To participate or not to participate: Is that the question?
The Ortega-Murillo government is still under pressure,
trying to buy time as it waits for clearer signals from Washington.
Meanwhile, the opposition eliminated from last November’s elections,
which then actively urged voters to abstain from casting a ballot
to avoid legitimating the “farce” those elections represented,
has now split in two over whether or not to run
in November’s municipal elections.
Three months into his adminis tration, President Trump has yet to define his policy toward Latin America. The members of Congress who sponsored the “Nica Act,” a bill that would block inter¬national loans to the Ortega government unless Nicaragua’s next elections are clean and transparent, are anxious to revive it. It has already been approved by the House of Representatives but is stalled in the Senate. And Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), is again concentrating on Venezuela after negotiating with the Ortega government with very limited success to ensure those clean and transparent elections.
How to read Donald Trump
In an attempt to glean some idea of what lies at the end of this agonizing wait, the Ortega-Murillo government decided to rattle some cages in Washington. On March 20 Francisco Campbell, Nicara¬gua’s ambassador to the United States, participated in a round table on “Perceptions of US diplomacy seen from Latin America,” organized by the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute.
Without mentioning Trump by name, Campbell described the US as currently engaged in an “unconventional transition” that has generated much confusion, many questions and numerous efforts to decipher its foreign policy intentions. Noting that relations between the United States and some of its neighbors to the South—presumably referring particularly to Cuba—have experienced notable evolution in recent years, he encouraged Washington to employ a constructive and pragmatic attitude toward cases in which progress has not yet been made and that require political maturity and above all full respect for the national sovereignty of each country, independent of its geographic size, wealth or development level.
Although attempting a continental vision, Ambassador Campbell was clearly talking about Nicaragua. He said that from the outset his government has raised the pressing need to set aside existing ideological prejudices, adding that a mature and constructive relation would include the development of a practical agenda focused on issues of mutual interest. He identified three “pillars” for a bilateral agenda: security (understood as drugs, organized crime and international terrorism); trade and investments; and renewable energy and sustainable development. He then listed the progress Nicaragua has been making with all three.
Ortega’s pillars and those of the Nica Act
Although the ambassador’s words were carefully chosen, they reveal the concern in Managua’s power circle about what the new administration in the White House might do. The message avoided the underlying issues that gave rise to the Nica Act and made no mention of the negotiation with the OAS.
The “pillars” on which the Nica Act is built refer to other issues: clean and transparent elections; democracy; civil, political and human rights… Ever since that bill was passed by the House last September then followed by Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House in January, two former Nicaraguan ambassadors, Francisco Aguirre Sacasa and Bosco Matamoros, both of them Liberals, have repeatedly warned Ortega about something he’s already well aware of: that a well-organized group of Cuban-American congress¬people is determined to push this legislation forward, either in its original version or adding conditions that put even more pressure on the Nicaraguan President and his top government officials.
They say Ortega has it within his power to short-circuit its approval, but insist that his current agreements with the OAS won’t be enough to do the job. Political scientist José Antonio Peraza offers extensive reflections on the limited nature of those accords in this issue’s Speaking Out section.
Some analysts believe that after the OAS citation against Venezuela’s President, it won’t be much longer before the screws are turned against Nica¬ragua’s; and it would appear the Ortega-Murillo government agrees. At times it acts so cautiously that it tries to steer clear of that inter-American institution altogether. In March, during the 161st period of sessions of its Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), Nicaragua didn’t even send a representative to the hearings that dealt with press freedom and human rights in Nicaragua.
After the Commission members heard descriptions of what was happening in the country from representatives of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation and journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, representing his Center for Communication Research (CINCO), Edison Lanzas, the IACHR special rapporteur on press freedom, commented with more than a touch of irony, “It’s hard to understand how a government that wins elections with 72% of the vote refuses to discuss freedom of expression.”
Although the government is aware of the danger, it sometimes slips into bellicosity and faces off against the OAS. Only a few days after it absented itself from the IACHR hearing, it participated actively in an OAS Permanent Council Session scheduled to analyze Almagro’s report that presented Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro with a sort of ultimatum. Nicaragua’s representative worked together with Bolivia’s to boycott approval of the session’s agenda.
