"A massive violation of human rights"
In late April, civil unrest swept across Nicaragua. Over 40 people were killed, ostensibly over social security reforms proposed by Daniel Ortega‘s government. Many more were injured at the hands of the police who used live rounds, or in beatings by pro-government groups, western media reported.
One local blogger reported: “Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government proposed a rise in employer contributions, a smaller one in employee contributions and a 5% cut in pensions (offset by stronger health care entitlements). The employers’ federation, which is opposed to paying more and would prefer more drastic cuts, called for protests. University students obliged. The government dispatched anti-riot police who – having never done so before – fired live rounds.”
Pitched battles followed in several cities and the army was deployed amid widespread looting. Independent media were censored and Nicaraguan state news outlets blamed the protesters. The unpopular social security overhaul was suspended and the violence subsided.
For some. President Ortega continues to enjoy huge legitimacy as a key figure in the 1979 popular revolution that overthrew the decades-long Somoza dictatorship. Through the 1980s, Nicaragua pursued policies popular with most ordinary Nicaraguans – in the teeth of armed subversion by the USA. The Sandinistas lost power in 1990, but bounced back in 2007, with Nicaragua receiving economic help from Venezuela, but facing renewed pressure from the US.
Last year, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act, which would cut the loans Nicaragua receives from international financial institutions. This legislation is currently stalled in the Senate. Nicaragua’s uncharacteristic violence comes at a convenient time for US policymakers seeking to tighten the screws on the country.
Additionally, the US National Endowment for Democracy has been channelling money - over a million dollars last year - to student and civil society groups opposed to the Nicaraguan government. For some, the recent violence resembles unrest in Venezuela, both in its choice of weapons - homemade mortars and rockets - and in the prominent role played by students, who are not directly affected by the social security reform.
But for others, the involvement of many young people, often from Sandinista families, underlines their anger at the corruption of revolutionary values by the Ortegas. Ortega’s latest term in office has seen power centralised, with presidential term limits scrapped and the unpopular first lady, Rosario Murillo, made vice president - potentially the successor.
The Ortegas dominate Nicaragua’s Congress and judiciary. Their children run the family’s considerable business empire and the government’s radicalism has been superseded by an alliance with conservative sections of the catholic church, exemplified by harsh anti-abortion legislation. The government’s latest target appears to be social media and the internet.
The Economist accuses Ortega of “establishing a family dynasty reminiscent of the dictatorship he overthrew in 1979,” comparing him to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, “re-elected last year in a vote widely believed to have been fraudulent.” This is cynical obfuscation: Honduras, remember, saw its elected government overthrown in a US-backed coup in 2009. It quickly became one of the most dangerous countries in the world for political activists and its current president is a US placeman.
But this longstanding hostility in the mainstream media to Nicaragua’s government makes the left wary of criticising it. Activists in Nicaragua allege violence on both sides, saying some protesters had highly hostile political agendas. One reported significant vandalism, for example of mobile health clinics. A Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign statement confirms this analysis with considerable detail.
But other reliable local sources alarmingly report that the Ortegas now hire thugs from the poorest neighbourhoods to put down protests violently. Videos show goon squads in pickup trucks, driving up and beating protestors with pipes and clubs despite the presence of the police. A leading member of the country’s Human Rights Commission was herself injured in such an attack while observing a peaceful protest.
The Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights, whose director is Vilma Núñez, a woman of great stature who was imprisoned and tortured under Somoza and served on Nicaragua’s Supreme Court following the 1979 Revolution, has produced a scathing report. It lays the blame for the “massive violation of human rights” that it documents squarely on the Ortegas. As for the Truth Commission set up to investigate the bloodshed, the Report concludes, “ Nicaraguans can in no way accept the manoeuvre of setting up a Truth Commission by the President of the National Assembly, who has not the moral authority or credibility to initiate something of this nature.”
This view is widely shared: critics see a whitewash in preparation. Ortega’s time in office may well have been shortened by recent events, but what follows is uncertain - especially as violence flared up again in mid-May.