How Daniel Ortega Weathered 2018 Storm… and What Comes Next
By Kai M. Thaler and Eric S. Mosinger
On July 19, supporters of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega celebrated the 40th anniversary of the popular uprising that toppled the Somoza family dictatorship and swept Ortega’s Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) into power. For the majority of the country, however, it was a somber occasion. It was a chance to recognize again that, almost exactly fifteen months after the beginning of protests that marked the most serious challenge yet to Ortega’s rule, he remains entrenched in power, while thousands of his opponents are in exile, have been jailed, or live under threats, and hundreds of protesters were killed. How has Ortega managed to hold onto power, after, in April and May 2018, it seemed as if his eleven-year grip on the country might finally end?
Repression to Overwhelm Resistance
Ortega’s willingness to use repression against protesters and opposition figures in the media and civil society meant that he felt no need to make concessions, relying instead on force to keep power. The uprising began after state-linked thugs attacked initial protests—including by elderly pensioners— against Ortega’s proposed social security austerity measures. As images of bloodied protesters spread on Nicaraguan social media, hundreds of thousands more took to the streets around the country in protests that caught Ortega, analysts and most Nicaraguans by surprise. The government of Ortega had been associated with stability obtained through pacts and backroom deals, and steady but not brutal controls over society. After early vacillation, however, Ortega found his footing, and his firepower, ordering the use of deadly force by police and sending Juventud Sandinista turbas or mobs to loot businesses and create chaos. The next step was devolving control over violence, turning the Sandinista Youth, FSLN supporters and, allegedly, former police and even active-duty soldiers into paramilitaries. State-linked paramilitary forces then terrorized communities, attacked protests and operated in cooperation with police, often using police and military-grade weapons.
In June and July 2018, the regime unleashed its full force. Police and paramilitaries destroyed barricades, brutally overran Managua’s universities and barrios, and suppressed uprisings in Masaya, Jinotepe, El Crucero and other strongholds of popular resistance. While in some cases armed protesters shot back at government forces, the vast majority of protesters were unarmed or defended their positions with only rocks and traditional morteros against the lethal police and paramilitary arsenal. The government steadily regained control of the streets, crushing the hopes of much of the opposition.
Alongside overt repression, the government unleashed an ongoing campaign to defund, shutter and attack independent media outlets and civil society organizations, to arrest known protesters and organizers, and to monitor the Nicaraguan refugee population in Costa Rica and elsewhere, using networks of government supporters who emigrated for economic reasons in more peaceful times. The discovery on July 27, 2019 of an improvised explosive device at the Costa Rican television station where Confidencial journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro has been broadcasting his Esta Semana program in exile, is a further reminder that Nicaraguans abroad, no matter how prominent, are not safe.
Taking Advantage of the International Environment
In a climate of generalized international indifference to human rights concerns, Ortega’s vicious strategy made sense. He and other dictators saw what happened when Muammar Gaddafi, an Ortega ally, lost power, while Bashar al-Assad retained control in Syria after killing hundreds of thousands and using chemical weapons. Likewise, Ortega could see that his ally in Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, remained in power despite using repression and overseeing a world-historic economic collapse. Given the close relationships Ortega had cultivated with UN Security Council members Russia and China, the only real worry was Donald Trump’s fickle whim, but Trump’s attention was turned more toward Venezuela and Iran.
Repression was not Ortega’s only tool, however. He did engage in negotiations with the emerging civic alliance of student protestors, business leaders, civil society members and the Catholic Church, but government representatives did not negotiate in good faith. Negotiations frustrated opposition leaders as they tried to maintain momentum in the streets, in the face of police and paramilitary violence that Ortega increased and decreased strategically, depending on the state of the talks and in response to international opinion and fluctuating international pressure. Participating in dialogues helped keep up the façade for the international community that Ortega was willing to potentially compromise—even as he and his allied propagandists, at home and abroad, were painting the diverse coalition of protesters as right-wing, US-backed imperialists attempting to execute a coup. The government’s stop-and-start tactics in the negotiations also took a toll on opposition unity, as fractures developed, for instance, between student leaders and the business community over the latter’s unwillingness to call a sustained national strike.
Likewise, an amnesty law passed on June 8, 2019, serves the Ortega regime’s strategy to demobilize the opposition. The law supposedly offered amnesty to “all those who took part in the events beginning on April 18, 2018,” applying to protesters, police and paramilitaries alike. The government has since released at least a hundred political prisoners, but only on the condition that they do not participate in any further protests, which have continued to be outlawed. The amnesty passed in the FSLN-dominated National Assembly without any opposition input, and has been criticized by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and the Organization of American States for trying to protect government forces from accountability for human rights violations. Cases against protesters have been suspended, not fully withdrawn, and the government continues to monitor and detain opponents.
