How can we free ourselves from something this serious?
The Nica Act pending approval in the US Congress
is a major threat to our country and most of its people,
none of whom have any responsibility for its emergence.
Denying reality and curling up defensively like an armadillo
will not protect us from either its approval or its application.
Yet there are no signs of the government changing tack
to free Nicaragua from something so serious.
Various analysts who know what goes on behind the scenes in Washington have been telling Nicaragua’s government advisers they’re making a big mistake by denying reality and trying to convince the population that the bipartisan Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act, quickly shortened to NICA, will come to nothing. The first three months of the new US administration may have passed with no movement on the bill, but these same analysts have been warning that pressure remains high inside the US Congress. And sure enough, a new version of the bill was sent to the House of Representatives on April 5 and to the Senate some three weeks later. The new House version is sponsored by more than double the 10 congresspeople who backed it in July last year.
The Nica Act, which could cut off all loans to Nicaragua from international financing institutions, would add to the increasingly difficult situation caused by the agonizing collapse of the Venezuela that Hugo Chávez bequeathed to his successor, Nicolás Maduro, leaving the Ortega-Murillo government without the copious oil revenues that gave it such free rein for eight years. Nica¬ragua is now facing the consequences of our government’s economic and political choices. There is an increasingly urgent need to change course from the authoritarian model imposed over the past decade.
“The US shouldn’t turn a blind eye”
The first version of the Nica Act was introduced by congressional representatives Ileana Ross Lehtinen (R-FL) and Albio Sires (D-NJ), both of them Cuban-Americans, and was passed “without objection” on September 21. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), also a Cuban-American, introduced a similar version in the Senate on September 7, which was read twice on September 22 then referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations, where it languished until the close of that legislative period as many senators had absented themselves to run for reelection.
The revised version, again introduced by Ross Lehtinen and Sires, is now backed by 15 Republicans and 10 Democrats. Presenting it to the Senate, Cruz said the “United States should not turn a blind eye to Nica¬ragua’s brutal thuggery,” his take on the Ortega government. Declarations such as this by the legislation’s promoters leave no doubt about their determination to get it approved quickly and applied rigorously. The same analysts who warned that the bill wasn’t dead are now saying it could make its way through both houses of Congress in a few weeks, possibly before the middle of the year.
A “flawed process”
The first version preceded Nicaragua’s November 6 general elections. It opened with a 22-point recounting of events its authors claimed demonstrated a lack of democracy in Nicaragua and thus the need for the law. The list of findings began with Washington suspending and ultimately canceling the Millennium Challenge Account for Nicaragua after the 2008 municipal electoral fraud and ended with an August 1, 2016, State Department press release expressing “grave concern” over the avalanche of ways the Nicaraguan government had limited democratic space leading up to last Novem¬ber’s elections. Between them came Ortega’s order to the Supreme Court to rule in favor of his unconstitutional reelection; acts of corruption; failure to maintain international standards of fiscal transparency; and “serious flaws” in the 2011 general elections, 2012 municipal elections and 2014 regional autonomous elections. It lists 10 abuses for 2016 alone, the majority related to the then-upcoming November elections, and most of the rest to the expelling of US visitors.
In the new version that same section revised, updated and extended those findings with what happened just before and during those elections, which its drafters also described as “flawed,” quoting the following US State Department opinion: “The November 6 presidential and legislative elections were marred by allegations of institutional fraud and the absence of independent opposition political parties. National observers and opposition leaders claimed rates of abstention from 60 to 70 percent.” In a press release issued the day after the elections the State Department defined the electoral abuses, culminating with the prohibition of independent observers, as having “degraded the legitimacy of the election,” while a February 2017 European Parliament resolution cited “deplores the attacks and acts of harassment to which human rights organizations and their members and independent journalists have been subjected by individuals, political forces and bodies linked to the State.”
The new findings also report that late last year the Inter-American Development Bank postponed a US$65 million loan for the Nicaraguan government after the US mission, on President Obama’s instructions, “expressed serious concerns of the absence of transparency, systemic corruption, and the lack of free and fair elections in Nicaragua.” This warning shot of how the Nica Act would be applied was lifted months later, presumably as a result of the publication of Ortega’s agreement with the Organization of American States (OAS).
