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As Violence Rocks the Nation, Nicaraguans Commemorate the 39th Anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution

President Daniel Ortega, once a celebrated rebel, now stands accused of authoritarian repression against protesters.
Supporters of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega take part in the 39th Anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution at "La Fe" square in Managua on July 19th, 2018.

Supporters of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega take part in the 39th Anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution at "La Fe" square in Managua on July 19th, 2018.

After three months of violence that have seen over 300 people killed in anti-government protests, thousands marched through Nicaragua's capital on Thursday to celebrate the 39th anniversary of the country's Sandinista Revolution.

President Daniel Ortega used the rally as an occasion to condemn the widespread protests that erupted against his regime in April. "[The protesters] have become a diabolical, satanic force, like those who practice satanic rites," he shouted to a sea of supporters, all dressed head-to-toe in the nation's colors. He accused his opposition of an attempted coup and blamed the violence—which has led to hundreds of deaths and injured thousands of others—on the protesters, who Ortega claimed represent a United States-backed effort to overthrow his government. (While Ortega did not offer evidence of these particular claims, the U.S. has a well-documented history of supporting coup attempts in Nicaragua and the broader region.)

Though in the last few years Nicaragua was known as one of Latin America's safest countries, that distinction collapsed this spring as protest and deadly repression rocked the Central American nation of six million. The protests began after Ortega announced sweeping reforms to the country's social security system. When government forces cracked down violently on demonstrators, the dissent expanded into a widespread movement against Ortega's increasingly authoritarian regime.

Though Ortega and his supporters have called the protesters "terrorists" and "criminals," international onlookers widely agree that the violence generally stems from government and government-aligned forces. On Monday, 13 Latin American countries—including Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay—jointly demanded an immediate end to the violence. Their resolution also called for the dismantling of all government paramilitary groups in Nicaragua.

Ortega, known in the country as Comandante Daniel, became a revolutionary icon after the Marxist Sandinista rebels overthrew the violently repressive—and U.S.-supported—Somoza dictatorship in 1979. (The Somaza family was a political dynasty that ruled the country much like a private plantation from 1896 to 1979.) After the revolution, Ortega assumed leadership of the country from 1979 to 1985 as "coordinator of the Junta of National Reconstruction," and then as president from 1985 to 1990.

The new Sandinista government, while not without serious controversy, saw an end to the far-right Somoza autocracy and ushered in an era of massive social reforms. Ortega was hailed as an icon of the global left, and his charismatic presence in the country swept him back to the country's presidency in 2006. However, since the former rebel re-assumed control of Nicaragua, previous allies—including Marxist luminaries within the Sandinista front—have accused Ortega of a rightward tack. Citizens of the country have also seen Ortega consolidate power, leading a successful effort to abolish presidential term limits in 2014 and welcoming his wife—the controversial first lady Rosario Murillo—to the vice presidency in 2016.

While opposition to Ortega is widespread, the country is far from aligned against the president. As Pacific Standard reported in May, Ortega enjoys the broad support of the country's military and police forces—a critical accomplishment for any strongman hoping to maintain power. Comandante Daniel also continues to benefit from supporters' nostalgia for his days as a leftist guerrilla and his first term as the nation's leader, in which he successfully resisted the onslaught of the right-wing Contras—a group of right-wing paramilitary organizations infamously funded with U.S. dollars that came from the Reagan administration's sale of weapons to Iran.

Support for the president was visible at the anniversary rally on Thursday, though many onlookers remained cynical. (Ortega's administration has been caught busing in supporters to the capital in the past.)

As an odd union of students, Catholic clergy, former Sandinistas, and business people coalesce in opposition to Ortega, the violence continues unabated. Though Ortega's government continues to draw international censure, experts remain pessimistic that there is any end in sight for the unrest.