“This is the beginning of something much larger.”

Transcribed from the 26 May 2018 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

Nicaragua has been on the path of authoritarianism for some time—but it’s been a slow-drip process. There hasn’t been any spectacular or exceptional moment, someone seizing state power illegally. But the Ortega administration has been very deliberately and strategically refashioning the nation’s legal policies and political institutions in order to allow that administration to remain in power indefinitely.

Chuck Mertz: On April 19, a movement was born in Nicaragua, an uprising that nobody expected, and it was violently attacked by the government. Here to tell us what’s happening in Nicaragua and what this means for the current president and former revolutionary hero Daniel Ortega, visual artist Courtney Desiree Morris wrote the article “Unexpected Uprising: the Crisis of Democracy in Nicaragua,” which was published at the website of the North American Congress on Latin America, and also appeared in Jacobin as “Ortega on Trial.” Courtney is assistant professor of African-American studies and women’s gender and sexuality studies at Penn State.

Thanks for being on our show, Courtney, and welcome.

Courtney Morris: Thank you, Chuck, really good to be here.

Mertz: You write, “In recent weeks, tens of thousands of people—university students, pensioners, environmentalists, feminists, religious leaders, black and indigenous activists, journalists as well as leftwing and rightwing opposition groups—have flooded the streets of Nicaragua calling for the resignation of president Daniel Ortega and his wife, vice president Rosario Murillo. The protests have shocked the world and shaken Nicaraguan politics to its core.”

How much international media coverage is this story getting?

Morris: There has definitely been some international coverage of what’s been happening. There’s been pretty extensive coverage in the Guardian and other British newspapers. It is getting pretty extensive coverage internationally, and international human rights organizations are stepping into the fray and insisting on bringing an outside and neutral perspective to bear on what’s taking place there.

But part of what’s so frustrating about the lack of coverage in the mainstream US media is that the United States has a very long relationship with Nicaragua; the United States has played a critical role in much of what has happened in Nicaraguan political history, intervening militarily, economically, or politically at a number of crucial junctures. I’m thinking about what is unfolding in this moment as a product of our own ongoing relationship with Nicaragua, so to see the lack of engagement with what’s happening there right now has been frustrating for someone who works there and is really invested in understanding what’s taking place there.

Mertz: You write, “The unfolding crisis in Nicaragua has taken many, including the government, by surprise. Yet the conditions for this uprising have been in the making for more than a decade, and reveal a deepening crisis of legitimacy for the Ortega administration.”

If this crisis has been deepening for more than a decade, why is the government surprised this is happening? Or have the changes been slow, subtle, incremental, even pernicious, so that people just didn’t notice what was happening, either domestically or in the international community?

Morris: Like any political situation, there are a number of factors that are at play here, and the political situation in Nicaragua is quite complex. Part of the challenge is that Nicaragua has been on the path of authoritarianism for some time—but it’s been a slow-drip process. There hasn’t been any spectacular or exceptional moment, someone seizing state power illegally; it’s rather been a process of the Ortega administration very deliberately and strategically refashioning the nation’s legal policies and political institutions in order to allow that administration to remain in power indefinitely.

That the process has been a form of slow violence that has happened over time and in a fairly unexceptional way is part of the challenge. The other challenge, however, is that the FSLN has enjoyed some popularity in Nicaragua during Ortega’s administration because he’s been able to provide direct benefits to the poor in the form of social programs around education, health, housing, food sovereignty, and all of that. He has enjoyed quite a lot of popular support, because Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the hemisphere: people really rely on those programs, and the FSLN has been able to use that as a mode of leverage in electoral politics.

Mertz: You write, “On April 18, Ortega announced that the government, under executive order, would institute a series of reforms to the Nicaraguan social security institute, the INSS, which manages the nation’s pension fund and is teetering on the brink of insolvency. The reforms would increase the amount that employees and employers have to pay into the system, while cutting benefits to elderly pensioners by five percent. As John Lee Anderson notes in the New Yorker, ‘Public response was furious and swift, with demonstrators taking to the streets to protest the following day, April 19.’”

As a Nicaragua watcher, were you surprised at the April 19 movement?

Morris: I’m not surprised that Nicaraguans are in the streets demanding the restoration of democratic rule in Nicaraguan politics. I had anticipated that that would happen. But I was surprised by how quickly it happened, and I was surprised that it was social security reforms that seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

There have been a number of key political events that have led to this moment. The first was in 2013 when the government passed Law 840, which essentially gave a private corporation, the Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Group (run by an obscure Chinese multi-millionaire named Wang Jing), carte blanche to seize properties that would be necessary for the construction of an inter-oceanic canal linking the Atlantic and the Pacific. This was a law that would have endangered the property claims of poor rural farmers as well as the communal land claims of black and indigenous communities. There was also concern among environmentalists about the long term environmental repercussions of this, especially because Nicaragua is such an important center of biological and ecological diversity in Central America.

