The word ‘asesino’ (murderer) is painted over a mural of Daniel Ortega in Managua, Nicaragua. Photograph: Esteban Felix/AP

There was a time, in the 1980s, when Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, was hailed as a hero in the insurrectionary tradition of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. The Reagan administration’s covert (and illegal) efforts to vanquish Ortega by force, after the Sandinistas helped topple the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, provoked an international campaign in support of the revolution. The fight against the U.S.-backed Contra rebels was part of a wider struggle, in the context of the Cold War, to defeat U.S. hegemony in Central America.

Today, the country appears to be in the throes of another revolution, but this time it is Ortega who is facing the people’s wrath. After failing to convert socialist enthusiasm into economic progress, Ortega was defeated by a U.S.-backed candidate in elections in 1990. In 2006, he made a comeback, and has held the presidency ever since. This is largely because, in the manner of another leftwing icon, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, he eviscerated opposition parties, abolished constitutional term limits and extended controls on the judiciary, the electoral authority and the media.

Life for many in Nicaragua remains an uphill battle. It is ranked the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti. Around 30 percent of Nicaraguans, in a population of 6 million, get by on less than US $2 a day. These conditions help explain why, when the government increased social security payments and cut pensions in April, a popular explosion occurred. Spontaneous, unorganized street protests involving unemployed youths, students, pensioners, trades unionists, and religious leaders erupted across the country.

Ortega’s response has been brutal. At least 170 people have been killed and hundreds more injured in violence involving police firing live ammunition, backed by “shock groups” of armed paramilitaries. The government says Sandinista supporters have been targeted by demonstrators, too. Disappearances, brutal punishments, and kidnappings have become a frequent occurrence in Managua. Schools, universities, and banks have shut their doors. One report described the country as being in “full cardiac arrest.” But still the protests continue, focused on twin demands that Ortega and his wife, the vice-president, Rosario Murillo, step down, and that early elections be held.

Hopes that the crisis may be defused now center on talks mediated by Catholic church leaders. On Friday, all parties agreed to halt the violence, and Ortega reportedly accepted a proposal to allow an international taskforce to investigate the killings. But while he has promised to institute political reforms, the civic groups opposing him have received no reply to their call for early elections. The crisis is far from over. And the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have a responsibility to help chart a path forward.

Despite his political failings and personal misdeeds, it would be unfair to stereotype Ortega as a heedless caudillo or crass dictator of the old Central American school. Pro-business reforms have brought economic growth of up to 5 percent a year since 2011. Tourism has been growing. The pro-Sandinista, London-based Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign offers alternative explanations for the unrest, including the alleged bias of western media and Washington’s enduring hostility. “It has been a complete shock that a country with a stable growing economy and extensive investment in health, education, social programmes and infrastructure erupted into such violence so quickly,” the NSC said on its website last month.

Some people are too easily shocked. Nicaragua cannot afford the current chaos – and Ortega and Murillo have become a big part of the problem. They have had their moment. Nicaragua would benefit from a fresh start. – The Observer

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