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Anti-government protesters march outside Central American University, Managua, Nicaragua. Anti-government protesters march outside Central American University, Managua, Nicaragua, Sept. 26, 2018 (AP photo by Alfredo Zuniga).

Fears of a Civil War Have Faded, but Nicaragua’s Crisis Is Far From Over

Friday, Feb. 1, 2019

Last year’s protests in Nicaragua and the government’s violent crackdown in response raised fears of a new Nicaraguan civil war. Though the fierce street battles that threw the country into turmoil have ended, the crisis has not. Find out more when you subscribe to World Politics Review (WPR).

At a time when the international order is being challenged and decades-old conflicts appear to be in flux, perhaps it isn’t a surprise that anti-government protests in an impoverished Central American country initially fell under the radar last year. But the unrest in Nicaragua, less than 1,000 miles from U.S. shores, quickly escalated into a crisis that grabbed global attention, when the government there continued along its uncompromising path of repression.

The drama started unexpectedly in April 2018, with pensioners protesting cuts to their meager retirement allowances. The government of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, had every reason to feel confident that the future was secure for their dynastic project. After all, the former Marxist rebel, who overthrew a despised, corrupt regime back in the late 1970s and fought a U.S.-backed militia in the 1980s, has rewritten the constitution to make it possible to remain in power, while packing the courts and election boards and securing control of all the levers of power. All along, he enjoyed strong popular approval.

The power couple in Managua seemed perfectly safe. At least that’s how it looked on the surface. But in a matter of weeks, everything changed.

Social unrest has revived painful memories of the Nicaraguan civil war. Learn more, in Nicaragua Is Teetering on the Edge of a Civil War for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

What Nicaragua’s “New Normal” Looks Like Under Ortega

In late August 2018, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a blistering report on the political violence in Nicaragua that killed more than 300 people and injured more than 2,000 in the previous months. The report, which covered the period from April 18 to Aug. 18, detailed the government’s initial, repressive response to the anti-government protests and the subsequent “clean-up” operation to forcefully remove barricades across Nicaragua erected by demonstrators, some during pitched street battles with police and security forces. Investigators found evidence of systematic repression involving violations of due process and freedom of expression, arbitrary dismissal of civil servants, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings, amid various other violations. Yet while the U.N. report urged Nicaragua to end the intimidation and criminalization of protesters, the government subsequently redoubled its efforts. In addition to the human toll and the erosion of the rule of law, the crisis has created serious problems for Ortega, who once enjoyed the highest approval ratings of any president in the hemisphere. Now Nicaragua increasingly looks like a country on the brink of a breakdown.

Ortega’s crackdown has Nicaragua at the brink of a breakdown. To learn more, read What ‘Normalcy’ on Ortega’s Terms Looks Like in Nicaragua for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.


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What Happened To Daniel Ortega?

Before the current outbreak of dissent, Ortega remained steadfastly popular with the majority of Nicaraguans, seven out of 10 of whom approved of him prior to the 2016 election, even after almost 10 years in office. Much of this was due to his economic and social policies. His Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) succeeded in expanding its base while other parties declined. The current violent repression of anti-government protests leaves little room for doubt that Nicaragua’s economic successes have come at the expense of democracy. But in 2016, most Nicaraguans, including 82 percent of self-identified independent voters polled at the time, believed they lived in a “free democracy.” With policymakers, analysts and academics fixated on the procedural aspects of democracy, Nicaraguans were more concerned with government responsiveness.

How did Daniel Ortega go from being a man of the people to a veritable dictator? Learn more, in Nicaragua’s Politics Are About More Than Just Ortega, Despite His Hold on Power for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

With the Threat of Civil War Past, Ortega Targets the Press and Civil Society

In late January 2019, the Nicaraguan government announced it was implementing the very reforms that triggered the widespread protests last year and led to a brutal government crackdown. A move of economic necessity, it also appeared to be another sign of President Daniel Ortega’s renewed confidence in power, despite international outcries over his government’s repression, which has resulted in 325 confirmed deaths and the arrests of more than 600 dissidents since last spring, among other abuses. International pressure on the Ortega administration has increased in recent weeks, but the situation in the country is still deteriorating, with tens of thousands of Nicaraguans having already fled into exile. In December, attacks against the press and civil society intensified. Whether international pressure and offers of mediation will resolve the crisis remains to be seen. Two failed attempts at dialogue last May and June were followed by more state violence against protesters, which raised the specter of civil war and allowed Ortega to regain the upper hand. Though he has since insisted that Nicaragua has returned to “normal,” conditions have only gotten worse, and that slide will surely continue over the coming months without a mediated solution.

With the threat of violent unrest in the past, how is Daniel Ortega now stifling dissent? Learn more, in Nicaragua’s Crisis Shows No Signs of Abating for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.


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The fear of a new Nicaraguan civil war cast a shadow across the region last year, when a government crackdown against dissent turned deadly. Learn more about Daniel Ortega’s slide to dictatorship, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, and the threat of renewed conflict in the searchable library of World Politics Review (WPR):


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Editor's Note: This article was first published in October 2018 and is regularly updated.