MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 6th of September, 2018.
Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today: Political instability in Central America.
In particular, Nicaragua.
It’s a predominantly Spanish-speaking country of about 6 million. On a map, you’d find it southeast of Honduras and north of Costa Rica.
From the 1960s to 1990, Nicaragua experienced a period of unrest, suffering under right-wing authoritarians, then left-wing authoritarians. A key figure in that time was a young leftist rebel named Daniel Ortega. He seized power in 1979 and held on until 1990.
The country enjoyed a period of relative peace after that, but Ortega returned to power as president a decade ago.
By 2014, he’d abolished term limits and effectively made himself president for life. His wife is vice president.
REICHARD: Earlier this year violent clashes erupted in Nicaragua. Human-rights monitors say they claimed hundreds of lives. Tens of thousands have also fled to safety in neighboring Costa Rica, but that threatens to create a humanitarian crisis in that country.
Mindy Belz is senior editor of WORLD and she’s been covering this story. Mindy, what are the factors contributing to this new round of unrest?
MINDY BELZ, SENIOR EDITOR: The protests in Nicaragua actually began over Social Security forms that would have cut into pensions in a country with rising unemployment and other problems. They quickly morphed, though, into more generalized protests over the government of Daniel Ortega itself. And notably, too, the crackdown that came from the police, national police and these paramilitaries dressed in hooded garb that we’ve all kind of seen in some newscasts and looking really fearsome and bringing heavy weaponry, army weaponry into what began as just pretty standard street protests. So, Nicaraguans see themselves rising up against a very oppressive government.
REICHARD: In your story for WORLD Magazine, you wrote about a specific church attack that became a flash point for all of this and that’s just not a place you’d expect an insurrection to originate.
BELZ: That’s right. They didn’t expect it either. Early on in this conflict, church leaders were seen by both sides as mediators. And Father Raul Zamora at the Church of Divine Mercy in Managua, which is the capital, began helping wounded protesters at the neighboring university. And then his church itself became the target. This developed into a 15-hour seige with bullets flying, with heavy weaponry being targeted on the church, still to this day large baseball-sized holes into the stained glass and the altar pieces of the church. And at the end of it, two people were dead and a number of people wounded and a number of those protesters have been missing ever since. So, very scary situation and a situation that really undermines kind of the sanctuary and the sacredness that people view the church having in Nicaragua.
REICHARD: So, at this point, has the Ortega government smothered the protests, or do you expect things to heat up again?
BELZ: The warning signs suggest that they will heat up again. Actually, there are protests going on in cities outside of Managua that we hear very little about. The Ortega regime is intent on crushing all dissent. And so the fear factor in Nicaragua right now is huge and that’s why we have seen people fleeing the country, people going into hiding to the extent that one protest that took place in Matagalpa, there was a teacher at the Nicaragua Christian Academy that’s in Matagalpa who was praying in the street during this protest. That teacher is having to flee the country because he’s been targeted by the paramilitaries and the police as a result of just being present on the street.
REICHARD: I can’t help but notice the international community doesn’t seem to be paying very much attention to this. We’ve seen some headlines here and there. Do you think there’s a danger that inattention could cause this to grow into a regional conflict?
BELZ: That’s right. I do think there is that danger. There was no coverage of the protests in Matagalpa that I mentioned and those protests left one civilian dead, so the potential for no accountability for the government grows day by day. Things are continuing to happen and we’re just not hearing about it. Even last week a UN human rights team accused the Nicaraguan government of human rights violations and then they were kicked out of the country. We’ve heard a little talk from the United States about possible sanctions against the Ortega government, but we haven’t seen it become a priority in Washington and when the United States talks about reinstating national dialogue—which was so important a few weeks ago—we’re not hearing what the role of the church will be at this point. And that’s very important whether the church is going to be protected somehow, or whether it’s going to continue to be targeted as we’ve seen this summer. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said recently Daniel Ortega is Vladimir Putin’s closest supporter in Latin America and, therefore, a national security risk to the United States. And so that’s something that we’re going to continue to want to watch.
REICHARD: Mindy Belz is senior editor for WORLD Magazine. She covers international stories and is kind enough to bring that reporting to us here on The World and Everything in It. Thanks so much, Mindy.
BELZ: Thank you, Mary.