Several days of protests and street battles with the police in Nicaragua over a social security reform left many dead and wounded. Nicaragua analyst Dan La Botz argues the government is to blame, for having set up an authoritarian system that has led to many grievances
GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. Violent protests and clashes with the police rocked Nicaragua for at least five days last week. Somewhere between eleven and twenty-five people are said to have been killed during the protests, with each side blaming the other. The initial cause of the protest was opposition to a reform to the country’s social security system. However, demonstrators rapidly took on other issues in the course of the protests. Then, on Monday, President Daniel Ortega announced that he’s scrapping the social security reform and called for peace negotiations. Exactly what is happening in Nicaragua has been somewhat confusing. The government and its supporters are saying that right wing forces are attempting to overthrow the Ortega government. Others say that the protesters are raising legitimate concerns against a corrupt government. Joining me to help make sense of what is happening is Dan La Botz. Dan is author of the book, “What Went Wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis,” which was first published in 2016, but comes out now with a paperback edition this month. He’s also an editor of New Politics: A Journal of Socialist Thought, and he teaches at The City University of New York. Thanks for joining us today Dan.
DAN LA BOTZ: Good to be with you. Thanks for asking me.
GREG WILPERT: So, as I said in the introduction, the issues involving Nicaragua seem rather confusing. So, let’s start with the initial cause of the protests, the social security reform. What was being proposed, and what are the protesters opposed to in this case?
DAN LA BOTZ: Proposed was to raise the cost of this social security program to both employers and workers. It’s a dual contribution system. But at the same time, with not increasing, and in fact perhaps decreasing, the social security pension. So, workers are angry they’re going to have to pay more for less. Businesses were angry, too. And so, there was a very strong reaction against this. But I think it also has to be seen in a wider context of the general poverty that exists in Nicaragua. It’s one of the poorest countries in Latin America, usually in a class with Haiti and Bolivia. So, I think that forms part of the context, and this is the classic neoliberal kind of response to a problem in a so-called entitlement program, which is to try to get working people to pay for it.
GREG WILPERT: So then, as I mentioned, the protests have expanded. And so, now it seems like there are students behind it as well, but also the business community, as you mentioned. So, why have these protests expanded in scope? In other words, not being just against the social security reform, but against other issues, and what are those other issues?
DAN LA BOTZ: Well, let’s take the farmers. The farmers are now proposing a national strike. And remarkably, they’re proposing the national strike until the students’ demands are met. Well, why would farmers be in this? Well, as people know, Daniel Ortega, a couple of years ago- a few years ago, proposed, with Chinese financing, to build a transoceanic canal, another Panama Canal, to put it that way, that would go through Nicaragua.
This led to protests since 2014 by farmers and by environmentalists. Those protests were also met with government repression, in some cases, beatings. And so, the farmers have their issues that have to do with the canal, but also other issues that have to do, again, with people who live in rural Nicaragua. Fifty percent of them live in poverty. This is really extreme poverty with an income of about two dollars a day. So, I think there’s the broader context, again, of poverty. Students, of course, are a different kind of a social group. But they are a group that have demands that both have to do with their education and the financing of education, with democracy, and with their criticism of the government.
Women and feminist groups have also been involved. Daniel Ortega has had a long alliance with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, and sort of co-president, Rosario Murillo, have worked to harass the women’s movement and to support anti-abortion laws in Nicaragua. If you went back to 2008, there were strikes by truck drivers and taxi drivers that were similarly repressed by the police, the truck drivers beaten, their truck windows broken. So, we have a decade of protest by different social sectors. In Nicaragua, workers, women, students, farmers. And I think what we’re seeing now is that the social security issue has provided tinder for this, has provided a spark that has lit this material.
GREG WILPERT: Supporters of government are saying that the U.S. has long funneled millions of dollars into the Nicaraguan opposition. What do you think of that? I mean, to what extent is it credible or possible that the U.S. is somehow also supporting the movement against Ortega?
DAN LA BOTZ: I think the U.S. government is caught flat footed, like Ortega’s government has been caught flat footed. That is, it’s altogether possible. You know, if a right-winger in the U.S. State Department of Bolton sees what’s happening, of course they’re going to see what they can do here. They can see problems in Nicaragua. But I think we have to understand, Daniel Ortega has had very strong and close relations with the Nicaraguan business community. He has allied with it, he became part of it. When the Sandinistas went out of business in 1990, because of that election, where they lost the election, he formed an alliance with Antonio Lacayo, the son-in-law of Violeta Chamorro, who is the president. The two of them continued for many years to run a very pro-business atmosphere.