To “oppose international loans”
The legislation’s self-defined task is to require the US President to “instruct the United States Executive Director at each international financial institution to use the voice, vote, and influence of the United States to oppose any loan for the benefit of the Government of Nicaragua, other than to address basic human needs or promote democracy, unless the Secretary of State certifies and reports to the appropriate congressional committees that the Government of Nicaragua is taking effective steps to 1) hold free, fair, and transparent elections overseen by credible domestic and international electoral observers; (2) promote democracy, as well as an independent judicial system and electoral council; (3) strengthen the rule of law; (4) respect the right to freedom of association and expression; (5) combat corruption, including investigating and prosecuting government officials that are credibly alleged to be corrupt; and (6) protect the right of political opposition parties, journalists, trade unionists, human rights defenders, and other civil society activists to operate without interference.” The inclusion of journalists, human rights defenders, union members and representatives and activists of nongovernmental organizations is a new addition in this version.
Both versions indicate as a statement of policy that the State Department and the US Agency for International Development “should prioritize foreign assistance to the people of Nicaragua to assist civil society in democracy and governance programs, including human rights documentation.” Both also require that the secretary of State in consultation with the intelligence community submit to Congress, no later than 90 (originally 120) days after the date of enactment of this Act, a report on the involvement of senior Nicaraguan government officials, including members of the Supreme Electoral Council, the National Assembly and the judicial system, in acts of public corruption or human rights violations.
The main international financing institutions in which the US would exercise its vote, influence or veto power are listed as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the IDB. But nine other European, African and Asian banks with weaker links to Nicaragua’s economy are also mentioned. For what it’s worth given the nature of the new US administration, both versions also offer an escape hatch, allowing the President to waive opposition to the loans if he determines it is in the US national interest.
The corruption report
It’s hard to know what is most worrying the Ortega-Murillo government: the cutoff of loans and its consequences on the national economy, or the report on corruption, which could politically and morally affect those directly participating in the government. The bill specifies that the report “shall be submitted in unclassified form, but may contain a classified annex. The unclassified portion of the report shall be made available to the public.” But even if it is kept classified, it could have consequences on the lives and personal economies of some of those targeted.
One of the analysts who has most precisely warned of the course this legislation would follow is former Nicaraguan ambassador Bosco Matamoros. As an example of the consequences the report on corruption could have, he offered the accusation of money laundering and drug trafficking against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aisami released in February by an office of the US Treasury Department. El Aisami’s properties and multi-million dollar bank accounts in the United States were promptly embargoed.
Nicaraguan economist Néstor Avendaño has rightly noted that this aspect of the Nica Act will have economic consequences not only for the government officials allegedly linked to illicit businesses, but indirectly for the entire country: “The list of corrupt people the United States surely has already prepared will affect juridical confidence in Nicaragua and the flow of investments coming into our country.”
The business elite ignore the corruption issue
The upper business echelons have sent representatives to Washington to lobby against the Nica Act, but apparently with no success. They are assuming no responsibility for stopping it in Managua despite being the only national sector the government listens to, its main allies and the main beneficiaries of its model of economic growth without democratic freedoms. It would appear they don’t want to acknowledge the other major issue the Nica Act takes up: the generalized corruption.
Don’t they realize that the legislation refers to information the business leaders themselves provided for the State Department’s Country Report? It declares that “companies reported that bribery of public officials, unlawful seizures, and arbitrary assessments by customs and tax authorities were common.… The courts remained particularly susceptible to bribes, manipulation, and other forms of corruption, especially by the FSLN….” In February Liberal jurist José Pallais, the coordinator of the opposition Broad Front for Democracy (FAD), confirmed this when he said in a television interview that the widespread corruption was at the root of the Nica Act in addition to Nicaragua’s visible electoral collapse. Pallais said OAS officials had informed FAD representatives that congressional staffers who visited Nicaragua in 2016 to talk to businesspeople not linked to COSEP had heard complaints about “corruption, unfair competition, lack of opportunities and fiscal repression, and returned to Washington convinced that things in Nicaragua were worse than they had imagined.”
