The democratic transition in Nicaragua began with the cessation of the civil war (1982-1990), which succeeded in the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Daniel Ortega, of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), a member of the Junta who assumed power upon the fall of the dictator, was elected president in 1984. Like other Latin American rulers, Ortega made continuous efforts to maintain power, facing successive defeats in 1990 at the hands of Violeta Chamorro, then in 1996 against Arnoldo Alemán, and in 2001 before Enrique Bolaños. It was not until 2006 when Ortega returned to power, followed by electoral victories in 2011, and the most recent in 2016, with which he has achieved firm control over the country’s institutions.
The role of the FSLN in the overthrow of Somoza (1979) started a new type of authoritarianism with the Sandinista Revolution. Once seized by democratic means, Ortega successfully directed his efforts towards the construction of an institutional framework that would allow him to increase his control over power, as Feinberg points out, co-opting the legislative and judicial powers, as well as manipulating the electoral processes, allowing it to consolidate broad power across public institutions (2018: 3). Ortega’s maneuvers allowed him, on the one hand, to sustain the discourse of social justice as part of the political capital built in the FSLN, while, on the other hand, he cultivated relations with organized social actors: the business sector, the unions, and the Catholic Church, deploying a client policy that allowed it to overcome internal differences within the FSNL while building its own support system (2018: 4).
In the case of Nicaragua, the confluence of limited legitimacy occurs as a result of weak institutions that have been corrupted by the unlimited reach that Ortega has had by using faulty elections to stay in power. The progressive erosion of political institutions was evident in 2016 when monitoring of electoral observation was not allowed, and members of the opposition were removed from Congress, and they were also prohibited from running for elected office. On the other hand, another aspect that has contributed to the deinstitutionalization of the country has been the growing prominence of the Ortega family in leading the country, offering similarities with the family of the ousted dictator Somoza, both in corruption and in nepotism.
The Ortega regime also followed in Somoza’s footsteps, making repression and political persecution recurring practices. The April 2018 crisis, after the attempted reform of the pension system, unleashed one of the worst political crises in the country since the 1980s, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 Democracy Index (EIU, 2019: 22). Despite backtracking on reform plans, the massive wave of protests across the country did not stop, forcing Ortega to deploy repressive and paramilitary forces against the population demanding broad political reforms, led by the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, a coalition of students, peasants, civil society and businessmen, who managed to force a short-lived national dialogue with the Ortega government, under the mediation of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church.
The repression did not stop, on the contrary, it intensified with an unfortunate balance of almost 300 deaths due to the use of force by pro-government and paramilitary groups, more than 500 political prisoners, and numerous human rights violations documented by non-governmental organizations. , local and international. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, in her report to the General Assembly, reported on the allegations of torture of protesters, killings, and violations of freedom of expression and information in Nicaragua, noting that the justice system has not been the guarantor of the application of sanctions in violation of human rights, while the government has disrespected the agreement to strengthen the rights of citizens (2019).
Ortega had the support of a very generous political ally in his mission to keep the population under his rule: the Hugo Chávez regime. Nicaragua benefited from the financial support that the Chavista Revolution provided to its Central American allies through PetroCaribe,, allowing Ortega to direct funds for social welfare programs, helping him in his efforts to reduce poverty and increase income. Dependence on this program has been so significant that the decline in Venezuelan financial support to Nicaragua is among the causes of the social crisis after the announcement of the social security reform.
Ortega’s authoritarian turn has added pressure to the decline in the performance of democracy in Latin America. The problems related to corruption and human rights violations have stripped the country of the progress made in the democratization process, going from a hybrid regime to an electoral autocracy (Mechkova, Lührmann, Lindberg, 2017: 163) since the year 2012 (Lührmann et al., 2019).
The process we are witnessing in Nicaragua is the progressive dismantling of the democratic structure through institutional maneuvering. In the words of Bogaards, this is known as de-democratization: “Dedemocratization indicates a starting point, democracy, and a direction, less democracy. It makes no assumptions about causes, conditions, and culprits, nor about speed, extent, and end-point” (2018). The crisis sparked by the pandemic has undoubtedly allowed Ortega to further his autocratic agenda, which has been underway for the past few years.
Nicaragua’s economy has been in a precarious situation for some time, ranking among the first ten countries in poverty in Central America, with a tendency to worsen as a consequence of the impact of COVID-19. Nicaragua faces the challenge of responding to a pandemic that threatens to expose its precarious health care infrastructure. A ‘revolutionary’ regime that allowed – through negligence or incompetence – the public healthcare system to deteriorate to the point of being unable to meet the needs of the population, in a clear expression of the failure of their political agenda. Ortega’s response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic causing COVID-19 has been negligent, adding people’s wellbeing to the crisis.
Ortega, unlike his handling of the outbreak of H1N1 influenza in 2009, has faced the coronavirus crisis without taking exceptional measures, which has caused criticism from activists, human rights organizations, and multilateral organizations such as the Pan American Health Organization, warning that the lack of epidemiological control measures would be putting the population, especially the most vulnerable, in danger. The World Health Organization warned that Latin America would face a rapid increase in cases, anticipating the worsening of a crisis that could lead to the collapse of healthcare services. The limitations in Nicaragua guaranteed that it was going to be an unmanageable situation, with the aggravating return of migrants to the country, and the drop of remittances in a highly dependent economy, which, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, was expected to have devastating effects on Nicaragua, among other countries in Latin America.
The government initially underestimated the severity of the pandemic, by increasing the risk of massive contagion with its careless behavior. In a country without access to public services, it was endangering not only its population but also the rest of the region, considering the porosity from the country’s borders. The risks due to the economic situation and the precarious healthcare infrastructure have been pointed out by healthcare workers in Nicaragua, alerting the sub-registry of infections due to the centralization of diagnostic tests and results. Ortega has avoided taking measures that could affect the economy, in an attempt to show normalcy, through tight control over healthcare professionals and the dissemination of data about the effects of the coronavirus on the population.
The regime has used power and repression as a form of social containment of a vulnerable population under risk due to the irresponsible handling by an authoritarian government undergoing a severe economic crisis, that includes sanctions, limiting access to financial aid. The regime has resorted to political persecution and human rights abuses as an instrument to subdue the Opposition. The scenarios anticipated by activists warned about the inadequacy of the health infrastructure in the country and the consequences for the population. In addition to the health crisis, the persecution of the democratic Opposition was expected after the approval in 2020 of a series of legislative measures aimed at suppressing the opposition, political parties, and activists: a hate crimes law, and a foreign agents law, among others, were specifically crafted to counter the growing social and political mobilization against the Ortega-Murillo regime.
The outlook is discouraging, not only due to the social impact of the pandemic but also with the consolidation of the authoritarian regime of the Ortega-Murillo partnership, currently on a repressive spree, cracking down on the Opposition, deepening the repression and political persecution. In a showdown involving the international community, with the regime accusing it as an accomplice of the Opposition, a democratic solution to the political crisis in Nicaragua is not in sight, but it is clear that the process of autocratization is on course and Ortega and Murillo need to face the consequences for their criminal behavior.
Adapted from: Democratic backsliding and autocratization (2021).