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Nicaragua Encachimbada: A Popular Uprising

April 11 marked the beginning of a new wave of protests in Nicaragua. Now, more than 100 days later, protesters remain committed to their struggle against the Ortega-Murillo regime.

Cristina Awadalla

August 6, 2018
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Image by EIN News

In April there began a new popular uprising in Nicaragua, during which at least 448 Nicaraguans have died, while more than 2,000 have been injured and nearly 1,000 have gone missing, according to the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights. The crisis began in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, in the southeastern corner of the country, where wildfires broke out on April 3. As the reserve burned, the government did little to address the problem.

Amid an outcry from environmentalists and Nicaragua’s indigenous movement, the government finally responded after three days of inaction, utilizing a Mexican air force helicopter to fight fires and filling the reserve with police and parapolice forces. The police denied entrance to the press and to protesters, who decried the government’s mismanagement, its lack of response and its denial of aid from Costa Rican firefighters. Protests began April 11, marking the beginning of the uprising.

Ultimately, the fire destroyed about 12,400 acres of some of Central America’s most biodiverse land. Illegal homesteaders are said to have started the fires while clearing land for their crops.

During the furor, President Daniel Ortega made an unwise move: as the people were on their feet, he announced on April 16 several reforms to the social security system. Pensioners would see a 5% cut in their benefits, and future pensions would be reduced by 11.8%. Meanwhile, workers’ income taxes would increase 7%, and employers would pay 3.5% more in payroll taxes. The elderly took to the streets on April 18, joined by students and others. The next day, the first students were killed, giving rise to what is now known as the April 19 Movement. On April 22, Ortega rescinded the social security reform. But by then, dozens of protesters had been killed, and the popular demands had gone beyond the wildfires and social security. What has emerged is a vibrant and diverse social movement that has held massive marches and erected barricades across about 80% of the nation’s roads. The movement now demands the removal of Ortega administration and other public officials, early elections, an end to repression and austerity, the disarmament of paramilitary forces and an independent investigation of state killings.

What brought us to this moment? To answer this question, we must look beyond the wildfires of April and into the history of the Sandinista revolution.

A Revolution Betrayed

The roots of the uprising go back to the period before the 1990 election, when the ruling Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) lost to Violeta Chamorro. During this period, there first appeared fissures within the party, which eventually culminated in the split of January 8, 1995, when leaders like Sergio Ramirez, Dora Maria Tellez and Ernesto Cardenal formally left the party, later founding the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista (MRS) alongside thirty other FSLN National Assembly delegates. Differing political tendencies within the FSLN developed before, and fully emerged in the 1991 FSLN First Congress. Before the MRS was founded, Ramirez, Tellez, Cardenal and Carlos Fernando Chamorro, editor of the party paper, Barricada, wrote a document titled “For a Sandinismo that Returns to the Marjorities,” naming their social-democratic tendency, the Majorities.[1]

This period marks the beginning of Ortega’s co-optation of the FSLN as a vehicle for personal empowerment amid the intra-party tensions. Ortega would unsuccessfully run in the 1996 elections while holding a seat in the National Assembly. In 2000, Ortega crafted El Pacto, a strategic yet controversial alliance with former president Arnoldo Alemán of the right-wing Constitutional Liberal Party. This pact lowered the percentage necessary to win a presidential election from 45% to 36% and aimed at distributing power solely among these two parties. After losing the presidential election in 2001, Ortega ran again in 2006 and won with 38% of the vote—barely surpassing the lowered margin. Until he appeared on Fox News in July, Ortega had not given a single interview or press conference since being elected.

Before he was elected, Ortega had forged another alliance with the Right, this time with the Catholic Church. The once-atheist Ortega repented to the church for his errors during the Sandinista period. He also emerged as a softer, reticent patriarch, no longer “el gallo ennavajado,” or “the feisty rooster”2] and married Rosario Murillo, his partner of then 26 years and the mother of his six children. Appealing to the discourses and symbols of Catholicism would prove beneficial for winning over the largely Catholic population. In 2005, while still serving in the National Assembly, Ortega and his FSLN bloc sponsored a total ban on abortion, abolishing a right that was established under the Zelaya presidency of 1893–1909. This ban has resulted in the forced maternity of [16,400 girls aged 10-14 who have been raped in the last 12 years and countless deaths during unsafe, clandestine abortions and health complications aggravated by pregnancy.

