After days of protests and deadly reaction by Nicaraguan police and military, international media is reporting that dozens of students and university lecturers have been released after being detained for days. Some of the persons released this week claim to have been beaten and tortured while in official custody. Photos shared on social media showed that some of them were released with shaved heads and signs of abuse. There are reports that at least 38 people have died, while an unknown number of the “disappeared” remain unaccounted for. Some 400 persons have been injured, some seriously, in the capital city, Managua, and elsewhere. Tens of thousands of ordinary Nicaraguans have taken to the streets to call for the country’s president and vice-president to step down. Many of the protesters are Sandinistas, as are the leaders whose resignation they are demanding.

On April 19, protests were unleashed when retirees and students went to the streets to protest against suggested changes to the country’s social security system. President Daniel Ortega (72) and Vice-president Rosario Murillo (66) are a husband and wife team who have been at the forefront of the Sandinista movement ever since the 1970s and the revolution that overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza. Protesters, citing grievances that include the curtailing of free speech and the summary arrests, are demanding nothing less than their resignations. Independent television have been recently suppressed. On April 23, observers estimated that Managua saw the biggest public protest in the nation's history. Protester tore down a 50-foot high billboard featuring the smiling Ortega couple, to the cheers of the masses.

The Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS) is on track to go broke within two years should it continue on its present trajectory. It was the suggested reforms to INSS that sparked the current crisis. But Nicaragua still faces a deficit at INSS of $76 million. Those reforms have been called off. 

While enriching himself and his family with favorable financing from Venezuela, Ortega has pursued a relatively orthodox economic path. He has forged good relations with capitalists (despite the socialist principles of his youth), who acquiesced to his increasingly heavy hand in exchange for a stable macroeconomy. Inflation in 2017 was 5.7 percent, economic growth has averaged 4.2 percent over the last decade, and the fiscal deficit forecast for 2018 is just 1.1 percent of GDP. Nicaragua also enjoys both the U.S. and the EU, while Standard & Poor and the IMF have both applauded the country’s GDP growth and moderate debt burden. 

However, Ortega has not abandoned his revolutionary rhetoric. On Thursday, Ortega charged the U.S. government of financing the opposition. According to local radio, he said that his government is facing instability because of a “manipulation of social media.” Referring to widespread unrest among the young, the aging revolutionary said, “These upstart student groups don’t even know which party is moving all of this. With an efficient manipulation of networks, they are influencing the feelings of young people.” He admitted that at least 27 people have died as a result of the violence.

A new grouping of young people -- M19A (a reference to the first day of major protests) -- which is not affiliated with Ortega’s ruling Sandinista party, announced to the media that its members are willing to enter into negotiations with the government if their safety can be guaranteed. They are also demanding a cessation to arrests and torture of the members of the uprising. The group announced that its leaders have accepted an offer from the Roman Catholic bishops to serve as interlocutors. 

In an exclusive interview, university student leader Bayardo Siles said that police and military attacked students at the University of Central America in Managua, as well as other academic institutions, using tear gas and concussion grenades. Students were shot and killed during the protests, Siles said, in an emotion-filled account of the fray, he fears that the death toll will rise once the bodies are found of those who where until now believed to be in jail. Siles said that a number of fellow students have been tortured by security forces while in detention. Members of the media have been attacked by men who beat them with pipes and electric cables. Because these assailants were wearing motorcycle helmets, they could not be readily identified. CCTV footage showed police on motorcycles assembling at night to prepare for confrontations with protesters. They appear to be using tactics similar to those of police loyal to President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela -- a supporter of Nicaragua’s Ortega government.

