In 2014, Nicaraguans took to the streets to protest a proposed plan to build a canal cutting directly across Nicaragua and Lake Nicaragua, the biggest freshwater lake in Central America. President Daniel Ortega and Wang Jing, Chinese businessman and chairman of the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment (HKND), came to an agreement to construct a $50 billion canal stretching 173 miles from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. This plan, however, was incredibly unpopular amongst many Nicaraguans due to: talks of widespread land confiscation, environmental degradation, and minimal transparency. Ortega, the once-popular revolutionary leader, has been labeled as a “sell-out” to the Chinese, as the plan also includes a 50-year concession (that can be renewed). Even though the canal could have a positive impact on Central America’s poorest country, specifically within the employment sector (50,000 new jobs), it would severely affect many rural Nicaraguans and the surrounding ecosystem, Lake Nicaragua in particular. The Nicaragua Canal would cater to much larger and wider cargo ships, unable to pass through the Panama Canal. In comparison to the Panama Canal, the Nicaragua Canal is 123 miles longer. In a country that continues to struggle with water insecurity and poverty, the construction of the canal could negatively affect millions of Nicaraguans. Lake Nicaragua, a major source of freshwater for the country, would be severely impacted by pollution from passing cargo ships. Additionally, invasive species and dredging would also affect the lake. Even though the canal has yet to be constructed, this hasn’t stopped Nicaraguans from protesting the brutality and neglect of the Ortega regime.
Daniel Ortega has ruled Nicaragua with an iron fist since his return to power in 2007. After the Nicaraguan Revolution, Ortega was hailed as a national liberator. During the Nicaraguan Revolution, Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) waged guerrilla warfare against Anastasio Somoza Debayle and his National Guard. The Somozas led an extremely repressive dictatorship for over 40 years. In 1979, Somoza was overthrown and the Junta of National Reconstruction was established, under the leadership of Daniel Ortega. United States President Ronald Reagan’s staunch anti-communist stance would prompt him to cut funding for Nicaragua, and instead fund the Contras or “counterrevolutionaries”. Ortega and the Sandinistas would look to Cuba and the Eastern Bloc for assistance. Tensions flared in Nicaragua during the 1980s when Reagan decided to arm and fund the Contras. The Contras were a group of ex-National Guardsmen and anti-communist guerrillas backed by the Reagan Administration in their fight against the FSLN. After a peace agreement in 1987, elections were held in 1990. Ortega unexpectedly lost to Violeta Chamorro and the National Opposition Union (UNO). The National Opposition Union or UNO was a political coalition that drastically ranged in ideology, from conservatives to communists, unified in their opposition to Ortega.
Throughout Ortega’s time as president, he has radically altered the constitution. For example, in 2014, he removed term limits. Nicaragua’s ruling pro-Ortega party, the FSLN, also has a monopoly over the National Assembly. The FSLN holds 71 of the 92 seats in the National Assembly. Similar to the Somoza regime, Ortega’s presidency has been plagued with nepotism. His wife, Rosario Murillo, serves as the vice-president of the country. In the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, by Transparency International, Nicaragua was described as:
“There is little to no consultation on political decisions with political, social and business groups in the country. Civil society and opposition parties are systematically excluded from the policy process, while groups critical of the government operate in an increasingly restrictive environment.”- 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index
In 2018, protests erupted once again after proposed changes to social security. A continuation of the 2014 protests, this was the tipping point for many Nicaraguans and symbolized something much bigger: opposition to the authoritarianism of Daniel Ortega, demanding that he and his wife resign. Protestors, led by many students, were met with “excessive force” from the police. Over 300 people have been killed and there have been reports of widespread human rights abuses. The situation has only worsened with Juventud Sandinista (the FSLN’s youth wing) and other pro-government groups violently attacking protestors. Throughout the span of the protests, the Ortega regime has continued to bully and intimidate journalists, critics of the government, students, NGOs, and the Catholic Church.
Human Rights Abuses
Since the outbreak of protests and throughout Ortega’s time in office, multiple organizations and countries have denounced the brutality and violence of Ortega’s government.
Attacks on the Catholic Church: Throughout all this chaos, the Catholic Church has served as a bridge between the protestors and the government. However, the church was attacked and targeted by pro-government mobs. Cardinal Silvio Baez, the auxiliary bishop of Managua, has said “It is outrageous that once again in Nicaragua police and violent civilians attack, arrest, and injure civilians who are demonstrating peacefully.” In Masaya, Harving Padilla, a local priest, was holding mass when a violent pro-government mob tried to barge into the church with “pipes and machetes.” Padilla was holding a service for mothers on a hunger strike, whose children are “political prisoners” of the regime. Footage has emerged, from Managua, of clergy members being physically assaulted. A 2019 report by the Organization of American States (OAS) described “rubber bullets and tear gas” being used on churchgoers.
Repression of Journalists and Speech: Freedom of the press is practically non-existent in Nicaragua. According to Reporters Without Borders, Nicaragua ranks significantly low on the World Press Freedom Index. It wasn’t until recently, that La Prensa (a major newspaper in Nicaragua) was allowed to have paper and ink, after the government barred them from receiving supplies. Not only are journalists being arrested, but they’re also being killed. Angel Gahona, a Nicaraguan journalist, was documenting protests in Bluefields, Nicaragua on Facebook Live when he was killed by a supposed sniper. In December 2018, the police raided the offices of 100% Noticias (a private news channel). Miguel Mora, the director of the channel, and Lucia Pineda Ubau were both arrested during the raid. Mora was even denied a lawyer. After spending six months in prison, both Mora and Ubau were released in June of 2019.
Violence against Students: Students in Nicaragua have played a key role in orchestrating and organizing protests throughout their country. University students played an integral role during the early stages of the 2018 protests. Due to fear of persecution by the government, students have left Nicaragua and relocated to Costa Rica. The government has responded to student-led protests with force and violence. At the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, the police (along with pro-government paramilitaries) launched an attack and opened fire on students, who blockaded the university.
For years, old guard Sandinistas have been disenfranchised from mainstream society and many Nicaraguans, specifically young people, have made it clear that a new wave of leadership is needed. Ongoing violence in Nicaragua is reminiscent of years of resistance and an armed struggle against Somoza’s authoritarianism. After years of violence and socio-political conflict, many Nicaraguans have been able to move forward through solidarity and compromise. President Daniel Ortega, however, continues to threaten this progress that so many people have worked to sustain. Today, Ortega now resembles the person he once sought to overthrow, a dictator.