One year after Nicaraguan uprising, Ortega is back in control

One year ago, Nicaragua’s government was on the verge of collapse.

Protests against President Daniel Ortega exploded nationwide on April 19, 2018 after the government quietly passed a tax on retirees’ pension checks. Demonstrators barricaded highways and main roads, paralyzing Nicaragua’s economy.

By May 2018, 70% of Nicaraguans wanted Ortega – who has grown astonishingly rich ruling Central America’s largest country – to resign.

“This is not a dialogue,” student activist Lesther Alemán told Ortega during a May 2018 televised negotiation with the government. “This table is to negotiate your exit, and you know it very well because the people have demanded it.”

Today, President Daniel Ortega is back in control. Alemán and hundreds of other opposition leaders fled the country. And at least 50,000 Nicaraguans, including dozens of reporters, have escaped to neighboring countries.

But for a few flare-ups of protest – all quickly and violently quashed – Nicaragua’s “tropical spring” has lost its momentum. What happened?

Ortega’s electoral authoritarianism

I am an American scholar who has researched Nicaraguan politics for years. When the political chaos forced my family and me to abandon Managua in June 2018, I felt fairly certain that Ortega’s days were numbered.

In a democratic society, I might have been right. Since 1985, 70 percent of all democratically elected Latin American presidents who faced similarly sustained street protests were ultimately removed from office.

Ortega has defied these odds by becoming the kind of strongman leader he rebelled against as a hero of Nicaragua’s 1979 Sandinista Revolution. Using calculated repression to crush dissent and anti-imperialist rhetoric to deflect blame, Ortega has actually strengthened his grip on power.

This is Ortega’s third consecutive term as president and fifth time governing Nicaragua. He first came to power in the 1980s as head of the Sandinistas’ post-revolution ruling junta and, in 1985, was elected president.

In 1990 Ortega lost to Violeta Chamorro, who ushered in 16 years of conservative government in left-leaning Nicaragua. Ortega returned to office in 2007.

Ortega with his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo. Reuters/Oswaldo Rivas
Since then, Ortega has systematically concentrated power in the executive branch, stacking the supreme court with party loyalists, cracking down on press freedom and, in 2014, abolishing presidential term limits.

In 2016, Ortega won his third consecutive term with over 70% of the vote and made his wife, Rosario Murillo, his vice president. But just 30% of the Nicaraguan electorate turned out that year – the first sign that Ortega’s popularity was waning.

Fifteen months later, thousands of anti-government demonstrations had nearly toppled his regime.

‘They wanted me dead or alive’

Ortega has mobilized all the power of the Nicaraguan state – a government he built from scratch in his mold – to survive.

The regime has sent riot police and pro-government paramilitaries to beat, shoot, terrorize and arrest protesters. Some political prisoners have been released, but an estimated 800 protesters are still in jail. There, say dissidents, they have been tortured with waterboarding, electric shocks and sexual assault. Many report being forced to record self-incriminating videos.

After 20-year-old Lesther Alemán confronted Ortega on national TV last May, death threats poured in, forcing him into hiding and, eventually, exile. Alemán contends that the government offered US$50,000 dollars for his capture.