Nicaragua has faced continued political and civil unrest for nearly two years following the protests which began in April 2018. The protests were a result of objections to the new Social Security Reform which was announced by President Daniel Ortega, the reform stated that income and payroll taxes were to be increased as well as a reduction in pension benefits by five percent. The reform act was introduced following recommendations made by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which informed Nicaragua’s government if action is not taken the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute’s (INSS) cash reserves would be depleted by 2019. The reform act was prepared based on the recommendations of the IMF’s report however ignoring key recommendations – like raising the retirement age – as they would not yield results for at least three to four years. Citizens of Nicaragua took to the streets in large crowds amounting to tens of thousands of residents including the elderly and students as the core of the peaceful movement.
The protests quickly transformed into a wider anti-government protest calling for the resignation of President Daniel Ortega. The protesters carried out peaceful protests however were met by excessive force from armed police and even armed pro-Ortega militants. The force taken by the Nicaraguan police under orders of the government escalated quickly moving from the use of non-lethal methods such as tear gas and rubber bullets to the use of live ammunition and military fire power which involved assault rifles and grenade launchers. Despite President Ortega announcing on 21st April 2018 that he would open negotiations to revise the reforms, with him cancelling them altogether the next day protests did not stop because, by this point the demonstrations were about more than the reforms which had been announced and the protests intensified.
As the protests continued the actions taken by the police and paramilitary increased and the death count began to rise with 109 people being killed in the initial stages of the protests, including Angel Grahona who was shot to death outside city hall in Bluefields while she was live streaming on Facebook, along with hundreds being arrested even if they did not do anything or carry any weapons. Of the 109 killed 95 of them were reported to have been killed with shots to the head, neck and thorax which have been described as extrajudicial executions. In response to the protests the President’s wife Rosario Murillo who is also the Vice President spoke of the protesters as “small groups, small souls, toxic, full of hate and bent on the destruction of the country, assaulting peace and development.” She went on to express that the protestors were the aggressors and the response of the police and pro-Ortega groups were “legitimate defence.”
With protests showing no sign of slowing President Ortega and his wife Vice President Murillo who control almost every aspect of the Nicaraguan government, including control over outside organisations such as gasoline distribution and television stations through his adult children who manage some of these organisations. Began to take further actions which included the censoring of television channels who were reporting on the protests. In September 2018, Ortega announced that it was illegal to protest without a licence, which were never granted to anti-government movements, however, were regularly granted to pro-Ortega rallies who showed aggression towards anti-government protesters. With this new law being introduced the response from Ortega and his government can be seen in four distinct stages. In the initial stages of protest a regime of crackdown was carried out using a mix of police and paramilitary forces, the response then progressed to a movement to clean the streets of the roadblocks established by protesters as well as attacks on churches who supported the protests. Which was followed by the arbitrary detentions with anyone protesting being arrested one by one, finally with the new law which criminalised dissent against the government. By December 2018, 324 people had been killed, 50,000 citizens had fled the country into exile and around 800 protesters had been arrested and were being held under the guise of political prisoners.
As protests spiralled into the wider movement Ortega continued to face a possible ousting from well-financed opposition political parties. In response to this threat and in attempts to maintain his power Ortega responded with increasingly more brutal and authoritarian responses to quell the opposition and maintain a tightened grip to power. With these increasing aggressive actions Ortega was accused of becoming the very dictator he helped depose of in 1979. As well as his orders of harsh repression on the protesters President Ortega has also sought to remove outside influences to maintain control. In September and October 2018 Ortega expelled outside organisations from the country who he accused of encouraging the protesters or working under Trumps administration. These organisations included the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Organisation of American States (OAS). Shortly before being expelled OAS released a report which stated that the government campaign of repression was so widespread and prolonged that it could only have been ordered by President Daniel Ortega himself.
In February 2019 following nearly a year of protests and unrest in Nicaragua Ortega and Opposition movements agreed to commence negotiations. These negotiations went from February to May 2019 when the opposition walked away from the table due to resistance on the government side regarding a request that the elections be brought forward from 2021 which Ortega adamantly rejected. From the negotiations however, an agreement was reached that the government would release all demonstrators they arrested since the protests began within 90 days. In return Ortega government asked for the lifting of imposed sanctions on the administration. In August 2019 attempts were made by the opposition to reopen negotiations however, the government had sent a letter on 30th July 2019 to the Vatican and the opposition stating that talks were over with no explanation as to why. It is possible to see that Ortega has gained back the control he needs to not need to negotiate any further with the opposition.
