The roots of the current crisis stretch back over a decade to the deals the current President, Daniel Ortega, struck when in opposition. This included a pact with the then governing party, which granted immunity to one of the most corrupt politicians in the hemisphere. It also involved a change to the electoral law and a deal with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church who would give Ortega their support in return for his introduction of one of the most draconian criminalisations of abortion anywhere in the world.
In these years, the Sandinista Front, which had enjoyed huge legitimacy in overthrowing the decades-long Somoza dynasty in the 1979 Revolution, became totally dominated by Ortega, who, on regaining power in 2007 made his wife vice president. Opposition parties were bought off with patronage or de-registered. Opposition social movements, such as feminist groups which supported abortion rights or campesinos opposed to the controversial inter-oceanic canal project, were repressed. Amnesty International expressed major concerns about the fairness of the most recent presidential elections in 2016.
Meanwhile the Ortegas spread their dynastic influence. Three sons, also presidential advisors, are directors of TV channels. Another heads a state agency working with incoming businesses. The father-in-law of one daughter heads the national police.
Yet internationally the government is still seen as anti-imperialist, thanks to the support it received from Venezuela and the very real hostility it drew from the US, which seeks as ever an entirely compliant regime in the country. Trump’s open admission to contemplating a military option in Venezuela would apply equally to Nicaragua.
Many on the left greeted the fatalities arising from protests against pension reforms in April with disbelief. But a new report by Amnesty International, Shoot to Kill: Nicaragua’s strategy to repress protest, removes any room for doubt. Despite the official denials, it is indisputable that armed individuals and groups acted in collusion with the Nicaraguan police to carry out gross violations of human rights. Changes to the Nicaraguan constitution that put the national police directly under the control of the president means responsibility for these actions goes to the very top.
Worse, there was a deliberate shoot to kill policy. One journalist observed: “Most of the deaths… are carefully aimed shots. a single shot fired with precision at the head or jugular or chest. They are shots that aim to kill and they are fired by professionals, not ordinary people.”
The families of victims, far from having their concerns taken seriously when they made official complaints, were themselves subject to harassment and intimidation. Some of those wounded were denied medical treatment, with medical staff allegedly threatened with expulsion from the public health system by the minister if they treated protestors.
SOS Nicaragua recently organised a small number of meetings in the UK, giving a platform to some of the activists involved in the protest movement. Two things are particularly striking. One is how young they are. Madelaine Caracas, a student activist, is just twenty. She has been unable to go home since April because of threats from the police and paramilitary groups that back the regime. These have to be taken seriously: one activist’s house was torched, with several family members, including small children, killed.
The second is that they see themselves in the traditions of the Nicaraguan Revolution. Their struggle has been continuing for four months and more. It is sustained by help from poorer neighbourhoods, which collect food and medical aid and take it to the barricades. “To say that this is externally funded is horribly offensive to us,” says Jessica Cisneros, a founder of the grassroots Civic Youth Movement. “No external force would be capable of mobilising such a mass movement.”
After abandoning its unsustainable denials, the Ortega regime deplored the “tragic events” - a neutral description sadly echoed by Britain’s Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign - and promised dialogue. On the first day, students shouted “murderer” at the Ortegas. The presidential couple did not return and TV coverage was cut.
Meanwhile, the professional, targeted killings continue and thousands have fled the escalating violence - now perpetrated on both sides - to neighbouring Costa Rica. The crisis is far bigger than the pensions issue - or any other issue. The protestors want justice and democracy. For that the Ortegas have go.
To read the Amnesty report, see