Since 2007, Ortega has consolidated his wealth and power and that of his family and loyalists. He accomplished this by abolishing term limits, establishing control over all four branches of government, removing 16 National Assembly deputies who represented opposition parties and by appointing his wife as vice president, his son-in-law Francisco Díaz as his deputy chief of police and his son Laureano Ortega Murillo as the investment adviser of ProNicaragua, the country’s official investment agency.

Ortega’s populist programs like Plan Techo and Hambre Cero failed to challenge capitalist social relations, creating a dependency that ensured Ortega with political legitimacy masking the structural inequalities brought about by alliances with transnational capital. Meanwhile, the Citizen Power Councils (CPC), originally established as a model of direct democracy, became part of the FSLN’s hierarchical structure, run completely from above, and now distribute benefits through the first couple’s clientelistic programs. And they have now become the eyes and ears of the Ortega-Murillo regime.

As Ortega preached his new peaceful revolution, he wove his radical rhetoric into discourses thanking God for blessing the Nicaraguan people3] while pursuing [neoliberal agendas that promoted maquiladoras and export-oriented food production, accelerated land expropriations for transnational corporations and promoted illegal homesteading in indigenous communities. In 2013 the National Assembly under FSLN control passed Law 840, which gave a 50-year concession to a Chinese investment company to build an interoceanic canal that would displace thousands of people and create irreparable environmental damage. Since its approval, campesinos have launched 91 marches across the nation to demand that the law be rescinded.

Dissidents like the campesino groups have been met with repression at demonstrations. In a 2011 interview, Juanita Jimenez, a leader in the Autonomous Women’s movement, spoke of the harassment and persecution she and eight other feminists endured from 2006-2008 for their assistance in getting Rosa, a 9 year-old girl, an abortion. For Jimenez this symbolized the entrenchment of authoritarian power against dissident voices. She argued that these attacks were a “payback” because feminists had spoken out against Ortega and supported Zoilamerica in 1998, when she spoke out against the sexual abuse she suffered for years from her stepfather, Ortega. Jimenez tells that various sectors of civil society, even those not explicitly feminist or in support of abortion, spoke out against the state’s acts. Jimenez said, “I think that this sounded the alarm so people realized that no authoritarian regime can be positive for the country and even less so for the Nicaraguan people who have fought so much for freedom and who have fought so hard to find a democratic model through which we can all coexist.”

Women I interviewed spoke of the consistent presence of riot police at their marches. One woman noted that women riot police were strategically placed at the front lines to harass the women activists. Further, in 2016, when maquiladora workers launched a protest and work stoppages at SAE-A TecnoTex, a Korean subcontracting company, to demand better work conditions and the reinstatement of two union leaders, workers were met with violent riot police, and 13 were arrested. The criminalization of dissidents continues today, as leaders like Irla Jerez, Pedro Mena and Medardo Mairena4] remain incarcerated and denied legal counsel under the draconian [anti-terrorism law, which criminalizes protesters. Passed on July 16, this law defines those who collect or donate funds for protesters as terrorists who can be sentenced to 15 to 20 years in prison.

Given Ortega’s history of repressing dissidents to protect transnational capital, it is no surprise that his first pronouncement after the protests began was at a table surrounded by owners of big capital.

Rhetoric vs. Reality

Ortega has concealed his increasingly autocratic rule with anti-imperialist rhetoric. As one activist told me, he deploys this rhetoric to appease an older Sandinista base. Beyond the rhetoric, however, much of the denial about Ortega’s politics and his role in betraying the revolution is a product of the cult of personality that he and Murillo have established around themselves. Since 2007 billboards with their faces have sprung up across the nation, and public spaces have become partisan, painted in red and black, pastels or fuchsia, Murillo’s favorite. The airwaves are filled with catchy songs about Ortega and the peace and reconciliation his “buen gobierno” (good government) is bringing Nicaraguan families. La Compañera Rosario’s daily afternoon addresses echo blessings across many radio stations under state control. State rallies create a spectacle of support to conceal the state’s crisis of legitimacy.

