For the second time in as many generations, Nicaraguans are rebelling
against a decadent family regime. A historic turning point is
During the 1980s Nicaragua was a battleground for proxy armies
representing the interests of the United States and the Soviet Union.
Since then, it has remained poor and, over the last decade, become
steadily less democratic. Nonetheless it seemed stable. President
Daniel Ortega, who helped lead the revolution that brought leftist
Sandinistas to power in 1979, appeared to have consolidated his
authoritarian state. He continued to use anti-imperialist rhetoric, but
allowed the business elite to make economic policy and won the support
of Catholic bishops by banning abortion.
Now this alliance is collapsing. Catholic bishops have rejected
government appeals to mediate the current crisis, declaring that “it is
not possible to resume national dialogue while the people of Nicaragua
are being denied their right to protest peacefully and are being
repressed and murdered.” Business leaders, who supported Ortega because
he guaranteed stability, now see him as a source of instability and are
turning against him. “The model he brought to the country has run its
course,” said Carlos Pellas, the country’s richest tycoon. Pellas told
an interviewer from the opposition newspaper La Prensa that he was
“outraged and in pain” over the carnage of recent weeks, described
protesters as representing “a clamor for the return of democracy,
justice and human rights,” and urged Ortega to arrange “an orderly
exit” through early elections. If he refuses, business leaders may
support a national strike that could paralyze the country. Related
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Ortega has remained defiant. “We are staying here,” he assured his
supporters — adding, in a swipe at the business elite, that “Nicaragua
is not anybody’s private property.” The police and army have remained
loyal to his government. Rather than order them to repress protesters,
however, he often sends paramilitary gangs. Sandinistas have used this
tactic since the 1980s, but never before have their gangs fired live
ammunition into crowds of peaceful demonstrators. Funeral marches
balloon into new protests, and when they are attacked, the spiral
intensifies. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets. This is
by far the largest popular protest in Nicaragua since the uprising that
toppled the Somoza dictatorship in 1979.
The protest began after Ortega announced cuts in pensions, but that was
not its root cause. Pressure has been steadily building inside
Nicaraguan society. Each time Ortega took another step toward
repressive rule and got away with it, he felt encouraged and pressed
ahead. Neither he nor anyone else realized how angry Nicaraguans were
becoming. Now it is clear that he went too far.
In the years since he was elected president with 38 percent of the vote
in 2006, Ortega has worked systematically to dismantle Nicaragua’s
incipient democracy. Through a series of maneuvers, he gained control
over Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Electoral Council. In
2009 he directed the Supreme Court to rule that he could run for
re-election even though the constitution forbids it. Then, last year,
he not only ran for a third term but named his wife as his running
mate. His control of the electoral system guaranteed their victory.
Their children have become rich. One has been groomed to lead Ortega
family rule into another generation. The last round of local elections
was manipulated to assure the defeat of anti-Sandinista candidates.
Each of these outrages added to Nicaraguans’ anger. No one imagined
that something as relatively innocuous as pension cuts would set off
the time bomb of accumulated rage.