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  Number 443 | Junio 2018
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Nicaragua

“The Civic Alliance is a huge achievement of the people’s rebellion”

The author is one of three civil societyrepresentatives in the new Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, formed to negotiate a peaceful solution to Nicaragua’s crisis through a National Dialogue with the Ortega government. She shares her experiences in and reflections on this unique people’s effort as of May 30, an extremely fluid moment.

Azahálea Solís

In the midst of the massacre on April 21 led by the National Police anti-riot forces, Daniel Ortega offered to dialogue with private enterprise about the reforms to the social security system he had decreed on April 16. Those unilaterally decided reforms had triggered the first protest demonstrations on April 18, but it was the repressive police response that brought ever more people out into the street.

That civic pressure modified Ortega’s tactics. The agenda could no longer be just another dialogue with the private sector elite about social security and other economic issues. The business leaders grasped better than Ortega the immense indignation among the citizenry as a result of the massacre, which in only three days had already taken the lives of dozens of protestors and other victims. They agreed to expand the number of sectors participating in the dialogue and handed responsibility for both the agenda and the organizing of this “National Dialogue” to Nicaragua’s Episcopal Conference.

An idea whose time had come


Those of us in organized civil society have been aware for years that Nicaragua’s lack of democracy would have to be resolved through dialogue, with juridical and legal mechanisms that would permit the country to finally live in democracy, avoiding yet another violent conflict with still more blood spilled. The Ortega government was never open to this, but now had to accept it because what happened in April went too far. It had no choice but to put together a delegation that would be its negotiators in the dialogue.

At first the government dragged its feet. The bishops responded to its reluctance by calling for a massive “Pilgrimage for Peace,” at the end of which Cardinal Brenes clearly stated that the bishops would give the government a month to show genuine political willingness to participate in the dialogue. If at the end of that time they saw no such willingness, they would say “it was not doable.”

How the opposition table was formed


In that uncertain situation, we saw right away that we’d have to put together the most plural table possible for the talks with the government. The bishops decided it would have to include representatives of the university students who had initiated the rebellion, private enterprise, the academic sector and civil society. Once the dialogue got underway, peasant and Caribbean Coast representatives were also added. The bishops then issued invitations to specific individuals from each of those sectors.

One of the first problems, as could be expected, was some tension about the degree of “representation” of those invited by the bishops. We had to resolve such problems quickly, in line with the urgency required by the unstoppable development of the crisis. The main problem was with the three of us who would be at the civil society table, since Nicaragua’s civil society is so broad; there were immediate questions about who had invited us. The bishops had chosen former education minister Carlos Tunnermann; politician, former legislator and La Prensa editorialist Luis Sánchez Sancho, and me. The first two were promptly backed by their respective sector; and in my case, the feminist movement, which is particularly large and active, decided not to question my representation so that the dialogue could get off the ground quickly.

Determining the dialogue’s goals


Those of us who made up the table also talked over our respective “representation” among ourselves and decided it would depend on the most essential point: having an ongoing connection with what people were demanding in the massive street protests multiplying all over the country. We realized from the outset that the dialogue wasn’t going to be one in which all social expressions with representation in Nicaragua today could have a seat, or in which all the country’s problems could be addressed, much less resolved. That would come later.

To focus our demands on the government, we first read all the pronouncements by different national sectors between April 21 and 27, the first days of the people’s rebellion. We made a matrix that allowed us to see where all these texts coincided. Although with different words and in different ways, all agreed on two issues: justice for the victims of the massive repression and authentic democratic change for Nicaragua. We could see clearly that if our representativity and legitimacy was to connect with what was being demanded in the streets, we had to demand justice and reparation for the victims and putting Nicaragua on the course toward democracy.

Who’s “them” and who’s “us”?


We were clear the dialogue would be between “them” and “us.” And we also understood that we had to give a clear shape to the concept of “us.” At the beginning, the government wanted to stick some of “them” on our side, because they also have academic, youth, peasant and producer sectors. They tried to get us to accept Telémaco Talavera in the academic sector, and directors of the pro-FSLN National Union of Students of Nicaragua (UNEN) in the youth sector…. But we stood firm and rejected them all by consensus.

