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Violent Protests Are Raging in Nicaragua. What’s Next?

Violent protests that threaten to tear apart the poor Latin America nation could also usher in a new era of reform.


Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega indicated over the weekend he is willing to discuss the demands of tens of thousands of protesters after a month of unrest across the Latin American nation, the second poorest in the hemisphere. But it's unclear whether there's anything the former revolutionary leader can do to quell the disquiet, or whether the civil dissent can disrupt the power of the man whose name has become synonymous with his country's system of government.

At question now is how Ortega follows through on promises of reform he makes, and whether any clear opposition movement exists that could put pressure on him to do so.

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"The Nicaraguan opposition has been extraordinarily weak over the last decade," says Eric Hershberg, director of American University's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. "The problem is they no longer have coherent, cohesive political parties and other institutional mechanisms to just tune on a dime and engage successfully in the political arena."

Church communities are taking on a unique role to help organize the protesters, who rose up in mid-April against a since-scrapped plan to reform the country's social services. The unrest is growing even more heated amid harsh crackdowns from security services loyal to Ortega that have killed dozens of people, predominantly unarmed students.

In a letter to the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua on Saturday, Ortega said he would abide by some of the requests posed by the church to begin a dialogue to cease the violence and bring in outside institutions to oversee reforms to the electoral process.

"We agree to work on each of the points raised (by the bishops), taking into account that all of them reflect their good will as mediators and witnesses," wrote Ortega, who helped orchestrate a socialist revolution in the late 1970s that deposed the U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Ortega led the nation from 1979 to 1990 and again from 2007 to now. He holds a tight rule over a system of patronage that enriches him and his family, the political and military movement that elevated them known as the Sandinista National Liberation Front, and an increasingly influential private sector.

Ortega's administration has become synonymous with the Nicaraguan system of government, experts say, but the protests are allowing locals to begin thinking about a form of governance without Ortega at its head. Indeed some are employing against his regime the same tactics and rhetoric that allowed the revolutionary leader to overthrow his U.S.-backed predecessor, whose hardline regime Ortega is increasingly compared to.

"As a Nicaraguan, he has been in power for so long it's hard to think about the party without him," says Elena Lacayo, an activist currently based in Washington, D.C. who is helping to organize a nascent protest movement in the U.S.

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Lacayo points to some members of Nicaraguan Sandinista organizations who traditionally acted in lockstep with the central government under Ortega's rule, and who now are beginning to distance themselves from his administration.

Former Sandinista commander Monica Baltodano, for example, who helped overthrow Somoza, spoke out against Ortega in an al-Jazeera article published on Sunday, saying the embattled leader made "serious political miscalculations."

"That's a distinction I don't think people have ever made until now," Lacayo says.

Those who study non-violent movements say this fracturing of support for Ortega from the security services and government bureaucracies are indicative of wider changes.

"That's when you know opposition movements are succeeding, is when you start to see key shifts in these pillars' support," says Maria Stephan, director of the U.S. Institutes of Peace's Program on Nonviolent Action. "Whether these opposition protests are able to sustain themselves, and whether they have a plan – overcoming and coming together and putting pressure on the regime – that's a whole other story."

Fighting back, however, against the Nicaraguan government and the closely tied private businesses that benefit from systematic patronage represents an intense challenge, experts say.

"This is a deeply conservative, highly personalist, one could say 'rent-seeking' regime that is very much built around the president and his family, and in that sense is reminiscent of the kinds of leadership Nicaragua had prior to the revolution," Hershberg says.

This form of autocracy has spread throughout Latin America, he says, citing countries like Honduras and Guatemala. The U.S., however, has largely focused public rebukes on Nicaragua, perhaps due to its history of supporting the Contra militants in the 1980s to oppose the Sandinista government.

Ortega built his government in the wake of a revolutionary movement based around social reform. It benefited in recent years from regular deposits of well over half a billion dollars in cash annually from oil-rich Venezuela, Hershberg says, which until recently relied on this kind of petro-diplomacy to exert its influence in the region. The Nicaraguan leader divided the income between his own family, the private business community organized through a chamber of commerce known as COSEP that exercises broad influence on the local government, and doled out the rest through social security programs to maintain order.

The economic crisis that has stricken Caracas upset the arrangement, which exploded into widespread protests in Nicaragua when Ortega proposed reforms to social programs that would have increased private individuals' contributions while also docking their benefits.

Dozens have died in subsequent protests beginning in mid-April and largely carried out by university students – what some consider a dangerous calculation of oppression Ortega made that only enflamed the uprising.

Yet those familiar with unrest in Nicaragua are buoyed by the protests.

"Ortega's model is broken," activist and columnist Christiana Chamorro said at The Inter-American Dialogue earlier this month. Her mother, Violeta Chamorro, helped end the U.S.-backed Contra War in the 1980s and was elected president after Ortega's first term, and her father was a prominent newspaper scion and anti-government activist who was assassinated in 1978.

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The younger Chamorro cited as signs of change the persistent determination of the student protesters, the willingness of various churches to support the uprisings, divisions within the Sandinistas and the potential for international pressure against Ortega's government.

The Episcopal and Catholic churches have played lead roles in helping to organize the protesters, calling for an end to the violence and offering to serve as mediators. But experts say these churches don't have experience helping to run elections or putting up opposition candidates.

Chamorro says her hopes for reforms lie in other international institutions that can push for outside reviews into the deadly clashes to reach some resolution about what happened, and implement transparency in the electoral process. She cited the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act in the U.S., which if passed by Congress would withhold loans to Nicaragua unless it undertakes government and societal reforms.

Like other autocrats, however, Ortega has previously shown his ability to undermine these kinds of reform efforts. His administration has repeatedly changed election rules to allow victories with as little as 35 percent the overall vote, for example.

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