Over 8 months ago, protests erupted in Nicaragua after the country’s president, Daniel Ortega, implemented radical changes to social security, which cut benefits by 5% and included a major tax hike on payroll and income taxes for Nicaraguan citizens.
Ortega has been president of the country since 2007. In 2008, the United States and the European Union suspended a total of $134 million in aid to Nicaragua, after it was found that Ortega may have committed electoral fraud in the 2006 election. He allegedly ordered the destruction of marked ballots, and for party members to be banned from overseeing voting counts. The formation of a dictatorship was speculated after the 2016 election, when he made his wife, Rosario Murillo, the Vice President of Nicaragua. Later, Ortega took over Nicaragua’s broadcast media groups, then stacked the Supreme Court with his supporters and rid the Nicaraguan Constitution of presidential term limits.
When paired with the distaste that Nicaraguans have for Ortega’s presidency, social security reform was the last straw for many citizens. The protests started in Managua, but by the end of the first week, they had spread to surrounding cities. Protestors are mostly comprised of students who attend Nicaragua’s public universities. The protests initially started peacefully, but in days, they had turned violent, with government opposition throwing rocks and firebombs and the Nicaraguan police using tear gas and firearms in response.
President Ortega has apparently taken notes from Donald Trump when it comes to political controversy. Ortega has given several international interviews where he calls the reports of unrest in Nicaragua “fake news.” He claims that protestors have been manipulated by secretly organized groups that hope to destroy the country, rather than citizens being fed up with his authoritarian tactics of governing.
Things became more complicated over the summer, when Nicaraguan newspaper, La Prensa, obtained footage of Nicaraguan police handing rocks to the Sandinista Youth; a youth organization of Ortega supporters. The group then threw these rocks at protestors, killing and injuring them. After only 2 weeks of protests, 100 citizens had been killed by the police and Sandinistas.
In attempt to mediate the unrest, President Ortega cancelled his social security reform policies, but the damage was already done and protests continued. Vice President Murillo has blamed the students for the chaos and used her husband’s excuse of “fake news” to defend their administration. Due to the evidence that the killings were ordered by Ortega, multiple government watchdogs called for investigations, which the Ortega administration vowed to approve. However, when the Organization of American States attempted to start an investigation of the country’s turbulence, Ortega ordered officials to deny the request.
On Mother’s Day in Nicaragua, a rally was held for the mother’s of students who had been murdered during the protests. At the rally, Nicaraguan police opened fire, killing 15 more students and leaving 15 more mothers with dead children.
In July, the U.S. State Department imposed sanctions on Nicaraguan officials in response to the unrest. These sanctions targeted Francisco Díaz, Nicaragua’s Deputy Chief of National Police, Fidel Antonio Moreno Briones, secretary to the Mayor of Managua, and Francisco López, the treasurer of the Sandinista National Liberation Front; Ortega’s political party. The sanctions were implemented by the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the government to freeze assets of foreign officials in the U.S., who are accused of partaking in human rights violations. The policy prevents these officials from using any American banks.
By August, the Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association estimated that 300 had been killed, 600 had been kidnapped, and hundreds more were missing at the hands of pro-government forces. Other protestors have gone into hiding, as even criticizing Ortega on social media results in death threats from the Sandinistas. The turmoil has ruined Nicaragua’s economy. Thousands of companies have closed, foreign investment in Nicaragua has come to a halt, and tens of thousands of Nicaraguans are now left unemployed. The unrest has resulted in the closure of 80% of the country’s hotels, and 33% of the country’s restaurants. Due to safety fears, businesses in Nicaragua now close around 3pm, as pro-government forces and criminals are most active during the evening and night. Ortega has also attempted to take over land, by commanding armed groups to lead impoverished squatters to private land owned by citizens who have left or gone into hiding. Daily, passport offices in Nicaragua have lines of citizens in the hundreds, as they attempt to flee to other countries.
In October, Amnesty International, a UK-based human rights group, accused the Nicaraguan government of using the “shoot to kill” method to combat citizens who did not support President Ortega. On December 22nd, fears increased when Ortega ordered the Nicaraguan police to arrest Miguel Mora, the director of 100% Noticias, which is the only independent news network in Nicaragua that was still covering the country’s political crisis. Just a week prior, the police raided several other news outlets in the country, confiscating equipment used to publish media about the unrest. That same day, they raided 10 non-governmental human rights organizations and confiscated their assets, accusing the organizations of trying to stage a coup.
These authoritarian actions resulted in the United States implementing the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act, which prevents international banks from lending to Nicaragua, in an attempt to cripple Nicaragua’s economy even further until Ortega surrenders.
As of today, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights has reported that 322 people in Nicaragua have been killed, 565 have been imprisoned, and hundreds more are missing. When will it end?
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