Nicaragua: The Roots of the Current Crisis

Por Salvador Martí i Puig

Photos by Lorne Matalon

When I was a political science student at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in the late 80’s, I encountered the Sandinista solidarity movement.  On finishing my studies, those connections led me to spend some time in Nicaragua. Two professors in Barcelona put me in contact with the then-dean of the Law School at the Autonomous University of Nicaragua in León (UNAN-León), and she suggested I teach some seminars in exchange for room and board. I liked the idea a lot.  I wanted to experience first-hand the revolution that had so surprised the world and gained its affections.

Ex-guerrilla Carlos Humberto Silva Grijalva is proud to have been a part of the 1979 Sandinista revolution. The sign he made prior to a demonstration reads, 'No more dictatorship, Ortega resign.' Silva's son, Carlos Humberto Silva Rodríguez, has been jailed on what one human rights worker said are fabricated charges of vandalism.

But what actually happened, however, is that I arrived in a Nicaragua where the revolution no longer existed. The Sandinistas had lost the February 25, 1990, elections.  I ended up in a country that was halfway to reconciliation, demobilization and economic ruin. Exiles from Miami had returned home, eager for revenge, and the Sandinistas had a lot to deal with. Some of these Sandinistas tried to look for answers about why the revolution had fallen out of favor and regard among Nicaragua’s populace. Another group passed the days endlessly accusing other Sandinista factions of committing errors over the course of a decade. In the middle of all these squabbles, a certain number of Sandinistas—a minority, but very visible—took advantage of the chaos to make themselves rich. I think it was the worst moment—and the worst country—for a student to embark on his virgin, epic and romantic journey.  I don’t mean to suggest that this first experience was not interesting, because it left me with profound lessons about human nature and developing societies. 

Is it possible that this experience influenced the way in which, ever since that time, I have evaluated Latin American politics in general and Nicaraguan politics in particular? Perhaps because of this experience, I have been more concerned with identifying historic “continuities,” rather than abrupt “changes.”

This inclination to analyze the continuities in Nicaraguan politics, rather than its ruptures, is relevant, especially because in a little more than a century, Nicaragua has experienced North American occupation, a liberal oligarchical regime, a repressive family dictatorship, a revolutionary regime with socialist inclinations, a liberal democracy and since 2007 (with the return of Daniel Ortega to power) a hybrid regime that has combined democratic institutions with authoritarian elections, and, since 2018, has transformed into yet another tyranny.

Nicaragua’s current crisis surprises many people who only think of Nicarauga in terms of the 1979 insurrectional victory and the 1990 electoral defeat of the Sandinista Revolution. Precisely, and in spite of their differences, the two episodes in 1979 and 1990 were exceptions to the rule.  The revolution was unique because of its multiple leadership (of nine comandantes) that condemned and did away with strongman rule and the cult of personality. Moreover, the FSLN abandoned Leninist dogma and put pluralism into practice, offering the possibility of ceding the government to whoever won in fair and competitive elections, as happened in 1990 with the victory of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

Las heridas de Silva Grijalva en su pierna derecha fueron producto de balas de goma disparadas por paramilitares a favor del gobierno, según Grijalva y otros que lo acompañaban.

But this exceptionality soon disappeared and the patrimonial and despotic logic of politics once again began to flourish. On one hand, the FSLN failed in its attempt to democratize itself and rapidly became fiercely controlled by por Daniel Ortega. The liberal democracy inaugurated in 1997 diminished with the arrival of a corrupt president, Arnoldo Alemán, who made a pact with Ortega in 2000 to take control of the country’s institutions. Nicaraguan politics reverted to old patterns. The political culture based on concentration of power and cooptation (or expulsion) of the opposition resulted in the dismantling of balance of powers and the rise of impunity.

Since 2007, with Daniel Ortega’s return to power, the elements of continuity with the Somoza regime reappeared with the vastly increased concentration of public and private resources in the hands of relatives and close allies. This continuity also manifested itself in the tight reins on the administration of the state, including the Army and the Police, allegedly independent agencies, the electoral machinery and the judicial system. The only thing which distinguished Ortega from Somoza was that the former only used violence on rare occasions. That difference disappeared April 18, 2018, when prote4sts broke out against Ortega, setting off fierce repression from the government. According to statistics provided by the Nicaraguan Human Rights Association (ANPDH) in April 2019, the toll is already 561 dead, 4, 578 injured, and more than 1,300 personas imprisoned, and some 60,000 in exile (exact numbers vary among human rights observers).

Not only did Ortega usurp the FSLN and its symbols as his own patrimony, he concentrated the power of the State in his figure (and that of his wife) and rejected any criticism; he has undemocratized the country, This means that the regime has had the capacity to expel the opposition from institutions, to take legal status away from inconvenient political parties and to create puppet electoral formations to weave political complicities to present an appearance of plurality.  In this sense, the crisis of governing that the country is experiencing today cannot be resolved by resurrecting old political parties or by the ad hoc creation of new political formations. A worthy way out from the crisis means far-ranging political and institutional changes, because one thing is the fact  that the regime is widely rejected and another is to be able to compete in elections against the FSLN with guarantees.