So when that law passed, there was immediate backlash to it. Something like thirty-eight lawsuits were filed against it. People were really outraged because they saw this as a betrayal of the nation’s sovereignty and its control over its own territory and resources.

The second thing that happened, earlier this year, was a wildfire that took place in the Indio Maíz biological reserve. It was allowed to rage for a couple of weeks, and the government refused to share any information about how it was handling it; it refused aid from Costa Rica to help put out the fire. People were really outraged at the government’s poor handling of this wildfire.

The casualties have been enormous. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported earlier this week that the death toll is now up to seventy people. There have been 168 people wounded. There have been 438 people detained and/or disappeared. People don’t know where their friends and colleagues and loved ones are.

So when the INSS reforms were announced, there was already a simmering base of discontent with the way that the state had been handling critical affairs related to territory and environmental justice. The INSS reforms compounded that already simmering discontent, and it erupted in a way that was really quite unpredictable. People could imagine an uprising coming eventually, but I don’t think anybody who’s been working there anticipated that this would be the thing that would inflame public sentiment and lead people to go and take it to the streets.

Mertz: What explains to you that poor handling of the wildfire, and what does that reveal to you about these protests being about more than just economic policies?

Morris: The Indio Maíz fire reveals how The Ortega administration has completely taken hold and pervades all political institutions in the country—all four major branches of government are controlled by the FSLN, the Frente Sandinista. The court system is controlled by the FSLN. The national assembly is controlled by the FSLN. The judiciary is controlled by the FSLN. And obviously they hold the executive. The Ortega administration has also made it a point to consolidate its hold over media in the country. They own five different television channels, something like a hundred radio stations; they’ve co-opted national newspapers. They use these media outlets as pro-government organs that allow them to present a much more palatable image of themselves to the public and to control the narrative about what’s taking place in the country politically and economically.

The protests are really responding to that culture of political and discursive repression in Nicaraguan society, so the debates are economic but they are also linked to a much deeper unrest and discontent with the state of democracy in Nicaragua right now.

Mertz: How much does the FSLN, then, accurately represent the 1980s Sandinista revolution? And what would you say to somebody who thinks Ortega and his government are nothing more than Somoza-light?

Morris: Some of the best sources for political analysis are coming from Confidencial. Confidencial was founded by Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who was a former Sandinista and editor of the Sandinista newspaper Barricada in the eighties, but has since broken with the Frente Sandinista and is now an opposition voice in Nicaraguan media and politics. I get a lot of my coverage from him as well as from reading La Prensa, which is more of a center-right newspaper that has historically been opposed to the Frente Sandinista.

If you read both those narratives about what’s taking place in Nicaragua, it is possible to find some common ground. What’s become apparent to many of us who work in Nicaragua as well as to Nicaraguans who are writing about what’s taking place there is that there’s not much left of the left in the Frente Sandinista. It operates in a fairly authoritarian style, and has done so since the nineties. Once the Frente Sandinista lost the 1990 elections and were voted out of power, Daniel Ortega basically made a commitment that the Frente Sandinista was going to govern from below. They would allow for the peaceful transfer of power (which was a historic event that had never taken place in the country’s history), but they were going to continue to wield a powerful influence on the shape and direction of Nicaraguan politics.

But it’s clear that the Frente Sandinista is not functioning in a democratic way. Daniel Ortega was able to position himself as the head of the party; he was able to purge members of the party who refused to declare loyalty to him. Many of them were people who had been critical of actions that the Frente Sandinista was taking, for example making pacts with the other governing party at the time, the Constitutional Liberal Party, which is a very rightwing conservative party.

They were also critical of the Frente Sandinista’s support for neoliberal policies that conservative governments in the 1990s took in Nicaragua, including liberalizing the market, opening up free trade zones, privatizing social services, and limiting the amount of government subsidies to social programs. People felt that these things were an essential part of the identity of the Frente Sandinista, and that they were being sacrificed in the name of political expediency.

The Frente Sandinista is not operating as a democratic organization. When Daniel returned to power in 2007, he immediately went about consolidating his hold on all of the political institutions I mentioned earlier, as well as continuing to uphold all of the neoliberal free trade agreements that had been passed by previous administrations, and quietly repaying debt while presenting himself publicly as an anti-imperialist Marxist firebrand. The performance and the policies don’t match up.

To defend the FSLN as a leftist party is a radical mis-characterization of what the party has actually been doing for the last sixteen years.