But perhaps the regime’s most prominent symbols are its “árboles de la vida” (trees of life), giant steel trees installed in 2013 across Managua. Each tree cost $25,000 and consumes $1.1 million in electricity annually. Given that Nicaragua is the second-poorest nation in the Americas, with 47% of the population living in poverty, the trees were a point of indignation. After the protests escalated this year, people began pulling them down and planting real trees in their place, drawing parallels to the toppling of Somoza’s statues after the 1979 revolution. Indeed, today’s movement against the Ortega regime uses many of the chants and music of the old Sandinista struggle to invoke and reclaim a people’s revolutionary history.

Now the government has been forced into a contradictory position, presenting a veneer of normality while mobilizing its supporters against the movement, which it disparages as a plot of U.S. imperialism to carry out a coup. This was on display during the celebrations on July 19, the national holiday when Nicaraguans mark the anniversary of the 1979 revolution. In his speech, Ortega intoned the names of police officers who were killed during the protests as the crowd chanted “presente.” These are the only deaths Ortega recognizes.

The state recognizes only 51 deaths, whereas human rights organizations had recognized by July 11 some 350, about 90% of which were caused by armed pro-government forces. This number has increased since July 13, when the police and paramilitary forces launched Ortega’s Operación Limpieza (Operation Cleanup), a plan to eliminate the barricades and occupy barrios. The continuing assaults under this plan include a 20-hour attack on students who had been guarding the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) and on Masaya and Monimbo, the indigenous barrio that was once a stronghold for revolutionary forces in 1979 and continues to be so today, now against Ortega. The attack on Masaya came while Ortega convoked a caravan to Masaya to commemorate the historic Repligue, an important battle that changed the tide in 1979 in favor of the FSLN. This was the first time in 39 years that the caravan did not make it to Monimbo, whose residents declared that Ortega would not be allowed in. In fact, the city of Masaya had declared itself autonomous in mid-June. While Ortega spoke of peace and reconciliation, his paramilitary forces began their assault on Masaya and Monimbo.

Now, after more than three months, the political crisis has sparked a new migrant crisis. Unlike migrants from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), who usually head north, Nicaraguans have long traveled south to Costa Rica as economic and political refugees. Today there are 100 to 150 Nicaraguan asylum seekers crossing over to Costa Rica each day, according to Epsy Campbell, Costa Rica’s vice president. Students, grandmothers, children, former doctors and protesters make up some of those fleeing violence and seeking refuge in churches and government shelters and on street corners.

Between Co-optation and Solidarity

The movement against Ortega has given rise to a new umbrella group, the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, which is made up of feminist, student, campesino and civil society groups, representatives of the Caribbean Coast, and private sector groups like COSEP, the Superior Council of Private Enterprises. Before the first dialogue occurred (May 16th) and the Civic Alliance was established, civil society organizations like the Network of Women Against Violence and environmental group Grupo Cocibolca, made the demand of several preconditions for the dialogue, one being the establishment of a plural and inclusive representative body in which all members have equal say. However, the presence of so many disparate voices with different understandings of the crisis leaves for the possibility of certain demands to get sidelined and echos histories of unlikely alliances. The task this group is facing is a great one. So too is the danger of co-optation, as the movement attracts forces like the pro-business organization COSEP and opportunistic U.S. Republicans like Marco Rubio. Indeed, the right-wing Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC)—the same party that brokered the famous pact with Ortega—has reemerged to capitalize on the conflict. Many Nicaraguans have not forgotten the pact between Ortega and the PLC and reject its presence at marches, since they know that the pact played a central role in establishing the Ortega regime.

