The world now knows what’s happening in Nicaragua
the first shots fired to kill by the anti-riot police,
But that was only the opening volley of the government’s repression.
When the insurrectionists filled the streets with massive marches
and raised roadblocks and barricades all across the country.
the regime responded with the second repressive phase:
a “clean-up operation” that reopened streets and highways
but left rivers of blood.
The high loss of lives among those in the civic rebellion
has finally sparked accelerating international pressure.
The regime is now in its third phase of repression,
raiding homes, jailing and prosecuting opponents,
It claims the country is “normalized”
but the abnormality is tangible.
Although the future is still uncertain,
the civic resistance is prepared to take it on.
For some years now, poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal, Nicaragua’s “ambassador-at-large,” repeated wherever he has traveled that “the world needs to know what’s happening in Nicaragua.” In addition to reading his poems, he would tell about Daniel Ortega’s absolute control over the state institutions, the chain of electoral frauds, the authoritarianism evolving into a dictatorship, the corruption, the impunity, the family dynasty in the making…
Some paid attention, but most dismissed these warnings as a poet’s metaphorical excesses because the image so many had of contemporary Nicaragua was positive: economic growth, foreign investment, stability, security, alleviation of extreme poverty, seeming immunity to the widespread violence in the neighboring countries to the north and, above all, the battle-weary Nicaraguan population’s apparent contentment with what the Ortega government offered it. But April changed all that within Nicaragua and the ensuing months have altered that perception for many beyond our borders. Today, there is no excuse for refusing to see what is really happening here.
The three phases of repression
The Ortega-Murillo government’s repressive responses to the April insurrection have evolved through three separate but overlapping phases so far.
Paulo Abrão, executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), identified them in a press conference at IACHR headquarters in Washington after the first 100 days of the uprising. He explained that the first phase was characterized by “traditional repression with a disproportionate use of police force against the demonstrators.” The second was what the government called a “clean-up operation” in which it sent pick-up trucks of highly armed anti-riot police and hooded paramilitary forces together with a bulldozer to destroy the roadblocks on the highways and barricades at the entrance to cities and neighborhoods, and to kill, wound or scatter the people protecting them. “We are now in a third moment,” said Abrão; “a process of criminalizing the demonstrators by using the institutions and justice system to detain them and promote judicial actions and processes against them.”
The population supports the
movement’s nonviolent concept
The protests themselves have also been evolving. The anti-riot police were the disproportionate lethal force used to try to quash the first mobilizations of university students. But their bullets instead lit the fuse of the rebellion. Huge peaceful marches followed in Managua, Masaya, León and other parts of the country. Between April 23 and May 9, Managua saw three historically massive marches, the largest of them with hundreds of thousands of protestors.
During that time, the organized peasants who have been opposing the interoceanic canal project for the past five years joined the rebellion, coming in caravans to join marches in Managua. The size and energy of the urban opposition inspired them to build roadblocks that halted traffic on rural roads and cross-country highways. Picking up on the idea, urban residents built barricades to protect the entrances to their cities, towns and neighborhoods, often using the same cement paving blocks the Sandinistas had used in 1978-79. By the end of May the national map was dotted with more than a hundred roadblocks, including at the borders, and innumerable barricades.
The Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, the hastily created alliance of students, peasants, business associations, civil society organizations, peasants and other sectors that has been attempting to negotiate a solution to the crisis, has insisted throughout these months that this is a nonviolent movement. Many youths defending the barricades fashioned homemade mortars, which mainly make a lot of noise, though most defended themselves by throwing rocks and using slingshots. It would be false to claim that there haven’t been cases of violence on the side of those opposing the government, as well as examples of opportunists using the unrest for their own benefit. But having gone through a violent insurrection to oust Somoza, then ten years of war, all in living memory, the population in general totally supports the nonviolent concept. The vast majority of those hundreds of thousands of people actively involved in the uprising have expressed their support in myriad peaceful ways: swelling the ranks of the marches, offering food and water to people at the barricades, treating the wounded, hiding the hunted, banging pots and pans in the streets….
It’s hardly a coup if it’s
nonviolent and negotiated
Parallel to its irrational military offensive against these protesters, which has only escalated the situation, the government has waged an equally irrational propaganda war. One of the most absurd accusations, but one that has caught the fancy of the govern¬ment’s most unthinking loyalists, is to label the movement “golpista” (coup-maker). The term, which has the same hate-mongering quality as “red peril” and “yellow menace,” conjures up images of Honduran President Mel Zelaya pulled from his bed by soldiers and put on a plane to Panama in his pajamas or Chilean President Salvador Allende defending the government palace against a US-backed military determined to take over the government.
The very term coup d’état actually denotes a “sudden, violent and illegal seizure of power from a government,” which has nothing to do with what’s happening in Nicaragua. The Civic Alliance doesn’t hide the fact that it is giving this government an unequivocal vote of no-confidence and wants it out. But the movement it represents has done everything possible to encourage this outcome through proper and legal means: requesting that Ortega step down—which a less power-driven ruler would have done by now under similar circumstances—and negotiating to clean up the fraud-riddled electoral system and hold early elections. That approach doesn’t even qualify as a “soft coup,” but painting it as such avoids any need for the government and those who have abusively acted on its behalf all these years to examine their own role in generating the disgust so many people feel toward them.
After May 30
On May 30, Nicaragua’s Mother’s Day, the brief parenthesis of massive peaceful marches ended, although smaller ones have continued virtually every week. The Mothers’ Day march in Managua, the largest in the country’s history, led by mothers in mourning for their children killed since April 19, was fired on, including by snipers, leaving a dozen people dead, hundreds wounded and thousands fleeing for their lives.
That was the day the government inaugurated its strategy of terror. By that time, it had already called up many more of the paramilitaries of various stripes it has employed against protests for years and armed them with assault weapons. They began to be driven around the country in the back of police vehicles or unmarked Hilux pick-ups, creating mayhem wherever they went.
Between mid-June and mid-July, the terror spread throughout the country as the regime launched its clean-up operation. The now-familiar caravans of pick-ups carrying armed and hooded paramilitaries entered each municipality like an occupation army, intimidating by their mere presence. They felt free to shoot at anyone in the streets, although focusing particularly on those who dared to stay defending their barricades. Anecdotes abound, but one of the most impressive was the organized response at one of the barricades blocking all four cardinal points of the traffic circle on Km 14 of the Masaya Highway, thus preventing traffic from turning into Veracruz or Ticuantepe or continuing on to Ma¬saya. When the caravan pulled into the area with a noisy bulldozer in the early morning, women of all ages poured out of the nearby houses in Veracruz banging on pots and pans to draw the attention of the paramilitaries and give the youths protecting the barricade a chance to escape. The women took the calculated risk that they wouldn’t be fired on and it fortunately paid off. There were no casualties at that major point, other than the roadblocks that for nearly a month had allowed residents of the barrios and communities in resistance to sleep easier at night, knowing there was a line of defense between them and the police and their mercenary assistants.
