By May 2018, a month after millions of Nicaraguans revolted against President Daniel Ortega, his regime’s collapse felt inevitable. For weeks, peaceful protesters had poured into the streets, demanding the 73-year-old’s resignation.
Protesters erected barricades across the country, paralyzing the national economy. After the government began to repress demonstrators on April 19, 2018, civilians armed themselves with homemade weapons including Molotov cocktails.
International observers, including myself, compared Nicaragua’s 2018 uprising to the Arab Spring revolutions of 2010 and 2011, which culminated in massive protests in Tunisia, Libya, Eg
Day 4 of the protests in Nicaragua. I don’t think anyone realized how fast this would escalate, how violent it would turn, how fast things fall apart. #SOSNicaraga pics by @laprensa pic.twitter.com/7i0Peih5yC
— Tim Rogers (@nicadispatch) April 22, 2018
While Ortega maintained a loyal base of supporters with ties to the government’s revolutionary beginnings, more and more young Nicaraguans from all walks of life appeared committed to his exit. A month after the movement began, Ortega’s approval ratings had fallen to 19 percent, and an overwhelming 70 percent of Nicaraguans felt he should resign.
“This is not a dialogue,” said student activist Lesther Alemán to Ortega on May 16, 2018, during a televised negotiation between the government and civil society. “This table is to negotiate your exit, and you know it very well because the people have demanded it.”
And yet, nearly one year later, Ortega is still in power, and Alemán is living in exile, along with over 50,000 other Nicaraguans. With the exception of a recent flare-up in protests, which the government outlawed in September 2018, Nicaragua’s tropical spring appears to be losing steam.
Nicaragua’s Democratic Decline
I am a Latin American scholar who lived in Nicaragua in 2017 and 2018. When I eventually fled with my family in June 2018, I felt fairly certain that Ortega’s days were numbered. And in a democratic society, they probably would have been.
After closely analyzing data on the fates of democratically elected presidents in Latin America following massive protests, I found that since 1985 70 percent of executives who faced sustained street demonstrations were ultimately removed from office.
But Ortega has overcome these odds, and in large part, he has done so by reverting to the same types of strong-arm tactics that he fought against in the 1970s.
Since taking office in 2007, Ortega has concentrated power in the executive branch by stacking the supreme court with party loyalists, putting allies in charge of the electoral system, and controlling the press.
In 2014, the Nicaraguan assembly abolished presidential term limits. Two years later, although less than 30 percent of Nicaraguans turned out to vote, Ortega won a third consecutive term as president. And this time, his wife Rosario Murillo ran with him as vice-president.
Unlike more democratic leaders in the region who have historically bent to the will of the people, Ortega has maintained his grip on power through the use of authoritative force.
Over the last 11 months, Nicaragua’s popular uprising has been violently repressed by state security forces and pro-government paramilitaries. Dissidents have been tortured, arbitrarily detained, illegally imprisoned, and forced into exile.
Currently, 677 protesters are in jail. Another 107 were arrested on March 16 at an anti-government protest in the capital Managua, serving as a reminder to dissident voices that Ortega remains in firm control of the nation.
Still, despite Ortega’s authoritative tendencies, I sense that his strength as a leader stems from a less obvious source.
Jose Daniel Ortega Saavedra – known popularly as Comandante Daniel – has spent four decades shaping the Nicaraguan state. During this time, Ortega has drifted from a left-leaning guerrilla fighter to a conservative oligarch with clientelistic social programs. Despite Ortega’s rather surreal transformation over the years, his political platform has maintained one common thread: its anti-imperialist rhetoric.
In fact, nothing has served Ortega’s cause more favorably than a deep history of U.S. intervention.
Since 1823, when U.S. President James Monroe declared the region America’s backyard, the United States has played a fundamental role in shaping Latin American politics. The United States’ policy has relied on a combination of military intervention and economic sanctions. Few countries have been as deeply affected by U.S. policy as Nicaragua.
The United States’ Marines occupied Nicaragua from 1912 until 1933. After that, they handed the country over to U.S.-trained general Anastasio Somoza Garcia. Somoza and his sons ruled the country with an iron fist until Ortega and the Sandinistas overthrew them in 1979.
In the 1980s, the U.S. funded a band of counter-revolutionaries or “Contras,” who waged a brutal war against the country’s nascent revolutionary government. The conflict resulted in the death of 30,000 Nicaraguans. In 1982, U.S. Congress voted 411-0 for the Boland Amendment which defunded support for the Contras.
Nonetheless, high ranking members in Ronald Reagan’s administration continued to fund the Contras illegally by selling missiles to Iran and funneling the proceeds to the Contras. When the scheme hit the light of day, it became known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
In 1992, Attorney General William Barr helped secure pardons for a handful of top American officials involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, including Elliot Abrams. Today, Barr serves as President Donald J. Trump’s Attorney General, and Abrams heads the administration’s special envoy to Venezuela. The latter is also in close contact with the leaders of Nicaragua’s Alianza Civica, a civil society alliance that promotes justice and democracy in the country.
Ultimately, Ortega and the Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990, but the election was less a referendum on Ortega, who remained widely popular with his base, as much as it was a vote to end the U.S.-supported war.
Following the election, Ortega famously said:
“We weren’t born above, we were born below and we are used to fighting from below. We are going to govern from below. From below we’re going to get everyone that voted last Sunday for UNO to vote again for the Sandinista Front so that we can govern again from above.”
