Ever since the Sandinistas first came to power, they’ve been trying to assert total control over their population. And now as President Daniel Ortega’s newest Social Security policies are blowing up in his face, the government is violently cracking down on any dissent, real or perceived.

The riots that have taken place across Nicaragua have claimed at least 25 lives and the protests against the government show no signs of slowing down. Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) government tried to hammer home a reform to the national Social Security system, due to financial issues that continue to plague the system.

The reforms, which took effect on Wednesday, added a 5 percent tax on old age and disability payouts and also include higher employer and employee contributions set off a wave of protests across the country. Many Nicaraguans feel that their Social Security system would be fine if the Sandinista government would stop taking money out of it. That sounds a lot like many Americans feel about their own system, but we digress.

Of course, Ortega’s leftist government was defending the reforms with his spokeswoman, and Vice President Rosario Murillo, who also happens to be his wife saying the reforms were needed and added that the retirement age had not been raised from 60, the number of weekly contributions required for a state pension would remain the same and retirees would still receive their one-month Christmas bonus.

But that didn’t dissuade citizens to protest immediately in Managua, and in Leon. Ortega played the typical leftist playbook when he had his own supporters stage pro-government rallies at several key intersections in Managua. Members of the Sandinista Youth organization, physically attacked peaceful protesters in Managua while the Police watched on and did nothing.

Both Ortega and Murillo put the blame of the violence on the protesters rather than on themselves where it belongs. Murillo, on the state-owned radio station, called the protesters “vampires, needing blood to feed their political agendas.” Ortega blamed the United States, which has been a familiar foe since the Reagan administration.

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Ortega was forced out of office in 1989 after the Sandinistas took on the U.S. backed Contras in a civil war until he was forced to hold free elections. Ortega learned his lesson with free elections and now leaves nothing to chance. After getting back in power, he’s been steadily eliminating opposition groups and re-writing the constitution.

When Ortega was running for “re-election” in 2016, he used his power over the Supreme Electoral Council and had it oust the head of the main opposition party, the Independent Liberation party (PLI), Eduardo Montealegre and then suspending nearly all of its members. Other parties that were in allegiance with the PLI were stripped of their legal status by judges and electoral officials controlled by Ortega’s government.

With many of the head government officials and courts headed by close friends or family members, Ortega rewrote the Constitution and abolished term limits. He then put together a sham of an election where government sources state that the turnout was nearly 66 percent of registered voters. But opposition leaders stated that nearly 70 percent of the registered voters abstained from voting in the election because they felt that the entire process was rigged.

Election monitors were few and selectively chosen and in the end, Ortega “won” with 72 percent of the vote. The Obama administration was not thrilled with this type of farce and worded their statement very politically correct while still making their point.

“The United States is deeply concerned by the flawed presidential and legislative electoral process in Nicaragua, which precluded the possibility of a free and fair election,” spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.

Ortega cemented his power of all branches of the government including the armed forces and national police so they’ll follow along with whatever he says, they’ll not oppose him, his cronies pull the strings.

But these protests this week are sticky situations for the leftist President who President Reagan called a “dictator in designer glasses,” back in the 1980s. On one hand, the government, which brutally put down protests in 2013, has been firing bullets, some live and some rubber on protesters rallying at government locations while standing by and allowing several protests to burn and loot businesses in downtown Managua. Why?

It is an effort to put pressure on the same business sector personnel. Ortega has agreed to sit down and discuss the issues that have now become open rioting. But only with business leaders. This move is designed to soften them up when they sit down for talks that the outcome is already predestined.

One journalist was killed over the weekend. Angel Gahona was reporting live video via Facebook Live on protests in the city of Bluefields along the coast when he was killed by a gunshot to the head, that some protesters were calling an assassination. At least 25 other people have been killed since the latest protest began on Wednesday according to the independent Nicaraguan Human Rights Center. The Ortega government has acknowledged only nine dead, but both of those totals will no doubt rise.

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Ortega is backed up to the wall and just on Monday said that he’d scrap the planned changes for Social Security. And he renewed his call to the business leaders of the country to sit and negotiate. But also on Monday, the business leaders pushed back and refused to sit down until the government stops the repression against the protests.

Ortega is concerned because the protests swelled from just Managua and Leon to dozens of other cities. Younger people, many of them college students, who flocked to the Sandinista cause in the ‘80s are the ones leading the charge against them now.

Now the Social Security issue is just a sideshow to the unrest as many of the young people want complete freedom of speech restored. That is a dangerous slope that Ortega will try to avoid at all costs. The scrapping of term limits and having Ortega, and his wife virtually in office for life is a threat to democracy and Nicaraguans are fed up.

Photo: AP