Having been expelled from Nicaragua in June 2016 by the Sandinista government, the struggle of the Nicaraguan people for dignity, democracy and a decent livelihood against a corrupt authoritarian regime is a theme particularly close to my heart.
The nationwide protests that began on April 18th and have spread across the country have energized and reoriented the nation’s political dynamics. The mix of hope and foreboding for the future is reminiscent of the events of the Arab spring of 2014 that transformed the Middle East for better or worse.
With more than 80 persons already killed and more than 868 injured, many at the hands of young paramilitary thugs presumably paid by the Sandinista government, the events of the past month have the potential to escalate into a level of violence beyond that seen to date in long-suffering Venezuela.
Nicaragua is a country with historic, strategic importance for the U.S. and the country is bound in a U.S. free trade agreement through CAFTA-DR. But the convergence of its role in leftist populism, illicit flows, Russian and Chinese activities in the region and close commerce with the United States make it particularly important to U.S. security, geopolitical and economic interests.
I write this in response to friends and colleagues in Nicaragua who invited me to weigh in on the important events transforming their country. In light of my personal experience with the Sandinista government, my desire to protect my colleagues prevents me from acknowledging by name those who generously gave their time to help me with this article, but their commitment to and passion for their country has been an inspiration for me in elaborating this article.
While for many in the U.S., the despotism of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and its brutal repression of protest naturally evokes parallels to similar actions by the Nicolas Maduro regime in Venezuela, or the Castro brothers (Fidel and Raul) in Cuba, many Nicaraguans are drawing another parallel: the struggle against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Unlike the original struggle by the 1970’s Sandinistas which stockpiled weapons and received outside support, the current popular uprising was spontaneous. The present popular uprising against the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo has been brewing for a while but spontaneously emerged in a matter of weeks, has no arms, and has no apparent outside material support. Yet the Nicaraguans with whom I spoke universally conveyed a clear emotion. After years of having bowed their heads to the daily indignities of corruption and political control, Nicaraguans have reached their breaking point.
For those of us who have watched Venezuelans starved out of their country without a break in the Maduro dictatorship, it seems implausible that events in Nicaragua—where at least food and medicine can be found by those with means—could escalate so quickly. Yet (without overgeneralizing), the current explosion in Nicaragua in many ways parallels and foreshadows the disaster unfolded in Venezuela. It is important that my colleagues in the US, and elsewhere, understand and take note of the situation.
How we got here
The surreal character of the escalating protests in and violence across Nicaragua was highlighted for me as I read stories of protesters killed by paramilitary attacks, juxtaposed with beautiful images (inserted by online media algorithms), inviting me to buy real estate in the country (I may wait a while).
The protests, which began on April 18th, were precipitated by two reinforcing events. First, a fire in an important nature reserve in the southern Caribbean coast, that was managed badly by the government. The wildfires destroyed more than 6,000 hectares before it was brought under control April 12. Before the government got a handle on it though the fire had displaced 100s of poor families that had occupied the territory.
Then, on April 16th, the government announced reforms to the social security system, raising employer and employee contributions, while imposing a new 5% tax on benefits. The change, formally published on April 17th, deeply offended Nicaraguan sensibilities. Given the almost universal perception of widespread corruption within the Sandinista government (and most of those that had preceded it), Nicaraguans who had fought in and suffered during the revolution, and who had paid taxes and paid into the pension system all of their lives, were now being asked to accept less to compensate for monies that the government had presumably stolen or mismanaged.
Moreover, the elderly have a particularly revered position within Nicaraguan culture. Indeed, the government confronted widespread protests when it clamped down on a protest of elderly demanding pensions in June 2013. Compounding the insult, the current generation of working-age Nicaraguans, which came of age under the democratic period that began with Violeta Chamorro (and who have a corresponding sense of entitlement to self-expression), were being obliged to pay more into the system, even while seeing their own parents have part of their expected benefits taken away, making government corruption all the more personal. Indeed, being forced to buy into the near-ubiquitous corruption is a leitmotif of Nicaraguan politics and protest. It was public indignation over massive corruption and mismanagement by the Somoza government after the 1972 earthquake that precipitated the popular opposition that contributed to the Sandinista revolution of 1979.
The Sandinista government’s initial heavy-handed government response to the April 18th protests against the changes to the pension system, ignited both traditional and social media, sparking a public outrage that spread across the country. An incident in Leon in which demonstrating elderly persons were roughed up further ignited popular indignation, irrespective of partisan sympathies.
Another driving event in the protests was the assassination of reporter Ángel Gahona, in Bluefields on April 21st, caught on camera and widely disseminated on social media the murder was a powerful symbol of the government’s callousness. The subsequent attempt by authorities to accuse others of the crime only expanded public indignation.
The protests spread geographically but also began to unite diverse groups that had become mobilized by sense of repressing opposition. These included both secondary and university students, as well as rural Nicaraguans, including many who had previously demonstrated against the government’s trans-oceanic canal project. Protesters also began setting up roadblocks in both urban and rural areas, with a total of 35 such “tranques” in eleven Departments by late May, including the closure of roads important for getting agricultural products to market.