“Brazen, brutal and ruthless”
The government forces employed especially criminal cruelty to dismantle the roadblocks in Jinotepe, department of Carazo, leaving 24 dead and dozens more kidnapped and later jailed, according to the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH). The dismantling of the barricades protecting Masaya and its combative indigenous barrio Monimbó, whose residents had successfully defended it against 19 previous attacks, involved similar brutality.
The end of the roadblock in Lóvago, department of Chontales, the first to have been erected by the peasant movement in May, had a particularly tragic twist. An agreement to dismantle it peacefully had been mediated by the local church, but the government forces didn’t respect it and an as-yet unconfirmed number of peasants were gunned down.
The IACHR’s Follow-up Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI), which had arrived in Nicaragua in early June, confirmed that “a dialogue was maintained to achieve the spontaneous and peaceful dismantling of the roadblocks in the near future” in various other places where the clean-up operations were conducted as well to help ensure that the national dialogue would move forward in procuring agreements. But repression won out.
The last barricades to fall, leaving three dead and a dozen wounded and imprisoned, were those of Barrio Sandino in Jinotega, known as the “Monimbó of the North.” That was on July 23.
The executive director of Human Rights Watch’s America Division, José Miguel Vivanco, said that “in some 30 years of observing the human rights situation in different countries of the world, I have never seen anything like what I’m seeing in Nicaragua. Nowhere have we witnessed joint actions by police and heavily armed thugs going all around the country, community by community, shooting, kidnapping and then celebrating in the streets as if they had defeated an enemy in war… This repression is brazen, brutal and ruthless.”
“Kill or die”
The government’s “clean-up operation” increased the death toll on both sides. CENIDH, which has been rigorously verifying the deaths, counted a total of 306 between April 19 and August 4, classifying 51 of them as either police or paramilitaries. CENIDH President Vilma Núñez acknowledges that those opposing the regime have also been responsible for deaths when attacked. Even some of their homemade weapons can kill.
“What we are seeing,” she said, “isn’t a war between equals, but we also know that not all the kids at the barricades relied on prayers to keep from getting killed. Yes, police officers and paramilitaries have also died. Those deaths pain us as well and we document them. But the government is also responsible for those deaths, because it has sent them not only to kill, but also to die. Nor do I discard the possibility that the government is itself causing some of those deaths. It’s capable of anything.”
Figures on the violence
The following figures on the violence in the first three phases of the government’s repression use CENIDH’s data as of August 4, which tend to be more conservative than other sources as a result of its careful confirmation processes. Various other authorities offer different figures, including the government itself, with some more precise than others.
Of the 306 people whose deaths were verified by CENIDH, 21 were under 17 years old. The number of wounded is less imprecise because many didn’t go to a hospital or health center for fear of being captured. An unknown number were treated by sympathetic doctors. CENIDH calculates the overall figure at roughly 2,200, with many of them seriously wounded and a significant number left with permanent disabilities.
Equally imprecise is the number of people kidnapped or captured with no judicial order. As of August 4, some 300 were still being held in different police units, the majority of them youths. Some 70 were in Managua’s auxiliary judicial jail known as El Chipote, run by the National Police, while 112 had been transferred to the penitentiary system by that date, and were in El Modelo prison in Tipitapa. Of all those being held, only 148 are being tried, accused of terrorism, organized crime, illegal arms possession, etc.
Still less precise is the number of disappeared. Over the past three months CENIDH has received 180 denunciations of people who have been disappeared (i.e. taken by either police or paramilitaries without notifying their family, as legally required). This is a very different category from those presumed to have fled the paramilitaries either internally or to a neighboring country. Some disappeared have later reappeared after being imprisoned and tortured, suggesting the existence of clandestine jails. Some have also been found dead. CENIDH still has a list of 16 people reported disappeared about whom nothing is yet known. The number of disappeared is also imprecise because family members look for them without denouncing their disappearance for fear of calling attention to themselves.
Of the more than 2,000 detained and imprisoned at some point within the first 100 days, how many have been tortured in prison? As a CENIDH lawyer told envío, “only 14 charged that they had been tortured, but we believe there are many more, given that victims who have suffered torture usually don’t denounce it. In virtually all cases of those now being tried, relatives have told us they had been tortured.”
Those who have been jailed then released after only a few days total at least 2,500 throughout the country, according to CENIDH. In these cases, mediation by the Catholic Church and Civic Alliance members on the “verification commission” that grew out of the national dialogue has played a fundamental role. This commission presented the government with lists of detainees it was advocating for and got some of them freed. But after the dialogue bogged down in June, the government stopped responding to the commission.
There is no exact number for the massive “forced displacement” of people, including entire families, to Costa Rica and beyond. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says more than 23,000 people have fled across borders to save themselves from imprisonment or even death. These are not criminals; they are for the most part people who helped build the roadblocks, took turns protecting them, simply showed solidarity with those who did by taking them water or food or were even only suspected of doing such things. They fled because they learned, or in some cases just feared, that they were on one of the lists reportedly compiled by the para-government organizations set up in urban neighborhoods and rural communities that make it their business to know which side of the fence everyone’s on. The word witch hunt has been added to the argot of these repressive times, as the paramilitaries were given those lists with names and addresses, then raided homes at night hoping to catch people unaware. But unaware isn’t one of the emotional states that have survived the new Nicaragua.
Most people flee without documents. Costa Rica’s two consulates in Nicaragua—one in Managua and the other in Chinandega—processed 2,575 visa requests in May and June, but information collected by Nicaragua’s daily newspaper El Nuevo Diario from sources at the southern borders shows that in early July, when “operation clean-up” intensified, between 1,000 and 1,500 people crossed into Costa Rica daily without documents. The flow dropped at the end of July, when these operations concluded, but only by about half.
In a show of solidarity, the Costa Rican government has welcomed all those who have arrived in the past three months, with or without documents. But its capacity to attend to all those who line up seeking asylum is being overwhelmed. It has established two refugee camps for people without relatives or friends already there who can offer them a place to stay. CENIDH has received charges that the Nicaraguan government has sent its own people to Costa Rica to infiltrate the refugees to obtain information and make things worse for family members back home in Nicaragua.
The United States is not an easy option for Nicaraguans seeking refuge. Quite apart from the cost, even for those with passports and money for transport, or the danger for those who try without either, the State Department has ordered the departure of all but a handful of US employees who are handling only emergency situations at its Embassy and Consulate. Nicaraguans seeking exit visas are told they must apply for them in neighboring countries and even passport renewals and other services for US citizens are only dealt with if they are emergencies.
Masters of deceit…
(The “other” clean-up)
The clean-up operations involved eliminating the roadblocks and barricades and then then sending in teams to remove the rocks, felled trees and other inventive objects the roadblocks were built with and replace the thousands of hexagonal cement paving blocks—once called “Somoza blocks”—in record time.
