For the first time since the late 1970s, Nicaragua is on the brink of a revolution as tens of thousands of protesters throng the streets of the capitol Managua and a host of other towns to demand the resignation of President Daniel Ortega, a former left-wing dictator-turned-democrat who led the Sandinistas to during the Nicaraguan Revolution.
Ortega, who gave up power after losing an election in 1990 but remained a popular opposition figure and was elected president in 2006, has been criticized for his autocratic rule, political repressions and – most recently – for proposing social security reforms that would involve Nicaraguans paying more into the system while reducing payouts by 5%, according to Al Jazeera.
Ortega has aligned his government with the governments of Cuba and Venezuela, though Nicaragua’s economy achieved 5% GDP growth last year. Still, it remains the poorest country in Central America.
The country’s Social Security Institute’s deficit has tripled in three years to $77 million as of 2017, prompting the push by Ortega for reform.
The protests are the biggest to sweep the country since Ortega returned to power.
While Monday’s protest was organized by business groups and was markedly less violent than the previous five days of demonstrations – which resulted in the deaths of 25 protesters at the hands of Nicaraguan security forces – Ortega’s decision to abandon the controversial social security reform has done little to blunt the opposition’s anger.
Local journalist Tim Rogers tweeted a picture of molotov cocktails stowed behind a barricade.
The situation has grown so dire that the US has withdrawn its diplomats from the capitol, as the Financial Times reported. In addition to the killings, hundreds of people have been injured as police have used live ammunition. Dozens of shops in Managua have been looted.
Nicaraguans have been frustrated by what they see as nepotism by “Commandante Daniel” and his wife Rosario Murillo. As they marched through Managua on Monday, demonstrators ripped up the curly “trees of life” planted by Murillo.
“This is mushrooming,” José Rizo, a former vice-president, told the FT from his home in northern Nicaragua, as calls for the president to leave multiplied.
Students at the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua, who have been holed up for days and faced assault from security forces, demanded the resignation of the national police chief and other officials. Protesters put up a sign outside the complex saying: “Don’t shoot us.”
Heather Nauert, US Department of State spokeswoman, condemned “the violence and the excessive force used by police and others against civilians”.
The demonstrations in Managua echo the violence that unfolded in Venezuela – another Latin American socialist paradise – last summer. And if Ortega should fall, the collapse of his government could inspire Venezuelans to make one last push for the ouster of Nicolas Maduro, who bears the brunt of the blame for the country’s financial crisis.