The Sandinistas mimic the Somozas
As the protests escalated and spread across the country, demands broadened from reversing social security reforms to seeking political change. The Sandinista government has rejected calls for early elections or any other departure from the statutorily defined electoral process that would create a way out of the escalating crisis. The Catholic church, deeply respected in Nicaragua, played a role in attempting to mediate the dispute that arguably helped save lives, but temporarily broke down when it could not resolve the impasse.
From the beginning, the response of the Nicaraguan government to the protests has been heavy-handed. In addition to more than 80 killed and almost 900 injured since the protests began on April 18th, a report by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights counts 438 Nicaraguans detained. Even more worrisome, as the protests spread, the government shifted from the overt use of police to repress demonstrators, to employing paramilitary groups forces to shoot, beat up, and otherwise attempt to intimidate protesters while giving the government a veneer of plausible deniability regarding its connection to such activities.
According to interviews, these meted out government violence are tied to Sandinista Youth organizations (Juventud Sandinista), with some using military-grade arms that, in the tightly controlled Nicaraguan security environment, strongly suggests collaboration by the Nicaraguan government.
For its part, the Nicaraguan military has remained on the sidelines of the present struggle. On May 12th, its leadership issued a communique that it would not use arms against the civilian population. Its position arguably reflects a process of professionalization that it has engaged in in recent years, and an associated desire to avoid becoming tainted by partisan struggles and accusations of human rights violations.
The position of Nicaragua’s key business groups to date has been ambiguous. The Pellas group, one of the most important economic players in the country, has provided free medical attention to injured protesters in its elite Vivian Pellas hospital in Managua, a symbolic gesture of sympathy for the protesters, yet the group has otherwise avoided a public stance.
Despite the expanding involvement of Nicaraguans across the country in the ongoing protests, in both urban and rural areas and across a range of age groups and social strata, and despite the increasing focus of those protests on political change, few credible “leaders” have emerged. The wife of jailed former president Arnoldo Aleman tried to become involved as a leader, but was rejected by the population.
Even if the protests do not succeed in bringing about immediate change in Nicaragua, they represent a transition from the successful destruction by Daniel Ortega of the old party regime, to a new political dynamic. The mainstream Liberal party of Aleman, in decline long before the November 2016 elections, has very little political support. The Independent Liberal Party (PLI) of Eduardo Montealegre effectively dissolved after its leader was forcibly separated from the party by the Nicaraguan electoral commission, and it fared disastrously in the elections. The opposition “Broad Front for Democracy (FAD)” that emerged through the November 2016 elections, has played a relatively insignificant role in the country’s politics, and almost none in the current protests, as group of ex MRS, PLI and other leaders, united principally by its opposition to Ortega have been able to play a significant electoral role.
Why Nicaragua’s Struggle Matters
Although Nicaragua is neither an economic powerhouse nor an influential political actor in the Western hemisphere, the stakes for what transpires in the country in the coming months are higher than is commonly realized in the United States.
There were good reason for the United States to recognize, during the Cold War, the strategic risk presented to the hemisphere by the Soviet Union’s establishment of a client government in Managua. Nicaragua’s strategic position from the U.S. concerns arises not only from its proximity to the United States, but from its position as a bi-coastal nation forming part of the land bridge between the Northern Hemisphere and South America, presenting a long Atlantic coastline from which it can interact with Cuba and impact the nations of the Caribbean basin.
The most compelling and immediate risk in Nicaragua is the escalation of violence and, in the extreme, the re-emergence of civil war. But recent events in Venezuela also casts a shadow of broader, tragic humanitarian crisis.
Nicaraguans in the countryside away from Managua have the tradition of tenacious independence. That countryside has historically been the base for guerrilla movements against elites in the cities, both of the right and left. Indeed, in recent weeks, there are arguably good reasons that the Nicaraguan government has been more restrained in responding to protests and roadblocks in remote rural areas, even while it has reacted with brutality to similar challenges in the cities.
Given that President Ortega is rumored to be in poor health, and the passing of power to his wife is deeply controversial in Nicaragua’s machoistic culture, the President’s death, or other controversial events, could play off the escalating frustrations and violence to propel the current impasse into a new phase of conflict.
Beyond the wellbeing of the Nicaraguan people, what happens in Nicaragua matters for the future of the region. As one of the founding states of the populist socialist alliance ALBA, the Sandinista regime was, prior to the current instability, one of the most attractive candidates for asylum of Venezuelan political and military leaders seeking to avoid extradition to the United States. The Sandinista regime is also one of the focal points for Russian activities in the Americas, including not the Marshall Zhukov training center for Russian training of and interaction with police forces in the region (apparently inactive for the moment), a key space downlink facility, significant arms sales (having sold or donated Nicaragua T-72 tanks, armored vehicles, patrol and missile boats among other equipment), as well as activities in the country by visiting Russian forces and an agreement facilitating access by the Russian military to Nicaraguan ports.