Student protesters have been heard to shout “Somoza and Ortega are the same thing!” The tactics used by the Ortega government have given rise to comparisons to those used by Venezuela’s increasingly repressive government. Protesters in Venezuela have faced imprisonment, torture, and extra-judicial killings at the hands of President Nicolas Maduro’s security forces. Relations between Nicaragua and Venezuela have been close: Between 2008 and 2015, Venezuela’s government provided $4.4 billion in loans, donations, and investments. When he became president in 2007, Ortega brought Nicaragua into ALBA -- a consortium of South American countries aligned with Venezuela that provided the added bonus of cheap Venezuelan oil and loans. 

Siles said that he fears reprisals for speaking out against the Sandinista government. He claimed that he had to flee his native town because of a series of death threats that he attributes to Ortega’s security forces and supporters. Siles said that he has had to frequently change where he sleeps at night to avoid arrest. 

Siles told Spero News that his fellow Nicaraguans a tired of repression at the hands of the Ortega government and its supporters. Because of the outcry against the government, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has scrapped the planned changes to social security. He claims that at least 63 persons have died at the hands of government security forces.

However, Siles said that protests and people were hitting the streets throughout Nicaragua on Wednesday. While Ortega is blaming right-wing opponents for machinating the protests, the United States is holding his government responsible for the abuses and blood shed. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders held the Nicaraguan government responsible for the blood shed, saying, "The repugnant political violence by police and pro-government thugs against the people of Nicaragua, particularly university students, has shocked the democratic international community." 

The UN human rights office in Geneva has called for an investigation. Also, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) said it revised an earlier figure of 27 after more bodies were found in Managua's morgue of people who had been previously reported missing. No official death toll had emerged since Friday, when the Ortega government pegged it at 10. Family members of the deceased are demanding that the bodies be released from government morgues.

Apart from grievances over social security, protesters also resent what they see as the authoritarian style of Ortega and Murillo. Ortega has been in power for the last 11 years, following disputed elections during this stint. Overall, he has been in power for 22 of the last 39 years. This is the most serious opposition that he has faced. In the Spero interview, Siles lamented that Ortega and Murillo have betrayed the legacy of the Sandinista revolution of the 1970s, which swept out dictator Anastasio Somoza. 

The head of Nicaragua’s business lobby, (COSEP), Jose Aguerri predicted that a dialogue with the government is forthcoming. According to AFP, Aguerri said, "We had said that the conditions for us to sit down were that there must be freedom of expression, freedom to gather together, the freeing of detainees.... This has happened. Now we are waiting for the Episcopal Conference [Catholic bishops] to make the decision" to start talks. 

COSEP abandoned its alliance with Ortega protests boiled over and security forces used deadly force. In the interview with Spero News, student activist Siles said that students have a number of grievances that pre-date the rioting. Siles said that this “millennial generation” wants guarantees for liberty, including freedom of expression. While he said that most young people have respect for the legacy of the Sandinista revolution that overthrew the Somoza government in the 1970s, they believe that the Ortega government has suppressed basic freedom and not delivered on basic services while becoming increasingly repressive.

Siles, a 26-year-old university student, said that Nicaragua may be facing a new revolution. He said that symbols of the Sandinista party have been defaced and destroyed across the country. Photos emerged on Facebook showed student activists painting over light posts and walls, which had featured the black and red colors of the Sandinista party, with the blue and white colors of the national flag. Siles said that young people, ostensible Sandinistas who are loyal to the Ortega government, have participated in attacks on student protesters. In a Facebook post, he showed that a member of the government Ministry of Education was photographed in attacks on student protesters. Protesters are flying the national flag rather than any party symbols.

Here below is a Facebook posting of a list of the dead

Five television stations are controlled by the Ortega family. On Wednesday, 15 journalists and presenters of the various media owned by or linked to the Ortega family announced their resignations. They said that they had been prevented from reportedly accurately on the current situation in the country. 