As per the agreement made on 20th March 2019, President Ortega’s government began to release the political prisoners they held under the pretext that they would continue their sentences under home arrest and would not participate in any further protests against the government. From this around 540 prisoners were released leaving around 270 still in prison. In June 2019 a further 102 protesters were released under a new law which was introduced the Amnesty Law. This new law meant that dissidents would be released from jail with the same stipulation that they would not participate in further anti-government protests; with these prisoners released brought the total freed to around 640 to 650 leaving around 150 still held in prison. Despite the new Amnesty law releasing dissidents it also faced a large amount of criticism as it not only called for the release of jailed dissidents it also closed the door on investigating and punishing security forces involved in the deadly repression of the protests. Opposition members said that the law implies that no one is responsible for the deaths of the 324 killed in the protests.
Despite the agreement on the 20th March 2019, 150 protesters still remain in prison as political prisoners. The government stated that they released the agreed people within the 90 days proposed and that the remaining prisoners were arrested after the initial agreement. With a large number of protesters remaining in prison the anti-government movement and family members are still looking for the remaining political prisoners to be released. In November 2019, a group of female relatives to some of the political prisoners, held a hunger strike in the San Miguel Archangel Church in Masaya. The hunger strike lasted for nine days before they were evacuated for their own safety as the pro-government mobs labelled as ‘hyena’ Sandinista mob were gathering and attacking anyone in support of the anti-government movement; also carrying out attacks on other churches further inflaming tensions between the Catholic church and President Ortega.
During the hunger strike anti-government supporters attempted to deliver water to the women on hunger strike, were arrested for supporting protesters demanding freedom. These supporters were charged the day after their arrest for allegedly transporting weapons, a charge which carries a minimum sentence of five years in prison, these charges were based on reports from police that they confiscated handguns, a shotgun and gasoline bombs. These recent charges by Ortega and his government has put further international pressure on President Ortega with the UN Human rights office calling for an end to repression on dissent and the recent detention of 16 anti-government protesters accused of arms trafficking appear to be based on “trumped-up charges.” In December 2019, Judge Adalberto Zeledon has approved the charges and set a date for trial on the 20th January 2020.
President Ortega continues to use unnecessary and unlawful reactions on anti-government activist which can be said to have been increased following the ousting or Ortega’s ally Evo Morales in Bolivia which has encouraged opposition to Ortega. Prompting Ortega to arrest activists and strengthen the pressure on his opponents with any means necessary to maintain the hold of power he has.
Nicaragua is currently embroiled in what is being coined as the worst political crisis in the country’s history. Violence has erupted in the Latin American nation in response to planned social security reforms by President Daniel Ortega’s government. These reforms would mean increases to income and payroll taxes, as well as taking 5% of citizen’s pension checks for medical care.
On April 17, hundreds of elderly citizens, activists and others descended upon Managua in protests of the planned reform, which resulted in clashes between protestors and pro-government groups.
After 5 days of back to back protests President Ortega, in a televised speech, announced that he would be revoking the legislation. He stated that “we are revoking, cancelling, [and] putting to the side the resolution”. Despite this announcement protests have continued in the country, with many protestors instead being students and lecturers after protests expanded to cover various other anti-government grievances aside from the social security reform. The police crackdown on protestors has led to vast numbers of students and lecturers being detained, with Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission for Human Rights reporting over 120 had been arrested. Detainees have since been released, however there are unconfirmed reports that detainees were subjected to beatings and torture whilst in custody.
Ortega has also invited Nicaragua’s bishops and Cardinal Leopoldo Jose Brenes to be involved in peace keeping mediation talks between the government and the country’s leading business organisation in an attempt to resolve the mass unrest. Having been called by the Catholic Church, tens of thousands marched for what they are calling ‘Peace and Justice’ in attempts to ease tensions in the country. The day before, Nicaragua’s private business sector also organised a march that attracted similar numbers calling for an end to the unrest and an end to the repression by Ortega’s government.
On April 24, in light of the mass unrest, the US has decided to withdraw embassy staff from the country. A statement from the White House said “The repugnant political violence by police and pro-government thugs against the people of Nicaragua, particularly university students, has shocked the democratic international community”. On the same day the UN human rights office in Geneva called for an investigation into the violence to be carried out, claiming they suspect the killings by the police to be ‘unlawful’.
