Nicaragua: Approaching an Inflection Point?

By Kenneth M. Coleman*

Protesters burn a large pink metal tree

On Saturday, April 21, 2018, Nicaraguan protesters burned an “Árbol de la Vida” (Tree of Life), one of several monumental statues that are considered representations of President Daniel Ortega’s government. / Jan Martínez Ahrens / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The street protests that wracked Nicaragua last week may or may not recede after President Daniel Ortega backed off a controversial increase in social security taxes, but the damage to his image of invincibility will linger and could turn out to be a watershed in his and his wife’s grand plan for one-party rule.  Ortega mobilized the police, which have teamed up with young thugs over the years to intimidate those who protest government policies, to repress what started last week as peaceful protests against the increased taxes but evolved into a challenge of the authoritarian nature of the regime.  The government closed four television stations that were covering the street protests; shock troops from his party’s Juventud Sandinista burned down a radio station in León; and journalists faced harassment, one having been killed.  Local press estimates 20-30 deaths, with surely well over a hundred injured.

The street protesters were not alone in their struggle.  The Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) and American Chamber of Commerce in Nicaragua (AMCHAM) – which for years had become silent accomplices in the efforts of Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, to consolidate their power – called for solidarity with the popular protests.  For the first time in the current Ortega era (2007-2018), they openly called for street marches to resume today.  More importantly, they used hard language – condemning the use of fuerzas de choque by the government – and issued a set of conditions before a “dialogue” with the government can begin.  Specifically, they demanded that students, university communities, and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church be included in any dialogue, surrendering their previous role as privileged interlocutor with the government.  (The Catholic Church provided respite and support – both moral and physical – to student protesters.)

Mass movements can start from little sparks and grow into society-wide convulsions.  The outcome of these new confrontations with the Ortega-Murillo government cannot be foreseen at this point, but the parallels with other governments on their last legs are striking.  The use of excessive force by Mexican police in 1968 triggered massive street protests that directly questioned the legitimacy of a seemingly well-established Mexican one-party state – legitimacy that was ultimately resurrected only by opening the system to genuinely democratic competition.  While the process took two decades, it did lead to an opposition victory in the 1990 presidential election.  In Nicaragua, the fall of Anastasio Somoza in 1979 accelerated when the business community eventually abandoned his dictatorship.

  •  Ortega’s party, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), for many years has been able to isolate, contain, and discredit those abandoning it, including a former Sandinista Vice President and former members of its National Directorate. Grumbling within the party is already growing louder because of a succession plan bringing Rosario Murillo to power upon the illness or death of Ortega in a manner that far exceeds her status as vice president.  Local press reports indicate that one police commander and her unit of 50 officers have been jailed due to their unwillingness to confront and repress protesters in the streets.  The excessive application of force against peaceful protesters last week and, potentially, in coming days might lead to a more serious rupture, making last week’s events a potential inflection point for Nicaragua – with potentially dire consequences for Ortega and Murillo’s political ambitions.

April 23, 2018

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities who directed the 2014 AmericasBarometer national survey in Nicaragua.

Chile: Between Stability and Uncertainty

By Eduardo Silva and Kenneth Roberts*

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Students protest in Santiago, May 2016. A highly-mobilized Chilean civil society has beset Michelle Bachelet’s second term as president. / Francisco Osorio / Flickr / Creative Commons

With national elections looming at the end of 2017, President Michelle Bachelet’s startling reversal of fortune raises the question of whether the traditional parties’ failure to win broad popular support could give rise to an anti-establishment populist leader.  At the end of her first government in 2010, Bachelet was the most popular president in post-democratic transition Chile.  This go-around, high-profile corruption scandals involving party financing and real estate deals implicating her family (along with both governing and opposition parties) have cut into her support.  Irregularities in the electoral registry before the 2016 municipal elections, an ineffective response to devastating forest fires, concessions over major reforms, and a slowing economy have also hurt her approval ratings, which are hovering near 20 percent, the lowest of any president since 1990.  Her administration has been beset by protests over education reform, labor relations reform, and the private pension system that the military government established in the 1980s.  Tensions and violence flare up continuously over land rights in the south between Mapuche communities and extractive industries.  All of this is occurring in a context of marked secular decline in voter participation and political party identification.

The trend of volatile approval ratings and a mobilized civil society now spans three administrations – Bachelet, Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), and Bachelet again – from 2006 to 2017.  Unlike in Brazil and Argentina, where “middle class” revolts demanding clean, efficient government and economic growth signified a rightward turn after prolonged center-left rule, most of the protests in Chile come from the left flank, rather than the right.  Moreover, the mainstream parties appear seriously detached from the most active groups in civil society and, as seen in declining levels of party identification, from the citizenry at large.  This raises questions about the future of Chile’s party system, whether its center-left and center-right coalitions can hold together, and the chances for outsider populists.

