For Nicaraguan university student Rosa, it was the sheer brutality of the police crackdown that left her terrified in her own country.
“I never thought it would be like that,” she said, reflecting on the first time she joined a peaceful protest against proposed social security reforms. Like tens of thousands of other Nicaraguan students, she participated in a wave of demonstrations in mid-April against the Ortega administration’s plans to slash pensions and increase employee contributions to the financially troubled Nicaraguan Institute for Social Security, or INSS.
Despite the tropical heat, Rosa — whose real name has been omitted due to concerns for her safety — and other students hit the streets, joining a human tide that flowed through the capital city of Managua. She had never even thought about protesting before, but on that day hopes were high and the atmosphere exhilarating — that is, until the tear gas canisters started flying.
“At first, I thought I had something in my eyes,” she said, “but then someone told me it was tear gas.”
As she approached the frontlines between protesters and police, the stench of the tear gas seared her eyes and nostrils. Volunteers rushed from person to person distributing cheap surgical masks, vinegar and baking soda. As the day wore on, the city was jolted into a state of fear by the sounds of gunfire.
Since then, human rights groups say more than 60 people were killed amid a violent police crackdown on protests. Over 160 people have been injured by gunfire, with protesters accusing police of spraying crowds of demonstrators with live ammunition.
“What took place is a massacre,” said Marcos Carmona, the director of Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights.
“It’s crazy,” Rosa said, shaking her head. “People were just peacefully protesting.”
The Nicaraguan government has responded by condemning protesters who burned tires and erected barricades, while also vowing to investigate allegations of police misconduct.
“We will start a formal and responsible investigation into the loss of life of students, national police and civilians,” Public Prosecutor Ines Miranda stated.
The government has also announced a truth and reconciliation commission, along with agreeing to participate in national dialogue with opposition groups. The INSS reforms have likewise been suspended — at least for now. Rosa cautiously welcomed these developments, but with little optimism.
“After all these deaths, I think it’s all we have,” she said, referring to the negotiations. Indeed, in recent days Managua has seen a lull in clashes, and a return to normality in much of the city.
However, another protester, feminist activist Maria, whose name has also been changed to protect her identity, said it would be “very optimistic” to believe the crisis is over.
“How can we trust them?” she asked, lamenting that she had little faith in the government’s promises to investigate police brutality.
“It’s like if you killed someone, and were allowed to investigate yourself,” she said. For her, the protests were a sign that now is the time to “rethink the country we want to build. This is the chaos we needed.”
Where did the protests come from?
Until a few weeks ago, such unrest in Nicaragua would have seemed unthinkable. With neighbors like the crime-ridden Honduras and El Salvador, for over a decade Nicaragua has quietly been garnering a reputation as an oasis of peace and security in an oft-troubled region. It’s the kind of place travel aficionados drool over for its idyllic slow pace of life, stunning tropical landscape and welcoming culture. So much so, that in 2010 Nicaragua proudly announced it had hit a milestone of bringing in over a million tourists annually — a major achievement for a country of barely six million inhabitants.
Even the World Bank has praised Nicaragua for its “pioneering strategies to fight poverty.” According to figures cited by the World Bank, between 2014 and 2016 the overall poverty rate in Nicaragua fell from 29.6 to 24.9 percent, while extreme poverty fell from 8.3 to 6.9 percent
Even politically, to the casual observer, Nicaragua appeared to be moving past the scars of the 20th century. However, as the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving.
The legacy of the Banana Wars
At the dawn of the last century, Nicaragua was a key battlefield in the so-called Banana Wars, when the United States sought to assert dominance over its neighbors through a series of military interventions in countries like Panama, Haiti, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Nicaragua itself effectively became a U.S. protectorate in 1916, and remained subject to a U.S. military occupation until 1933.
The American grip on the country was largely motivated by fears that Nicaragua might one day build its own canal — one that might rival the canal the United States had just finished building in Panama. The U.S. withdrew, leaving the country’s security in the hands of their close collaborator, National Guard head Anastasio Somoza. Over the next three years, Somoza used terror, political assassinations and election rigging to establish himself as the country’s undisputed dictator.
The Somoza dynasty ruled the country like a family fiefdom until 1979, when the Marxist-inspired Sandinista revolutionaries seized power. The victory, however, was short lived, and throughout the 1980s the U.S.-backed Contra terrorists waged an insurgency against the Sandinistas that left over 30,000 dead. In 1990, the war-weary Nicaraguan electorate delivered a surprise blow to the Sandinistas, voting out incumbent president Daniel Ortega.
However, that wasn’t the last of Ortega, who won the 2006 presidential elections with 38 percent of the vote. Despite the middling victory, Ortega would go on to remain in office until today.
The new Sandinismo
Ortega built his administration on two pillars of support. On one hand, welfare programs funded by regional ally Venezuela maintained Ortega’s revolutionary credentials. At the height of the Chavez-era, Venezuelan aid made up roughly a third of the Nicaraguan government’s annual budget.
On the other hand, the new Sandinismo was more than willing to compromise with their old enemies: Nicaragua’s business elite. Ortega even formed an alliance with COSEP, an influential council of business leaders. The deal was simple: COSEP would provide political support for the Ortega administration, so long as the president consulted them on economic matters.
