Ortega’s Nicaragua: A broken promise

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

—Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight

From the late 1960s through the 1970s, a young man named Daniel Ortega found himself at the forefront of revolutionary change in Nicaragua. As a prominent member of one of the three factions within the Sandinista movement in the late 1970s, he became part of the ruling directory after the Sandinistas ended decades of brutal dictatorship at the hands of Antonio “Tachito” Somoza and his family through violent uprising. He became one of the leading faces of socialist opposition against entrenched Latin American dictators. Almost 50 years later, it is now Mr. Ortega, President of Nicaragua, who is the target of a new generation of opposition, enraged by systematic corruption, nepotism, censorship, and austerity.

This turn of events has come as a relative shock to most Nicaraguans, as Ortega recently won his third consecutive term as president with pretty convincing margins. In his 11 years in power, Ortega has worked with the private sector of Nicaragua to increase economic growth and participation as well as kept Nicaragua free of the high levels of violence that plague most of the region. While the steps Daniel Ortega has taken appear to be increased progress, it has come at a dangerous cost. Since coming into power in 2007, Ortega has dismantled Nicaragua’s democratic institutions — he now controls the nation’s Supreme Court, national legislature, and most of the media. Moreover, much of the revolution continues to be fuelled by the deeply-ingrained unpopularity of Ortega’s wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo.

Civil unrest and anti-government protests against Ortega, beginning on 18 April 2018 in Nicaraguan cities, have escalated in protest of Ortega’s social security reforms. Ortega’s plan will increase worker and employer contributions while simultaneously decreasing overall benefits for much of the retired population of Nicaragua. At the initial announcement of these reforms, university students in the capital city, Managua, protested on campuses, but were quickly met by Ortega’s police force, who used live ammunition to break up protesters — killing 26 people over the course of several days. Though President Ortega eventually canceled the implementation of these pension reforms on 22 April, outrage over government-sponsored violence, censorship of media, and the lack of democratic ideals as perpetuated by Ortega and his administration built the foundation for which protests that continue today.

Since April, protesters have continued to clash violently with pro-government forces. The death toll is now estimated at 152 people, and protestors have called for Ortega to step down and hold new elections. The most violent of the confrontations occurred on 30 May, Nicaragua’s Mother’s Day, at a march attended by hundreds of thousands of people to honor and mourn the lives of students and protestors killed by the government up until then. At the event, government forces killed 16 people and injured 200. The event, dubbed the ‘Mother’s Day Massacre,’ put an abrupt end to the budding peace talks between the government and its citizens.

The conflict between protestors and the government has borne witness to severe violations of civil and human rights. Amnesty International is in the process of conducting a full report on the status of human rights in Nicaragua and has published that “the Nicaraguan government adopted a strategy of violent oppression not seen in the country for years.” The main aspect of this strategy? Shoot to kill.

In light of the Ortega administration’s refusal to leave office or hold new elections, anti-Ortega activists are seeking new avenues to combat the government. Currently, economic strikes seem to be one of the next steps for the Nicaraguan opposition coalition, as attempts toward open dialogue between the government and protestors have failed yet again. Funides, a local think tank, has estimated that Nicaragua’s economy will shrink by two percent if political instability continues through the year. This would put Nicaragua in an “economic paralysis” and would be the country’s first recession since 2009.

Echoes of the past haunt Ortega as many protestors use revolutionary symbols and slogans he once shouted against the Somoza family. Phrases such as “Patria libre o morir,” meaning “Free fatherland or death,” the most famous revolutionary slogan of the revolutionary era of the 1970s, can be heard throughout the streets. The children and grandchildren of revolutionary fighters of the Sandinista revolution command the current opposition that hopes to force Ortega and his wife out of power. It is evident that young Nicaraguans are tired of the corruption allegations surrounding Ortega and his wife, even going so far as to claim that his authoritarianism resembles the Somoza family. It appears the once-revolutionary man has betrayed the rebellion—transforming into the very entity against which he once fought.


Author: Sophie Mason

Sophie Mason serves as The Compass’s senior editor. Sophie is a sophomore double-majoring in International Affairs and Psychology. This summer, she worked as an intern at the Centre for Refugees, handling casework and communications material for the organization. She also serves as an associate editor for The Globe, the Elliott School’s undergraduate international affairs journal, and as the director of programming for GW Strategic Crisis Simulations.