A cornered regime is shooting at a mounting civic revolution
The exploding insurrection of consciousness in April
has unexpectedly only grown despite the military response.
Whether in street mobilizations, highway blockades or dialogue,
everyone is demanding the same thing: justice and democracy.
The Ortega-Murillo regime’s answer has been injustice and repression,
only losing it more supporters and adding more calls for their departure.
Internationally, above all in the Organization of American States,
awareness is growing of what has been happening,
what’s happening now, and what could happen
if the crisis in Nicaragua drags out.
“ Mr. President, rethink with your Cabinet the path you have taken. An unarmed revolution has begun. There is no army vs. army here. It is a population that is finally expressing what it has been feeling for years. Do you really want to take down this revolution with rubber bullets, lead bullets and paramilitary forces? Listen to the people.”
Abelardo Mata, bishop of Estelí, said this to Daniel Ortega at the inauguration of the national dialogue on May 16, in which it was agreed that the bishops would act as mediators and witnesses. The government delegation sat along one side of the huge quadrangle of tables and the delegates of the newly-formed Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy (representatives of students, private enterprise, civil society, peasants and the Caribbean Coast) sat opposite, with the bishops between. (In this issue’s Speaking Out section, feminist jurist Azahálea Solís, a civil society representative in the dialogue, details the building and first experiences of this alliance, one of the most important political expressions of the civic insurrection.)
In contrast to Bishop Mata’s dramatic urging, the tone and content of the resolution presented to the OAS General Assembly at the US government’s initiative and approved on June 5, calling on the Nicaraguan government to “participate actively in peaceful negotiations,” was so tepid that the Nicaraguan government’s representative consented to it being presented. This illustrates the fact that Nicaragua’s new reality hasn’t yet been sufficiently appreciated beyond our borders, even though it’s finally beginning to break through the regime’s dictatorial nature.
A complex experience
that’s hard to understand
The unwillingness of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo to countenance the youth protests that sparked an unanticipated and massive awakening of consciousness in April opened the doors to the “unarmed revolution” Bishop Mata referred to. It is unprecedented in Nicaragua, and in fact in Latin America, and is complicated to understand.
It must be even more baffling abroad, after a silence of more than a decade in which little or nothing was known about the Ortega-Murillo regime’s excesses. Some, nostalgic for the revolutionary past, didn’t want to know about them; others, such as the Nicaraguan business elite and the US government, tolerated them, considering Ortega to be less problematic governing “from above” than “from below.” At least his relatively unperceived authoritarian rule guaranteed stability in a very violent region, which was good for tourism and foreign investment. The priority currently put on the Venezuelan crisis and the multiplicity of interests of many small countries in the OAS further explain why that hemispheric organization took so long to turn its glance to Nicaragua.
A civility that’s
hard to maintain
It will be hard to keep this unarmed insurrection within the borders of pure civility. With so many Nicaraguans experienced with weapons and with the armed overthrow of a dictatorship nearly 40 years ago, the more recent frustration of four consecutive electoral frauds organized by Ortega, and the gunning down of dozens of student protesters in a matter of days all imprinted in the historical memory, it’s impossible not to expect radical armed groups to start appearing alongside the civic insurrection.
But as Bishop Mata said, this is not an army vs. an army. A clear majority of the population is actively supporting the peaceful and responsible intentions of the civic revolt, while youths who have seen classmates wounded, killed, arrested, tortured or disappeared are responding with homemade weapons and rocks in a totally unequal confrontation with their attackers.
On the other side, the regime alternates between permitting massive peaceful demonstrations and unleashing authentic state terrorism against smaller ones. It does so officially through the use of highly-trained anti-riot police and unofficially through groups that both the independent media and the population variously refer to as members of the Sandinista Youth (JS), shock forces, gangs and more recently para-police forces, who are given the go-ahead and in numerous reported cases are paid by the regime.
To further complicate this already complex cast, there’s a much smaller sector of disaffected youths who are on no side but their own. They are to be found in any situation of chaos and crisis anywhere, and Nicaragua isn’t exempt. Given the country’s contemporary sociology of poverty, these alienated kids are typically the product of broken homes, a mother who works and no one to raise them except peers on the street. With little education and no chance of a decent job, their problems are often further complicated by the proliferation of hard drugs and booze. Either looking to even a score against someone or seeing a way to make a little quick money, they take advantage of the generalized chaos individually or hire themselves out. They are on hand to loot stores and houses that have been torched, or set up street barriers and charge vehicles to pass. But they’re bit actors, anecdotal extras in the greater drama being played out here today.
Supporters of the civic insurrection recognize, understand and agree with its peaceful intentions, including suggested acts of lawful civil disobedience, and don’t buy into the government’s untiring efforts to pin the blame for all destructive behavior—above all its own—on them. But in its life-and-death battle to hold onto power, there’s enough chaos and confusion for the government to try to achieve the impossible: confuse the uncommitted, quell the revolt through a combination of violence and waiting it out, retaliate against those it can to rekindle the fear and intimidation that prevailed before, fiercely deny its role in the violence, and then act as if Nicaragua had returned to the “peaceful and harmonious” country Rosario Murillo insists existed before April.
Civic consensus demands
justice and democracy
May has been a month of enormous civic efforts, rampant uncertainty and extreme violence by the regime. In this chaotic and fast-moving setting, it’s very hard to summarize everything that happened since our last issue closed, more than 40 days after the April insurrection, but we’ll try.
In April’s bloodiest days, Ortega was forced to talk about dialogue in order to mute the repudiation of the police killings, for which he is ultimately responsible, having reformed the police law to make the country’s President the supreme chief. of both the police and army. Ortega’s original idea was to sit back down with his old business allies to review and perhaps revise the social security reforms he unilaterally decreed that had brought students and others out into the streets in the first place.
The business leaders rejected being the only interlocutors as well as the limited agenda Ortega presented them. Because they had their ear more to the ground than Ortega, they realized a shift was occurring in the correlation of forces in those days as dozens of protestors were being gunned down by anti-riot cops accompanied by bullying JS members proudly wearing their identifying tee-shirts. They thus understood that the dialogue had to be national and include the different sectors of society, especially students, and that the agenda had to be much broader, including both economic and political issues. This turnaround by big business was the first great achievement of the civic insurrection, and proof of the rupture of its highly profitable alliance with Ortega for nearly a decade.
Parallel to that, national consciousness was growing that the solution would have to be peaceful, using nonviolent mechanisms such as mobilizations, marches, roadblocks… and also the proposed national dialogue, which the Catholic bishops agreed to mediate. In a matter of days, with virtually no debate and by uncontested consensus, the majority of Nicaraguans embraced the idea that the insurrection needed to maintain a civic character.
This new national majority also quickly agreed that the dialogue had to focus on two main points—a road- map to democratize the country and its institutions, and justice for the murder of the then dozens and now over a hundred youths. The government’s idea of having different tables to discuss sectoral grievances got no takers, as everyone quickly understood it would only have distracted them from reaching agreement on those essential points. As the bishops put it, “The objective of the national dialogue is to review Nicaragua’s political system down to its roots to achieve authentic democracy.”
