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No end in sight for Nicaragua crisis as Ortega cracks down on protests

People attend the 'Marcha de las Flores'  in honor of children killed during protests in Managua on June 30, 2018.
People attend a march honoring children killed during protests in Managua, Nicaragua, on June 30, 2018. Photo: Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty Images.

Since late April, massive street protests have rocked Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's authoritarian regime, demanding his ouster. Ignoring calls for early elections and derailing peace talks with the civilian opposition alliance, Ortega has used police and paramilitary forces in a bid to win back the streets through brute force.

Why it matters: Regime repression has left over 200 dead and the economy is forecasted to shrink dramatically as a result of the unrest. Despite recent U.S. sanctions, the crisis will likely continue, with adverse consequences in Nicaragua and beyond.

The background: In the 1980s, Ortega was a key figure in the left-wing Sandinista Revolution. Since his election in 2006, however, he has abandoned his socialist ideology and implemented pro-business and socially conservative policies. With tacit support from his former foes in the country’s business elite, he brought all branches of government under his control. Nicaraguans acquiesced mostly because the regime brought stability and economic growth. But after a decade of sham elections and intolerance for dissent, tensions brewing beneath the surface boiled over.

While Ortega has gained some ground by using shock troops to clear the protestors' roadblocks and barricades, he also faces mounting pressures. U.S. sanctions, on their own, are not expected to have a major effect. But they add to the regime’s growing diplomatic isolation. The economic downturn and rising crime are weakening the government’s already scant popular support.

The military remains the X factor: It has not participated in the repression, nor has it disarmed the paramilitary bands that now roam the streets. Whether Ortega succeeds in quashing dissent, or is instead forced to make concessions, will likely depend on the armed forces.

What's next: Until recently, Nicaragua enjoyed relative stability and security compared with its drug-dominated neighbors in Central America's Northern Triangle. The deteriorating situation could create an opening for international organized crime and threatens to spawn a refugee crisis that would affect the whole region.

Mateo Jarquín is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Harvard University.

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