We argued that the dialogue wasn’t between two contenders, as when two forces set out to negotiate specific trade-offs. This dialogue was about a civic, ethical, citizen’s insurrection, and if the government wanted those people at the table, that was fine, but they would have to sit on its side, because that’s who they all represent.

Our unity started in the streets


It was a great achievement to have been able to define ourselves as a table of consensus, a consensual “us.” A spin-off of that was our first press conferences, in which we presented ourselves as a united bloc. I consider that unity to be our first, very important victory. We had to build it very quickly, and were able to do so because of what’s happening in the streets, where there’s a national coming together, a meeting of minds that has never previously existed despite all the forums and other events we’ve organized over the years.

The dialogue is itself an expression of that coming together. Many of us didn’t know each other before, while some of us had been on opposing sides of certain issues and hadn’t trusted each other. A particular example of this is that people in the street constantly pointed to big business for its responsibility in the crisis, specifically the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) due to its alliance with Ortega. It was therefore extremely important that all sectors of private enterprise were represented in the table on “our” side. Few of us believed a corporative model such as they had agreed to with the government was sustainable, although no one had imagined this government would gun down so many people. The magnitude of the massacre brought us together and we made rapid progress in building consensus. Our mandate comes from the people’s struggle, the civic struggle the Nicaraguan people initiated in April against this dictatorship.

“They” don’t know
how to deal with “us”


Our unity has the government disconcerted because it doesn’t know how to act around people it can’t dominate. The important aspect of this moment isn’t whether each of us with a seat at the table can or can’t be bought off. Everyone has their price, but that’s not the point. The valuable thing right now is that you don’t gain anything if you cut a deal with me. The only result of buying me off or of me selling out is that I end up discredited. Full stop. Ortega g could buy off every single person at that table right now, but it wouldn’t end the problem for him, either at the table or in the streets. There will be plenty more ready to take our places. Ortega’s political methods, which include coopting, bribing, intimidating and threatening, aren’t working anymore. He’s lost the capacity to apply them because this struggle is different.

Being a horizontal collective at the dialogue table is a huge advantage, but it’s also something we’ll have to move beyond at some point. If Daniel Ortega were to say, ‘Okay, I accept that I’m a thing of the past,’ with whom does he negotiate his stepping down? With whom does he arrange his departure...?

The dialogue was a
big mistake for Ortega!


Our success in forming the table has seriously weakened Ortega, as have our refusal to let “them” be part of our table and our joint work in hammering out a strategy proposal. It’s even an achievement to have agreed to call the table the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy. We chose this name with the objective of being valid and legitimate interlocutors because we knew from the beginning that we weren´t really building a table to dialogue, but rather to work out Ortega’s departure.

The government never wanted a national dialogue and had to accept it only because of the Nicaraguan people’s civic rebellion. It also didn’t really want the bishops to mediate and witness the dialogue. It didn’t take it long to work out that it has no control over them. All that being said, however, the government didn’t anticipate such a coherent position from them, one so committed to democratic change. At this point, the government would love the bishops to stop mediating, but since it’s already agreed, all the government can do is try to put obstacles in its way.

The bishops set four conditions


Seeing that the government was showing no willingness to sit down with “us” at a dialogue table in the way we had prepared, the bishops sent Ortega a communique on May 11 establishing four conditions his government was expected to fulfill to start the dialogue:
1) That it invite the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) “as soon as possible” to investigate and clear up the killings committed in April;
2) that it abolish “the paramilitary and shock forces that intimidate, coerce and attack citizens” and not use the Police “for any type of repressive action”;
3) That it immediately cease the repression and assure the “bodily safety” of those who make up the dialogue table; and
4) that it give “credible signs of its volition for dialogue and peace, respecting the dignity and liberty of persons, as well as all the human rights of workers, particularly public employees, refraining from obliging then to attend party events or paralyzing public transport for such purposes.”