Ortega is not running a government that business people, or that the United States government, would have to hate. Not to say that because of- it’s really because of his alliance with Cuba, or with Venezuela, or with Bolivia, that they would be down on Ortega. But Ortega is pursued, and Ortega still receives funding from U.S. government agencies. Nicaragua has been dependent, for many years, on contributions that come from social democratic countries in Europe, Sweden, and so on, historically, that came from U.S. agencies, including under the Ortega presidencies. So, I don’t see it. I don’t really see that the United States is responsible, and I think that this is that this is a mistaken way to look at it. We ought to look at this as a popular rebellion.
Of course, the business class is going to try to put itself at the at the leadership of it, maybe make a deal with Ortega, working people in Nicaragua. I don’t see a working class leadership for this movement. That’s the sad thing, you know, that the Ortega government has monopolized, it controls the presidency, controls the national legislature, controls the Supreme Court. Ortega’s in his fourth term as president, three consecutive terms. He runs it is a family operation, very similar to Trump. His children have high positions in the government, they run the various television stations the family’s bought, they show up at international meetings, where they’re not diplomats of the country, and sit at the table, very much like Trump’s children. So, I think that this should be seen as a popular rebellion against an authoritarian and pro-business government, a conservative government allied with the Catholic Church and we should- and I think the interesting question is, are we on the eve of a second Nicaraguan revolution? I don’t think one can say that, that would be very premature, but when you see such a national upheaval, and today we see these calls for a national student strike, a national strike by farmers, huge demonstrations of thousands of people in the street. The U.S. embassy closing its offices and sending people home to get them the hell out of there. This seems that this is an event that we should be watching very carefully.
GREG WILPERT: Just want to touch on the issue you mentioned, that Ortega has an alliance with a business association, also known as COSEP. Do these protests signify that COSEP has turned against Ortega, that there might be a break between Ortega and COSEP?
DAN LA BOTZ: That’s possible. I think business people don’t like it when their taxes are raised, and this is a kind of form of taxation, to call for them to make larger contributions to the social security system. Whether or not that signals a deep break, I think that would- I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think we know, I think you have to see how things develop. Now, what’s very interesting to me, is there’s so many resemblances to the fall of the Somoza period, where suddenly you had the business lobby, the Catholic Church, the Cardinal Léonard Denis becoming involved, and so on, and popular actors, such as the social movements of students and farmers. So, what’s going to happen as these various forces vie with each other, I don’t think is clear. I wouldn’t say right now we have to say the business community is breaking with Ortega, they’re calling for a meeting with him, and they want the church to be the mediator of that.
GREG WILPERT: Just very quickly, in the last few minutes- the last minute that we have left, I just want to also ask you about Ortega’s popularity. He was reelected in 2016 with seventy-two percent of the vote. Now, how do you interpret that? I mean, what does it mean for his own popularity with the population in general?
DAN LA BOTZ: I think I’m very doubt- you know, you get elected with seventy percent of the vote in a country that’s very much like Mexico, in a country where the government controlled every institution in government, controlled all the popular organizations, engages in a mass mobilization with a very apolitical, post-revolutionary young people. I saw and talked to many of these young people in Nicaragua at the time when I was there working on my book. Not very political people. Willing to go out and demonstrate for a hat, for a T-shirt, maybe for a lunch, for a handout. I don’t buy the popularity of seventy percent is indicating that he was an enormously popular guy. I think it indicated that he had a very strong political machine in an authoritarian country. Porfirio Díaz, the dictator of Mexico, Mexican presidents ever since and since the Mexican Revolution up until the reforms of the late seventies, the Mexican presidents always had great popularity and were reelected. I think we should look at this that way.
GREG WILPERT: Okay, well we’ll leave it there for now. I was speaking to Dan La Botz, author of the book, “The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis.” Thanks again, Dan, for having joined us today.
DAN LA BOTZ: And thank you, Greg, for inviting me. Nice to talk with you. Take care.
GREG WILPERT: And thank you, for joining The Real News Network.