Is Nicaragua Ripe for Revolution?

Written by: Ariana King

Since April of 2018, President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua has led a violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators and members of the opposition.  Ripples of this latest wave of dissent began when Ortega announced his plan to increase social security taxes and reduce pensions.  Protesters gathered in the streets and were met by state violence which turned a small movement about social welfare policy into a larger struggle for democracy.  Many Nicaraguans, fed up with Ortega’s strategies of power consolidation including conducting fraudulent elections, stacking the Supreme Court, and seizing control over the legislative branch, demanded his resignation.  This opposition was met with fierce state brutality that, according to the latest report from the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in August 2018, has left approximately 300 people dead and 2,000 injured.

Ortega’s clear violation of human rights and harsh brutality has led to extreme international criticism.  Both Costa Rican president, Carlos Alvarado, and Luis Almagro, the leader of the Organization of American States, have called for Ortega to end violence against peaceful protestors.  The Trump Administration has also condemned Ortega and, as of November 1st placed financial sanctions on Rosario Mullario―Ortega’s wife and vice president―as well as other top leaders in the government that will be in effect until Ortega agrees to “free, fair, and early elections” which he has not yet done.  Despite heavy international condemnation, Nicaraguan state representatives insist that they are in the right and claim that they only seek to prevent a civil war―they believe the protesters are conspiring to throw a coup against Ortega and incite violence.

From the opposition’s point of view, Ortega’s increasing violence and brutality represent a complete betrayal.  Once a leader of the victorious Sandinista Party, a rebel group who ousted the long, cruel dictatorship of Antonio Somoza in 1979, Ortega, many claim, has now become a dictator himself.  While the extremity of violence has increased since April, Ortega showed many authoritarian tendencies and began to consolidate power before this most recent wave of violence.    

Because Ortega’s current brutality makes many Nicaraguans reminiscent of the cruel Somoza dictatorship that sparked the first Sandinista rebellion, many international observers question if Nicaragua is ripe for another revolution.  A key factor in favor of revolution is Ortega’s lack of legitimacy.  He has a long history of authoritarian actions including but not limited to: media censorship, using power to give out ration cards as a tool to gain people’s loyalty for the Sandinista party, conducting election fraud, and consolidating power in both the judicial and legislative branch that made many Nicaraguans see him as an illegitimate ruler.  In the words of Mónica Baltodano, a historian and former Sandinista rebel who was once an ally to Ortega, “For a majority of people, he is an assassin, he is a criminal, he is a torturer.  He’s already been defeated strategically.”  

Other factors conducive to revolution, as noted by award-winning photojournalist, Javier Bauluz of Spain, who documented both the current crisis and the Nicaraguan Revolution against the Contras in the 1980s, are increased use and circulation of social media in contemporary times as well as the courageous spirit of Nicaraguans today.  In his view, social media helps legitimize the protesters’ cause because they can easily document the atrocities inflicted upon them by the Nicaraguan state.  Nicaraguans protesters today, Bauluz reflects, are also just as brave and dedicated to the cause as they were in the 80s, making it difficult for Ortega to easily dissuade dissatisfied citizens from protesting against him. Another huge advantage for the opposition is that their cause appeals to many people of all sectors of society―their coalition is made up of people of varying social classes, ages, and political parties.  

However, despite having many conditions conducive to revolution―the power to document abuses, the courageous spirit of the protestors, and a coalition that appeals to many Nicaraguan citizens― there are also factors that suggest revolution won’t occur in Nicaragua.   

To start, ideology is the most crucial ingredient to any revolutionary group.  In his 1998 novel, Modern Latin American Revolutions, Eric Selbin, a professor of Political Science at Southwestern University who researches revolution and insurgency, writes that strong ideology must articulate the group’s message, point out shared grievances against the current regime, and depict a concrete plan for the future (pg. 76).  Currently, opponents of Ortega are simply united by their desire to see him out of office, but it appears they have no plan of action for what would happen next.  This lack of future planning in the current coalition’s ideology makes us wonder how long the sole appeal of removing Ortega from office will motivate anti-Ortega opponents to keep fighting in the face of increasing violence.  In addition, James Kiras, an Assistant Professor of Comparative Military Studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, states that revolutionary groups also rely on international and domestic support to succeed.  While it’s clear many Nicaraguan protestors are determined to help others even at great personal risk, the international community has not offered direct military support to protesters―their work and condemnation have mostly been aimed at Ortega and the state itself.  It’s true that U.S. sanctions and international calls for the end of violence do legitimize the anti-Ortega cause, but words alone will not give Nicaraguan protesters the material means to fight back against a strong state.    

In sum, increasing brutality and violence from the Nicaraguan state towards peaceful protesters and other political opponents have inspired many to call for Ortega’s resignation and join the opposition. Because Ortega’s current atrocities echo the same brutality of the Somoza regime he fought against, many believe that Nicaragua could be on the verge of revolution once again.  While it is true that there are some factors conducive to revolution, such as weak state legitimacy and the determination of Ortega’s opponents, there are also many factors that leave the fate of Nicaragua uncertain.  Only time will tell if revolution will come or not.