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Caravans of Death: Daniel Ortega’s Revolutionary Legacy and The Crisis in Nicaragua

Day and night, groups of heavily armed men patrol the streets of León, Nicaragua. Police officers and paramilitaries travel in what locals call “caravans of death.” Sometimes they ride in cruisers with the official logos of the national police force. Other times they opt for beat-up pickup trucks without license plates or any other form of identification.

The caravans have been active since late June, when the Nicaraguan government deployed them under the plan limpieza, or the cleanup operation. Besides making their daily rounds to intimidate León’s residents, the brigades arrest protesters, disperse crowds, and kidnap particularly notorious dissidents.

The caravans are far from the only state mechanism working against the opposition. The courts have sentenced many protesters to decades in prison for alleged crimes and links to terrorism.

The city of León is not unique. “All of Nicaragua is living under a state of fear,” Erendira Vanegas, a León resident and project coordinator with the New Haven-León Sister City Project, told The Politic. Since April, President Daniel Ortega’s leftist administration has cracked down on protesters across the country.

The protests originally challenged an unpopular pension reform plan. While the administration quickly discarded the reform, the movement continued, demanding democratic change and giving voice to a long list of grievances against Ortega’s government. Ortega has insisted that he wants to bring peace to Nicaragua, but his implicit endorsement of violent repression overshadows his one-time legacy as Nicaragua’s revolutionary liberator.

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Ortega presided over more than a decade of economic stability beginning in 2006, earning him public confidence. According to the International Monetary Fund, Nicaragua’s GDP grew an impressive 4.9 percent in 2017 alone under Ortega’s presidency. Nicaraguans and international observers alike widely regarded his administration as a capable manager of the economy.

And at pro-government rallies in the nation’s capital, Managua, it appears as if public sentiment has not changed. Thousands gather every few weeks in the city’s famous squares to hear Ortega boast about the social aid programs that have been a cornerstone of his political success and his popularity as the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Sandinista and Nicaraguan flags wave in the air as the throngs roar their approval.

In recent months, Ortega has used these speeches to decry “terrorists” participating in what he claims is an American-orchestrated coup against him.

Despite the president’s rhetoric, hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans have expressed their discontent with Ortega in streets throughout the country. The crowds have grown steadily since April 16, when Ortega and his government first announced reforms to the country’s pension system.

In February, the International Monetary Fund recommended raising the retirement age to address a growing deficit, but the government instead chose to increase contribution rates while decreasing pensions by five percent.

Angry pensioners and university students marched in Managua and León on April 18, when the reforms were formally implemented by presidential decree.

The protests were peaceful, but the government’s reaction was not. In both cities, riot police and pro-government groups like the Sandinista Youth, a paramilitary organization that has supported Ortega throughout his political career, attacked the protesters. As the police fired rubber bullets and sprayed tear gas, the paramilitaries assaulted demonstrators with clubs.

Over the next few days, hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans took to the streets to denounce the violence, only to be met with more of it. This time, the police fired real bullets into the crowds, and the paramilitaries replaced their clubs with firearms.

Ortega withdrew the reforms on April 22 in response to the protesters’ initial complaints. By then, 30 people were already dead. In the crisis that has gripped the country for the last seven months, over 300 people have lost their lives, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Pensions are no longer the main issue. Now, protesters are denouncing authoritarianism.

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Daniel Ortega first came to power in the summer of 1979, when a popular revolution led by the FSLN deposed the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the third and final ruler in a family dynasty that had controlled Nicaragua for 43 years.

“The first two Somozas did not represent the worst aspects of somocismo,” Gilbert Joseph, Farnam Professor of History and International Studies at Yale University, told The Politic. “Anastasio Somoza Debayle treated the state much more like a personal fief, and he used the National Guard as his regime’s strongmen.

In the late 1970s, facing a credible threat from the Sandinista rebels, the Somoza regime cracked down on the opposition. Critics were arbitrarily jailed and tortured. The National Guard used brutal, even fatal, force to disperse crowds and targeted key opposition figures for assassination.

Ortega, then a guerrilla leader, was captured and tortured during his time in prison. His hard-won reputation for toughness and unquestionable commitment to the anti-Somoza cause allowed him to rise to the top of a crowded field of Sandinista leaders at the end of the revolution.

A prisoner swap released Ortega in time for the Sandinistas’ victory, and he became a prominent figure in the new Nicaraguan government during its conflict with the contras, a right-wing guerrilla group backed by the United States. He was chosen as the Sandinistas’ candidate in Nicaragua’s first post-revolution presidential election in 1984, and he won. Ortega ran again in 1990 but was dealt a shocking defeat by Violeta Chamorro and her center-right National Opposition Union (UNO). Nicaraguans were ready for change after more than a decade of Sandinista rule.

“The Sandinistas did what seemed to be a noble thing and respected the elections after losing in a surprising but clear result,” Joseph commented.

