The opposition is united in wanting an end to Ortega’s presidency. It has fed on popular complaints, including within the Sandinista base, that Ortega has stifled debate within the party and instead of encouraging a new generation of leaders has centralized power in himself and his wife. But the opposition is also divided on timing, tactics, and broader political aims. Some government opponents have openly accepted US funding. For example, between 2014 and 2017, the National Endowment for Democracy awarded 54 grants totaling $4.1 million to opposition-linked NGOs. A May article on NED funding in the online journal Global Americans, “Laying the groundwork for change,” said that “it is now quite evident that the U.S. government actively helped build the political space and capacity in Nicaraguan society for the social uprising that is currently unfolding.” Part of the opposition, the MRS, has long-established relations with Republican right-wingers in the United States; it and other organizations had earlier traveled to Washington to call for US economic sanctions against Nicaragua. A broader opposition delegation was in Washington this month to lobby the US government and the Organization of American States. It was funded by Freedom House and welcomed by Republicans such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.


Other government opponents declare themselves to be genuine leftists who want to restore Nicaragua’s revolutionary trajectory. For example, a left-wing student opposition leader, Harley Morales, used a lengthy interview to criticize his colleagues who traveled to Washington for their “terrible” decision to take part in meetings that “gave them a bad name.”


Morales signaled a more sinister opposition weakness, that they had “lost touch” with those on the barricades. Though described as a key element of peaceful protest, the barricades have become a way of enforcing the opposition agenda, often violently. The homemade mortars are lethal enough, but more sophisticated weapons have been introduced, leading to worries that not just local delinquents but organized-crime syndicates may be involved. Nicaragua has so far resisted the incursion of drug-related violence that plagues neighboring Honduras and El Salvador, but there are genuine concerns that the drug gangs, commonly known as the “maras,” are ready to fill any political vacuum.


What happens next? While writing this, three new developments occurred that seem to signpost the options that Nicaragua faces. The most recent is that police entered Masaya in force, regaining access to the besieged police station and removing the barricades sealing the city off from the capital. There were up to six deaths (the number is still unconfirmed) and many arrests as the police removed numerous barricades and those who were defending them with various types of weapons. Similar actions brought down barricades in Managua and Estelí. The New York Times labeled the police’s entry into Masaya “a campaign of terror,” but parts of the city returned to normal daily life as a result. Monimbó is proving more resistant, and church leaders have sought a truce between police and opposition fighters.


The second development is that, after a delay caused by the Mother’s Day shootings, the national dialogue restarted, made limited progress, but then halted again awaiting the involvement of international bodies whose presence the opposition demands. So far, the opposition side still refuses to talk about anything other than the government-led violence, but its divisions will become more pronounced when the dialogue resumes and they are forced to engage in finding solutions.


The most shocking of the recent events appeared to be timed to coincide with and discredit the dialogue. On June 16, a family house in Managua was set on fire by hooded thugs, killing most of the occupants, including two children. The government was quickly blamed, because allegedly the fire was in reprisal for the owner’s refusal to allow snipers to operate from his roof. Government denials seemed plausible, as the barrio concerned has numerous barricades controlled by the opposition. On the other hand, a surviving family member backs up the opposition version. The truth is difficult to ascertain, and if proof emerges, it is unlikely to dispel the media verdicts about who the real culprits were.


So Nicaragua faces a choice. One path is simply to do what governments often do: put up with protest for a while, but intervene if it ceases to be “peaceful” and restore order by force. Many other countries faced with a similar choice might have acted even sooner. A second path is a negotiated peace, in which differences are painstakingly reconciled, with a settlement bringing political reforms as well a return to public order. Of course, these paths could be combined. A third, however, is far more dangerous: a turn toward mob rule that could easily run out of control, so that Nicaragua becomes open to a truly authoritarian government and life becomes far less secure than it was before April 18. Most Nicaraguans have only limited knowledge of the violence and insecurity experienced in El Salvador and Honduras, their immediate neighbors to the north. They may soon find how easily this could cross the border.