Lightning To Strike Twice In Latin America? Political Violence In Nicaragua Echoes Venezuela’s Descent Into Illiberality

Nicaragua has endured a shocking level of violence over the previous three months. The turmoil has stemmed from President Daniel Ortega’s proposed cuts to the pension and the protests these have sparked. Yet for pension cuts to have resulted in the 300 deaths reported by The Economist in this period belies something much more sinister for Nicaragua. Indeed, the weekend of Friday the 13th of July saw the death of two students, one being Gerald Vasquez who was just 20 years of age, was buried by his family on the following Monday, Time reported. The students had been staging protests at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua before being forced to take cover in a church from armed pro-government forces.This has mirrored broader violent crackdowns on protestors across the country, which has resulted in 10 deaths on Sunday the 15th according to the American magazine.

This violent suppression of dissent has resulted in condemnations of Ortega’s regime, from both the US State Department and the United Nations. The US statement insisted that “Every additional victim of this violence and intimidation campaign further undermines Ortega’s legitimacy…Early free, fair and transparent elections are the best path back to democracy and respect for human rights in Nicaragua.” Meanwhile Ortega has resisted these calls to step down or hold elections and the administration has branded the protests as an attempted coup. This government response highlights the core problem for Nicaragua, the erosion of its institutions, an erosion which ultimately many Nicaraguans could no longer tolerate.

The backdrop to this crisis lies within the Central American country’s troubled political history. In fact, Ortega himself was a key member of the Sandinista movement which overthrew the dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Initially the new leader of Nicaragua until 1990 when he was voted out, Mr. Ortega returned to the presidency in the 2006 election and set about imitating the dictatorship he had once helped collapse. In 2009 Ortega used the Supreme Court of Justice of Nicaragua to declare constitutional term limits invalid and hence paved the way for his continued presidency. This has been a pattern of Ortega’s current presidency; he has taken control of many of Nicaragua’s public institutions, evidenced by the stacking of the Supreme Court. He has also won over the private sector, particularly the powerful Catholic Church, largely through corrupt dealings, The Washington Post contends.

Ortega is unlikely to face much political resistance from his vice-president either as she also happens to be his wife, Rosario Murillo, and they rule as a powerful team. Finally, Freedom House reports that the media in Nicaragua is subject to a number of pro-government policies and is largely owned by government figures. It is a blatant disregard for the importance of democratic process which has undermined Ortega’s legitimacy and sparked such outrage when his pension cuts were proposed. The people of Nicaragua were not willing to have their already meagre pension sacrificed and so exercised their democratic right to protest. However, the response to these protests has cemented Ortega’s reputation as a burgeoning autocrat, of precisely the kind he sought to prevent many years ago.

The protests over pension reform quickly descended into protests against Ortega himself as repression of protests turned violent. Amnesty International published a report on May 29th stating that the government had arrangements with armed groups to brutally suppress protests which resulted in 76 deaths, 860 injuries and 400 arrests in this period alone. Facing this international attention and no end to the protests, Ortega backed away from his pension reforms and agreed to talks with the opposition mediated by the church. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights were even invited to investigate the situation. However, such measures were short lived as Ortega quickly rejected the proposed solution of early elections, The Economist reports. Since then the violence has continued to escalate as protesters are forced to build barricades for their protection.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the situation in Nicaragua is that it feels eerily familiar. In fact, another Latin American country highlights the danger of a leader that is determined to cling to power at the cost of human life. That country is Venezuela. President Nicolas Maduro has steered the country into economic ruin and created an illiberal regime after initially coming to power through elections. This unfolded contrary to mass protests which were similarly violently repressed and a large amount of international attention and condemnation. Both leaders have also justified their actions by framing the conflict as an attempted coup and placed the blame squarely upon the protestors.  Nicaragua may be even more vulnerable to economic fallout as well due to their lack of state oil resources. However most worrisome is that Venezuela stands as a warning that an illiberal system can last provided the leader is willing to continue to condone their peoples’ suffering. It follows that this is a crucial point for Nicaragua’s future; in order to avoid this fate, the violence must be ended and democratic institutions reinforced.

Unfortunately, despite the US State Department’s condemnation of the repression of protestors, Nicaragua is not a priority for the United States’ foreign policy. This comes at a time where Donald Trump’s presidency has divided and distracted the American political agenda. As such any extensive financial sanctions or pressure is unlikely, though it may prove effective as Nicaragua faces a weak economy. However, it may also result in a further burden on ordinary Nicaraguans rather than Ortega and the regime as was the case in Venezuela. Hence a solution must go beyond simple economic sanctions. A concerted diplomatic effort is needed on the international stage to convince Ortega to return to the negotiation table which he had abandoned. If the United States is not willing, then perhaps it falls to other countries across the American continent to help in this process. The United States though internationally powerful has a testy history with Nicaragua and was used as a scapegoat for many of the issues in Venezuela by Maduro. By having them play a more supporting role in conjunction with other Central and Southern American countries the diplomatic process may be smoother and more effective.

The ultimate goal of any solution for Nicaragua must be the restoration of its democratic institutions and the best way to achieve this would be through clean and fair elections. However, these cannot reasonably take place amongst the violence that is perpetrated by the pro-government groups on the government’s behalf. The logical step towards peace would be through the cease of the violent operations of these groups. While it could be presumed that the government has the power to stop them if they so choose, this seems unlikely. While hope remains that diplomatic efforts may curtail these attacks as well, this is likely to take time. Instead an internal solution may exist, though it is one which must be carefully executed to avoid any escalation of conflict. The largely independent Nicaraguan army has so far remained uninvolved in the crisis, The Economist suggests. If they were to take action in a peacekeeping capacity they may prove a way in which the violence can deescalate, both protecting the citizens and providing a climate more conducive to diplomatic solutions.

The military could also aim to peacefully disarm pro-government groups after they have calmed the current situation. Of course, this relies on the competency and independence of the Nicaraguan military, as violent military intervention would be catastrophic. Ultimately Nicaraguans have been made to suffer at the hands of an increasingly illiberal government. Whether they can avoid the fate of Venezuela remains to be seen, but perhaps lessons may be learnt from such a similar situation as well as a warning of what may happen should they fail.

Ethan Beringen