In the end, however, 20 of the 34 member countries asked the OAS to design a “roadmap” to restore democracy in Venezuela. It was a more limited result than Almagro expected, but wasn’t a triumph for Maduro, who immediately ordered his country’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice to take over the functions of the legislative branch, only to retract this order almost straight away.
Whether the OAS initiatives in Venezuela’s case move slower or faster, they leave none of the unknowns or questions mentioned by Ambassador Campbell, enjoying the clear backing of the Trump administration.
…and saying nothing
As it waits to learn more about President Trump’s plans, the Nicaraguan government is prudently saying nothing about CAFTA-DR, the US free trade agreement with Central America and the Dominican Republic. The other regional governments that are signatories of that agreement have been expressing the need to revise it, given their fear that the agricultural products from the US that are scheduled to start coming into their countries duty free this year, the tenth anniversary of its signing, will create unequal competition with their own products. Nicaragua is hunkering down because it’s the only country in CAFTA-DR with a favorable trade surplus with the United States.
The White House has issued an executive order to review all 14 US trade agreements with other countries, with Trump’s sights particularly focused on the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada (NAFTA), because the US is running a US$60 billion deficit with Mexico. In contrast, it has a US$5 billion surplus with DR-CAFTA overall. While Nicaragua’s trade surplus of nearly US$2 billion with the US last year means a lot to us, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the surpluses China, Europe and Mexico have with the US.
Trump’s determination to review all multilateral treaties, transforming them into bilateral ones and eliminating those unfavorable to the US with a view to putting “America First,” would be very detrimental to Nicaragua. Aguirre Sacasa has publicly sounded the alarm: “Considering the anti-Ortega climate in the US Congress, Nicaragua could find itself affected if the Trump administration were to negotiate CAFTA country by country. President Ortega has to take that into account.”
“The most important task”
The uncertainties of the internal context are also exerting pressure on the Ortega-Murillo government. While we’ll never know the precise figures or exact motivations behind the massive voter abstention in last November’s general elections, creating a hollow victory for the Ortega-Murillo presidential ticket, we do know that the model the governing couple has imposed on the country has been significantly eroded. They must now be doubting the control they’re exercising not only over the population but also over the grassroots base of their own political machine.
The rivalries and contradictions mounting within the circle of power are accentuating that uncertainty. Former Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) presidential candidate Edmundo Jarquin recently returned to the topic in a televised interview with journalist Jaime Arellano. Jarquín defined both the Ortega-Murillo government’s rage against the MRS and its policy of sidelining “historical” FSLN militants—Jarquín belongs to both groups—as having the same political parentage, the same dynamic, imposed within the party by Murillo. He underscored the importance of retired General Humberto Ortega’s defense of debate, collective leadership and criticism of the FSLN being dominated by a “single person,” even though that person is the general’s own brother.
Hugo Torres, also a retired general, says the internal tensions have also infected the Army, where contradictions exist among the Army’s “institu¬tionals,” its historical members, many of whom date back to the FSLN-led insurrection against Somoza and those loyal to the governing couple’s dynastic project.
As Jarquín puts it, “The 1893 Liberal revolution gave birth to a new social and political subject, liberalism, which dominated virtually the entire 20th century. The 1979 Sandinista revolution was the origin of a new social and historical subject, Sandinismo, and it will have enormous importance throughout this century. But both the 20th-century liberalism and 21st-century Sandinismo have undergone a process of privatization. Somoza did it to liberalism in the 20th century, which is what led to the 1979 revolution. And we’re now seeing it in Sandinismo, privatized by Murillo’s project. Containing that privatization process, which is heading toward a dynastic regime, is the most important task currently facing democracy in Nicaragua.”
