Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans marched through the streets of the capital Managua and other cities at the end of April.
The demonstrations were in answer to a call from the Catholic Church to press for Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government to enter into dialogue over controversial reforms to the social security system that led to protests earlier in the month violently repressed by the police and army.
On 18 April, elderly people and students took to the streets to combat the Ortega government’s plans to increase pension contributions and payroll taxes.
According to the Catholic magazine Crux, ‘the plan would have required retirees to pay 5 percent of their pension into a medical expenses fund, the social security withdrawal from employees’ salaries would have increased from 6.25 to 7 percent, and employers would have had to increase contributions as well.’
During the protests, more than 30 people were killed by members of the security forces and pro-government gangs. The non-governmental Permanent Commission on Human Rights claimed that the real figure was as high as 63, with 15 people missing and more than 160 wounded by gunfire.
The dead included one journalist shot in the head while reporting live on the protests in the Atlantic coast town of Bluefields.
“What took place is a massacre,” said Marcos Carmona, the Permanent Commission’s director.
Scores of other people, mainly students, were arrested and held without charge, and there have been widespread allegations of police brutality and torture.
The brutal repression has meant that the unrest has grown from protests over the proposed reforms to calls for President Ortega to resign.
In his response to the original protests, President Ortega blamed the violence on gangs and extreme right-wing groups, while official publications claimed they were CIA-inspired.
‘The kids do not even know the party that is manipulating them,’ Ortega was reported as saying. ‘Gang members are being brought into the kids’ protests and are criminalising the protests. That is why they are put at risk.’
Mr. Ortega was in power as leader of the Sandinista movement which overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 but was ousted at general elections held under pressure from the United States in 1989.
He returned to power in 2007 and has been president ever since. Currently enjoying his third successive term in office (due to end in 2021), he has brought stability and sustained economic growth to the country.
His critics say he has restricted democratic freedoms by placing his appointees in the supreme court, shutting down opposition parties, taking over the electoral authority, and abolishing term limits on the presidency.
They also accuse him of seeking to create a personal dynasty: his wife Rosario Murillo is the current vice-president, and his son is said to be waiting in the wings.
In addition, there have been allegations that funds brought into Nicaragua under the terms of agreements with the Chavista regime in Venezuela have been misappropriated by close associates of Ortega in the Sandinista movement.
It is said by local observers that the initial proposal to increase social security contributions is a result of the reduction in this aid from Venezuela, and the need to balance the economy.
But the speed with which the April protests broadened out from opposition to this specific measure to a challenge to the regime suggest there are more complex reasons for the unrest.
Local media claim these include the suspicion that much of the money destined for social projects; popular rejection of the mammoth ($50 billion) Chinese-backed project to construct a canal across the centre of the country, which has angered farmers, environmentalists and others; the increase in mining and industrial agriculture projects.
This has combined with widespread suspicion of fraud in recent presidential elections and official corruption at all levels.
In response to the protests, President Ortega announced on 22 April that the overhaul of the pension system would be scrapped. He offered to hold talks with the private sector to find other ways to overcome the deficit.
The various organizations leading the student and other protests argue that this does not go far enough.
They are pressing for a far more wide-ranging dialogue, and during the ‘march for peace and justice’ on Sunday 29 April, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes said the Catholic church was giving the government a month to reach agreements with the groups opposing them.