Almagro and Ortega are acting out a political choreography
The Nica Act was revived at one of the most critical moments of the failing Chavez model in Venezuela, in which OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, backed by President Trump, is playing a lead role in building a solution that will involve moving up the general elections, safe in the knowledge that President Maduro will lose.
While not ignoring all the differences between the social and economic contexts of Nicaragua and today’s Venezuela, Almagro knows full well that Nicaragua’s model is a twin of Vene¬zuela’s and is confident that the outcome of Venezuela’s crisis will largely determine the evolution of Nica¬ragua’s. Ortega knows it too, and is following what’s unfolding in Caracas and Washington with enormous concern. He also knows he needs to be more careful than ever with his declarations and decisions.
Given their shared knowledge and mutual distrust, Ortega and Almagro responded to the revised Nica Act with a kind of political choreography in which each said what he was supposed to, protecting himself from the other and defending his own turf.
Luis Almagro: “It’s not constructive”
The new version of the Nica Act reflects the OAS electoral mission’s recommendation to reform the Nicaraguan electoral system after observing the fraudulent 2011 presidential elections. It also instructs the US President to direct the US permanent representative to the OAS to “strongly advocate” for an electoral observation mission to be sent to Nicaragua for the 2017 municipal elections. What it doesn’t do is mention Ortega’s recent agreement with the OAS after he decided to negotiate with it precisely to halt the bill’s passage. Do the bill’s drafters not believe in that agreement or do they just give it little importance? Or are they perhaps also participating, one way or another, in the choreography?
Almagro played his part by asking for time and space and distancing himself from the bill’s sponsors. On April 5, only minutes after it was learned they had resuscitated the bill and sent it off to the House of Representatives again, he expressed his “concern” about its reactivation,” considering that “it is not a constructive contribution to the work of the government of Nicaragua and this Secretary General on issues of cooperation for the country’s democratic, electoral and institutional strengthening.” He invited the bill’s sponsors to “reconsider the necessary aspects” to give Nicaragua’s government and the OAS “the time and space needed to move forward with the work agreed to by both parties.”
Ortega government calls the bill “sinister and malignant”
Hours after Almagro spoke, Ortega took his shot, although with more care than usual as his government is going through one of its most difficult periods since he’s been back in office. He has been forced to watch the death throes of the heir of Hugo Chávez, who was the unconditional buttress of Ortega’s model for years, but he knows it’s not the moment to confront Almagro because he doesn’t trust his plans and, because the correlation of forces in the OAS there is increasingly less favorable to both Maduro and him. And he certainly doesn’t want any problem with the United States since the unpredictable President Trump has already expressed his support for the role Almagro and the OAS are playing in Venezuela’s crisis.
But Ortega is also congenitally incapable of giving any sign of conceding or backpedaling. And that’s the most worrying part, because his government must assume its responsibility in this crisis to avoid serious consequences from something we all reject but that will affect us all.
The official response, replete with its signature excess of capital letters, was standard fare: an appeal to history and rejection of the North’s interminable interference, including the following examples: “The 2017 Nica Act is just the latest of the many threats that have loomed over Nicaragua throughout History, in the desire of the imperialist mentalities to take over our Country. It is a new attempt to grant itself the destructive Right of intromission in our national Affairs…. The irrational, inopportune and unseemly intention of this group of congresspeople of known extreme positions is only aimed at destabilizing a Country in which People are the priority, where we live peacefully rooted in a valuable Religious, Family and Community Culture that we are cultivating as a Special Patrimony.” Days later the government sent a message to the countries of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) asking for their solidarity in response to the “malignant and sinister determination to economically blockade the country.”
Almagro and Ortega thus played the role both needed to play in the theatrical choreography… until the curtain goes up again and they have to go back on stage.
The Nica Act is a national topic of debate
The origin, causes and consequences of the Nica Act and the process it will follow have triggered comments and discussions all over the country since last September. It’s hard to find anyone without an opinion about this sword of Damacles hanging over the Ortega-Murillo government.
