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EL ESPECTADOR

Ortega As Maduro? Nicaraguan Unrest Mirrors Venezuela

Protests in Nicaragua against a proposed tax hike to finance the social security system have revealed the people's disgust with President Ortega's regime. His brutal response does not bode well.

Looted supermarket on April 22 in Managua
Looted supermarket on April 22 in Managua

-Editorial-

Nicaragua"s President Daniel Ortega is facing major turmoil and rioting across the country, with at least 25 left dead, some 70 injured and many more arrested after days of clashes. Nicaraguan security forces have been indiscriminate in suppressing peaceful protests against the government's proposed reforms to the social security system. This prompted the Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez, to call for an immediate end to repression, though just as in the 1970s, in the worst days of the rule of the Somoza family dictatorship, Ortega's authoritarian regime continues to resort to force in order to remain in power.

Ortega indicated late Sunday that he would scrap the new tax in response to the unrest. Still, more relevant is that the situation in Nicaragua is not unlike the events of recent years in Venezuela — another socialist country and Managua's close partner in Latin American and international affairs. On April 18, a group of citizens using social networking sites organized a peaceful gathering to voice their discontent against a government decision to cut pensions by 5% and raise personal income and business taxes in order to gather some $250 million for the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS). The protesters' fear was that employers would respond by cutting their employees' wages or dismiss workers.

Ortega, a former defender of workers' rights and ostensibly a lifelong leftist, chose the use of force over dialogue with the people. Does he wish to provide dramatic proof of the adage that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it? Riot police opened fire on some 2,000 young protesters, as looting and ransacking of supermarkets spread around the country.

He has been following the Venezuelan model with some variations.

Certainly, since taking power, Ortega has been building power structures around himself that have violated the rule of law. He has been following the Venezuelan model with some variations. He has concentrated in his own hands the powers of public institutions, the three branches and even the electoral body, canceling out constitutional checks and balances. This means that all institutional decisions effectively require his prior approval — when they do not literally follow his instructions — while army and police are in a state of blind obedience.

Managua's "Trees of Life" — Photo: Jens Kalaene/DPA/ZUMA

Contrary to Venezuela, Ortega made his peace with the Church and business community. His former enemy, the Archbishop of Managua Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, has become a close ally. The business sector adopted a pragmatic position by staying out of politics. Now, as the Church demands an end to the repression, business leaders grouped in the Higher Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), have refused to talk to the government. Cosep has stated its "total backing to all young people and the general population who have peacefully mobilized and protested to defend their principles and rights."

People have raised barricades against the police with cobblestones — just as their forebears did against the right-wing Somozas. Elsewhere they have been knocking down the "Trees of Life" or metal sculptures with the first lady Rosario Murillo's stamp all over them. It all indicates generalized dissatisfaction with a regime that does not respect the rules of democratic and institutional government, and which wants to hold on to power at all costs. Like with Maduro, it's getting lonely at the top for Ortega.

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