IACHR or a national
On April 26, once the numbers killed by police sharp-shooters had made international news, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an autonomous OAS body, began urgently requesting the government’s permission to come to Nicaragua to investigate those crimes. The government refused all three of its requests and on May 6 the National Assembly instead announced the creation of its own “truth commission.” Ortega apparently thought it would be an acceptable alternative to the IACHR, but who could possibly expect justice from a commission endorsed by a parliament utterly controlled by Ortega and whose five “notables” were ideologically and economically linked to the government?
The bishops certainly didn’t buy it, and on May 10 they conditioned the start of the dialogue on the government permitting the IACHR’s entry “in the shortest possible time.” Ortega had to agree because he wanted international public opinion to believe he was truly willing to dialogue. The national dialogue was inaugurated six days later, nearly a month after the first fatal shootings, and the IACHR delegation arrived the following day, May 17. Its presence was another achievement for the civic resistance.
An arrival preceded by calm, and
followed by days of bloody events
Sizable demonstrations continued around the country in the days prior to the IACHR’s arrival, increasingly calling for the presidential couple to leave. Managua’s third mega-march was held on May 9, with an estimated participation of hundreds of thousands, including a sizable representation of peasants from the anti-canal movement. Drone footage of the long circular march route looked like a river rather than a major avenue, with the throngs of people waving blue and white national flags. As during the two other huge marches, one called by the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) on April 23 and the other by the Catholic bishops five days later, there was no police repression. Even more surprising, peasants from the anti-canal movement who had traveled standing for up to 12 hours in a caravan of trucks weren’t turned away at the entry to the capital as they had been in previous years for their own marches.
The day after that march, the peasant caravan turned around and headed home, where they set up inter-departmental roadblocks in their own territories, such as Chontales and Nueva Guinea. As news of the idea went viral, more and more barricades have been constructed on all of the country’s major national and inter-regional highways. This alliance between the cities and the countryside is yet another valuable achievement forged from the first moment of the civic insurrection.
But while the police stayed out of sight during that protest, the very next day, May 10, government shock forces again attacked Managua’s Polytechnic University, which had been taken over by students since April. The result was 19 wounded and 4 dead, taking the death toll past the 50 mark. The Managua campus of the National Autonomous University (UNAN), which was also in student hands, was attacked throughout the night of May ll. It was as if the government was punishing the population for the effrontery of using the calm to demonstrate its opposition to the violence instead of going gratefully home.
Masaya and Monimbó:
Focus of destructive attacks
During the afternoon of the next day the city of Masaya became an inferno. Only a week earlier a totally peaceful demonstration had crossed through that city famous for its indigenous handcrafts, but now anti-riot police and their para-police companions attacked protesting residents armed only with homemade weapons in eight hours of confrontations. In that case the toll was one dead and dozens wounded.
Houses and stores were also torched and looted, with the citizenry reporting signs of involvement by the governing party mayor. The next morning a caravan of vehicles 12 kilometers long drove from Managua to show solidarity with the people of Masaya and its indigenous barrio of Monimbó.
Between then and the closing of this issue on June 7, the regime’s thugs have continued to vent their rage on Masaya and Monimbó. The city is in ruins and its inhabitants are hunkered down, defended by and defending the barricades that have filled the city and the even larger blockades that prevent anyone coming into or leaving Masaya. “I think the fury against us is because Ortega always thought Masaya, and Monimbó in particular, were his, were loyal to him,” said one resident to a radio talk show. “Maybe he wants to do away with us all; maybe he thinks it’s mine or nobody’s.”
Not a day or night has passed without attacks and more wounded, causing hours of anxiety for local people. On June 3, when 10 youths were killed and some 40 more wounded in a joint operation of anti-riot police and para-police forces in Masaya, parish priest Edwin Román, who had opened the doors of the San Miguel church to shelter people, attend the wounded and hold a wake for the dead, insisted that “Genocide is being committed here; a cowardly genocide against citizens whose only weapon is a rock and a homemade mortar. Masaya is a ghost city now, with barricades everywhere, mothers crying for their dead children or looking for their disappeared sons…”
The confrontations between government forces and protestors continued right up to the day the dialogue was to get underway. On May 14, anti-riot police and shock forces unleashed fierce repression in Sébaco, department of Matagalpa, leaving 1 dead and 16 wounded. To stop the shooting, Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa went through the city and down the highway at dusk dressed in the most formal vestments and carrying the Blessed Sacrament, which in Catholic dogma is the body of Christ. Dozens of residents fell in behind him as night fell on this unprecedented scene. The next day pro-government forces killed 1 person and wounded 40 in Matagalpa City.
The mobilizations continued as well. On May 15, a major demonstration took place in the Jean Paul Genie traffic circle, right in front of Managua’s upscale Galerías shopping mall. That same day Managua also witnessed a massive demonstration of students from dozens of the city’s high schools demanding what everyone else was also demanding—justice for those murdered—and chanting “They were students, not delinquents.” They also chanted “Que se vayan” (Leave!), referring to the presidential couple. Anyone who is part of the civic rebellion understands that the first step to any real democratization involves the departure of the Ortega-Murillo government, which is now incapable of governing a country that has declared itself in rebellion. How to work out the regime’s handing over of power and when it should happen is the content of the national dialogue’s agenda point on democratization.
By then the government had already lost the streets of the capital and other main cities. It had also lost control of all of Managua’s traffic circles, symbolic sites the government had used for years to assemble party sympathizers and public employees, not infrequently to attack small opposition groups that were protesting. After April, the only traffic circle the government could still call its own was the one on Bolívar Avenue, which runs through the center of town past major government buildings all the way down to the lake. That particular roundabout sports not only a huge painted metal silhouette of Hugo Chávez’s face but also several of the Vice President’s famous Trees of Life. That is where the government now holds its counter-demonstrations, many blocks from far more multitudinous opposition demonstrations.
Into the breach
came the IACHR
The 15-member IACHR delegation, led by Antonia Urrejola, the IACHR rapporteur for Nicaragua, and assisted by her executive secretary, Paulo Abrao, landed in Managua in that heated environment of civic protests, ever more radicalized groups that were beginning to respond with whatever was at hand, more deaths and a mixture of hope and uncertainty. The last time the IACHR had visited Nicaragua was in 1992, to observe the human rights advances following the end of the 1980s’ contra war. Vilma Núñez, president of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), told envío that “we’d been trying for 15 years to get the Commission to return to Nicaragua. It was always difficult, but after Daniel Ortega returned to government in 2007 it became impossible. His refusal to invite it was impenetrable.” Ten years later, however, the civic pressure was enough to make Ortega back down.
