Around April 19, the hashtag #SOSNicaragua emerged on Twitter. It tells a troubling story of growing demonstrations in the capital Managua and several other cities around the country, sparked by government changes to social security. The demonstrations gained momentum after the deaths of two university students. A journalist and two police officers were also killed, and by Wednesday April 25, citing a report by the Nicaragua’s Center for Human Rights, France 24 reported that the death toll had risen to at least 34. The next day, widely reported estimates rose to 63. The United Nations has called for an investigation into the deaths and the government’s response to the protests.
After a brief dialogue, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega revoked the social security reform and released dozens of students and other demonstrators that had been jailed. The New York Times reported that Ortega “gave in to demand after demand from the protesters this week.” But calls for his resignation only seem to be growing louder. Why?
In an effort to reduce public debt, President Ortega enacted a reform to social security that increased the amount to be paid by the employed and decreased the amount to be received by pensioners. In response, demonstrations broke out across the country and the police responded with force, arresting some 150 protestors. In the city of Masaya, an Ortega stronghold, government supporters attacked the demonstrators.
But Nicaraguans’ frustration with the government has been growing since Ortega became President in 2007. Along with his wife and Vice President, Rosario Murillo – who he made his running mate in the 2016 elections – Ortega controls most of the government’s institutions. A former political ally who campaigned against Ortega in 2007 wrote in the Guardian: “… Ortega set about exerting absolute control over state institutions such as the electoral council, the supreme court, the national assembly, the army and the police. Then he reformed the constitution to allow for indefinite re-elections.”According to the New York Times, Ortega and Murillo have been “accused of rampant electoral fraud that gave them power over the nation’s city halls, too.” Finally, more recently, a forest fire burned nearly 9,000 acres at the Indio Maiz biological reserve. The government was ill-equipped to deal with the fire, and its refusal to accept foreign assistance to put it out drew criticism and frustration – particularly from students and environmentalists.
The last straw
The social security reform measures were enacted to address the deficit of the social security administration, the Instituto Nicaragüense de Seguridad Social (INSS). In February, the International Monetary Fund concluded a visit to Nicaragua with several recommendations, including the implementation of “a comprehensive reform of the Social Security… The deficit of the INSS will continue to increase until a reform is put in place.” It is not clear whether or not this prompted Ortega to enact the reform.
What is clear is that the country’s frustrations are based on a much broader set of grievances than just the reform itself. According to many Nicaraguans, the main reason for the INSS deficit in the first place is state plunder – not just some ill-informed policy choices: “Consecutive governments have been accused of using the INSS as a source of ‘petty cash’, leaving many people feeling that pensioners and workers are now being forced to pay the price for the system’s mismanagement,” according to the Guardian. The social security reform seems to be the proverbial last straw on a back-breaking pile of abuses of power that have been accumulating over the last decade.
That’s why demonstrators are not backing down, despite Ortega revoking the reform and giving in to several of the protestors’ demands.
Here’s why this is a big deal
Daniel Ortega was a fighter in the Sandinista movement, which overthrew the American-backed Somoza regime in 1979. He was the leader of the Junta of National Reconstruction until 1985, when he became President, and then lost in the 1990 elections. After his government started supporting left-wing rebels in El Salvador in the 1980s, the United States began funding a coalition of right-wing Nicaraguan rebel groups – known as the Contras – who were opposed to the new revolutionary government.
What is interesting to note about the last decade of Ortega’s presidency, and growing opposition to it, is that many of his biggest critics in recent years have been former comrades in arms and former supporters. So without the support of his former base, there may be enough momentum to kick him out. More than that, though, these new developments raise a lot of other questions. Will new alliances be forged? Will old hostilities be rekindled, or new ones emerge? How will this end?
There is no question, however, that we are entering a period of increased instability in a key country in Central America.