When Daniel Ortega won his first term of presidency in 1984, he won as a champion of Nicaragua’s then newly established democracy. Having led the Sandinista National Liberal Front in dismantling the nation’s last authoritarian regime, Ortega was a symbol of and for the people. Now, thirty-five years and a handful of reelections later, he is responsible for the deaths of over three hundred protestors, and possibly the torture and false imprisonment of hundreds more. By April of 2018, the façade of democratic rule had officially fallen, and his dictatorship became obvious. Using the framework outlined by Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsberg, Ortega’s dismantling of democracy fits neatly into neither their theory of authoritarian reversion nor constitutional retrogression. Rather, Nicaragua’s current situation was born from a mixture of traits of both modes of breakdown. From a slow decline of democratic policy keeping since his 2006 election to the eventual brutal attack on protesting citizens in early 2018, he has abandoned the values he once fought to bring to Nicaragua.
The use of lethal force to quell antigovernment protests is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. On April 12, 2018 university students marched to defend Nicaragua’s Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. The movement grew to include the protest of Ortega’s social security reform that would increase taxes and diminish a large portion of pension benefits for the elderly. Within days the protestors’ numbers reached the thousands. In response the police and the Sandinista’s special force opened fire on the crowd, first with rubber bullets, then with live ammunition. This sudden attack on peaceful demonstrations came as a shock to the country, despite the regime’s known hostility towards organized protest. Later on May 30th, police again opened fire on a peaceful communal gathering to honor the dead. Nicaragua’s democratic standing shifted from partly free to not free.
Nicaragua’s standing on the democratic scale has never been what would be considered stable. If one views the end of the Somoza regime in 1979 as the beginning of Nicaragua’s tentative democracy, if it can be called that amidst reports of a rigged election even at its conception, then Ortega’s reelection in 2006 can be viewed as the beginning of its decline. Huq and Ginsberg relate authoritarian reversion to a democracy’s relative age; the shorter the period the more likely it is to return to its antidemocratic roots by way of forceful takeover. While Ortega’s use of force was not on par with a military coup most common in reversion, it can be argued that a firmly established democracy would not allow such an event. The use of state emergencies to stifle democracy fits Nicaragua’s events. Peaceful protests considered civilian unrest called for the use of force, or so Ortega’s regime claimed.
Alongside this backsliding, constitutional retrogression, a behind the scenes move toward authoritarianism, had been taking place since his return to power in 2006. The tentative democracy that threatens easy democratic backsliding is also what allowed Ortega to win his reelections, which have been widely speculated as rigged. Since 2006 his administration has been expressing antidemocratic sentiments, drawing criticism from civil rights groups and liberal organizations. In 2009 the Nicaraguan Supreme Court waived constitutional articles to allow Ortega to run for another term. This was repeated by the National Assembly to allow another term in 2016. Sensing the growing unrest before the protests even started in April, the Sandinista dominant congress had passed a law that would help obstruct funding from potential terrorist groups. The vague definition of terrorism allowed the legislation to combat the nation’s own citizens, citing their gatherings as threatening. Following the senseless violence, Ortega ordered a media blackout, repealed progressive reforms, and ordered further police force to open fire on numerous civilian protests. Ortega’s Nicaragua has seen questionable elections, the decline in freedom of association, and the exploitation of the rule of law. Constitutional retrogression has been in the works for over a decade. This decade long façade of democracy could not hold up after the recent violence inflicted on citizens.
Nicaragua’s now known and accepted position as an authoritarian regime stems from decades of turbulence. The Somoza regime before 1979 had ruled with strict sanctions that are now being reintroduced. They had passed powerful titles and favors to family members and political allies. Ortega’s administration is headed in the same direction with his wife, Rosario Murilla as vice president. Even accusations of sexual assault from his stepdaughter could not keep Ortego out of office for another term, a case his wife supported him through. Historically, nations that fall into authoritarianism do so by either a major event of authoritarian reversion or by slowly dismantling democratic institutions and norms. Nicaragua’s case, with its history of past authoritarian regimes and a ruthless ruler who was once the face of freedom can fall into both categories.
 Huq, Aziz & Tom Ginsburg. 2017. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” Working paper.
 Rogers, Tim. “The Unraveling of Nicaragua.” The Atlantic. June 06, 2018. Accessed February 15, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/06/nicaragua-ortega-protests/562094/.
 “Nicaragua.” Freedom House. February 05, 2019. Accessed February 15, 2019. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/nicaragua.
 “Nicaragua’s New Terrorism Law Is Aimed at Protesters.” Freedom House. September 12, 2018. Accessed February 18, 2019. https://freedomhouse.org/blog/nicaragua-s-new-terrorism-law-aimed-protesters.
 Gonzalez, Elizabeth. “A Timeline of Nicaragua’s Crisis.” AS/COA. July 03, 2018. Accessed February 18, 2019. https://www.as-coa.org/articles/timeline-nicaraguas-crisis.
Riham, you make several great points about the current state of democracy in Nicaragua. The gradual, but not subtle, decline of democratic institutions in the country definitely fall under both constitutional retrogression and authoritarian reversion. The manipulation of term limits that allowed Ortega to run for president again is a tool that has been used in other Latin American countries. It allows presidents to consolidate power and thus has lead to democratic erosion. Another example of this in Central America in Honduras. Juan Orlando Hernandez worked to lift the constitutional term limit before becoming president the first time and succeeded. Their most recent election led to protests that were also violently suppressed by the government. What is left of democratic institutions in both countries continues to be weakened by the executive power. In the case of Ortega, it is really sad to see how he has become what he fought so hard to dismantle.