Conflict in Nicaragua escalates to new levels

Conflict in Nicaragua escalates to new levels

Following the violent repression of peaceful protests during the months of April and early May, Nicaragua has seen an increase in violations of human rights and a regression of political freedoms. The recent protests have been triggered by several deep-rooted issues that have been affecting Nicaragua since the instalment of president Daniel Ortega by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). This has led to a situation of instability and political pressure to recover democracy and the rule of law for its citizens.

Resentment had been growing for years as a response to the Nicaragua’s weakening political institutions and the concentration of political power. The increasing political unrest reached its tipping point in early April, when protests broke out after the introduction of Ortega’s reforms to the National Institute for Social Security (INSS). Ortega’s reforms led to higher contribution rates for both employers and employees, as well as a 5% reduction of the public pensions in the attempt to decrease the institution’s deficit and implement IMF recommendations.

The protests, however, were harshly repressed through the intervention of disproportionate police violence and partisan pro-government groups called “shock forces”. Demonstrators and journalists were scattered with beatings and tear gas attacks on behalf of government authorities. These events fuelled further protests in the following days which quickly lead to a progressive escalation of the conflict. Demonstrators in counter-action lifted barricades and led violent episodes against police and pro-government groups using homemade weapons such as mortars, sling shots, and other blunt objects.

In the midst of the political unrest, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a report in which they stated that the conflict had reached its most violent episode on the 30th of May – Mother’s day – when thousands took to the streets to support the mothers that had lost their children in previous demonstrations. Marching people including women and children were attacked, and by the end of the day, 15 people had been killed and 199 injured across the country.

In the period of April to September alone, human rights violations in Nicaragua have increased dramatically. Abuses have been perpetuated mostly by government authorities but also from protester violence, including the murders of several police officers and members of the Sandinista party. According to a report from Amnesty International analyzing the human rights violations in the country up to the 18th of September, the Nicaraguan protests and their repression have led to 322 deaths, of which 22 were police officers, and more than 2000 people were injured.

Regression of political freedoms since the conflict began have been made clear through the government’s position on the continuous police violence. All public statements Ortega and his administration have made are of criminalization of demonstrators. Several human rights organizations have also denounced use of excessive force, kidnappings, possible extrajudicial executions, obstruction in the investigation of human rights abuses, obstacles in the access to justice, harassment, use of torture, and arbitrary detentions. After the release of the OHCHR’s critical report on the country’s situation, president Daniel Ortega expelled the UN’s Human Rights Commission, arguing that the organization’s report was biased and ignored protester violence against Sandinista party members.  

How has the international community responded?

The repression against demonstrations has caused an international wave of condemnation both on behalf of states and international rights groups. Despite this, Ortega has dismissed and rejected any claims of breaching human rights under the argument that there have been US-led opposition tactics to topple his government.

The EU has so far held five press releases over the period of the conflict where they have denounced the disproportionate use of violence and criminalization of protesters. In their latest release on October 2nd, the European council asked that Nicaragua returned to cooperating with international human rights organizations as “the dismissal of official cooperation with international missions that investigate human rights abuses prevent accountability and justice and encourages impunity”. They have urged Nicaragua to allow the return of the OHCHR and to act on the findings and recommendations of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR). The EU has demanded a halt to the disproportionate use of violence and criminalization of protesters, and to resume national and international dialogues. Meanwhile, its Member States have stated that they will continue to support an inclusive dialogue on justice and democracy as a way out of the current crisis and reiterate their willingness to contribute to this process as a means to satisfy legitimate aspirations of the Nicaraguan people.

The Organization of American States (OAS) released a statement rejecting all types of violence. Secretary General of the OAS Luis Almagro called for peace as well as for respect to international institutions and an exhaustive investigation of any crimes committed.

Even some of Ortega’s ideological allies have abandoned his side and have condemned the deaths of Nicaragua’s people. Ex-Sandinist guerrilla fighter and writer Gioconda Belli has expressed her criticism against president Ortega and his administration. Critiques have emerged even from prominent leftist figures such as Uruguayan senator Pepe Mujica, who stated that there are times when one must say “I will leave,” referring to Ortega’s latch on to power.

Consequences of the Nicaragua crisis and future outlook

The reversion of the human rights situation in Nicaragua has had devastating consequences on freedom of speech, assembly, and protest as criminalization and arbitrary arrests of protesters increases. This has disrupted day to day activity, and with a growing economy for the past decade and well performing social indicators, the Central American country is now facing its worst crisis in recent history. In the month of May, the country’s economic activity decreased by 4.9% and is expected – optimistically – to grow only by 1% this following year in contrast to a 5% increase in the original forecast. The hardest hit has been to the services industry, as tourism is estimated to generate $250 million less than the previous year.

While protesters initially began requesting fairer conditions in regards to pension schemes and more transparency in an increasingly corrupt government, they have now turned to ask for Ortega’s resignation and early elections. However, neither economic nor international pressure can take Ortega down. As he stated in an interview with Fox News “our electoral period ends with the elections of 2021”.

The current instability of the country makes it difficult to make predictions about its future. The solution to the ongoing conflict will depend on pressure from international organizations and Ortega’s willingness to engage in dialogue and restore the rule of law. To date, his administration is not willing to give up the government or hold early elections, despite the devastating consequences of the events these past six months. As long as this period of violent repression remains, Nicaragua will continue to be in a state of social risk, negatively affecting all sectors of the economy and most importantly, the Nicaraguan people.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

About Author

Jaime Erasun

Jaime has recently obtained an MA in International Development with a specialization in International Political Economy from the University of Kent. He has since been building experience in the field of international relations working for several organizations who's missions and values align with democracy support and human rights. He is highly motivated by critical analysis and has a main research interest in European and Latin American politics.