Photo: Nicaraguans protest against reforms to social security. EFE.
The last five day’s protests have led to the death of at least 26 people, according to human rights groups. 46 people have been reported missing, and hundreds have been injured, shot by snipers, by police with rubber bullets, or beaten by pro-Sandinista protesters. The protests may have started in response to president Ortega’s recent changes to the social security system, which will increase income and payroll taxes and reform the pension system, but the uprisings are likely to continue as a means of expressing the population’s discontent with the government and their repressive politics.
As the government ordered the shutdown of five independent TV channels covering the situation, the protests spread to León, Estelí, Masaya and other cities throughout the country on Thursday. Reports and footage have shown several reporters being beaten, robbed, verbally threatened, and having their expensive camera equipment stolen by violent pro-government protesters. Among those killed was Ángel Gahona, a journalist who was shot dead while broadcasting live via Facebook in Bluefields. Amnesty International called the attacks on peaceful protesters and journalists a “disturbing attempt to curtail their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”
President Ortega was first elected president in 1984 and is currently serving his third consecutive term of presidency. He’s a former left-wing guerilla officer and therefore keeps close control of the country’s military and national police. On its path to the presidency, and as a method of retaining power, the Ortega Murillo government also relies heavily on support from the Catholic church, another of their main pillars of support. The ever-increasing political power given to Murillo, who was made vice president last year, is seen to be a part of the couple’s efforts to cling to power and their plan to create a new family dynasty.
Not all representatives of the Catholic church are supportive of President Ortega’s politics. The government’s violent response to the protests, attacking the media and freedom of expression, show their true face and some of their repressive tactics.This is an excellent example of when oppression backfires, as human rights groups have condemned the violence, and even Pope Francis has called for “an end to every form of violence” and for differences to be “resolved peacefully and with a sense of responsibility” during his Sunday address.
Following the Pope’s address, president Daniel Ortega said in an official announcement that the social security system changes had been cancelled. He spoke of chaos and the need to re-establish order, seemingly acknowledging that the protests and the past day’s social unrest seriously challenge his authority, for the first time since he was elected in 2007. The people protests last week have marked the most popular uprising since the end of the civil war, 30 years ago. Ortega said he will negotiate the proposed social security changes together with business leaders, who contrarily have backed the peaceful protests, saying that no talks will take place unless freedom of expression is restored, peaceful protest detainees are released, and police repression comes to an end. Although the statements of COSEP, Nicaragua’s most powerful business association with close ties to Ortega, are mainly playing to the gallery, they did call for some action, a ‘private sector’ march on Monday, which several activists have said they will not take part in.
Throughout the weekend, looting and fires have been reported, although protesters are accusing the riot police and government supporters of initiating violence and staging any such scenes in attempts to delegitimize the protests. Protesters have however taken down several of the enormous illuminated metal structures named “Trees of Life” (Arbóles de la Vida), both officially and unofficially referred to as symbols of the Ortega Murillo regime, in acts of celebration. The immense metal trees, first installed in 2013 on several grand ‘avenues of power’, measure 14 meters high and 6 meters wide with an estimated cost of $25,000 per unit, and have been largely critiqued for their aesthetics, symbolism, and the high electricity consumption required. In the capital Managua alone, 140 trees have been installed during the past five years. The brightly coloured trees are thought to serve as first lady Rosario Murillo’s amulet of protection, as she has a passion for Catholic mysticism, biblical sculptures, and ornaments.
The destruction of the trees clearly carries symbolic value for the people of Nicaragua, and as they fall, with the right leadership, perhaps too will the pillars of power that the government’s authority relies so heavily on start to face the power of the peaceful peoples of Nicaragua.
One of the protesters, Mauri Hernandez, said to the media:
“We are in the streets asking for Ortega and his wife to go. This has already gone beyond the social security issue. Here there have been dead, wounded, and he does not even apologize for his killings or the savage repression against the people.”
The protests may have started in response to a social security system reform. What follows, however, will be determined by the population, fueled by repression, discontent, and poverty. A people that hasn’t been this fearless for 30 years. And as fake metal trees are falling to the ground, a population armed with social media is on the rise.