charles castaldi is a former NPR reporter in Latin America.
Published October 29, 2018
The first sign that things were drastically different was the nearly empty United flight from Houston to Managua in early June. I was returning to Nicaragua, where I now live, on a flight that typically runs packed with Nicaraguan diaspora on home leave, plus assorted tourists seeking sun and fun at discount prices. Suddenly Nicaragua was considered too dangerous to visit.
Grass-roots protests against the elected government of Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, had spread through the entire country. Roadblocks cut highways from the capital to many Nicaraguan cities. Universities were taken over by students, barricades erected to prevent the authorities from entering many neighborhoods. It was an explosive rejection of top-down rule by a mass movement that called itself “self-organized” — and for the most part was.
The drastic turn of events in a nation not inclined to violence after decades of fratricidal war began with two apparently unrelated events. First, in early April, a forest fire in the pristine Indio Maíz reserve on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast had touched a nerve with younger Nicaraguans who are energized by environmental issues and were upset by the government’s lackadaisical response in fighting the flames.
Then, on April 18 in Leon (Nicaragua’s second-largest city), pensioners took to the streets to protest reforms to the social security system, which was running out of funds after years of unfulfilled promises and unaccountable management. They were attacked by a group that calls themselves Sandinista Youth, who are best described as government-controlled paramilitary in the brown-shirt mold — except their shirts declare peace and love in rainbow colors, a design that bears the hallmarks of Murillo’s enthusiasm for New Ageism combined with Christian fervor and Orwellian newspeak.
The demonstration against higher social security taxes and pared benefits spread to the Managua shopping center, where Sandinista Youth again attacked protesters. Three were gravely wounded while the police stood by. The government took opposition media off the air in an effort to block coverage, then backed down on the move under popular pressure.
The following day, students took over universities in Leon and Managua. The police responded with force, killing two students and losing one of their own. Those deaths prompted more protests. Social media, which has a strong presence in Nicaragua, exploded with videos of demonstrations, police attacks and heavily armed masked paramilitaries menacing onlookers from the backs of pickup trucks. A journalist from Nicaragua’s deeply impoverished Atlantic coast was shot in the head while doing a live Facebook transmission. Casualties mounted, reaching triple figures by the second month of protests. Almost all of them were civilians, young men for the most part armed with Molotov cocktails, homemade mortars or plain old rocks.
Decades in the Making
How could a country that on the surface seemed a model of stability — a magnet for foreign investment and tourism with an enviable record of economic growth in the past decade — find itself in such a dire situation seemingly overnight? Scratch beneath the upbeat propaganda delivered daily on the radio by Murillo, who for the last decade has been practically the only government official to speak publicly. If one acknowledges that for years Ortega and Murillo have been ignoring critics and dismantling institutional checks against authoritarian rule, it shouldn’t be a stretch to conclude that once serious protests began, the First Family would respond with rapidly escalating violence.
Ortega has been a fixture in Nicaraguan politics since 1979, when he was appointed first among equals within the revolutionary Sandinista committee that would rule Nicaragua for the decade after the overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza. He was chosen because his low-key personality and uninspiring delivery were assumed to be characteristics of a functionary who could be easily controlled. It would not be the only time underestimating Ortega would prove a critical error.
Sandinista rule was deeply polarizing at a time when the Cold War was still raging. Nicaraguans who feared the government’s avowedly socialist policies and open admiration for Castro’s Cuba departed in droves. Soon the Sandinistas found themselves facing off against the Reagan administration, which painted the tiny nation as a domino that could lead to communist siege at the Rio Grande.
Once one acknowledges that for years Ortega and Murillo have been ignoring critics and dismantling institutional checks against authoritarian rule, it shouldn’t be a stretch to conclude that once serious protests began, the First Family would respond with rapidly escalating violence.
After a bloody civil war in which the Reagan administration funded the opposition Contras — remember those “freedom fighters” being compared to America’s founding fathers? — Ortega was forced to agree to early elections as the price of peace. The Sandinistas were convinced they would win free elections in 1989. They were instead nudged out of office by voters tired of war, economic hardship and the military draft.
Ortega then turned to, as he termed it, “ruling from below,” which involved using some of the very forms of protest he now labels as terrorism to make governance impossible for the administrations that followed. He kept running for office and losing. But he eventually managed to cut a deal with president Arnoldo Aleman, a Liberal Party leader who was the poster child for corruption.