Rather than reconciling government and opposition, the amnesty law has abetted Nicaragua’s transformation into a police state. As one of the released political prisoners told the British newspaper the Guardian (June 11, 2019), he was “happy to have escaped that hell” but also “sad and worried because the country is more locked up than when we became prisoners.”
The Remaining Regime Supporters
Who, then, continues to support Ortega? Most crucially, the security forces. Though opposition resilience and international pressure can help, scholars of civil resistance movements point to defections among the government, and especially the security forces, as necessary for regime change campaigns to succeed.
Security forces need to either defect or acquiesce for peaceful protestors to succeed. While the Nicaraguan military mostly stayed in its barracks, it never openly intervened, even when challenged to fulfill its constitutional duties to disarm the paramilitaries. Instead, soldiers sat back and let police and paramilitaries take on the campaign of repression. This may have initially been a ploy to maintain the image of depoliticized professionalism the military had forged after the Sandinistas lost the 1990 elections. The military, however, has lost its prestige for non-Ortega supporters, many of whom suspect the military has been arming police and paramilitaries, and even participating in repression out of uniform.
The police and paramilitaries have been Ortega’s shock troops, and they are now irrevocably compromised and tied to the regime’s fate. The police’s turn toward internal repression, rather than combatting crime, has undone one of the strongest remaining legacies of the revolution: public trust in police, which contributed to Nicaragua success in avoiding the large-scale organized crime and gang violence that have plagued its northern neighbors. Now, with police concentrating on tracking government opponents and stopping protests, the door is open for greater infiltration by transnational organized crime syndicates. This is especially the case in remote areas of the Caribbean coast, where the government was already turning a blind eye to illegal and frequently violent invasion of indigenous lands.
Beyond the security forces, however, Ortega retains a significant core of organized support, likely between 20 and 30% of the population. While he may have lost control of the revolutionary legacy, with many Nicaraguans now equating him with the dictator he once helped defeat, Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, still have the FSLN party apparatus firmly under their thumbs. The party has strong networks throughout the country, both for surveillance and patronage distribution, with government jobs and welfare programs provided through the party, rather than the state apparatus. In a very poor country, many families depend on state and party largesse, and social programs do breed much genuine support for Ortega. Unfortunately, the amount spent on these public goods and services pales in comparison to the revenues and assets reaped by Ortega, the FSLN and their associates.
Government employees at this juncture either genuinely support Ortega or fear the consequences of open opposition and so remain compliant. Some regime supporters may have vacillated in the initial weeks of the protests, thinking Ortega might fall, and then snapped back into line as government control was reestablished.
Given the opposition’s fractures, pro-government citizens remain the largest unified bloc in Nicaraguan politics. Even in a free and fair election, the various opposition factions would need to find a strong unity candidate to beat Ortega, in a system that does not require majority support to win in the first round.
Where does Nicaragua go from here?
Ortega’s latest ploy is to walk away from negotiations after announcing that elections will be held as scheduled in 2021, rather than moved up to 2020. Any electoral reforms Ortega proposes or announces would not be credible to the opposition or outside observers given his history of corrupting the electoral commission and manipulating results. Without independent international organization and monitoring of elections, it seems extremely unlikely that legitimate elections will be held in 2021.
Ortega hopes to wait out his opponents, betting that repression will sap them of their spirit and that the business community will ultimately care more about profits than political change. International sanctions have hurt the regime economically, but there is little risk of any forceful outside intervention, and the attention of the United States and European powers is generally directed elsewhere. Finally, even though Nicaragua appears to be on the precipice of a severe economic crisis, Ortega will take heart that his friend Nicolás Maduro has weathered far worse.
The fight against the Somoza dictatorship took years, with each side’s fortunes waxing and waning. The opposition today has already come closer in a manner of months to toppling the Ortega regime than the armed Sandinistas did during their first decade of battling the Somoza regime. Ortega may wait, but the majority of Nicaraguans who oppose him will remember the violent repression he ordered last year. As an opposition slogan declares, it is “prohibido olvidar”—forbidden to forget—the people whom police and paramilitaries killed, tortured, and chased into exile. Nicaraguans will not go back to complacency, and the longer Ortega keeps outlawing protests, arresting dissidents and refusing to negotiate his exit from office, the more he risks an even larger eruption in the streets when the next cycle of mass protests begins.
Kai M. Thaler is Assistant Professor of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of the 2017 article “Nicaragua: A Return to Caudillismo” in the Journal of Democracy.He received his Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University in 2018, as well as a Certificate in Latin American Studies from the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. Eric S. Mosinger is the Robert A. Oden Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow for Innovation in the Liberal Arts at Carleton College and is working on a book manuscript examining leadership and fragmentation in the revolutionary FSLN and other rebel groups.