Five Questions About Nicaragua’s Predicament

By A Long-time Observer*

Students protesting against President Ortega/ Jorge Mejía Peralta/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

As the people of Nicaragua prepare for presidential elections on November 7, they are a nation that sought to overcome dictatorship, revolution, and civil war by accepting and practicing democracy – just to find itself back at square one. The following questions address the recent past for an understanding of Nicaragua’s current predicament.

  1. How to explain President Daniel Ortega’s presence on the front lines of Nicaraguan politics for the last 40 years? Ortega has been head of government or head of the opposition in Nicaragua since 1979, when he led a coalition government of Sandinista guerrillas and independent civilians and then became President in his own right after elections in 1984. During the 1980s, the other main Sandinista leaders were busy running ministries and representing the country abroad, while Ortega started building a party structure loyal to himself. After losing the next election in 1990, his grip on the party increased as dissident Sandinistas left in protest over the transfer of public assets (mostly confiscated from Somoza and his cronies in 1979) as private property to the party leadership that remained loyal to Ortega.
  2. What is the Sandinista party (FSLN) today in terms of numbers, structure, and historical significance? The importance of the party structure has dwindled as the government relies more on alliances with non-Sandinista economic groups and Ortega becomes the great decider assisted by a small circle of confidants and family members. The party with a mass following is no more. Less able to mobilize people to counter or cower opposition as it might have done during, for example, the critical months of the 2018 uprising, it has resorted to outright repression (killings, imprisonments, exile).
  3. What was/is the role played by Venezuelan assistance during the latest Ortega governments? When Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007, Nicaragua was still recovering from the Contra War of the 1980s, which had drained the country of productive resources, and three neoliberal administrations, which cut social spending and sought to attract private investment. The 2008 worldwide economic downturn was an early challenge. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela immediately stepped in to assist by providing Nicaragua with oil on credit and by purchasing foodstuffs for his own country. From 2010 to 2014, Venezuela provided more than $500 million yearly in petroleum. Venezuelan aid also altered the composition of the Nicaraguan business class by allowing Sandinista entrepreneurs to access credit and subsidies from semi-private companies set up to handle Venezuelan oil imports, as well as supporting social programs for their base in the countryside and urban barrios.
  4. What role does the private sector play in Ortega’s Nicaragua? Outside of the new Sandinista-owned businesses, the principal beneficiary of Venezuelan assistance was the traditional private sector headed by the country’s large agribusiness and banking concerns. Ortega mostly abandoned his revolutionary rhetoric and embarked on a new national development policy defined as “socialist, Christian, and caring,” while Nicaraguan companies exported meat and cereals to Venezuela at market prices. COSEP, the largest private-sector interest group, gave legitimacy to the alliance of convenience between Ortega and his public-private hybrid model. The economy grew at respectable annual rates of 4.5 percent to 6.0 percent from 2010 to 2017, but Venezuelan assistance declined after 2015, as did the Nicaraguan economy shortly afterwards. The last three years have witnessed negative economic activity, compounded by COVID‑19 and political unrest.
  5. What is the nature of the opposition to Ortega and how does it resemble opposition to the Somoza regime of decades past? It is difficult to estimate what proportion of the electorate would still support Ortega in an open election. There are no recent trustworthy polls, nor has the opposition been allowed to mobilize in public gatherings or participate in open political debate. However, the manner in which the regime has declared most, if not all, opposition candidates ineligible to run, and arrested many others, would suggest that it fears even the most timid of rivals. Nor does it have the economic resources to fund a large-scale campaign with even token opposition candidates akin to the “loyal” opposition that the Somoza dictatorship cobbled together to provide a veneer of legitimacy.

Ortega finds himself bereft of strong international support – even from a Latin American left that historically sided with the Sandinistas in their struggle against imperialism and interventionism – and must rely increasingly on the police and the army as a line of last defense. The army chief since 2010, General Julio César Avilés Castillo, has presided over a noticeable increase in the strength of the Nicaraguan Army, including the purchase of T-72 tanks and armored personnel carriers – cementing its political loyalties. The police, too, are now equipped with late-model pickups purchased from a dealership owned by a close business apologist of the regime.

  • Nicaragua’s current political landscape has a lot more to do with power – political, economic, military – than with the wishes of the electorate or the respect for human rights. No one doubts that Ortega will win his fourth consecutive election – by hook or by crook – come November 7, and Nicaragua’s predicament will not be over until at least one of the legs of the Ortega alliance gives way.

October 20, 2021

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