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Survey: 81% of Nicaraguans Afraid to Voice Their Opinion and 50% Want to Migrate

Eliseo Núñez and Jose Antonio Peraza: “There is pessimism, the opposition has to organize outside, but change must come from within”

Foto: Archivo | Confidencial

Carlos F. Chamorro

27 de febrero 2024


In Nicaragua “81% are afraid to express their political opinions, 50% of the population wants to leave the country in the next three years, and 42% say that in the last three months, they have had problems securing food at home,” are some of the conclusions of the survey “AmericasBarometer,” which was conducted in Nicaragua between June and July 2023 through a sample of 1500 people consulted by telephone.

Vanderbilt University in the United States sponsors the survey, which has been conducted in 26 Latin American countries every two years since 2004.

Political scientist Jose Antonio Peraza, former political prisoner and member of the UNAB, and former congressman Eliseo Nuñez, exiled in Costa Rica, both members of the Monteverde Democratic Concertation, analyzed the survey's results on Esta Semana. 

Peraza and Nuñez consider that despite the loss of political support of the Ortega-Murillo regime revealed by the survey, pessimism prevails in Nicaragua and the majority does not believe it is possible to achieve change under the police state that prevails in the country. “There is pessimism, the opposition has to organize outside and propose an alternative to the Ortega regime, but change must come from within,” they agreed.

The first thing that stands out in this survey is that there is a drop in the level of trust and credibility of public institutions. In the first place, the National Assembly has a trust level of 29%, the elections or the Supreme Electoral Council 31%, the mayors' offices 34%, and the Presidency 34%. 

Eliseo Núñez: What we are seeing is the result of the destruction of democratic institutionality. Ortega has not only become a single power but has left the citizenry without the capacity to believe that democratic institutions work. Everything we see as part of the state is now suspicious to Nicaraguans. That would not be as bad for Ortega if he also had popularity, as is the case of (Nayib) Bukele, who has popularity while also undermining the powers of the state. But in this case, with Ortega being unpopular, what we have is a society that does not believe in the ability to be governed and that Ortega, as the only alternative, keeps power through social control and repression.

On the other hand, despite the political persecution against the Catholic Church, which has been relentless, and the discrediting campaign against bishops and priests, the level of confidence in the Catholic Church remains at 60%. What has Ortega gained with this persecution against priests and bishops? 

Eliseo Núñez: Nothing. The Church always comes out much stronger than it was before these processes began. Ortega is fighting against tradition, religion, and spirituality in the Catholic Church. And on top of that, he also begins to attack the Evangelical Church.

With all this, the only thing that Ortega does is sink into a bubble of isolation that he has created, which he sustains through repression. In Ortega's mind, what he needs is 10,000 men and women willing to die and kill for him. And he has them to spare, he has more than that. So he is not worried about these levels of unpopularity, of rejection of him by the population. His real concern is how he controls this population, and he does it through the Police and the Army.

The economy and hunger in households

The survey also reveals enormous concern about the country's economic situation and how it affects the family. Fifty-four percent, more than half the country, say the economy is the main problem; 28% say politics; and security is at 7%. But when this question focuses on families and food security, 42% say that in the last three months, they have gone without food at home, due to a lack of money or resources. In comparison to 2009, this represents an increase of 10% of the people who said that they were not able to afford food on one occasion. 

José Antonio Peraza: That is dramatic because we are returning to levels that were experienced during the 1980s. If 42% are telling you that they cannot satisfy their food needs, we are talking about 3 million people, including children, adults, and the elderly, and that is dramatic for the development of a country, especially if we focus on the issue of youth and children.

Most people feel that the economic difficulties cannot be overcome and therefore the country is not viable, it is terrible because this shows us that people are leaving [the country] almost like a river that is draining every day, mainly the most educated people in Nicaragua, this is going to have dramatic consequences and it is already happening.

Now the important issue is the political one, as it went from being perceived as a concern by more or less at 14 or 15% to having practically doubled. This means that people are already aware that politics is affecting them and that if the political problem is not solved, they will never obtain better conditions of welfare and food.

Thirty percent say that in the last 12 months, they have been victims of an act of delinquency and at least one out of five people, 22%, say that a police officer has asked them for a bribe. 

Eliseo Núñez: The most striking thing is that 22% say that they have been approached by a police officer to ask for a bribe. And if you take into account that it is a minority who own or drive vehicles in Nicaragua, it means that this is close to a frightening percentage of those in charge of traffic regulation.

In addition to that, there are reports of political prisoners and common prisoners, their relatives are receiving offers from the police to see them in exchange for money. There is absolute corruption in the Nicaraguan system, particularly in the police, and this is what Ortega is encouraging precisely to be able to compensate them for the repressive work they are doing.

Corruption and security issues go hand in hand, because when you don't have a police force you can trust and are devoted to political matters, evidently those who go around committing crimes have their hands free. And if you add to that the fact that many of those criminals are paramilitaries who are paid in this way, then the country is in a situation of enormous insecurity.

There is another question about the responsiveness of the police and the judiciary to punish crimes. The level of trust in the Police is 31% and the level of trust in the Judiciary to punish the guilty is also 31%. These indicators represent a 20% drop in the trust that people had in the Police and the Judiciary, at least in 2016, before the 2018 crisis. 

