The odd power couple
The lack of alternatives to the Ortega-Murillo government and the protracted instability risk plunging Nicaragua into violence and political paralysis.
- Saturday, 01 September 2018
Months after the beginning of the student revolt in Nicaragua, an uprising viewed sympathetically by the majority of the population, more than 300 people have died, at least two thousand wounded and an unknown number have been disappeared.
Repression of the revolt by the government of Daniel Ortega, has been as ferocious as it has been targeted. Initially led by the police together with the armyin rural areas, the state apparatus has been more or less substituted by paramilitary groups that were also responsible for initial looting attributed to the protestors.
But the student rebels seem to be holding on, armed with stones, sticks and some homemade mortars. Their mobilization hinges on the popular protests and roadblocks that are paralysing the country and the economy. Another strategy of the rebels is civil disobedience, such as the non-payment of taxes and pension contributions.
It was precisely Ortega’s decree concerning pension reform, which introduced a tax of 5% on the miserable sums provided, that caused the well of resentment against the regime to overflow on 18 April. Nevertheless, the uprising surprised everyone inside and outside of Nicaragua: a country that has been largely forgotten since being the centre of attention in the 1980s during the Popular Sandinista Revolution (opposed by the Reagan administration).
The paradox is that the man behind the repression of the Nicaraguan students, former guerrilla commander Daniel Ortega, was the leader of the revolution that in 1979 overturned, in this case by military means, the almost 50 year tyranny of the Somozadictatorship.
It is this very fact that leads some observers (some leftists too) to question the spontaneity of the rebellion and to accept the regime’s explanation that itis no more than a coup engineered by the US.
In reality decades have passed since Washington lost interest in the country, precisely due to the fact that Ortega’s approach has been largely compatible with the interests of the US in spite of his superficial anti-imperialist rhetoric.
In order to understand the current scenario, it is necessary to look back to the electoral defeat in February 1990, paradoxically the highpoint of a revolution that, having been defeated in secret at the ballot box, handed power to the moderate centre right candidate, Violeta de Chamorro, in a peaceful transition of power that introduced the country to a democratic dynamic. The problem is that the Sandinista Front rapidly split in two: on one hand sometook up the challenge of winning back power through democratic means, the other side decided that they must return to power at any cost and never relinquish it again. The latter faction prevailed.
From thenon Ortega slowly purified the Front of any figure with Sandinista connotations, becoming its absolute leader. At the same time he made power-sharing dealswith the oligarchical right, which governed for two mandates. Finally, his patience paid off andthanks to a bespoke electoral law, he managed to win back the presidency at the 2006 elections.
Then he forged a cast iron alliance with private business, guaranteeing them tax exemptions, social peace and the lowest minimum wages in Central America. His presidency implemented neoliberal policies, including those ratified in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the USA; negotiations with the IMF, and a close collaboration with the US in the war on drug trafficking.
Not only this but in order to ingratiate himself with former enemy of the Sandinista revolution, the now late Cardinal Obando y Bravo, Ortega and his wife were remarried by the prelate in church and then cancelled legislation concerning therapeutic abortion.
He thus managed to be re-elected president a further two times, thanks to vote rigging and by violating the constitution that prohibited his repeated candidacy, and eventuallygained absolute control of all state powers and the entire country. Blackmailing people in their places of work and repressing dissent in the capital Managua with groups of thugs (today paramilitaries), while in the countryside the police and the army crushed any resistance toforeigners that had been handed licences to carry out deforestation and mining activities.
The only opposition that the regime has been unable to defeat because of itssubstantial momentum is that of the farmers threatened with expropriation of their land as part of the madcap project to build the interoceanic canal (negotiated with a Chinese impresario who has gone bankrupt).
In the last elections in 2016 Ortega appointed his wife Rosario as Vice-President, in addition to consolidating the status of many of their children at the head of vital branches of the country system (beginning with the media).
Beyond Ortega, the current power in Nicaragua resides with hiswife,who at the end of the 1990s contradicted her own daughter Zoilamerica’s accusationsagainstherstepfather Ortega of long-termsexualabuse when she was a child.
The Ortega’sapproach of pulling all of the strings has resulted over the last years in Nicaragua achieving annual economic growth of 4.5%. But benefitting from this has been exclusively (in addition to the local oligarchy) the presidential couple’s clan in the middle of a shameful web of corruption.
Of course Ortega has had tomaintain, at least superficially, his loyalty to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, from which he has received 5 billion dollars worth of supplies (including petrol) from Venezuela. But that particular tap wasturned off 2 years ago, bringing to an end the only aid he granted to his electoral base, the poor (zinc sheeting to fix the roofs of their shacks, farm animals and little more). With 75% of the population condemned to working in the informal economy, a government that claims its values are “socialism, Christianity and solidarity” has achieved no relevant structural reforms.
With the crisis in Venezuela, new problems have arrived unbalancing a country that Ortega had taken back under control in the name of “continuity” with the old revolution, which still manages to guarantee the right to healthcare (precarious but functioning). The right to free education, however, suffers from the obscure educational programmes of his wife Rosario.
When the pension system went into the red it triggered the spontaneous and consequently surprising rebellion.
This has led to the events of the recent months.Private business, with lightning-quick timing has broken off its strange cohabitationwith Ortega, returning to its natural position and lining up alongside the Civic Alliance opposing the regime, together with the university students and what remains of organised civil society.
A dialogue has been initiated, mediated by the Episcopal Conference, which in reality is aligned with the protestors, in order to shed light on the crimes committed and with the aim of achieving early elections, without a reform of the electoral law and authorities.
Daniel Ortega has sat down at the negotiating table, thus legitimising the uprising. But, as he reiterated in his speech on 19 July - the 39th anniversary of the revolution that was celebrated in a very low-key way - he has no intention of going anywhere. On the contrary, using hispolitical savvy he has claimed to be open to a negotiation with the US, the presumed authors of the “coup”;as if to say, “who, in the midst of an uprising that could lead who knows where, can ensure stability in your back yard, if not my government?”
In fact, nobody can predict how the planet’s first uprising of the millennials will end.The young rebels are essentially alone but as passionate and strong as their social networks. Surrounded by hyenas that want to take advantage of them, theyappear not to have a particular political orientation but in substance they are the children of General de Hombres Libres, Augusto Cesar Sandino, who inspired the past revolution and who, just under a century ago, in the name of freedom and justice, rebelled against the US military occupation.
The situation is worsening each day to the extent that even the bishops and priests have been manhandled at the entrance to churches where protestors having been seeking refuge.
Time, and military firepower, seem to be on the regime’s side as it pursues its ends by murderous means, whilethe population cannot be expected to put up with the protestors effectively shutting downthe country in the long term.
However, be that as it may, the revolt hasmarked a watershed in the history of Nicaragua. Nothing will be as it was before. And for Daniel Ortega it could be the beginning of the end.