Civil Unrest: At least 25 people have been killed and more than 100 injured since anti-government protests began in Nicaragua on 18 April 2018. The death toll includes a police officer and a journalist who was shot by an unknown culprit while reporting live on Facebook and this toll may increase in the coming days. While protests initially centred on the capital city Managua, and were led by students and pensioners, they have since spread to other areas of the country, including León, Granada, Estelí, Matagalpa, Masaya, Bluefields, Jinotepe, and Tipitapa. While initially peaceful, instances of rioting and looting were reported. Shortages of food, fuel, and medication have been reported throughout the country as businesses shutdown.
Demonstrations began in response to controversial social security reforms which were approved on 18 April. On 22 April 2018, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega announced plans to scrap the scheduled changes to the social security system.
The planned reforms to Nicaragua’s social security scheme would have increased pension contributions for workers and employers and reduced overall benefits by five per cent. The government claimed that the aim was to shore-up Nicaragua’s troubled social security system – the National Social Security Institute (INSS).
Rioters have been recorded battling security forces with home-made weapons and blocking roads with burning tyres. There have been multiple reports of security forces using live ammunition against protesters, which the government has denied. In Leon, offices at the university were set on fire, and in Managua a 17-metre “Tree of Life statue” erected by the President Ortega’s wife was pulled down by protesters. On the 20 April, the Nicaraguan government took punitive measures to try and prevent coverage of the riots by forcibly taking at least five independent TV stations off the air. The following day the riots continued in earnest. Ortega’s initial lack of response or an apology for the multiple deaths has only fanned the flames of protest further. Ortega made a statement, on 21 April, in which he claimed that he was willing to arrange a review of the planned changes involving negotiations with activists. In response, the powerful business association, Cosep, stated that no talks could take place until police violence came to an end and freedom of speech was restored.
These protests are the greatest challenge that Ortega has faced since he came to power in 2007. While the initial protests came on the back of proposed social security reforms, they have since grown into a general anti-government movement fuelled by genuine development and economic concerns. Nicaragua is the largest and poorest country in Central America, and the second poorest in the Western hemisphere after Haiti. Despite this, the country has not experienced the levels of violent criminal activity which has hampered development in other Central American states. However, corruption is rife. Ortega oversaw a change to the constitution to allow him to stand for a third term in 2016; an election in which his wife ran as his running mate, and now Vice-President of Nicaragua. In its 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International (TI) ranked Nicaragua at 151/180, similar to Uganda and Cameroon in Africa. Data produced by TI suggests that corruption has worsened over the past few years. Nicaragua scored 26 in 2017, a fall from 29 in 2016. Corruption is judged to be rampant in Nicaragua’s political circles and this significantly limits foreign investment. The judicial system faces high levels of political pressure and is susceptible to manipulation. While the country has extensive anti-graft legislation on the books, it is not effectively enforced. Corruption within the police is rife, with one third of foreign companies reporting significant corruption in the Nicaraguan police force. Moreover, foreign companies generally do not feel that police can be relied on to protect them from crime, theft, and disorder. The weaknesses in the judiciary and the security forces have contributed to a high level of impunity.
President Ortega accused the opposition of inciting violence to topple his left-wing government and some in the government have publicly disparaged the protesters, blaming the violence on ‘gangs’. Ortega has already announced plans to revisit social security reform once the situation in Nicaragua has calmed. Protests over this issue are therefore likely to occur again in the near future and it is yet unclear if the announcement on 22 April will provide the necessary appeasement to activists to withdraw from taking to the streets. The military remain deployed nationwide. While protesters were largely left un harassed on 22 April, it is unclear how long this may last. Moreover, there is also the potential for clashes between rival sets of protesters; Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife, has called on the government’s supporters to take to the streets in a show of force.
Tourists and expatriates have begun to leave the country due to the violence due to the widespread and violent protests. In the short-term, travellers should reassess if their travel to Nicaragua is business-critical. If not, it is recommended to delay journey plans. If in-country, travellers should avoid all crowds as they are highly likely to become violent and foreigners caught in demonstrations of this kind may be subjected to harsher punishments by local security forces. Those in country should review their security arrangements and evacuation plans in case the violence escalates further. Travellers are also advised to make preparations for shortages of fuel, food, and medications. Should such shortages become a life-threatening concern, travellers should consider leaving the country.
For most travel to Nicaragua, including the capital Managua, Solace Global would advised clients to employ the minimum of an airport meet and greet and a locally-vetted driver for all travel. Travellers should also consider the use of a close protection officer during this period of instability. It may also be advisable that this level of security is increased for other areas of the country or for specific client profiles. Travellers are also advised to use travel-tracking technology with an intelligence feed for all travel in Nicaragua. This should enable a traveller to be alerted of any security updates within their vicinity, and to update others of their movements in case of an emergency.