In exchange for lowering the threshold for winning a presidential election from 45 percent to 35 percent, Ortega granted Aleman what amounted to a get-out-of-jail card for unspecified misdeeds. He won the 2007 election with a mere 38 percent of the popular vote after the dysfunctional opposition failed to unite behind one candidate.
Ortega had learned a few lessons. First, to distrust fair elections: it was to be his last election unmarred by fraud. Second, not to antagonize the private sector, whose benign neglect would prove invaluable. Third, to take his populist message directly to the people by gaining a virtual monopoly over traditional media.
Repressing the Press
“After winning the election, the Ortegas promised to defend freedom of the press,” remembers Carlos Fernando Chamorro. “But after we did a report about government officials involved in corrupt land deals, they began a defamation campaign against us.” Chamorro is Nicaragua’s leading independent journalist, son of Violeta Chamorro, who became president after the Sandinistas lost in 1990, and of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, a crusading journalist who was assassinated by Somoza’s thugs in 1978.
In the 80s Chamorro was the editor of Barricada, the Sandinista newspaper. But along with most of the country’s intellectual elite, who had supported the Sandinista-led revolution, he turned against Ortega in the 90’s as his disdain for the niceties of liberal democracy became increasingly evident.
Ortega never forgets. “In 2008 they accused us of money laundering,” Chamorro said. “They broke down the front door and were here for over 12 hours going through our computers. They took everything they could carry.”
In what would become a pattern, the government never filed charges. But “the message was loud and clear,” Chamorro said. In Chamorro’s case, intimidation didn’t work. He continues to be the presidential couple’s loudest critic, though his voice has been muffled since the Ortegas bought the most important media outlets and placed them in the hands of their children.
A Pliable Private Sector
In 2008 Ortega presided over municipal elections that were marred by fraud and violence perpetrated by the pro-government paramilitary. In response, both the United States and the European Union cut back aid. But Ortega had a trump card to play. “The government created an alliance with the private sector,” Chamorro notes, “with the latter becoming the Ortegas’ de facto partner in authoritarian rule.” The deal seemed right out of Vladimir Putin’s playbook: the government would leave the private sector alone, as long as it stayed out of politics.
Another leading critic of the government is Juan Sebastian Chamorro Garcia (yes, they’re related; this is a very small country). He was the head of Funides, an economic policy think tank funded by business interests. But after the current rebellion flared, Chamorro Garcia was thrust into the limelight as a member of the Democratic Alliance, a group that represented the rebels in a Catholic Church-sponsored dialogue with the government. Overnight, Chamorro went from giving presentations about next quarter’s GDP projection to being the public face of the rebellion.
“The pro-business economic model was working pretty well for the government and for the private sector,” Chamorro Garcia said. “But soon enough it became corrupt, replacing legal procedures with telephone calls to the powers-that-be. This happened with Somoza in the 60’s and 70’s: the economy was going great guns, but the lack of independent institutions left it highly vulnerable. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing now, with growth this year of negative 2 percent at best.”
A recent visit to a hardware store in Managua provided a stark picture of just how far the worm had turned. The service was excellent, largely because I was almost alone in the place. Sales were down by almost half, I was told, with the contractors who are the store’s bread and butter having pretty much disappeared.
By the time the deaths on the street numbered in the dozens, business had turned against the leader who had given them a heady run of unalloyed laissez-faire capitalism. For the most part, Nicaragua was a winner in the deal Ortega had struck with the Chamber of Commerce types. The economy had grown at an average of 5 percent annually over the last eight years, in an almost Asian-style expansion. Part of the credit, though, should go to Ortega’s populist friends in Venezuela, who contributed about $500 million a year while the oil money was still gushing, and to remittances from Nicaraguans abroad, who regularly account for an amazing 10 percent of national income.
Ortega’s more consistent democratic opponents aren’t about to forgive and forget the private sector’s role in perpetuating the Ortega dynasty. But pragmatism seems to be the order of the day. “Now that the big businessmen have gotten on board with getting rid of Ortega,” says Sergio Ramirez, a leading writer who served as vice president with Ortega in the 80’s but broke with him in the 90’s, “I say welcome.”
In the three months since the rebellion began, Nicaragua has lost over 100,000 jobs, mostly in tourism and construction. That number will likely climb. Poverty reduction, which had been touted by Ortega as one of his government’s crowning achievements (for the most part correctly), will likely reverse. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that some 130,000 more people will be pushed into poverty, with another 1.3 million at risk. In the worst-case scenario, this would bring poverty back to the level of 1990, when about half the population lived in dire need.