According to Vanegas, the electoral loss was an inflection point in Ortega’s relationship with democracy. “Everyone thought that the Sandinistas and Ortega were going to stay in power, but in 1990 Ortega loses the election,” she said. “He never let go of power, and he made many pacts with the governments that arrived.”

Ortega, who had helped bring democracy to Nicaragua, would from then on work to subvert it.

Following the 1990 loss, the Sandinistas began organizing riots to challenge the democratically-elected governments that succeeded theirs, drawing on Ortega’s popularity to build support. The approach led many progressive Sandinista leaders to leave the party, allowing Ortega to consolidate his grip. Meanwhile, he kept running for president and losing.

After Ortega lost to Arnoldo Alemán of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party in the 1996 election, the two made a deal to split control of many of Nicaragua’s institutions between their respective parties.

“The two pacted to protect their roles as caudillos [authoritarian political leaders],” said Joseph. Most importantly, the pact allowed Ortega to retain his political relevance. He returned to the presidency in 2006 despite securing less than 40 percent of the vote, with new electoral laws permitting presidential victories by plurality.  

Álvaro Leiva, the executive secretary of the Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association (ANPDH), characterized the period that followed as the origin of today’s crisis. “The social problems related to the violation of human rights, injustice, impunity, and indolence have been developing since Ortega returned to power a little over ten years ago,” Leiva said in a phone interview with The Politic.

Since 2006, Ortega has taken steps to centralize power with the support of his party. Ortega ran and won again in 2011 and 2016 after a constitutional amendment abolished presidential term limits. He approved a new security law, appointing himself the national police force’s supreme commander. Along the way, Ortega hardened his stance on protesters and has increasingly used incarceration and violence to silence dissent.

“People have become frustrated by an increasing lack of transparency,” Kevin Amaya, a research associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, told The Politic. “For a while now, President Ortega has been undermining Nicaraguan institutions to consolidate his power over them.”

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On April 24, after six days of protests, the government agreed to hold peace talks with the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, a group of civil society and religious leaders who would negotiate on behalf of the protest movement.

Despite this announcement, neither the crowds nor the police desisted. The negotiations only resulted in a 48-hour truce that had no substantive effects, as the government refused to admit that its violent suppression of the protests had been a mistake.

On May 30, Nicaragua’s Mother’s Day, marches attended by hundreds of thousands of people were held to honor the mothers of protesters who had been killed or arrested. Again, the government doubled down. Police snipers forced their way onto residential rooftops and fired into the crowds. Paramilitaries came in truckloads, wielding assault rifles. By the end of the day, 16 more protesters were dead and nearly 200 injured.

According to Fernanda, a college student from Managua who has since left the country, Mother’s Day marked a new low. She participated in some of the movement’s very first marches and took to the streets with her entire family that day.

Fernanda, whose real name is not being used for her safety, did not witness any of the violence firsthand, but her grandfather’s car was set on fire by paramilitaries. She knew that she was lucky to have made it back home. In Nicaragua, speaking out against the government is now a matter of life and death.

“My friends and I have stayed away from the marches since then,” Fernanda told The Politic. “The risk of violence that anyone who protests faces is really terrifying.” Even in the earliest days of the crisis, Fernanda was forced to leave home at dawn to avoid running into paramilitaries on her way to school. And in mid-May, the last two months of classes were abruptly canceled.

Around the same time, the local supermarket ran low on food and water as people hysterically built stockpiles. Many of Fernanda’s friends changed their names on Facebook when news spread that pro-government forces were monitoring social media and kidnapping vocal critics. To this day, Fernanda’s family does not leave home after 4:30 in the afternoon.

As mass protests became too dangerous, Nicaragua’s university students adopted a new strategy: blocking the nation’s main highways. When the government used brute force to break the roadblocks, the students decided to raise barricades neighborhood by neighborhood, closing city streets throughout the country.

This approach—which the Sandinistas had themselves used in the 1970s to pressure Somoza—was meant to wage economic warfare against the government. Its scale ensured its success: Vanegas insists there were more barricades in León last June than at the time of the Sandinista Revolution. Businesses closed, schools were suspended, and trash collectors gave up on their jobs as roads became inaccessible. The economic growth for which Ortega was once lauded vanished, with GDP projected to shrink by six percent this year.

The government has been using this economic standstill to justify the plan limpieza. According to Vanegas, the government argued that the “cleanup plan” was just meant to collect garbage that had accumulated grotesquely. But instead of trash collectors, violent “caravans of death” swept through the streets.

The plan limpieza brought about frequent skirmishes between protesters defending the barricades with rocks and mortars made of scrap metal and heavily-armed police officers trying to tear them down. On the plan’s first day, three teenagers were killed by police in Vanegas’ neighborhood. One of them, just 18 years old, was top of his class at the local law school.

“The government is cruelly torturing and killing those who are the future of Nicaragua,” Vanegas said.

