‘There’s no law’: political crisis sends Nicaraguans fleeing

Street protests subside as crisis enters new phase coloured by fear of what comes next


There is always a line outside the main passport office, often with several hundred people or more clutching documents and manila folders. It starts forming well before dawn. The demand is so great that it has bred a cottage industry of hustlers in Managua who camp out on the sidewalk and sell places in line to the highest bidder.

It is one of many indications that something is gravely wrong in Nicaragua. With a violent political crisis that has ruined the economy and challenged President Daniel Ortega’s hold on power, people are fleeing the country in droves.

“It’s a terrible reality,” said Miltón (36), who was far back in line and asked that his surname not be published for fear of government reprisals. “It’s not a sustainable country.”

Nicaragua suddenly exploded in mid-April, when Ortega’s government announced changes to the social security programme, setting off nationwide street protests that quickly turned violent. Demonstrators clashed with security forces and barricaded roadways across the nation, bringing commerce to a halt.

Human rights advocates contend that at least 300, and maybe as many as 450 people, have been killed and thousands wounded since the protests began, and that the vast majority were demonstrators shot by police or by paramilitary forces working in concert with authorities.

The government has also used torture and arbitrary detentions to crush dissent, according to officials in the Catholic Church and members of the opposition, which has expanded to include business leaders angry at the president’s heavy-handed approach.

The Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association, an advocacy group, said that nearly 600 people, mainly opponents to the government, had been kidnapped and that hundreds more were missing and possibly “disappeared”. In the face of the government crackdown, street protests, once a daily occurrence, have subsided, replaced by the occasional peaceful march. But the crisis has entered a new phase, coloured by widespread dread and a paralysing uncertainty over what comes next.

“Total anxiety,” said Msgr Carlos Avilés Cantón, vicar general of the archdiocese of Managua. “Every day waking up and asking, ‘How many deaths?’ Death, death, death. That’s what makes you sad.”

Publicity blitz

Talks between the government and the opposition fell apart last month, putting a political solution further out of reach. The government has continued to arrest and jail opponents, and many observers, including the United Nations, worry that a new anti-terrorism law is being used to criminalise members of the opposition, including those protesting peacefully.

“We’re in a very difficult stage,” said Álvaro Leiva, director of the Nicaraguan Association. “It’s the stage of repression.” Hundreds of protest leaders have gone into hiding or fled the country. Leiva said his team members had been threatened – it is unclear by whom – and forced to move out of their homes and sleep in a network of safe houses.

Ortega, who has refused the opposition’s demands to step down or hold early elections, has responded with a publicity blitz, giving interviews to several international news organisations, in which he has deflected blame for the bloodshed and sought to convey that the country is returning to normal.

But even some of Ortega’s closest allies acknowledge that Nicaragua is a mess. In an interview with the New York Times late last month, Paul Oquist, the minister-private secretary for national policy, recognised the sense of fear and uncertainty in Nicaraguan society – on both sides of the conflict.

He seemed particularly concerned about the damage the nation’s economy had suffered, calling it “enormous”. “We have to see what can be salvaged,” he lamented.

Tens of thousands of workers have been placed on leave or laid off. Thousands of companies have closed. Foreign direct investment has nearly halted and credit has been choked off. The tourism industry has suffered widespread layoffs as the flow of international visitors has slowed to barely a trickle and international airlines have slashed the number of inbound flights.

About 80 per cent of the country’s small hotels, which provide the vast majority of rooms, are closed, as are about a third of the country’s restaurants, said Lucy Valenti, president of Nicaragua’s National Tourism Chamber. “The first thing tourists look for is security,” Valenti said. “And we can’t guarantee that they will find security in Nicaragua.”

De facto curfew

In Granada, a jewel of Nicaragua’s once-vibrant tourism industry, the colonial streets used to be full of visitors from abroad, visiting churches, tooling around in horse-drawn carriages or relaxing in its courtyard cafes. But on a recent afternoon, there wasn’t a tourist in sight.

Osman Guadamuy, languishing in the cab of his horse carriage in Granada’s central square, said business had never been so bad. In a week, he had been hired by tourists only once: a Mexican couple who wanted a tour of the city. If he sold his horses, that might support his family through the rest of the year, at which he point, he said, he would probably have to migrate to Costa Rica.

