In April of 2018, widespread protests broke out in Nicaragua against the government and Daniel Ortega, the country’s dictator. The government responded with massive violent crackdowns, with estimates of those killed ranging from 30 to well over 100, including the well-publicized shooting up of a church in which some protestors had taken refuge.
The United States responded by ordering all non-essential personnel out of the country, and while that order was lifted later in the year after some months of relative calm, a category three (of four) travel advisory warning remains in place. Other countries have similar warnings against traveling to Nicaragua. But are these justified, and what is the experience a traveler can expect to have with regard to the political situation and safety?
We began this article with a question, and before we take a deeper look into the specific situation in the country, let’s answer it as best as we can. Yes, it is largely safe to travel to Nicaragua. While 2018 was an extraordinary year in terms of political violence, Nicaragua is remarkably safe – especially in comparison to the region – when it comes to general violent crime. (Of course visitors should always use caution when traveling.) And, while there is still political tension, as long as tourists don’t participate in protests should they break out, any uptick in political unrest also should not affect you.
With that said, what can a visitor expect when it comes to safety in Nicaragua? What should you expect to see politically? And what steps can a visitor take to help?
A very brief and overly simplistic history of the political situation
In 1979, after a roughly seven year struggle, Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas seized control of Nicaragua from the repressive military dictatorship of the Somoza family. (The Somozas were supported by the US as an anti-communist regime.) In 1984, in what was largely certified as a fair election, Ortega won more than two thirds of the vote.
This period saw Nicaragua become an active front of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and Cuba gave material aid to the Nicaraguan government, while the United States backed the remnants of Somoza’s National Guard, called the Contras. A ceasefire was signed between the two sides in 1988, and 1990 saw the Sandinistas lose to a center-right party in general elections.
In 2006, Daniel Ortega was re-elected, and this is where many of the problems begin. The Nicaraguan constitution prohibits a president from being re-elected to a second consecutive term or a third term overall. However, Ortega ran again in 2011 and 2016 and dominated elections that saw widespread accusations of voter intimidation and suppression. Backed by a firm grip on the nation’s police and military apparatus, and in a country in which private citizens cannot own weapons, Ortega has consolidated his power, and positioned his family to succeed him, with his wife appointed to the vice presidency.
The recent round of protests (there have been others against the Ortega regime in recent years) seems to have been sparked by planned reforms to the Nicaraguan social security program. The protests themselves were non-violent, and the Nicaraguan people to their great credit have stated consistently that any regime change must be done a) free from outside interference and b) nonviolently. The government, however, responded with overwhelming force, using both police and paramilitary groups to put down the protests. Dissidents were arrested without trial, with hundreds of people still unaccounted for.
What does the situation look like today?
To be fair, I am an outsider, and only visited a few places in the country. However, here is what I saw:
1. Things are largely calm. I did not witness any protests, although one of the results of last year’s violence is that protesting the government is now completely illegal. But life has mostly seemed to return to normal.
2. There is a significant police presence, especially at checkpoints on highways going in and out of major cities. My car was never stopped, and there seems to be no pattern to who is pulled over for questioning.
3. There is still tension. Many residents I spoke with say they don’t feel they can speak freely. They worry the unrest will spark up again.
4. There is overall optimism. Many people think Daniel Ortega will not run for re-election in 2021, and will voluntarily step down. They hope that with international monitoring a fair election is possible.
5. Everybody appreciates tourists and nobody is targeting them. Of course, there is petty crime against tourists that exists everywhere so one should always exercise caution. But people were grateful to me for visiting in spite of the advisory, and were proud to show me their country, both the positives and negatives.
What can we do to help?
As with most countries in the world, the Nicaraguan people cannot be judged by their lousy and repressive government. First and foremost, we need to realize that and speak about it. The Nicaraguan people are amazing! They are among the warmest and most welcoming I’ve ever encountered, and when they get a government that is in line with their core values, this will be a truly spectacular place to visit.
In the meantime, one way to help is to support local people. Stay at small hotels or in an Airbnb. Eat at local restaurants, shop at local stores, and hire local drivers. That way, while taxes obviously still find their way to the government, more of the money goes to normal people.
Beyond that, we can encourage our governments to withdraw any support for the Ortega regime, and to help ensure that any future election is free and fair.
Those of us who have visited can write about the experiences, both the positives and the negatives. (I don’t believe it does a country any good to have negatives ignored.) That extra publicity can help the relatively small tourism industry to grow quickly once the political situation is sorted out.
Nicaragua is a complicated country, one of the most complicated I’ve visited since starting The Royal Tour two years ago. There are plenty of reasons to visit, and plenty not to. However, for those concerned solely with safety, I can reassure you. I never once felt any more unsafe than in any other country. I walked around cities at night, taking advice from locals about areas to avoid as I would anywhere. If safety is the only reason you are avoiding considering a trip to Nicaragua, I think you can feel ok going ahead and booking your vacation.
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