Those who unconditionally support the government blame the bill on the Nicaraguan opposition politicians who visited Washington over the last year to report on what was happening in the country, variously dubbing them “Nicaragua’s bad children,” “servants of the empire” and “sellouts.” The erratic Edén Pastora, a Sandinista guerilla commander turned counterrevolutionary guerrilla leader turned Ortega government official, threatened to mark their houses so people could identify them and take action. He later said he would put together a team of jurists to try them for high treason.
The opposition politicians and personalities, their followers and a good percentage of the general public insist Daniel Ortega is the only person responsible for the Nica Act because he destroyed the country’s democratic institutionality, refuses to guarantee free and competitive elections and lacks the political will to transform the authoritarian model he has imposed on the country. Some stress that those most affected won’t be Ortega and his inner circle, but the country’s poorest who, as always, will pay the price for their leaders’ sins. A similar position is held by the Quixote Center, a Washington-based social justice organization, which decries the fact that this punitive legislation will perpetuate the suffering in Nicaragua.
Still others focus on the idea that only a truly inclusive national dialogue that produces a “change of course” in the political model can help stop the Nica Act. Nicaragua’s bishops proposed this same idea in 2014, but it never got a government hearing.
Meanwhile, two people from very different walks of life are urging an opening and an end to the exclusion: Matagalpa’s Bishop Rolando Álvarez and former American-Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce president Roberto Sansón. Álvarez points out that “the central government, the executive, has the say here. If they have the political will to change things, they could open the doors for Nicaragua to democratize.” And Sansón says “the government must act very intelligently and at the same time sufficiently humbly to understand that it has to change course and seek more involvement by and rapprochement with all political forces, however small they may be.”
COSEP says economic growth and the OAS are all we need
The government’s business allies reject the Nica Act for the same reason as the majority of the population—because it would harm the country economically—but they, like the government, are minimizing the reality and sidestepping the fact that this legislation is rooted in the lack of democracy and generalized corruption. They’ve announced that they will “close ranks” in defense of Ortega’s agreements with the OAS despite their imprecise contents, the fact that no concrete steps have been taken to turn the words on paper into real actions, and the fact that the agreements only propose making the changes over a three-year period, by which time the Nica Act will already be in effect.
Also like the government, the business elite never tire of repeating that the country’s economic growth is the “shield” against the Nica Act, as it is the highest in the region and has resulted from the government’s corporative alliance with big business. The Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), the business umbrella organization that was Ortega’s nemesis in the 1980s, backs the Ortega-Murillo government’s official response to the reintroduction of the bill: “Our proven Capacity to govern, managing the Economy responsibly, has made us a Country with Sustained Growth, where the Advances in the Struggle against Poverty are visible and irrefutable.”
Such self-congratulation notwithstanding, even official data show economic growth beginning to slow. Moreover, a study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean released this April questions the official poverty reduction figures the Nicaraguan government has been presenting and suggests they be reviewed. ECLAC recommends that the design, evaluation and monitoring of the public poverty reduction policies should go beyond the government’s current monetary approach to include a multi-disciplinary focus on poverty’s multiple dimensions, including housing, water, electricity, income, employment, children in school and sanitation services… It argues that doing so would significantly change the results.
It’s coming onto the citizenry’s agenda
“The only virtue of the Nica Act,” commented journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, “is that it will force Nicaraguan society, particularly the private sector that is maintaining an economic alliance with the authoritarian regime, to face the cancer of corruption and the lack of public transparency, which so far haven’t been on their agenda.”
If the demand for transparency doesn’t seem to be on the business elite’s agenda, it’s finally starting to show up on the agenda of the citizenry itself. Sociologist Óscar René Vargas optimistically commented recently that the deep-rooted “corruption subplot” entwining Nicaragua’s big business and its politicians previously documented only by the few independent media is now also increasingly being highlighted in the social networks. He reported that “every day there are more teachers, journalists and government functionaries no longer willing to remain silent, individuals willing to leak information about the corruption they observe, and a few thousand citizens who are becoming aware and are too outraged to be afraid.”
