Otto J. Reich is a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs.
While the implosion of Venezuela has, understandably, dominated Latin American headlines, another authoritarian government cut from the same destructive ideological cloth is facing a popular reckoning. In Nicaragua, for over a month, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in nationwide protests demanding the ouster of autocratic president Daniel Ortega after nearly 12 years of corrupt rule. More than 70 Nicaraguans have been killed and some 800 injured as Ortega’s security forces and armed militants have unleashed their violent fury on unarmed civilians.
While outsiders may have been surprised by the sudden turn of events, those who have been following Ortega’s systematic undermining of democratic institutions and concentration of power and wealth knew that it would only take a spark to upset his carefully laid plans to establish a family dynasty in Nicaragua along the lines of the Somozas, ironically the family dictatorship that Ortega’s guerrillas once overthrew but which it now closely resembles.
That spark came with the sudden announcement of a Social Security reform requiring workers to pay more while receiving fewer benefits. When peaceful protesters demonstrated against the changes, security forces and regime militants (known as turbas divinas, or “divine mobs”) descended on the unarmed civilians, mostly students and younger Nicaraguans, with a fury that shocked the country and only enflamed the situation. Ortega made things worse when he said the violent crackdown was necessary because “gang members” had infiltrated the protests. Instead, the worst violence has come from Ortega’s own Sandinista Youth thugs and police.
The country’s highly respected Catholic Church has stepped in to mediate between the Ortega regime and protest leaders. Rolando Alvarez, bishop of Matagalpa and a member of Nicaragua’s Episcopal Conference, said “we hope there would be a series of electoral reforms, structural changes to the electoral authority — free, just and transparent elections, international observation without conditions. Effectively, the democratization of the country.”
Many Nicaraguans are skeptical that the talks can bring any resolution to popular frustrations that have been building up over years. As Ortega and his vice president and wife, Rosario Murillo, arrived at a seminary in the capital, Managua, for the talks, critics chanted “¡Asesino!” or “Murderer!” One student leader yelled: “We’re not here to hold a dialogue. We are here to negotiate your departure.” In the streets, they are chanting “¡Daniel y Somoza, son la misma cosa!,” (“Daniel [Ortega] and Somoza are the same thing!”)
Their frustration is justifiable. Like Hugo Chávez, Ortega sought to remain in power indefinitely, but lately planned to hand the reins to his wife. In pursuing that goal, he worked from the Chávez playbook: manipulating electoral laws and eliminating checks and balances by controlling the national police; co-opting the Supreme Court and legislature; curtailing freedom of expression and repressing independent media; and harassing and hounding opposition forces and other critics. Unlike Chávez, however, Ortega did not destroy the private sector; instead, he struck a Faustian bargain, with each side promising not to interfere in the affairs of the other. Nevertheless, not everyone in the business community collaborated with Ortega.
But it seems now even the best authoritarian plans can quickly unravel. Notably, the military has signaled its displeasure with the deadly crackdown by Ortega’s police and regime militants, calling for an end to the violence — a strong indication that they might not tolerate further wanton violence directed at civilians. Most of the private sector, which was not consulted on the Social Security reform, has also distanced itself from Ortega, as has the Catholic Church. In fact, the government has become so unpopular that it has had to transport supporters into Managua to stage pro-regime counter demonstrations.
Moreover, the specter of Venezuela’s collapse haunts Nicaragua. The country benefited in recent years from regular subsidies of well over half a billion dollars in oil annually from Caracas, allowing it to pay off cronies and fund unsustainable social programs for the country’s poor. But now the Venezuela gusher has gone almost dry, placing increased economic pressure on the Ortega regime.
Nicaraguans are also aware of the disastrous denouement of chavismo in Venezuela —repression, corruption, societal conflict, shortages of basic goods and collapse of services — and have no desire to follow the same path.
But if Ortega has demonstrated one skill, it is that of survival. He and his wife have dominated Nicaraguan political life for so long and amassed so much power that his departure is not a foregone conclusion. It is up to the United States and other regional democracies to hold Ortega to account and to support the Nicaraguan people in their effort to hasten a return to democratic order in Nicaragua. Given Ortega’s long history of authoritarianism and lust for power, we should make sure that he truly seeks a negotiated solution to the country’s current crisis and is not simply looking for a respite.
We are seeing what the hemisphere’s failure to confront oppressors has brought in Venezuela. Let’s not consign Nicaraguans to the same fate.