Since mid-April, massive anti-government protests have rocked Nicaraguan politics, threatening President Daniel Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian regime. Ortega rose to prominence as the revolutionary leader of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), which overthrew the authoritarian Somoza family that had ruled the country since 1936. Ortega and the FSLN governed from Nicaragua’s 1979 revolution until 1990, and again since 2007.
Since returning to power, Ortega has used symbols from the revolution to help shore up his claim to be the legitimate ruler of a single-party state. But protesters are using those symbols in these three ways to undermine Ortega’s regime.
Ortega’s regime has taught generations of Nicaraguans about the revolution. Protesters are throwing that back at him.
The 1979 Sandinista Revolution left Nicaragua with a cultural repertoire of ways to resist dictatorship. Protesters have drawn on this repertoire, recreating widely known episodes in the FSLN’s earlier revolutionary struggle.
For instance, protesters have chanted “Patria libre o morir,” or “Free fatherland or death,” the FSLN’s most famous revolutionary slogan. Marchers carry photo placards of killed protesters, recalling an iconic 1978 march for slain FSLN student activist Arlen Siu. In a ritual straight from the Sandinista revolution, protest leaders commemorated the names of those killed by police and government mobs with a resounding “¡Presente!”
Elsewhere, protesters have taken up the famous final words of martyred Sandinista poet Leonel Rugama, “¡Que se rinda tu madre!,” or “Let your mother surrender!” To this, government counterdemonstrators could only respond, “Aquí no se rinde nadie,” or “Nobody surrenders here,” a slogan not from Nicaragua but from the Cuban Revolution.
These tactics, symbols, and slogans’ reappearance 40 years later is no coincidence. The FSLN has made Nicaragua’s revolutionary history a central topic of its education system. The FSLN, once in power, may have taught the youngest generation of Nicaraguans how to overthrow it.
Protesters have also fought to reclaim public space from the government’s propaganda. Protesters have converted partisan FSLN monuments into national monuments: For instance, memorials for fallen “heroes and martyrs” of the Sandinista revolution have been repainted from FSLN red and black to the blue and white of the Nicaraguan flag.
Such reappropriations can be understood as condemning “Orteguismo”: the distortion of the revolution’s legacy into a vehicle for Daniel Ortega’s personal and partisan power. In other examples, protesters have burned and toppled “árboles de la vida,” giant metal tree sculptures that Vice President Rosario Murillo, who is also Ortega’s wife, had erected around Managua. Elsewhere, billboards showing the presidential couple have been torn down and defaced. Before, these costly monuments announced that the regime could reshape Managua at will. Now in tatters, they represent the regime’s inability to protect the public symbols most intimately associated with it.
Painting Ortega as the dictator he once helped overthrow
Meanwhile, Ortega’s militarized response to the protests has backfired. Nicaraguan social media has swirled with images of riot police advancing on unarmed crowds, of injured elderly protesters and of killings of protesting students. Many Nicaraguans are particularly appalled by soldiers marching in the streets and the closing of independent television channels.
But YouTube, Twitter and other social media outlets enable protesters to circumvent those closures. In one video shared by La Prensa, Nicaraguan police hand out rocks for Sandinista Youth (JS19) counterprotesters to hurl at demonstrators. Nicaraguans recall similar actions by the Somoza family dictatorship, which was in power from 1936 until the Sandinista revolution, a rhetorical enemy the FSLN has kept alive in public memory. Protesters have made this parallel explicit with chants such as, “¡Daniel y Somoza, son la misma cosa!,” or “Daniel [Ortega] and Somoza are the same thing!”
On April 21, journalist Ángel Eduardo Gahona was covering protests, broadcasting on Facebook Live, when he was killed by a bullet to his head. That death brought to mind the slayings of two journalists, La Prensa’s Pedro Joaquín Chamorro and ABC’s Bill Stewart, that galvanized opposition in the 1979 revolution. Recasting Ortega as Somoza serves as a powerful mobilizing frame.
Ortega’s mass organizations have hollowed out
The regime has had limited success in countermobilizing its supporters. For years the FSLN has reinforced its image as the only Nicaraguan political party with a mass base by staging large, ritualized popular rallies and by mobilizing mass FSLN women’s, youth and labor organizations. Yet during the protests, public support for the government has been dwarfed by opposition mobilization.
So where are the government’s supporters? They may not show up. Today’s FSLN is no longer a popular movement born of ideological commitment. It manufactures its mass base through an intricate web of clientelistic benefits. Joining the FSLN’s organizations brings material, social and political opportunities, such as goods, scholarships, government jobs, or a chance to advance in the party’s ranks. FSLN activists have identified “at-risk” youth and redirected them from gangs to the JS19, an organization from which they can attack opposition marches and do the government’s dirty work. Many state employees have reportedly been pressured to participate in party events and mass organizations or lose their jobs.
But with the protests, being involved in FSLN organizations or the government now involves weighing those benefits against increasing personal costs. JS19 has now been accused of fomenting violence and instability, marking its members as pariahs for much of the population. With protesters and their supporters in charge of the streets, any government promises are less credible by the day.
So what comes next?
Until April, the opposition did not have a mass base, while Ortega could rely on FSLN mass organizations. That has begun to change. Even if the current protests fail to push Ortega out of the presidency, they have broken the government’s monopoly of the streets and will leave behind new channels for opposition mobilization.
But Ortega retains powerful backers and the capacity for repression. As one Nicaraguan observer told us, “Ortega still has his people. … This is a polarized country.” Large-scale protests are likely to remain an important part of Nicaraguan politics for the near future.
Yerling Aguilera is teacher and researcher at the Universidad Politécnica and a lecturer in sociology at the Universidad Centroamericana (Managua).
Eric Mosinger (@emosinger) is a visiting assistant professor of political science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
Kai M. Thaler (@kaimthaler) is an incoming assistant professor of global studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.