The government does have a Plan B
What is Ortega’s real answer to something so serious that is threatening the whole country? Is our President’s leadership “prudent, wise and experienced,” as the government response to this legislation’s congressional sponsors claims?
The government’s representatives and spokespeople insist that it doesn’t need a Plan B and already demonstrated its preparedness in the global crisis of 2008-2009. They further allege that the Nicaraguan economy has been transformed. It is still attracting investments and new free trade agreements have been signed with various countries.
What they all agree on is that, if applied, the Nica Act would basically affect the public investment program, 52% of which depends on loans from international financing institutions. Although they repeat that the government has no Plan B, it has managed to contract several loans since the Nica Act was announced in mid-2016, suggesting concern that it could be passed.
According to official information published in el 19 digital, the FSLN’s virtual news daily, the IDB approved a US$87 million loan to Nicaragua, while the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) approved one for US$67 million, both in November of last year to improve the road infrastructure. This year the government persuaded the IDB not to continue postponing passage of the US$65 million loan to support productivity held up due to the “serious concerns” expressed by the US mission, as mentioned in the Nica Act.
In addition, the government got a US$70 million loan from South Korea’s Keximbank and a US$30 million one from India’s Eximbank, again both to improve road infrastructure. In addition, the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development approved a loan of nearly US$22 million to help the Nicaraguan population living in the dry corridor adapt to climate change.
Néstor Avendaño reports that during the 2009 crisis the CABEI made a US$1 billion fund available to stabilize Nicaragua’s economy, US$600 million of which the government availed itself between the end of 2016 and March 2017.
The days of the fat cows are over
It may deny it, but the government already has a Plan B for the drastic drop in the oil credits Venezuela so generously granted to Nicaragua. Given their extremely concessionary characteristics, those credits put an average US$500 million a year in Ortega’s hands for over six years.
No one outside of the FSLN’s closest financial circle kept any account of where that money went. But everyone knows that without it this government would never have gotten to where it is now. Had those resources been used responsibly and honestly, they could have strategically changed our country’s underdeveloped profile.
With the failing of Chávez’s project in Venezuela, where a deepening crisis has been fueled by a drastic drop in oil production, and with oil prices gradually creeping back up, the original financing scheme underlying the Caracas-Managua oil deal began to change starting in 2015 and underwent drastic alterations last year. Nicaragua now buys little oil from Venezuela and is no longer exporting food to it in partial payment for the oil it does receive; moreover it now has to pay a higher percentage of Venezuela’s oil bill in the short term. All these changes are reducing the Central Bank’s international hard currency reserves.
Last year’s income from the resale of Venezuelan oil dropped to US$91.3 million, nearly 70% less than in 2015. And this year Nicaragua will have to pay over US$214 million on the debt that has been accumulating with Venezuela. Conclusion: the days of the fat cows are over.
A cushion to buffer the crisis
For the first several years of the oil deal, the income involved was not reflected in the legislative budget and its amount and use was virtually a party secret. But a few years ago the IMF insisted that the government be more transparent about its use. It only complied in very general terms, but as a result we learned that 38% of the oil credit went to “social projects” (mainly a “solidary bonus” to improve the salaries of the lowest-paid state workers and a subsidy to collective intra-city transport in Managua and Ciudad Sandino), and the rest to more numerous but less costly social programs such as the “roof plan” or “zero usury.” The other 62% went to profit-generating business investments, although no information has ever been released about their viability, relevance or profitability, much less who benefited from them.
Economist Adolfo Acevedo revealed this month that from the outset the government was setting aside a reserve from both those businesses and the social projects that he calculates at US$550.8 million between 2010 and 2016. It’s in an account somewhere… perhaps in Bancorp, the corporate bank of ALBA businesses? Acevedo wondered out loud if that money was a “cushion for the days of skinny cows.”
A more recent Plan B the government has been adopting to prepare for the lean years has been to incorporate some of the social programs originally financed with Venezuelan oil money into the national budget, while at the same time trimming them down.
