The killings by police and armed thugs hired by Nicaragua’s government have reached an average of three a day in the streets of the country’s dusty cities and farm towns, nearing 200 since mid-April when the nationwide protest started. Most of the victims are singled out from among the young students who have erected hundreds of barricades built from cobblestones used in lieu of asphalt to surface roads in the tropical nation’s urban areas.
It is deeply disturbing to watch, and watch it you can on social media: beatings by police of handcuffed teenagers, and masked gangs armed with pistols and pipes freely roaming neighborhoods as families cower indoors. This is how insurrections begin. Any Nicaraguan knows that. An uprising led by young people was how the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, the Sandinista Front, led by one Daniel Ortega toppled a particularly ruthless dictator, Anastasio Somoza, in 1979. It cost the lives of about 50,000 Nicaraguans.
In a cruel, ironic reversal, the same Ortega, now Nicaragua’s seventy-two-year-old president, is the target of a revolutionary movement led by a new generation of the country’s young people. But there is crucial distinction: this revolution is a civic and democratic one, whose model is not Fidel Castro’s armed struggle as Ortega’s was in the 1970s, but the civil disobedience and peaceful resistance of Christian martyrs, of Martin Luther King Jr. and India’s Mahatma Gandhi.
It was sparked by an initiative to reform the country’s social security system. Such reforms have been undertaken in many countries to ensure the financial sustainability of pensions. But in Nicaragua, the effort raised ire as it reminded citizens that all the institutions in Ortega’s government have been captured by it to serve but two purposes: to enrich its leaders, and sustain the regime.
In just days, street marches mushroomed into mass demonstrations in which hundreds of thousands transformed Managua’s arteries and plazas into a surging sea of blue-and-white Nicaraguan flags, the iconic symbol of patriotic resistance. To prevent such protests from being dismissed as ephemeral eruptions, students took it upon themselves to block streets, while businesses and workers have launched days of national strike. In this most devoutly Catholic of countries, the bishops quickly organized a “national dialogue” to mediate what grew from a social security reform controversy to an existential crisis for the government. The dialogue has been convened in stops and starts, stymied by Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, the country’s vice-president who is widely seen as the regime’s de facto decision-maker. The couple refuses to recognize publicly what is obvious to all: that the only issue that matters is how and when they will relinquish power.
At the dialogue’s opening day, May 16, Ortega delivered rambling and oddly disjointed remarks about his own suffering as a young revolutionary, the tragedy of violent death in general, and offered a convoluted analogy between Nicaragua’s student protestors and Israeli troops repressing Palestinians in Gaza. His apologists, such as Bayardo Arce, the only original top Sandinista commander still loyal to the regime, echoed the point saying there is nothing unusual about protestors in democracies. “Trump has them too,” he said.
Nicaragua: not a real democracy
In real democracies, of course, the government does not send the police and armed gangs to brutalize and kill protestors. But the Sandinista Front has never been entirely comfortable with democracy as practiced in western countries. Its founding ideology was forged in the early 1960s by Carlos Fonseca and a group of Nicaraguan students deeply influenced by Marxist-Leninist doctrine and inspired by the 1959 Cuban revolution. They grafted this to a revisionist celebration of Augusto Sandino, a liberal nationalist who led a volunteer army against U.S. Marine occupation of Nicaragua in the 1920s. Unlike the movement that bore his name, Sandino was more democrat than Marxist.
I was reminded of this when the Nicaraguan novelist Sergio Ramirez accepted the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the Spanish-speaking world, at Madrid’s royal palace in April. The first Central American to be so recognized, a solemn Ramirez prefaced his remarks by paying respect to the Nicaraguan students, then just a few, “who have been murdered in the streets for demanding justice and democracy.”
When the Sandinistas first seized power in 1979, Ramirez was a leading member of the “national reconstruction junta” which ruled Nicaragua until an election in 1984. In that contest, Ramirez was elected and served as vice-president on a ticket with Ortega until 1990, when the Sandinistas were defeated by an opposition alliance. Ramirez later broke with the FSLN, and lost a presidential bid in 1996. In a memoir of his political career, he observed that the Sandinistas’ chief legacy was that they introduced democracy to Nicaragua. This was surprising, he wrote, because democracy “was not our principal project”; it came far behind instituting a socialist state.
Indeed, the nature of Ortega’s rule since he was returned to power in 2006 serves to underline his similarity not to democrats but rather to earlier Nicaraguan dictators, notably Somoza whose regime he overthrew in 1979. In order to consistently win elections, Ortega learned, he had to fix them. Like Somoza’s, Ortega’s administration—the second time around—is not only marked by corruption, but driven by it.
This began in 1999 when Ortega, then out of power but still a formidable political force, concluded a pact with his Liberal party rival, then-President Arnoldo Alemán, who led another government riven by graft and bribery. Under the pact, the two men pledged reciprocal lifetime protection from prosecution. For Ortega, it prevented legal action against him arising from an accusation of sexual abuse by his step-daughter. Other more consequential elements of the pact, passed as constitutional amendments, expanded the number of Supreme Court justices and magistrates on the Supreme Electoral Council. Alemán, and later Ortega, packed both with loyalists, ensuring much leverage over legal and electoral outcomes. Municipal electoral councils in cities and towns were also captured. Rules were invented to discourage electoral alliances such as the one that defeated Ortega’s party in 1990. A network of cronies and state capture that was created has discredited any new electoral contest in which Ortega is a candidate.
While Nicaragua’s economic growth has kept pace, and discounted Venezuelan oil has—until recently—helped Ortega’s regime deliver social benefits to its supporters in a network of so-called citizen power councils, the pension reform has become a lightning rod for those fed up with corruption and, remarkably, for young people seeking a future built on something more than the Ortegas’ patronage.
Sandino’s conditions revisited
This past weekend, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Nicaragua’s most prominent journalist, the son of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, an anti-Somoza editor murdered in 1978, and his widow Violeta Chamorro, a former president, outlined four “premises” for negotiating Ortega’s surrender. They are that the repression stop, that justice be restored to put human rights abusers on trial, that Ortega and Murillo resign, and that the UN, European Union and Organization of American States supervise new elections.
Ninety years ago, Augusto Sandino’s conditions for ending his war for national sovereignty were remarkably similar. “The only way the struggle can be ended,” he wrote in a 1928 message published in the U.S. newspaper The Nation, “is…by the substitution of the present President by some Nicaraguan not a candidate for the Presidency; and the supervision of the coming elections by Latin-American representatives instead of American marines.”
It is a strange twist of history that the demand facing the Ortega couple is rooted in that of their icon, Sandino himself. It is also inexorable. Students, business leaders, educators and independent media are united in affirming that the protests will not stop until Ortega and Murillo resign, and depart the scene. They cannot possibly participate in, and still less be the architects of a reform whose purpose is to sweep away the tainted apparatus that keeps them in power.
In this, they find themselves in exactly the same position as Somoza in 1979. Then, a prolonged and bloody crisis finally ended only when the dictator gathered his family and fled. Ortega has been repeating moves from Somoza’s playbook for years. Now he needs to follow this last example. Venezuela would likely accept him.