on security

Nicaragua's Hard Road Ahead

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
8 MINS READJun 26, 2018 | 10:00 GMT
Anti-government demonstrators carry homemade mortars, as they stand near a barricade in Masaya, Nicaragua, on June 5.

Anti-government demonstrators carry homemade mortars, as they stand near a barricade during protests in the Nicaraguan town of Masaya on June 5. As protests continue in Nicaragua, the country's security is likely to worsen before it improves.

(INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Nicaraguan protesters are voicing their strong opposition to President Daniel Ortega's rule in a number of cities, but the leader is unlikely to even consider resigning until the demonstrations have a greater impact on the capital, Managua.
  • Because of the entrenched nature of both the protesters and the government, Nicaragua's security will likely worsen before the situation improves.
  • Companies operating in the country would be well-advised to review their security and draw up contingency plans.

Negotiations have broken down, and the violence shows no signs of abating. Church-brokered peace talks between the Nicaraguan government and the demonstrators broke down on June 18 amid Managua's continued use of force against the protest movement. After taking to the streets in April in response to proposed social security reforms, protesters have now upgraded their demands for the departure of President Daniel Ortega and his wife (and vice president), Rosario Murillo. Whether the protesters ramp up the pressure on Ortega or vice versa, security in Nicaragua is only likely to worsen — something that should give companies operating in the country pause for thought.

The Big Picture

Nicaragua is experiencing its largest crisis since the end of its civil war in 1979. With no end in sight, security in the country is likely to deteriorate further, creating worries for citizens as well as foreign companies and organizations.

Pressuring a President

Ortega ruled Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990 after the Sandinistas and their partners overthrew the Somoza regime. After Ortega returned to power in 2007, Nicaragua's national assembly voted to abolish term limits in 2014, meaning he could potentially remain in power indefinitely. But even during times when others controlled the presidency, such as when the Sandinista party was in opposition (1990-2007), the party under Ortega maintained significant influence over many levers of state power, such as the military and police.

Whether in power or not, Ortega has exercised significant control over Nicaragua since 1979, during which time his family and friends have greatly enriched themselves. Given what he has to lose, he has unsurprisingly displayed intransigence despite the vociferous public anger against him. To rescue his government, Ortega is simultaneously pursuing negotiations and deploying the police and armed bands of the Sandinista Youth movement to crush the protests. The mounting death toll from the police response has surpassed 212 since the protests began in April, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Now, the continuing violence, as well as the growing gap between the two sides, has prompted Bishop Rolando Alvarez to call off the talks.

Protesters have staged demonstrations in cities throughout the country, including Chinandega, Granada, Rivas, Esteli and Matagalpa. Both sides have hotly contested control of the city of Masaya, in which authorities have besieged protesters, particularly in the fortified Monimbo district. At other times, protesters have surrounded the city's police headquarters before security forces pushed them back to Monimbo. Elsewhere, authorities have also besieged protesters in Leon and on the campus of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) in Managua. But despite the widespread unrest, the protests have yet to engulf the entire country, because many in Managua and elsewhere continue to support Ortega.

Most expatriates have left the most heavily contested cities, but some remain in Managua, as most protests have occurred along the airport road and near UNAN and other universities — leaving the rest of the capital largely unscathed. Many, however, refrain from venturing out at night, even in Managua, due to the perceived danger. The fears are not without warrant, especially after alleged members of the Sandinista Youth murdered a U.S. citizen who owned a Managua sports bar early on June 2.

From a tactical perspective, several indicators suggest that the demonstrations will continue — if not gain more momentum.

Mobilizing All of Society

From a tactical perspective, several indicators suggest that the demonstrations will continue — if not gain more momentum. First, authoritarian governments rely on fear to control the masses, and they frequently use oppressive tactics to crush protest movements before they can pick up speed. Nicaragua has witnessed many protests in the past, but the Sandinista government has always succeeded in forcing protesters into submission through beatings and arrests. For example, the Sandinista Youth and the police brutally suppressed protests that erupted in June 2013 over proposed social security reforms. Authorities similarly repressed demonstrators in December 2014 before deploying force on several occasions from 2015 to 2017 to silence protesters who were criticizing a proposed Nicaraguan canal.