At a time when the People’s Republic of China has abandoned its informal diplomatic truce with the Republic of China (ROC) and is accepting solicitations for diplomatic recognition by those states in the region still maintaining relations with the later, the construction and operation of the Nicaraguan canal (the natural subject of negotiation for Nicaraguan recognition of the PRC), would transform the region—should it come pass—and give the PRC new leverage over governments, shipping and logistics companies, and other important commercial actors there.
If such considerations were not enough, Nicaragua’s substantial territory straddling the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean between north and south America makes its landmass and territorial waters a difficult to avoid part of the movement of illicit goods and the migration of people from the south to the United States.
Finally, as a signatory to the Central America free trade agreement (CAFTA-DR), Nicaragua has enormous potential as a site of production for US markets, and in recent years, has become a focus of interest for US investors.
Senior-level decision-makers in the State Department, Defense Department, and National Security Council should continue to dedicate attention to the evolving situation in Nicaragua. The absence of President Trump from the Summit of the Americas, and the absence of Secretary of State Pompeo from the recent G-20 summit in Buenos Aires sends a dangerous signal that the U.S. does not prioritize what is happening in the region, inviting leaders such as Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela) to deal with the populations who contest the legitimacy of their appropriated power as they see fit.
The United States should continue to pressure the Nicaraguan government to respect the human rights of its people as it makes decisions in the current crisis. The U.S. should further work with the Organization of American States and other multilateral institutions in the Western Hemisphere toward a solution to that crisis consistent with the principles of democracy, rule-of-law, and human rights.
As in Venezuela, the United States should not intervene militarily in either a direct or indirect fashion, outside of a multilateral force sanctioned by the international community, consistent with international law.
Similarly, while the Nicaraguan military has so far reacted with professionalism and restraint in the crisis, the U.S. should not encourage it to seize power by force, or otherwise take action beyond complying with its responsibility to defend the constitution, and/or refusing to comply with unconstitutional or otherwise unconscionable orders under international law. Any action by the Nicaraguan military would not only risk discrediting it as an institution, staining its legacy, but would also put at risk the democratic ideals for which it believes it fought, and for which the Nicaraguan people are currently struggling. Moreover, from a U.S. perspective, as in Venezuela, given the close tie between the Nicaraguan military and its counterparts in Russia and Cuba, it is doubtful whether military-led change would produce a strategically desirable outcome.
As in Venezuela, there will doubtlessly be those in Nicaragua who call upon the United States to help the Nicaraguan people right the injustices of the authoritarian Ortega regime. Yet, with sincere sympathy for the plight of the Nicaraguan people, it would be a costly mistake for the United States to intervene. Nor should U.S. leaders give the impression that it is entertaining such action if it does not intend to follow through, lest Nicaraguans take up arms in expectation of support that would not be forthcoming, unleashing a tragedy for which Nicaraguan blood would ultimately be, in part, on US hands.
To date, actions by the Trump administration, including statements by U.S. Vice-President Pence have been positive, generally well received by the Nicaraguan people. Similarly, continued and expanding application of individual sanctions, such as those contemplated by the Magnitsky Act (to include sanctioning Supreme Electoral Council head Roberto Rivas for his role in departures from Nicaragua’s own constitution in the conduct of November 2016 presidential elections), correctly apply pressure on those sustaining the authoritarian regime in Nicaragua, while minimizing harm to ordinary Nicaraguans.
In the multilateral domain, the U.S. should continue to strongly support the work of the Organization of American States (OAS), in pressing for democratic change in Nicaragua. The OAS was instrumental in securing the presence in Nicaragua of the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights. Its report has been key to documenting and limiting the ability of the Sandinista government to kill, detain, and otherwise repress protesters.
Within the Interamerican system, sub-regional organizations such as the Central American Integration System (SICA) and the associated Conference of Central American Armies (CFAC) may provide tools relevant to the Nicaraguan case. The United States should also raise the Nicaragua crisis within the Lima Group, where there is a greater meeting of minds. Even if such organizations can only provide partial solutions, exercising them sets an important precedent and helps to strengthen the Interamerican System (in which the US importantly has a seat at the table) for addressing challenges in the region, and advancing democracy and human rights in a multilateral fashion.
My unexpected departure from Nicaragua in 2016 was not an entirely negative experience; the Nicaraguans that I met during that visit, and those who reached out to me during that difficult time and afterward, deeply moved me regarding the generous spirit of the Nicaraguan people, and the beauty and potential of their country, although historically, the efforts of its people to forcibly change their destiny have fallen short of their hopes.
The Nicaraguan people are once again dreaming of something better. It is in our interest to help them in that process. But importantly, to do so with prudence, in a fashion that respects Nicaragua’s laws and constitution, the sovereignty of its people, and which, above all else, does not do more harm than good.
Evan Ellis is a Latin America Research Professor with the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed herein are strictly his own.