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April 2023, five years later: the challenges to achieving Ortega's exit from power

A medium-term national resistance strategy is urgent, as is reinvigorating pressure by the international community.

Abril 2018

La Rebelión de Abril de 2018 sigue marcando la vida de los nicaragüenses. Foto: Confidencial | Archivo.

Manuel Orozco

12 de abril 2023

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It has been five years since the outbreak of the April Rebellion in Nicaragua. The civic insurrection that demanded an end to the dictatorship, with justice and a process of democratization, was crushed by the ever-increasing intensification of repression by Daniel Ortega's regime. 

Unfortunately, the reality is that authoritarian continuity is the dominant trend in the country, and there are no feasible options for change in the short term. The majority forces that can change the balance of power so as to clear the way for an electoral democratic transition in 2023 or 2026 are dispersed, repressed under a police state, and lack a coordinated strategy for resistance and political change. Despite the regime having only minority support, the balance of power favors it because it controls the repressive apparatus and has the economic resources to stay in power as it attempts a dynastic succession.


The changes required to achieve at least a 50-50% balance of power are many. Despite the recent release from prison of the national political leadership, there remains an absence of discussion of a strategy and plan of action to align the factions of political change.

There is also a lack of counterweight in terms of the the international community coming together with Nicaraguan democratic civic forces to define a medium-term strategy to reverse this situation and to place the Nicaraguan crisis at the top of the global agenda, in such a way that egos and group interests will finally be subordinated in favor of the national interest.

Daniel Ortega's type of regime  

Daniel Ortega's regime is in the stage of consolidation of a dynastic, authoritarian and totalitarian system. This consolidation is having dramatic consequences for Nicaraguan society in many areas, causing economic slowdown, migration, internal humanitarian crisis, culture of fear, violence and indifference. 

At this point, only the elite big capital class has not been directly affected. This is because the regime considers it a necessary economic evil, one they will get rid of once the system has consolidated its own elite, which is currently under construction. The criminalization of democracy and the radicalization of authoritarianism have become extremely debilitating and destructive, pushing Nicaraguans to leave the country or look for external solutions.

A regional appetite to bypass having to deal with democratic checks and balances 

Although international pressure is vitally important, the Latin American regional political muscle of the Inter-American system in the OAS has been weak.  From the U.S. and Canadian side, pressure has focused on individual and sectoral international sanctions, but with little continuity. 

The menu of options to pressure the regime has not been fully utilized with respect to Nicaragua's non-compliance with CAFTA agreements, the fight against disinformation, the Russian threat, sanctions against hundreds of human rights violators and accomplices to corruption, among other issues, all of which are covered by the US Renacer Act.

In Central America, and the Latin American region in general, very few countries are willing to pressure the Ortega regime. Most show an appetite for bypassing the checks and balances of democratic rule of law, rather than being faithful to these principles. Neighboring countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which could exert great pressure on Ortega, are more attached to an obsession with 'imperial presidentialism' and co-opting their countries' political institutions, smearing opponents, leveling false accusations against them, and then criminalizing constitutional rights and eliminating dissent. 

Outside Central America, political tensions have distracted attention from Ortega's radicalism. Political instability in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia show no signs of changing in the short term. Haiti's humanitarian crisis doesn't have many substantial settlement options in the face of insecurity, criminality, economic disaster and migration. Maduro's dictatorship in Venezuela is negotiating its authoritarian continuity and creating false images of transition and stability. 

The governments of Boric, Petro, and Lula are having great difficulty in achieving modernizing economic relief for their citizens. Political and economic corruption in Argentina has worsened so much that the eyes of the world are on that country, while Mexico maintains a complacent relationship with the dictatorship in Nicaragua. The countries in Democratic Alliance of Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and the Dominican Republic are faced with the political dilemma of how to increase their competitiveness within the democratic and populist environment of their regional and internal ecosystems.

There are no more than five of the 34 countries in the Americas that could be considered functionally and substantially democratic. This means that any regional approach to Nicaragua is neutralized by an unwillingness of most countries to risk being caught in the crosshairs. 

The noise of globalization is exhausting and debilitating

The world is experiencing one of the most consequential waves of globalization in terms of the real time "butterfly effect" that is impacting the daily lives of the world's citizens – economically, politically and environmentally. 

The threats posed by Russia and China are neither accidental, nor temporary, nor lightweight. These countries have dedicated themselves, each on their own, to promoting imperial presidentialism, without any real institutional checks and balances, subordinating public opinion to the post-truth model that everything is in question. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has reversed regional stability in Eurasia, affecting the military balance and raising the threat of unconventional warfare. Meanwhile, China is interested in gradually taking global control. It presents itself as the neutral diplomatic partner, while promoting its political model as a valid way to govern in the rest of the world. For China, commercial and technological control is part of a global strategy that will include arms sales, and eventually there will be Chinese footprints around the world, changing global geopolitics towards anti-democratic tendencies.

Global tensions continue to rise as geopolitical interests are in conflict, the appetite for democracy has declined globally, organized crime is more pervasive, ecological balance is at risk, and modernization efforts are not in sync with or fulfilling social demand, provoking growing protests.

