12 Jun Time is running out for Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega
June 12, 2018–
A slaughter of the president’s opponents will not keep him in power
MAY 30th, 2018 was Mothers’ Day in Nicaragua. On that day hundreds of thousands of people marched in Managua, the country’s capital, in solidarity with mothers of students who had been killed in protests against the government of Daniel Ortega, the authoritarian president. By the end of the day more mothers had cause to mourn. Masked men fired on the crowd at sundown, killing 16. In Masaya, a town near Managua, nine people, including a 15-year-old boy, were killed by security forces on June 2nd. Human-rights groups are investigating claims that a plane sprayed cypermethrin, an insecticide, on citizens.
By the count of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at least 127 people have been killed and 1,000 injured in protests that began in April. They started as a reaction to cuts in pensions, which Mr Ortega imposed after his regime had frittered away much of the national pension pot. He later reversed the cuts, but other grievances, including corruption, presidential power grabs and the elevation of Mr Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, to the vice-presidency, continue to inspire protests. State media suggested that the killings were caused by protesters to stir up anti-government sentiment.
The repression has disrupted an alliance with business formed by Mr Ortega, who led the left-wing Sandinista revolution against a thuggish dictatorship in the 1970s and returned to power after an election in 2006. Business leaders gave him a free hand in politics, which he used to take control of independent institutions, subvert opposition parties and rig subsequent elections. In return, Mr Ortega adopted business-friendly policies. That led to economic growth of better than 4% a year on average from 2007 to 2017; inflows of foreign investment more than trebled over that period.
Mr Ortega’s brutality has exposed that bargain as morally bankrupt and politically unstable. The unrest since April has cost the economy $600m, about 4% of GDP, says José Adán Aguerri, the head of Cosep, an employers’ association. Hundreds of millions of dollars have left the country. Nicaragua’s three most powerful businessmen called for early elections in interviews with newspapers. “The model that got us here is exhausted,” said Carlos Pellas, Nicaragua’s only dollar billionaire. Business leaders now talk openly of a post-Ortega era and of a “permanent consensus-seeking dialogue” between the government and such groups as students, farmers and representatives of civil society.
Hoping to end the turmoil Mr Ortega agreed to participate in talks with his foes, mediated by Catholic bishops. This has not allayed his opponents’ anger. In televised meetings last month the president listened impassively as teenage students called him a murderer and read out a list of the dead. Opposition groups want the negotiations to be about restoring democratic institutions and holding early elections. Mr Ortega refused to talk about that. The bishops withdrew from the talks, in effect ending them. Then came the Mothers’ Day deaths, which destroyed the trust that might have allowed them to prosper if they resume.
This leaves Mr Ortega with few choices. To become an outright dictator, like Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, may not be possible. Nicaragua’s private sector is more powerful than was Venezuela’s in 2013, when Mr Maduro became the country’s president, points out Mateo Jarquín, a graduate student in political science at Harvard University. No one knows how the armed forces would respond to an imposition of dictatorship. Mr Ortega has largely abandoned the left-wing ideology that helps sustain Mr Maduro’s tyranny.
The alternative to continued repression is to accede to the opposition’s demands for an early election, probably in 2019, two years before it is due. A fair vote would probably end Mr Ortega’s rule. His foes will not participate in an election if he runs. His candidacy would only be legal because the national assembly scrapped presidential term limits at his bidding in 2014. The opposition would also boycott the vote if Mr Ortega nominates his wife, Ms Murillo, to run in his stead.
Before any election the opposition will demand the dismantling of the machinery that Mr Ortega set up to perpetuate his power. The changes needed include replacing all seven members of the electoral council, says Juan Sebastián Chamorro, the director of Funides, a think-tank financed by the private sector. If Mr Ortega does not agree to such demands, calls for his immediate resignation will grow louder. Some opponents favour a national strike, like the one that brought Mr Ortega to power in 1979, as a last resort.
The last time he lost an election, in 1990, the Sandinistas did not go quietly. On the eve of the transition the central bank transferred millions of dollars to government loyalists on Mr Ortega’s orders. As bureaucrats vacated their offices they carried desks and chairs with them. Nicaraguans call that episode of asset-stripping la piñata. The carnage of Mother’s Day shows that the price of getting rid of Mr Ortega this time will be even higher.
This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “Ortega’s last act”