The moribund state of affairs in Nicaragua becomes most apparent at night, particularly in Managua, the capital, and other cities, when fear of paramilitary forces and criminals taking advantage of the disorder drives Nicaraguans indoors. Businesses start closing in the midafternoon and employees head home.

By dusk, restaurants and bars have gone dark, and a de facto curfew goes into effect. “We feel like prisoners in our houses,” said Xochilt Aguirre, general manager of the Hotel Plaza Colón in Granada.

Throughout Nicaragua, lives have been turned upside down. At the beginning of the year, Laura Flores had a thriving yoga business and a new landscaping company. Then the crisis erupted. Nearly all of her yoga clients fled the country, as did most of her closest friends. Her nascent landscaping business dried up, and as the body count mounted, she began to fear for her own safety. “My independence went to hell,” she said. She has decided to join relatives in the United States.

The uprising against Ortega came about so quickly that it seemed to catch everyone by surprise, even the opposition. “When I went to the university and I saw a barricade for the first time, I said, ‘I never imagined that we were going to be in Managua fighting against the police,’” said Harley Morales (26), a student leader of the opposition. “I never imagined it.”

Morales is now in hiding, as are many opposition leaders. The fear of reprisals extends across the Nicaraguan population, including those who have participated in marches or have been critical of the Ortega administration on social media. People now carefully watch what they say, and whom they say it to.

Need for ‘dialogue’

On a recent morning, the small offices of the Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association was crowded with people waiting to file reports of threats, violence and persecution.

José, a barber who was afraid to give his last name, said he had received death threats for posting criticism of the Ortega administration on his social media accounts. He closed his business and fled his home. He said men disguised in balaclavas had appeared at his house, forced their way past his wife and two young children and ransacked the place, as well as his barbershop.

“I’m scared they’re going to do something,” he said. “They kill, they imprison, they torture ... There’s no law in Nicaragua. There’s no law that can defend you.”

Most people seem to agree that the best way out of the crisis is through political negotiation, not weapons. Opposition leaders, government officials, human rights activists, international diplomats, people in the street – they all speak of the need for “dialogue”.

“Neither side can impose a settlement on the other, because that would not end the violence,” Oquist said. It is hard to gauge how much support Ortega has. But those who do support him cite his arguments that he was legitimately elected, that the constitution should govern whether he stays or leaves, and that the opposition is at fault for plunging the country into violence and disarray.

“The people aren’t going to let him leave,” said Brenda Sandino, as she participated in a large pro-Ortega march on July 28th in Managua. Several blocks away, thousands of others participated in an anti-Ortega protest, cast as a march in support of the beleaguered clergy.

“There have been some mistakes,” Sandino added, speaking about the Ortega administration. “But they’re correctable.” She passed a cluster of police officers by the side of the road. “I love you!” she said, blowing them kisses. “I love you! I love you!”

The longer the political impasse persists, many warn, the more likely that elements of the opposition may take up arms. “The dialogue has to come back,” Oquist said, predicting that the country would “sink into anarchy” if Ortega was ousted.

Land grabs

There is already a sense that order is fragile, and that an anarchic slide has begun. In April, squatters began to descend on certain parcels of private land around the country, constructing rudimentary settlements of plywood, two-by-fours and plastic sheeting. Armed gangs sometimes led the way, looting and paving the way for the squatter camps.

Aggrieved property owners and other critics accuse the Ortega administration of orchestrating the takeovers in retribution for the business community’s support for the opposition movement. Nearly 13,000 acres of private property – including farmland, forests, mining areas and land intended for housing developments – have been overrun in at least 37 land grabs across seven states, according to the Union of Agricultural Producers of Nicaragua, a trade group.

But many landowners, receiving no help from authorities, have felt powerless to do much about it. “The property owners are left defenceless,” said Julio Munguía Sandoval, the trade group’s technical manager. In one case, hundreds, if not thousands, of shacks have sprung up on undeveloped private land in rolling hills on the southwestern outskirts of the capital. Some of the land had been planned for a housing development, but the squatters have parcelled off territory and some are even wiring their shacks with electricity.

“This is by necessity, because of the situation,” said Francisco (33), an unemployed machinist, who claimed a piece of land and built a small shack for his family. He withheld his full name because, despite the seemingly free land, he was a critic of the Ortega administration.

“Our motivation is to live in tranquility, with security,” he said. “Before, we lived with security. But it exploded like a bomb. This is a day-by-day struggle.” – New York Times

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