If an unsuspecting tourist were to visit Managua today, which is extremely unlikely, virtually the only signs of abnormality would be the few black rings on the highways where tires had been burnt, the bullet holes in the church near the National Autonomous University (UNAN) campus in Managua where government forces shot at fleeing students, and the Jean Paul Genie traffic circle where numerous crosses mark the deaths of people who paid for their peaceful protests with their life. The government has repeatedly removed those crosses, but protesters have always brought new ones and planted them again.
…and the appearance of legality
(The UAF and anti-terrorist laws)
The regime has become expert over the past 11 years at functioning with the appearance of legality. It is now employing the same well-honed judicial deceit in its attempt to recover control over its adversaries. On July 16, the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) legislators, who have uncontestable control of the National Assembly, reformed the law creating the Financial Analysis Unit (UAF) to expand its faculties. The unit can now, at its own discretion and without a judicial order, investigate individuals or businesses suspected of laundering money and “financing terrorism.” Supported by the Sovereign Security Law, which CENIDH considered the “most serious threat brewing against the effectiveness of human rights in Nicaragua” when it was approved in 2015, the UAF can now legally freeze the assets of anyone it claims is financing terrorism, as defined in the new anti-terrorist law described below.
It takes no stretch of imagination to predict how the UAF will arbitrarily employ these new “legal” faculties to exact revenge against the business opposition, even though this will surely further hurt the financial system. In June the government’s Superintendence of Banks had already decided to require the banks to provide lists of clients who have withdrawn over US$50,000 from their accounts since April, although their resistance to violating bank secrecy forced the government to back off.
The same day it reformed the UAF law, the FSLN’s National Assembly bench fast-tracked approval of an anti-terrorist law that imposes sentences of between 15 and 20 years in prison for those convicted of “altering the constitutional order.” The law sanctions those “who by whatever means collect, capture, channel, deposit, transfer, move, assure, administer, protect, intermediate, lend, provide or deliver assets to commit terrorist acts.” According to the government, terrorist acts could include participating in a march, roadblock or meeting; printing flyers, etc. In the regime’s narrative, “terrorism” is thus synonymous with the exercise of the right to protest. When not calling them “golpistas,” terrorist is the label Ortega and Murillo now use to define peasants, doctors, journalists, lawyers and anyone else who opposes them.
OHCHR accused of being an “accomplice of terrorism”
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which now has a team in Nicaragua thanks to pressures by the bishops and the Civic Alliance, warned that the government could use the new anti-terrorist law to criminalize protests. “The text of the new law is very vague,” said the OHCHR spokesperson the day after its approval, “and permits a broad interpretation that could lead to individuals who are simply exercising their right to protest being included in the definition of terrorist.”
In fact, when it wasn’t ordering the gunning down of peaceful protesters, that’s precisely what the government was already doing before rushing through that cosmetic law and has continued doing ever since. Nonetheless, Nicaragua’s foreign minister immediately issued an incredibly blunt and insulting response to the UN agency: “Such declarations make them accomplices of the actions that terrorist groups have conducted, killing Nicaraguans and destroying our country with an eye to bringing down a constitutional government, democratically elected by our people.”
Phase Three creates
hundreds of political prisoners,,,
In the first two phases of the repression, the repressive machinery of that “constitutional government democratically elected by its people” killed hundreds, wounded thousands and forced thousands more into exile. Now in the third phase, the government has turned its attention to “cleansing” the country of independent leaders and instilling ongoing fear in their followers.
Some of those picked up by police and paramilitaries are ultimately turned over to prosecuting attorneys and judges to be tried under the anti-terrorist law. Dozens have already been captured without arrest warrants, both on the street and in their homes, in broad daylight and at night. The path to the courts is strewn with arbitrary abuses of authority and illegalities. More than 100 are being legally processed collectively in closed-door trials involving innumerable legal anomalies, including being denied lawyers of their choice and without their relatives being able to see them.
The victims of this flagrant lack of guarantees include university or sectoral leaders. Among the most publicized so far are peasant leaders Pedro Mena and Medardo Mairena, the latter a member of the Civic Alliance and coordinator of the anti-canal movement; Irlanda Jerez, a leader of Managua’s Eastern market; and local leaders such as the youngsters who headed up the April 19 Movement in Matagalpa and Masaya… They are political prisoners.
…and the firing ol hundreds
more for political reasons
The government is also “cleansing” the state institutions of public employees who fail to display absolute loyalty to the regime, including not showing up at the pro-government marches and counter-demonstrations, an obligatory part of their job description. Most are simply given their walking papers at the workplace, with no explanation.
The Nicaraguan Medical Association denounced the arbitrary dismissal of 135 doctors, surgeons, specialists, nurses and even gurney operators from public hospitals around the country. Most of the firings were in retaliation for having treated, cured or cared for those wounded in the protests or clean-up operations. The dismissals began with the hospital in León, followed by the one in Jinotepe, then moved to Masaya, and so on around the country.
The Ministry of Health informed those fired—some of whom have worked in the public health sector for decades—in a terse missive with no legal basis or other justification. All of them are resentful that their employment was canceled for political reasons, particularly when caring for the wounded is classified as a political act.
In an interview with the CNN Spanish network, cardiologist Carlos Duarte, who treated youths wounded at the UNAN on a number of occasions when the university campus was attacked, said he was one of 30 doctors who have had to flee the country due to threats received. Twenty are in Costa Rica, 4 in Panama and 6 in the United States, while another 16 remain in hiding in Nicaragua.
Massive firings of “disloyal” employees have also begun in public universities, high schools and other state institutions, thus swelling the ranks of the thousands now unemployed due to the economic crisis triggered by the political one. Rather than try to win back and calm the population, the government is creating more enemies on all sides, including among previous sympathizers.
A “war” on the Church
The government’s threats against and attacks on the Catholic Church’s bishops and priests have stood out in all three phases of the repression: denigrating them in the social media and threatening reprisals when they ring the church bells to warn residents that the paramilitaries are coming into town or encourage people to exercise their rights. Several churches have also been profaned and robbed in different municipalities.
Behind this “war” is the displeasure of Ortega and Murillo with the bishops’ words and actions as mediators and witnesses of the national dialogue, and as coordinators of parishes around the country. The ruling couple expected a condescending “neutral” role from the bishops, defining neutrality as favoring the government’s interests.
It was a mistaken expectation. “We are mediators in the dialogue, but we are also the people’s pastors and, sensitive to their pain, we can’t be neutral,” said Managua’s auxiliary bishop Silvio Báez in response to a pro-government journalist’s question.
July 9 in Diriamba
One of the pivotal moments in this war against the Catholic Church came on July 9, when Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, archbishop of Managua, Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Báez, Papal Nuncio Waldemar Sommertag and several priests went to Diriamba to rescue youths who had taken refuge in the basilica of San Sebastián to avoid capture by the paramilitaries after a particularly violent clean-up operation in that city. Pro-Ortega mobs, predominantly but not only men, harassed and insulted the clergy and followed them into the church, where they hit them hard enough to draw blood, and stole their cell phones and even the cross Bishop Báez wore around his neck.
