Nicaragua, five years on from the April protests
It’s five years since huge protests against President Daniel Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian regime took place in Nicaragua. In the years since, the regime has dismantled civic space, reinforced the legal architecture of repression, criminalised any expression of dissent, jailed its critics or pushed them into exile and eliminated all traces of political competition. But what the regime wants to display as a show of power may be a symptom of weakness by an increasingly desperate dictatorship clutching at straws. Democratic forces need to unite to force civic space open and restore democracy. The international community must support resistance and isolate the authoritarian regime.
Nicaraguan activists saw their country slide into autocracy long before the world took notice. Fraud claims surrounded President Daniel Ortega’s first re-election in 2011 and skyrocketed when he won again in 2016. Long before it captured international headlines, repression was pervasive at the grassroots level, in Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities and in response to the peasant movement’s mobilisation against a far-fetched project to build an Interoceanic Canal across the country.
But in April 2018 the pace of repression accelerated. An announcement of changes to the social security system triggered an unprecedented wave of protests. It lifted the lid on a pressure cooker of multiple discontents, all of which came to the streets together. The usual show of muscle by state forces and pro-government armed citizens’ groups didn’t do the trick. Repression only brought more people to the street in outrage. Ultimately, it took hundreds of deaths to deactivate the rebellion.
During the following five years, everything the Nicaraguan government did boiled down to dismantling the conditions that had made mobilisation possible: wiping out whatever remained of democratic electoral competition, keeping opposition leaders in jail, criminalising protesters and eventually seeking to dissolve the entire fabric of social associations, prohibiting any allegiance other than to the regime and the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
Adding insult to injury, as the fifth anniversary approached, the FLSN-held National Assembly passed a law declaring 19 April – the date when thousands of Nicaraguans mourn their dead at the hands of the ruling regime – as ‘National Day of Peace’.
Voices from the frontlines
Silvio Prado is a Nicaraguan academic and activist who lives in exile in Spain.
As civil society, we have been denouncing the establishment of an authoritarian regime in our country for a long time. The proof is in the number of protests that were organised before 2017. The response was always violence by the police and what later became para-police forces. The only ones who didn’t realise this were those who were allied with the government. And somehow the outside world didn’t want to pay attention. There are United Nations (UN) Development Programme studies that say that the Ortega regime before 2018 was a strong regime with a high level of consensus among the population.
We all embarked in protests in the hope of bringing about political change. It was not viable to continue as we were in 2018. The protests only accelerated what was going to happen anyway; they laid bare the intentions of this regime to implement its domination under a false impression of consensus. The closure of spaces had been taking place in silence despite the protests against the canal. There was a kind of lethargy, an apathy that gave the impression of a consensus in favour of the regime.
The 2018 protests forced the regime to take off its mask. And that is why today we are closer to political change than we were in 2018.
At the local level the situation is very complicated because of the absolute control exercised by the dictatorship over local governments. The challenge here is to monitor and give visibility to what is happening at the local level, to know what is going on and to follow up on the corruption that is being denounced. The new mayors have become another link in the police state. They are a pawn in a strategy of control. They do not govern; they collaborate in the control of the population. Maybe with the councillors of ‘opposition’ parties something could be done, who knows. But the hope lies in the population, because without the population there is no municipality.
This is an edited extract of Silvio’s participation in a CIVICUS-organised Twitter space, available here.
April 2018 and beyond
Five years ago, the Ortega government enlisted the police, armed forces and paramilitary groups to put an end to the protests. Three months later the challenge had been suppressed – at the cost of 355 deaths, thousands of people injured and a long list of human rights violations, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
Following the repression, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index downgraded Nicaragua, whose flawed democracy had been slowly regressing for about a decade, to the category of an ‘authoritarian regime’.
The Nicaraguan state made no progress in investigating the human rights abuses committed when suppressing the protests and kept on perpetrating them systematically to prevent a new wave of protests.
Hundreds of protesters were thrown in jail and accused of terrorism, harming the state, murder, organised crime, robbery and use of restricted weapons, among other serious crimes. For years, around 200 political prisoners – political leaders, civil society activists, journalists, businesspeople, students and diplomats – remained behind bars. The majority were handed long prison sentences when highly irregular ‘express trials’ resumed in early 2022. They were given no due process guarantees and were often subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment while in jail.
