June 30, 2018, Managua, Nicaragua: a demonstrator deposits flowers to honor the victims of the protests against Daniel Ortega’s government. Photo: Carlos Herrera / dpa / PA Images. All rights reserved.
Under the weight of more than 350 dead and severe violations of human rights including hundreds of missing persons, Nicaragua is living through the horror of extreme government repression of a wave of civil protests.
The situation has become an asymmetric civil confrontation between police, para-police, irregular pro-government Sandinista groups, and students and civilian protesters who have only homemade weapons to protect themselves with.
Last weekend was the bloodiest since the protests began in April. On Friday 13, a national strike was repressed with fire.
That night, around 200 students who had been evicted from the National University were cornered and besieged in a Managua church and two of them were killed. This unleashed a new round of bloody protests and confrontations.
As you are reading this, the crisis continues. Here is what you need to know to understand what is going on:
The main reason is President Ortega's struggle to stay in power
The Sandinista leader, now 72, has been in power for more than 21 years, in two time periods: 1979-1990, and from 2007 until now. His political party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), has been accused of committing multiple electoral irregularities in order to reach and stay in power.
The FSLN won the last elections, in November 2016, with 72.49% of the votes - and he was thus able to maintain absolute control of all the levers of State power.
His violent and unjustifiable reaction in recent months has drawn attention to the ways in which Ortega’s government increasingly resembles the Somoza clan dictatorship which he helped to overthrow.
Popular rejection of Ortega/Murillo
Today, more than 70% of the population rejects the tyranny of Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo - who became vice president in January 2017. It is a tyranny exercised mercilessly on a population that wants to remove them from power and is fighting to do so.
What triggered the protests was the passing of a bill to reform the country’s deficit-functioning social security system. It was the spark that ignited the flame, after years of restrictive and authoritarian policies. Although Ortega was quick to withdraw the reform, the country was already on fire.
Systematic human rights violations
Over the last month, 40 Nicaraguans have been killed; 351, at the last count since the protests began on April 18 according to independent sources.
Painful stories emerge, such as that of a student who told the BBC "I am not letting myself get caught alive, I know what torture methods they use", which highlights the appalling violation of human rights by the government.
These are abominable practices which are leaving a bloodbath behind and have put on full alert local institutions, the Catholic Church, NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Apart from the dead, the systematic violation of rights is producing other alarming figures: 2100 injured and 329 disappeared or kidnapped, according to the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights.
Alarming figures such as 2100 injured and 329 missing account for the appalling violation of human rights occurring in Nicaragua.
The comeback of the paramilitary groups
The Sandinista armed groups, the so-called “shock groups” or “mobs” evocative of the revolution in the seventies, have made a comeback.
These paramilitary groups, equipped with guns from the Nicaraguan Army such as RPG 7, PKM, AK-47 machine guns, and grenades, sometimes on powerful new pick-up trucks, pose the greatest threat to the civilian population.
They walk the streets dressed in civilian clothes and can use their war weapons to suppress protests with absolute impunity.
Flat opposition, permanent mobilization
The opposition has been weak and acutely divided in recent years, but social dissatisfaction is huge and outrage at indiscriminate repression by the regime has led citizens to mobilize: they have organized themselves and taken to the streets to demand elections now.
This sociopolitical crisis, which has been brewing discontent over the last ten years, has catalyzed a citizen resistance movement that the Ortega government considers illegitimate.
The bloody repression has been one of the drivers that have moved the business class and the powerful Nicaraguan Catholic Church to join the mobilization, to espouse the cause of and to prevent the perpetuation of the Ortega/Murillo duo, and to find a way out of the current situation in the form of a peaceful democratic transition.
What sort of way out?
The different initiatives for a negotiated solution consisting of early presidential elections have encountered many difficulties so far. What rules in Nicaragua is repression and fear. Perhaps the example of last year’s successful bloody repression of the Venezuelan opposition by Maduro encourages Ortega to persevere.
But although it is obvious that Ortega intends to stay in power at all costs through brutality and bloodshed, it may just be that, having reached this point, he may now be more interested in getting away from all this scot-free.
Somoza’s shadow is pursuing him, for Ortega is now an even more hated and more long-lived tyrant than Nicaragua’s former dictator.