoritarian politics and bespeaks absolute impunity. If 2013 fit within in the limits of illiberal democracy, 2018 is plainly in the authoritarian realm.

In June 2013, Nicaraguan pensioners who did not qualify for a full pension mounted a protest to get Ortega’s FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) government to pay them a reduced, pro-rated pension if they met a specified threshold. To reinforce their claim the pensioners, supported by university students, occupied the social security administration’s headquarters in Managua.

The government then cut electricity and water to the building. This brought more students out to support the pensioners. The police then cordoned off the building and watched as FSLN supporters violently removed the protesters and their supporters from the premises. The government’s response to peaceful protest showed both the limits of the president’s tolerance for protests and, more importantly, that he controlled both the police and the extra-legal Sandinista enforcers.

Five years later social security pensions were again what sparked protest. On April 18, to address a budget deficit, President Ortega issued a decree reducing pension benefits while raising contributions to the pension fund. Ortega did not consult with the retirees who were directly affected, thereby making protest inevitable. What was not inevitable were the deaths of 26 protesters at the hands of riot police firing live rounds into the crowds.      

Ortega grasped his error and withdrew the decree. He also sought to open a dialogue but would agree to meet only with Nicaragua’s private enterprise council (COSEP). This was likely because Ortega and COSEP had got on well since his re-election in 2006. However, the business leaders declined, saying that the pensioners and students needed to be included. The president then labelled the business leaders golpistas, coup plotters, who sought his overthrow. The label golpista was soon applied to any who protested or supported the protesters, including the Catholic Church

Ortega and his wife and vice-president Rosario Murillo owed part of their political success since 2006 to reconciliation with the Catholic Church, seen most clearly in their support for outlawing abortion. Relations with the Church were perhaps cooler than with business, but they were far friendlier than in the past. It was thus no surprise to see the Church, led by Cardinal Brenes, take the lead in organising a National Dialogue to let all involved meet for frank discussions in May.

Unfortunately, these talks failed. Nevertheless, they resumed in July when the protesters agreed that the way out was to advance the date of the next elections from November 2021 to April 2019. Ortega obviously refused, opening the way two more months of violence. In fact, the state’s violence increased as a parapolice force of off-duty police, supplemented by young Sandinista men, armed with assault rifles, wearing masks and riding in pickup trucks took to the streets. The Church was a particular target: Cardinal Brenes was assaulted in the street and stabbed in the arm by an unknown assailant.

The protesters were mainly unarmed, and those who were armed mostly had homemade devices built to launch fireworks. Yet the protests continued until September 29, when Ortega decreed protest demonstrations illegal, making protesters criminals, ending the phase of mass demonstrations.

The protesters adapted guerrilla tactics, having one person read a declaration or leave material in a public place. They and their supporters also put more emphasis on the fate of protesters the police detained. Thus their protest continues, albeit far more quietly.

For its part, the administration began bringing protesters it held to trial, often on charges of treason. The government also increased its pressure on journalists and the owners of independent radio stations and other non-FSLN aligned media, causing many journalists to choose exile.

As well, Ortega’s government began arresting leaders of peasant organisations, key players in rural Nicaragua’s politics who had crticised the president’s policies in the past. Further, the National Assembly voted to withdraw the articles of incorporation of civil society groups like the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights, leaving them unable to function legally, and followed up by seizing the groups’ property. Finally, Ortega set out his plans for post-protest politics in a paper proposing a process of national reconciliation to be administered by the police.

Early in 2019, Ortega’s personal rule appeared fully consolidated. However, he faces several challenges. First, five months of violence left Nicaragua’s once sound economy in tatters. Several years of 4 percent growth could become a year of 4 percent contraction. Second, turning business and the Church into opponents leaves Ortega and his Sandinistas without allies beyond their ranks. Third, he now faces international pressure from the OAS and the Trump administration, and can count only Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela as hemispheric allies. Will this see Ortega relying even more on coercion to govern?