In their four days in the country investigating what had happened in April and the first half of May in four cities (Managua, León, Masaya and Matagalpa), the commission members heard denunciations by more than 3,000 people, including testimonies from relatives of those killed and accounts of people who had been wounded, detained, tortured and threatened. They were also given hundreds of video clips, tapes and other material evidence. Following that intense in-country work, demonstrating strong professionalism and dedication at all times and unconcealable emotion in the face of many of the accounts they listened to, the commission members presented their preliminary report on May 21. Given the importance of its contents, we include it in its entirety in this issue of envío.
A strong and thorough report
The report shows that the Nicaraguan State responded disproportionately to April’s civic protests, using National Police anti-riot agents and the governing party’s shock forces. The tragic bottom line of that criminal display of force that triggered the crisis was 76 dead, 808 wounded and 438 detained as of May 21, figures the IACHR continued adding to upon leaving. “We found a very serious human rights situation in Nicaragua, and left the country very concerned,” said IACHR Executive Director Abrao back in Washington.
The Ortega government, which had committed equally serious human rights violations over the previous years, including extrajudicial executions documented by national human rights organizations, especially in rural zones, has never before found itself confronted with such crushing evidence of the criminal nature of its social control. As of April it’s there for the whole world to see.
“We all saw the qualitative brutality of the government’s actions in April from the very first moment, but the quantitative dimension of what they did was unimaginable,” recalled Núñez. “I never thought the report would be so strong; its thoroughness surprised me.” The IACHR text was yet another achievement of the civic struggle, and since leaving Nicaragua on May 21, the IACHR has not stopped issuing communiques from Washington condemning the violence.
How many have
The day before the dialogue started, the CID Gallup polling firm presented the results of a national survey of a sample of 1,200 people conducted between May 5 and 14. Of those consulted, 69% said they would like Ortega and Murillo to resign from government, with 30% of that number identifying as Sandinistas. Even more (78%) said the country is on a “bad path,” a view held by only 35% in a January poll conducted by the same firm.
Such a drastic change from previous polls by the same company in such a short period would explain a common protest slogan: “Daniel lost the people and the people lost their fear.” He lost the people when his regime showed its criminal face and paradoxically people lost their fear precisely when challenging the regime carried greater risks.
It is evident that many people who sympathized with Ortega until April have “switched sides.” In a recent interview, Comandante Jaime Wheelock, a member of the FSLN National Directorate as long as there was one, said he saw many old Sandinistas in the May 9 opposition march.
Despite the atrocities he is ordering, which have driven principled Sandinistas to join the protest movement, Ortega seems to be maintaining his firm core vote, which was never a majority. The CID Gallup poll indicates that 20% still have a “favorable” opinion of him and another 9% a “very favorable” opinion, with 31% saying they identify with today’s FSLN. Does that figure reflect loyalty to or fear of their leader?
Surely some of it is recognition of the government’s social programs, which have reflected a social sensibility no other governments have shown, albeit tainted with a hand-out and clientelist vision. It may also be the result of the pro-government channels’ news programs, which present an alternative reality: the youths at the barricades are all druggies who charge people to go through; the roadblocks are disrespectful of people and are willfully destroying family economies; the vandalism is the work of the opposition; the government’s role in the dialogue is to call for a return to the peace and harmony that existed before April…
“We’re here only to
negotiate your departure!”
From their first communique, the bishops said the national dialogue would be held in the national seminary, in other words their court, which was symbolically important. The inauguration of the dialogue revealed an austere and sober venue, with the tables covered only in blue and white clothes, with none of the effusive flower arrangements or party flags that adorn the events the governing couple presides over.
The day before that inaugural session, Vice President Murillo announced that she and Ortega would personally attend this “historic event.” Accompanied by three of their children, the couple arrived punctually at the seminary flanked on all sides by an excessive security detail, including two helicopters that tracked the caravan the length of the route from the capital. As they turned into the road leading to the seminary, a group of women shouted repeatedly at them “Murderers! Murderers!”
It was announced that the session, broadcast live on a TV hook-up on several channels and attended by the entire diplomatic corps accredited in Nicaragua, would follow a pre-determined protocol: the singing of the national anthem, an invocation to God by one of the bishops, a brief speech by Ortega, a prayer for the victims of the violence, and the singing of the Salve. At the conclusion, Ortega and Murillo would leave first with their entourage.
Before Ortega could speak, however, a communications major at the Central American University named Lesther Alemán stood up. With no microphone, but with a resonating voice that held the country spellbound, this 20-year-old young man, wearing a blue and white kerchief around his neck, directly addressed the President: “Why am I hijacking your turn? Because the dead, the wounded, the disappeared have come from our side! We have agreed to be at this table to demand that you order an immediate stop to the repression by your troops, paramilitary forces and thugs! This is not a dialogue table, it is a table to negotiate your departure, and you know it very well because it is the people who have requested it! In one month you have torn apart the country; it took Somoza years to do the same, and you know it very well! Surrender before the entire population!” It was a moment that will not be left out when the history of this unarmed revolution is written.
“A disappointing speech”
Daniel Ortega, his face frozen in impassivity, had never heard anything like it before. In his 11 years in government this time around, he has never appeared in a press conference, never condescended to grant an interview to the national press, and never had to answer questions because he has shielded himself from having to listen to any.
In his speech he said nothing that could be even loosely interpreted as an apology for the deaths he was responsible for, or even any admission of what has happened to so alienate the population either before or since. To the contrary, he referred to the 50,000 dead in Nicaragua’s 1980s war and the thousands of Palestinians wounded in Gaza in those same days, as if those numbers would diminish the importance of the Nicaraguan students killed now. He expressed concern about the “irrational violence, the diabolical violence that has exploded in our country,” as if he had nothing to do with it. It was almost as if he was still speaking about Gaza. Dressed in uncharacteristically drab tones and little makeup, Murillo then took the microphone in a speech that attempted to identify with the grieving mothers. Both speeches reflected either a serious misreading of their audience or a profound disdain for it.
Lesther Alemán’s words encouraged other participants to break with the stipulated script, including Bishop Abelardo Mata who, as mentioned above, spoke about an “unarmed revolution,” not an army vs. an army, as if to remind the President who has the weapons. Former Education Minister Carlos Tünnermann told Ortega how “disappointing” his speech had been by refusing to accept the new reality the country is demonstrating. And, after having listened to Ortega disparage those who had put up roadblocks on the highways, anti-canal movement peasant leader Medardo Mairena stood up to clarify the President’s misconception: “I want you to know, Mr. President, that we peasants have united to back the students. We are the only ones at those roadblocks. We, who have never been listened to, are the ones who are there.”
At the end, the students again broke dramatically with the protocol. In response to a throw-away offer by Ortega to look into the deaths of the students if they would send him the names, a student named Madeleine Caracas stood up and began slowly reading a list of each student killed in April and where it happened. After each name, the students chorused “Presente!” while the presidential couple maintained their emotionless expressions.