The government said it accepted all four points, but as of now it has only complied with one: inviting the IACHR, whose mission arrived on May 17. Despite having made no serious effort to fulfill the other points, the bishops decided to convene the first session of the dialogue on Wednesday, May 16.

Many people called the Episcopal Conference wishy-washy for not insisting on all four points before opening the dialogue and agreeing to sit down with criminals. I can understand why people were so disappointed, because we live in a time of high expectations, but it’s also a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. I told a friend yesterday that the first responsibility we all have in this struggle is to keep a grip on our own anxiety, ensuring we don’t transfer it to others, especially if it’s contaminated with the kind of fake news or unconfirmed rumors that abound at moments like this. I don’t mean we need to keep knowledge to ourselves; we do need to share what we know, but with caution.

Why did Ortega make
a personal appearance?


Bearing in mind that President Ortega didn’t want the dialogue, we have to ask why he and Vice President Rosario Murillo sat through the entire inaugural session. I think the main reason was the pressure they were feeling from the streets and also the pressure the Episcopal Conference was very ably exerting on the government. They even arrived punctually. It was announced that the session would open at 10 in the morning, and we had agreed and advised them that if they showed up late we’d begin without them. We sent that first sign so they’d understand that this was no game. And they apparently got it, because they were there at 9:58.

It was the will of the Nicaraguan people, massively and peacefully mobilized in rejection of the April massacre, that forced them to sit expressionless at the dialogue table that day, having to listen to the students, the peasants, the bishops and the rest of civil society say what the Nicaraguan people have been carrying inside for years.

The working sessions


At the end of that inaugural session, which was broadcast live, a government representative made an impromptu attempt to introduce a proposal regarding social security, but the bishops reminded him that any agenda points or concrete proposals from the two sides should be delivered to them by the following afternoon, in order to reach agreement on the agenda the next day, Friday, May 18, during the first working session.

Friday’s session, which was held without TV cameras present, was when we got our first taste of what the government script would be like in the three ensuing sessions, the only ones we’ve had. The government delegation, which no longer included the presidential couple, repeated the same thing over and over: we’re all Nicaraguans; we all want the best for Nicaragua; we all want peace; the families want to work; they want stability. It continually denied the seriousness of the murders that had been committed and showed no sign of recognizing the country’s new political reality. They repetitiously insisted on returning the country to the “peace” we had before April… We already knew that was their thinking, but it was important to hear them say it again and again. The session that Friday ended with only one agreement: a two-day “truce.”

The second working session, on Monday, May 21, was again broadcast live, but only by “our” media, not the official ones. The two sides agreed to approve the IACHR’s 15 recommendations in the hard-hitting report it presented on the same date after four days gathering evidence of the barbarity committed in April and May. [An English-language translation of that preliminary report is included in this issue of envío.] The government delegation also added a new constantly-repeated refrain: “we” would have to dismantle the 40 or more roadblocks protestors had erected on highways all over the country.

The solidarity roadblocks


Starting in late April, initially in Nicaragua’s central and southeast zones, peasants organized into the anti-canal movement had been putting barriers across several strategic points of the country’s highways, obstructing normal traffic for several hours at a time. The government delegation argued that they were causing families unease and anxiety, as well as food and medicine shortages. It wasn’t true, but that’s what they said.

At the Monday session, the government delegation said we would have to get rid of the roadblocks in reciprocity for them having approved the 15 IACHR recommendations. What reciprocity? They, as the State, are supposed to accept and enforce what the Commission report says. They’re not making any concession by doing so. And in exchange they want us to renounce the exercise of a right? We obviously didn’t accept this “deal.” Quite apart from the issue of rights, our struggle doesn’t have any “order and command” hierarchies; we’re all in this voluntarily and on an equal footing. We in Managua have no faculty to order rural people who decided to put up barriers to take them down.

A roadmap to democracy
or to a coup d’état?