Only hours later, in Jinotepe’s Santiago parish, another pro-Ortega mob, this time mainly women, insulted the parish priests and shouldered their way into the church to destroy whatever they found. Again they stole things and dragged into the street pews, the confessional and medications to treat the wounded, then set fire to them all. Similar attacks were repeated in parishes of Masatepe, Rivas, Jinotega and Matagalpa.
The world is now watching
The mounting deaths and abuses have been so tragic, with the attacks on the Catholic Church and its representatives carrying an especially significant weight, that Nicaragua’s crisis finally caught the attention of the international community, first with surprise, then with indignation and now with responses. After a certain silence in the first phase of the repression, the international community’s commitment has grown in the second and third phases, particularly in the form of pressure from the big international players.
If there is not yet total clarity about the cumulative effect of the grievances, abuses and authoritarian arbitrariness, not to mention corruption, impunity and other crimes that finally exploded into the April insurrection, our country’s unacceptable present and uncertain future are causing extreme preoccupation. In this age of real-time information (and of course disinformation), anyone with a smart phone can produce virtually instantaneous documentaries, testimonies and other input and disseminate it worldwide, showing the entire world the merciless violence with which the Ortega-Murillo government has been responding to the right to protest exercised by a significant part of the Nicaraguan population demanding a change of government. What’s being seen and heard reveals the criminal nature of a regime of state terrorism.
The OAS ramps up the pressure
In line with its defined role, the Organization of American States (OAS) is heading up the concerned response to Nicaragua’s crisis. That regional body as a whole turned its attention to Nicaragua for the first time on June 5, when its General Assembly unanimously approved a mild declaration jointly presented by the US and Nicaraguan governments. Titled “Declaration of Support to the People of Nicaragua,” it contained a generic condemnation of “the violence” without holding the Ortega-Murillo government responsible. But that was only the beginning. From that date forward, once the issue was on the table, the OAS has been moving forward unusually rapidly with an agenda of pressures on Nicaragua that are pushing the regime into a corner.
The next step was a meeting of the OAS Permanent Council on June 22 to hear the IACHR’s powerful final report based on evidence collected in Nicaragua in May by its executive secretary Paulo Abrão and his team. It was the first time in 15 years that the Council had met to hear this autonomous OAS body report on human rights violations in some country of the continent. The majority of countries supported the report, while Nicaragua’s foreign minister disqualified it from start to finish.
That same day, the language of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who presented the report, also began to change. He referred for the first time to “repression,” although still without blaming the government for it. He also proposed early elections in 2019 for the first time. In early 2017 he had bilaterally signed an agreement of understanding with Ortega about each step required to achieve the in-depth reform the collapsed Nicaraguan electoral system—a veritable fraud machine since 2008—needs to finally ensure free and transparent elections again. Back then everything had been geared to what the two men agreed to and what the calendar dictated: a “cleaned-up” system in time for the scheduled elections in 2021.
His turnaround and the growing OAS determination was motivated by the huge and climbing number of deaths in the first and second repressive phases. That determination has been getting firmer and firmer, and shows no signs of backing off.
In another special Permanent Council meeting on July 11, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and the United States presented a resolution they had drafted holding the Nicaraguan government responsible for the repression. By that time Ortega had unequivocally rejected any possibility of early elections, in turn leading Almagro to modify his discourse even more, clearly establishing his perception of what was happening in Nicaragua. (His speech that day is reproduced in this issue.)
Two days later, the Permanent Council met yet again to discuss the definitive text of the new resolution on Nicaragua’s crisis. Its eight points began with the resolve “to reiterate its vigorous condemnation of and grave concern over all acts of violence, repression and human rights violations and abuses committed by police, parapolice groups and others against the people of Nicaragua, as documented by the IACHR; to encourage that steps be taken to identify the individuals responsible, through the corresponding legal procedures; and to demand that parapolice groups be disbanded.” While the points deal mainly with human rights concerns, two focused on the underlying political issues: one urging the government and all parties to participate “actively and in good faith in the National Dialogue”; and the other specifically calling on the government to “collaborate in the effective pursuit of efforts to strengthen democratic institutions in Nicaragua through the implementation of the recommendations of the OAS Electoral Observation Mission” and “to support an electoral calendar jointly agreed to in the context of the National Dialogue process,” implicitly supporting early elections.
In his reflections on the viability of moving the elections forward in the Speaking Out section of this issue, electoral observation expert Roberto Courtney offered this sum-up of the change in the OAS: “From now on the OAS position is independent of Ortega’s interests and is committed to promoting an international agenda that will put Nicaragua on the path to early elections.”
Friday the 13th
The same day the OAS Permanent Council was engaged in that important debate also turned out to be an intense one in which the results of various interwoven government decisions proved in only a few hours just how critical the situation it has dragged the country into had become.
The Civic Alliance had called a national 24-hour work stoppage for that Friday. While government offices remained open, most stores and businesses closed and the streets and highways all over the country were eerily empty.
The ruling couple responded with its consistent pattern of countering any Civic Alliance activity with one of its own, often at the same time and sometimes in a threateningly nearby location. This time Ortega and Murillo impetuously repeated the annual Repliegue in memory of the 1979 historic tactical retreat of thousands of besieged and in some cases wounded Managuans and FSLN combatants under the very nose of the National Guard to Masaya, already liberated by the FSLN. For decades the commemoration was held on June 27, the date of the actual retreat, and was honored by walking the 20 kilometers between the two cities, but increasingly the aging guerrillas have switched to vehicles and occasionally changed the date.
Another change was that Masaya didn’t receive the kilometers-long caravan of vehicles belonging to state institutions and sympathizers with music and firecrackers, as was also traditional for decades. In an unmistakable show of rejection, the entire city shut its doors. The caravan waited on the highway while the vehicle carrying the ruling couple, surrounded by bodyguards on motorcycles, drove in silence through the desolate streets until reaching the edge of the famously combative and normally welcoming indigenous barrio of Monimbó. This time, dozens of barricades prevented them from entering. Ortega and Murillo “celebrated” the event behind closed doors, fittingly in Masaya’s police barracks.
The second government move of the day was that police and paramilitary forces launched what would be a 15-hour attack, lasting from that same afternoon until after dawn on Saturday, against roughly 200 students who had been occupying UNAN’s Managua campus since June. The attack, involving the use of high-caliber weapons, extended to the Divine Mercy church and parish house around the corner from the UNAN, where youths, some already wounded, had taken refuge with several priests, three national journalists and Washington Post reporter Joshua Partlo, whose narrative of what he witnessed moved the international community.
A 20-year-old youth who loved to dance to folkloric music and an adult accompanying the youths both died in the church from bullets to the head. Many of the wounded students were treated by medics who braved the siege to help given that the efforts of the religious leaders to negotiate permission for ambulances to remove them were denied. The youths were finally bussed out and released to their families Saturday morning thanks to efforts by Nuncio Sommer-tag and the US State Department, although several of were later kidnapped by paramilitaries.
Learning of the attack during the OAS session that afternoon, Almagro had futilely asked the Nicaraguan government to halt it. The refusal led him to reaffirm the position he had expressed three days earlier: “We in the Americas cannot coexist with violent episodes such as those that have occurred in Nicaragua since April. We in the OAS Secretariat see the need for an immediate negotiation that will permit political solutions for the country: democracy, human rights and elections.”
