News about the civil unrest in Nicaragua has been under-reported in recent days as one of the last true Marxist-Leninist dictators is at the center of the killings of student protesters and journalists. And it could spark another Central American civil war.
The leader and chairman of Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista Party, Daniel Ortega, announced a tax increase on Apr. 18. Along with the tax increase, pension benefits are to be greatly reduced. What started as a peaceful demonstration against these changes turned deadly when authorities and pro-Sandinista groups used live ammunition on the protesting crowds.
Ortega first rose to power as a Communist revolutionary in 1978. His Soviet backing and strong anti-American views grabbed the attention of the Reagan Administration in 1985 which lead to America backing the Contras, an anti-communist counter-revolutionary group. After the details of the Iran-Contra Affair were made public, however, the U.S. backed out of the region — but the Nicaraguan Revolution had already claimed 30,000 lives.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, so, too, did Ortega’s control over Nicaragua. Still, he vowed that he would lead from the shadows. He ran for president in every election that followed. Herty Lewites, the more popular candidate in the 2006 election, was threatened, told that he “could end up hanged” if he continued to run. Lewites died of a sudden heart attack shortly before the election. Ortega became president again when he won with 36% of the vote that year.
He then abolished Nicaragua’s presidential term limits to remain in power indefinitely.
However, since Ortega became president, Nicaragua has actually been relatively stable. The U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua even lists the country as the safest in Central America for U.S. tourists.
Ortega seemed to have changed his stripes and had relabeled himself as a Democratic Socialist who was very eco-friendly (despite highly advocating a new canal to rival the Panama Canal that would devastate the countryside). He claimed that he was embracing his Catholic faith (despite ignoring Pope Francis’ recent denouncements against the violence in Nicaragua). He also claimed to be anti-Capitalist and insisted that was there for the people (despite being the country’s fourth richest person and slowly making a fairly obvious power grab).
The current death toll of protesters and journalists at the time of this writing is 63. Protesters who have been arrested allege the use of torture and report having their heads shaven and being left barefoot in the outskirts of Managua. There are calls for the United Nations Human Rights Office to investigate human rights abuses.
The country is dependent on outside trade and tourism and the people are still reeling from the effects of the last civil war almost 50 years ago, so nobody wants a violent answer to this problem. Currently, the tumult is contained within Managua, but there’s no denying that Nicaragua is at a turning point. Either Ortega will be removed from power peacefully or this will spark a bloody revolution. It’s a situation that echoes the economic unrest and political dissatisfaction that characterized the Arab Spring of 2011.