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 April, this country of 6 million people has been plunged into crisis with the eruption of a nationwide revolt against President Daniel Ortega. More than 300 people have so far been killed, thousands injured. British authorities now advise against all but essential travel to Nicaragua while 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 towered over Nicaraguan politics for decades. He became a global leftist icon during the 80s thanks to his role in the 1979 Sandinista revolution that overthrew the right-wing 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 fans as “Comandante Daniel.” But Ortega’s stock has gradually fallen since his 2006 re-election, with critics – including a number of prominent former Sandinista allies – accusing the one-time Marxist of eroding democracy and human rights and becoming the kind of brutal and corrupt tyrant he once battled. Anti-government protests broke out on 18 April over controversial pension reforms and have since swelled into a broader rebellion designed to remove Ortega and his unpopular wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, from power.
What has happened since those protests began?
The initially student-led protests in April were met with a shower of police bullets and since then Nicaragua has been gripped by a highly unpredictable wave of violence and government repression. Victims have included several babies, an altar boy and numerous teenage protesters as well as police officers and some government supporters. Journalists critical of Ortega’s government have been targeted or threatened. Key roads and cities, including the former Sandinista stronghold of Masaya, have fallen under rebel control. Recent weeks have seen violence intensify as government troops and paramilitaries began clearing protest camps and roadblocks that had brought swaths of the country to a standstill. “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. 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.” In a recent interview with the Guardian, a top Ortega aide said, “There are peaceful demonstrators to be sure, but there is a pro-coup movement trying to destabilise the country using organised looting parties, fake news and quite depraved killings.”
Is there any truth to such allegations?
Nicaraguan officials have repeatedly cast protesters as criminals and “terrorists” involved in a US-backed conspiracy. The 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 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 the government or armed elements who seem to be working in tandem with them,” a UN spokesperson added. Uruguay’s former left-wing president José Mujica also spurned Ortega, admitting the Sandinista “dream” had gone astray.
So what is the purpose of such claims?
Thale said he believed Nicaragua’s increasingly isolated government had launched an “international propaganda blitz” designed to blunt criticism abroad. “They are feeling the pressure and I think they are trying to push back and persuade people 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.” He noted such claims were coming not only from the government but also from sympathizers in Nicaragua and abroad, including some foreigners and religious workers. Thale said such allegations were not supported by fact. “Do I think the demonstrators are all noble pacifists? No, I wouldn’t say that. But that this is some organized effort by the extreme right who has hired organised criminals and foreign thugs? I don’t think there is any credible evidence for that.” Attempts to equate opposition violence with killings carried out by government-linked forces were also misleading, Thale added comparing them to Donald Trump’s bid to blame “both sides” for white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year. “There may be violent acts on both sides … I don’t doubt police have died – and there are certainly cases where activists have been cruel to police and paramilitaries. But overwhelmingly the deaths have been of protesters and people associated with them.”
What comes next?
Despite growing international censure, Nicaragua’s government appears to be digging in, spinning the recent clearances of roadblocks as proof it is regaining control and the opposition is running out of steam. The opposition – an unusual coalition of students, rural workers, millionaire entrepreneurs, business people, clergy 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 next year. Ortega has rejected both demands. “I feel terrible saying this but I think this is going to grind on in these ugly ways for some time to come,” Thale predicted.
Credit: Tom Phillips for The Guardian, 20 July 2018.