Mertz: I became an admirer of Daniel Ortega in the eighties, from what was happening in the Sandinista revolution, but also from reading Salman Rushdie’s Jaguar Smile. The Sandinista revolution of the eighties, in which Ortega played a major role, was rhetorically and politically (as well as violently) attacked by the Reagan and Bush administrations, but in the end Ortega and the revolution democratically took power.

Can Ortega and his supporters—or even those on the left here in the United States who might be apologists for the Ortega administration—accurately argue that the current uprising against Ortega has anything to do with the US? Because whenever anything happens anywhere, there are those who blame the US and take agency away from the local people who may have initiated this change.

Is the uprising a US-led CIA operation, or is it Nicaraguan-led?

When they make these comments about the protesters, claiming that they’re delinquents or criminals or CIA plants being used to destabilize the government, instead of taking responsibility for the violence that the state has unleashed on these protesters, they really reveal how out of touch they are with the fact that the vast majority of Nicaraguan people are outraged by what’s been taking place over the last month.

Morris: It’s hard to say that none of those elements are present. I haven’t heard any indications that they are, and I haven’t seen anything that’s led me to believe that’s the case. I believe this to be a popular, grassroots uprising.

The reasons I believe this are multiple: many of the people who are involved in the current uprising are people who have been involved in critiquing the Frente Sandinista and the Ortega/Murillo administration for quite some time. They didn’t just come out of nowhere. We’re talking about university students who have been really active in mobilizing. During the Indio Maíz wildfire, many of the people who were protesting and trying to pressure the government to handle that natural disaster in a more effective and efficient way were university students and environmentalists who had already been involved in these struggles.

The campesino movement that has emerged in Nicaragua since the passage of the canal law in 2013 had been holding many marches. They’ve conducted something like ninety marches to the capital from the eastern part of the country, where they walk on foot to the capital to demand the repeal of Law 840.

Black and indigenous activists, same thing. Feminist activists, same thing. These are not political actors who emerged out of nowhere overnight. They’ve been organizing for a long time. They’ve been very critical of the state for a long time. They’ve paid the price for that critique, and when this moment presented itself, it was a perfect storm of factors that allowed this long-standing critique to combine and articulate with popular dissatisfaction about how the INSS funds were being managed.

I also believe it is a grassroots movement because the United States has actually had very little investment in pursuing specific policies around what’s taking place in Nicaragua. Even with the debate around the US’s NICA [Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act], which would limit the Nicaraguan government’s access to international loans and aid—that law was debated in the house, it passed in the house, and it’s been sitting in the senate since the fall of 2016, doing nothing. The Trump administration has issued a very bland statement about the need for the government to restore peace and law and order, but has not made any indication that it’s interested in intervening in any sense beyond that.

Given those factors, it is my belief that this is an organic grassroots movement that expresses and reflects the popular opinion on the state of democracy in Nicaragua right now.

Mertz: You write, “The Ortega administration’s response to the protests was alarming and revealing. On April 19, vice president Rosario Murillo spoke about the protest during her daily midday address to the nation. In her talk she described the protests as an effort to ‘promote destruction and destabilization’ and decried the protests as ‘tiny groups that threaten peace and development with selfish, toxic political agendas and interests full of hate.’”

What do those comments by the vice president reveal to you about the Ortega administration? And how much are peace and development threatened by the protesters?

Morris: The protests have been quite difficult for the country. There’s no way to get around that. As we speak, there are blockades and barricades; protesters have erected barricades on most of the nation’s major highways and on the major thoroughfares in the nation’s cities. I saw a Facebook post from a colleague from Bluefields this morning, and he said they were running low on milk, running low on sugar, running low on gas. The barricades are blocking access for consumer goods that people need. But in the same post he said, “We want a free and democratic Nicaragua, and if this is the price we have to pay for democracy, then I’m okay with it.”

So yes. Does it present problems? Absolutely. Is it disruptive? Without a doubt. But I also think that part of the problem with Daniel Ortega’s and Rosario Murillo’s responses to this uprising is that they have revealed themselves to be incredibly tone-deaf. The casualties from this conflict have been enormous. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported earlier this week that the death toll is now up to seventy people. There have been 168 people wounded. There have been 438 people detained and/or disappeared. People don’t know where their friends and colleagues and loved ones are.

That’s quite distressing. Still, Ortega and Murillo have used rhetoric of peace and love and solidarity and Christian charity and kindness that does not match the reality of what’s actually taking place in the street. Anti-riot police officers have fired into crowds and killed protesters. Government-sponsored paramilitary organizations (called turbas in the Nicaraguan press) have attacked protesters who were protesting peacefully, and the state has done nothing.