Meanwhile, Ortega has broken with the Catholic Church and repudiated its role as a mediator, saying that it was on the side of the “golpistas” (coup organizers). In a July 19th speech, he repeatedly called protesters “diabolical” and “satanic” and called for the Catholic Church to exorcise demons from them. The church supported Ortega until it was no longer convenient, just as it had done with the Somoza regime, and assumed the role of mediator. The church, like the COSEP and the PLC, is an opportunistic political actor that has institutional legitimacy but does not represent the movement, neither on the ground nor in its demands.

For their part, members of Nicaraguan civil society have announced their own positions and demands. In a statement put out by the Latin American Council of Social Sciences working group for Feminist Economics, made up of feminist scholars in Nicaragua and throughout the region they stated,“We do not doubt that the most conservative and neoliberal groups, in collusion with the geostrategic interests of the hegemony of power, want and will want to take advantage of the crisis to regain ground in Nicaragua, so we remain alert to that political-economic intention. However, we emphasize that we do not conceive any justification for the brutal violence exerted by the government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo toward the Nicaraguan people, which is contrary to the liberating spirit raised by the Sandinista Popular Revolution, and to any project that calls itself left.”

As much as Ortega would like dismiss the movement as a right-wing plot, he is now calling for dialogues with the PLC to be moderated by the Central American System of Integration (SICA) a regional framework for economic integration made up of eight nation members and several regional and extra-regional observers.

In any case, the presence and support of right-wing factions does not reflect who is in the streets. Yet many among the international left still see Ortega as an anti-imperialist revolutionary, failing to recognize him and his apparatus for what they are: an administration that has accommodated itself to transnational capital and that is holding on to power through violence. Some on the left continue to espouse the narrative that the movement amounts to a CIA-sponsored coup and to cite histories of U.S. intervention in the country to deny Nicaraguan people of their agency and continue their support for Ortega. But Orteguismo has no connections to Sandinismo, except for its name and flag.

Some on the left are even using the neoliberal doctrine of growth as an argument to defend Orteguismo, resorting to measurement indexes of the IMF and World Bank, which conceal the regime’s structural violence, extractivism and patriarchy. Despite Ortega’s anti-imperialist rhetoric, he has long been committed to cooperating with the United States and has had no problem receiving money and military equipment from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. As of April, Ortega has been working with the Trump Administration and ICE to speedup the deportations of the 2,500 Nicaraguans who have had their TPS status removed. Since returning to power, Ortega has cozied up to national and transnational capital and has pushed down maquiladora wages to the lowest in the region. The United States is also Nicaragua’s largest trading partner. Ortega has squashed workers’ power, so much so that Onofre Guevara, former editor of the revolution’s newspaper, Barricada, coined the term “porrismo,” which refers to the FSLN’s co-optation of union power for electoral purposes, neutralizing labor demands through threats of termination.[5] So why would the United States now want a regime change when Ortega has been the neoliberal caudillo ally they so prize in the region?

This debate may seem minuscule in comparison to the realities that Nicaraguan people are facing. But when they are demanding solidarity of us outside Nicaragua, we must expose the Ortega-Murillo regime for what it is.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the positions of Left Voice’s editorial board.

[1] Dan La Botz, What Went Wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis (Leiden: Brill, 2016) 284-286.

[2] “El Gallo Enavajado” is a nickname given to Ortega that became one of the songs for his 1990 electoral campaign. The nickname was given to invoke the idea that Ortega was a fiery protector of people and revolution.

[3] Ortega’s 2011 campaign slogan—now the official government motto—was “Christian, Socialist, Solidary.” The use of “Christian” as the first part of the slogan, and its general use as a slogan in a secular state, alarmed feminists across the country and has been recognized as “a mechanism to manipulate the hearts and consciousness of a highly Catholic population.” Interview with activist from the Network of Violence Against Women. July 2017.

[4] This is not the first time Mairena has been intimidated through detainment. In 2017, Mairena was detained, interrogated and denied legal counsel for trafficking charges. After 40 hours, Mairena was released for lack of evidence.

[5] Dan La Botz, What Went Wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis (Leiden: Brill, 2016) 351.

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