What part of truce didn’t the
After that “formal” inauguration, the dialogue held three working sessions. The first, on Friday May 18, exactly a month after the first protest and its repression, was not broadcast live. This time the government delegation showed up two hours late and minus the presidential couple. After nine hours, the only agreement reached was for a two-day weekend “truce” in which the government would not exercise more repression and the Civic Alliance would urge the people at the roadblocks to be more flexible in letting vehicles through.
Just before the truce was to go into effect, government shock forces showed up at the Catholic church in Matiguás, department of Matagalpa, with plans to torch it; local residents claim it was with the FSLN mayor’s complicity. Fortunately the attempt was frustrated. There were also violent confrontations in the city of Jinotega, where an organized and aware population discovered that the municipality’s FSLN mayor intended to set fire to the city’s marketplace. Two weeks later, a sizable opposition march through the city’s streets achieved something unique: not only a peaceful mobilization but one protected by the local police to avoid incidents.
During the two-day truce agreed to in the dialogue, a huge march was held in the city of León and sizable demonstrations in Managua and other cities. Some people who had built highway roadblocks agreed to be more flexible about letting vehicles pass (even though ambulances and other vehicles with legitimate emergencies had always been allowed through contrary to what the government says). Nonetheless, on Sunday night, police forces broke the truce by attacking students at the Agrarian University. It was one of the acts documented, and in this case directly witnessed, by the IACHR, which confirmed eight people wounded.
Who’s really behind the
destruction and vandalism?
The attempted or consummated arson, looting, property destruction and generalized chaos lasting for hours that began in Managua is becoming increasingly frequent throughout the country. Most of the population accuses the governing party mayors and other government authorities of paying gang members or individual youths, or sending in their own JS members to implement the destruction, while the official and pro-government media uniformly blame “rightwing groups of vandals.”
Vice President Murillo took it a step further, in her inimitable style: “A plague has been devastating the country for exactly a month,” while Ortega later added that “the devil is showing its claws.” And a few days after that, the government informed the national and international community in an official note that the actions are the product of “opposition political groups with specific political agendas, activating criminal formats to terrorize families.” It also specified that the violence is part of a “criminal conspiracy aimed at turning the country over to organized crime.”
That “interpretation” of everything that’s happening, repeated endlessly by the official media and copied faithfully by Telesur and various other “leftist” international media, analysts and solidarity organizations, not to mention government supporters inside the country, seems a bit disingenuous. The government doth protest too much, methinks.
Where were all those
rightwing vandals before?
It just doesn’t square, because before April 18, Nicaragua was “Central America’s safest country,” with an “exemplary police force” guaranteeing that security. How could so many groups of “vandals with rightwing intentions” and with the capacity to function so actively all around the country have suddenly emerged from nowhere, unperceived by the government’s highly skilled and experienced intelligence forces? Where were they all hiding? And why would they think they could convince hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans risking their lives in massive nonviolent demonstrations against the “Christian, socialist and solidary” government to support vandalism? If in fact, as the government also argues, all these demonstrators are either part of or just pawns in a massive US-orchestrated rightwing destabilization movement, why would these vandals alienate them with actions that could divide them and bring even more repression down on their heads? That sounds more like something the government would have motive to instigate.
Moreover, how could the National Police, once the most prestigious in the region, be so inefficient that it hasn’t detained a single vandal committing these misdeeds? And how is it that the firefighters never show up to put out the fires? In the inaugural session of the dialogue, Ortega insisted he had already ordered the police back to their barracks in response to the population’s accusations of repression, but the anti-riot police and the snipers are still out there. It’s only the regular police, the ones normally charged with maintaining law and order and protecting property,who are largely confined to their barracks.
Those convinced that the lawlessness is instigated by the government see it not only as a polarizing tactic, but also one aimed at creating a critical mass of people who will urge the government to impose order with a hard hand, supporting its repression. Doubters, however, wonder why the government would send loyal mobs out to torch its own municipal government offices, loot known Sandinista homes and the like. The two-part answer the convinced give illustrates, if nothing else, a conviction about how cynical this government has become, how far it has traveled from its once idealist past: they explain such behavior as both the cost the government is willing to pay to get people to believe it’s being done by the opposition, and a way to get rid of incriminating evidence.
A schooling in dialogue
The May 21 dialogue session was again broadcast live, and was shorter than the previous one. It was an unprecedented exercise of citizenship by the Civic Alliance. Following it by TV, radio or social networks was a learning experience for a county so unaccustomed to debate and engaging in give-and-take negotiations.
It was also unprecedented in the past 11 years to watch government officials called to account and see how ill equipped they were to respond. We could witness, live, their paucity of arguments and lack of decision-making power, as they constantly consulted the presidential office by cell phone on what to say, what to object to, what to propose…
The IACHR released its report in Managua while that session was still taking place. With surprisingly little foot-dragging the government agreed to comply with its 15 recommendations, thus creating the appearance of an enormous breakthrough in the thorny issue of justice, the dialogue’s second agenda item. Recommendations 3, 6, 14 and 15 specifically addressed the issues of investigating human rights violations, witness protection, adherence to international human rights law and follow-up mechanisms.
But consistent with the government’s repeated trick of signing but not complying, the para-police groups described in the report continued repressing the population that same day, without a breather. In the government’s social networks, threats, disparagement, calumnies and criminalizing continued to mount up against business¬people and students participating in the dialogue, and also against the bishops, particularly Monsignor Silvio Báez, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Managua, thus mocking the IACHR’s tenth recommendation: “Exhort the state authorities to refrain from making public declarations that stigmatize demonstrators, human rights defenders and journalists or from using the state media to conduct public campaigns that could encourage violence against individuals for reasons of their opinions. In addition, effectively protect defenders and journalists at risk.”
The Alliance’s roadmap
At the end of the next session two days later, again broadcast live, the bishops suspended the dialogue after the two sides were unable to resolve an impasse.
The bishops and the Civic Alliance had put all their energy into making headway on the democracy issue, the agenda’s first point. To that end, the bishops presented for the day’s discussion a short document titled “Road¬map to Democratization ” (also reproduced in this issue), which Bishop Rolando Álvarez read aloud. Despite its brevity, the document was all-encompassing, as it involved the total restructuring of the State.
The Civic Alliance’s aim in presenting something so holistic was to test the government’s willingness to discuss its first point, the issue of partially reforming the Constitution. That is a fundamental step required to bring forward the presidential, legislative, municipal and Caribbean Coast autonomous government elections in the “greatest possible brevity.” It got its answer in very short order.
roadblock to democratization
Foreign Minister Denis Moncada, who was heading the government delegation, retorted that what he had just heard Bishop Álvarez read was not a roadmap for democratization but “a roadmap for a coup d’état to overthrow the government.” With that, Bishop Báez, who took umbrage at such a “grave accusation,” set him straight on the difference between a coup d’état and what is happening now: a political crisis the bishops were attempting to solve “in line with the Inter-American Democratic Charter and the Constitution of Nicaragua.”
