Barricades, Businesses and Storylines in Nicaragua

On 18 April two groups of mostly young people came face to face in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The issues that brought them together and yet separated them were reforms to INSS, the Nicaraguan social security system.

Yes, there was give and take in the declared reforms. INSS would make a reduction in state pension payments; those contributing to the pension fund would pay more. Employers were to make an increased contribution to the pension fund. On the other side there were to be increases in health benefits for older people and INSS would be better resourced to meet the future needs of its client group.

The trouble was, folk didn’t much like the reforms. INSS is seen as an easily raided cash box by different governments. The administration of state institutions, such as INSS and the health service is not always held in the highest regard by senior citizens.

More to the point, it was a done deal. Public consultation, there certainly was not. That was a major factor in bringing the two sectors of Nicaragua’s youth to confrontation point. Some decided not to become resigned to the fait accompli. Other brokered no opposition to the rule of the governing Sandinista party.

At a roundabout, Managua is full of roundabouts, antiriot police attacked a gathering of students protesting the pension increase.

To interrupt an unfinished story let’s just say it’s estimated that over 300 people have been killed so far. They are mostly young people often shot in the head or chest by government shippers, while a much smaller number of police have been killed as well. Hundreds more are injured, people are held in prisons, some have disappeared, their presence unknown. Public and private businesses have been destroyed, set on fire, looted.

Barricades were built using street paving blocks, rocks and tree trunks. At times the authorities have cleared the blocks away. But the streets are full of blocks; barricades reappear and the uncovered ground lends itself to digging anti vehicle trenches. Across the country hundreds of trailer trucks have been pressed into service as road blocks.

One of the most repeated calls of the opposition is for elections to be brought forward, from 2021 to March or April of next year. That goes hand in hand with the call for President Ortega and his vice president wife, Rosario Murillo, to leave office and the country.

A clear outcome of the present turmoil in Nicaragua has been the rapid evaporation of the burgeoning tourist industry. Hotels are empty, bars and restaurants are deserted. Hospitality industry workers are jobless.

That is in no way compensated by the influx of reporters, observers and human rights specialists. The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) has arrived, as have representatives from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. So too has a delegation from the European Union – a long way from home.

IACHR and the Organization of American States got together back in Washington DC, which both call home, and created an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, also bound for Nicaragua. And of course Nicaragua has its own home grown, well established human rights organizations.

Something that has received less news coverage was the meeting of the Ortega family, the US ambassador to Nicaragua and Caleb McCarry a high ranking, experienced staffer of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee. Besides bringing the elections forward, did they discuss the Ortegas leaving the country?

Catholic Bishops from the National Episcopal Conference have established a platform called the National Dialogue. This brings together representatives from the government, big biasness, trade unions, students and other civic organizations.

The National Dialogue has had a bumpy ride. On the first day, which was televised, the students made their presence known, shouting “asesino / murderer” at the  Ortegas. The presidential couple has not returned and TV coverage was cut.

But since the Catholic Church was running the show a Catholic TV channel was admitted and it coupled up with the 100% Noticias channel. So now there is national TV coverage of proceedings. The dialogue was suspended a few times since then over different disagreements but has been kept on track.

A significant arrival on the social and political scene in Nicaragua is the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy (CA). This has become the leading body in opposition to the Sandinista government, and all political parties come to that. The CA is a broad gathering, not always sharing a common set of commitments to political objectives and alignments.

The  Ortega administration had come to be seen as business friendly. Now, in the present situation it is seen as a threat to capital. And that could explain why big business backs the call for Ortega to go.

Criticism of the opposition appears to promote three different story lines, which sometimes merge. These come from a self-identifying left position.

The first acknowledges the street violence. This it attributes to rightwing gangs, often with criminal elements intent on bringing down the Sandinista government. Funding for this allegedly comes from the US State Department.

Those pushing this line do not mention that the majority of those killed or injured are not on the government side. Nor do they acknowledge the existence of para military forces supporting the government.

Another line remembers the Sandinista led struggle against the Somoza dictatorship; the historic, revolutionary contribution Sandinistas made in improving the lives of many in Nicaragua, particularly the poor. This approach conveniently ignores a dialectic which has taken place within the party.

An examination of the fortunes of the Ortega–Murillo family reveals a lot.

Three sons, all presidential advisors, are directors of four or more TV channels. Another son, Laureano, also a presidential advisor, heads PRONicaragua, a state agency which works with big businesses wanting to set up operations in Nicaragua. Laureano was tipped as a candidate for the presidency after Daniel’s wife had a go at the top job.

A daughter, yet another presidential advisor, heads up the Nicaragua Diseña business which does work for the public appearances of the Ortegas. With the alleged aid of state funds it promotes a positive public image of the family presidency. The father-in-law of another daughter heads up the national police. More of him later.

Finally, the third line is a little more subtle than the others. It talks about a “soft coup” aimed a regime change, what others might call a popular rising against repression. It accepts that maybe Ortega should have consulted more over the INSS reforms.

There was no consultation over the Sandinista promoted change to Nicaragua’s “Therapeutic Abortion” law which provided some termination rights to women and had been law for 100 years. This secured the support of the Catholic and Evangelical Protestant churches on the eve of the 2006 elections. Now reproductive health provision is on the same level as that endured by women in Northern Ireland.

A law which granted land to the ill-fated, private, Chinese venture that sought to build an interoceanic shipping canal across Nicaragua linking the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean passed though the National Assembly in one day. Public consultation is no longer in Ortega’s tool box.

Last week three prominent men of the Ortega–Murillo circle were sanctioned for human rights abuses by the so called Magnitsky Act of the USA. One of these was Francisco Javier Díaz Madriz, father-in-law of one of Ortega girls. In his case this allows the USA to forbid him entrance into the country, the freezing of assets he may have in US controlled banks and prohibits him trading with US financial houses.

A few months ago similar treatment was meted out to Roberto Rivas, former head of the agency overseeing elections in Nicaragua.

It looks rather like the Ortega-Murillo  family circle might feel that their world is closing in around them. Important as this may be, it’s what is not happening that may be of more consequence than what is plain to see. So far the president and vice president have not been touched by Magnitsky.

Jimmy Carter’s government was involved in negations which saw the dictator Somoza skip the country when the Sandinista forces were about to enter Managua in 1979.

Leaving the presidential couple economically viable may make leaving the country more attractive to them. Another story which has not yet reached the keyboard is this. What is happening within the military?

Joyce McCracken lives in Central America and has written for Scottish Socialist Voice.