Since April 18, 2018, the government of Nicaragua has carried out a crackdown on its citizens and non-government organizations characterized by disproportionate use of force by police; enforced disappearances; widespread arbitrary detentions; torture and ill-treatment; and violations of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and of peaceful assembly. Citizens attempting to exercise fundamental rights have suffered violence carried out by police, government-sanctioned paramilitaries, and pro-government mobs.
Although many international and religious bodies have attempted to mediate the worsening crisis, the government of President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo—Ortega’s wife—has continued to escalate its crackdown by targeting civil society leaders, cancelling the registration of NGOs focused on democracy and human rights, and forcibly closing independent media outlets. In July 2018, the National Assembly passed terrorism and national security legislation to cover unprecedented arbitrary arrests.
According to the CIVICUS Monitor, the state of civic space in the country is “repressive.” The Monitor notes: “Free expression is being damaged due to the construction of a media empire in the hands of the president’s family, the disciplining of critical media through the arbitrary allocation of state advertising, extreme secrecy and a tight control on the flow of public information.”
Protests first began in April 2018 over proposed Social Security reforms that would cut retirees’ pensions by 5%. State security agents responded to these student-led protests with excessive force, killing three and arbitrarily arresting many more. Although President Ortega attempted to reverse the social security reforms quickly thereafter, the protests soon spread throughout the country and evolved to demand Ortega’s resignation. Protesters alleged systematic abuses of power by Ortega and his party, who have gradually dismantled democratic institutions in the country since Ortega’s return to the presidency in 2006.
Figures concerning number of deaths, injuries, and arbitrary detentions vary widely due to the government’s suppression of credible fact-finding missions. The Organization of American States (OAS)—an intergovernmental organization comprised of the 35 independent states in the Americas—recognized 317 deaths as a result of protests between April and August 2018.
In December 2018, the National Assembly of Nicaragua cancelled the legal registration of several prominent civil society organizations that work to strengthen democracy and human rights, and that have also been critical of Ortega’s government. On December 14, 2018, several of the targeted organizations, along with media outlet Confidencial, reported illegal raids without a warrant by State Security on their offices. As a result of these developments, Nicaragua’s ranking in the annual Democracy Index fell from a flawed regime to a full authoritarian regime—joining only Cuba and Venezuela in the region.
On March 16, 2019, paramilitary forces attacked a demonstration calling for the release of political prisoners and arrested 164 protesters. Among those arrested was World Movement Steering Committee member Sofia Montenegro. Read our full DemocracyAlert on the attack here.