From that tense moment on through the rest of the day, all government representatives in lockstep demonstrated their delegation’s refusal to address the democratization issue. Each time any of them spoke, it was only to insist that the roadblocks had to come down before they would discuss anything. In doing so they consciously played to the TV viewing audience, presenting their obstinacy as concern for people’s welfare, the economic losses of small businesses and impending food shortages, describing apocryphal stories of people with medical emergencies unable to pass.
While it is true that the poor have the least margin to endure the effects of the roadblocks, it would appear that most of them recognize their importance to a non-violent attempt to end this authoritarian and repressive government. As of the closing of this issue, 70% of the country’s main arteries are blocked by paving stones, rocks, tree trunks, cinder-blocks and whatever else people can find, and the community members most immediately affected often help build them and bring water or food to the rotating groups of local people guarding them. Increasing numbers of barricades are also being built within urban centers, less as economic pressure than as self-protection against attacks by pro-government forces.
There are more reports of youths at the roadblocks going along the queues of vehicles to see if anyone needs water or food or has a genuine emergency and needs to be allowed through than of youths charging people to pass. There are no reports of any attempts by the local citizenry to remove the blockades, although there are increasing confrontations by Sandinista Youth groups. Azáhalea Solís talks more about the importance and legitimacy of these barricades in her Speaking Out article.
The Civic Alliance explained that the roadblocks were an autonomous gesture of support by the population, not a top-down action the alliance controlled. But in an effort to break the impasse with the government delegation, they agreed that if progress was made in the democracy discussion they would recommend that the people at the barricades be more flexible in letting people through.
When the government still wouldn’t budge, the bishops declared the dialogue suspended and recommended that the two sides each choose three people to form a commission charged with trying to get over the hurdle.
The government had clearly anticipated using the dialogue to bolster its image with the people and buy time. Believing it had the Episcopal Conference “under control,” it hadn’t expected the bishops to mediate the dialogue with such a firm but fair hand. Yet here they were in a “holy rebellion.”
“An attack on one
is an attack on all”
On May 22, the day after the dialogue was suspended, the Episcopal Conference issued a communique denouncing threats aimed at Managua’s auxiliary bishop, Silvio Báez, by government sympathizers. The text described the people of Nicaragua as “going through one of the worst crises in its history, following the crude repression by the government of Nicaragua, which is trying to evade its responsibility as the principle actor of the various aggressions.”
The Conference warned that “despite these threats, we remind our aggressors that we are a collegiate body and that an attack on one bishop or priest is an attack on our Church, and at this decisive hour we will not abandon the task of accompanying the entire Nicaraguan people, who under the blue and white of our national flag have taken to the streets to demand their just rights.”
The government seeks
By that time, the civic insurrection had already shown the regime that it had lost both the streets and its big business allies. But the national dialogue demonstrated that it had also exhausted the tolerance of the Catholic hierarchy and many parish priests around the country. They had sided with the people.
With that, Murillo circulated an internal document titled “Our political panorama.” Among other things it said that on May 22 “the Episcopal Conference in an official communique has said that the opinion of one is the opinion of all, making Silvio Báez’s call to war their own.” She was presumably referring to April 20, when Managua’s Cathedral became a sanctuary for thousands of students, many of them injured, fleeing the nearby police violence- Monsignor Báez had reportedly agreed with those demanding that this regime had to go. Murillo’s text proposed to organize an alternative national dialogue with sectors, unions and sell-out political parties under its control, and with new mediators. Although that plan was stillborn, it was evidence of yet another desperate attempt to fast-backward to the pre-April fiction.
On May 26, thousands of Catholics mobilized to support the bishops. Those at the front of the march carried a banner that said: “We want genuine justice. We support the CEN [the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua] and especially Monsignor Silvio José Báez.” A few days later, the government’s retaliation against the Catholic Church for its independence was expressed in a circular asking Sandinista sympathizers not to attend Sunday Mass or other Catholic rites. Very mature.
“Shoot to kill”
The six-person mixed commission suggested by the bishops to try to resolve the impasse regarding the roadblocks met on May 28. At midday, heavily armed anti-riot troops showed up in front of the Engineering University (UNI), taken over by students earlier that morning. It is a heavily transited area, across the street from the Central American University (UCA) and only a couple of blocks from the Metrocentro shopping mall. The troops opened fire, wounding dozens and arresting others, some because they supported the university students, but the majority because they simply were out on the street at lunch hour. Shoppers and people eating at Metrocentro simultaneously heard the shots and were warned by mall loudspeakers to leave quickly. In the chaos, some supporters of the student movement set fire to the front of Radio Ya, a major FSLN radio station just around the corner from the UNI.
Para-police forces had already been out operating in the capital for days, especially at night, but it had been a while since Managuans had seen the anti-riot police. The message that day seems to have been to terrorize the capital’s residents, who were preparing for the huge march announced for May 30, which is Mother’s Day in Nicaragua.
Erika Guevara-Rojas, Amnesty International’s director for the Americas, had just arrived with a delegation planning to presentí the next day the report of AI’s May 4-13 fact-finding visit to Managua, Ciudad Sandino, León and Estel. The delegation happened to be at the UCA at the time of the police attack, and was able to watch them live, deploying as if it were a military operation in Syria. Nicaraguan-born human rights activist Bianca Jagger, who was accompanying AI, was filmed on TV that night saying that “Nicaragua’s only solution is for Señor Ortega and Señora Murillo to leave and hand over power, so we can have free elections and democracy…. Señor Ortega, I beg you in the name of God, whom you always invoke: Stop the killing!”
The report AI presented the next day was titled “Shoot to Kill.”
“We’re not going to
stop until this stops”
Amnesty’s report states that the “alarming number of deaths and people injured indicates that the government used disproportionate, excessive and sometimes unnecessary force in responding to the protests, allowing demonstrators to be deliberately attacked.” Of the eight concrete cases it investigated in detail, “people were shot in the head, neck or upper chest. In at least four cases, the trajectory of the bullets was downward, suggesting that they were fired by snipers or people shooting from a vantage point high up. ... These elements, taken together with the use of pro-government armed groups, would seem to indicate that the aim was to implement a policy of repression using lethal force; that is, …not only to control those who were protesting, but rather to deprive political opponents and demonstrators, or those who were perceived as such, of life.”
Pilar Sanmartín, a regional AI investigator for crisis situations, listed in an interview with national newspaper reporters the three problems detected with the Nicaraguan authorities: “They are not taking responsibility for what is happening, are not accepting the facts, and are not investigating as they should do.” She added that “we didn’t expect to come up against this, with the authorities denying the deaths, minimizing what’s happening, criminalizing the protest and stigmatizing the demonstrators. But through that discourse we can see that they do know what’s happening. The problem is that they don’t recognize their responsibility and are allowing time to pass and more deaths to occur. For our part, Amnesty isn’t going to stop until this stops.”