At present, however, the customary use of force has not only failed to quell the latest demonstrations but has also transformed the unrest from social security protests into a wider, anti-Ortega uprising. The protesters have lost their fear of the police, giving them the strength to stand their ground in many cities — even in the face of tear gas and gunfire. Although Nicaraguan authorities have killed over 200 protesters and injured thousands more, they have failed to cow the demonstrators, indicating the depth of their convictions and the capabilities of those planning and leading the protests. They have been able to keep the protesters focused and cohesive in the face of heavy pressure.

Second, while the participation of tens of thousands of Nicaraguans in the protests is significant, the composition of the crowd will ultimately have a greater effect on the fate of the movement. Authorities generally encounter little difficulty in quashing protests that merely draw their support from students or marginalized groups, but it is far more difficult to repress movements that attract protesters from all sections of society without causing wider repercussions — a truth evidenced by Syria in 2011 and Ukraine in 2013.

Revolutionary theorist Gene Sharp, author of From Dictatorship to Democracy, sheds light on a number of pillars of regime power: the military and police, civil servants, the clergy, educators and business owners. When would-be revolutionaries successfully attract support from people within these pillars of powers, the protests typically overthrow the regime, according to Sharp. In Nicaragua, most of the police have stuck with Ortega, but many educators, clergy and business owners have unequivocally opposed the violence by the police and the Sandinista Youth against the protesters. The government has attempted to portray the protesters as criminals and gang members, but the movement has sustained itself in the face of heavy pressure because it clearly encompasses a large cross section of Nicaraguan society.

Intriguingly, the army, the only force in Nicaragua that is strong enough to stamp out the growing protests, has refused to take sides — likely due to fractures within the Sandinistas. The party has previously experienced divisions, with the Sandinista Renovation Movement splitting off as early as 1995. Ortega has floated the idea of his wife running for president in 2021, and many Sandinistas clearly disapprove of the idea that their party could become an Ortega family dynasty.

A map showing the locations of protest barricades in Nicaragua.

Focusing on Contingencies

In addition to the violence that has persuaded many companies and nongovernmental organizations to withdraw their foreign staff from Nicaragua, the protests have caused major disruptions to businesses operating inside the country, as well as to supply chains that pass through it. Protesters have blocked roads at multiple locations, significantly affecting the flow of people and materials through the country on routes such as the Pan-American Highway. The blockades are preventing many factories from procuring necessary materials and impeding their ability to ship finished products. In many places, employees simply cannot get to work.

But even this paralysis has not sufficed to oust Ortega, meaning protesters are likely to redouble their efforts to pressure him. According to people I've spoken with in Managua, Ortega has remained isolated from the effects of the protests, suggesting he is unlikely to depart until the demonstrators exert greater force on the capital. Naturally, an uptick in protests would only cause a further deterioration in Nicaragua's security, raising additional concerns for companies active there. An escalation of violence and anarchy would also threaten the transportation of goods and people, retail outlets, factories, warehouses and the homes of employees. Because many hardcore Sandinistas have blamed the protests on foreign influences, they could target expatriates and the property of foreign entities.

At the same time, if Ortega succeeds in uniting the Sandinista party and persuading the army to suppress the protests with a heavy hand, that move would also entail a much more perilous situation before any order is restored. Such a scenario would mirror Venezuela, where President Nicolas Maduro has wielded a heavy hand to grind down the protest movement and remain in power.

But deploying the military to crush a popular protest naturally creates significant risk. When Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich attempted to put down a protest movement in Kiev in February 2014, the violence backfired, forcing him to resign. Similarly, Hosni Mubarak lost power in Egypt in February 2011 after attempting to suppress a protest movement with force.

Regardless of the direction of the protests, companies and organizations still operating in the country would be well-advised to review their security posture and draw up contingency plans, including a list of tripwires that would trigger such emergency plans. Ultimately, there appears to be little light at the end of the tunnel for Nicaragua, meaning that things are likely to get a lot worse before they get better.

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