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?