April 20 protests in Managua
April 20 protests in Managua
Benjamin Witte

-Analysis-

Nicaragua's crafty caudillo, Daniel Ortega, has weathered the storm — for now at least. But his grip on power is certainly not what it was before the dramatic developments of the past two weeks.

The student-led protests that erupted on April 18 against changes to the country's pension system left 46 dead after a violent crackdown by state security forces and pro-government thugs. The victims include several teenagers and a journalist, who was gunned down while streaming live on Facebook.

For the moment, protests have quieted after the country's embattled leader changed course on his original pension decision and agreed to a "national dialogue" proposed by the Catholic Church. The standoff, as a result, "is moving from the streets to the negotiating table," the Miami Herald reported on Tuesday.

Tensions remain high, however. And the outcome of the upcoming talks is anything but certain. The president's opponents say that after 11 straight years in power, Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, need to go. And yet, few have any real hope that the veteran Sandinista — who also led the country in the 1980s, first as head of a post-revolutionary junta government, then as president — will heed that call.

There is still a gaping leadership void among the Nicaraguan opposition.

Ortega and Murillo control every branch of government, along with the police and armed forces and many of the country's media outlets, and are virtually unchallenged with regards to formal political opposition. Control over the hearts and minds of the Nicaraguan people, as the recent unrest demonstrated, is another story. That was the message the students and others involved in the unexpected wave of protests delivered so resoundingly.

"The demonstrators haven't just lost their fear of the regime. They've also stolen its symbols — all of them," Carlos Dada, co-founder of the award-winning Salvadoran news site El Faro, wrote on April 30. "They march singing songs of the Sandinista revolution; they've torn down the trees of life sculptures the government erected in the capital Managua to plant real ones; they recite poetry by Ernesto Cardenal."

The fact remains, however, that there is still a gaping leadership void among the Nicaraguan opposition. Can mobilized university students take on that role? The history that they themselves helped write demands that they do, according to Dada. "They ought to give shape to the improvised revolt, but they're tired, infiltrated and suspicious of each other," the journalist wrote.

The other question moving forward is what, if anything, will be the consequences of dozens of people killed last month. It was a "bloodbath," Carlos Fernando Chamorro, director of the Nicaraguan news magazine Confidencial, wrote in an opinion piece published Thursday. "And it shouldn't go unpunished." And yet, so far there's little to indicate that authorities will seek accountability. That question, indeed, may wind up weighing far more heavily on Ortega's destiny than pension reform ever did.

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