👉🏿 Today we are marking 5 years of brutal repression under the dictatorial Ortega-Murillo regime in Nicaragua. I have created this 5 part infographic to help you understand what the Nicaraguan people have lived through in those 5 difficult years. (1/5) pic.twitter.com/Hgu0pkVTe1— Bianca Jagger Nicaraguense por gracia de Dios 🇳🇮 (@BiancaJagger) April 18, 2023
The legal architecture of repression was reinforced with two laws passed in October 2020: the Law to Regulate Foreign Agents, which blocked international funding of civil society, journalists and political opponents, and the Special Law on Cybercrime, which made the online publication of content deemed ‘false’ by the government punishable with up to 10 years in jail.
In November 2021, Ortega was re-elected for a fourth term, with his wife, Rosario Murillo, by his side as vice president. The official results gave him 76 per cent of the vote on a 65 per cent turnout, although according to reliable estimates up to 80 per cent of voters stayed away. The FSLN also claimed 75 of 91 seats in the National Assembly, giving it free rein to pass further repressive laws. When the Organization of American States adopted a resolution that elections were ‘not free, fair or transparent and lack democratic legitimacy’, the Ortega government announced Nicaragua’s withdrawal from the body.
Right after the 2021 election, another law was passed, the ‘Law for the Defence of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-determination for Peace‘, barring so-called ‘traitors to the homeland’ from running for office. An additional law approved in January 2022 allowed the imposition of life sentences for loosely defined ‘hate crimes’.
As part of the repression, civil society organisations (CSOs) have been systematically vilified, harassed and intimidated, with hundreds shut down in the first four years following the protests. Numbers reached the thousands after the General Law on the Regulation and Control of Non-profit Organisations came into force in May 2022, prohibiting CSOs from engaging in direct or indirect political activity, ‘disturbing public order’ and conducting ‘destabilisation campaigns’, and introducing cumbersome registration, approval and reporting requirements.
Among those shut down have been organisations working on women’s and children’s rights, the environment, freedom of expression and human rights, and even universities and organisations linked to the Catholic Church, including congregations, schools and media.
The Catholic Church has been attacked because it’s the last major structure independent from the state left in Nicaragua. Like civil society activists, church representatives have been vilified, harassed, placed under surveillance, branded as terrorists, arrested and ordered to leave the country.
Many suspended CSOs have been raided by the police, their facilities seized and repurposed and their assets confiscated. Thousands of political leaders, civil society activists, students, academics and journalists have been driven to exile. Some 300,000 Nicaraguans left their country between April 2018 and early 2022, with around half settling in neighbouring Costa Rica. It’s estimated as many as another 300,000 could have left in 2022 alone.
Voices from the frontlines
Amaru Ruiz is a Nicaraguan environmental human rights defender and former coordinator of the civil society platform Red Local who currently lives in exile in Costa Rica.
The model of citizen participation imposed by the Ortega-Murillo regime cut off spaces of participation from the municipal to the national level. Social organisations saw these changes as a setback to an incipient democratisation process that had begun in the 1990s.
From 2013 onwards, we began to feel under siege. Our work at the territorial and municipal levels began to be hindered. Red Local was developing auditing processes at the municipal level, and we were no longer allowed to enter municipal councils to participate in sessions. This was compounded by fraud at the municipal level, which allowed the regime political control at all levels.
Another turning point was the inter-oceanic canal plan, when as an organisation we were practically banned from collaborating with state institutions because of our position against the canal.
The protests unmasked the true identity of the Ortega-Murillo regime. But the decision of this generation was to fight by civilian means, which marks a turning point compared to other generations that turned towards armed struggle. But most of us who came out to protest believed that change would happen faster.
Faced with these regimes, it is important to think that this is a long-term relay race: at some point we will no longer be here, but the desire for political change and social and environmental transformation transcends generations.
Exile is one form of resistance, but there is an important population base that continues to resist in the country. The Nicaraguan population has shown, by abstaining from voting, that it expects and hopes for change.
This is an edited extract of Amaru’s participation in a CIVICUS-organised Twitter space, available here.
A puzzling move
On 9 February 2023, Ortega unexpectedly ordered the release of 222 political prisoners, putting them on a charter flight to the USA. The 222 were stripped of their Nicaraguan nationality and their civil and political rights under accusations of anti-national mercenaryism and treason against the homeland. In a show of manufactured domestic support, hundreds of FSLN party members marched in several Nicaraguan cities to ‘celebrate’ the decision.
A few days later, the regime stripped 94 more people of their nationality, including prominent political dissidents, civil society activists, journalists and writers, most of whom were already living in exile: they were declared ‘fugitives from justice’ and their assets subjected to confiscation.
Speculation followed about whether this move was a sign of strength – as the government wanted to make it look – or weakness, as democracy activists thought. The Nicaraguan regime didn’t have many friends left in the world, while the newly stateless released prisoners were greeted with international solidarity, including offers of asylum and citizenship.