Nicaragua – National Strike Called to Force President Ortega From Office

The nearly three months of near continuous protests, prompted by calls for the resignation of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murrillo, show no sign of abating. If anything, tension in the Central American state has appeared to intensify. And now on Thursday of this week, the embattled Ortega administration will face a 24-hour general strike organized by opposition groups and with the support of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church. The purpose of the strike is to try and place economic pressure on Ortega; estimates suggest that the strike could cost the Nicaraguan economy US$25-US$30 million.

The protests began in late April in response to the proposed reform of Nicaragua’s social security system and the beleaguered Instituto Nicaragüense de Seguridad Social (INSS). The reforms proposed a five per cent tax on old age and disability pensions, which the government defended as needed to address the fiscal mismanagement of INSS. Protests, led by student groups, soon erupted in Managua and by the first weekend, ten protestors lay dead at the hands of police. The protests soon evolved into a general clarion call for an end to Ortega’s eleven-year rule.

So far, the protests have resulted in the deaths of an estimated 148 people and Ortega now appears to be locked in a degenerating cycle of repression, which has prompted comparisons with the under-siege Maduro administration in Venezuela. If he were to step down, Ortega  likely fears probable prosecution for the deaths of the protestors. The incentive then? Cling to power and crack down on dissent at all costs. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, following a recent visit to Managua, urged the government to halt violent repression and to prevent the use of force by paramilitary groups, which have been attacking protestors. The President of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado, has also raised the political crisis in Nicaragua at a recent speech at the Organization of American States.

The intensity of the protests previously forced Ortega to pull back on his proposed social security reform and to approach the Catholic Church to intercede. A few weeks ago, talks, broadcast live on television and mediated by the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, were held between government and opposition groups following the death of protestors. The televised talks did not begin well for Ortega however. Hundreds chanted “Killer” as Ortega arrived at the seminary and once the talks actually began, a student leader interrupted Ortega and began reading out the names of all of those who had been killed by police.

Daniel Ortega, previously President of Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990 and a former member of the leftist revolutionary Junta Provisional de Reconstucción Ncaional that overthrew the Somaza dictatorship in 1979, re-gained office in 2006 and has adopted both a more socially conservative and business friendly stance. Ortega has been frequently accused of an increasing authoritarian turn and in 2013, he sought reform of 39 articles in the constitution, the most significant of which abolished the presidential term limit.

The Catholic Church, once again this week, has offered to intercede and mediate the dispute between the government and the opposition. It is difficult to see how Nicaragua can completely escape the trap that Venezuelan has fallen into, but the latest reports suggest that Ortega, although he is not willing to step down, has agreed to an early election. One thing is for sure. The crisis in Nicaragua is far from over.

Nicaragua – Protests Erupt against President Ortega

In Nicaragua, talks have opened between the administration of President Daniel Ortega and protestors who, for the past month, have taken to the streets of Managua to call for the removal of Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murrillo. The talks, mediated by Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua and held at a seminary in Managua, are designed to diffuse the tension between the government and opposition groups following the death of approximately 65 protestors. The talks, in a bid for transparency, are being broadcast live on television.

The protests began just over three weeks ago in response to proposed reform of Nicaragua’s social security system and the beleaguered Instituto Nicaragüense de Seguridad Social (INSS). The reforms imposed a five per cent tax on old age and disability pensions, which the government defended as needed to address the fiscal mismanagement of INSS. Protests, led by student groups, soon erupted in Managua and by the first weekend, ten protestors lay dead at the hands of police. The protests soon evolved into a general clarion call for an end to Ortega’s eleven-year rule.

The intensity of the protests eventually forced Ortega to pull back on his proposed social security reform and to approach the Catholic Church to intercede. The televised talks did not begin well for Ortega however. Hundreds chanted “Killer” as Ortega arrived at the seminary and once the talks actually began, a student leader interrupted Ortega and began reading out the names of all of those who had been killed by police. And even though the talks were aimed at reducing the number of clashes between protestors and the police, hundreds still gathered at the Universidad Centroamericana.

