If there’s no negotiated peace with a return to order, the conflict could spin out of control, bringing the chronic violence and insecurity of the country’s northern neighbours.
In a video clip, a young boy stands at a makeshift barricade across a road. He holds a toy gun to the head of his friend. Off camera, an adult asks, “What are you going to do?” “We’ll kill him and leave him naked,” replies the boy. The adults laugh. This scene from Nicaragua, filmed at one of the hundreds of towns paralyzed by street protests, epitomizes the violence that has taken hold since April 18. Before that date, local media proudly quoted figures showing that Nicaragua had become the safest country in Central America. But the two months since then have seen more than 170 violent deaths, thousands injured, and scores of public buildings burned down or ransacked.
How did it begin? Nicaragua has a backstory of violence: the revolutionary struggles of the 1970s against the repressive Somoza dictatorship, followed by the US-financed Contra war against the revolutionary Sandinista government in the 1980s (the US role in that war was condemned by the World Court in 1986 as a violation of international law). Electoral defeat for the Sandinistas in 1990 brought peace, but at the expense of 16 years of corrupt, neoliberal government that undid many of the gains of the revolution. Daniel Ortega’s election win in 2006 led to a decade of renewed social investment. Poverty fell by almost half between 2005 and 2016, according to World Bank data, from 48 percent to 25 percent. Nicaragua won praise for its low crime rate, limited drug-related violence, and community-based policing. Nor could the private sector complain: Nicaragua’s per-capita GDP increased by 38 percent—more than for any of its neighbours.
Government opponents favour a different version of the story: Ortega took total control of the Sandinista party (the FSLN), bent the rules to stand for re-election, won the Catholic Church’s support with stringent anti-abortion laws, and relied for many of his anti-poverty programs on money from Venezuela. A breakaway group of Sandinistas who had earlier formed a new party, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), began to label Ortega as a new dictator and accuse him of repression. But they never achieved much political traction, moved rightward to form alliances with longer-standing opposition parties, and yet still won only handfuls of votes in national and local elections.
In April, however, the government suddenly seemed to lose the support of many younger people, especially students. First there was popular resentment against what was seen as its slow response to a large fire in one of Nicaragua’s tropical forests (although, as Californians know, even well-resourced governments struggle to stop wildfires). Then the government announced a change in social-security rules. Struggling to meet rising pension costs, it refused demands by employers that their contributions be cut, and instead proposed to raise them, to make a smaller increase in employee contributions, and to cut pensions by 5 percent (but offset by stronger health-care entitlements).
This had three extraordinary consequences. First, rather than older people, it was students who led the most virulent protests against the changes. Second, in an unprecedented response, on April 19 the police used live ammunition to control the disturbances, in which at least three were killed, including a police officer, and dozens injured. Third, this event proved to be a catalyst for nationwide protests, in which the social-security reforms were soon forgotten (having been quickly withdrawn by the government). The call was now for “the dictator” to resign. Barricades sprang up in several major cities and many towns, not least Masaya, whose traditional heart, Monimbó, historically a Sandinista stronghold, produced the strongest anti-government sentiment. By April 24, the death toll had reached at least 25, including a journalist and a second police officer.
It was the student deaths that set the consensus narrative sustained in local and international media over subsequent weeks: that the government is repressing “peaceful protests” or even (from Amnesty International) that Nicaraguan authorities had “turned on their own people.” A corollary to this is that all violence is the government’s fault, whether carried out openly or via clandestine groups. The international press faithfully adopted this interpretation of events, even when The New York Times and The Guardian sent reporters to Monimbó itself (the Times quoted a baker in Masaya as saying “Daniel is over. His term ends here,” without mentioning that the man was a beneficiary of government assistance to small businesses). The reality is that the nature of the violence changed rapidly, and objective observers find it difficult to interpret events with the certainty that most of the media display.
How did this change happen? There were two phases. In the first, barricades that had been removed were re-erected, again blocking streets, with Masaya again the most affected. The “peaceful” protesters armed themselves with homemade mortars, repelling attempts by the police or Sandinista supporters to regain control. Rival marches took place, in many cases without problems, but friends of mine took part in a “peace” march that was greeted by hails of stones and mortar fire. A wave of destruction began, focusing first on Sandinista offices, then moving on to public buildings, including town halls and in some cases schools and health centres. Houses of some Sandinista supporters in Masaya were ransacked or burned down. According to neighbours who witnessed it, alongside genuine protesters were unemployed youths paid $10–15 per night, some brought in by lorry, defending the barricades, attacking the police, and ransacking shops.
The second phase of protests began in the second half of May. First, a “national dialogue” to resolve the crisis opened on May 16, fronted by the Catholic Church and attended by Ortega. One of the student representatives, Lesther Alemán, said it was not a dialogue but a negotiation about the president’s departure. Talks broke down five days later, when the government insisted that the opposition remove the barricades; instead, they were strengthened. Then on May 30, Mother’s Day in Nicaragua, two big demonstrations held in the capital attracted more violence. A bus carrying Sandinista supporters was fired at, causing one death and 27 injuries; and snipers attacked opposition supporters leaving their demonstration, killing seven and injuring over 90, including 20 police. Blame for the second attack was inevitably placed on the police.
Protests immediately escalated to the point where the country was paralyzed by barricades. Some towns and cities—the biggest again being Masaya—became no-go areas for the police or government officials, with several either being killed or kidnapped and tortured. By mid-June the death toll had reached over 170, including nine police officers.