For its third confrontational act that day, the government ordered the arrest of Medardo Mairena, a member of the Civic Alliance in the national dialogue, and Pedro Mena. They were picked up at the Managua airport where they were about to travel to a solidarity event in the United States. In a closed-door hearing in which they were not allowed to have their own lawyers, the two anti-canal movement peasant leaders together with eight others were formally accused of seven serious crimes linked to terrorism and organized crime . Mairena and Mena were also charged with murdering four policemen in a confusing shootout in Morrito, department of Río San Juan, although their relatives say that at the time of the attack both men were visibly participating in the Managua march titled “Together We’re a Volcano.” It’s not the first time since he sided with the anti-canal movement that Mairena has been charged by the government for crimes, although he was previously released for lack of evidence. In its attempt to follow up on the case, the IACHR has learned that they have suffered “mistreatment.”
Ortega isolated in the OAS
On July 18, the OAS Permanent Council called another special session, this time to vote on the proposal regarding Nicaragua. After an hour in which Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada and Venezuela’s representative made one failed attempt after another to obstruct not only the voting but also the session itself, 21 of the 34 OAS member countries voted in favor of the resolution. Venezuela was the only weighty country to oppose it and was joined only by St. Vincent & The Grenadines and Nicaragua itself. Barbados, Belize, El Salvador, Grenada, Haiti, Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago all abstained, while Bolivia, Dominica and Saint Kitts & Nevis absented themselves. The majority of those smaller countries, particularly the Caribbean Island republics, receive Venezuelan oil through favorable agreements with Petrocaribe.
Gonzalo Koncke, Almagro’s cabinet chief, said the resolution was of “great importance” and that the favorable vote “was the response of the Inter-American community to Nicaragua’s tragic situation,” with its “spine-chilling number of deaths.”
The Ortega government’s defeat was further magnified when Foreign Minister Moncada insisted on putting to a vote an alternative resolution to “reestablish peace in Nicaragua,” which simply reiterated the official version of what’s happening in the country: it isn’t a civic rebellion by a majority of the people, but a “coup d’état” by “terrorist” forces. The text only got the same 3 votes that had opposed the earlier resolution, with 20 voting against, 8 abstaining and 3 absent. That day laid out for all to see what is now and will continue to be Ortega’s unfavorable correlation of forces in the OAS.
Europe also takes a stand
While this was playing itself out in the OAS, Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy representative, wrote a letter to Moncada asking for an immediate end to the repression and arbitrary detentions and the dismantling of the irregular armed groups. She also announced that the EU, concerned about the humanitarian crisis it was observing in Nicaragua, was sending 300,000 euros to be used to attend to the victims of the violence. Among the European countries, Germany has stood out the most for its declarations and commitments.
The day before the OAS meeting, the European Union countries met in Brussels with 12 members of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (CELAC), an entity created by the late Venezuelan President Chávez as a non-US-dominated alternative to the OAS. During the meeting the EU asked the same thing the OAS had.
That same day, seven former Costa Rican Presidents wrote UN Secretary General António Guterres, who was on a visit to San José at the time, calling for United Nations intervention “to promote a solution that reestablishes peace and democracy in Nicaragua as soon as possible.” As of August 7, when this issue went to press, the only direct UN response to the Nicaraguan crisis was via a team from the OACHR, whose spokesperson was accused of being an accomplice of terrorism by Nicaragua’s Foreign Ministry, as mentioned above.
OACHR High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has not hesitated to make his own firm declarations about what’s happening in Nicaragua, both condemning the tragic recent events and defining them as the result of “systematic erosions of human rights over the years.” More recently, he said that his team “is hearing testimonies of deep frustration and desperation, as well as of generalized fear.”
The UN could become a key factor in the solution to the country’s crisis. Some have even suggested the idea of the UN Peace Forces intervening to disarm the paramilitaries. Ortega himself has talked about inviting the UN to be a guarantor and verifier of any agreements to come out of the national dialogue he hopes to organize to replace the one mediated by the bishops, which he wants nothing to do with.
A group of Nicaraguan civil organizations sent a letter to UN Secretary General Guterres requesting a UN Security Council session on Nicaragua to debate the following three points: a roadmap for disarming the paramilitaries; sanctions against the Ortega regime; and the creation of an Investigation Commission to assess the International Criminal Court sanctioning the crimes against humanity committed in Nicaragua these past three months. The organizations requested actions that compliment the OAS’ but go further and have greater scope, particularly regarding justice, the issue Ortega most fears.
“The establishment of an investigation mandated by the United Nations,” they wrote, “would also increase international awareness about and attention to Nicaragua’s situation, including more coordinated actions and cooperation with partners and governments outside the region and beyond the scope of the regional organizations.”
Another July 19
The day after approval of the OAS resolution, with the bloody clean-up operation still underway, Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo celebrated another July 19, this one marking the 39th anniversary of the insurrection that brought down the Somoza dictatorship.
The setting was similar to other recent years—Ortega and Murillo on a stage with hundreds of uniformed youths behind them looking for all the world like a Korean choreographed showpiece except that their uniforms were Sandinista Youth tee-shirts. A huge section of the city had been cordoned off around the Plaza of Peace where the event was held so it was impossible for the regular population or any unwanted journalists to get anywhere near it. Camera shots showed either the stage or the seemingly multitudinous crowd, but never both. Social media messages immediately appeared with apparent evidence that the crowd shots were from previous days: an earlier year on a billboard, a human pyramid exactly like one from a previous year, a message from a man claiming to have sold sunglasses on a huge piece of cardboard at the event every year except this one, who expressed surprise at seeing himself in the footage, and people who were on the main avenue leading up from the site who reported a mere handful of cars driving by honking their horns at the end of the event…
The speeches began with a point-by-point parallel universe narrative by Cuba’s foreign minister—the protesters are staging a coup, they’re financed by the US, they’re led by the Nicaraguan Right, they’re responsible for all the violence, etc. It was followed by a standard-issue solidarity speech by Venezuela’s foreign minister. Ortega used his speech to project himself both as a warrior who had just wrapped up—and won—a war and as a governor who had patiently set about figuring out what his opponents were up to until discovering the plot’s key: an attempted coup. He also dedicated a significant part to attacking the bishops, accusing them of being part of what he called a “satanic” plan.
His objective was not to speak to the nation in these troubled times but to hype up his followers, calling on them to strengthen their “self-defenses.” From that day forward, his most ardent followers have started writing “plomo,” a euphemism for lead bullets, on building walls and singing an unimaginative and un-rhyming song that interminably repeats the same line: “Even if it hurts you all, even if it hurts, the comandante is here to stay.” He is staying, Ortega has told them, at least until the 2021 elections, making clear that early elections are not on his agenda.