Multiple economic challenges
Will these new loans and this cushion be enough? Will the Ortega-Murillo government be able to maintain the number of supernumerary public jobs it has today as part of its political patronage? Will it have to cut public spending further? More challenging yet, will it have to increase taxes? And if so whose?
Does it have a plan to deal with the crisis affecting the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS)? If the government doesn’t institute structural reforms that will surely be unpopular, INSS could end up bankrupt in a few years. Will it finally decide to curtail or at least drastically cut the fiscal exonerations and exemptions favoring its allies, the biggest and presumably most profitable businesses?
The many challenges facing the government aren’t easy to resolve and it’s unsurprisingly opting not to acknowledge them. This includes shrugging the Nica Act off as simply a political threat, one more example of the age-old US meddling in Nicaragua’s internal affairs, and insisting that it’s of no consequence because the country’s economic growth is still “robust.”
Taking issue with that ostrich posture, Néstor Avendaño says the econ¬omy has already begun to decelerate. He sees no alternative to the abundant resources the oil credit previously provided, and has observed a contraction of the money in circulation since the second half of 2016 to compensate for the drop in international reserves.
Avendaño believes the president of the Central Bank let his political enthusiasm get the better of him when he predicted “robust” growth of more than 4% this year. According to Avendaño, “We serious economists have the responsibility to admit that if even if that growth figure were true, it isn’t enough to reduce this country’s high unemployment, underemployment and poverty rates. We’d need an annual growth of more than 6% to reduce them by a single percentage point!”
An IMF technical mission was in Nicaragua recently to analyze the national economy, as is its custom. While here, mission chief Fernando Delgado expressed concern about three issues: the economic crisis affecting the INSS, the drop in Venezuelan cooperation and the Nica Act’s reintroduction into the US Congress. The IMF has been sounding the alarm about the INSS crisis for some years now, stating this time that “it seems such an important issue to us that we’re going to dedicate a special report to it, suggesting possible viable measures to strengthen it.” That institution’s deficit has been increasing year after year and has become particularly huge since 2014, among other reasons due to the small number of people actually paying into the system and its inflated number of public employees.
More uncertainty, less hard cash
Most economists agree that the mere announcement of the Nica Act’s reintroduction has already sparked investment uncertainty. They believe this will slow down or possibly even halt the flow of foreign direct investment, which would have an even stronger impact than losing the average US$250 million a year provided by the international financing institutions, as investment is the main source of the country’s international reserves.
In response to the government’s erroneous tactic of minimizing the consequences of the Nica Act, all “serious” economists are alerting the country to the urgent need to be adequately prepared with substantive information about the economic reality and politically include all voices to find a solution to this serious punishment.
The peasant march
Nonetheless, we’ve seen no signs of any real change that gets to grips with this proposed legislation that will affect all of Nicaragua. Instead we’ve seen both denial and reiterated political repression.
The peasant movement known as the Council in Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty has been announcing for the past two months that it would hold its 6th national march in Juigalpa to celebrate Earth Day, April 22. The single demand of all 87 local and national marches it has called since 2013 has been repeal of Law 840, the canal law, which concedes all the country’s lands and aquatic resources to the Chinese company HKND for 100 years to build an interoceanic canal, the mega-subprojects specifically mentioned in the law and any others it chooses to add.
As part of its call to the march in Juigalpa, the movement published a paid ad in the daily newspaper La Prensa in which it textually copied what it considers the “heart of the scandalous Law 840 that delivered the national territory to Chinese businessman Wang Jing.” That “heart” includes article 2, which states that “the concessionaire is granted the right to develop eight megaprojects in the southern part of Nicaragua as well as any other subproject that may not form part of this concession and that the concessionaire determines is necessary for the development and operation of one or more of said subprojects.” It also includes paragraph 3 of article 3: “The concessionaire is granted the right to cede, novate, transfer or encumber all or any of its rights or obligations with respect to all or any of its subprojects.” It concludes with the interpretive message from the movement itself: “With this law Wang Jing is granted the right to sell national territory to anyone he chooses without Nicaraguans being able to sue him.”