All things considered, Chile has been a case of exceptional partisan and electoral stability in Latin America since 1990.  The dominant parties and coalitions have won all the elections, without the rise of a major “outsider” populist or a major new “movement party.”  But the next elections may provide a sort of “in between” outcome.  Ex-President Piñera, who has independent tendencies on the right, and a center-left alternative, Alejandro Guillier, are the current frontrunners in presidential primaries scheduled for July.  Guillier is a type of insider, nominated by a small party in a large coalition, with outsider credentials who does not really belong to Chile’s traditional casta política.  At this early point, if Piñera and Guillier win their respective primaries, both would appear to have a shot at winning in November or in December’s runoff – with neither outcome representing a breakdown of the system, nor a widespread electoral protest against mainstream parties.  This suggests, for now, the continuation of a system that is on the surface highly stable in institutional terms, but in reality highly detached from society at large and in particular from youth and the more active, mobilized sectors of civil society.  Neither political coalition shows many signs of significant internal renovation, although Guillier represents at least some change in leadership of the Nueva Mayoría.  However, political systems have been known to limp along under these conditions in the absence of major economic meltdowns, and that may be the most likely outcome of the next electoral cycle in Chile.

February 13, 2017

*Eduardo Silva is Professor of Political Science at Tulane University, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government at Cornell University.

Mexico: Is Peña Nieto Missing the Point?

By Fulton Armstrong

Rodrigo Barquera / Flickr / CC BY

Rodrigo Barquera / Flickr / CC BY

The disappearance and apparent massacre of 43 students from a city in Mexico’s Guerrero state is a rude reminder to President Peña Nieto that economic reform and increased foreign investment aren’t enough to help the country overcome the scourge of narcotics-fueled violence.  Federal and State prosecutors agree that the police in Iguala – who, along with the city’s mayor, have strong ties to the Guerreros Unidos cartel – handed the students over to the narcos after a confrontation during a student protest turned violent, already leaving six students dead.  Residents on a nearby ridge noted an increase in police and truck traffic soon after the showdown, but the dozens of bodies uncovered by searchers at mass graves in the area so far have not been the students’.  The mayor and police chief are in hiding, but Federal authorities say three dozen police and accomplices have been arrested and many have confessed.  None apparently has identified where the bodies were dumped.

As the scope of the crime, which occurred three weeks ago, has become clearer, the President’s rhetoric has been increasingly forceful, committing to investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice.  The Federal police have been directed to take control of security in the area and nearby municipalities.  The government announced last Friday, that the “supreme leader” of the Guerreros Unidos has been arrested, while another committed suicide after a standoff with police.  But critics point out the federal authorities’ own problems with corruption, and criticism of Peña Nieto’s efforts to stem the violence has been growing, especially in the wake of his administration’s many self-congratulatory statements about progress in the security area.  A new 5,000-strong national civilian gendarmerie he rolled out in August was ridiculed as too little, too late.  His continuation of his predecessor’s emphasis on arresting drug kingpins – resulting this year in the spectacular arrests of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera (of the Sinaloa cartel), Héctor Beltrán-Leyva (of the Beltrán-Leyva Organization), Fernando Sánchez Arellano (of the Arellano Félix cartel), and others – has failed to eliminate the underlying systems of the drug trade.

During the presidential campaign in 2012, Peña Nieto promised to reduce violence, and his decision not to obsess over the problem – as his predecessor, President Calderón, had – may have given him a respite.  But his administration apparently ignored clear signals of trouble – such as indications that in Guerrero state and elsewhere the cartels’ were expanding and consolidating their influence over government – and the problem seems to be roaring back with a vengeance.  The President’s focus on reforming the economy and attracting foreign investment makes strategic sense, but its long timeline doesn’t help him fight the fires of violence that envelop parts of the country.  There’s also merit in creating something like the gendarmerie and other institutional tools, but that approach seems to ignore that the rot of corruption has deep roots at all levels – federal, state, and local – that must be dealt with and that an elite unit tied to a federal capital hundreds of kilometers away can do little in places like Guerrero.  Calderón had shown the challenge wouldn’t be easy, but Peña Nieto has not yet shown that he – and Mexican society – are up to it either.

October 21, 2014

Chilean Student Protests and Inequality

Photo by Davidlohr Bueso, Santiago, Chile via http://www.flickr.com

Following a year of student demonstrations, Chilean students have renewed their demands for education reform with a massive street protest in Santiago. According to a report from the BBC News, 25,000-50,000 students participated in a march for free education on Wednesday. The protest came despite President Sebastián Piñera’s announcement that a state agency would be created to finance university-level education and that private banks would no longer be permitted to provide loans to university students. Piñera also announced that interest rates on student loans would be reduced from 6 to 2 percent. The student protests are just one of several political issues confronting Piñera, such as the construction of dams in Patagonia and government handling of political protests in the southern region of Aysén. The students’ cause has reverberated throughout Latin America and indicates widespread discontent with high levels of socioeconomic inequality in Chile.