Unlike previous July 19 events with similar rituals and similarly aggressive speeches to reaffirm the loyalty of the governing party’s followers, the celebration of the revolution’s anniversary this time wasn’t ignored by the rest of the world. Ortega’s triumphalist and bellicose speech in which he declared himself the victor after the spilling of so much blood may have gone down well with his militant followers, but it only worsened his already gravely deteriorated international image.
Ortega’s intense schedule
of international interviews
Whether in the belief that he could recover his image or for some other less discernible reason, Ortega did something he’s never done either internationally or domestically since taking office 11 years ago. He requested or granted six international media interviews in the days after July 19, including with Fox News, Telesur, Euronews and the Spanish edition of CNN.
If the purpose was to improve his image, it didn’t go so well for him. Even the attempt was puzzlingly misguided since he gave different versions of the “facts” to different journalists, particularly in answer to the key question about the hooded paramilitaries terrorizing the population. Given the clamor to disband and disarm them based on the fact that Nicaragua can legally only have two armed forces, the Army and the Police, Ortega had been known to deny that any such forces even exist. In the interview with Fox News on July 23, he switched to claiming they were organized by the rightwing political parties. Then in the CNN interview with Andrés Oppenheimer five days later, he defined them as “volunteer police,” apparently to sidestep the legal problem. While that was a better explanation for the extensive video footage of highly-armed hooded hitmen crowded into the back of police pick-up trucks, it was an inadvertent confession that they are his subalterns, thanks to a law he pushed through making himself the Supreme Chief of Police.
Spanish journalist Óscar Valero, who interviewed Ortega two days later on Euronews, said of the contradictions: “I don’t know if he does it to confuse or it’s calculated or he simply hasn’t been able to put together a unified version.”
The one thing Ortega had an unequivocal single position on throughout was that there will be no early elections: he’s staying until 2021. In his Speaking Out article in this issue, Roberto Courtney discusses whether Ortega is saying this to gain time or because he means it. He also lays out the tortuous path Nicaragua must run if it is ever to hold early elections.
CNN also interviews
Daniel Ortega wasn’t the only member of his family to be interviewed by CNN’s Spanish channel in this period. His brother Humberto, chief strategist of the insurrectionary uprising that ended the Somoza dictatorship, then head of the army between 1979 and 1995, when he turned the command over to his successor, was interviewed on July 27, before his sibling. The retired general unequivocally contradicted virtually everything his brother would say the next day to a different interviewer on the same chain.
General Ortega’s five main points were that: 1) the government is responsible for the repression, 2) the government didn’t know how to handle the protests within the law, 3) the biggest problem right now is the paramilitary forces, which should not exist since the State only legally has two armed forces, 4) dialogue is the only way out of the situation, and 5) elections are “key to the solution and need to be brought forward.” He endorsed the bishops and the format of the existing national dialogue, considering that agreements must be reached in that arena to end the crisis through early elections. He called the regime’s violent response to the university student protests “condemnable” and blamed the State, “which has a government” that is “mainly responsible” for “such indiscriminate repression,” not shying away from the fact that his brother heads that government.
His greatest agitation was reserved for the paramilitary forces, an issue he returned to again and again in the hour-long interview, “because they are outside the law” and “the Army cannot tolerate that.” He railed that “everyone has seen them blithely causing terror all over the place and accompanying the police…. They are the ones who have caused the greatest amount of violence and death.” As if anticipating what his brother would tell CNN, he warned that “the government cannot legitimate armed irregulars.”
It remains to be seen how much influence Gen. Ortega’s clear and direct declarations will have on the Army, which Roberto Courtney defines as a crucial factor in any final solution to the crisis.
Unanimous opinions about
and by the US government
Despite their different perspectives, the Ortega brothers firmly agree on one thing: the way out of the crisis must remain in Nicaraguans’ hands, which mainly translates for both of them into nonintervention by the United States.
“The United States is going to do everything possible to get Nicaragua to return to democracy,” US Ambassador to the OAS Carlos Trujillo told both the media and also reportedly Ortega. “All options are on the table, except for the military one at this moment.” It is the most direct statement Trujillo has made to date.
So far, there have only been a number of sanctions on Nicaraguan government and party officials close to Ortega ranging from withdrawing US entry visas to application of the Global Magnitsky Act. In two waves, the State Department has revoked the visas of dozens of government officials and their families, without revealing the names of those affected, while another three officials close to Ortega have been sanctioned by the Magnitsky Act since April and more are expected to make the list before the year ends. Some declarations have demonstrated a bipartisan vision of condemnation of the Nicaraguan government by both the White House and Congress and a shared commitment to see it replaced by electoral means.
In mid-July, the State Department declared that “each additional victim of the campaign of violence and intimidation by the government promotes the undermining of Ortega’s legitimacy.” After the first 100 days of civic protests, the US representative to the United Nations said the 205 deaths in Nicaragua had exceeded the 112 caused in 100 days of protests in Venezuela last year. What has not been declared, but which no one who knows Nicaraguan-US history doubts exist, is Washington’s plans to influence the outcome of the future elections in its own favor.
“Ortega’s propaganda fools
no one and changes nothing”
After the interview President Ortega gave Fox News, presumably because it’s the only news channel President Trump watches, Trump demonstrated no visible reaction to the message directed specifically to him: “Respect us.” But Ortega did get an immediate response from Vice President Mike Pence, and a far less desirable one than he hoped for from Trump. Pence tweeted: “State-sponsored violence in Nicaragua is undeniable. Ortega’s propaganda fools no one and changes nothing.”
On July 30, Pence again condemned the Ortega regime for “virtually waging war on the Catholic Church and those calling for democracy and national dialogue.” A separate White House message the same day reiterated its support for “the Catholic Church-led National Dialogue process for good faith negotiations” and warned Ortega that its sanctions demonstrate “that it will hold Ortega regime officials who authorize violence and abuses or who steal from the Nicaraguan people responsible for their actions. These are a start, not an end, of potential sanctions.”
On the hill, several US congresspeople are arguing that the Nicaraguan crisis represents a US national security threat given Russia’s presence in our country, the possibility of a civil war and the migratory crisis that’s already threatening the region. Approval of the Nica Act is still pending in the Senate, having been passed by the House months ago. Furthermore, Republican and Democratic senators have introduced “The Nicaragua Human Rights and Anticorruption Act of 2018,” a bill that includes even stronger sanctions than the Magnitsky Act against the governing family. The bill is sponsored, among others, by Democrats Patrick Leahy, a firm defender of the revolution in the 1980s but more recently a surprise sponsor of the Nica Act, and Tim Caine, whose interest in Central America dates back to his university years.
In the House, which has long since passed its version of the Nica Act, Cuban-American Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the author of that bill, submitted Resolution H. 981 on July 3 titled “Condemning the violence, persecution, intimidation and murders committed by the Government of Nicaragua against its citizens.” On July 25, House members debated it for under an hour then approved it. Since resolutions have no legal consequences, language is everything. This one “supports the people of Nicaragua in their pursuit for democracy, including their call for free and fair elections overseen by credible domestic and international observers; urges the international community to stand in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua; calls on the United States to continue to condemn the atrocities in Nicaragua, demand the release of individuals wrongfully detained, and identify those individuals whose involvement in this violence qualifies for the imposition of sanctions.”
