Nicaragua's Vicious Road to Venezuelan-Style Tyranny

From April to July 2018, 351 Nicaraguans have been murdered, 261 people are missing and 2100 were wounded during protests against Daniel Ortega. Does it ring a bell yet?

Original Art by ModoGráfico

Isabela doesn’t know if her son will have a new school year. Two months ago, thirty days before schedule, the school’s administration told her that classes had to end immediately, to avoid inconvenients with the blocked streets and protests filling Managua. The last day, her son received all of his grades and the usual yearbook with pictures of his classmates and teachers. Since then, both she and her son leave the house once a week, to go to the supermarket. “We’re under some kind of house arrest,” she says, her voice broken by uncertainty and fear. “Managua used to be peaceful. These last three months, the situation has intensified, getting unbearable.”

“Managua used to be peaceful. These last three months, the situation has intensified, getting unbearable.”

Nicaragua is ruled by Daniel Ortega’s (and his wife, Rosario Murillo). The man famous for participating in the revolution that toppled Anastasio Somoza has resorted to copying a script from another country: Venezuela. What’s the evidence? Everyday examples: Before his first re-election in 2011, he said before the Supreme Court of Justice and the National Electoral Council that his political rights had been violated, because he couldn’t be president again. Three years after winning, he made the National Assembly, filled it with his cronies and changed the Constitution to scrap the limit on presidential terms. His wife is the creator and manager of the “Juventud Presidente” groups, who used to be made of university students supporting Ortega, now turned into a mixture between loyalists and army and police officers specialized in repressing the opposition.

The only area where Ortega has avoided resembling his Venezuelan counterpart is in the intervention of private companies and their administration — even if this honeymoon might come to an end soon.

How did the country’s collapse begin?

On April 18, Nicaragua’s Social Security Institute announced that they would reduce pensions for the elderly, because they needed to make adjustments in the budget. That measure caused thousands of people to take to Managua’s streets, which in turn prompted the Juventud Presidente groups to meet the protests in a clash that left dozens wounded right in front of the police, who refused to prevent violence. Many protesters were elder citizens accompanied by their children or grandchildren.

“Ortega’s actions have sparked protests in Nicaragua for years,” says Isabela, a resident of Managua for two years, “but everything always ended in relative peace and the country went back to normal. Many of us never imagined that this would be the protest that would unleash the wave of demonstrations and repression.”

“Many of us never imagined that this would be the protest that would unleash the wave of demonstrations and repression.”

She explains that the social divide in the city isn’t as deep as in other Latin American cities. There’s no “East for the wealthy and West for the poor” as in Caracas. At night, residents could pleasantly walk across most sectors without fear of being attacked. Now, at 4:00 p.m. most people are already at home to avoid being arrested by Juventud Presidente patrolling aboard 4×4 trucks. “We’ve come to know these trucks as ‘black wagons.’ Many who get in, never return.”

These trucks are used to block avenues and streets in downtown Managua, claiming that they’re checkpoints for citizen security. Civilians must face hooded strangers carrying long weapons, without any kind of official identification. The Youths are also accompanied by paramilitary groups established in several areas across the country over the last two years, to “protect people’s interests.” They’re the Nicaraguan version of Venezuelan colectivos, and they have support and training with certain sectors of the Armed Forces. Daniel Ortega neither denies nor admits their existence, but he’s asserted in several statements that he has “the necessary human resources” to “stop any foe of the Sandinista revolution”.

With that in mind, the government has created the “Operación Limpieza,” which seeks to quell any riots before July 19, the day the ruling party, the Sandinista Front of National Liberation (FSNL), celebrates Managua’s recovery from Somoza’s grasp, in 1979.

“Through WhatsApp groups, we get reports, images and videos of the operations carried out by paramilitaries and Juventud Presidente, arresting anyone who opposes the government,” says Julio, a Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy activist. “Perhaps the country will look more like Venezuela soon. We already have Citizen Power Councils (CPC) invading land and marking companies and structures that could be expropriated.”

Between April 19 and July 10, 351 people have died in various municipalities of Nicaragua.

With this Operación Limpieza, and according to data collected by the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, between April 19 and July 10, 351 people have died in various municipalities of Nicaragua. Managua takes the lead with 162 victims, then comes Masaya with 35, then León with 26 and, lastly, Carazo with 25 (the rest of them in smaller numbers, scattered all around the country). Out of the 351 victims, 289 people have been killed with firearms, 206 were civilians and there have been 2,100 wounded. 261 people are missing, while 269 have been released by the government’s shock troops, thanks to the bona fides of the Catholic Church and the Alliance.

Both institutions have tried to advance negotiations with the government to try and solve the situation peacefully. With images in the press a few weeks ago showing students, civil society institutions, business owners and bishops demanding Daniel Ortega to end repression and fast-track the presidential election scheduled for 2020. However, negotiations have their detractors among Nicaraguans who think that new elections would propose the same scenario of 2016, where Ortega won with 72.44% of votes in a process that didn’t have international observers and was denounced by several national entities as a fraud.

In coming days, fresh protests are expected, along with a national strike from those who don’t want Nicaragua to follow on Venezuela’s bleak footsteps. Or as the song “Nicaragua” by La Vida Bohème says: “I didn’t want this, my country died. I killed it, I killed it. Ironically, it killed me.”


DISCLAIMER: Names have been changed to protect the sources.

UPDATE: A previous version of this article mentioned the “Sandinista Youths” groups, when the author was actually referring to “Juventud Presidente” groups. The terms were corrected and the article has been updated.