Until the day before the march there was every reason to expect that it would be held normally. First, the peasants would not be going to Managua, where on three previous occasions they had been blocked at the edge of the capital by strong repression. Second, a national march was held in Juigalpa two years ago with no problem. Third, the government’s actions are now on the US and OAS radar, suggesting that a repressive response wouldn’t be very smart. And fourth, but hardly least, Francisca Ramírez, the movement’s leader, was recently nominated for an international human rights award and specifically named in a February resolution of the European Parliament urging the Nicaraguan government to respect her rights. Nonetheless, the march against Law 840 was stopped by an extensive repressive military operation orchestrated by the government.
They didn’t even get to Juigalpa
The government ordered roadblocks with armed police to be installed from the early hours of the previous night at all access points that could be used to get to Juigalpa. And hundreds of armed anti-riot police surrounded all rural zones from which trucks carrying peasants who planned to meet up in Jui¬galpa were scheduled to leave. No one could leave the previous night and no one could arrive the next morning.
Information circulating on the social media showed that the march was effectively aborted by the military operation, the detentions at the roadblocks and the movement’s decision not to confront the anti-riot cops, maintaining a civic attitude in response to the sustained provocation.
With more deftness than force, some 300 representatives of civic organizations from all over the country, together with individuals who supported the peasant demands and opposed the canal law and concession, managed to make it to Juigalpa. The first dozen or so to arrive were detained and “deported” from the city by police officers. Those who came later stayed at the designated meeting point for three long hours, surrounded by a hundred or so armed anti-riot cops prepared to attack them with teargas, although it never came to that due to the prudence of the would-be marchers. One elderly man who had managed to make it all the way from Ometepe, the island in the middle of Lake Cocibolca that would be seriously affected by the canal’s passage, stubbornly held up a cloth banner with the words “Law 840 is more harmful than the Nica Act” for hours.
The events of Earth Day demonstrated the irrationality of the regime’s “rationality,” which is congruent with a historically formed authoritarian conviction. On the one hand, it comes from a belief that ceding shows weakness and can only lead to loss. On the other, it shows a fear of rural mobilization and peasant determination and convictions that has been engraved in the memory of the group in power from the eighties, when the FSLN’s original belief in a prolonged struggle against Somoza’s National Guard alongside peasants in the mountains was replaced by the experience of a massively destructive US-financed war bolstered by peasants angry at the revolutionary government’s mistakes. That conflict ended by bringing down the revolution.
“Russia’s ideological ally”
The Ortega-Murillo government has now added another dangerous decision to the mistaken tactics of minimizing the importance of the Nica Act and repressing a movement with strong international support. In early April, a Russian military delegation visited Nicaragua for a week to prepare joint tactical airborne maneuvers in the Caribbean. Russia’s Ministry of Defense also announced it will decide on the sale of more combat tanks to Nicaragua based on these maneuvers.
In response, The Washington Post quoted Juan González, President Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, as saying that “the United States and countries of the region should be concerned. Nicaragua offers a beachhead for Russia to expand its intel capabilities and election meddling close to the United States.” The Post noted that “while Venezuela has nearly collapsed economically and Cuba has improved relations with the United States, Ortega’s government has emerged as Russia’s most stable ideological ally in the hemisphere.”
It’s not too late
Some analysts are convinced that in addition to Nicaragua’s lack of democracy and corruption, the increasingly tight relations between Ortega and Russia’s Vladimir Putin will have significant weight when the two houses of Congress debate the Nica Act, even though this wasn’t mentioned in either of the bill’s two versions.
Ortega’s incursion into volatile world politics is another dangerous move that compromises the entire country. Is he in search of a powerful sponsor, or is this the product of an emotional inertia from the glorious eighties?
Given the threat hanging over our country, it is worth recalling the words of the Nicaraguan bishops in the document they offered President Ortega in 2014: “…you still have the possibility of demonstrating your willingness to encourage a genuine opening to political pluralism in the nation; to actively collaborate in rethinking the overall functioning of the political system and to look for ways to reach national consensus, reestablishing the political normality of a truly democratic state.”
We want to believe in the continued existence of such a possibility and the willingness to free Nicaragua from something so serious.