After Ortega?

John Perry

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. Unlike in neighbouring Honduras, however, no one suggests the president has simply stolen the money. Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government proposed a rise in employer contributions, a smaller one in employee contributions and a 5 per cent cut in pensions (offset by stronger health care entitlements). The employers’ federation, COSEP, 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.

There were pitched battles in several cities over the following two days, in which more people were killed. Government offices were burnt down and shops ransacked. In Masaya, where I live, rival groups of young people built barricades out of paving stones, from which they exchanged fire with home-made mortars and Molotov cocktails. Looters took advantage of the chaos. The rage was fomented by exaggerated or fake news stories on 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 reforms. The people who’d been arrested were released. Aminta Granera, the once-popular police chief, has resigned. A truth commission will investigate the deaths. A dialogue has started, but 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, referring to Ortega as a leftist strongman, or suggesting he wants to establish a ‘dynastic dictatorship’. It’s true that the supreme court overturned constitutional limits preventing him from running 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. But it’s also true that on taking power in 2007, 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 drug-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: ‘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 prophecy comes true, what will be the result? It seems clear that Murillo, previously seen as a shrewd but arrogant operator, has lost her credibility. Only one or two other Sandinista politicians have any standing with the public. No opposition politician has 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. He 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, and readily signed a trade agreement with it. 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 dictatorship that preceded the 1979 revolution, summarised his attitude towards Ortega as ‘better the devil you know’. Many – probably 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 this is ‘the beginning of the end for Ortega’, who or what will come next?