The OAS has posed itself other “tasks,” although they have yet to be clearly concretized. On March 16, while Luis Almagro was concentrating all his energies on Venezuela, he gave Nicaragua two minutes of his time to stress the importance of the agreement reached with Ortega. In a video message, Almagro reiterated the contents of the February 28 memorandum and announced that “next” they will define the objectives, areas of responsibility, activities, work plan, budget and monitoring and evaluation method for the cooperation mission the OAS will set up in Nicaragua to “perfect” democracy…
While everyone is waiting for the next announcement, the only concrete thing so far is that an OAS mission will be present “before, during and after” the November 5 municipal elections, applying the “OAS norms and standards for electoral observation.” If those elections really happen, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) must formally call them six months previously, on May 5, announcing what parties or alliances will participate and presenting the calendar for the ensuing six months.
The diverging of the opposition
Meanwhile, the National Coalition for Democracy, the alliance of 10 opposition organizations Ortega so feared in last November’s general elections that he engineered its exclusion from the race, has since split into two groups. This occurred after Eduardo Monte¬alegre, the coordinator and legal representative of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), the largest party in the alliance, announced he was retiring from politics last August. Kitty Monterrey, his assistant for the past 25 years, immediately announced she was taking his place. Soon thereafter she announced that she would request legal status from the CSE for her new party, Citizens for Liberty (CxL), made up exclusively of Liberals loyal to him.
As all that was unfolding, those Monterrey excluded began to group together in a new political—not electoral—alliance they named the Broad Front for Democracy (FAD). It is a convergence of both leaders and rank-and-file of different political stripes: Liberals who originally belonged to either the PLI or the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), Conservatives, former Resistance members, the MRS, the Citizen Action Party (PAC) and discontents who never affiliated with any party.
Both the CxL and the FAD have now made their positions clear with respect to running candidates in November’s municipal elections: the former will if it gets its legal status and the latter will not.
CxL front and center
The CxL has met all the electoral law’s requisites for forming a new party and is ready to run in the next elections. These requirements are “grueling,” to quote CxL director Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Jr.: in activities verified in situ and certified by the CSE, the party had to elect 765 members of 153 boards, one per municipality, as well as 119 members of 15 boards, one per department, and a 9-member national board.
Kitty Monterrey was elected to head the CxL’s national board. She has never before had a visible political role in her 67 years, having begun working with Montealegre back when he was a banker and government minister. She stuck by him during his 11 years of party activity, serving as his efficient administrator in three political efforts: in 2005 when he left the PLC and founded the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), beating out the PLC for second place as the new party’s presidential candidate the next year; in 2008 when Ortega stripped him of his ALN leadership and he founded the “We’re Going with Eduardo” movement, running for mayor of Managua in alliance with the PLC, which many believe he would have won had there not been significant fraud; and in 2011 when he and his followers from that movement took over the generations-old PLI, thus regaining legal status, which he shared in an alliance with the MRS and others to run candidates and again place second in what was again a fraudulent general election.
Monterrey’s debut as a political leader has Monte¬alegre’s arms-length blessing. The apparent deal with Ortega was to allow the CxL to participate in the upcoming elections, thus legitimizing Ortega’s tainted 2016 reelection ex-post-facto. In exchange, the courts have re-shelved a case against Montealegre related to the issuing of negotiable investment certificates (CENIs) when he was President Arnoldo Alemán’s treasury ministry, in a clear conflict of interest with his links to a bank that profited handsomely from the purchase of those bonds. The courts also granted his brother, Álvaro, the privilege of house arrest after being sentenced to 22 years in prison for swindling a sizable group of countrymen of his same social class and reversed its decision to embargo his belongings to compensate the victims of his scam. The exceedingly harsh sentence for Álvaro’s white-collar crime and the trial that has been hanging over Eduardo’s head for the past decade are generally understood as Ortega’s way of keeping Montealegre on a short political leash.
The OAS is supposed to be the “guarantee”
Monterrey and her CxL followers consider the presence of OAS observers in the municipal elections to be sufficient guarantee to warrant their decision to run candidates. They seem undaunted by the lack of any changes in the top CSE management that has administered the greater or lesser frauds perpetrated since 2006, or in the restrictive electoral law or even the electoral logistics, much less any sign of political will on Ortega’s part to make those changes.