Two days later, in another accomplishment of the civic pressure, the government had to agree to let an International Expert Investigation Group (GIEI) come to Nicaragua to determine responsibilities for the repressive wave Nicaragua is experiencing. The four foreign GIEI members were proposed by Nicaraguan civil society and selected by the IACHR, which is continuing to stay on top of everything that’s happening in Nicaragua. The GIEI investigation is not expected to reach its conclusions for six months.
The Civic Alliance is also requesting that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights come to Nicaragua. A delegation of the UN’s Political Affairs Department, which deals with mediation processes and political crises, was in Nicaragua in May at the government’s invitation although no information has been made public about its activities in the country.
“Justice and democracy
Some people are beginning to despair, worried that the longer the crisis drags out, the more the violence will increase, and the more damage will be done to people, property and the economy. But that concern doesn’t seem to make them any more acquiescent to the governing couple remaining; on the contrary, it just makes people want them out faster.
In a communique published on June 1, the Nicaraguan electoral observation organization Ethics and Transparency (EyT) exemplified the urgency many sectors in the country are feeling. In the most radical document seen so far, it argues that the justice the civic insurrection is clamoring for necessarily involves accepting, without further investigation, that Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo are the “intellectual authors” of the killings, not to mention of the pillaging of public resources and of the electoral frauds. It calls on “the corresponding authorities to ensure the appearance in the courts of these two thus-far alleged criminals” and on the Army to “ensure implementation of the prompt and necessary arrests, as well as a fair trial.” EyT explains that “democratization and justice are not separate demands. They are one: they are the voice of God.”
A tragic Mother’s Day
May 30, Nicaragua’s Mother’s Day, is as sacred as Purísima, the celebration of the Immaculate Conception, on December 7. This year’s May 30 will go down in history as the crossing of a line in this crisis.
The “mother of all marches” on that date, in solidarity with the “Mothers of April” whose children were gunned down in the first days of the civic insurrection, had been announced for days. It was Managua’s fourth mega-march since the insurrection began, and hands-down the largest yet. It was led by the grieving mothers, accompanied by the AI representatives. Hundreds of thousands of people participated, most of them wearing black.
The route began at the traffic circle in front of the Galerías mall and continued straight down the Masaya Highway to the Metrocentro traffic circle, then turned left on University Avenue to culminate in front of the UCA. Much of that stretch of the highway is six lanes, with a two-lane frontage road on either side. All lanes were packed with marchers the entire length.
None of the previous big marches had been attacked, and no one expected anything different this time, certainly not on Mothers’ Day. Families brought their children, even babes in arms and elderly people in wheelchairs. In short, people of all ages and social conditions were there, most of them carrying national flags.
To the shock and horror of everyone, para-police groups and snipers opened fire on the crowd on the last leg of the march, from the Metrocentro traffic circle to the UCA. A total of 14 youths were killed and nearly a hundred people were wounded.
That same day, in La Trinidad, Estelí, three people were killed when a vehicle returning Ortega sympathizers from a countermarch organized by the government was attacked by youths radicalized by the protests.
“We’re all staying right here!”
As the gunfire was ringing out across from the UCA, Ortega was addressing his party sympathizers and public employees at a separate Mothers’ Day celebration down at the Hugo Chávez traffic circle on Bolívar Avenue. The numbers that turned out for each march revealed an unarguable shift in the human correlation of forces, with an estimated 300,000 people in the civic march and around 30,000 at the government event, for a 10:1 difference.
Having just defined the Catholic bishops as the enemy, Ortega went after his former allies from big capital in his speech, as they had not only abandoned him, but had joined the Civic Alliance, supported the mothers’ march and even asked him publicly to accept early elections. If any of those who went to Ortega’s “songs for mothers” event that day expected to hear some guidance, some strategy, some proposal, they were sorely disappointed. The best he could muster was to assure them and advise his adversaries that “Nicaragua is no one’s private property! And we’re all staying right here!” To some it had the sound of a petulant tyrant: he’s not going anywhere and if he’s forced out he’ll leave the country in ruins.
Big business says “the country needs an answer now”
COSEP President José Adán Aguerri, who for years defended all the Ortega government’s decisions, becoming its de facto spokesperson, has apparently seen the error of his ways. On May 21, in the second dialogue session, he told the government delegation: “The country can’t bear up under a dragged-out solution. It needs an answer now and the government has to give unequivocal political responses.”
As it failed to do so, Nicaragua’s business leaders sent Ortega a joint letter on May 29, the day before the Mother’s Day march, cosigned by the directors of the 27 chambers in the powerful umbrella business organization Aguerri heads, the Association of Private Banks, the American-Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce and the Nicaraguan Economic and Social Development Foundation (FUNIDES). The letter warned Ortega that “there is no space in Nicaragua for the violence that has spilled so much blood of brothers throughout our history. For that reason we consider it urgent to implement the reforms necessary to permit the elections to be moved forward in an orderly way and with a renovated Supreme Electoral Council, with both dates to be determined in the national dialogue between the representatives of your government and of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy.”
In those same days, the top representatives of the three largest economic groups—Carlos Pellas for the Pellas group, Roberto Zamora for the LaFise financial group and Ramiro Ortiz for the Banpro financial group— offered separate declarations, all calling for the same thing: a cessation of the violence and early elections.
The only legal way to change an election date is by a partial reform of the Constitution, which would require the vote of most of the FSLN-dominated National Assembly representatives in this legislative year and then ratification through another vote in the next legislative year, January 2019 at the earliest. This was the first point of the “Democracy Roadmap” proposal presented by the bishops and the Civic Alliance in the May 23 national dialogue session… the one the government representatives declared was tantamount to a “coup d’état.” The presidential couple’s refusal to debate that first point was what collapsed the dialogue that same day.
The possibilities of
even more violence
Given the magnitude of the crisis, the business leaders’ May 29 letter implored Ortega to make all efforts within his grasp to find a peaceful solution, i.e. moving the elections up from 2021, “before we find ourselves immersed in an even more tragic situation in which the extremisms common to the polarization that has caused so much damage to our country become dominant.”
It sounds reasonable enough, but those holding out for a more “extreme” solution—basically that Ortega and Murillo leave now and turn power over to a transition government—have reasonable arguments of their own, basically well-founded trust issues. On the one hand, they worry that the more powerful sectors in the Civic Alliance, particularly big business, will negotiate away the less influential sectors’ major concerns in exchange for a government promise of a return to calm. On the other they worry that such a moderate solution six months down the road will demobilize the population and give the regime too much room for maneuvers, i.e. to “sign but not comply,” meanwhile meting out reprisals against the now identified “extremists” and re-instilling fear as a means of government.
Moving the elections forward rests on the assumption that Ortega and Murillo would negotiate an electoral and political reform on equal footing with the Civic Alliance and would cooperate in implementing all the agreed-to constitutional and other legal measures necessary to guarantee fair, transparent, free and observed elections. That in turn assumes an implicit renunciation by the governing couple of their absolute control. But that is precisely what they refuse to accept, since they clearly don’t believe the change in the correlation of forces in Nicaragua in these less than two months is irreversible.