My experience driving home from the hardware store that day demonstrated that seeing and hearing no evil was no longer a viable option. One wrong turn and I found my route blocked by barricades set up by university students. As some young men ran in my direction holding kerchiefs in front of their faces, I noticed the tear gas canisters falling around me. One guy stopped in front of my car to launch one of the homemade mortars used by the protesters.
When the CIDH issued a report attributing the vast majority of killings to the government, the Ortegas brushed it off as biased.
That was when I caught sight of the advancing police contingent. The only way out by that point was through the line of cops, who were accompanied by masked paramilitary waving their guns at me. Indeed, it was plain how a police force that had been generally viewed favorably by ordinary people was now widely seen as an agent of fear.
In spite of this, demonstrations have been frequent and well attended, with crowds reaching as high as 100,000 in Managua and Leon. One of the largest marches, in Managua on Mother’s Day (celebrated on May 30 in Nicaragua), was dedicated to the mothers of those killed in previous clashes. As the demonstrators were dispersing, government snipers opened fire, adding dozens to the casualty list.
One march I covered at the end of June went on for miles along Managua’s main highway. By then, references to Nicaraguans’ grievances over pensions and taxes had receded to the background; protests were aimed entirely at the presidential couple: “They must go!”
At the end of that particular march, some protesters decided to head to the National Autonomous University, where students were barricaded after taking over the campus. They hadn’t walked 200 yards when shots were fired from land belonging to Piero Coen, a rich businessman who had stuck his neck out to publically criticize Ortega. (His property had been invaded by government paramilitaries as a warning to others who might choose to cross Ortega). I could still hear the gunfire when a motorcycle zipped by carrying the limp body of a young man. I later found out he was DOA at the hospital.
By this time, the government was hell bent on regaining control of the streets by any means necessary. Ortega’s police and paramilitary attacked barricades one town at a time, pursuing anyone they considered to be aiding the protesters. Even the presence of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (known as the CIDH) did nothing to dampen the government’s inclination to violence. When the CIDH issued a report attributing the vast majority of killings to the government, the Ortegas brushed it off as biased.
Students in the Vanguard
A few weeks into the government offensive, I went back to the National Autonomous University in Managua. I zigzagged across the road in front of an entrance, since the area was under constant threat from government snipers. The campus was in battle mode. Nothing was moving — no cars, no pedestrians — as a scorching midday heat rose from the rutted ground where the ubiquitous pavers used to build Nicaraguan roads had been pried up to construct barriers.
From my house a few miles away, I could hear the firing all night — firing more sustained than in any of the battles I covered in the Contra war. Except in this case, only one side had modern weapons.
University students’ temerity to confront the authorities and to accept heavy casualties as the price has won them popular acclaim. “I’ve been waiting for this generation to raise its head,” said Sergio Ramirez. “They are leading a movement that is seeking an ethical restoration of the country. Right now this isn’t a rebellion about political or ideological differences — this is about justice, democracy and liberty.”
One student, Lesther Aleman, became a rock star of sorts when, at the first Church-mediated “national dialogue” between protesters and the government, he scolded the nonplussed presidential couple. “You know perfectly well the pain we have been subjected to the last 28 days,” he said. “Can you sleep soundly? We’re here to negotiate your departure and you know this very well because the people have clamored for it.”
Inside the vast campus, students lay about encampments constructed of black plastic sheeting and assorted junk. One first year-medical student, Belen — not her real name — gave me a tour of their makeshift hospital and a communal kitchen where women were laboring over rice and beans in huge pots. She had been ensconced in the university for over a month and was not about to leave, in spite of the threat of an imminent government attack. “Until the repression of peaceful protests stops,” she declared, “we can’t go home.”
One young man showed me the local version of a zip gun, basically a few inches of pipe with a shotgun shell in one end and a makeshift trigger on the other. I asked him what he was studying; he mumbled something I didn’t catch and ambled away. “Some of the people here came from the barrios to support us,” Belen said. “They aren’t students, and it’s sometimes hard to keep them in line.”
Along with a couple of handguns and shotguns, a few zip guns and homemade mortars amounted to the entire lethal arsenal possessed by the campus defenders. The government would later use these armed exceptions to label all the students “armed vandals and terrorists.” But most only had rocks.
