Nicaragua is going through a rudderless change
No single narrative explains the recent protests in Nicaragua and no one group can claim to have led it or speak for a majority of Nicaraguans.
Fair or unfair there is obviously a broad based rejection of the pension contribution hikes and the related cutbacks in pension benefits.
Before the recent protests there had already been widespread distrust in how the pension funds were being managed and a suspicion of corruption aimed at most government agencies.
Many Nicaraguans are not just asking about the new rates, but also demanding to know where the money went.
We are talking about a lot of money for the working Nicaraguan.
Contributions are high as a percentage of income and the rewards are low because payout is a percentage of a very low base salary. For many Nicas the pension system is the only thing that offered them some security in old age. To now think that the system is not reliable feels like a betrayal to many. The proposed 5% cut was offset by full health benefits, but that has not been part of the public discussion.
Nicaragua is a small place. Public services feel like a deal you had with a neighbor. Now it feels like the neighbor has made off with the cash.
To tell the public that austerity measures are some kind of independance vis a vis the International Monitery Fund did nothing to make people want to support the new pension policies or the government that issued them.
Even in Nicaragua a few pecent increase on contributions and a five percent cut in benefits is not enough to send thousands of people to the streets. The build-up came in part because of the suspicion of corruption and in part because of the anger at repression.
Hard police tactics and political payback that included denial of funding and jobs to critics had started earlier for other smaller items, the anti canal resistance and an earlier protest against a pension cutback.
Each time, the Daniel Ortega government used a heavy hand. Fewer people were hurt, but eventually a large number of citizens had seen some repression in person. It is another of the public’s reasons to withdraw trust given that an end to repression is a basic Sandinista tenet.
Again, remember that Nicarqagua is a small place and their people do not have a habit of keeping their opinions and witness to themselves.
When this retirement austerity protest exploded, the government decided to use goon squads to beat and stone protestors. Social media is now full of footage that matches the opposition’s accusations as truckloads of young people wearing Sandinista Youth t-shirts were brought to violently attack protests under the noses of police who did nothing to stop them.
We know for sure that over 60 people have been killed, a few of them on camera, and many others were arrested, beaten and mistreated. The national police chief has “retired”.
Social media in Nicaragua is also full of events that did not happen. Photos from earlier times were posted to claim that large groups of the army were being mobilized.
Looting was allowed to take place and again, the police who seem so able to use riot squad tactics, was not doing much of anything.
Who the looters were is not agreed upon but the government story does not hold up. How could students have looted supermarkets and at the same time be under siege, occupying their universities? This lacks credulity, hard proof or witnesses.
Nicaragua is on the US State Department list of nations where they interfere heavily in local internal affairs.
Besides spin statements from the embassy, an unnecessary travel advisory and some of the typical biased reports in media outlets known to back US and UK government and corporate views, we don’t have any hard facts about what that interference is, but it would be a first-ever break in practice for the CIA to be doing nothing.
Some of the people publically supporting the protests have past CIA ties going back to the Contra War and have since been trying to sabotage everything this elected government has ever tried to do. It is in part these relentless actions of the US and their allies to undercut the Sandinista government that gives the “Danielista” government more good will that it would deserve otherwise.
Private enterprise leaders have laid a cynical claim to be leading the anti-austerity movement and the Sandinistas accuse them of provoking the protests thought false representations. To further that discourse President Ortega announced that he would dialog with the business groups despite their lack of mandate when he decided to backtrack on this pension policy.
But the private sector leadership of the public outrage is dubious.
There is no real evidence that the protests are anything other than spontaneous expressions of all kinds of pent up public outrage against the Ortega presidency and the new version of the Sandinista Front led by students in some places but including large numbers of all kind of Nicaraguans.
The opponents of the austerity measures and more importantly of the repressive tactics against the protestors include Daniel’s former Vice President from the revolution days and members of the old Sandinista nine Comandante leadership including Daniel’s own brother Humberto.
Many claim to be leading, many come to the big mass meetings and speak and they come from many different parts of Nicaraguan society. Some have less credibility than others and chief among those undeserving of trust are the Liberals from earlier governments and that same private sector leadership, who have never done much for the common person.
The church knows full well that the right wing only represents a part of the protest movement at best and memory of the church’s right wing, anticommunist, anti-Sandinista bias has not faded.
Yet part of the church could be the only path to peace. Their mass rally Saturday was well attended and totally peaceful.
The church, the Sandinistas, the Liberals and the private sector are all divided internally.
If any consensus is forming in Nicaragua, it is against police violence and the use of goon squads. There is a lot of anger, disappointment and flat rejection of the Sandinistas under Daniel, but that rejection has a lot of different motives and desires.
For the moment the elected political opposition does not offer a clear, unified alternative and there is a leadership vacuum filled by chaos, leading in different directions.
The Nicaraguan public is one that acts and reacts. They are demanding to be heard even if they do not speak with a single voice and do not have an alternative leadership.
And they want better government.