Tag Archives: Nicaragua

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 – How Daniel Ortega Became an Extremely Strong President

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.

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.