Note: click hereTo read the author’s updates from the ongoing protests, .
Nicaragua is in a moment of crisis. The very ability of the Sandinistas to continue governing appears to be in jeopardy. As I write this, the streets of Managua, the country’s embattled capital, are burning amidst a combination of wicked April heat and growing tension in a country that was promised a renewed revolution but instead has witnessed a decisive concentration of power in the hands of former guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega and his enigmatic wife, Rosario Murillo.
In the last 48 hours a journalist has been shot, students have been killed, peaceful protesters have been violently displaced, and news channels critical of the government have been removed from the air.
The current crisis is years in the making; however, the trigger in this case was the government’s ill-fated decisions to reform the country’s floundering social security program, known as INSS. After years of mismanagement, and millions of dollars of accumulated debt, the government increased the amount that contributors pay, raised taxes on the pension payments that retirees receive each month, and began discussing the possibility of moving the retirement age from 60 to 65. The reforms, which were announced on Monday, April 16th, were the last straw.
Nicaraguans had already taken to the streets the week before to protest government inaction in the Indio Maiz Bioreserve, where a wicked forest fire raged through thousands of acres of virgin rainforest. The reserve, which is home to a wide variety of plants and animals including sloths, monkeys, poison dart frogs, manatees, and prehistoric tapirs, is being covertly exploited by cattlemen and opportunists who have used the absence of authority to grab land and displace indigenous communities. As the fires ripped through the reserve, government complicity in the naked exploitation of the biosphere became more and more apparent. Nicaraguans began to see Indio Maiz as a symbol of government mismanagement elsewhere in the country.
After the Ortega government announced its proposed INSS changes last Monday, the Indio Maiz protests gained momentum, making it clear that the energy driving the movement to protect Indio Maiz wasn’t fueled by the forest fire so much as by a deep seated dissatisfaction with the Sandinista government.
A week later, tensions appear to be coming to a head in Nicaragua. The Sandinista government now finds itself in the ironic position of justifying the government’s repression of peaceful protests. It’s still too early to know whether or not social pressure has reached a tipping point, but the very fact that a Sandinista government is actively repressing peaceful protests is significant.
Conclusion? Not yet
As I reflect on the events of the last several days I’m reminded of something former revolutionary leader and long-time opposition leader, Dora Maria Tellez, once told me.
“We are in the eye of Hurricane Ortega. That is to say, everything appears to be fine but in any moment, the storm could shift.”
And here on the ground, the storm is shifting. Nicaragua seems to have reached a boiling point. Whether the Ortega regime falls today, tomorrow, or sometime in the future, one thing is clear: The ruling family’s mysterious grip on power is quickly slipping away. And people can feel it.
Perhaps nothing is more symbolic of this this shift than the images of Managua’s massive trees of life—arboles de la vida—going up in flames and falling to the ground. The first trees of life were erected on the 19th of July, 2013, which marked the 36th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. Since then, more than 140 trees have gone up across the city, at a cost of more than $3.5 million. The intellectual architect behind the steel forest is vice-president and first lady Rosario Murillo. Sources close to Murillo claim that she was inspired by Gustav Klimt’s famous mural, The Tree of Life. Different interpretations exist about Klimt’s mural but most coincide in seeing the tree as a symbol of life’s perpetual cycle of life and death. The tree in the mural reaches toward the sky, symbolizing man’s desire to grow, while its roots extend into the ground as a constant reminder of man’s connection to mother earth. Toward the center of the painting is a single blackbird, which symbolizes death and is meant to remind us that everything that begins, sooner or later, must also end.
In Nicaragua, Murillo’s trees have come to be associated with false promises and government mismanagement of public funds. When protester’s chose to set fire to the trees and push them to the ground, they were sending a message. Like Klimt’s blackbird, the protesters are in the streets as a reminder that nothing lasts forever. Change is inevitable. And those who fail to adapt to change are eventually displaced by it.
Although it is impossible to know what will happen in the hours and days to follow, it is clear that the rioting and looting over the last 48 hours has severely affected Nicaragua’s market system. Even if tensions miraculously subside this week, enough damage has been done that it is difficult to imagine the nation’s political institutions and market returning to normal in the near term. Mr. Ortega’s regime has governed through a series of smoke and mirrors. If anything has become clear over the last week it is this: We may be witnessing Mr. Ortega’s final, tragic act.
Benjamin Waddell is a journalist and the Academic Director of SIT Managua.