Popular protests and violence have rocked Nicaragua in the last two months. Eleven years after returning to the presidency, and winning three consecutive elections, President Daniel Ortega’s hold on power has been shaken. The key question confronting Nicaraguans today is whether Ortega will agree to popular demands for early presidential elections; his current term runs through 2021. Should he refuse, violence could escalate, thrusting the Central American nation further into chaos.
Ortega rose to prominence as a leader in the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN, or Sandinistas) that led a revolution to overthrow President Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. The Sandinistas lost the presidency in 1990 to a coalition of conservative parties supported by the United States. Losing the 1990 elections taught Ortega and his supporters that power was fleeting and that public opinion can easily be swayed by underlying economic and political conditions.
Ortega’s return to power in 2007 was facilitated by a deal struck with former President Arnoldo Alemán, which allowed the latter to escape corruption charges and changed the electoral law to benefit Ortega and the Sandinistas. The agreement ultimately split the conservative opposition between Alemán’s supporters and those opposed to further deals with the Sandinistas, with the latter having the open backing of the United States. The opposition never recovered from this split.
Ortega’s pragmatic economic policies, the implementation of a Central American and Dominican Republic free trade agreement, and subsidies from Venezuela all helped to promote economic growth and stability. Since 2007, Nicaragua has grown at a rate above the Central American regional average, second only to Panama. That economic growth allowed the Ortega regime to increase public spending, particularly on social programs. Social welfare projects in turn gave the regime an opportunity to imprint a partisan brand on popular programs and thus build substantial popular support. That support translated into two consecutive re-election victories for Ortega in 2011 and 2016. The victories were facilitated by a weak and divided opposition and Sandinista control over state resources.
Since returning to power, Ortega has sought to consolidate authority by packing and controlling all branches of the state, including the Supreme Court, National Assembly, and the Supreme Electoral Council. Those reforms, plus Sandinista dominance of the national legislature and Ortega’s control over the media, have sought to undermine the fundamental principles of free and fair competition so essential for democratic governance. Ortega’s hold on power was complete and unchallenged until the recent protests.
The current crisis in Nicaragua began on April 12 with university students protesting the government’s alleged lack of response to wildfires in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. On April 18, the protests grew to include other groups in response to reforms of the social security system that would have increased contributions and lowered benefits in an attempt to ameliorate a growing fiscal deficit. Unaccustomed to popular protests, the Ortega government reacted violently.
In addition to state security forces, armed pro-government groups described as “parapolice” have been implicated in the deaths of more than 200 people since the start of the unrest. Parapolice groups are composed primarily of gang members, plainclothes police, and members of the Sandinista Youth. The parapolice have been accused of participating in multiple criminal activities, including kidnappings, extortion, and looting private businesses. The use of armed civilians to defend state interests is an indication that the regime does not have full authority over the security apparatus. While the military code assigns the Army the task of intervening “in uprisings and riots that exceed the Police’s capacity to extinguish them,” a military spokesperson was quoted as saying: “We don’t have a reason to repress. … We think dialogue is the solution.”
The response (or nonresponse) of the Nicaraguan military to the popular protests is one of the defining elements of the current crisis. Prior to 1990, the Nicaraguan military was essentially an arm of the Sandinista movement, having emerged from the revolution that toppled the Somoza dictatorship. After the defeat of the Sandinista government in the 1990 elections, however, significant reforms in the organization, leadership, and operation of the armed forces transformed the military from the Sandinista Popular Army to the Army of Nicaragua. In the years between 1990 and the return of Ortega to power in 2007, the armed forces focused primarily on becoming a professional, apolitical institution, and while relations with civilian leaders were not always smooth, the military sought to preserve its institutional autonomy and avoid political meddling. By and large, this process was successful. Popular support for the armed forces grew, and its institutional legitimacy was enhanced.
Since returning to power, however, Ortega has sought to repoliticize the military by promoting loyal Sandinista officers and continually intervening in internal institutional matters, including a period when he became the de facto defense minister. Initially rebuffed by the armed forces, the president has succeeded by changing the military code in ways that increase presidential authority over the armed forces. A new police code also further consolidated Ortega’s personal and political power over the entire security apparatus. However, as state-sponsored violence escalates, the legitimacy of the regime has faced increasing challenges, and for the first time since Ortega returned to the presidency, his hold on power is in serious jeopardy.
