Ortega — a onetime Marxist rebel who helped lead Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution — had previously governed through an unlikely alliance with Nicaragua’s Catholic Church and capitalist class. He lost those elite pillars of support because of the bloodshed. Long-dormant sectors in Nicaraguan politics, like the country’s university students, rose up. Popular anger and defecting allies put Ortega and his vice president and wife Rosario Murillo against the ropes. The Economist declared in a headline that Ortega’s time was “running out.”
Two years later, with more than 300 people killed and more than 100,000 people having fled Nicaragua, Ortega and Murillo seem to have beaten the clock. How did they keep power? Scholars of revolutions have found that defecting elites and mass rebellion can be key factors in unseating an authoritarian regime. What does this regime’s survival tell us about whether unarmed civil resistance and pro-democracy movements can succeed elsewhere?
Here are three factors that suggest why this uprising failed to topple the regime.
1. Security forces stayed loyal and kept firing
Most important, the Ortega-Murillo regime never lost the key ingredient of state control: the monopoly on violence. Protesters briefly threatened this control in May and June 2018, erecting barricades across the country to create pockets of what they called “liberated” territory. By midsummer, however, the regime had used brutal repression to reclaim the streets.
Unlike other authoritarian rulers confronting mass protests, Ortega faced few restrictions in using state violence. Though Nicaragua’s military did not get directly involved, it raised no objections as police and paramilitaries besieged a defenseless population with arbitrary detentions, torture, and killings. This ruthless strategy doomed negotiations with opposition leaders and brought international condemnation. But security forces’ willingness to “give them everything we’ve got,” as Murillo instructed, paid dividends: Organized resistance is now nearly impossible in what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called a “climate of widespread terror.”
2. Ortega rebuilt his base, while opposition unity is a work in progress
The uprising initially shook even loyalists of the ruling Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), many of whom believed that the ruling family’s ouster was imminent. However, Ortega soon managed to regroup his small but durable base of historic supporters. Many student protest leaders came from Sandinista backgrounds, and some party members disapproved of the repression. But once the regime violently reasserted control, the one-third of Nicaraguans who are FSLN followers fell in line.
Ortega and Murillo rallied these backers around a cynical but coherent account of the events of 2018. Supporters were told the mass uprising was a failed, foreign-backed “coup attempt.” The resulting chaos was allegedly the fault of “bloodthirsty” protesters, while the authoritarian government was just trying to preserve stability in a country with a tumultuous past. Moreover, Ortega successfully convinced the FSLN rank-and-file that the protests endangered not just his family’s rule, but also the legacy, memory, and symbolism of the Sandinista Revolution itself, which he claims to embody.
The opposition’s fortunes, meanwhile, have stagnated. In 2018, the uprising drew from many sectors of society with many different ideologies — students, business leaders, civil society groups, dissident political parties, and rural farmers’ associations. The movement cited this diversity as a strength — and scholars often find that to be true. But once Ortega regained his footing, diversity started looking more like fragmentation, as opposition factions failed to synchronize efforts to pressure the regime.
3. A staggering economy never collapsed
In theory, an economic collapse might have upset Ortega’s base and tested the loyalty of security forces. But instead of crashing completely, as many analysts expected, the Nicaraguan economy has deteriorated in slow motion, without shortages, inflation or disruptions to basic public services. While Nicaraguans may have suffered from the halting of GDP growth, this has not brought the anti-Ortega opposition more momentum. The allied Maduro regime in Venezuela shows that Nicaragua’s dictatorship might be able to muddle along even if economic conditions get far worse.
Where does Nicaragua go from here?
In the first two months of 2018’s protests, Nicaragua’s protesters fulfilled many of the conditions that scholars have found essential if unarmed civil resistance is to succeed. They mobilized a large, diverse mass movement; key domestic allies stopped supporting the regime; the military stayed in its barracks; and international forces were pressing Ortega to hold early elections or step down. It turns out that while these conditions were necessary, they were not sufficient.
Resistance movements can be brilliant in deploying nonviolent action techniques, but must prepare for long periods of suffering and sacrifice if a government turns its guns on them and security forces stay loyal. The Nicaraguan opposition has firmly ruled out any violent action. To seriously challenge the regime again, they may wish to develop new political strategies, including pushing the international community for sustained diplomatic pressure.
That will be difficult. Nicaragua endured a decade of democratic backsliding before the crisis and is now a de facto police state, making it extremely difficult for regime opponents to organize. Despite being less accountable to the population than ever, Ortega has an easily identifiable brand and clear messaging that promises stability. Meanwhile, the fragmented opposition lacks a political program beyond vague calls for “democracy.” To force the regime toward a democratic transition, it would have to rally a wide base of supporters, from longtime anti-FSLN Nicaraguans to disaffected Sandinistas and even Ortega supporters.
A major coronavirus outbreak could shake up Nicaraguan politics again, but Ortega and Murillo seem prepared to hold on at any cost.