Protests and demonstrations in Nicaragua over the government’s intention to reform the nation’s pension plan became increasingly violent over the weekend. According to sources, the number of dead stands at twenty-six. The student-led protests in Managua last Wednesday expanded beyond the capital city to other parts of the nation. The protests themselves have evolved into a popular uprising and challenge to the authority of the government. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced on Sunday he will not go forward with the pension reform, obviously hoping to stabilize the situation. His action could have the opposite effect, however, with many protesters appearing determined to redouble their efforts, vowing to continue the demonstrations until Ortega leaves office.
The unrest in Nicaragua is drawing an increasing amount of international attention. The US State Department is removing a number of its embassy staff and families from Nicaragua in light of the violent protests. Pope Francis has also chimed in, calling for an end to the violence. The death of a Nicaraguan journalist while he was broadcasting on Facebook live has helped make more people aware of what’s taking place.
The longer the protests continue, more pressure will be applied to Ortega. The Nicaraguan leader is an avowed leftist cut from the same cloth as Fidel Castro and to a lesser degree Hugo Chavez. He was the head of government in the 1980s, transforming Nicaragua into a socialist state closely allied to Cuba and the Soviet Union. Ortega lost a re-election bid shortly after the end of the Cold War, only to be elected president again in 2007. Since then, he has moved the country back to the left, and in the process undertook a number of moves that strengthened his hold on power. Ortega’s influence is evident in every branch and department of the government. His influence helped the National Assembly do away with presidential term limits in 2014, and bring about constitutional reforms allowing Ortega to personally appoint military and police commanders.
Latin America deserves more scrutiny with Ortega being challenged, a new president taking power in Cuba, and the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. Nicaragua and Venezuela especially have many similarities at the moment. If Ortega continues to use force to quell the demonstrators and remains in power, Washington will begin paying more attention to events south of the border.
Rex Tillerson is out as secretary of state. President Trump announced the move this morning. CIA Director Mike Pompeo will move from Langley to State and succeed him. Tillerson’s departure hardly registers as much of a surprise. The former SecState’s relationship with President Trump was riddled with tension, and suspicion on both sides. Tillerson never embraced Trump’s America First doctrine, and his loyalty was never 100 percent there. The condition of the State Department might’ve also played a role in Trump’s decision. State, to put it bluntly, is a wreck. Under Tillerson’s command, US diplomacy was adrift and never fully in sync with the foreign policy positions of the White House.
The timing of the move makes perfect sense. Trump needs an effective SecState to help him craft a strategy for upcoming talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Those talks are expected to take place before May, leaving little time for the administration to complete preparations and construct a viable strategy. Tillerson was not a major contributor when it came to North Korea. He contradicted the position of the White House in public on more than one occasion. To add insult to injury, Tillerson apparently did not learn of his dismissal until he read President Trump’s tweet this morning.
Pompeo’s Senate confirmation hearing will be scheduled for sometime in April.
Kiev and Moscow are waiting anxiously for the US response to the rebirth of fighting in eastern Ukraine. For the Ukrainian government, and its people the primary fear is that US support is on the decline now with Donald Trump in the White House. Another concern is the possibility that Putin is now moving to solidify his grip on the eastern part of Ukraine and use it as leverage over the United States on other issues such as the repeal of US and European sanctions currently in place against Russia. Moscow is watching the reaction from Washington closely as well, for its own reasons. In a best case scenario for the Kremlin, the start of fresh fighting in Ukraine demonstrates Russia’s hold on power in the region and that Russia alone holds the keys to regional peace.
Washington’s response to the fighting has so far been muted. The State Department released a statement yesterday calling for an ‘immediate, and sustained ceasefire.’ There has yet been no comment from the White House on the clashes. The Pentagon has been quiet as well with Secretary of Defense embarking on a trip to the Far East today to reassure US allies in the region and address the North Korean nuclear threat.
The flashpoint of the latest round of fighting is the town of Avdiivka, a northern suburb of Donetsk. For three days, government and separatist forces have been locked in a battle for control of the industrial town. The heavy fighting has severely damaged the infrastructure, resulting in the loss of power and water for thousands of residents at a time when temperatures are dropping to -20C in the evening hours. It is unclear which side is responsible for initiating the fighting with the government and separatists blaming one another.
President Trump has spoken numerous times about his desire for better relations with Russia. Vladimir Putin’s definition of better relations likely includes the dropping of sanctions, which has not happened yet. There was a high level of expectation in Moscow that the sanction issue would be settled when Trump and Putin spoke over the weekend. To Putin’s probable disappointment, it has not happened. A day or so later and fighting breaks out again in the Ukraine. Draw whatever conclusions you wish, however, there does appear to be a higher purpose behind the recent events in Ukraine.