According to Monterrey, the winning strategy is not the constantly called-for national “opposition unity.” She argues that a national election is utterly unlike municipal elections, in which different locally-known leader¬ships compete in each of the 153 municipalities with their own unique contexts and correlations of forces. The CxL’s strategy will thus be territorial unity, which is not too dissimilar to the highly successful strategy promoted by the MRS when it participated in the FSLN’s Convergence in the 2000 municipal elections. To bring out voters who abstained last November, the CxL affiliates in each municipality will be free to choose the best candidates they can find from among the local leadership, “wherever they come from” as long as they offer the greatest chance of defeating Ortega’s candidates.
“An allergy that’s hard to explain”
Ever since Monterrey excluded from the CxL anyone who was not a loyal follower of Montealegre, even if they had been active PLI leaders, she has also insisted on distancing it from the MRS, arguing that the Liberal ideology is incompatible with what she calls its “extreme left socialist ideology.” Ironically, the government’s political and business spokespeople excoriate the MRS for precisely the opposite reason: as a rightwing social democratic organization.
Monterrey not only distorts the MRS ideology, but also its strategy, claiming that the CxL is proposing a “civic way” to defeat Ortega, while the MRS proposal seeks to “return to the destruction of the eighties.”
The shared interest in getting Ortega out of power united the PLI and the MRS for a time, she said, “but at this point I have my doubts that this is really the MRS objective, because their populist language is identical to the FSLN’s and stability comes first in this country, not a language that incites violence and the destruction of the little we have constructed.”
She claims that allying with the MRS brought the PLI “enormous problems” with private enterprise and the Catholic Church. But Humberto Belli—the Chamorro government’s education minister, who is intensely critical of the Ortega government and closely linked to both private enterprise and the Church—finds Monterrey’s portrait of the MRS, belied by both the MRS’ own discourse and reality, “an allergy that’s hard to explain.”
“We don’t accept conditions and aren’t accomplices”
The government shares the allergy, although for different reasons and with a different portrayal. In late March, FAD coordinator José Pallais, a Liberal jurist-politician known for his ethical stances, reported to the media that an Ortega government envoy had visited him in his office in León to offer the FAD legal status as a political party if it expelled the MRS.
According to Pallais, he responded, “Tell your boss we don’t accept conditions, because that would make us his accomplices.” For Pallais, this proposition has to do “with the FSLN’s history, which has been exclusionary and permits no future for any other force of Sandinista origins.” For Henry Zelaya, a former Resistance director who is now also a director of the FAD, Ortega has no use for anybody he sees as politically opposed to him.
MRS: 1995 – 2017
The stellar moment in the MRS’ 22 years of history was its open challenge to Daniel Ortega in the 2006 elections, heading an alliance whose presidential candidate was former Managua mayor Herty Lewites. At the time Lewites had just been expelled from the FSLN for aspiring to run against Ortega in the party’s presidential primaries. With his charismatic personality and a highly successful term as mayor to his credit, Lewites pulled together various dispersed groups of Sandinistas and also demonstrated his popularity well beyond the Left. Although the MRS was largely made up of Sandinista professionals and intellectuals, it had never before had such an important political asset. In an alliance with a new split of well-known leftists who had departed the FSLN with Levites, and with Edmundo Jarquín as his running mate, they threatened to win elections in which both the Right and the Left were divided, creating a close four-way race.
Just as the campaign was getting underway, Lewites suddenly and mysteriously died, reportedly of a heart attack. Although the MRS Alliance was devastated, it quickly tried to rally, moving Jarquín up to the presidential slot and completing the ticket with the beloved revolutionary singer-song¬writer Carlos Mejía Godoy.
That was ¬also the year the Catholic and Evangelical churches mounted an all-out war on the century-old law permitting therapeutic abortion. Caught on the street by a journalist who asked his view on the right-to-life campaign, Jarquín responded as diplomatically as possible that he favored the right to life, including that of women whose life was threatened by a high-risk pregnancy. With that, he was immediately dubbed the “assassin candidate.”
