Note: This article originally appeared in Spanish on our partner website esglobal. Click here to read the original article.
It will soon be a year since massive protests unexpectedly erupted in Nicaragua, initially driven by thousands of students who were protesting what had become an accumulation of grievances. Although the initial demands of protestors focused on the rejection of a proposed reform of the public pension system and the government’s mismanagement following a devastating fire in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, the protests quickly turned into a rejection of the increasingly authoritarian style of the patronage-driven, plutocratic Ortega-Murillo regime. The government responded to the protests with violent repression.
Since then, Nicaragua has been immersed in a crisis of governability in which periods of calm have alternated with violence. During the eleven months since protests erupted there have been failed negotiations, well-attended anti-government marches, occupations of public space, tanks in the streets, military and paramilitary operations, a spike in arrests, murder and kidnapping, and the exile and exodus of many government opponents.
The crisis, although unexpected, was predictable. Ortega’s decade of absolute control over Nicaragua’s institutions and politics has led to a systemic inability to channel dissent. And by not allowing an organized opposition that could assert its voice legally, when a window of opportunity appeared to protest, the accumulated discontent broke out in a crowded and disorderly manner on the streets. Faced with what had become protests against the entire government, the regime responded in the worst possible fashion: first, by ignoring what was happening on the streets and then with fierce repression. As a result of the government’s ineptitude, the protests became the most significant disruption to the status quo in the country in the past three decades.
However, neither the demonstrations themselves nor the international pressure have been enough to force the departure of the Ortega-Murillo regime. During the last decades, mass protests in several Latin American countries have led to the fall of unpopular executives. Between 1992 and 2016, fifteen presidents in nine Latin American countries have been dismissed before the end of their term. Whereas before 1990, Latin American presidents were typically deposed through violent coups d’état, for the last thirty years “presidential departures” as a result of popular protests have followed a typical pattern.
Various causes lead to the departure of Latin American presidents: acts of corruption, media scandals, evidence of association with narco-trafficking, mental incapacity, confrontation with the legislative branch, economic crisis, widespread protests, abusive police repression, dissolution of a governing coalition, and military intervention. Despite this lengthy list, Aníbal Pérez-Liñán believes that at least three conditions must be met in order for a presidential exit to take place. The first is that the president’s party does not hold a majority in the legislature; second is a scandal involving the president gains significant traction in local media; third is the emergence of broad popular protests demanding the president’s resignation. According to this reasoning, the existence of an institutional conflict between the executive and the legislative branch is crucial, since popular mobilization and media scandals are simply factors that place additional pressure on the president in the context of the executive’s confrontation with the legislature.
In the case of Nicaragua, it’s clear that one crucial element for a presidential exit is missing: , Ortega has complete control over the Nicaraguan National Assembly and has overseen a decade-long move toward an authoritarian system. In this sense, although many of Pérez-Liñán’s factors for Ortega’s departure exist–economic crisis (triggered by diminishing support from Venezuela and individual sanctions from the United States), rumors of corruption in the state-owned Albanisa bank, and wide-spread popular protests—the regime’s complete control over the legislative branch makes any imminent departure on Ortega’s part unlikely. With the legislature out of the picture, the army is the central figure in the crisis, but the Nicaraguan armed forces are also increasingly under the control of the Ortega-Murillo regime—a fact made tragically clear by the role of the army, the national police and pro-government paramilitary groups in violently suppressing anti-government protests.
Another explanatory factor surrounding presidential exits is the attitude of the executive toward the prospect of leaving office. Daniel Ortega, the FSLN, and their related organizations have given no indication that they plan to leave office. In fact, the regime has adopted a rhetoric that ongoing struggle is simply the beginning of the “third phase” of the Sandinista revolution. The regime’s official discourse has also indicated that the alliance with strategic partners (the business community and the Catholic Church) was no longer an option, and that, as a result, the Sandinista base had to double down and become more militant.
The final key factor in understanding the Nicaragua crisis is the tepid strength of the opposition. The process of de-democratization promoted by the Ortega regime over the past decade has affected the capacity of the opposition, which was systematically divided, excluded and weakened. In this sense, it is understandable that opposition forces have been unable to mount a serious challenge to the government beyond organizing protests.
The opposition in Nicaragua is made up of a broad coalition—most of whom are young—that is far from cohesive and sorely lacking in leadership, sustained only by a shared rejection of the regime. The speeches and manifestos against the Ortega government produced by the movement reveal the extent of the diversity of ideological positions within the opposition. The greatest test will be whether the opposition can move beyond protests in the streets, toward a consistent organization platform that can compete in the electoral arena. Further complicating this crucial test is the harsh repression of the opposition by the Ortega regime, which has led to the imprisonment of hundreds of activists and the exile of thousands more. At the same time, proposals by the government—sincere or not—to open a new round of dialogue has further divided the opposition and bought the government precious time.
It is important to note that, no matter what, the regeneration of Nicaraguan political life will be a slow, tedious process. The process of rebuilding democracy and restoring social trust will require time and effort. The democratic backsliding of the last decade and the repression carried out by the government over the last year is impossible to make up for overnight. Many believed that May 16, 2018 would mark the beginning of healing, with the convening of a “Table of National Dialogue” involving members of the government, university sectors, unions, the business community, and civil society organizations, mediated by the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua. In the end, the effort at dialogue failed because the Ortega regime continued to violently repress protestors and refused to open up a process toward democratization.
Ten months later, a new dialogue has been proposed, this time with fewer interlocutors and lowered expectations. As long as there continue to be political prisoners, thousands of exiles and government-sponsored repression of protestors, there is little hope that any new dialogue effort will yield fruit. At the same time, the Ortega regime is struggling to govern effectively in the midst of political instability, economic crisis and international hostility. For now, everything indicates that the president’s strategy is limited to resistance and repression. The danger is that, as the stalemate between the government and its adversaries wears on, the chances of societal healing in the near future become increasingly unlikely.