Daniel Ortega, previously President of Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990 and a former member of the leftist revolutionary Junta Provisional de Reconstucción Ncaional that overthrew the Somaza dictatorship in 1979, re-gained office in 2006 and has adopted both a more socially conservative and business friendly stance. As he tightened his grip on power, Ortega has been frequently compared to the Maduro regime in Venezuela and he has been accused of adopting tactics straight out of the playbook of electoral or competitive authoritarians, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002. These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent.

For example, in 2009, Ortega sought to alter the constitution to allow him run for a third term. At the time, Ortega and the Sandinistas lacked the necessary 60 per cent majority in the Assembly and so were forced to turn to the Supreme Court, which overturned the constitutional ban on consecutive re-election, thereby enabling him to return to power in 2011. In 2013, he sought reform of 39 articles in the constitution, the most significant of which abolished presidential term limits; altered the election of the president; and increased presidential power. Specifically, the proposal changed article 147, and removed the prohibition on consecutive presidential terms and the previous, two-term limit. And in December 2016, Ortega, with his wife Rosario Murillo as his running mate, won the presidential election with 72 per cent of the vote. Critics alleged that this huge electoral victory was due to manipulation of the political playing field, which, with just five months to go before the election, saw the Supreme Court rule that Eduardo Montealegre, the leader of one of the main opposition parties, the Partido Liberal Independiente, was no longer allowed to remain in that role.

Ortega’s administration is not the first Latin American government (democratic or otherwise) to face wide-ranging protests. Protests, and the wide-scale deaths of protestors, have also rocked Venezuela and the government of Nicolás Maduro and Maduro remains in power, albeit after tightening his authoritarian grip. Large sustained street protests nonetheless have acted as the trigger for a number of presidential impeachments and forced resignations in Latin America. So is Ortega in trouble? Presidential instability in Latin America appears to lie at the intersection of popular protest and vanishing partisan support in the and even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast secure support in the assembly, a ‘legislative shield,’ become very difficult to remove from office.[1] Given Ortega’s grip on the political institutions in Nicaragua, this means he can probably weather an amount of further unrest. At least for a while.

[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101; Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.

Nicaragua – Daniel Ortega Cements Power with Landslide Electoral Victory

Just over two weeks ago, Nicaragua held presidential elections. The incumbent, Daniel Ortega, who ran with his wife, Rosario Murillo as vice-President, dominated the election, winning with approximately 72 per cent of the popular vote. Nicaragua has experienced steady economic growth in recent years and has not experienced the same level of violence and homicides that have plagued many of their Central American neighbors. Additionally, the opposition are currently weak and fragmented, with Ortega’s nearest challenger, Maximino Rodríguez of the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC), gaining only 14 per cent of the vote.

Daniel Ortega, previously President of Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990 and a former member of the leftist revolutionary Junta Provisional de Reconstucción Ncaional that overthrew the Somaza dictatorship in 1979, re-gained office in 2006 and has adopted both a more socially conservative and business friendly stance. In 2009, he also sought to alter the constitution to allow him run for a third term. At the time, Ortega and the Sandinistas lacked the necessary 60 per cent majority in the Assembly and so were forced to turn to the Supreme Court, which overturned the constitutional ban on consecutive re-election, thereby enabling him to return to power in 2011.

In 2013, Ortega sought reform of 39 articles in the constitution, the most significant of which abolished presidential term limits; altered the election of the president; and increased presidential power. Specifically, the proposal changed article 147, and removed the prohibition on consecutive presidential terms and the previous, two-term limit. The reform also awarded presidential decrees the status of legislation (article 150), and allowed the appointment of military officers to the cabinet. The other major change involved the abolition of the current 35 per cent minimum electoral threshold for candidates in presidential elections, which was replaced with a requirement for a simple 5 per cent lead over the next nearest rival.