Despite all that, the MRS obtained 300,000 votes that year, winning 20% of Managua and coming within three points of stopping Ortega from wining with the new first-round minimum of 35% of the national vote. It has even been alleged that a percentage of never-counted ballots would have made the difference and was the first small example of the electoral frauds to come. Be that as it may, the MRS had begun to show muscle and from then on Ortega, who won the elections and went on to consolidate control over virtually all the institutions, began to vent his ire against it for daring to cross him.
In June 2008, just as the campaign for that year’s municipal elections was formally getting underway, the CSE unjustifiably stripped the MRS of its legal status in a violation of human rights that reached the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, although Nicaragua’s Supreme Court has refused to recognize this.
Although bereft of its legal status, and thus unable to participate in elections in its own right, the MRS continued demonstrating its political status. In the 2011 presidential elections, it participated in an electoral alliance with Montealegre’s Liberals. Although it decided not to take part in the 2012 municipal elections, which were too clearly rigged, it did so again as part of the National Coalition for Democracy in the 2016 presidential elections, until it was the PLI’s turn to have its legal status taken away, thus denying the Coalition a slot on the ballot. “Today,” says Dora María Téllez, a coman¬dante in the FSLN-led insurrection against Somoza, the revolutionary government’s minister of health in the late eighties and one of the founders of the MRS when it split in 1995, “only a few of us early leaders still belong to the FSLN. The majority of those in the party now are young people with different political origins.”
“The OAS can neither see nor avoid it”
Those in the FAD, be they MRS, Liberals, Conservatives or former contras, have decided not to legitimate the upcoming municipal elections by participating in them. They believe the only parties that still enjoy legal standing owe it to their agreement to “politically subordinate themselves” to Ortega. Another FAD leader, Violeta Granera, who had the vice presidential slot in the coalition annulled by Ortega in June 2016, explains that if the November 2016 elections were “a farce,” the municipal ones this year will be a myriad of “little farces.” Nonetheless, she remains open to dialogue with Monterrey and the CxL “to bring our visions closer.”
The FAD representatives don’t believe that running candidates based just on the OAS presence guarantees anything. They recall that the OAS also observed the 2011 elections, which were easier to monitor because the results were national, yet they culminated in an enormous fraud whose irregularities the OAS even reported without it changing a single thing in the country.
In addition, they warn that the OAS has no capacity to be in all 153 municipalities, and that even being in the country six months ahead of time overseeing the preparations isn’t enough to detect or even recognize all the flaws in the electoral system. For example, they point out that “the OAS can neither see nor avoid nor control the fact that the election monitors of the still-legal parties, none of which have many members, are part of the machinery Daniel Ortega puts at the voting tables and that the majority of CSE officials heading its departmental and municipal structures and voting centers all over the country are also picked by his machinery.”
“We’ll never participate in that project”
The FAD considers that Ortega came out of last November’s electoral event so delegitimized by elections with massive abstention and viewed by the rest of the world as tarnished that he urgently needs to re-legitimize himself. And in their view, there’s nothing like the participation of those he has previously excluded to do that job. They are convinced that the only reason he’s willing to give the CxL legal standing is to lend legitimacy to elections that will be watched from abroad, particularly from the US Congress, and to assure that his power project survives another five years without having to make any major changes.
“Ortega’s project, which is one of a hegemonic party surrounded by a handful of little parties that are complicit with his dictatorial plan, can be called many things, but democracy isn’t one of them,” José Pallais says firmly. “And the FAD will never participate in that.” He’s convinced that “the CxL is Ortega’s principal shield against the international pressure.”
A weak but reinforced shield
Leaving to one side the CxL’s ill will toward the MRS and the FAD’s suspicions that the CxL is running in November just to get the few municipal government seats Ortega has agreed to give it in exchange for certain preconditions, the national scene has changed noticeably since the start of the Trump era.