And in November 2006, Ortega and his Sandinista party did just that.
Since returning to power in 2007, Ortega has masterfully embraced big business while deriding U.S. policy for intervening in the foreign affairs of other countries. In doing so, he has been able to appeal to conservative elites as well as his working-class base.
But when things began to unravel last April, Ortega immediately reverted to an anti-imperialist rhetoric that was reminiscent of his speeches in the 1980s.
“The United States has poisoned our work through intervention, that’s where the root of the problem lies,” he told a Venezuelan TV channel in July last year. “If the United States respected our country, they would respect what we choose to do as Nicaraguans, independent of ideology.”
A few months later, at a public event in Managua, Ortega said, “We cannot accept the threats that they throw at us, they feel they have the right to send their missions here … to occupy territories in different regions of our world, exterminating at gunpoint villages in these territories and then taking over these places.”
The United States’ history of opposing left-wing leaders in Latin America – including through military intervention – has provided Ortega with a convenient enemy to blame for last year’s uprising.
And while the U.S. government has not intervened militarily in Nicaragua since they supported the Contras in the 1980s, the world’s most powerful nation is hardly a neutral player in the current conflict. Over the last decade, the U.S. has made significant investments in supporting Nicaragua’s nascent civil society, which has foddered Ortega’s decries against the United States.
Since 2014, the U.S.-funded NGO National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has spent $4.1 million on projects in Nicaragua. According to their website, the NED is a “private, nonprofit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world.”
However, in practice, the organization has been accused of fomenting dissent against governments unfriendly to the United States.
NED’s Aimel Rios Wong, who works extensively in the Latin American region, declined an opportunity to interview with me, claiming,
“[C]ivil society in Nicaragua is under severe attack by the Ortega regime. As such, we feel it is not the most opportune time to give interviews about the programs we support in the country, as it may put further at risk the lives of many activists in Nicaragua.”
Despite NED’s silence, there’s currently no hard evidence that suggests that the U.S. has played an active role in funding the uprising against Ortega.
As activists Alemán and Jeancarlo López recently told me, “We’re not golpistas [coup-monger]. We’ve received no money from the U.S. government, local elites, or any other group. If we had, we wouldn’t be suffering hunger while living in exile. We wouldn’t be sleeping on floors. People say we’re in Miami, living the big life but that’s not the truth. Our lives have been destroyed. And we’re not benefitting from this situation.”
Despite this, the United States’ support of civil society through NED and the United States Agency for International Development, coupled with U.S. sanctions against his government, has allowed Ortega to shore up support by shifting attention away from his administration’s use of corruption, clientelism, and cronyism.
And over the last 12 months, a history of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua has facilitated Ortega’s ability to repress his own people while placing blame on American imperialism. And as research shows, Ortega is not the only leader to spin U.S. intervention in his favor while violently repressing his people.
A 2017 study that measured the impact of U.S. intervention on human rights in 144 countries between 1975 and 2005, found that U.S. intervention was an ineffective way to stem authoritarian growth. In fact, the study found that U.S. intervention in many cases led to increases in human rights abuses: “Overall, the evidence suggests that the U.S.’s most commonly-used foreign policy tools end up doing more harm than good.”
These findings are tied to the fact that U.S. intervention typically legitimizes anti-imperialist rhetoric, and in doing so, in countries like Nicaragua, facilitates the ability of authoritative rulers to rally people against a common enemy. And as this case also reveals, intervention appears to have a residual effect such that leaders like Ortega are able to benefit from anti-imperialist rhetoric well after the intervention itself actually takes place.
Jaime De Vega is a Nicaraguan lawyer in his early 30s, who I got to know well while living in Managua. Jaime grew up in a working-class family in Ciudad Darió, an agricultural community an hour north of the capital. Despite being a long-time Sandinista, he participated in the initial uprisings last April and aided student activists at Nicaragua’s Polytechnic University.
However, shortly after the uprising, Jaime withdrew his support for the protesters.
As he recently told me,
“The movement against Ortega is controlled by wealthy elites tied to the U.S. who want to take away opportunities from the poor. Today, we have free education. Before you had to pay, and only the wealthy could access such an opportunity. Today, hospitals are free, whereas before you had to buy your own acetaminophen.”
On a similar note, another longtime Sandinista party member and vice-president for the pro-government National Union of Nicaraguan Students, Jorge Mora Jara, asked me last year,
“Why should we trust the United States and the neoliberals again?”
While Jaime and Jorge’s comments hardly speak for all Nicaraguans, they summarize the general sentiments of Ortega’s supporters quite well. At the root of Ortega’s base is a firm conviction that he has done more for the poor than U.S.-supported candidates from the right have. For them, he is the lesser of two evils.
Take Home Message
The case of Nicaragua signals a need for new international strategies to bolster democracy abroad.
U.S. policy in Latin America has long relied on a combination of sticks and carrots to cajole leaders into towing a pro-U.S. line. However, the political longevity of leaders like Ortega in Nicaragua, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, and Evo Morales in Bolivia demonstrates the shortcomings of these policies.
If the U.S. is genuinely interested in supporting democratic growth in the region, and brilliant young activists like Jeancarlo López and Lesther Alemán, more of the same won’t suffice.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.