Nicaragua enjoyed almost 300 years of political stability under Spanish colonial rule. About 200 years elapsed after its independence, a third of which was spent on civil strife that concluded with the national war against the filibuster William Walker, whose defeat was followed by 30 years of stability and about 75 under the authoritarian regimes of Zelaya, the Somozas and Ortega.
The current democratic decline began twenty years ago with the pact between the Sandinista Daniel Ortega and the Liberal leader Arnoldo Alemán, who was President from 1997 to 2000. The latter brought the electoral threshold down to 35% of the vote to facilitate Ortega's first-round victory in the presidential elections and the ensuing distribution of state offices between the Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN) and the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLN).
Both the 2006 and 2011 elections shared similarities and minor differences. The 2006 election was an electoral farce much like those of Somoza's time: "you vote but you don't choose". In 2011, Daniel Ortega's nomination for re-election was authorised despite being banned in the Constitution. At that time Ortega confronted the double prohibition of running for a successive term and being a candidate for the third time. The 2011 elections were so irregular and violent due to the repression by Ortega's forces that the European Union observation mission stated that the results were impossible to verify. In turn, former Argentine Foreign Minister Dante Caputo, the head of the OAS observation mission, said on the election day that they had been unable to know what was happening because they had "the radar had been blocked".
In the 2016 elections there was no opposition as it was judicially excluded. The candidates who had already been presented before the media became instantly illegitimate. International observers were rejected under the presidential label of "scoundrels", and only a few were invited by the government, among them Raúl Alconada Sempé (former Undersecretary for Latin American Affairs during Alfonsín's administration).
Daniel Ortega was a candidate in seven electoral campaigns (1984, 1990, 1996, 2001, 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016), and three times president. With 20 years in office, he is the longest-serving president in Nicaragua’s history, surpassing Anastasio Somoza García, who was in office for 17 years.
The opposition regards Ortega as a new version of Anastasio Somoza: a politician who went from the socialist revolution to the eradication of progressive sectors within the Sandinista party. Today, the populist leader has established a socialist, anti-imperialist, confessional regime with a market economy.
Daniel Ortega cannot be explained without Rosario Murillo. Both complement each other. The first lady and designated vice-president, in addition to being the government's daily spokesperson, coordinates the ministries, Sandinista mayors' offices, citizens' power councils, and civil control agencies throughout the country.
The ruling couple have established a dynasty in power, to the extent that even their own children irregularly hold state offices, replacing ministers and even the foreign minister himself on official journeys.
Based on the figures of Ortega and Murillo, the Sandinista party took it upon itself to consolidate its control over state institutions. It broke with the old Sandinismo and became neoliberal, with bankers and businessmen gaining leverage in state decisions. The official discourse portrayed Nicaragua as the safest country in Central America, a barrier against drug trafficking and illegal migration - the two concerns of the US State Department -, with economic growth and a peaceful climate.
The fact that the civil society did not perceive the obvious inevitability of the looming social and political crisis that broke out on April 18th 2018 was symptomatic. Shamefully, the business sector, obsessed with the economic growth underpinned by the government-private enterprise agreement, turned a blind eye to the pressing social and political needs of citizens that had been beaten to silence.
As early as June 22nd 2013, pro-government groups assaulted young people at a peaceful demonstration in support of elderly people who had been protesting for eight days against the reduction of their pensions.
At the beginning of 2018, the delayed official mitigation of the fire in one of the main natural reserves in the region sparked another demonstration by young environmentalists from universities, citizens and indigenous peoples about the fire that affected more than 6,000 hectares of forest in the "Indio Maíz Biological Reserve". The rapid deforestation due to illegal agricultural activities was attributed to the alliance between business leaders and the government. Another repression targeted peasants opposing the construction of the inter-oceanic canal in the hands of a Chinese company, anticipating the expropriation of the land of hundreds of thousands of farmers and peasants who live along the route laid out for the canal project.
On April 18th 2018, the crisis broke out and Nicaragua changed radically. It all began with a peaceful protest against social security reforms that received the usual treatment: beatings by the police and the repressive groups. The difference this time was that the protest with banners and slogans did not disperse. The government responded with more exacerbated repression including the use of live rounds against the demonstrators. Following the first casualties, Nicaragua rose up in revolt. Barricades were set up in towns and cities and the focus of the protest shifted from unrest over social security reform to demands for the resignation and judicial prosecution of all those involved, including Ortega. Three months later more than 330 people were killed, jails were full of political prisoners, thousands of Nicaraguans were in hiding or migrating to other countries, and the president was under pressure, isolated internationally, supported by paramilitaries, a raging police force and a despondent army.
The opposition pressed the government to negotiate an early election. In turn, the government criminalised the protest and put forth the theory of a "coup d'état" in an attempt to legitimise the repression, brought politics to court, modified laws ex post to facilitate false indictments, and applied an ad hoc law with retroactive effects, supported by an obsequious judiciary.
In short, electoral fraud degraded the legitimacy of the electoral system, gradually depriving the country of institutions, separation of powers, and the rule of law. The executive and legislative branches of the government were arbitrarily appointed, the judiciary was politicised and the electoral branch was at the service of the ruler, without checks and balances, without freedom of speech and subjected to systematic violations of human rights. Thus, although the trigger for the social and political outburst in April was the repression, the cause lies in the accumulation of resentment against an authoritarian regime and a stifling system of arbitrariness, the growing discontent with the vehemence of power, the exacerbated official corruption, the denial of individual and public rights, and the crimes against humanity.
Marcelo Valle Fonrouge is a lawyer and diplomat. Doctor and Master in International Relations and consultant member of the Council for International Relations (CARI). Academic at the Academy of Geography and History of Nicaragua. Member of the Disarmament Observatory, he was Ambassador of the Argentine Republic to the Republic of Nicaragua between 2013 and 2019.