On 27 April, after 9 days of continuous protests and looting, Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission for Human Rights has reported that 63 people have died in the violence. Furthermore, 15 people are still missing and more than 160 have been injured by gunfire alone with 9 of these being in critical condition. The government has neither confirmed nor denied these figures as yet. Ortega is blaming right-wing agitators for the violence stating they have tried to discredit his government by infiltrating the protests. As we head into May, the unrest shows no signs of slowing down.
The interest for a short route from the Pacific to the Atlantic started with explorers of Central America during the 16th century. For the last 10 years, the project of a canal through Nicaragua has been largely debated. Indeed, criticisms have been on the rise, as Panamanians cannot efficiently handle the service of the canal anymore. Aside form this, international trade is also on the rise and the waiting period for canal entry is growing. The Panama Canal has almost reached its limited capacity, sometimes backing up for several days or weeks, particularly during maintenance periods. Other problems also began to arise, as there were an increasing number of large tanker ships unable to pass through Panama’s narrow water. As a result of these problems, Nicaragua has been investigating plans for a competing canal.
The question on whether there is a necessity for an additional canal is extremely important to international trade. The outcome of such a project will have a global impact. The United States is the main user of the Panama Canal; Latin American countries also rely on it as well as Japan and other Asian countries. The cost and time of transportation has detrimental effects on prices throughout the planet. Over the years, Nicaragua has been seen as suitable for construction of an interoceanic canal. In order to make this project feasible, the government has joined forces with a Chinese national in order to construct a 278 kilometres interoceanic canal. Wang Jing, a 41-year-old Chinese businessman who owns telecommunications business Xinwei Telecom Enterprise Group, will fund the Nicaragua Canal. The total cost is estimated to be up to US $50 billion. Nicaraguan government says the project is crucial to lifting the nation out of dire poverty.
The alternative to the Panama Canal was officially set to break ground on 22 December 2014. Unlike the Panama Canal, the Nicaraguan Canal will be capable of handling the super-heavy class ships that are up to 400,000 tons compared to a maximum of 70,000 tons in Panama. It will be 278 km long and 30 meters deep. Thus, the routes between East Coast and West Coast ports are likely to be shortened by 525 miles, which would equal a day of sailing time. The project is expected to be operational and completed by 2019. The canal will also reduce the cost of transporting goods via sea transport between America, Europe and Asia by about 30%. Experts claim that it will be able to handle about 5,000 high tonnage vessels a year.
On an economic perspective, the financially strapped country of Nicaragua is hoping to fulfil their dream of a canal in order to bring prosperity. The outgoing leader of Nicaragua’s National Agrarian University, Fransico Telemaco Talavera said that: “The canal will bring prosperity to all in this poor nation creating 50,000 jobs during the five-year construction period and 200,000 more once the canal is up and running. It will turn Nicaragua – now the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere after Haiti, based on a U.S. estimate of its economic output – into the region’s powerhouse, with economic growth rates as high as 14% a year.” An international airport, a new port and a free trade zone are also part of the plans along with the canal itself.
There are also several political factors to be considered. It is currently said that the Nicaragua Canal would be a great political instrument to improve relations with the United States, and to settle other political issues in Central America. Inturn, it will engender important geopolitical consequences for China whose influence in the region will be increased.
Despite the government’s strong support for this project, its implementation is sparking major protests amongst local environmentalists and local populations. They claim that the canal will cause significant damage such as the pollution of Lake Nicaragua, which is the largest reservoir of fresh water in the region. Local residents have been protesting against this threat and also because around 30,000 farmers will be forced off their land due to the construction of the canal. Natural resources could be heavily harmed by this project as it will dredge millions tons of earth and the varieties of fauna and flora might be threatened too. Since the project was launched on 22 December 2014, dozens of Nicaraguan protesters have been arrested and injured as Nicaraguan police broke up road blocks set up by demonstrators against their possible eviction from their land. Although Wang Jin promised to pay “compensation according to market principles in a fair, open and transparent way”, the uncertainty amongst those affected is growing and many of them say they will not give up the fight. As strong demonstrations continued across the country, Indigenous communities in Nicaragua presented a request to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to stop the inter-oceanic canal project. The Rama y Kriol territorial government, which represents indigenous groups, asked the Commission to stop the project until a public consultation process is held.
The Nicaraguan government is selling the canal project as an economic miracle, which would permanently resolve the country’s poverty. However, in the perspective of the major protests, the government has great internal challenges to deal with. The outcome of this major project will depend on the government’s ability to run efficiently the construction and to calm down internal opposition. It is likely that protests will continue until a solution is found and concrete propositions are made to local residents.