So that’s where things stood on May 23, the date of the third session. The government hadn’t, and still hasn’t, complied with any of the 15 IACHR recommendations, or even the weekend truce the two sides had agreed to—anti-riot police were out on the streets in Matagalpa despite the fact that Ortega had insisted in the inaugural session that all the police were already in their barracks. Nonetheless, we decided to attend that session, again broadcast live. When it opened, the bishops presented the government with a proposal we titled “Roadmap to Democratization” [published in this issue of envío] in which we mentioned all the constitutional mechanisms needed to call for elections “at the earliest possible date” after first passing a partial reform of the Constitution to allow them to be moved forward. In the proposal, which was the result of working groups we had created the first day, we even explained how to do it. The bishops submitted it as an agenda point for discussion and Foreign Minister Denis Moncada, who was heading the government delegation, promptly dubbed it a “roadmap to a coup d’état.” Bishop Silvio Báez, firmly rejecting that serious accusation, explained to Moncada what a coup is and defined what’s happening now as a civic insurrection.

We already knew it, but now we were hearing it live. They don’t want to change this corrupt State in which violations of the law and impunity reign and the personal criteria of Ortega and Murillo have been imposed for the past 11 years. They don’t want a State in which power has limits, the citizenry has channels and procedures for grievances, and the authorities are obliged to respond to those grievances in the terms and time period established by law. In short, they don’t want the rule of law.

The bishops had done nothing the government didn’t know about. They had made quite clear that the dialogue was to “review the country’s political system to its roots, to achieve an authentic democracy.” But in that May 23 session, we saw clearly that the government delegation would use any subterfuge necessary to avoid discussing democracy. Throughout that session they boycotted even the tiniest consensus about that topic. Every time they were called on, they referred again and again to the roadblocks, which had to be lifted to “achieve peace” and as a prerequisite to talking about other issues.

Are roadblocks a legitimate
form of peaceful protest?


Human rights doctrine, which establishes peaceful rebellion when the State is not guaranteeing human rights, considers roadblocks a peaceful action. And first the IACHR and then Amnesty International had already established that there was a repressive policy by a criminal State here. That was no news to us, but now it’s official. Erecting a barrier is a human right, an expression of citizens’ rebellion, of their rights. By questioning the barriers, the government isn’t doing anything new. It has always repressed the exercise of citizens’ rights. In contrast, the repression it is executing is a crime. And that doesn’t strike it as challengeable. It has been a persistent double standard in this dictatorship: its crimes are rights according to its authoritarian and terrorist politics, while our political rights are crimes.

In addition to throwing up barriers to the dialogue by demanding that the roadblocks must come down first, there are other reasons for the importance they attach to this form of protest. The blockades located at strategic points between one city and another or at the entrance to cities hinder the government from moving its repressive forces around freely to either impede or attack grassroots mobilizations. Could the massive march in León on May 19 have happened without the barricades that defended the city? They’re guaranteeing people’s mobilization all over the country. They need to be seen as a defense mechanism. People raise them to defend themselves and know that if they take them down it will only increase both the massive and the selective repression.

The government is also so interested in bringing them down because of the image they give nationally and internationally. Both rural and urban residents maintain the barricades day and night, stopping traffic for hours, as a palpable demonstration that the government no longer has control of the national territory.

Yet another reason the government wants them dismantled is that precious woods and other illicit goods its people are tradinthe g in circulate along those highways. Of course they argue that it’s affecting legitimate national and international commercial traffic, but the business sector is on our side and hasn’t gone along with the government’s complaint. At the end of the day, whether using the argument of roadblocks or some other issue they might pull out of their sleeve, it demonstrates their total disinterest in talking about the central issue: democracy.

The bishops suspend the
dialogue due to the impasse


The afternoon of the 23rd, after three sessions in which the democratization issue hadn’t even been broached, the bishops put the impasse to a vote: those in favor of the Civic Alliance’s offer to request the roadblock guardians to be even more flexible in letting vehicles through once the government actually engaged in the democracy discussion, versus those in favor of the government’s position that the barriers had to come down before it would discuss any agenda point. Since there was no consensus, the bishops suspended the dialogue’s plenary table and suggested the creation of a mixed commission with three people from each side to see if we could hammer out some agreement and get the dialogue moving.

