Nicaragua descends into ‘state of terrorism’ as president clings on
Daniel Ortega refuses to give up power despite three months of violent street battles
“This isn’t the first time we’ve had to bring down a dictator,” said Fernando Sánchez, one of the student leaders of protests that have convulsed Nicaragua for almost three months, triggering an escalating crackdown by police and paramilitary mobs loyal to President Daniel Ortega.
As the July 19 anniversary of Anastasio Somoza’s 1979 ousting by revolutionaries including Mr Ortega nears, Nicaraguans took to the streets of Managua en masse this week, unbowed by attacks on opposition roadblocks in recent days.
“If Ortega wanted to immobilise people by terror, he hasn’t succeeded,” said Edmundo Jarquín, a former politician. Images shared on social media showed Thursday’s protest unfolding as police and armed, masked paramilitaries looked on.
Unlike a march on Nicaragua’s Mother’s Day in May, when gunmen opened fire on demonstrators killing 19, Thursday’s rally was peaceful. However, 351 people have died since the crisis erupted on April 18, according to ANPDH, a local rights group. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights puts the death toll at 264.
Protesters initially targeted a social security reform, which Mr Ortega was forced to scrap. But popular rage swiftly focused on ejecting the last of Latin America’s historical revolutionaries, an autocratic leader now in his third term in office.
As protesters erected barricades to bring the country to a halt, official reprisals intensified and 38 died last Sunday alone. “We’re now in a state of terrorism,” said Mr Sánchez.
By dismantling roadblocks by force, “Ortega has regained control of the territory in some parts of the country, but that has only increased animosity against him”, said Mr Jarquín. “This clearly delays his exit, but that outcome is increasingly inevitable.”
Others were not so sure. “Ortega should be taking advantage of this moment — now he has more elbow room to negotiate an exit,” said one former Nicaraguan ambassador. “The problem is, he is misreading his strength. Because he’s winning militarily, he may think he doesn’t have to negotiate.”
If that happens, “things will go horribly wrong for Nicaragua, and he can stay ruling this country in ruins”, said the ambassador.
Business leaders have abruptly ended their traditional cosy relationship with the government and the opposition called a general strike on Friday. Mr Sánchez said civil disobedience, such as refusing to pay taxes, could follow to try to force Mr Ortega to rethink his refusal to hold early elections, despite increasing international pressure.
The US this month sanctioned three senior Nicaraguan officials, including the national police chief, under the Magnitsky Act, vowing “the US will expose and hold accountable those responsible for the Nicaraguan government’s ongoing violence and intimidation campaign against its people. These actions must end.”
Elections are due in 2021 and Mr Ortega, 72, is widely seen as grooming his wife Rosario Murillo to take his place.
The crisis looks deadlocked. A national dialogue brokered by the Catholic Church has already collapsed and an attack this week on senior churchmen, including Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and Silvio Báez, the auxiliary bishop of Managua who has emerged as a leading opposition figurehead, will do nothing to restore trust.
Mr Ortega’s government portrays protesters as coup-mongers and says their violence is imperilling the achievements of the leftist Sandinista revolution in what was one of the region’s most stable and fastest-growing economies.
“How to destroy a country in 90 days,” mused Paul Oquist, private secretary for public policy and one of the president’s closest advisers, in an Financial Times interview. The central bank has cut its 2018 gross domestic product forecast for the second time since the crisis erupted, pencilling in growth of 0.5 to 1.5 per cent in a country initially expecting 4.5 to 5 per cent. Think-tank Funides was bleaker, saying the economy could contract 5.6 per cent.
“If there is an end to violence, there’s nothing that can’t be put on the table,” Mr Oquist said, speaking via Skype from Geneva. But he added: “This will end in elections, as the constitution dictates . . . We can’t change the constitution [to bring forward elections] just because someone has put up roadblocks.”
Life in Nicaragua, meanwhile, limps along. A de facto curfew descends about 5pm each day because of the fear of being out when masked mercenaries cruise by firing from jeeps.
Economic pain is already being felt. The central bank forecasts 85,100 jobs to be lost this year and an impact on foreign investment and trade. Tourism is reeling: Carlos Pellas, a leading businessman who owns Flor de Caña rum, has closed his luxury Mukul resort amid multiplying cancellations in the hotel sector.
Multilateral lenders are also rethinking. The Inter-American Development Bank, which has a $624m portfolio in Nicaragua, said the crisis had “delayed execution and corresponding disbursements of several projects”. The World Bank, with 12 projects totalling $572m, said it had “reviewed our existing portfolio and strengthened measures to ensure that bank resources are used for their intended purposes”.
For now, the government is expected to attempt a show of strength on the July 19 revolutionary anniversary, when it has traditionally filled the streets with supporters. “Daniel Ortega is betting he will again be able to show his muscle. We’ll see,” said the ambassador.
But protesters were equally determined. ““There’s no going back,” said Mr Sánchez. “People won’t give up.”