Nicaraguan political culture

Political history for Nicaraguans has been almost exclusively one of living with non-democratic regimes, with repressive systems, with a strong history of 'pacts' or exclusionary and short-term political arrangements – all with a strong clientelist or transactional sense of politics. Since the 20th century Nicaragua has not had more than 20 years of real democracy, and those decades have been interrupted in some cases. Nicaraguan citizens have lived with political parties who possess precarious political capital and representativity, and they are often distrustful of the political offers of leaders.

One of the consequences is that when democratic forces come together, they bring with them the inheritance of these deficiencies and project them at the moment of forming an organization. The ability to form a democratic bloc continues to be undermined by mistrust and fear of the political risk of placing trust in potential partners, and so instead, efforts at unification are overtaken by a kind of opportunism that attempts to eliminate the potential partner, resulting in a self-destructive dynamic.

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This process of elimination is both individual and collective, and ends up disqualifying all leaders, fragmenting all levels of political organization to such an extreme that the country is unable to identify with a representation of a popular or legitimate critical mass. The only “business card” a leader has is the image that he or she tries to sell to his or her constituents. 

The result is that political egos and systemic distrust undermine the national priority of democratic change and reduce the probability of assembling a political bloc with a critical mass that is representative, popular, legitimate and active.

How to get out of this situation: the challenge of changing the balance of power

The consolidation of totalitarianism, although not sustainable in the long term –that is, ten more years– will cause permanent damage in Nicaragua, making democratic reconstruction very difficult, as it will require reversing decades that have been lost, in a disintegrated, impoverished and politically unstable country. 

This is why the role of the international community is so key and why it requires a different positioning of the Nicaraguan crisis.

The treatment of Nicaragua in the international and foreign policy sphere requires integrating a response that is proportional to the level of repression of this type of regime. That is, it requires a more precise, synchronized and tiered approach. 

This means treating Nicaragua as if it were Afghanistan, Syria, or North Korea, among other failed states. 

This points to the necessity of two parallel responses. First, the conventional one of political pressure against repression, both material pressure (economic, sanctions, international justice), and diplomatic pressure (offers of mediation, recognition of civic groups and of dissidence within the regime). All points that have been highlighted on previous occasions. 

We also need a more unconventional response tailored to these oppressive and totalitarian systems, one that can aggressively combat disinformation and censorship, and can bring human rights violators before international courts of justice.

Similarly, both the recently released civic leaders and those who have continued the struggle both inside and outside Nicaragua are facing the challenge to form an organized political bloc. The moment of egos, personal protagonism, and presidential pretensions must be postponed and subordinated to the formidable priorities of civic resistance and the struggle for democracy. 

This political bloc must fully commit itself to implementing a political strategy to restore self-esteem and hope to Nicaraguans, using communication, mobilization and political organization, and needs to put the interests of the poorest Nicaraguans at the forefront. 

Political alliances are vital, not to promote a leader or a candidate, but rather to strengthen the political struggle and the strategy of civic resistance, which includes understanding the central role that the Nicaragua diaspora plays in resolving this crisis.

Democratic leaders need to be vehicles, not agents of political change. The only viable agent at this time is an organized political bloc, coordinated by several actors, not by a single individual.

This is the moment for strategic resistance by those actors who are inside Nicaragua. Big capital has to define its support, taking risks just like all other sectors of the country have done, by tacitly showing the importance of change. Their silence is indefensible and at this point could be interpreted as complicity with the regime, although it perhaps stems from a lack of leadership. At the very least, business leaders need to express an organic link with the democratic forces, whether they like them or not. They need to express their positions and support. The change in the balance of power greatly depends on them. 

The Catholic Church hierarchy has to protect its parishioners and priests, and that does not happen with silence and submission to the system. The Catholic faith demands spiritual and exemplary resistance from its leaders. Public servants, including disgruntled members of the security forces, also have a role in exposing corruption, clientelism, fear, and abuses of authority. 

Strategic resistance does not require vociferating or barking in public. It requires investing as much energy as possible, as a silent majority that expresses itself –and protects itself– through tactical methods that weaken the regime with each passing day. Yes, it is possible to reverse the balance of power as long as there are equal measures of proactive mobilization by both the international community and the democratic civic opposition as an organized bloc, with a strategy to support those Nicaraguans who are suffering the consequences of corruption, poor-quality jobs,  impoverishment, and lack of opportunities.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff. 

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Manuel Orozco

Manuel Orozco

Politólogo nicaragüense. Director del programa de Migración, Remesas y Desarrollo de Diálogo Interamericano. Tiene una maestría en Administración Pública y Estudios Latinoamericanos, y es licenciado en Relaciones Internacionales. También, es miembro principal del Centro para el Desarrollo Internacional de la Universidad de Harvard, presidente de Centroamérica y el Caribe en el Instituto del Servicio Exterior de EE. UU. e investigador principal del Instituto para el Estudio de la Migración Internacional en la Universidad de Georgetown.

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