José Antonio Peraza: It is evident that the institutions in Nicaragua since Ortega arrived began a deep deterioration, but that intensified in 2018. But if one analyzes the behavior of the Judiciary and the Police, it is evident that this deterioration must be even greater. That is dramatic because that reduces the social capital that means trust, it is not possible to build a democratic society with those levels of distrust towards institutions.

There are two questions on the subject of democracy and values, which summarize the contradiction in Nicaragua. Only 36% say that they are satisfied with democracy, which is the lowest level of this response compared to previous years. On the other hand, 57% say that although it has problems, democracy is the best system of government. That is to say, there is a majority democratic aspiration, and at the same time a frustration with the satisfaction of democracy. 

Eliseo Núñez: It is not something that surprises us, that people are now more concerned and are betting more on democracy. When you can no longer start a business without the political endorsement of the Government, when they are charging you a lot of taxes, when you can no longer talk in a café, in a restaurant, or a bar without thinking that someone is listening to you. When the relationship with your relatives also starts to become suspicious. And when you see that your neighbor or your close relatives are leaving the country because they have no hope, you conclude that the problem is the system and the bet on institutionality begins to grow, even in that 36% that appears to be comfortable and that coincides with the numbers of support for Ortega, there you begin to see deterioration as well.

So it is not strange that the popularity of democracy rises, but obviously democracy has to be tied to solving the economic problems of the people because, at the end of the day, that is what people like Ortega exploit. Ortega says that democracy does not put food on your plate. And that is why he puts so much emphasis on the economic growth he claims to achieve every year. 

But people are saying in this survey that it is hard for 40% of the families to eat, and that the economy is the main problem for 50%. So this official discourse, what the President of the Central Bank, the Minister of Finance or the Government spokespersons say, seems not to be connected with what is happening in reality.

José Antonio Peraza: Definitely not. If it were based on a better reality for Nicaraguans, there would not be the levels of migration we are seeing. When they see their whole world, they realize that the country has no way out, that the country is stagnant, that their children are growing up in a system where there is no possibility of study, because study has been totally partisan and ideologized.

So, people are beginning to see that they need another type of system, in this case they believe in democracy, to be able to move forward.

It has always been said that in Nicaragua people are not worried about democracy, but Ortega has definitely made people question that he lived in a time when he could do what he wanted and say what he wanted and nothing happened, and now that is not happening and also he is not achieving the benefit that dictatorship supposedly gives, solving the problems, which he is not solving.

The most emphatic opinions collected in this survey are related to the lack of freedom of expression. The question is, can political opinions be expressed without fear today in Nicaragua? 81% say no, very little; only 8% say quite a lot, and there are 12% who say too much.

I suppose that between that 8% and that 12% there will be some Sandinista Front fanatics who say that, but 81% say no. The same question is asked in another way: When one talks to a friend does one have to be careful about expressing political opinions? And again 74% say yes. That is the environment of fear that exists in Nicaragua to express oneself.

Eliseo Núñez: What strikes me first of all is that in this percentage of 81% are included those who have been expressing some kind of support to the Government. That 31% has already collapsed to less than 20%, which means that there is a lot of fear, in spite of people who declare themselves Sandinistas and supporters of the Government.

The issue is democracy again. People are beginning to compare it with the times when they could talk to everybody about whatever they wanted and could freely inform themselves and discuss about the future of the country. And this has more weight than issues like fixing a road or a street, because in addition to this, there are the economic issues, where 40% of the people in Nicaragua could not put food on their table at some time of the year.

So, all this together is deteriorating the capacity of control. But the reaction is to increase repression, and then it is worrying to see that 12% who say that there is "too much" freedom, who are not only the fanatics, but probably also those who are operating the repression, who believe that the people are still not sufficiently subdued.

So, this is going in a very bad direction and the only thing Ortega can do is to accelerate and increase the levels of repression, which is very bad news for Nicaraguans.

50% want to emigrate

The other question that also clearly brings together a majority group of opinions and answers is the issue of the intention to emigrate. Fifty percent say that they intend to emigrate in the next three years, to the United States 49%, Spain 20%, and Costa Rica 15%. And when we add the question "What is the reason you have thought about emigrating? 61% say because of a lack of economic opportunities.

Eliseo Núñez: The economic issue takes precedence as part of the impossibility of a system, such as Ortega's, to solve prosperity for Nicaraguans. We tie this back to the question of the 42% who could not put food on the table, because it is not a simple matter of whether the country is growing or not, but of how wealth is being redistributed in the country and how this growth is also permeating to the higher classes of the country.

What we see is that it is concentrated in gold and gold employs a small number of people and only leaves 3% of the tax conglobed in the country, plus the additional taxes paid by some of those who work there, but it is not leaving much. And if you check also the free trade zone, it has a similar tax behavior and economic impact, it only leaves salaries. So Nicaragua's growth is not creating prosperity and the only thing Ortega is doing is generating an environment in which everything has to be through him. The closing of the more than 3,000 NGOs that he has closed is so that the State is the only one that solves things for the people. So people in poverty, when they have a health problem, when they have an education problem when they have to look for a job, they have to go to the State. This is also creating an enormous rejection, because Ortega cannot provide employment, health, and education to everyone, given how poor the country is.

This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.


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Carlos F. Chamorro

Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.