The government’s initial reaction to the protests was to dismiss them as “minuscule groups” and to defend the attack by armed civilians as “legitimate defense.” As violence escalated and spread to more cities, and as more groups joined the protests, Ortega sought to quell the uprising by suspending the reforms to the social security law. Additionally, the government announced the creation of a truth commission to investigate the killings, and the police chief — a close ally of Ortega — was forced to resign. None of these actions had their intended effect. The protests escalated, and the parapolice and other pro-government groups continued to repress them violently, resulting in a mounting death toll.
The opposition formed a broad-based group called the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy that brought together disparate elements of society with little in common but the desire to remove Ortega from power. In light of the continued crisis, the government reluctantly agreed to engage in a national dialogue sponsored by the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua. The on-and-off dialogue has yet to quell the protests or address the underlying causes of the violence.
Under these circumstances, few can predict how the crisis will unfold. However, the most likely scenarios are not encouraging. At this point, it is hard to see, even if early elections are called, how the disparate opposition can organize sufficiently to effectively contest a presidential election. Many of the groups that make up the Civic Alliance have never participated as an electoral force. And the traditional conservative opposition political parties remain divided and have significant political differences with key members of the Civic Alliance. If early elections are called, the Sandinistas have no obvious alternative to Ortega other than his wife, Rosario Murillo. But with the opposition politically divided and the government holding the purse strings, it is not beyond the realm of possibility, even with the recent crisis, that the Sandinistas would win.
Part of the military’s mission is to defend the constitution and preserve national security. While Ortega has sought to assert his authority over the military, and during his presidency has managed to promote mostly loyal officers, some elements within the armed forces are more concerned with institutional integrity than partisan loyalty. If the institutionalists perceive that Ortega’s ongoing rule jeopardizes the legitimacy of the armed forces, or seriously undermines public order, they might try to make a move against the president. At this point, it is difficult to determine the balance of power within the armed forces, but given Ortega’s significant increases in funding and his promotion of mostly loyal Sandinista officers, it is fair to assume that a majority of the top brass and most mid-level military officials are loyal to the regime.
A recent coup attempt in Venezuela illustrates how difficult it is to carry out a coup when the regime has control of the intelligence apparatus and when it has co-opted or manipulated support from high-ranking officers. The Nicaraguan military might refuse to repress popular protests, but it is likely not ready to oust Ortega either.
That leaves two other possible scenarios. Ortega could manage to drag out the negotiations long enough so that the opposition coalition begins to fray and the protests wane. This strategy requires a united government and Sandinista party — and a feckless response from the international community. While at the moment this scenario seems unlikely, one must remember that this was precisely what occurred in Venezuela. President Nicolás Maduro was able to consolidate support among his base, including the military; drag negotiations along; and exploit divisions within the opposition until he was secure enough to call presidential elections, which he won. Despite the opposition’s boycott of the elections and widespread international condemnation, Maduro has been able to use the election results to further consolidate power. The key to avoiding a similar outcome in Nicaragua is a united opposition and an effective international response.
So far, the opposition seems united on only one thing: removing Ortega from power. For its part, the United States, apart from some statements of condemnation and the removal of nonessential personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Managua, has yet to do anything significant to pressure the Nicaraguan government. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights sent a delegation and recently established an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts for Nicaragua to help investigate the deaths during the protests. The general secretary of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, condemned the violence and called for dialogue, but the organization has not met to discuss the situation. The United Nations has not done anything meaningful either.
The worst-case scenario would be an escalation of violence in which some opposition groups decide that dialogue and a political solution are not possible and take up arms instead. Nicaragua has a history of violent civil war, and while today’s geopolitical circumstances are quite different from those of the 1980s, there is a very real possibility of a prolonged violent confrontation. The consequences would be tragic. The potential for a spillover effect on already weak states such as Honduras and El Salvador, plus increased pressures on migration, would destabilize the entire region.
If Nicaragua descends into war, there would be enormous pressure on the Nicaraguan military to act decisively to quell the violence and to replace Ortega with a transitional leader who could preside over early elections. An escalating conflict would also require a significantly greater degree of U.S. involvement than the Trump administration seems willing to contemplate. And, given the disastrous results of previous U.S. interventions in Nicaragua, additional involvement by the United States would likely exacerbate rather than resolve the situation.
Nicaragua has reached a crossroads that will decide its future. The only way out is an end to state-sponsored violence, a meaningful political dialogue leading to a peaceful transition, and a new government elected in free and fair elections.