Nicaragua had a record 1.8 million tourists last year. It’s a beautiful country, and in 2017 it officially became the safest in Central America. But after three days of political violence last month, one of the few certainties in 2018 is that it will lose both records. More than 40 people died in the protests, ostensibly over government social security reforms.
Crises in social security funding are hardly unique to Nicaragua, where poor management of investments and a growing elderly population have led to a growing shortfall. However, unlike in neighbouring Honduras, no one suggests the president has simply robbed the money. Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government proposed a rise in employer contributions, a smaller one in employee payments and a 5% cut in pensions (offset by stronger health care entitlements). The employers’ federation, COSEP, opposed to paying more and instead offering more drastic cuts, called for protests. University students obliged. The government dispatched anti-riot police who (having never done so before) fired live rounds.
The resultant deaths provoked pitched battles in several cities over the following two days, with both police and rival demonstrators the victims. Government offices were burnt down and shops ransacked. In Masaya, where I live, young people built barricades with paving stones from which they exchanged fire with home-made mortars and Molotov cocktails. As far as anyone could tell – most were wearing bandanas – the rival groups were, on one side, active government opponents joined by disenchanted Sandinistas and, on the other, government supporters. Looters took advantage of the chaos. Rage was fomented by exaggerated or completely fake news stories on Latin America’s favourite smartphone app, Facebook. Older people wary of a return to Nicaragua’s violent past looked on in horror.
The turmoil ended as quickly as it began after the government suspended the social security changes. Those arrested were released. Aminta Granera, the once-popular police chief accredited with the low crime levels, has resigned. A truth commission will investigate the deaths. A dialogue has started, although with demands ranging from milder social security reforms to Ortega’s resignation it is difficult to see a resolution acceptable to all sides.
The international press, giving the country some rare attention, has largely mimicked the opposition in referring to Ortega as a leftist strongman or, worse, as building a dynastic dictatorship. It’s true that the supreme court overturned constitutional requirements, allowing him to run for election a second and third time. It’s true that, aged 72, Ortega’s succession strategy was not to bring on younger politicians but (everyone believed) to make way for his wife, Rosario Murillo, to stand in 2021. However, it’s also true that on taking power in 2008 he overturned years of government neglect (daily power cuts, roads full of potholes, huge numbers of children not in school) to create a country largely free of the drugs-related violence that affects its neighbours, until now with a trusted police force, and massive investment in health and education that have narrowed the gap between rich and poor.
The New York Times quotes a baker in Masaya as saying “Daniel is over. His term ends here.” It doesn’t mention that the man was a beneficiary of the government’s social programmes. But if his prophesy comes true, what will be the result? It seems clear that Murillo, previously a shrewd but arrogant operator, has lost her credibility. Only one or two other Sandinista politicians have any standing with the public since the party split two decades ago. Among opposition politicians, none have gained more than a small percentage of votes in recent elections, most are tainted with the heavy corruption of previous presidencies and not one offers a credible alternative programme. Yet they have the support of right-wing newspapers, several TV channels and the US government.
Ortega is still fond of anti-US rhetoric in his speeches, votes against US interests at the UN and keeps strong ties with Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, China and other US rivals. At the same time, he’s well aware that the US is Nicaragua’s biggest trade partner, readily signed a trade agreement with it and has presided over huge business expansion. He runs the only country between here and the Texan border that successfully controls drugs and which few people want to leave to make the dangerous trek north. In the last decade it’s had the fastest growth in the region and poverty has fallen by almost half.
My nephew whose father was killed by the real dictatorship that preceded the 1979 revolution summarised his attitude towards Ortega as ‘better the devil you know’. Many – very likely most – Nicaraguans share his worry about the alternatives. Young people agitating for change, politicians claiming that the dictatorship has returned and a United States obsessed with Ortega’s ‘communist’ past ought to think carefully about the consequences. If it were to be the beginning of the end for Ortega, who or what would come next?
Original post and comments: London Review of Books