To the contrary, polarizing the country even more and using the violence required to do so, which is what the business sector fears most, is a perfect second prong of the regime’s strategy of dragging its feet, wearing down the civic protest, stressing people out and stretching their family economy to the limit. Provoking more “extremist” sectors into responding to the repression with more than just rocks and mortars would lend credibility to its claim that it’s not facing a peaceful civic movement but generalized and meaningless violence; in other words, what Murilllo at the very beginning of the protests was already calling “toxic little souls full of hate, vampires thirsty for blood...” and Ortega shrugged off as “just gangs killing each other.” It’s the same attempt to create an alternative reality as we’ve already seen for years in the north of the country, where rearmed peasants have been labelled common criminals with no political grievances in order to justify militarily hunting them down. In today’s fast-shifting correlation of forces, the one thing Ortega still has in his favor is military might and people experienced in using it, which includes both the army and retired war veterans. To what degree is he willing to use that might to hold on to the wealth and absolute power he and Murillo have so unflaggingly built over the years?
All three key adversaries
are now outside the tent…
Since returning to power in 2007, Ortega has been careful to maintain good relations with the FSLN’s three key adversaries during the revolutionary 1980s: Nicaraguan big business, the Catholic hierarchy and the US government. As US President Lyndon Johnson once put it in his inimitable Texas style, “better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” For 11 years Ortega did a respectably good job of keeping all three de facto powers inside his tent, but in the blink of an eye he has totally lost the first two and is now declaring war on them.
Big business seems to have thrown in the towel on the once very satisfactory corporative model it maintained with the government for over a decade, For its part, most of the Catholic Church is maintaining a courageous and coherent position in siding with the people in rebellion, at the same time as the bishops have conducted the national dialogue with enormous and even-handed capacity despite many doubts, risks and interminable pitfalls. Meanwhile, priests, nuns and other religious workers have participated in the mobilizations, treated the wounded, collected and given food to both the peasants who come in caravans to Managua and to the students sequestered in the university campuses, mediated local conflicts saving lives, fought on behalf of those arrested, accompanied relatives of victims…
But if the government now sees the Catholic Church as firmly on the “other side,” it still has the support of most Evangelical leaders, who are either remaining silent or issuing timid and generic statements lamenting the violence “wherever it comes from.” Nonetheless, in a country that is 40% Evangelicals, it’s logical to assume that at least some are involved in the civic resistance against the government and participating in barricades, mobilizations and other tasks aimed at pressuring for a civic solution.
As for the US government, Ortega no longer has any friends in Washington despite his government’s cooperation with it on drug-trafficking and migration control and keeping the country safe for foreign investors. Up until April, virtually his only worrisome enemies were the handful of rightwing Cuban-American congresspeople who have been tirelessly pushing for passage of the Nica Act as punishment for what they falsely still think of as a leftwing government. Almost everybody else is too focused on either attacking President Trump for his egregious abuses or trying to prevent him from paying for them with impeachment. There’s no evidence to support another of Ortega’s explanations for the insurrection: that Washington is behind it.
…and the Army?
Since the very first days of the crisis, the Army of Nicaragua has issued three different communiques reaffirming that it will not repress peaceful protests and will limit itself to protecting strategic public properties. Nonetheless, some are calling for its more decided participation to shorten the time of the regime’s death throes.
For example, Ethics and Transparency said that “to channel the dialogue in a productive direction, it is necessary for the Army to act in line with the most humanitarian aspect of its constitutional disaster prevention and mitigation work, to make the binomial dictator see reality, showing it the limits of the nation’s patience.”
Henry Ruiz, a.k.a. Comandante “Modesto,” another of the nine FSLN National Directorate members in the 1980s, wrote in a much more challenging tone that “the national Army must be pushed. There should be no room for conjecture, such as that the snipers, an active contingent of the savage repression against the civic masses in the protests, are from its ranks. The claim that Dragunov rifles are being used in those actions has been verified, and that kind of rifle is under the Army’s protection, yet its communiques try to make the citizenry believe its declarations on sheer faith.”
What would the Army do if those on the insurrection side respond to the repression with their own escalating violence? Would it obey a direct command from Ortega, who is legally now its “supreme chief,” to protect the country from “armed subversion”? Would it continue to stay on the sidelines, protecting the country’s infrastructure, including its own investments? Or would it, as a self-defined constitutional army, take the side of the people against the government’s unconstitutional violation of people’s rights?
“Not a stone will
be left standing”
In fact, the regime’s strategy for confronting the people’s rebellion—shoot to kill and wreak destruction—in order to wear down the people’s opposition and enrage its more radical sectors into responding with violence has been increasingly revealed. Most of the actions—looting, torching private businesses and houses, intimidating barrios at night to the point that people don’t go out after dark—are by armed civilians, the forces of disorder, tolerated by what were once appreciated as the forces of order. Such activities are happening not only in Masaya and Magalpa, but increasingly in other cities all over the country with the complicity of loyal local authorities. Ortega may have less support from principled historical cadres than he used to, but over the past decade Murillo has built a top-down organizational structure of young followers who implement orders out of loyalty, obedience or fear, and are aided and abetted by what some call lumpen youths, who are in it for the money.
To those who find so much destruction of physical installations, including government ones, inexplicable, it’s useful to remember what happened on November 13, 2008, a week after the first of four increasingly slick fraudulent elections. Groups carrying firearms and machetes terrified the population in 40 central points of Managua to “defend” the municipal election results while the police stood by, doing nothing to stop them. That same afternoon, Attorney General Hernán Estrada showed up at an impromptu press conference that CENIDH was holding to denounce the activities. Estrada said he had a message he wanted to read to the human rights defenders and journalists who were there. His message was this: “If the head of State and the FSLN’s political leader, Daniel Ortega, were to decide to call his party members to the streets, not a stone would be left standing in this country. You should be grateful that he has not done that, thanks to his wisdom and serenity.” That threat was widely interpreted as tacit acceptance that Ortega himself was promoting the violence in the streets and warning that if people continued grumbling about the electoral fraud he could do much worse.
“We’re not responsible”
On May 31, while the entire country was still reeling from the Mothers’ Day massacre, the government issued a press release, two points of which reveal the degree of cynicism that contradicts everything Ortega’s representatives assumed in the dialogue regarding the IACHR report and the government’s determination to create a parallel universe for its loyal supporters to cling to:
“5. The Government of Reconciliation and National Unity emphatically denounces all the crimes committed since April 18, rejects any responsibility in this violence, and categorically states that we will fulfill our duty to avoid more bloodshed, more fratricidal confrontation, more slanderous photo-shopping, demonstrating every day the origins of this action that seeks to enthrone chaos, accusing us, when the principal evidence of such fallaciousness is the 11 years of Peace, Justice and Development Nicaragua has known in Christianity and Solidarity.”
