In response to controversial legislation reforming Nicaragua’s social security system, protests animated by an unusual coalition of university students and the private sector together with the Roman Catholic Church have rocked the country, according to the Washington Post. The proposed legislation would increase contributions to the social security system by employees and employers, and would also reduce the pension for retirees, funneling that money into medical expenses instead. The unpopular reforms are the latest flash point to ignite a tense atmosphere in the troubled Central American country, coupled with heavy handed responses by an insecure government led by a president Daniel Ortega, who has also threatened to censor the social media of his critics. Dozens of people have been injured and at least nine people have been killed in the unrest.
Tensions in Nicaragua are certainly not a novel phenomenon. According to Manuel Orozco at Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank based in the United States, “the political situation in Nicaragua has been deteriorating since the re-election of Mr Ortega in 2016.” While the President’s wife Rosario Murillo – who is also Nicaragua’s Vice President and has acted as Ortega’s spokesperson through the unrest – has dismissed the increasingly violent protests as manufactured by “tiny groups that inflame and destabilize to destroy Nicaragua.” But Orozco has a different view: “the protests are a consequence of years of unsatisfied demands and growing repression and censorship to dissident groups.”
Unrest of this scale is indicative of a dysfunctional government. Ortega’s achievements during his tenure as president, while certainly bringing many people out of poverty through a liberal use of profits from agricultural and mining exports and support from regional neighbour Venezuela, has come at the expense of an independent civil society. Ortega’s Sandinista movement has consolidated control over the legislature and the judiciary as well as over the executive, and also arguably has enriched his own family through investment of public money in private enterprises controlled by the ruling family. This kind of rank corruption, combined with lacklustre governance – most clearly displayed in what was publicly received as a failed emergency response to a wildfire that eventually destroyed part of a protected forest – have created the conditions that allow these kinds of protests to occur.
The most prudent solution for the protesters would be to continue to act peacefully. Rather than responding in kind to heavy handed tactics used by the Nicaraguan police such as the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, the protesters should continue to draw attention to the excesses of Ortega’s Sandinista regime. By engaging with the international community, the Nicaraguan opposition will show itself to be a mature alternative to Ortega’s corruption. The Nicaraguan people have deposed autocratic rulers before; the difficult path that lays ahead is achieving this peacefully, without violence or bloodshed. If the protesters can continue to engage the international community, they can also draw attention to the repressive and violent responses to what are essentially disagreements with a policy. International pressure and reputation is a very compelling marker that can bring about changes in state behaviour.
To peacefully bring about a change in the Nicaraguan regime, and allow for the resumption of a functioning democratic state, the rest of the world also has a responsibility to not close its eyes to the plight of the Nicaraguan protesters. World peace is not solely at the discretion of those who are engaged in conflict. The global community should weigh the arguments of both sides of the conflict, and should enact sanctions or other similar punishments of any behaviour that threatens peace. Conflict does not exist in a vacuum; the world cannot ignore violent repression of protests because they are difficult problems. Positive and innovative solutions are needed instead.
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