Nicaragua’s economy has seen a $900 million deficit and has lost a total of 215,000 jobs, with 70,000 from the tourism industry as a result of university-led protests.
The protests, which began last April, are against President Daniel Ortega’s social reforms that would increase taxes and reduce benefits by 5 percent. The government justified these reforms as a means to meet recommendations by the International Monetary Fund.
Nicaragua is headed by Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. Ortega is a member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the socialist revolutionary group inspired by Augusto Sandino of the Nicaraguan resistance during United States military occupation from 1927–1933. Ortega has been a nationally celebrated figure symbolizing the people’s freedom from the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. As a socialist, Ortega began his political career challenging democracy and capitalism that the U.S. was working to establish in the region.
Protests began in April 2018 but originated from longtime grievances dating back to 2006, when Ortega ran for his third term as president after changing the constitution to allow more than two terms. In 2007, the protests were a result of Ortega’s lack of action on the potentially harmful and life-threatening effects of pesticides. According to The Guardian, those opposing Ortega are a coalition of “students, rural workers, millionaire entrepreneurs, business people, clergy and former Sandinistas.”
According to a UN Human Rights Council report, more than 300 citizens have been killed, 2,000 injured, 2,000 kidnapped and more than 23,000 have fled to Costa Rica seeking asylum. Public demonstrations have also become illegal. The UN reports peaceful protesters were met with armed police who fired into crowds, tortured and raped detainees and detained people at random. Journalists report receiving death threats and physical attacks while multiple key nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups have been raided and shut down alongside the country’s key independent news media, Confidencial.
The Ortega-Murillo administration claims protests are by terrorists attempting to stage a coup with all opposition being detained, suppressed or ran out of the country. Ortega’s voice remains unchallenged in the region.
Less than a month ago, long-time supporter and closest legal advisor of Ortega Supreme Court Justice Rafael Solis wrote a letter of resignation. Solis has been a member of Ortega’s inner circle for decades and has seen the corruption and deceit of Ortega and Murillo firsthand. He classified the Ortega-Murillo regime as an absolute monarchy and holds the administration responsible for the country’s social and economic crisis. He claimed the trials of current prisoners are entirely political with absurd accusations and sentences. Solis explained peaceful protests have been met with bloodshed and fire in order to instill fear and repress resistance, confirming their actions have been without reason.
In less than a year, Nicaragua holds twice as many political prisoners as Venezuela. As countries across Latin America struggle to achieve political and economic stability—and as Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua face international criticism for their crisis—an underlying question is how the U.S. will respond.
The U.S. response is beginning to take shape. According to The American Interest, based on a new executive order, Murillo and National Security Advisor Nestor Moncada Lau have been sanctioned. The U.S. Congress also passed the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act, which is intended to use U.S. influence to block loans to Nicaragua from international development banks unless the Ortega-Murillo regime promises a return to democracy and fair elections.
Nicaragua remains one of Central America’s poorest countries, with the majority of its population living in poverty, and according to the World Food Programme, around 76 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.