The discontent shaking Nicaragua

Managua (AFP) –


A week of deadly protests in Nicaragua has exposed widespread public resentment and frustration directed at the government of veteran President Daniel Ortega.

Initially triggered by Ortega's move -- later shelved -- to reform the sinking social security system, the unrest has become an opportunity to air a number of grievances that have long been festering.

- Pension reform -

The spark was a plan to increase how much employees and companies pay into the INSS, the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute, while cutting benefits by five percent.

When the reform was published April 18, students and pensioners vented fury that personal contributions were being hiked from 19 percent to 21 percent, and eventually to 22.5 percent by 2020.

The business sector -- previously allied to Ortega -- also balked that what they paid was to increase from 6.25 percent to 7.0 percent per month.

The overall aim was to cap a ballooning INSS deficit that reached $76 million last year -- and which threatened to empty the institute of funds by next year.

Faced with the unexpected protests, Ortega ordered a crackdown by security forces. Then, as the death toll climbed and domestic and international criticism intensified, he ditched the reform.

But the demonstrations have not ceased.

"These protests have gone beyond the concrete act of the social security reform," said Alejandro Serrano Caldera, a lawyer and diplomat who used to be a Supreme Court justice.

"You just have to see the violent reaction of the government against these demonstrations," he said.

- Corruption -

According to protesting students, the Ortega government bled the INSS dry, using it to finance a range of expenses including personal ones.

Until 2007, it had a surplus of millions, but since then has slipped into deficit.

"This money has been siphoned off through corruption, it has financed parties and trips to the point that today, the social security system doesn't even have the ability to buy medicine," said Clifford Ramirez, a student at Tomas Moro University who has been involved since the protests began.

That is just one of a range of instances of perceived corruption in the country.

Public officials demanding bribes to facilitate paperwork or to turn a blind eye to legal or tax violations are some other situations at issue.

InSight Crime, a Latin America crime reporting unit, says there is also evidence of collusion between politicians and organized crime.

- Concentrated power -

Perhaps one of the biggest gripes leveled at 72-year-old Ortega is the concentration of power he has amassed over all levers of authority: Congress, the courts, the military, the electoral tribunal. The political opposition has been rendered toothless.

The control Ortega wields has led some protesters to compare him to the Somozas, the dynasty that ran Nicaragua as its personal fiefdom until Ortega's Sandinista National Liberation Front brought their rule crashing down in 1979.

That accusation only gathered strength when Ortega made his wife, Rosario Murillo, his vice president for his most recent term that started last year.

- Canal -

Ortega's pact with voters has revolved around the relative stability and solid economic growth his rule has brought.

Much of that has been thanks to the arrangement he had with business leaders. Despite keeping up leftist, anti-US rhetoric recalling his guerrilla days, Ortega has proved to be business friendly and focused on keeping investment opportunities open.

His grandest scheme, though, was inviting a Chinese company to carry out an ambitious project to carve a canal across the country that is meant to rival Panama's lucrative shipping channel.

Though the $50-billion project has stalled, with no sign of construction, rural and indigenous communities in the path of the canal have regularly protested at the need to displace them.

That the plan was rammed through without debate or competition stirred suspicions that it could mask a land grab. At the least, it reinforced the impression that Ortega was ruling imperiously.