BY: KATIE DOBOSZ KENNEY
Today, the scope of international relations feels much more like a throwback to the Cold War rather than the year 2018. Classic adversaries like the United States and Russia are prominently featured in international news outlets, and old proxy-war stomping grounds are still playing out issues with deep roots in the Cold War era. Nicaragua is one such place, where protests against President Daniel Ortega, elected for the first time in 1984, have led to violence, imprisonment, and Nicaraguans fleeing for safety.
In 1979, the US backed Somoza dictatorship was toppled by the Marxist Sandinista National Liberation Front. The result was a decade-long war in which the Contras, a US backed right-wing opposition group and a Soviet backed FSLN violently vied for government control. It was during this period that current Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega rose to power. Ortega was not re-elected when the war ended in 1990, despite running several times, but he continued to exercise control over the Marxist Sandinista strongholds on young people and unions. In 2007, Ortega was elected president again, his second term since 1984, and began consolidating power, creating close ties with the private sector and cozying up to the powerful clergy in the Catholic Church – positions which seem at odds with his continued allegiance to the Marxist Sandinista movement and heads of state in Venezuela, Cuba, and Iran.
Under President Ortega and his Vice-President/wife Rosario Murillo, the government has imposed control over the oil industry, telecommunications companies including news stations, and other private sector projects. And though the Nicaragua had experienced positive economic growth in the last few years, the current crisis has halted thriving economic sectors like the tourist industry along Nicaragua’s coastal cities, including the capital city of Managua.
The current crisis began in April 2018 with protests led by university students against the Ortega Administration’s decision to increase contributions into the national social security program while decreasing amounts and benefits received by individuals. But these protests are steeped in discontent with the Ortega/Murillo support of fraudulent elections at the local level and sweeping control of the Supreme Court and the National Assembly. Even though the protests have been largely peaceful, they have led to violent crackdowns by government police and paramilitary organizations, the latter of which Ortega denies any connection to. Since April, approximately 300 have died, many of whom are young adults, thousands have been imprisoned, and an estimated 23,000 are seeking refuge and asylum in neighboring Costa Rica. Ortega believes that resigning before his term is over in 2021 would plunge the country into chaos and anarchy, and has even go so far as to fire over 100 doctors who treated anti-government protesters.
The political crises we are seeing today in post-Colonial and post-Cold War nations share many of the same characteristics – a lifetime or longstanding president aiming to further consolidate power, often through changes to the constitution; extending their term limits; crackdowns on liberties such as freedom to peacefully assembly, freedom of expression and speech; and paramilitary organizations that often insight terror through violence and intimidation. Burundi, Mali, North Korea, Zimbabwe, China, Bolivia are all examples. If this variety of political crisis is relatively ubiquitous, the international community will need to play an integral role in helping bring the corruption and violence to a swift end, especially in the face of grave human rights violations.
In Nicaragua, concerns for human rights violations sparked an investigation and report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights submitted a to the Organization of American States detailing human rights abuses that range from repression and violations of personal liberty to cruel, inhumane treatment, denial of medical care, and murder disproportionately affecting Nicaragua’s youth population, including the death of two young men, shot outside of a besieged Catholic church on July 14.
The Catholic Church has positioned themselves to act as an intermediary between the government and the anti-government movement, despite Ortega’s direct attacks on the church and members of the clergy, who have openly denounced Ortega’s actions and violence. Ingrained in the fabric of Nicaraguan culture, the Church is well positioned to act this capacity, especially as Ortega’s primary ally in the Church hierarchy, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo passed away on June 3. Cardinal Obando y Bravo had been elevated to the status of political minister under Ortega, further consolidating the power of the government through the Church.
Calls for a cessation of the violence have come from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres as well as the United Nations Human Rights Council. The United States has sanctioned three top officials, none of whom are President Ortega or Vice-President Murillo. A conversation about asylum eligibility for the thousands fleeing violence is unlikely to be initiated by the White House. However, some experts think that economic sanctions are the best leverage for change, and that the World Bank and the IMF should spearhead such efforts; the World Bank is still set to roll out the Country Partnership Strategy from 2018-2022.
Condemnation of violent action of a government against its people should be a given and the global standard for safeguarding legitimate democratic processes should be at the forefront of every international institution’s agenda. The era of lifetime dictators and despots posing as democratically elected presidents needs to come to an end. The foreign, often western powers, who aided in laying the foundation for many of these crises during the Cold War owe the citizens of those nations action to mitigate, end, and prevent future violence.
Katie Dobosz Kenney holds an MS in Global Affairs from New York University with a concentration in Peacebuilding. An educator for almost 10 years, Katie had developed global and peace education curricula in Florida, Mississippi, and Timor-Leste. Katie currently works as a graduate program administrator at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and has co-led study abroad programs to South Africa and the UAE.
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