In 2016, President Daniel Ortega won a crushing re-election in Nicaragua, capturing almost three-quarters of the vote. Just two years on, however, the fate of his government hangs in the balance amid a wave of protests that have resulted in the deaths of 53 people, mostly at the hands of the security services. Ortega's once-solid political support is cracking, because the army has ceased to provide unconditional support to the government and has advocated talks with the demonstrators. Ultimately, what happens in Nicaragua may not stay in Nicaragua: If Ortega loses power, other unstable Central American countries — such as Honduras and Guatemala — could soon feel the wrath of their own dissidents.
Central American countries such as Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala suffer from political instability driven by opposition challenges to the established order. If the Nicaraguan government falls under popular pressure, that collapse could ignite unrest elsewhere in the region. Demonstrations and their associated violence and looting would disrupt business operations, thereby worsening economic problems that could ultimately drive (mostly illegal) emigration to the United States.
The "Social Security" Spark
The catalyst for Nicaragua's protests was an April 16 decree hiking the social security contribution rate for individuals from 6.25 to 7 percent of total income; for corporations the rate rose from 19 to 22.5 percent. Indignation at the demand soon provided a platform for generalized grievances against the government, as members of the middle and lower classes joined the demonstrations, initially led by students. Last week, bus and taxi drivers who have felt the pressure from higher oil prices also joined the protests, which have laid bare the underlying discontent with Ortega's government. For some of the protesters, the government's slow centralization of political power has driven them to take to the streets, while others, such as public transport drivers, have joined the fray out of concern that Managua's policies are impacting their bottom line. The private sector, meanwhile, fears looting by people taking advantage of the unrest.
After two weeks of relative calm, Nicaragua's protests flared up on May 11 once more. Since last weekend, protesters have staged rallies and erected roadblocks in all major cities, including Managua, Leon, Granada, Chinandega and Masaya. On May 12, the army high command released a statement saying it would not participate in further repression against protesters and called on the government to begin talks with the demonstrators. The Superior Council of Private Enterprise, an important advocacy group representing the country's business elites (many of whom are Ortega's allies), is also supporting a dialogue with the protesters. Amid the pressure, the government opened talks on May 16, but the protests show no signs of abating. Meanwhile, other key government officials are expected to decrease their support for the president amid fears of a voter backlash in the 2021 presidential election. The continued street action threatens the foundations of the Ortega government — the only question is whether it falls now or limps on until 2021, when the president's chances of re-election will come under threat.
The continued street action threatens the foundations of the Ortega government — the only question is whether it falls now or limps on until 2021.
Fanning the Flames
The Ortega administration's collapse would have profound consequences beyond Nicaragua's borders, because opponents of governments elsewhere in Central America could be inspired to mount their own uprisings or to reinvigorate their own protests. After a contested presidential election in November 2017, protests rocked Honduras until early 2018, facilitating looting that hurt business operations in the country. The demonstrations have now subsided because of divisions within the socialist Liberty and Refoundation Party (Libre) and because of a growing dispute over party leadership between former President Manuel Zelaya and 2017 presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla. However, Ortega's fall would likely spur segments of the Honduran political opposition to renew protests against the government of conservative President Juan Orlando Hernandez. Many in the political opposition believe that electoral fraud is hindering their path to power. Members of Libre and other political allies could stage violent demonstrations against the government, although such unrest would not necessarily threaten the administration's survival because the military supports the government and divisions hinder the opposition.
In Guatemala, the threat of widespread, violent protests is far less imminent than it is in Honduras. A wave of demonstrations unseated conservative President Otto Perez Molina in 2015, and current President Jimmy Morales is facing increasing trouble. A battle is brewing between the country's political and business elites and the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), a U.N.-sponsored criminal investigative body that has the power to examine acts of political corruption and refer them to national authorities for prosecution. Morales has challenged the body's legitimacy since it is conducting an investigation against him for alleged campaign finance violations. But if Ortega's government falls in Nicaragua, protests may begin once more under the auspices of CICIG's Guatemalan defenders, although opposition parties have been too divided to gather momentum against the president. Still, Morales' efforts to fend off CICIG's investigation are a sore spot for Guatemalans who have grown weary of political corruption, suggesting that disputes between the presidency and the courts may trigger serious demonstrations.
In an effort to defuse Nicaraguans' anger, Ortega could well heed his armed forces and others in the country and pursue an effective dialogue with demonstrators, which would likely help his government survive for three more years. By 2021, the question of whether Ortega or his wife — a likely candidate if he decides not to compete — runs depends a lot on the Sandinista elites, who will gauge public opinion before making a decision. If demonstrations give way to meaningful negotiations in Managua, then Guatemala and Honduras are likely to avoid unrest. But if Ortega abandons the presidency in a rapid, messy departure, then the flames of protest could soon engulf Nicaragua's neighbors to the northwest.