That meeting was held on May 28, with two priests from the archbishop’s curia mediating. I was there as an adviser. In it the government agreed to discuss the issue and we agreed to urge greater flexibility with the barriers, in which those organizing them would permit vehicles to pass every three to five hours rather than every eight.

Compromising with one hand,
killing students with the other


But that day was terrible. We sat there for hours listening to the government delegation endlessly repeating with their soft voices that we need to go back to the peacefulness there was before, to the stability we’ve had, that this was a country of peace, a safe country, and the barricades need to be taken down because they are making families anxious… At that very same time their anti-riot forces and the para-police groups operating with them were attacking university students who had taken over the National University of Engineering. The close-range shooting left dozens of wounded and more arrested.

Conducting such an operation, with that level of impunity, right in the center of the capital in the middle of the day, making no attempt to hide it, shooting rifles directly at citizens when an Amnesty International delegation was in the country, sent a clear message that didn’t escape us. The message that day was that they’re not going to back off: they’ll sign all the accords and reach any consensus we want, but their only recourse will be to repress, to shoot to kill.

That day was followed by the massacre on May 30, executed at the exact same site in the capital by police special forces, para-police groups and alleged snipers, who opened fire against a peaceful Mother’s Day march, reportedly the most massive march to date. Between the attacks on that march and companion marches in Estelí, Chinandega and Masaya, 19 were killed and more than 200 wounded.

With that the bishops suspended the dialogue indefinitely, stating that “it cannot be renewed while the people of Nicaragua are being denied the right to demonstrate freely and continue to be repressed and murdered.”

What next?


We don’t know what will happen now. But we do know that what we’ve achieved so far is important, and it was necessary to come as far as we have. We’ve been able to show, step by step, with proof, in full sight of all the people who followed so many hours of the dialogue sessions on live TV, that the government has no political interest in truly discussing a solution to this crisis. Many people say they already knew it, but now it’s not just an opinion. The evidence is right there to see.

While the first agenda point on democracy was never discussed, progress was made on the second one, justice, through the presence in the country of the IACHR in response to the pressure in the streets by people demanding justice, and also by the pressure the bishops put on the government to initiate the dialogue. The report the IACHR left us is of immense value, as is the one by Amnesty International, “Shoot to Kill.” They are valuable because we can’t go to a foreign parliament with just a barricade plan, an activist plan; we have to demonstrate, with evidence, what is happening. After those two reports, the government had to accept the creation of an independent commission of international experts to investigate those responsible for the crimes that have been committed.

On the democracy issue:
The “Almagro factor”


While we’ve achieved all of this on the issue of justice, we have to “deflate” the Almagro factor to be able to address the crucial issue of democracy. From the first dialogue session, on May 18, government representatives have said they are willing to dialogue, but not about the country’s democratization; only about “perfecting” the existing democracy. That “perfecting” is what Ortega agreed to with Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), in a memorandum signed in 2017. That’s unacceptable to us.

From the very beginning we’ve told them you can’t perfect something that’s totally destroyed. We have to recognize that this dictatorship has utterly demolished Nicaragua’s institutionality. We’re now worse than Honduras after its 2009 coup d’état, and I’m not exaggerating. At least in Honduras, some embers of institutionality remained; in our case they were extinguished years ago.

Both Ortega’s strength and his weakness lie in that situation of total institutional destruction. It has been a huge source of strength up to now, but with the sudden change in the country’s correlation of forces, the fact that he has concentrated all political and institutional power in his own hands means that if he negotiates away any of it, it will all escape his grasp. By way of example, in other times, when he didn’t control all the power, he could bargain National Assembly seats with other parties to cut deals without losing much, because he didn’t have the necessary majority anyway. But now that he has that absolute majority, he can’t trade any of those seats away and has nothing to gain by doing so. It’s the same in all spaces of power. If he concedes anything, it would cause a domino effect. In short, he has nothing to gain and everything to lose.

