Nicaragua on the brink of calamity

As a mass of unarmed protesters filed past Dennis Martínez Stadium in Managua, Nicaragua, on May 30, snipers inside the stadium began firing at them. That day’s casualties joined a list of about 100 dead and 1,000 wounded and missing in the last two months. Among those outraged was the person for whom the stadium is named. Dennis Martínez is the most celebrated of all Nicaraguan baseball players, immortalized by pitching a perfect game for the Montreal Expos in 1991.

“It pains me to see the national stadium bearing my name being used for violence against my brother Nicaraguans,” Martínez declared in a public statement. The novelist Sergio Ramírez, who was Nicaragua’s vice-president in the 1980s, tweeted that with this statement, Martínez “pitched another perfect game.” Ramírez had just been awarded the Cervantes Prize, the highest honor in Spanish-language literature, and dedicated it “to the memory of Nicaraguans who have in recent days been killed on the streets for demanding justice and democracy.”

Nicaragua is a land of volcanoes and earthquakes. At times it seems that the fury churning underground must somehow be reaching above the surface, making national politics especially turbulent. This is one of those times. Protests that shook Nicaragua in mid-April did not quickly fade, as some expected. The opposite has happened. Nicaragua has entered a phase of civic insurrection. For the second time in as many generations, Nicaraguans are rebelling against a decadent family regime. A historic turning point is approaching.

During the 1980s Nicaragua was a battleground for proxy armies representing the interests of the United States and the Soviet Union. Since then, it has remained poor and, over the last decade, become steadily less democratic. Nonetheless it seemed stable. President Daniel Ortega, who helped lead the revolution that brought leftist Sandinistas to power in 1979, appeared to have consolidated his authoritarian state. He continued to use anti-imperialist rhetoric, but allowed the business elite to make economic policy and won the support of Catholic bishops by banning abortion.

Now this alliance is collapsing. Catholic bishops have rejected government appeals to mediate the current crisis, declaring that “it is not possible to resume national dialogue while the people of Nicaragua are being denied their right to protest peacefully and are being repressed and murdered.” Business leaders, who supported Ortega because he guaranteed stability, now see him as a source of instability and are turning against him. “The model he brought to the country has run its course,” said Carlos Pellas, the country’s richest tycoon. Pellas told an interviewer from the opposition newspaper La Prensa that he was “outraged and in pain” over the carnage of recent weeks, described protesters as representing “a clamor for the return of democracy, justice and human rights,” and urged Ortega to arrange “an orderly exit” through early elections. If he refuses, business leaders may support a national strike that could paralyze the country.

Ortega has remained defiant. “We are staying here,” he assured his supporters — adding, in a swipe at the business elite, that “Nicaragua is not anybody’s private property.” The police and army have remained loyal to his government. Rather than order them to repress protesters, however, he often sends paramilitary gangs. Sandinistas have used this tactic since the 1980s, but never before have their gangs fired live ammunition into crowds of peaceful demonstrators. Funeral marches balloon into new protests, and when they are attacked, the spiral intensifies. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets. This is by far the largest popular protest in Nicaragua since the uprising that toppled the Somoza dictatorship in 1979.  The protest began after Ortega announced cuts in pensions, but that was not its root cause. Pressure has been steadily building inside Nicaraguan society. Each time Ortega took another step toward repressive rule and got away with it, he felt encouraged and pressed ahead. Neither he nor anyone else realized how angry Nicaraguans were becoming. Now it is clear that he went too far.

In the years since he was elected president with 38 percent of the vote in 2006, Ortega has worked systematically to dismantle Nicaragua’s incipient democracy. Through a series of maneuvers, he gained control over Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Electoral Council. In 2009 he directed the Supreme Court to rule that he could run for re-election even though the constitution forbids it. Then, last year, he not only ran for a third term but named his wife as his running mate. His control of the electoral system guaranteed their victory. Their children have become rich. One has been groomed to lead Ortega family rule into another generation. The last round of local elections was manipulated to assure the defeat of anti-Sandinista candidates. Each of these outrages added to Nicaraguans’ anger. No one imagined that something as relatively innocuous as pension cuts would set off the time bomb of accumulated rage.

Repressive rule was imposed on Nicaragua slowly, one outrage at a time. For more than a decade Nicaraguans grumbled but did not act. This spring they finally erupted. Their example is an object lesson to other countries. People may seem to accept government corruption and the steady creep of autocracy, but they have limits. Political explosions can come without warning.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.

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