The Situation in Nicaragua Deteriorates
Once again there is a political crisis in Central America. Although there has been some justified criticism towards the government of Guatemala and how it has responded to Fuego volcano’s eruption, that is not the focal point of this commentary.
Since April 2018 there have been a series of protests that have taken place in Nicaragua, which have fallen outside the purview of most media reports as other more compelling stories, such as Syria, the G-7 summit and the North Korea-US meeting dominate the news cycles. Most of the protests have taken place outside the capital of Managua as well.
The death toll right now is reported to be at least 139 people, according to the Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos, a Nicaraguan human rights organization. What could cause such an uprising? The root cause is a decision that was made by President Daniel Ortega to amend social security benefits has morphed from student led protests into a movement bent on driving the president from office before the next scheduled elections in 2021.
To put it mildly Nicaragua is at an impasse. President Ortega is currently in his second phase of being president of the country after leading the victorious Sandinista forces in ousting the Somoza dynasty back in 1979. He ruled the country from 1979 until 1990, and returned to power in 2007; he has ruled since then after winning re-elections in 2011 and 2016. Meanwhile, his spouse, First Lady Rosario Murillo Zambrana, became Vice President of the country in the 2016 elections, bringing back memories of Somoza-style nepotism. So if there is actually a change of government in the Central American country, will it also include asking the Ortega family to kindly step away? Or will they be forced to leave via a popular revolution? In most instances those who gain power by violent moves will not always leave via the ballot box.
What is the current remedy? There is a call for an advancement of the electoral calendar – the next presidential elections are scheduled to take place in 2021 but President Ortega has apparently suggested that they could take place in 2019. It is unclear so far if this offer means that Ortega will not run then, or if he intends to run again. The obvious risk being that if somehow he wins again he will cement his grip on power, and maintain the status quo. That will not be an adequate solution for one segment of the population that is currently suffering.
The Catholic Bishops in the Country have sent letters to both President Ortega and to the political opposition and leaders of these protests offering to mediate the crisis and come up with their own proposals for how to solve it. While there has been an affirmative answer from the opposition there has yet to be a decision made by President Ortega. Some Evangelical groups have criticized the Catholics for offering to facilitate talks to end the current impasse. Nevertheless, at the time of this writing, international media has reported that the Nicaraguan government has freed around 17 young protesters thanks to mediation by the Catholic Church.
Has Nicaragua reached the breaking point where an all-out civil war erupts? It is clear that it is not at that stage yet. There is discontent with the current regime but most indications report that the situation is just at the demonstration phase. With that said, the anti-Ortega sentiment is gaining momentum. A clear example took place at an event at the Inter-American Dialogue, a well-known think tank in Washington DC, on June 4. This on-the-record meeting discussed the situation in Nicaragua, and the Nicaraguan community in the U.S. capital clearly stated their message: they want Ortega and Murillo gone (“de que se van, se van” which roughly translates “they will leave, yes or yes,” was the chant).
A resumption of hostilities could result in a new wave of refugees fleeing north towards the United States. Refugees from Central America has been a wedge issue during the last two election cycles in the United States. Unfortunately, violence is not unknown to Nicaragua, as President Ortega came to power when his Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew President Somoza. Afterwards, the U.S., during the Reagan administration, led a not-so covert war to overthrow him. We know now well how the hearings in the U.S. Congress went during that debacle.
Could the Trump administration be forced to revisit the history of the 1980s by returning to the scene of a Cold War battlefield? Washington has other security priorities elsewhere in the world right now so it is difficult to imagine that this could happen. With that said, if the violence and repression continues, it will be important to monitor how the international community, including Washington, reacts.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the authors are associated.