What is more, the opposition is weak and fragmented partly because of the actions of the incumbent. Critics allege that the Ortega government has actively manipulated the political playing field to undermine the electoral chances of his competitors. For example, with just five months to go before the election, the Supreme Court ruled that Eduardo Montealegre, the leader of one of the main opposition parties, the Partido Liberal Independiente, was no longer allowed to remain in that role. Additionally, opposition parties have claimed that the recent presidential election was in fact rigged and called for their supporters to boycott the vote.

Clearly, part of Ortega’s electoral success lies in the economic success of Nicaragua, its relative stability and a reduction in poverty since 2006 of nearly 13 per cent. But part of Ortega’s success lies in the increasing electoral authoritarianism of the regime. We have written before on this blog, notably with reference to Venezuela, about electoral or competitive authoritarianism, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002.[1] These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. They are often accompanied by judicial reform and media manipulation. Nicaragua, as well as Venezuela, ticks many of these boxes, and indeed the recent electoral victory of Ortega with 72 per cent of the vote, exceeds the 70 per cent threshold that Levitsky and Way suggest in order to classify non-competitive elections. Echoes of electoral authoritarianism have also been heard in the Andes. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

Nicaragua – Daniel Ortega Seeks Major Constitutional Reform

Last Wednesday, Daniel Ortega, the President of Nicaragua, and his Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN or Sandinista) party, sent a proposal to the national assembly to reform the constitution. The proposal is to go before a seven-person Constitutional Commission, which has 60-days to determine the viability and legality of the proposal, before it returns to the legislature for final deliberations.

Ortega is seeking reform of 39 articles in the constitution, the most significant of which would abolish presidential term limits; alter the election of the president; and increase presidential power. Specifically, the proposal would change article 147, and remove the prohibition on consecutive presidential terms and the current, two-term limit. The reform would also award presidential decrees the status of legislation (article 150), and allow the appointment of military officers to the cabinet. The other major change includes the abolition of the current 35 per cent minimum electoral threshold for candidates in presidential elections, which would be replaced with a requirement for a simple 5 per cent lead over the next nearest rival.

Daniel Ortega, previously President of Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990 and a former member of the revolutionary Junta Provisional de Reconstucción Ncaional that overthrew the Somaza dictatorship in 1979, re-gained office in 2006 and in 2009, sought to alter the constitution to allow him run for a third term. At the time, Ortega and the Sandinistas lacked the necessary 60 per cent majority in the Assembly, and so were forced to turn to the Supreme Court, which overturned the constitutional ban on consecutive re-election, thereby enabling him to return to power in 2011.

Given that the Sandinistas currently control 63 of the 92 assembly seats, this time around, the requisite majority should not prove a problem. However, as the Supreme Court has already overturned the constitutional ban on consecutive terms, the proposed reform has largely been interpreted as an attempt to bolster legitimacy for Ortega’s re-election. Opponents of Ortega have also alleged that the reforms will provide undue leverage in national politics for groups, such as the Catholic Church and domestic business, whom the Sandinistas now court.

Of course, in Latin America, Ortega is not alone in his desire to reform his country’s constitution. Initially, most Latin American constitutions, to avoid the perils of presidentialism, limited presidents to one term in office. Beginning with Carlos Menem in 1993 however, Latin American presidents have sought to alter their constitutions with alarming frequency in order to allow for their re-election and to increase their presidential power. So common has this trend become, that Latin Americanists now speak of the judicialisation or constitutionalisation of politics across the region.[1] Even in the last few years, we have witnessed a swathe of presidents, from Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, alter and re-write their constitutions to allow for multiple presidential terms.


[1] See for example, Sieder, Rachel, Line Schjolden, and Alan Angell (eds.). 2005. The Judicialization of Politics in Latin America, Palgrave MacMillan.