This uneasy alliance worked – at least on paper. Poverty rates were nudged downwards, and Ortega even dusted off those old plans to build a Nicaraguan canal. To the outside world it looked as though Nicaragua was finally at peace.
“But it was a fake peace,” said Maria.
Critics of Ortega have accused him of presiding over a purge of public sector employees and a campaign of persecution against opposition parties. Nonetheless, even until earlier this year polls indicated Ortega remained one of the most popular heads of state in the region. Then came the International Monetary Fund.
The INSS reforms
For years, COSEP and the Ortega government have been negotiating over long overdue reforms to Nicaragua’s social security system, the INSS. In 2017, the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, warned the INSS’s financial situation was becoming untenable, and urged Ortega to slash welfare benefits by 20-30 percent. The IMF also called for increasing the retirement age to anywhere from 63 to 65. COSEP has agreed reforms are needed, but in April withdrew from talks with the government after Ortega refused to agree to deeper economic reforms. The government reacted by publishing its own proposed INSS reforms, which included cuts far below what the IMF demanded, while also balancing the increased costs between both employers and employees.
According to economist Jake Johnston, who is a research associate at the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, the government proposed increasing employer and employee contributions to the INSS by 3.5 and 0.75 percent respectively, along with a 5 percent cut to pensions.
COSEP responded by accusing Ortega of failing to consult them and called for protests. The call was immediately met by university students, who took to the streets by the thousands.
Johnston said the original IMF proposals would have likewise probably been rejected by the Nicaraguan public. “There is little question that a 20 percent reduction in benefits and/or an increase in the retirement age would have been met with resistance by workers and pensioners alike,” he said.
Nonetheless, he argued the IMF itself wasn’t to blame for the current unrest — at least not directly.
“I don’t think you can put blame on the IMF directly, since there is no current IMF program in Nicaragua and therefore no direct implications for the government not to follow its recommendations. Of course, the IMF research can be used by those advocating for more draconian reforms,” he said.
Reflecting on the political maneuvering that preceded the protests, Maria said the IMF deserves part of the blame, adding, “But what makes it ironic is that Ortega … is accepting [these reforms] from a capitalist, imperialist organization. [Ortega] is supposed to be from the left, fighting imperialism. All his speeches are about fighting the Yankees and defending the country from imperialists. But it’s all just bullshit.”
Frustrated and exasperated, Maria said she felt Ortega had betrayed the original, revolutionary Sandinista ideals.
“Yes, the Sandinistas made mistakes [in the 1980s] … but what we have today is not what people died for. What we have is exactly what they were willing to give their lives against,” she said.
Of course, not everyone agrees. The Nicaraguan left-wing media collective Tortilla con Sal has argued Ortega is the victim of a misinformation campaign from the right-wing. “In Nicaragua, the trigger for the initial protests was extreme misrepresentation of proposed social security reforms,” they noted in a recent article for the Venezuela-based teleSUR network.
“Right-wing news outlets and social media networks demonized and distorted the government’s proposal for modest, fairly distributed increases in social security contributions, plus better health care coverage for pensioners. But they systematically omitted the business sector’s savage, IMF-inspired neoliberal proposals to cut benefits,” they argued.
“We have two narratives, I think both have a little bit of truth,” Maria conceded, noting that “we have CNN, Telemundo and Univision” all promoting an inaccurate narrative that “people are uprising because Ortega is socialist.”
However, she also lambasted news outlets sympathetic to Ortega, like teleSUR and RT, for dismissing protesters as paid agitators.
“We don’t receive any money, and we’re risking our lives going to the streets,” she said firmly, noting that many of the protesters themselves were once ardent, revolutionary Sandinistas.
“My neighborhood in general is Sandinista,” she said, reflecting on one of the initial protests in her neighborhood in late April.
“Some of my neighbors who I considered very, very strong Sandinistas were there,” she said. The words of one disgruntled Sandinista in particular stuck in her mind. It was a woman who had lived through the violence of the 1980s and remained committed to the original revolutionary cause. “She said, ‘We’re [still] the same Sandinistas, but we don’t agree with this prick.”
What comes next?
At this point, the discussion on the streets of Managua has moved beyond the INSS reforms, COSEP, the role of the IMF and even the students. Instead, the crisis has given birth to a much broader discussion about the future of Nicaragua — a discussion that supersedes old political identities.
“This is not coming from the right parties. It’s not like Venezuela. We don’t have a Leopoldo Lopez; We don’t even have a leader,” Maria insisted. Instead, ordinary Nicaraguans are uniting in response to the crisis in ways that would have been unimaginable even just a few months ago. “My feminist, head-shaved, free-the-nipple-types are now [marching] alongside Catholics. We don’t have right-wing parties or the CIA paying us.”
Rosa agreed, saying, “It’s not even about the politicians anymore.” She argued the discussion is now about giving everyday Nicaraguans the opportunity to once again dream of a better country — of speaking openly about the nation’s problems. Since no political party represents their interests, Rosa said she hoped to see the protests tackle the culture of “bad politics” across the spectrum. In the end though, it’ll be up to the people to decide what happens next.
“We’re going to keep fighting. We just want a better country, and all of the youth, the people, who believe in a better future for us,” she said, though she admitted the road ahead for Nicaragua seems unclear right now.
“I know we’re going to get through this,” she affirmed. “[Nicaragua] has so much to offer the world … I don’t know when or how, but we’re gonna make it work.”
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