Of the seven Central American nations, Nicaragua has not been one of the top contributors of migrants to the U.S. Nicaraguans have heretofore preferred to migrate to Costa Rica, which lies next door and which offers wages that are four times the average in their native country. Nicaragua put security into place along its southern border with Costa Rica, effectively preventing migrants from South America and from outside the hemisphere from crossing into Nicaraguan territory. Nicaragua has not seen the rise of young criminal organizations such as MS-13, which dominate El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras: the three countries contributing the majority of migrants to the U.S.

But should the heretofore relatively stable fiscal and economic situation change in Nicaragua, it could spark an outmigration similar to what has been seen in Venezuela. Hyper-inflation, shortage of basic commodities and food, political repression, and killings of opponents is driving Venezuelans from their country to Colombia and even as far away as Argentina in search of work. Migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are fleeing corrupt government and poverty. Should Nicaragua’s social programs falter, it could mean the exodus of its citizens toward the U.S./Mexico border.

For years, a financial arrangement between Nicaragua and Venezuela with enough funds to allow Ortega to further consolidate an authoritarian regime characterized by control of all branches of government and media. Thanks to Venezuela, Ortega has been able to do this without international cooperation programs from the European Union, United Nations, and the United States. Even with the support from Venezuela, however, Nicaragua remains the third poorest country in Latin America, despite the spending on social programs that have extended the Sandinista party base and Nicaraguans’ dependence on the government. Nevertheless, the partnership with Venezuela has fostered fiscal stability, heretofore, that has provided Nicaragua access to loans from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. 

Nicaragua bought $4.5 billion of Venezuelan oil at discount prices between 2008 and 2015. Venezuela sent the money back to Nicaragua as a loan to a Sandinista party-owned bank that spent the cash on social programs for Ortega's supporters. This came without legislative oversight. But because of the collapse of its economy, Venezuela can no longer afford paying its allies.

As the Ortega clan’s business interests have grown, his incentive to cooperate with civil society and other political parties has diminished, according to an analysis in El Confidencial -- a Nicaraguan online publication. “Unlike Venezuela, both on a national and international level, an implied tradeoff has been reached, as many have turned a blind eye to the implementation of an authoritarian regime given the fact that certain sensible economic policies remain in place,” said El Confidencial. But with cuts in Venezuelan support during the six months of 2016, Nicaragua began facing a fiscal impasse even while Ortega cemented his control.

The reaction of the Ortega clan to the protests and demands for change appears to resemble the response of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to more than a year of protests in his country. Ortega, like Maduro, continues to denounce the U.S. and rightist enemies for orchestrating the opposition and plotting to topple him. He even holds them responsible for the still uncounted deaths. “So much blood spilled and it’s not enough? They are like vampires clamoring for blood to nourish their political agenda,” said his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo this week. Even so, there are rumors in Managua that elements of the original Sandinistas are suggesting that should Ortega resign, Murillo could take power and thus guarantee her family’s supremacy.

Maduro interrupted his presidential campaign to defend Ortega: “Ortega faces a violent ambush that has already harmed the Venezuelan people and now does it to the Nicaraguan (...) The wisdom of the commander Daniel Ortega is going to triumph over the ambush that these violent groups have mounted.”

Whether Ortega can sustain power in the face of the protests remains an open question. While he was once a leftist who had support from Cuba, Libya, and the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Ortega shifted to a centrist economic policy as he aged. But this latest round of protests has morphed from disagreement with fiscal policy into something much greater. The protests in Nicaragua may show that macroeconomic stability is neither sustainable nor desirable without without democracy, transparency and political freedoms. 

Siles said that he and fellow students are reflecting on the whether the gratitude and respect that the Sandinistas claim is due to the heroes of the revolution of the 1970s is merited. “They expect everything,” Siles said of the generation that is now in power, “including the country’s political power, economic resources, and who we cannot question. “The only thing we have seen of that generation is violence, machismo, ...and is doing what Somoza did.” He said that they want to base a new movement on Christian principles that avoids party labels.” The government has reproduced, he said, the partisanship found at even the family level that silences dissent. “We don’t want to do things as they were done before.” 



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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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