“A psychotic denial of reality”:
Nothing’s normal in Nicaragua
As Pence rightly tweeted, the world is now watching what’s happening in Nicaragua. The regime model constructed and presided over by Ortega and Murillo has gone from either enjoying relative respect or total ignorance to now becoming the object of disparagement and rejection in most countries.
Is the ruling couple conscious of that new reality, of how they are being seen? One psychiatrist told envío that what the couple is doing “seems to be placing them in a psychotic denial of reality in order to avoid assuming their responsibilities.” Something similar is increasingly expressed by an astonishing number of people who may lack medical credentials but have reached the same conclusions by simply living day after day in Nicaragua’s surreal environment.
What is it if not surreal to insist that the country has “normalized” and for the foreign minister to claim the country has “neutralized” the “terrorist coup”? There’s nothing normal about today’s Nicaragua and the impressive numbers of protestors who still frequently take to the streets in peaceful attempts to demand a change of government. Only in the regime’s dictionary is such an unarmed protest defined as a coup attempt.
There’s also nothing normal about thousands of families crying for their dead, anxious about their gravely wounded or permanently disabled, searching for their disappeared or worried about the fate of those who have fled to Costa Rica, are preparing to go or are still hiding inside the country. There is nothing normal about the generalized jumpiness regarding the danger still present in the streets and universities and the serious concern about both the national and family economies.
Many families are keeping their children home from school to protect them from the continuing insecurity. Thousands of students at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua campuses in both Managua and León have declared themselves in “academic rebellion.” Rather than attend classes or resume the academic year, they are demonstrating in the streets of León with the slogan “Without autonomy: full streets and empty classrooms.”
The Central American University has suspended classes since April and no classes are being held in the Engineering University, the Polytechnic University or the public universities. Enrollment has dropped drastically in the private universities, in some cases as much as 70%, due to both economic reasons and the reigning insecurity in the country.
The only thing normal these days is abnormality.
economy isn’t normal
The Central Bank president said that the situation would normalize in July and August and the losses of May and June would be compensated for. But July has now passed into August and nothing seems to have improved. All the country’s banks have published extensive lists in the newspapers of thousands of clients whose loans are in arrears. They are no longer offering credits other than for agricultural production. The entire banking system is trapped in a liquidity crisis due to the flight of their clients’ deposits (US$600 million just since the crisis began) and the arrears of those who can’t pay on their loans. The withdrawal of that amount of money in wealthier countries wouldn’t be so serious, but in a country as poor as Nicaragua, it’s critical.
Both national and foreign investments are paralyzed. Donations are frozen. And with the combined fall in Venezuelan oil cooperation and capital flight, the country’s international hard currency reserves have dropped by $200 million in just two months.
A quarter of a million people have lost their jobs. Tourism has been reduced to virtually zero and it will be extremely difficult for it to make any rapid recovery even if other things do return to some measure of normality. The commerce and services sector is seriously affected as well. Consumption has dropped some 70% and as a consequence tax collection has tanked proportionately.
Another abnormality is that some 5,000 hectares of private rural lands have been invaded by groups of individuals and families, encouraged by government agents, who are now proclaiming themselves the staunch defenders of their ill-gotten gains. This move is Ortega’s revenge against the business leaders, particularly those in the UPANIC agricultural association, who left his side to support the mobilizations, protests and roadblocks and/or participate in the national dialogue. The future impact of this government-promoted anarchy will make it even more difficult to resolve the still-pending property problems the country has been saddled with since the confiscations of the 1980s, and which has cost it many millions in compensation to those who lost their land.
A humanitarian crisis
Some see the figures and events of the Nicaraguan crisis, its hundreds of violent deaths, thousands of wounded and displaced plus an economy in free fall as the very definition of a humanitarian crisis.
Security expert Elvira Cuadra was already using the term back in June: “I define our country’s situation as a humanitarian crisis because at this point the number of victims produced by the repression and state violence against the population—which is not armed and is resisting—is incomparable to that of any other country in Latin America or any other similar situation in the continent.”
The politically motivated April uprising, with its demand for liberty, democracy and an end to corruption and impunity, could soon by joined by economically-fueled protests and uprisings given the rapidly worsening economic crisis. Some even mention the possibility of a civil war if the economy continues to collapse and the regime doesn’t back off and work toward a solution soon rather than continuing to play hardball.
Ortega is isolated
Gioconda Belli’s summary of the brutal operations to destroy the barricades and roadblocks nailed the reality: “Of course, the people are protecting themselves from the repression Ortega and Murillo have unleashed. But the fact that the protestors are taking cover doesn’t mean the country is returning to normal. Only in a mind such as Daniel Ortega’s is there room for the cynicism to declare himself victorious and think he can return to April 17. Quite the opposite. He will never again govern as he did before. He will never know how many of those who continue singing his praises are doing so while detesting him on the inside.”
If the governing couple is now hated by a large part of the country, they’re also having to deal with a ramping up of diplomatic pressure. On August 2, the OAS Permanent Council met again in yet another special session, this time to approve the establishment of a working group of representatives from various OAS countries that will travel to Nicaragua to help move forward a solution via the national dialogue in coordination with other international and regional agencies such as the Central American Integration System (SICA).
Even before the resolution was approved (20 votes in favor to 4 against), the Nicaraguan foreign minister tersely let it be known that his government will not allow the group into Nicaragua. If Ortega sticks to that refusal, it will mean bilateral economic, commercial and diplomatic sanctions from the countries that approved the resolution as well as sanctions from multilateral entities such as the Inter-American Development Bank. It will also further increase his isolation.
Closing the doors to the OAS contradicts Ortega’s show of interest in calling on international agencies to participate in the national dialogue, which is part of his effort to shape the dialogue into one more to his liking. Ortega’s lack of international credibility and the legitimacy already achieved by the bishops as mediators and the Civic Alliance as interlocutors makes that effort very difficult for him, and it could end up further increasing his isolation.
Ortega is the chaos
One of the key ideas in which Ortega did not contradict himself and in fact attempted to make very clear in all his international interviews is that if he leaves the government it will create a vacuum of power in the country, bringing anarchy and chaos. After me the deluge, is his general message.
It’s not the first time he has played that card, and some might have agreed with him before April. But by now the international community is pretty clear that his government has lost the capacity to govern and to negotiate, because it has squandered all moral authority and political capacity to deal with the future challenges his own barbarity has triggered in the country.
The three phases of repression, the terror and massive violation of human rights to keep himself in power at all cost have unified the criteria in the international community: it isn’t “Ortega or chaos”; Ortega is the chaos. His continuation in government won’t bring stability to the country or any economic or moral recovery because he is the main obstacle to all of those things.
What the world needs to know
The Nicaraguan people have given massive and courageous demonstrations of their determination to resist civically. The majority of the population is prepared to assume a democratic transition and economic reactivation and is up to the challenges we will face when all this passes and we see the end of the Ortega-Murillo regime.
