The tide goes against Nicaragua’s long-time leader

Gilberto Castillo, a 61-year-old who fought with the rebels to oust the despised Samoza regime that ruled from 1936 to 1979, now works odd jobs because his $175 monthly pension doesn't nearly provide enough to live on

Managua (AFP) – There was a time Nicaragua’s veteran leader Daniel Ortega — a 72-year-old former leftist rebel whose Sandinistas chased a corrupt dynasty from power — could count unreservedly on the support of his country’s poor.

But no longer. Years of perceived autocracy by him and his wife Rosario Murillo, who is also his vice president, have bubbled over into a wave of anti-government resentment that manifested itself in protests that erupted last week.

The spark that caused it all was an aborted bid to reform Nicaragua’s social security system, which is heading towards insolvency.

After violent clashes in which at least 38 people were killed, the protests have now dissipated. But the frustrations of those who once backed Ortega and now feel betrayed are still bitter-sharp.

“I’m a Sandinista but I don’t like injustice,” said Gilberto Castillo, a 61-year-old who fought with the rebels to oust the despised Samoza regime that ruled from 1936 to 1979.

Castillo now works odd jobs in Managua, despite his diabetes and hypertension, because his $175 monthly pension doesn’t nearly provide enough to live on.

The social security reforms were going to reduce his pension by five percent — “they were going to take away money that could but a sack of rice, sugar, it’s money we can’t afford to lose.”

– ‘No more!’ –

Money is only part of the reason ordinary Nicaraguans are abandoning their support of Ortega, who was re-elected in 2016 and who has now been president for 11 consecutive years — having previously led the country from 1979 to 1990.

His ditching of revolutionary principles that once made him the man of the people has proved more potent.

Ortega has steadily exerted control over the government, the military and the judiciary, while ensuring the opposition has been rendered toothless.

He and his wife use only state media to communicate, and independent TV stations were banned from broadcasting the worst of last week’s protests.

For a long time Nicaraguans accepted Ortega’s authority because — through a pact with the business elite — he oversaw economic stability and guaranteed tight security that prevented gangs that prowl other parts of Central America from taking root.

The new generation, however, yearns for more than stability. University students led the protests and refused to be cowed by violent police repression.

“This was something we are used to. But this time we decided to rise up. This was the moment to say ‘no more!’,” explained Yoshua Guevara, a 19-year-old student from a modest background.

He was among those who took to the streets, leaving his house with the idea of defending his 67-year-old grandmother’s pension. He wore a mask to avoid being identified.

The ensuing struggle was “difficult,” he admitted. But “we want a more transparent Nicaragua.”

– Talks mooted –

The mass protests and intensifying international criticism of the deadly security response eventually led Ortega to make concessions: withdrawing the contentious pension reform, freeing dozens of arrested protesters, and calling for dialogue.

The gestures have mollified the powerful private business sector, which had sided with the people and even organized a march of tens of thousands of people against the repression where participants yelled “Freedom!” and demanded Ortega’s ouster.

Now, with the backing of Catholic bishops offering mediation, business leaders say the conditions are right for talks.

So far, no agenda, no date and no list of who will take part have emerged for the mooted discussions.

With the violence subsided, Ortega has retreated into the mutism that has defined his recent years as president, and Vice President Murillo has reverted to giving news and Christian-tinged moral platitudes via state broadcasters.

The implication appears to be that the ruling couple — and the country’s employers — want to get back to business as usual.

But it is far from clear that Nicaragua’s students, or indeed the pensioners who remembered the early days of the revolution, are willing to settle for the old complacency.

Fissures can be seen in Ortega’s control, and the foundations that once held him up no longer look so solid.