Since April of this year, Nicaragua has experienced violent confrontations between protesters and government security forces. Clashes began when the government announced it would raise social security taxes and cut benefits. Though the policies were repealed, the country continues to experience mounting unrest.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has insisted that the student demonstrators leading the rallies are right-wing thugs. Following in the footsteps of the country’s former dictator Anastasio Somoza hardline approach to Sandanista rebels, Ortega has used brutal force to counter the protests. More than 2000 people have been arrested during the nearly four months of demonstrations, and human rights groups claim that 350 people have been killed. Hundreds of protesters have since gone into hiding or fled the country. According to the UN, some 23,000 Nicaraguans have requested asylum in neighboring Costa Rica since the demonstrations began.
Efforts to crush the protests have backfired, leading to constant demonstrations across the country. Detentions have only exacerbated the problem. Opponents of the government have made the release of prisoners a key demand, accusing the President’s administration of not only detaining protesters, but engaging in torture. The volatility has sparked fears of a refugee crisis, fueling speculation that developments in the country could escalate America’s already-heated immigration debate. During the last Nicaraguan Civil War, over 250,000 refugees sought asylum in the US.
Students have not been the only victims of repression. Many doctors who had been critical of the government and provided medical care to injured demonstrators, have been dismissed from state hospitals across the country. Father Edwin Roman, who converted his parish in Masaya into a makeshift hospital for injured demonstrators, received death threats and was forced out of town for his actions. Echoing similar critiques by the UN, the US, and the Organization of American states, Nicaraguan archbishop Silvio Jose Baez has repeatedly urged Ortega to stop the bloodshed. He tweeted, [The church] does not suffer for being slandered, attacked, or persecuted. It suffers for those who have been assassinated, for those families that are crying, for those unjustly detained and for those who flee oppression.” However, President Ortega has attacked the Catholic clergy as allies of “coup mongers”, claiming that bishops are working against him, and that churches are being used to stockpile weapons and stage attacks.
A pronounced economic impact
Until last year, the country’s GDP had been growing at an annual rate of 5% since 2010, having escaped the political and gang violence that afflicted neighboring Honduras. Yet since May of this year, economic activity has contracted by 4.9%, the biggest drop since the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. Tens of thousands of workers have been laid off as a result of the unrest, and thousands of companies have closed. Foreign direct investment has come to a halt, and international lines of credit have been choked off.
As a result, the country’s once-staple tourism industry has all but shut down. In 2017, Nicaragua earned $840 million from 1.7 million arrivals, offering visitors the opportunity to strole colonial cities, observe volcanoes, experience tropical wildlife, snorkel along Caribbean reefs, and tour cigar factories. However, the Central Bank now concedes that the tourism industry stands to lose close to $231 million in 2018. Since April of this year, 70,000 of the 120,000 Nicaraguans employed in the tourism sector have lost their jobs, according to National Chamber of Tourism. Approximately 200 tour operators have gone bust, and that a third of all restaurants in the country have closed. Between seventy to eighty percent of small hotels have ceased operations altogether. The capital city of Managua’s once-vibrant night life gone the way of a ghost town, with the city’s hotel occupation dropping from a 67% occupation rate to a mere 12-14%.
One bright spot remains. With tourism at an utter standstill, the country has seen a boom in visits from surfers, who continue to visit the country. Nicaraguan beaches provide optimal surfing conditions. Its coastline experience 15 world-class breaks, with swells arriving from Antarctica and the Southern Hemisphere that reach well over twenty feet in height. One surfer and hotel owner, Jackson Rowland from Australia who helped put Nicaragua on the map as a global surf destination, claims that “the surfers want no one in the water. That’s what they live for. You search all over the world for an empty wave.”
To combat the contraction, the Nicaraguan National Assembly has approved a drastic cut to the national budget, projecting $180 million less in spending to make up for the $220 million decrease in government income. The Minister for Finance and Public Credit, Ivan Acosta, has promised that the budget cuts would not affect social spending, public investment, or the level of government employment. Yet despite Acosta’s assurances, surfing is unlikely to keep the country’s dismal tourism sector report afloat, let alone lead its economy back to some kind of normality. Until the government finds a way to address opposition concerns about the country’s economy in a peaceful manner, one of the country’s leading industries is unlikely to bounce back.