“8. No shock forces or paramilitary groups allied to the Government exist in Nicaragua, so we cannot accept the attempt to accuse us of painful and tragic events we have not provoked and would never provoke, and that based on unfounded accusations are aimed at restricting the application of the Constitutional Duty of the Forces of Public Order to help secure the safety of the Families.”
A seemingly delusional denial of truth seems to be a third prong of the government’s strategy.
Nonetheless, in this Brave New World of the propagating of alternative realities, the viralizing of fake news and the capacity to photo-shop not only photographs but also amateur videos leave Nicaraguans and the watching world to decide for themselves which side is delusional: the government torching its own mayor’s offices or the opposition shooting at its own protesting students and then at the grieving mothers marching in protest at the deaths of those students. And so the debate continues, with proponents on each side whipping out cell phones to show video evidence supporting its side in specific cases. And indeed, given the tensions, the exhaustion and the flowing adrenalin and testosterone, there are specific cases on both sides, in turn giving rise to speculation about infiltrators and provocateurs, reportedly including by police personnel in civvies who forgot to change their government-issue boots.
The uncertain “Almagro factor”
The government is combining its strategy of wearing down, terrorizing and denying reality with the “Almagro factor.” On June 1 it published the calendar prepared bilaterally with Wilfredo Penco, the representative of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro who came to Nicaragua at the end of April to “get started on the electoral reforms” agreed to in January 2017.
It is almost certain that the calendar was originally planned for release on a different date, but was published early to leave no confusion about the government’s intention to negotiate anything referring to democracy only with the OAS, not in any dialogue with the Civic Alliance.
According to this schedule, OAS experts will be “deployed” all over the country between July and October 2018 (it was not made clear how they will do that if the barricades are still in place). Then in January 2019 they will present an “electoral reform proposal” to the government.
The calendar seems designed to go all the way to 2021, when Ortega’s term is officially up, although Almagro declared that the elections could be held “as soon as possible,” in a bow to growing pressure resulting from his confusing attitude toward Nicaragua. Almagro, who barely knows the country, is even less likely to understand its complex “unarmed revolution,” but does that mean he’s relying on Ortega’s alternate truth? Meanwhile, he doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by the fact the government hasn’t taken a single step to implement the “memorandum of understanding” signed 18 months ago, even to improve last November’s municipal election process.
was too little too late
If ever there was a clear example of the old saw about changing things so that nothing changes, it is the departure of Roberto Rivas, the thoroughly discredited president of the equally discredited electoral branch of government. Late last December, the US government used the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction Rivas for corruption and human rights violations (he headed up the four electoral frauds that seriously abused voters’ political rights over the decade Ortega has been in power and has long and frequently been accused of financial corruption). But not even then did the government ask for his resignation nor did he offer it; he was merely separated from his post—with full salary and benefits—because his signature was no longer valid on the electoral institution’s checks and documents.
Yet this May, in an interview with Voice of America, Almagro presented the fact that Rivas had finally actually resigned as a “very important step” of his work in Nicaragua. The official document on this resignation announced by the OAS, which should have requested it publicly months ago, states that the OAS General Secretariat “considers it a sign of rebuilding trust and democratic harmony in the country.” Disingenuousness or does Almagro really not know what’s going on in Nicaragua?
We need the OAS
Despite Almagro’s incongruences, the civic insurrection needs the OAS. It doesn’t need it to ask for free and transparent elections, because that has been the demand of Nicaraguan society for years, following the consecutive electoral frauds that have not only kept Ortega in power but given him unearned control of the legislative body and all but a handful of the 153 municipal governments. What it does need is for the OAS to help find a way out of Nicaragua’s crisis, because as long as Almagro keeps negotiating and dialoguing bilaterally with Ortega, it won’t be resolved.
Electoral expert Robert Courtney, Ethics and Transparency’s director, sees no need to discard the OAS technical delegation’s calendar, even though it was defined with no input from the Civic Alliance. “The problem with it and the agreement itself is the timeline; the contents aren’t bad,” says Courtney. “The OAS has to choose whether or not it’s going to stick to the agreed three-year time period, whose pace would be fine if we were in Sweden, but is a farce under the new circumstances. We’re in a country on the edge of a civil war so we need a much faster solution.”
New proposed tactics
The Mothers of April—a new group formed by woman whose children were gunned down in demonstrations that month, thus igniting the civic insurrection—have asked the private sector to order a national business strike. So far it has not agreed, although there have been short work stoppages by certain sectors in different cities.
For its part, the Academy of Sciences of Nicaragua is calling on people not to pay their business or other taxes or utility bills. Tax expert Julio Báez explained that the way to avoid their water, electricity and phone services being cut off for non-payment is to file a complaint, which means the company must maintain the service until it is investigated. The more complaints, the longer it will take to investigate them all. He also advised people not to consider the unpaid money a windfall, since the bills and taxes will eventually have to be paid, although with no arrears fees or fines given that they are a legitimate act of civil disobedience. The more than 12,000 small shops and stalls in Managua’s sprawling Oriental Market, the largest in Central America, embraced the idea on June 4, declaring that they won’t pay anything to any institution.
The fact is that there’s already an undeclared national work stoppage of sorts, given all the roadblocks on the highways that are forcing an increasing number of small and medium tourism, service and production businesses to give some of their workers early vacation days, lay others off and in some cases close their doors. There is also gradual de facto civil disobedience, since many of these smaller businesses are unable to pay their commercial taxes…
We need everything
The regime’s strategy is still in its early stages: wear down the rebellious population with intense repression and terrorize the whole population with the violent groups it is organizing, in the hope that promoting such violence will also push the rebels into violent responses, thus confusing and dividing their supporters as well as the Civic Alliance. All this will drag out the crisis, which the government shows no signs of wanting to resolve quickly.
For its part the civic rebellion’s strategy is mainly based on maintaining and increasing its two pressure points: the peaceful mobilizations in the streets and the roadblocks in the country’s strategic transit points to strengthen its negotiating hand. Any conflict, however complicated it might be, always ends at the negotiation table. But negotiating requires sitting back down again, which the government also shows no signs of wanting to do. Moreover, after Mother’s Day, Bishop Álvarez said“we can’t sit down together now at a table stained with blood.”
With the dialogue suspended for now, maintaining the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy as a reference point of national unity and strengthening it internationally are also strategic tasks, as are coming up with new tactics to pressure for negotiated solutions and trying to win over the much-needed Almagro factor.
For now the dialogue
is in the streets
All over the country, in homes, offices, bars and the streets, there’s no shortage of national dialogue. People everywhere are immersed in it, even those who previously had no interest in national political news. Everyone is asking each other: What’s going to happen? How will all this end? What’s the best course of action? What will Almagro choose to do?
And what role will the US government play, or perhaps is already playing? Will the Senate finally pass the Nica Act, now that the human rights violations are off the chart? Or will its weapon of choice be the Global Magnitsky Act, which would sanction top-level government officials for corruption? Will there be unseen negotiations between Washington and Ortega that c