When they make these comments about the protesters, claiming that they’re delinquents or criminals or CIA plants being used to destabilize the government, instead of taking responsibility for the violence that the state has unleashed on these protesters, they really reveal how out of touch they are with the fact that the vast majority of Nicaraguan people are outraged by what’s been taking place over the last month.

This is the beginning of something much larger; this has unleashed a crisis in legitimacy that I don’t think the Ortega administration will ever recover from.

Mertz: How much is this not only about class, but also about race?

Morris: I’ve been working in Nicaragua since about 2004. I went there as an undergrad, and I had a very different experience than most people who go to Nicaragua, because I didn’t spend most of my time in Managua. I spent most of my time in the country, on the Caribbean coast, living in a city called Bluefields, which is the home of the largest population of Afro-descendant peoples in the country, and is also home to several indigenous groups as well as mestizos or what we would call Hispanic Nicaraguans in the United States.

The experience that black people have had with the Nicaraguan state has always been characterized by state violence, authoritarian rule, and economic exploitation. My understanding of Nicaraguan politics is really developed from that vantage point, and absorbing the perspectives of black and indigenous peoples who have always viewed the Nicaraguan government with a sense of skepticism and distrust.

Over the last thirty years, there have been major changes in the relationships that black and indigenous people have to the Nicaraguan government. During the 1980s, black and indigenous people were involved in the struggle against the Sandinista government. There were people who served for the Frente Sandinista, working in the Juventud Sandinista or working in different social organizations associated with the revolutionary government. But there were also a large number of black and indigenous people who went to serve with the counterrevolutionary forces working to destabilize the Sandinista government.

All the people who were involved in the counterrevolution were involved in it for a variety of political reasons, and black and indigenous people were involved because they had a long-standing historic grievance against the Nicaraguan state for the loss of territory that they occupied on the Caribbean coast. So in 1987, Nicaragua became the first Latin American country to pass a series of constitutional multicultural citizenship reforms that recognize the specific cultural and territorial and political rights of black and indigenous peoples in the country. This was a major achievement. Not one Latin American country had done this prior to the passage of this law, the Autonomy Statute, Law 28.

Black and indigenous people have been using the autonomy statute as a way to advocate for their claims ever since, but the state has for many years refused to recognize their territorial claims. Now they are concerned about the way that the Frente Sandinista, under the Ortega administration, has engaged in a politics of multicultural recognition where they say, “Yes, you are culturally different, you have a right to your own language, you have a right to your own customary legal practices, you have a right to your own territory,” but at the same time it’s also passing laws like the Law 840 that radically undermine black and indigenous communal territorial claims.

So black and indigenous people, along with environmental and feminist groups and journalists, have become some of the most vocal critics of the Ortega administration. They were involved in filing a number of the lawsuits following the passage of Law 840, and as the protests have unfolded since April they’ve been very active on social media—Facebook and Twitter in particular—sharing what’s happening, disseminating information about protests that are happening on the coasts as well as elsewhere, and articulating their demands for what they want to see come out of this conflict.

It’s been a really interesting moment, because black and indigenous people have historically been marginalized political voices in debates over the future of Nicaraguan nationhood. But this is a political moment where for the first time their voices are really being heard and engaged by the broader public in a way that is fairly unprecedented. For me as an anthropologist working there for many years, it’s been really exciting to see that happen. Its not a seamless process, but it’s one that is rife with political possibility.

Mertz: To what degree are the protesters making similar if not the same demands as Ortega did when he was in the Sandinista revolution? To what extent is Ortega at war with his own revolution?

Morris: For those of us who are students of Nicaraguan history, there’s a lot of resonance, so many parallels between this moment and the moment in 1979 when the Sandinista revolution triumphed, 19 July 1979. But if we really want to understand the success of the Sandinista revolution, we have to go back to 1978. In 1978, the Somoza regime made the fatal mistake of assassinating a journalist named Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. He was the founder of La Prensa, which is one of the still-existing opposition newspapers, and killing him proved to be an epic miscalculation that the Somoza regime later paid for.

The outrage that that assassination produced played a significant role in shifting the tide of popular opinion so that the idea of an armed uprising against the longest-running dictatorship in the Americas went from being a Marxist pipedream to a material reality that the state had to deal with. Watching these protests now, it’s hard to predict where things are going to go, because if nothing else, Nicaragua has proven throughout its history to be deeply unpredictable, but I do think this is the beginning of something much larger; this has unleashed a crisis in legitimacy that I don’t think the Ortega administration will ever recover from.

I’m curious to see how things unfold, but is the possibility for a deeper popular uprising possible? I would say absolutely it is. It depends on what Daniel and Rosario decide to do.

Mertz: Courtney, thank you so much for being on our show this week.

Morris: Thank you so much for having me, Chuck.

Featured image source: @ProtestaNica (Twitter)

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