Daniel Ortega holds on to power as protests rock Nicaragua

Leftist strongman is last of generation of Latin American revolutionaries still in office

A demonstrator holds a sign showing Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and former president Anastasio Somoza during a protest against police violence and Ortega’s government in Managua on Monday. Photograph: Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

"Wanted, for destroying the country," read a protester's placard emblazoned with the faces of President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, the vice-president. "Reward – a free Nicaragua".

The Central American nation that the septuagenarian revolutionary has ruled for 22 of the past 39 years has been convulsed by nearly a week of anti-government protests in which at least 25 people have died.

Many wonder if it might mark the end for Ortega (72), a leftist strongman who has outlived others of his era, such as Cuba's Fidel Castro and Panama's Manuel Noriega, and remained in power.

"It's probably clear Daniel Ortega has seen his use-by date," said Eric Farnsworth, vice-president of the Council of the Americas.


The protests, backed by Nicaragua’s small business association, were sparked by outrage at a social security reform that would have seen higher contributions in exchange for lower benefits.

The subsequent crackdown, slammed by the White House on Tuesday as "repugnant political violence by police and pro-government thugs", ignited broader frustration with the autocratic regime, with Murillo widely seen as being groomed to succeed her husband in 2021 elections.

Pension reform has also sparked unrest in Brazil and Argentina, but nothing compared with Nicaragua. Tens of thousands of protesters thronged the capital, Managua, and other cities in mass demonstrations on Monday. Some ripped down billboards of the presidential couple, chanting "Out with them!" and "Daniel and Somoza are the same thing" – a reference to the dictator Anastasio Somoza whom the young Mr Ortega helped topple in the 1970s.

Even former allies are critical. “Over the past few days, Nicaraguans have been killed in the streets while calling for democracy and justice,” said Sergio Ramírez, vice-president under Ortega in the 1990s. “They want Nicaragua to be a republic again.”

There are parallels with demonstrations that forced out Somoza in 1979, and the protests show no signs of letting up. But they are far from certain to succeed, with the government expected to make a major show of support this week.

“A soft landing begins with the recognition by the president and vice-president that they should commit to not being candidates in 2021 –...but I don’t think Daniel and Rosario will do that,” said an observer who asked not to be named.

Indeed, Ortega is resisting any dialogue that would include student representatives, potentially setting the stage for “a horrible hard landing”.

Historic generation

The president retains support of the armed forces and protesters have no figurehead to rally behind. "Such a situation can easily lead to protest fatigue," said Greg Weeks, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina.

That happened in Venezuela last year, when months of protests failed to dislodge the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro. At the other end of the political spectrum, fatal protests in Honduras last year over alleged electoral fraud fizzled and failed to prevent President Juan Orlando Hernández from taking up a second term in office.

A momentary end to violence in the streets “may give Daniel and Rosario the illusion that they can stay for ever”, said the observer. “They don’t see what we’re seeing.”

With the Castros now out of power in Cuba, the moustachioed Ortega is the last of the historic generation of Latin American revolutionaries still in office. A younger wave of leftist leaders who came to power during the commodity boom also seems in decline.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's former president, is in jail for corruption. Venezuela has descended into economic ruin under Maduro. Ecuador's former president Rafael Correa is accused of accepting money from an illegal armed group, and in Bolivia, Evo Morales has faced mass protest after pushing through constitutional changes to run for a fourth term.

Still, few believe there is a wholesale rejection of the left in Latin America, especially as leftist nationalist Andrés Manuel López Obrador looks set to be Mexico’s next president. Rather, the regional unrest represents popular weariness with entrenched elites of all political stripes.

One thing seems certain: “If Ortega does not provide for credible democratic conditions and bring forward the [2021]elections, Nicaragua will face profound instability,” said Edmundo Jarquín, co-author of a book on the Sandinista rebel, who says the president has sought to install “not just an authoritarian but a totalitarian regime”.

Breaking the impasse may fall to respected bishops and the private sector, which has enjoyed cosy relations with the regime. "Ortega's deal with business was simple. I won't nationalise you. You can make as much money as you want, but stay out of politics," said Frank Mora, a former US deputy assistant defence secretary, now professor of international relations at Florida International University.

But the presidential couple will be hard to budge: Murillo has shown an Olympian disdain for the protests, calling them “minuscule” and labelling demonstrators “vampires looking for blood”.

Leading cartoonist Pedro X Molina summed up the week with a drawing of demonstrators facing a security guard on the telephone. "There are some 'minuscule', 'vandals', 'blood-suckers', 'rightists', 'gang-members' here looking for you," the guard tells the presidential couple. "No, they don't want to come in, they want you to get out." – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018