In a video clip, a young boy stands at a makeshift barricade across a road. He holds a toy gun to the head of his friend. Off camera, an adult asks, “What are you going to do?” “We’ll kill him and leave him naked,” replies the boy. The adults laugh. This scene from Nicaragua, filmed at one of the hundreds of towns paralyzed by street protests, epitomizes the violence that has taken hold since April 18. Before that date, local media proudly quoted figures showing that Nicaragua had become the safest country in Central America. But the two months since then have seen more than 170 violent deaths, thousands injured, and scores of public buildings burned down or ransacked.
How did it begin? Nicaragua has a backstory of violence: the revolutionary struggles of the 1970s against the repressive Somoza dictatorship, followed by the US-financed Contra war against the revolutionary Sandinista government in the 1980s (the US role in that war was condemned by the World Court in 1986 as a violation of international law). Electoral defeat for the Sandinistas in 1990 brought peace, but at the expense of 16 years of corrupt, neoliberal government that undid many of the gains of the revolution. Daniel Ortega’s election win in 2006 led to a decade of renewed social investment. Poverty fell by almost half between 2005 and 2016, according to World Bank data, from 48 percent to 25 percent. Nicaragua won praise for its low crime rate, limited drug-related violence, and community-based policing. Nor could the private sector complain: Nicaragua’s per-capita GDP increased by 38 percent—more than for any of its neighbors.
Government opponents favor a different version of the story: Ortega took total control of the Sandinista party (the FSLN), bent the rules to stand for reelection, won the Catholic Church’s support with stringent anti-abortion laws, and relied for many of his anti-poverty programs on money from Venezuela. A breakaway group of Sandinistas who had earlier formed a new party, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), began to label Ortega as a new dictator and accuse him of repression. But they never achieved much political traction, moved rightward to form alliances with longer-standing opposition parties, and yet still won only handfuls of votes in national and local elections.
In April, however, the government suddenly seemed to lose the support of many younger people, especially students. First there was popular resentment against what was seen as its slow response to a large fire in one of Nicaragua’s tropical forests (although, as Californians know, even well-resourced governments struggle to stop wildfires). Then the government announced a change in social-security rules. Struggling to meet rising pension costs, it refused demands by employers that their contributions be cut, and instead proposed to raise them, to make a smaller increase in employee contributions, and to cut pensions by 5 percent (but offset by stronger health-care entitlements).