How do we interpret these events? What I’ve called “the consensus narrative” is certainly the way they are seen by perhaps a third of the population, including former Sandinistas. There is an opposite view: that government repression is a fiction, and that right from the beginning the violence was orchestrated by the government’s long-standing opponents to create the conditions for a soft coup. As we have seen, the mainstream media have unfailingly accepted the first interpretation, either giving no credibility to the second or omitting mention of it.
It seems clear that repression of the initial student demonstration was a grave error of judgment by the police. But there is growing evidence that subsequent events were manipulated so as to magnify discontent. For example, according to a reliable eyewitness, before the ransacking of a supermarket in Managua those doing it were seen to be given Sandinista T-shirts to wear. Burning of buildings is routinely ascribed to Sandinistas, even when it is party officials’ houses that are destroyed, or in city streets under the opposition’s control. Police in Managua apprehended a known criminal nicknamed “The Viper” who confessed to plotting with the protesters to carry out armed attacks on shops and FSLN offices. Even the evidence against the police for the shooting at the opposition march on Mother’s Day has been called into question, in an open letter to Amnesty International by a former prisoner of conscience. The fact that gunmen are working with the opposition was confirmed by the attempted assassination of Leonel Morales, a student leader who strongly criticized the protesters. On June 12 he was kidnapped, shot, and left for dead in a ditch, an incident at first ignored by the right-wing media, then ascribed to robbery.
The opposition is united in wanting an end to Ortega’s presidency. It has fed on popular complaints, including within the Sandinista base, that Ortega has stifled debate within the party and instead of encouraging a new generation of leaders has centralized power in himself and his wife. But the opposition is also divided on timing, tactics, and broader political aims. Some government opponents have openly accepted US funding. For example, between 2014 and 2017, the National Endowment for Democracy awarded 54 grants totalling $4.1 million to opposition-linked NGOs. A May article on NED funding in the online journal Global Americans, “Laying the groundwork for change,” said that “it is now quite evident that the U.S. government actively helped build the political space and capacity in Nicaraguan society for the social uprising that is currently unfolding.” Part of the opposition, the MRS, has long-established relations with Republican right-wingers in the United States; it and other organizations had earlier travelled to Washington to call for US economic sanctions against Nicaragua. A broader opposition delegation was in Washington this month to lobby the US government and the Organization of American States. It was funded by Freedom House and welcomed by Republicans such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Other government opponents declare themselves to be genuine leftists who want to restore Nicaragua’s revolutionary trajectory. For example, a left-wing student opposition leader, Harley Morales, used a lengthy interview to criticize his colleagues who travelled to Washington for their “terrible” decision to take part in meetings that “gave them a bad name.”
Morales signalled a more sinister opposition weakness, that they had “lost touch” with those on the barricades. Though described as a key element of peaceful protest, the barricades have become a way of enforcing the opposition agenda, often violently. The homemade mortars are lethal enough, but more sophisticated weapons have been introduced, leading to worries that not just local delinquents but organized-crime syndicates may be involved. Nicaragua has so far resisted the incursion of drug-related violence that plagues neighbouring Honduras and El Salvador, but there are genuine concerns that the drug gangs, commonly known as the “maras,” are ready to fill any political vacuum.
What happens next? While writing this, three new developments occurred that seem to signpost the options that Nicaragua faces. The most recent is that police entered Masaya in force, regaining access to the besieged police station and removing the barricades sealing the city off from the capital. There were up to six deaths (the number is still unconfirmed) and many arrests as the police removed numerous barricades and those who were defending them with various types of weapons. Similar actions brought down barricades in Managua and Estelí. The New York Times labeled the police’s entry into Masaya “a campaign of terror,” but parts of the city returned to normal daily life as a result. Monimbó is proving more resistant, and church leaders have sought a truce between police and opposition fighters.
The second development is that, after a delay caused by the Mother’s Day shootings, the national dialogue restarted, made limited progress, but then halted again awaiting the involvement of international bodies whose presence the opposition demands. So far, the opposition side still refuses to talk about anything other than the government-led violence, but its divisions will become more pronounced when the dialogue resumes and they are forced to engage in finding solutions.
The most shocking of the recent events appeared to be timed to coincide with and discredit the dialogue. On June 16, a family house in Managua was set on fire by hooded thugs, killing most of the occupants, including two children. The government was quickly blamed, because allegedly the fire was in reprisal for the owner’s refusal to allow snipers to operate from his roof. Government denials seemed plausible, as the barrio concerned has numerous barricades controlled by the opposition. On the other hand, a surviving family member backs up the opposition version. The truth is difficult to ascertain, and if proof emerges, it is unlikely to dispel the media verdicts about who the real culprits were.
So Nicaragua faces a choice. One path is simply to do what governments often do: put up with protest for a while, but intervene if it ceases to be “peaceful” and restore order by force. Many other countries faced with a similar choice might have acted even sooner. A second path is a negotiated peace, in which differences are painstakingly reconciled, with a settlement bringing political reforms as well a return to public order. Of course, these paths could be combined. A third, however, is far more dangerous: a turn toward mob rule that could easily run out of control, so that Nicaragua becomes open to a truly authoritarian government and life becomes far less secure than it was before April 18. Most Nicaraguans have only limited knowledge of the violence and insecurity experienced in El Salvador and Honduras, their immediate neighbours to the north. They may soon find how easily this could cross the border.