Ortega no longer enjoys the Venezuelan cooperation that got him where he is today, and the era of Chávez’s Venezuela could soon disappear, with it the Ortega government’s squandering of resources, buying votes with welfare generosity and party and family accumulation. The government’s insignia program, Zero Hunger—which grants women who own at least three quarters of a hectare of land a “productive bond” valued at some US$2,000 that includes hens, a sow, sometimes a cow and food for the animals—has already suffered a cut of over 28% from this year’s budget.
Ortega is currently tangled up in his negotiations with the OAS from which it won’t be easy to extract himself. It’s not a scenario he wanted but he had to accept it in hopes of avoiding or at least putting off the Nica Act landing on the national economy… or on the heads of his cronies.
In this adverse context, the municipal elections seem a weak shield against the international pressure, but they are reinforced by the dream of all authoritarian governments: a fragmented and weak opposition. Ortega has been working to achieve that objective for two decades with the most perverse and wily maneuvers, so far with undeniable success.
A fragmented opposition, plus a disaffected popoulation
The two opposition organizations that emerged from the short-lived 2016 electoral alliance are the fruit of the fragmentation of years and have been further weakened by the exhaustion of a population that largely lives eking out a minimal living from day to day. Politically disenchanted by the endless self-interested maneuvers, society seems to have lost interest in what’s happening beyond its door or in participating actively in solving the national political conflict.
On one side is Citizens for Liberty, a political project with a defined ideology that aspires to become the country’s second political force. Its long-term vision involves running candidates in the municipal elections to gain spaces then continue accumulating forces until the next presidential elections in 2021. On that road, will it ally with other forces Ortega has so far not granted legal status, such as the Liberals’ Unity with Dignity Movement or the Evangelicals’ New Christian Alliance Party?
On the other side is the FAD, which believes persistence is the only path to restoring democracy and thus insistently demands free elections and substantive changes in the system. Its long-term vision involves uniting different ideologies in a common political project, which if it jells would be something novel in the country. For now it is working to link up local forces whose priority isn’t to run in any election that comes along, but first to ensure that people genuinely have the right to elect.
Turn a crack into an opening
Eliseo Núñez Morales, a former PLI legislator close to Montealegre who is part of three blocs of Liberal politicians and their followers who have gone with the FAD, describes its strategy this way: “With the OAS a tiny crack in the wall has been opened up for us. Our strategy isn’t to just sit there waiting for better conditions. It’s to repeatedly batter that wall until the crack becomes an opening through which fresh air—and eventually all of us—can pass. Ortega has dismantled the democratic institutionality stone by stone, so we’re building an opposition structure not for electoral processes but for a long-term struggle.”
In Washington’s radar
The US State Department closed March with a third international report that included the situation in Nicaragua, this time on drug control. The two previous ones, both earlier the same month, respectively focused on human rights and money laundering.
This report looks at the corruption in Nicaragua’s police force, the courts’ lack of independence and the absence of transparency in assigning confiscated drug-trafficking goods, which encourages corruption. It also refers to the lack of “reliable statistics” about the visibly growing use of drugs in the country.
Even with the crisis in Venezuela reaching a culminating point, the Ortega-Murillo government hasn’t dropped back below Washing¬ton’s radar. The agreement to permit the OAS to observe Nicaragua’s municipal elections together with the failure to permit meaningful structural changes to the corrupt electoral process has etched the dividing line between the organized opposition even deeper, with some determined to participate and others determined not to.
Is participation really the question?
To participate or not to participate: is that really the question? US Ambassador Laura Dogu instead stresses a prior need: dialogue: “If the electoral process isn’t accepted by all sectors of Nicaraguan society,” she said, “it won’t be successful. That’s why I believe it’s very important—for both the OAS and the government of Nicaragua—to hear all Nicaraguan voices in order to build a system of democracy that is open, transparent and fair for all Nicaraguans.”
The dividing line Dogu mentions isn’t about electoral participation. It’s the one that separates distrust from confidence and welcoming from intolerance. That line will only be erased with an atmosphere of inclusion that accepts, listens to and depends on “all voices.”
That is the question, but so far those who have the economic power and the political power in the country are showing no sign of even contemplating making that dialogue reality. And there’s the rub.