The day after Daniel Ortega was re-elected president of Nicaragua in November 2011, a farmer named Wilmer Alvarez told me, "The one thing is, he needs to pass the power on to someone else." Though he believed Ortega's social programs had benefited rural people, he worried that the one-time revolutionary "could become a dictator, like Chavez, like Castro." But, he hastened to add, "Nicaragua isn't like Cuba. It's not like Venezuela. People here aren't scared. If he does something the people don't like, they'll take him out."
At the time, I brushed this off as harmless bravado, a prideful nod to the 1979 Sandinista revolution that toppled Nicaragua's Somoza dynasty, the longest family dictatorship in the Americas.
But almost seven years later, Alvarez's statement rings prophetic. Ortega never passed on power. Instead, he manipulated changes to the constitution to allow himself to be elected to an unprecedented third term. Since mid-April, hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans have orchestrated a campaign of marches, roadblocks, general strikes, and occupations aimed at ousting Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.
According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, this unrest and the government's response to it have claimed more than 300 lives, including those of at least one journalist and twenty-one police officers. In addition, an estimated 2,200 people have been injured, many seriously. Ortega's government blames the violence on "coup supporters." And undoubtedly, individuals associated with the opposition have committed violent acts.
Nevertheless, as the Nicaraguan news magazine Revista Envio stated, "The vast majority of those hundreds of thousands of people actively involved in the uprising have expressed their support in myriad peaceful ways." And human rights organizations agree that the police and government-associated paramilitary groups are responsible for most of the deaths.
Why did this crisis erupt? Since he was elected to a second stint as president in 2006 (after previously leading the nation from 1979 to 1990), Ortega has consolidated nearly absolute power of Nicaragua's government, courts, electoral system, and media. But during this same period, his regime reduced poverty and established a high level of security that distinguished Nicaragua from its Central American neighbors. Given the country's relative stability, some Nicaraguans and international observers have been surprised by the extent of...