Op-Ed

Its democracy at risk, Nicaragua can’t become the region’s next Venezuela

Students in Managua, Nicaragua, protest President Daniel Ortega’s repressive regime.
Students in Managua, Nicaragua, protest President Daniel Ortega’s repressive regime. Getty Images

Nicaragua’s people have risen up in spontaneous and peaceful protests against the dynastic dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo. Ortega, who ruled Nicaragua during the 1980s, the decade of the contra war, was reelected as the Sandinista presidential candidate in 2006 in a flawed election.

Once in power, Ortega — who has said publicly that he favors Cuba’s single-party political model — began to systematically dismantle Nicaragua’s fragile democracy. Flouting the constitution, Ortega gained control of all the levers of power, including the country’s parliament, electoral system and judiciary.

By having his National Assembly rubber-stamp a change to the constitution eliminating presidential terms limits, Ortega won a sham election in 2011 and again in 2016. In the most recent, this dictator named his wife, Murillo, as his vice president, delegating the government’s day-to-day management to her. In effect, she became prime minister.

While authoritarian by nature and a close ally of Venezuela, Cuba, Russia and Iran, Ortega learned one lesson from his disastrous mismanagement of the economy during the ’80s. In his current go-round, he has adhered to free-market policies and entered into an alliance with the private sector. This, combined with generous aid flowing from Venezuela — the uses of which are shrouded in mystery — Nicaragua’s economy had grown at a fast clip since 2009. It is also one of the world’s most corrupt countries. In Latin America, only Haiti and Venezuela rank below it in Transparency International’s Corruption index.

In early April, things began to unravel for Ortega and Murillo. A suspicious fire broke out at the Indio Maiz forestry reserve on the Caribbean coast. Indio Maiz is rich in precious hardwood trees and one of Central America’s most important ecological sites remaining. Despite being unable to fight the fires on its own, the government turned down an offer to help by firefighters from neighboring Costa Rica, leaving Nicaraguans dumbfounded. This was followed by the government’s decision to deal with its floundering social security system’s financial problems by raising monthly contributions by workers and employers instead of tackling the system’s bloated bureaucracy and investment policies that benefit white-elephant real-estate projects that favor government cronies.

By April 18, the people of Nicaragua had had enough. Led by university students who took to the streets of Managua to protest peacefully against the government, the police used disproportional force to repress the demonstrations. They were joined by gangs of thugs whom Nicaraguans called “shock troopers.” As clashes, the government censored what little remains of Nicaragua’s independent news media, and the toll of people killed, injured and disappeared grew.

But so did the people’s will to resist.

Four large demonstrations of hundreds of thousands each marched against the regime in Managua. Citizens in towns throughout Nicaragua also protested. Meanwhile, university students and campesinos set up road blocks on major roads to protest the repression.

As the regime’s crackdown increased, the ranks of the opposition grew to include the private sector, civil society and a broad spectrum of citizens, including Sandinistas, liberals, conservatives, independents, rich and poor, urban and rural All of them are fed up with Ortega and Murillo. The people have lost their fear of the dictatorship, and Ortega has lost the people.

Alarmed by the depth and sustainability of the protests, Ortega agreed to a national dialogue in which the government would meet with representatives of students, campesinos, the private sector and civil society under the auspices of the Catholic Church. On May 23, however, after a week of meetings, Nicaragua’s bishops suspended the talks because of the government’s unwillingness to accept the agenda proposed by the church.

As of June 6, widespread peaceful resistance to the regime continued. According to reputable human-rights organizations, the death toll had reached 130, more than died during Venezuelan marches against Nicolas Maduro or along the Gaza-Israeli border. More than 1,000 had been seriously injured, and another 90 had disappeared, many of whom likely will be found dead.

As the result of the violence, the economy has ground to a halt. Flights into Nicaragua, a growing tourism location, are empty, as are hotels and restaurants. Commerce and construction are down, and Nicaragua’s reputation for being a secure country has been dealt a severe blow.

The people of Nicaragua are insisting that democracy be restored — now. They are unwilling to wait until the next presidential elections scheduled for 2021. They demand an immediate end to the bloodshed and an early transition to democracy before the economy collapses. And they are hoping that the international community, and especially the United States, will bring pressure to bear on the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship to help this happen.

Nicaraguans are encouraged by the supportive language of U.S. administration officials and congressional lawmakers in both house — and of both parties. But they want the United States to not only “talk the talk,” but to “walk the walk,” too. They fear that if the United States doesn’t raise the ante in Nicaragua, the country will slide into the chaos in which Venezuela finds itself. If this happens it will be just a matter of time before Nicaraguans will be forced to join their neighbors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in fleeing to other countries, including the United States.

Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa is Nicaragua’s former foreign minister. In 2001, he signed the Interamerican Democratic Charter on behalf of the country at the OAS foreign minister’s conference in Lima, Peru.

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