Nicaragua has been in the throes of a political crisis not seen since the Contra War in the 1980s. Starting in April, popular protests swept across the country, calling for early elections with the hope that they can end and untangle the decade-long, autocratic rule of Daniel Ortega. Begun as a reaction to reforms to the social security law, the protests soon escalated to represent the most significant challenge to the Ortega’s hold on power since he returned to the presidency in 2007.
The protests are led by a disparate coalition of leading business groups, students and civil society organizations that would normally have little in common but have united in opposition to Ortega’s regime. The reasons why are obvious: over the course of more than a decade, Ortega has extended his personalist rule over the Nicaraguan state, leaving few avenues for the democratic resolution of the current crisis.
The government’s response has been brutal. State-sponsored violence by armed civilians has killed over 300 people and injured thousands. A national dialogue sponsored by the Catholic Church has failed to make much progress toward a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
Other than condemning the violence and calling for negotiations, the international community has not reached a consensus on a strategy to pressure the Nicaraguan government to negotiate a peaceful solution to the crisis. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights established an independent expert monitoring group to investigate the deaths, with little policy effect. The OAS has met to discuss the situation but no clear mandate on how to proceed has emerged. And the United States recalled non-essential personnel from its embassy in Managua and imposed sanctions on three government officials close to Ortega.
Given the results of similar sanctions on Venezuela, the actions taken by the United States against Nicaraguan government officials could very well backfire by pushing such officials closer to the regime. Sanctioned officials tend to lose the incentive to break with the regime for fear of losing the protection and privileges that come from working closely with the government; this is particularly true when there are no prospects of regime change in the short term. Additionally, the case of Venezuela shows that this policy is often subject to a dynamic of escalation in which more and more officials are sanctioned with the unintended consequence that an increasing number of officials are bound to the regime’s fate. Unless a clear path toward regime change can be found, these officials have no incentive to change their allegiance.
A politicized military
The domestic dynamics of the crisis do not bode well for a peaceful resolution either. After first agreeing to participate in the national dialogue, the Ortega regime walked out and doubled down on state-sponsored violence. Hundreds of citizens have been murdered since the initial dialogue and the president recently gave a speech in which he rejected any compromise toward early elections. Ortega labeled the protestors as “hate-sowing coup-mongers” and argued that early elections were unconstitutional (though Ortega’s consolidation of power has also been extra-constitutional). Ortega’s hardline speech escalated with armed civilians attacking Catholic bishops in the interior city of Diriamba. A few days later the vice-president and first lady, Rosario Murillo, said the government was “strong, indestructible…”
Ortega’s hard line would be difficult to understand if he had not already received assurances of support from his politicized military. While the military has indicated that it would not attack the population and has called for dialogue, their refusal to move against government-sponsored armed civilian groups is an indication of their allegiance to the regime. Since returning to power in 2007, Ortega has sought to increase his personal control of the security apparatus by changing the police and military codes to increase executive authority, and by promoting loyal officers. These efforts seem to have paid off as the military has refused to act against Sandinista groups that have used violence against the protestors.
The opposition’s handicaps and strengths
The opposition does not seem to have the leverage to push Ortega into meaningful dialogue. The Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy is composed of the leading private sector organizations, peasant groups, university students and other civil society organizations. The Alliance’s strategy has been to continue to put pressure on the regime through national strikes, protests and road blocks, while simultaneously supporting the dialogue sponsored by the Catholic Church. The broad nature of the opposition is an indication of strength and gives it legitimacy.
The inclusion of the private sector—which a large part of has been colluding with Ortega for years—undoubtedly undermines the government’s bases of support. However, the political and social differences among the opposition groups could serve to undermine their unity in the long term and provide the regime avenues to successfully deploy a divide and conquer strategy. International support will be essential to maintaining opposition unity and resolve. In the short-term, however, an escalation of protests is the only leverage the opposition has to force the government to make concessions at the negotiating table. While the mediation of the Catholic Church adds legitimacy to the negotiations, and may yet prove critical to a peaceful resolution, the willingness of the regime to look the other way while supporters violently attack church leaders is an indication of the limits to what the Church can do against state-sponsored repression.
One of the most effective opposition weapons could be the crippling effects of the crisis on the Nicaraguan economy. Tourism and agriculture, key sectors of the Nicaraguan economy, have been deeply affected by the protests and escalation of violence. Over 70% of national highways have been partially blocked by protests, significantly damaging the transportation of goods to and from the interior and to neighboring countries. The economy that was expected to grow 4.7% in 2018 is now likely headed into a recession. Unemployment is expected to grow to over 10%, from a projection of 6.2% earlier in the year. The crisis has affected bank deposits, with more than $600 million dollars withdrawn from local accounts. The long-term effects to the Nicaraguan economy could be devastating and might eventually push regime supporters to seek a solution that involves the end of the Ortega government. However, economic effects usually take a long time to permeate through the regime and some governments are able to weather them—for example, the case of Venezuela where a crippling economic crisis has failed to end the Maduro government.
Ultimately, only an end to violence and negotiations that lead to regime change can resolve the crisis peacefully. At the moment, however, the prospects for such an outcome seem more remote than ever. Ortega, his wife, and their supporters seem adamant to remain in power by whatever means. The opposition does not seem to have the leverage necessary to push the regime to negotiate in good faith. The armed forces seem content to allow armed civilians to violently repress popular protests and to undermine domestic security. The police are actively involved in the repression. The international community is struggling to find an effective way of promoting a peaceful resolution. In the middle of this chaos are the Nicaraguan people, whose economy is deteriorating, whose security has been undermined, and whose dream of peace and democracy has turned into a nightmare.
Orlando J. Pérez is Associate Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Millersville University. He is the author of Civil-Military Relations in Post-Conflict Societies: Transforming the Role of the Military in Central America. You can follow him on Twitter @perez1oj.