Gabriella was nervous as she made her way home. The state had suspended most of the buses, forcing her and others to walk. The government supporters’ “violent reputation” frightened her, she says, as did the muscular police deployment. It was April 18th 2018, and the first of a spree of anti-government protests had just shaken the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. The march had been largely peaceful; the state’s response was anything but. What followed would throw Gabriella’s life, and those of her countrymen, into utter chaos.
After eleven years of his rule, Nicaraguans had risen up against the government of Daniel Ortega. Botched changes to the country’s social security system and the mishandling of an environmental disaster were the touch paper, but a more general frustration at the regime carried the protests nationwide. Much of the anger was directed at Ortega’s alleged nepotism – his wife Rosario Murillo, a deeply unpopular public figure, serves as vice-president and chief state strategist. Allegations of corruption plague both individuals.
As the movement broadened, the government unleashed its fury. At least 325 were killed over the subsequent months. Police officers were among the casualties, but civilian demonstrators made up the vast majority. Hundreds more found themselves in jail on trumped-up terror charges. “They are threatening us!” Miguel Mora, the head of independent news station 100% Noticias declared on Facebook, shortly before the channel plunged off-air. As the government’s retribution spread, a desperate hashtag, #SOSNicaragua, implored the world not to look the other way.
But the international community, by and large, did just that. World leaders admonished their Nicaraguan counterpart, expressing regret at his behaviour – but decisive action to bring to heel the regime didn’t materialise. In August, the UN published a scathing report into alleged human rights abuses, pointing to the government’s “repressive response” to the protests and continued persecution of those involved. Branding the findings “biased”, Ortega promptly expelled the UN monitoring team.
In December, eight months after the first violence, US President Donald Trump signed the Nica Act, implementing harsher political and economic sanctions on Ortega. The Central American state’s dire situation posed “an extraordinary and unusual threat to US national security,” he said, authorising the use of targeted penalties against individual government representatives. Having approved similar action, the EU looks to be following suit.
A positive step undoubtedly, but Nicaraguans have little to celebrate as the protest’s anniversary approaches. A year on, Ortega seems as entrenched as ever. Hundreds remain in prison, despite overtures of clemency from the regime. While there have been some releases, there is little hope of reprieve for those the government views as most disruptive. For those behind bars, life is brutal – allegations of torture and extrajudicial executions are widespread. “My hopes are now broken,” says Gabriella, who has stayed in Nicaragua and, despite the risks, helps those still resisting the government’s heavy hand. “When they release 50 political prisoners, they kidnap other innocent civilians and imprison them on fabricated charges,” she adds.
Prisoner release is among the issues fiercely debated in official talks between the regime and Civic Alliance, the opposition group, which have continued sporadically since the new year. Thus far, there has been no meaningful breakthrough. The government has reaffirmed its “commitment to continue working towards national understanding”, but key opposition demands for Ortega to stand aside and fresh elections to be held have been roundly refused. Polls suggest some two-thirds of Nicaraguans want to see the back of Ortega, but that seems to be of little consequence to the man many now call a dictator.
For those one-time protesters still in the country, life is difficult. Civil liberties remain suspended, and fearing rampant authoritarianism, most are keeping their heads low. Police and state-aligned paramilitary forces prowl the streets, a constant deterrent to anyone thinking of speaking out. “I was trapped for weeks at my friend’s house,” says Ryan, a foreign national living in Nicaragua. Days before, he had been hauled from his car at gunpoint on his way to work. “I slept on average four hours a night, learning to distinguish the sounds of the AK-47s, mortar cannons and smoke bombs that exploded outside.” Eventually it all became too much, and Ryan fled abroad.
He was one of at least 50,000 people who escaped the government crackdown, seeking sanctuary in neighbouring countries. Tens-of-thousands have crossed the border into Costa Rica alone – Ortega has demanded their names, but the Costa Rican authorities have resisted.
“They tried to scorn me for my sexuality, aiming to delegitimize my participation in anti-government protests,” says Alfredo, who fled to Honduras. He had worked for a group connected to Ortega’s FSLN party, but – repulsed by the president’s actions following the initial unrest – resigned in protest. After vocalising his dissent online, state-sponsored social media accounts rounded on him, he claims. Moving abroad “was a difficult but necessary decision that I took for my safety,” says Alfredo, who fears a grim future for his country.
In that regard, he’s not alone. As the economic noose of the Nica Act tightens and oil-money from stricken Venezuelan ally Nicolas Maduro dries up, Ortega may well find himself in a corner. A plummeting economy and rampant unemployment could force him into meaningful concessions. But the converse is also true – cornered and fighting for his political life, a redoubling of his authoritarian approach is not unimaginable.
For humanitarian groups, any such backslide is unacceptable. “The Nicaraguan government must put an immediate end to its strategy of repression and release all the students, activists and journalists detained,” says Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director. “[We] will continue to stand with all those who are peacefully fighting for their rights… The brave people of Nicaragua will not be silenced,” he added.
Nicaragua’s future is far from clear. Ortega has paid lip service to meaningful political reform, while continuing down a path of repression. His dialogue with protestors is necessary, but wholly ill-fated if the government remains intransigent on key grievances. And while the international community seems at last to be mobilising against Ortega, their intervention is not without risk. US and European sanctions may be targeted, but the poorest in society are always the first to suffer the economic impact. Despite the uncertainty, one thing is clear: the fire of discontent that ignited the protests has not been extinguished. Forced underground or sheltering abroad, Nicaraguans have not given up their cause.