The People's Fight for Democracy in Nicaragua

Police shoot at student protesting against Daniel Ortega. (Esteban Felix/AP.)

Police shoot at student protesting against Daniel Ortega. (Esteban Felix/AP.)

Ever since the re-election of President Daniel Ortega in 2006, Nicaragua’s political environment has transformed into a battlefield for democracy, featuring Ortega’s authoritarian regime versus the people of Nicaragua. Since April of 2018, 300 have been killed, 2,000 have been injured, and 2,5000 have applied or are planning to apply for asylum in neighboring countries. These numbers showcase the damaging effects of Ortega’s authoritarian reign on the Nicaraguan people.

Ortega and the Sandinista party defeated Eduardo Montealegre in the 2006 elections to become president in a seemingly democratic fashion. However, Ortega has managed to stay in power and increase his influence since then by committing multiple instances of election fraud and disregarding the Nicaraguan constitution. Within his first year of power, Ortega gained control of the central bank, the police force and the military. This marked the beginning of a major power grab by the Sandinista party. In the 2008 municipal elections, Ortega seized control of the Supreme Electoral Council, the public organization responsible for regulating national elections, and subsequently revoked the legal status of two opposition parties, prohibiting them from appearing on the ballot. To solidify his supremacy, Ortega then announced he was eliminating the ban on consecutive presidential terms, a political power that the constitution explicitly delegates to the National Assembly. The Supreme Court, under the control of Ortega’s party, supported Ortega and lifted the ban, overpowering opposition from the National Assembly. This cleared a path for his next electoral victory in 2011, which was condemned by international observers for “electoral irregularities.” Ortega further extended his power in 2014 by passing legislation through the National Assembly--newly filled with his political allies--that changed the constitution to dispose of presidential term limits completely.

The tipping point was Ortega’s reform of the social security system in April of 2018. The Board of Directors of the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security implemented reforms that decreased employee benefits and increased employee contributions. Outraged, the public took to the streets in protest. These anti-government protests led state forces along with armed pro-government groups to violently suppress protesters, killing three and injuring dozens within the first two days. Even though Ortega rolled back the social security reforms in the next several days, the protests raged on, with many of the pro-government groups using disproportionate and excessive force on unarmed civilians. These groups, supported and protected by the government, carried out attacks on the protesters in order to weaken and suffocate any opposition to the Ortega government.

Even though the death toll has risen dramatically since April, protests have dissipated because of new anti-terrorist laws and arbitrary detentions. Ortega has begun to detain and torture those who openly speak out against his government, specifically targeting and criminalizing dissenters. In addition, new anti-terrorist laws have broadened the definition of terrorism, making the least assuming offenses, such as treating wounded protestors, contenders for acts of terror. Further, those charged under the law can be tried in secret courts and, if convicted, receive a 20-year prison sentence.

These actions by Ortega’s government have driven many into hiding. Activists have been forced to seek out safehouses and attempt to remove themselves from public view. Many who still want their voice heard will post videos with shirts covering their faces as to conceal their identity. But most have realized that publicly speaking out against the government will most likely get them jailed or killed.The fear has caused an estimated 60,000 people to flee to neighboring countries, most of which go to Costa Rica.

To make matters worse, Ortega has recently begun to eradicate any media opposition, both from international and domestic sources. In August, Ortega expelled the United Nations Human Rights Commission from the country just two days after they released a report condemning the current government. Just last week, Ortega stripped nine organizations of their legal status, as well as raiding the offices of two independent news outlets that were speaking out against the government. These organizations and news outlets were the last of the dissenting voices being heard in Nicaragua.

Nicaraguans are now living in a country without information. Most of the main media sources have been commandeered by Ortega’s government, and those left are in hiding, attempting to function with the limited agency and materials they have. Yet even if there were ideas to rally around, the people are too afraid to protest the rule of Ortega. The silencing of dissent in Nicaragua will only continue with Ortega’s control of the justice system and police force. At this point, there is little hope in sight for forces within the country to overthrow the Ortega government.

With little to no international pressure, the Ortega government will push the country further towards the brink of disaster. Since April, the economy has been crumbling due to the political maelstrom, heavily discouraging foreign investors that normally keep it afloat. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have also been lost in the midst of the economic downturn, further depressing a country reported to be the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The current political environment is therefore proving to be extremely detrimental to an already unstable Nicaraguan economy.

International actors have made some attempts to weaken Ortega’s regime, yet is has not been enough. The situation in Nicaragua necessitates increased international involvement to uproot the deeply woven authoritarian binds. The concrete solution for Nicaragua, however, will be a tricky one. Considering the amount of unsuccessful political pressure that has been applied to Ortega since he took office, there is no clear sign that he will step down from power within the next few years. Pursuing an economic solution is dangerous, because enhanced economic pressure in the form of sanctions could send the economy into a more aggressive downward spiral, hurting an already impoverished nation. Therefore, a calculated balance must be stricken when attempting to solve this issue. International pressure must open up a national dialogue to demonstrate to Ortega that a compromise with the opposition must be achieved in order to save the country from a looming economic crash. This compromise must involve necessary electoral reforms, including credible and monitored elections paired with a change to the current 35 percent share of votes that must be achieved to win re-election. Only after clearing the way for fair and democratic elections can the country then begin to revitalize the tarnished economy.

However, a solution for stability in Nicaragua is much easier to plan than to manifest. Therefore, the question still remains: how many more activists must be jailed, media sources silenced, and lives must be lost in order for the state of Nicaragua to gain international spotlight? Without immediate and committed action, the democratic institutions within Nicaragua will continue to rot at the hands of Daniel Ortega. The people’s lives are in jeopardy.