It seems that the moment is coming in which the civic resistance will start to design and develop an arena of struggle and international projection that will complement what it initially won in the streets and the national dialogue. The lives of so many, the cries of so many, deserve nothing less. The urgency of creating a transitional government junta is now being discussed in various arenas.
The world needs to know that Nicaragua has the human, ethical and professional capacities to guide the country towards a more just, free and democratic future.
Ortega in his parallel universe propaganda war
President Ortega’s first international media interview was given to Fox News journalist Bret Baier on July 23. The rightwing Nicaraguan daily La Prensa ran a video clip in an article about that interview in which it contrasted quotes by Ortega with verified footage illustrating the opposite. It found seven lies, an average of one every two minutes in the under-14-minute interview. Ortega said the paramilitary groups that attacked the first April protests were financed by the Liberal Party and other political organizations “that have refused to participate in the elections” and have links to organized crime. He denied that anyone was killed in a church, when two people are known to have died in the attack on the Divine Mercy Church and parish house. He claimed the country had been dis¬turbance-free for a week even though no one was going out at night due to the marauding paramilitary bands still conducting the government’s “clean-up operation” in a number of cities. He said no demonstration had ever been attacked although dozens were killed or wounded in a rain of sniper and other bullets in the May 30 Mother’s Day march in Managua. He said he had no problem with the Catholic Church, despite he and his spokespeople having continually defined the bishops and priests as aligned with the “satanic golpistas.” He insisted no priest had been attached by the government, which is true only in strict terms, given that the wounding of the archbishop, his assistant and the papal nuncio was done by civilian supporters fired up by the government’s anti-church haranguing. And he said it was untrue that public hospitals had refused to treat wounded demonstrators—only days before medical personnel who had helped them were fired for doing so.
Ortega gave his second interview a day later to Venezuela’s Telesur, obviously a media chain favorable to him. In it he charged US government agencies with financing criminal groups to conduct the violence, starting back when he won the presidency again in 2007. If he in fact possessed such intel, it’s curious how the government was caught so off base by the uprising and made such a monumental error in its response. He described the violence as extending through rural areas where armed groups were supposedly specifically killing Sandinistas, contradicting repeated declarations over the years by Police Chief Aminta Granera, Army Chief Omar Halleslevens, his successor Julio César Avilés, and Ortega himself claiming there are no politically motivated armed groups in the countryside. Ortega also accused “US interventionism of spreading venom,” at the same time expressing a willingness to dialogue with President Trump. He said the Catholic Church had defended many of the acts of violence and went so far as to claim that “some priests let their churches be turned into barracks, where they even tortured people they captured, in the presence of a priest,” further contradicting his claim the previous day that he had no problem with the Church.
Grayzone Project interview
The day after that, July 25, Ortega was interviewed by US journalist Max Blumenthal for the digital daily Grayzone Project, also favorable to him. Ortega stressed that his government was the victim of an attempted coup d’état, a “well worked-out conspiracy” whose objective was to exterminate the Sandinistas. He said the bishops had conditioned initiating the dialogue on the police being “confined to their barracks,” which he had done, thus permitting the coup-making paramilitaries to take over the streets. Virtually no part of that statement is accurate: the bishops didn’t set it as a precondition, Ortega didn’t order it, and the paramilitaries aren’t fomenting a coup, but working with the riot police in attack operations against the population. The only truth is that they took over the streets, even stopping cars to review and sometimes steal cell phones. Again Ortega held the US responsible for what has been happening in Nicaragua: “We are totally clear, convinced, that the US policy hasn’t changed with respect to Nicaragua,” forgetting the good relations he had with the Obama government for 9 of Ortega’s 11 years in office since 2007, or that the admittedly anti-Ortega Cuban-American congresspeople haven’t gotten the Nica Act through the Senate in over two years. Ortega also criticized Silvio Báez, Managua’s auxiliary bishop, by name, arguing that he was “not qualified” to participate in the national dialogue. In none of the other international interviews did Ortega mention any bishop by name.
CNN en Español interview
Then on July 28, Ortega granted an interview to Andrés Oppenheimer, collaborator with the Spanish edition of the CNN chain. At this point he changed his discourse 180 degrees, calling the paramilitaries “volunteer police” and describing them as “citizens defending themselves” from the “rightwing terrorists.” He again denied any possibility of moving the elections forward, stating that there had never been any agreement to do so anywhere in Central America. He seems to have forgotten that as the incumbent president of Nicaragua he agreed in the 1989 Esquipulas negotiations to move the 1990 general elections up from November to April 1990 in hopes of putting an end to the US-sponsored war. Ortega also gave the official number of deaths in the current crisis as 196, of which 66 were allegedly police officers and Sandinistas.
Oppenheimer wrote afterwards that these figures “were the most surprising of what he said to me… because that made his regime responsible for the majority of the deaths and sounds like an involuntary admission of guilt, or at least could be read that way in a court of justice.”
On July 30, on the condition that no images of what was happening in Nicaragua be broadcast simultaneously, Daniel Ortega gave an interview to the Euronews chain, the most important in Europe, which is broadcast in dozens of languages. In his appearance, Ortega charged the national and international human rights organizations of mixing up those who died as a result of common crimes in the country with those they claim have been killed during the crisis. He also said IACHR Executive Secretary Paulo Abrão “lies, lies, lies every day.” For the second time in two days, Ortega said the paramilitaries using war-issue weapons in the operations it conducts with the Police are “volunteer police” who “use masks in special operations.” The interviewer had no way of knowing that while the Police Law does allow for police volunteers, they never carry weapons much less weapons of war, never participate in special operations and never wear masks. When the journalist asked him about the possibility of moving up the elections, Ortega said it would be “a very serious precedent,” to which the journalist queried, “So, it’s you or anarchy?” Barely missing a beat but definitely missing the point, Ortega responded that “Yes, following that path [of early elections] is to open the doors to anarchy in the country. It would be a rupture of Nicaragua that would be exploited by drug trafficking.”
Russia Today interview
In an August 6 interview on the RT chain, Ortega focused, as he is wont to do, on retelling the history of US interventionist policy in Latin America, and particularly in Nicaragua. He said there have been “permanent” attempts to “sabotage the Sandi¬nista government, seeking any pretext, any law, any initiative,” offering as an example that the “good cooperation” he has maintained with the Nicaraguan business class over these years “was satanized in the United States.” That claim obviously doesn’t hold water as that consensus-based alliance with Nicaraguan big business was highly valued in Washington, and was one of the things that saved Ortega’s bacon from what indeed is an innate hostility to anything Sandinista. That alliance, worked to the benefit of both the Ortega regime and private enterprise, was doing fine until the riot police gunning down of students in late April led the business elite to definitively break with the government and begin to demand an end to the repression and a democratic opening. Ortega told the Russian interviewer that he wouldn’t let any OAS-created “working group” enter Nicaragua on August 2. “They have enough problems in their own countries,” he said, “without wanting to come meddle in our country’s situation.”