In Masaya, government opponents vandalized the public prosecutor's office after state security forces attacked the neighborhood.

The regeneration of an active Nicaraguan political life isn’t just about organizing new elections; a long road lies ahead.  The process of undemocratization that has been carried out over the last decade has not only broken down the electoral administration but has also greatly weakened all political party and associative activities. Thus, any solution to the current situation takes place outside the framework of fossilized institutions and parties.

Negotiation outside institutional frameworks has also been a constant in Nicaragua’s history. Changes of substance in Nicaraguan politics have almost always been the result of negotiations outside of the context of institutions (seeing that these institutions have generally been corrupted by the regime in power). Two opposing sides face off after a “damned stalemate.” The most recent examples  of this type of negotiation are the agreements reached at the end of the 80’s (in the framework of the  Esquipulas Peace Agreement) between the Sandinista government and the Contra; the negotiations established in 1990 between President-elect Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and the FSLN in 1990 to draw up the Protocol of Transition of the Executive Power and more recently “The Governability Agreement” in 2000 (more commonly known as “the Pact”) between Alemán and Ortega, which set of the erosion of Nicaragua’s incipient democratic system.  

Because of this history, many believed that May 16, 2018, a dialogue was going to begin that would be similar to the first session of the National Dialogue, in which members of the government, university sectors, unions, civil society and employer stakeholders came together with the mediation of the Nicaraguan Bishops Conference. That dialogue failed because the government did not put an end to the repression and showed absolutely no interest in furthering a democratizing agenda. Ortega put the blame for the dialogue’s failure on the Catholic Church, a criticism that was not casual because the church represented the only institution present throughout the entire country that was grounded in voice and authority.  Ten months later, a “new” dialogue was proposed, but with fewer players and with very limited expectations. The interlocutors were, on one hand, the government, and on the other, the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, with the Vatican as mediator. The difficulty of this new dialogue was, however, the existence of political prisoners and exiles, as well as the continued repression of the opposition.  This second dialogue was indefinitely suspended on April 23, 2019, and nobody knows if there will be a third dialogue. 

Today the question is how to get out of the crisis in a peaceful way that will be accepted by the different players in the framework of a very unequal and changing correlation of forces. In possible (and futuristic) negotiations, there are several “red lines” that cannot be crossed for each of the players, and at times they are not compatible. For Ortega, these could be economic, political and legal guarantees for himself and his clan, that is, that his family fortune would not be expropriated, that he could conserve a share of power in the institutions of a hypothetical “new regime” and that he would not be tried in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. On the other side, the most combative of the social movements, the Articulation of Social Movements and the Organizations of Civil Society, have indicated that it is absolutely necessary to promote policies of justice, truth and reparation for the victims and to ask for Ortega’s immediate departure. The Civil Alliance for Justice and Democracy adopts a position between these two stances, calling for institutional reform that sets up an electoral calendar with a new electoral law and the presence of international observers; an agenda of human rights that includes the liberation of political prisoners and the annulment of trials of those arrested for protesting against the regime, disarmament of paramilitary groups, end to the repression, freedom of the press and the free return of exiles with international human rights organizations as garantors of these steps, and an agenda of economic development to combat the recession. 

Nevertheless, to return to the negotiations table is difficult because the opposition is not  structured; social movement leaders don’t dare show up; there are no effective opposition parties, nor is there freedom of assembly or press with which to debate. , In this sense, the representation is imperfect and those who sit at the negotiating table—the Civic Alliance—do not have their own force, but depend on international actors and the capacity to get people out onto the streets. The great unknown at this time is the position of the Army, which although it has been closely allied with Ortega, has its own economic and institutional interests to defend, as well as its very prestige beyond the permanence of the current president and power.  

At any rate, at the time of writing this text in mid-June, 2019, there are no signs peace will be achieved in the foreseeable future, although there are some signs of easing of tensions such as the liberation of 56 prisoners June 11. Ortega’s discourse is focused on calling out his adversaries, of denouncing that he has been the victim of a “soft coup” and of urging his loyalists to resist.  In this sense the motto from the seat of power is clear and forceful: “Daniel is staying.”

Thus, the actual crisis has demonstrated continuities in the exercise of the political culture of power in Nicaragua, the concentration of resources in the hands of a strongman. the use of force at critical moments and the incapacity of the institutions to resolve conflicts. The fruits of these continuities are political violence and impunity, reappearning once again in Nicaragua. Nevertheless, It is difficult to think that this crisis could last forever. It is hard to imagine Ortega in power forever through the use of forcé. In this sense the French priest, politician and diplomat Charles Maurice de Tayllerdand warned us a couple of centuries ago, “You can do everything with bayonets except sit on them.” 


Salvador Martí i Puig, is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Girona (UdG) and a research associate at  CIDOB-Barcelona. He has written on Latin American politics in general, particularly about Central America and Mexico. He has been an invited professor and researcher in universities in Latin America, Europe and the United States.