The only solid institution
is the Catholic Church


It’s very important to bear in mind that we’re facing a dictatorship that has demolished all national institutions. There isn’t even any institutionality in the political parties any more. That’s why the Episcopal Conference emerged in this crisis as the only credible social institution to mediate the dialogue.

We saw from the very beginning that the Catholic Church, with the Bishop’s Conference in the lead, is the only solid institution with structures all over the country. It’s the only one with enough credibility to assume the challenge of the dialogue… and perhaps others. I sincerely believe we need to celebrate the wisdom we’ve had in recognizing that it’s the only credible national structure and in going with it. It’s also why institutionalizing the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy is taking on a strategic quality.

The role of the dialogue table


We also recognized from the outset that we weren’t questioning just some individual issue, but the whole political regime, one that has killed so many people and is simply no longer acceptable. We know it’s not going to improve and it’s not going to make things better; it’s only going to keep making them worse. Someone out there might have hoped for a solution in which Ortega finishes out his term in 2021, but we’ve never labored under that delusion. In all our discussions as the Civic Alliance, no one has even mentioned that date. What has been mentioned, and ever more firmly, is that Nicaragua can’t tolerate any more of this regime, and won’t settle for some half-way compromise.

The dialogue table isn’t the solution to the crisis. Nor is it the place to choose the tactic of a national work stoppage, civil disobedience or street demonstrations. Every arena is important: the streets, the dialogue, the European Parliament’s declaration, the IACHR and Amnesty International reports… all of them. And the solutions that come out of this set of factors won’t be magic or providential. They have to be constructed among Nicaraguans. A regime that has consistently acted to enthrone itself forever isn’t going to pack its bags and leave just because we shout “murderers!” at it. Ortega acts as if he always thought of the dialogue as a way to buy time, to drag out the crisis without having to pay any cost, either nationally or internationally. But if that’s what he thought, he was very wrong. He’s now looking at a civic rebellion that’s showing no signs of being detainable. And now he has to deal with a Civic Alliance that represents that rebellion.

We all have a contribution to make…


Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo have to go. And they will go. There have to be new elections, which we need to prepare well so they’ll be fair, free and transparent. We have roadmaps for that, and we’ve had lots of advice on how to design them and follow them. That has been another win for our side. Ortega and Murillo have wanted to sell themselves to us as indispensable, but they aren’t.

We in the Alliance have seen how many capable people in the country are contributing their knowledge, their experience and their ideas. And they aren’t new people; they’re the same faces we already knew. The new part is the energy we all now have. Each of us needs to do our work with this new energy. Each has abilities, possibilities and their own arena they can influence.

…and space needs to
be made for all of us


We especially need to reach out to Sandinistas, not blacklist those who work in the State or received roofing material or a few hens. We need to talk to all those who are still with the government and invite them to walk away, and do so now. And the same with police officers. We need to create a “sanctuary” where all such deserters can take shelter. We mustn’t shun those who sympathized with the government, or who still do. To the contrary, we need to talk to them. In other words, we need to take the dialogue to the streets. Getting us out of the crisis we’re in is a task for all Nicaraguans.

We can’t repeat what happened 40 years ago, with the winners taking all and the losers ending up with nothing. Here we all need to win, and getting out from under the dictatorship will be everyone’s first victory. The second one will be to avoid fighting among ourselves. I believe the great challenge is to ensure that Nicaragua’s unborn children never have to live through something like this ever again.

I deeply hope that won’t happen. In each of the marches I’ve participated in, whether little or massive, I’ve seen an immense sense of national unity that has brought us together. Since April, the Nicaraguan flag, not one party flag or another, has become the great symbol of rebellion, a symbol you can be killed for carrying. But despite that, hundreds of thousands of people are engaging in acts of courageous defiance by waving it, wearing it, carrying it, painting it on their face, displaying it from their car or house. In the aerial videos of the massive demonstrations, the avenues look like solid rivers of blue and white; no other color. In little over a month, our flag has become an inescapable expression that something extraordinary has happened in our country, and is still happening.



Azahálea Solís is a feminist activist and a jurist specializing in women’s human rights.


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