Two months later, the anniversary of the protests and their bloody repression once again became the focus of activism for truth, justice and the recovery of democracy.
Voices from the frontlines
Medardo Mairena is a leader of the Nicaraguan peasant movement and a former political prisoner, now living in the USA after being freed, deprived of his nationality and banished in February 2023.
Right now the dictatorship is sustained by military force only: the army, the police and paramilitaries including the Sandinista Youth are maintaining a state of terror in Nicaragua. You cannot even say ‘Long live free Nicaragua’, because you can be kidnapped or killed. There was one case in 2020 of someone who said ‘Long live free Nicaragua’ on the side of the road where a Sandinista march was passing by, and one of them got up and put a gun to his forehead and shot him dead. It was obviously someone protected by the regime, who made a pretence of looking for him, but lots of state officials have committed crimes against humanity with impunity.
We came out of tiny cells with no ventilation and found ourselves in a country that is not our own but gives us freedom. It is a miracle that we are alive after what we’ve been through. In the USA it’s not just the 222 because thousands of our compatriots are here. But it is difficult, firstly because we don’t understand the laws of this country, secondly because of our immigration status, and thirdly because of the language. It is very difficult for us to get ahead.
The most important thing now is for the international community to help us get out of the dictatorship, because our families are at risk inside Nicaragua. Our church is persecuted. They have banished a number of religious men and women, regardless of the consequences. For example, they recently banished some nuns from Rivas department who ran a school and a nursing home: more than 60 older people were left stranded with no care, just because the Ortega-Murillo couple wants power at any cost. The only thing they have brought to this country is destruction and a level of corruption that has made it difficult for Nicaraguans to survive.
We don’t know what’s going to happen the next day. You don’t know if they are going to kidnap you during the night or if they are going to take any of your family members. Many have had to take refuge inside Nicaragua. Over the first 19 days of April, 20 people have already been kidnapped. The list of political prisoners continues to grow.
We must help those who have been resisting inside the country and our spiritual guides who are still kidnapped, tell them they are not alone.
This is an edited extract of Medardo’s participation in a CIVICUS-organised Twitter space, available here.
Five years on
Much of Nicaragua’s civil society may have been forced out of the country, but they haven’t given up. On the fifth anniversary of the protests, calls for truth, justice, freedom and democracy were made by groups including Mothers of April – a network of women whose children were killed in the repression – and the Nicaragua Never Again Human Rights Collective – made up Nicaraguan activists mostly in exile in Costa Rica – along with Nicaraguans in exile in Canada, Costa Rica, Spain and the USA, among others.
The diaspora held masses, marches, sit-ins and cultural events to mark the date. In Miami, the Nicaraguan community rallied in the ‘march of the crosses’, carrying crosses bearing the names of those killed in the repression, just as they have done on previous anniversaries, first in Nicaragua and later abroad.
#English | The Nicaraguan community in Los Angeles, California, marched through the main avenues in the downtown, to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the April Rebellion, in addition to denouncing human rights violations in Nicaragua https://t.co/BIi6O95NIK— Confidencial Nicaragua (@confidencial_ni) April 23, 2023
Nicaragua Never Again denounced the ongoing and intensifying repression, including reports of further detentions. They demanded the immediate release of all remaining political prisoners, alongside those who have joined them in jail since February, and an end to the harassment and intimidation of their families, the repeal of repressive laws and the return of the missions of the IACHR, its Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua.
The IACHR condemned the continuing ‘repressive and violent state response to protests and dissent’ and called for the ‘re-establishment of democracy’.
We must help those who have been resisting inside the country, tell them they are not alone.
More and more people believe that the Ortega regime is worn out, delegitimised and isolated, resisting only by force of arms. Former Sandinista comandante Dora Téllez, one of the political prisoners released and banished in February, observed that the regime must be truly desperate if it needs to expel opponents, censor opinions, close down political parties, CSOs and media, shut down universities and persecute the Catholic Church just to have a chance to survive.
The situation is untenable in the long term: with few supporters still following him out of conviction, Ortega will be left alone once the resources he can buy loyalty with dry up. In the meantime, the democratic opposition and civil society must work together to bring about the situation Ortega dreads the most: a free and fair electoral competition that he could never win.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Nicaraguan government must restore respect for civic freedoms and conditions for free and fair political competition.
Democratic states, particularly in Latin America, must unambiguously recognise the authoritarian character of the Nicaraguan regime and deny it any claim to legitimacy.
Regional and global human rights institutions and CSOs should put additional pressure on the Nicaraguan government to restore civic space and democratic institutions.
Cover photo by Ezequiel Becerra/AFP via Getty Images