Updates on the Conflict in Nicaragua: An Overview of the Rhetoric from the Opposition and the Government, and the United States’ Involvement

September 11, 2018

This past Spring, what started as student protests against the Nicaraguan Government’s negligence resulting in a forest fire has turned into a civil war. The forest fire, which destroyed over 12,000 acres of protected rainforest in the course of a week was so severe according to many due to the Nicaraguan government’s refusal to ask for aid from neighboring countries, and could have been extinguished much faster and have saved much more of the delicate ecosystem (Agren, 2018). In response, students across the country began holding protests on college campuses, calling their movement autoconvacados. Just days after the forest fire, the Nicaraguan Government announced reforms on Nicaragua’s social security, which would raise taxes and lower benefits, hurting a majority of Nicaraguans. Even more demonstrations were held across the country as a result of the new social security reforms. The protestors were not only protesting the unfair changes in social security, but the corrupt, authoritarian rule of Ortega’s Presidency. Siding with the autoconvacado student group in opposition to the government, the Nicaraguan Catholic Church and the Consejo Superior de la Empresa Privada (COSEP), a prominent business organization joined the fight to remove current President Daniel Ortega, and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo from office. The Government responded to the protests with brute force, shooting protestors with intent to kill, and using other forms of violence to try to hold authority (The Economist, 2018). Rhetoric on both sides of the conflict can be challenging to find, due to Ortega’s crackdown on the media, however, in order to understand the conflict that has cost thousands of lives, it is important to understand both sides of the issue.
President Ortega initially became President in 1979 after his guerilla group, the Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew the US-funded oppressive dictator Anastasio Somoza (Stanford University). The Sandinista Administration lead by Ortega implemented a socialist economy, redistributing wealth, and land, and helping the Capitol City of Managua to recover from an earthquake that had left the city in ruins years prior. For years Ortega ruled with the Sandinista party in power, until a few short years in the early 2000s, only to be reelected in 2006— this time with a new right-wing platform founded heavily in traditional Christian values and pro-business policies, while also working to mend relations with the United States (Thaler, 2018).
The rapidly escalated Civil War was rather unexpected. Just months before the initial protests, in January of 2018, Ortega had the highest approval rating of any President in Central America. This is not surprising considering that Ortega was able to create several social welfare programs such as feeding the hungry and providing subsidized housing for the poor. Ortega and his administration were able to do this largely based on extremely favorable trade agreements with Venezuela. At the time of Ortega’s second term, Venezuela was one of the richest countries in Latin America due to their wealth of oil. The Venezuelan Government based their foreign trade on what was termed “oil diplomacy”, sending countries such as Nicaragua oil at previously unheard-of prices. Nicaragua, traditionally relying on agricultural exports to maintain its Economy flourished under Venezuela’s oil diplomacy, providing Nicaragua with the funds to create such social programs and boost its economy. During this period of prosperity for Nicaragua, Ortega “abolished Presidential term limits, installed his wife as vice-President and banned opposition parties from running in elections” (Waddell, 2018). Nicaragua’s period of prosperity came to an end shortly after all of these policy changes. In 2015, the price of oil dropped immensely, collapsing Venezuela’s economy into the state it is in today. As a result, Venezuela sent no oil shipments to Nicaragua at all in 2017 or 2018, forcing Ortega to cut his anti-poverty programs, his social welfare programs, and raise gas prices significantly (Waddell, 2018). Following the environmental protests by students, and then protests over the cuts made to Nicaragua’s social welfare programs, Ortega was faced with backlash and opposition that he had never experienced before. According to some scholars who study Nicaraguan politics, this may be the reason that Ortega retaliated with such violent methods (De Ferrari, 2018).
Although there is clear reason for why Ortega made these cuts on social security, his reaction to protestors is unacceptable, and has only fueled more protests and killings, as well as backlash from the United States and United Nations among other states and organizations. Nicaraguan citizens have been living in authoritarian conditions, and cuts in social welfare was the last straw for many with regard to tolerating Ortega and his political party. Unarmed protestors are being killed for expressing their political opinions, and attacked by secret Ortega supporters and the military, many of whom Ortega gained the support of through bribes and significant benefits over his Presidential term (Thaler, 2018). Now the resistance calls for the President and his wife’s resignation. The United States has vocally condemned the government’s actions against the protestors, and has sided with the resistance.
The United States does play a part in the economic downfall that has in part triggered the current civil war. In late 2017, the United States house of representatives passed the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act, or NICA Act, which cut US financial assistance to Nicaragua. The NICA Act in addition to the Venezuelan economic crisis both played a role in the financial cuts on social programs (De Ferrari, 2018). The US has a long history with intervention in Nicaragua— often detrimental to the Nicaraguan people. In terms of today’s conflict, the US government has ordered all non-emergency personnel to leave the country due to safety concerns in light of the civil war. On June 4, US Vice-President Mike Pence addressed in a White House Press Briefing the Nicaraguan government killing a dozen people and injuring hundreds of Nicaraguans at a Mother’s Day Celebration, as well as the death of an American citizen. He announced the White House’s stance on the matter, stating that “The United States calls on the Ortega government to end the attacks on peaceful protestors and uphold its citizens’ basic rights, and turn Nicaragua back toward democracy” (Pence, 2018). Senator Marco Rubio also criticized Ortega’s authoritarian rule and violation of human rights, promising to work with the US federal government to put up sanctions against Nicaraguan officials as a punishment for the corrupt administration. Rubio went as far as to call Ortega “a dying man”, and Murillo “a lunatic”, saying that “there’s no future for them in power” (Okun, 2018).
In early June, the Nicaraguan government and opposition attended peace talks to try to negotiate an end to the conflict, hosted by the Nicaraguan Catholic Church. Despite the hopeful nature of initiating such talks, it seems that neither side is optimistic for any productive outcome. Xilonem Vargas, a 27-year-old protestor reported to the Guardian that though the protestors chants were once about eliciting some reform from the government, “now the main chants are: ‘Let’s get Daniel Ortega out! There is no other option. We cannot dialog with a murderer’” (Phillips, 2018). The peace talks did not last for long, as Nicaraguan police clashed with protestors before any progress could be made. Juan Sebastian Chamorro, a leader in the resistance has said that there is not point in trying to make progress with the government “while people are being killed in the streets” (Rivas, 2018).
Although Marco Rubio used harsh words when describing Ortega, he is not incorrect. It does seem that “there is no future for Ortega in power”. A large majority of the young people in the country are on the side of the resistance, and as the current administration grows older, it is only a matter of time before the young people of Nicaragua begin to determine the policies of the country. The future of Nicaragua lies with the young protestors and college students leading Ortega’s opposition, however, one can only hope that an end to the violence comes before the young protestors become the future of Nicaraguan politics.

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About Author(s)

Rachel Bierly
Rachel Bierly is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Linguistics as well as pursuing a minor in Computer Science and a certificate in Latin American Studies. Though her focus lies in Latin American languages, culture, and politics, she also finds interest in East and Southeast Asian culture, and is studying both the Chinese language. Rachel's interest in Latin America comes mainly from working as an intern in Phoenixville Area School District's English Language Learner (ELL) program as well as travelling to Puerto Rico and Costa Rica.