April 19, 2018 was a normal Thursday for most Americans. But in Nicaragua it was a day of political uprising that has yet to subside.
The democratically elected president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, was ready to pass a policy changing social security for the country. The change would have essentially required more money to be put in by Nicaraguans, while those already on social security pensions would be getting five present less.
“This proved to be the straw that broke the camels’ back for people who had been really frustrated with the kinds of undemocratic governing that they’ve seen developing in the Ortega administration for the last 11 years,” says Courtney Morris, associate professor of African American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Pennsylvania State University.
“Nicaragua has been on a path of authoritarian drift for more than a decade. We see this in the ways that Daniel Ortega has really consolidated his control over the government. He controls all four branches of the government. He controls the executive branch, he controls the court system, he controls the national police and he controls the national assembly. His party, the Sandinistas party, controls all of those institutions,” Morris says.
“And people have been really outraged by the way the government under Daniel Ortega has taken a this sort or radically undemocratic and authoritarian turn,” Morris adds. “So when I say the crisis is deeper than the social security reforms, they really were just a symptom of much longer discontent that had been developing for sometime.”
President Ortega is accused of answering the protests with paramilitary forces, blamed for the killings and disappearances of hundreds of Nicaraguans. Though he denies a connection, Morris doesn’t believe him.
“These paramilitary groups that have emerged have been around for a while,” Morris says. “They are generally recognized to be members of the Sandinistas party – many of them young people who are involved with the Sandinistas youth organization that’s connected to the party. And they are armed with military grade weapons and often show up at protests where people are criticizing the government and attack demonstrators while the police stood by doing nothing. They would disappear and vanish never be arrested and never held accountable.”
Despite the recent unrest there has not been a migration of political refugees seeking asylum in the United States. Morris explains how that might change.
“The country hasn’t had the same levels of social instability and political instability that have led thousands of people to have to flee the region. But given the way that the situation is unfolding right now that’s very likely to change,” she says.
Morris has worked in Nicaragua since 2004. She says this is the worst political crisis she’s seen, and the most serious in modern Nicaraguan history. She goes on to say she is not very optimistic for Nicaragua’s future outcome.
“If Daniel Ortega stays in power, it will create it’s own set of problems. And if he choses to leave power and step down … that will also create a different set of problems. Because it’s not clear that there are any political leaders who have emerged from the protest who would be in a position to step in to fill that vacuum of power. It’s going to create a new set of problems that the country is prepared to deal with. … It seems there’s no magic solution for how to deal with this problem.”