While I was there, masked students held a press conference in one of the science buildings. The only woman among them, who calls herself Falcon03, spoke of the students’ resolve to remain in place until the Ortegas leave power. Falcon03, a fourth-year arts student, called for justice for the victims of earlier clashes and denounced the university’s administration for wimping out. When I spoke to her later, her tone was far more subdued; the attack, she guessed, was coming soon.
She was right: the assault began at noon the following day. There are videos of paramilitary firing assault weapons and machine guns at the students. From my house a few miles away, I could hear the firing all night — firing more sustained than in any of the battles I covered during the Contra war. Except in this case, only one side had modern weapons.
Eventually, the students who hadn’t managed to escape the campus took refuge in an adjoining church, La Divina Misericordia, but that didn’t stop the attackers. By then, two students had been killed, and many more were wounded. “We all thought we weren’t going to see the next day,” Falcon03 told me later.
According to the parish priest, Raul Zamora, who was in the church with the students all night, negotiations had been under way before the attack. “They had agreed to leave peacefully” he told me. “The agreement was there. It’s very sad to think the government’s objective was not to clear the campus, but to exterminate the students.”
The following morning, I went to a street leading to the church, where the police were blocking protesters who had come the night before to show support for the students. I was able to get behind police lines, but was soon stopped at gunpoint by a policeman disguised by a mask.
After a few hours of standoff, an agreement was reached. The students were spirited out of the church and brought to Managua’s cathedral. They were met by throngs of cheering relatives, supporters and press. It was a strange scene, something like a mix of college drop-off day and return from war. There I saw Belen, shaken but unhurt. She told me she felt lucky to be alive, but wasn’t sure where she would go.
I found Falcon03, who also told me she wouldn’t be going home. “I can’t have contact with them or go to them,” she said. “I don’t want to burn them.”
A few weeks later I reached Falcon03 by phone. She had made it out of Nicaragua to join the thousands of Nicaraguans who have fled to Costa Rica to avoid the Ortegas’ wrath. “There are hundreds of us here,” she said. “There’s plenty of work for me to do here helping them and organizing them.”
After taking back the campus and tearing down the barricades that had sprouted across the country, the government set out to intimidate anyone associated with the uprising. Among those arrested: Medardo Mairena, a peasant leader who had been involved in the anti-canal movement, which grew out of a wacky deal Ortega made with a shady Chinese tycoon to build a water route across Nicaragua to compete with the Panama Canal. The $50 billion project never got off the ground, but for his troubles Ortega ended up with a grass-roots movement opposed to this project and to his administration.
Return to Normalcy
On July 19, the Sandinistas celebrated the anniversary of the revolution — specifically, of the day they entered Managua after Somoza left the country — as they have every year for the last 39. Over the last decade, Murillo has established herself as the fete’s master of ceremonies, and this year she opened with her accustomed patter about peace, love and Christianity. But soon enough her tone darkened as she spoke about the country enduring 92 days of turmoil. “Terrorist coup plotters,” she called the thousands of Nicaraguans who had taken to the streets.
When it was Ortega’s turn to bloviate, he accused the Catholic bishops of being in on the plot to overthrow him. He called on his followers to “fight for peace and to strengthen the mechanisms for self-defense,” which sounded rather more like giving them carte blanche to take revenge.
After the celebration concluded, social media came alive with criticism of the presidential couple. But lurking under the defiance was a sense of pessimism, with some wondering what 300-plus deaths had gained.
Seeing Ortega bask in the support of his assembled multitudes, one could conclude that the rebellion had been ignominiously crushed — that the romanticism initially fueling it had created a false sense of what was possible. Ortega and his wife seem confident they can return to autocracy-as-usual, ruling with a mix of threats and well-placed patronage. But the rebellion did force the presidential couple to show their true colors to the world, and what the world saw was an all-too-familiar Latin American dictator willing to do whatever was necessary to stay on top.
The conflict has left the Ortegas virtually isolated on the international stage. And it has left their impoverished country even poorer. Yet in spite of the unrelenting harassment of those who participated in the rebellion, the marches and demonstrations continue.
The Nicaragua to which I returned is a changed country. Ortega and his wife have survived, for now, but their image as pragmatists with Nicaragua’s best interests at heart is gone. They have switched categories from scheming politicians in a deeply flawed democracy to ruthless dictators who must rule by intimidation. Unfortunately, Nicaragua knows their kind all too well.