Aug 6, 2018
Since mid-April, retirees, students, mothers and workers have taken to the streets of Nicaragua to protest against the regime of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. Over the last three months, human rights groups estimate that as many as 450 people have been killed. More than 2,800 have been injured, according to the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights. And thousands of protesters have been imprisoned, often undergoing torture.
These protests broke out after the Ortega regime cut Social Security benefits and increased Social Security taxes, a measure that had actually been mandated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Ortega government tried to repress the protests. But it hastily withdrew the benefit cuts and tax increases after the protests continued.
But neither repression, nor concessions quelled the protests. They spread from the capital of Managua to cities and neighborhoods throughout the country. Often, it was the repression that actually spread the movement. On May 30, for example, during a Mothers’ Day demonstration that featured the parents and relatives of people already killed by the police, paramilitary forces and police opened fire into the crowd, killing 18 more people. In response, individual neighborhoods across Managua and the cities of Masaya, Esteli, Diriamba and Leon erected barricades to keep out police and paramilitaries, leading to more battles.
These protests have targeted the Ortega regime, which has been in power since 2007, and in many ways, appears no different than that of a typical strongman dictatorship. Ortega, his wife, children, along with some supporters, have amassed control over key government institutions and paramilitary forces, as well as television stations and other big companies. They rule over a country in which a tiny Nicaraguan bourgeoisie, that is, a dozen Nicaraguan families, control financial institutions or companies with earnings of at least one billion dollars. Most importantly, Ortega has opened the country up to big capital from outside the country. He has offered big tax breaks to foreign investors, and carved out free trade zones where companies have erected maquiladoras that produce for such international companies as the Gap, Levis, Target, Walmart and J.C. Penney.
Of course, the exploitation of the working class and peasantry has been so savage, that living standards are the lowest in the Western Hemisphere, besides Haiti. It is this underlying poverty, misery and slum-like conditions, amidst extreme wealth and corruption that has fueled the movement.
Once the revolts erupted, the extreme right-wing politicians and businessmen tried to take the head of a political opposition that calls for the removal of the Ortega regime. But so far, the U.S. government has treaded lightly. The U.S. government waited more than two months before it formally condemned the Ortega regime for “brutalizing” its own people. The U.S. government followed up with some symbolic sanctions and small cuts in military aid. Rather than confront Ortega directly, the U.S. government has been using the Catholic Church and the Organization of American States to mediate some kind of political settlement to the crisis.
As one former U.S. official explained to the Los Angeles Times (July 30), “Washington gave Ortega a pass because over the years he had shrewdly struck deals with the private sector, Catholic Church and non-Sandinista political parties.” Moreover, as that official pointed out, up until now, the Ortega regime has managed to keep order – which is unique in this region. Unlike the so-called Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, Nicaragua had been relatively stable under Ortega, and was not generally a source of migrants fleeing toward the United States.
Today, besieged on all fronts, Ortega has resorted to the complaint that he is the victim of an “imperialist conspiracy.” No. Ortega has not been the symbol of defiance of U.S. imperialism for many, many decades. The man who was part of a revolutionary overthrow of a U.S.-sponsored dictator, Anastasio Somoza, back in 1979, has long ago made himself a guarantor of that same order. Over the last decades, Ortega allied himself with some of the same U.S.-sponsored Contra forces that had violently opposed him and the Sandinistas in the 1980s. He has also strongly supported the Catholic Church’s demand that all abortions, without exception, be legally banned, along with harsh prison sentences for women and doctors.
Ortega is part of a system that has made the entire region a powder keg, a powder keg that is exploding. The question is whether the masses of workers, peasants, poor and oppressed can take control of their own revolt, spread it, and impose their own rule against the dictators and imperialists who feed off of them.