Vanegas, an active participant in the protest movement, could no longer make the trip from her home to her office in León. She spent two months unable to travel to the rural communities where she manages workshops on domestic violence prevention. Instead, her organization found new ways to support those in need. It decided to assist the university students, the leaders of the protest movement. Many of them have moved permanently onto their campuses, which serve as the movement’s operational bases. Because of the risk of arrest, returning home is no longer an option.

Vanegas’ organization brought the students food and medicine, a necessary provision, given that public hospitals have refused to serve protesters since the movement began. The government explicitly ordered doctors to call the police if injured protesters checked in. In some cases, including in León, protesters have been arrested or kidnapped at hospitals.

Seeking medical attention has become a death sentence for the government’s critics.

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Extrajudicial killings and politically-motivated imprisonments are part and parcel of the government’s repression. Nicaraguan civil society groups have kept arduous records of the carnage—the ANPDH reported on October 20 that the death toll had reached 528 and found that 4,100 people had been injured and another 1,609 kidnapped by pro-government forces.

From Managua alone, several horrific stories have attracted international attention. On June 17, the day after the National Dialogue, six members of a family died in an arson attack on their house. Six days later, a one-year-old boy was shot and killed by a police officer.

On July 12, pro-government forces broke through the barricades at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua. Around 100 students sought refuge in the nearby Church of Jesus of the Divine Mercy. The police and paramilitaries attacked the church, leaving two dead and 16 injured.

An average of 200 Nicaraguans apply for asylum in neighboring Costa Rica every day, with entire families embracing the uncertainty of moving to a new country in order to escape the violence that has consumed their homeland, according to an August 18 report from the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR). The report also claims that of thousands of protesters arrested, at least 300 have been prosecuted and charged, and at least 85 faced terrorism-related charges. On August 31, Ortega ordered the expulsion of UN human rights observers from Nicaragua.

Some of Ortega’s most prominent critics have also left Nicaragua to escape persecution. Carlos Mejía Godoy, a Nicaraguan singer who contributed to the campaign against Somoza in the 1970s and has since become one of Ortega’s most vocal critics, announced that he had left for Costa Rica on August 3. The next day, Leiva himself fled to Costa Rica.

“We have come under a siege, a repression, and a persecution for our humanitarian work,” Leiva told The Politic. “The government has tried to delegitimize us and we have become victims of the criminalization of our work as defenders of human rights.” The ANPDH indefinitely closed its offices throughout Nicaragua the day he left the country.

Young Nicaraguans have been condemned to decades in prison for their participation in the protest movement. They are being accused of partaking in a plot to overthrow the government or of committing crimes despite little or no evidence against them. Ortega has fully embraced this narrative, frequently referring to protesters as “coup-mongers” acting as part of a “Yankee conspiracy” in speeches and interviews.

“We have an administration that is governing the country under pain, bloodshed, impunity, injustice, and the violation of human rights,” said Leiva. “The government is blind, deaf, and mute when it comes to the fundamental rights of life and citizenship.”

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Unsurprisingly, the government’s response to the protest movement has hurt Ortega’s popularity and brought anger about his consolidation of power into the mainstream.

“On the street people say that Ortega and Somoza are the same thing,” Vanegas commented. “The image of Daniel Ortega as a liberator and revolutionary, if it ever existed, has been sent to the dustbin of history. What is happening now is not a new thing, for many people this was already a regime and we already called it a murderous dictatorship.”

Joseph thinks it is possible that Ortega was always more power-hungry than committed to democracy.

“Lately he’s morphed into a figure much like that of Maduro in Venezuela, the worst kind of autocrat who, along with Rosario Murillo, his wife and vice president, has created an orteguismo that is very reminiscent of somocismo,” he said.

But even as Ortega’s status as a quasi-dictatorial autocrat has gained mainstream acceptance, the opposition still lacks a defined endgame. They agree that Ortega has to go, but how, or even if, this will happen remains unclear. Even as many former members of Ortega’s base have stopped supporting him, protests are becoming smaller and less frequent.

“The crisis has been normalized,” Fernanda said. Fear has beaten the Nicaraguan people into a brutally enforced complacency. Protesting is accurately seen as an extremely dangerous endeavor.

By late August, school resumed, and many businesses reopened. Today, the government continues to track down and arrest, often in home invasions, those who have marched or posted online in support of the opposition movement.

Leiva still believes that the crisis can be resolved, but only if the international community does its part. “We need international pressure that can lead the regime and Ortega to see the possibility of handing over power,” he said.

But Ortega adamantly refuses to resign or to hold elections before the 2021 presidential race, arguing that doing so would hurt Nicaragua’s democracy. Since the crisis began, he has repeatedly stated that restoring peace in Nicaragua is his priority. “Without peace it is not possible to achieve greater advances in the social, economic, and political order,” he told Andrés Oppenheimer in a CNN interview on July 31.

And yet, Vanegas remains hopeful. “Championing the struggle peacefully has given us a lot of hope and encouraged us to continue to demand justice,” she said. “The government also says it wants peace but continues to repress and incarcerate innocent people. We are working for peace, but we also want justice for all of the victims.”