After 100 days of insurrection, the world now knows what’s happening
The massive and unjustifiable emotional stress on Nicaraguans imposed by the government’s policy of terror had become palpable by July. Everyone had suffered: some had lost a family member or were at risk of doing so, some had lost their job or feared losing it, many dreaded what the night or the next day might bring, almost everybody worried about the future…
The spiral of violence unleashed by the Ortega-Murillo regime in its attempt to crush the civic insurrection had turned the daily life of most Nicaraguans into something not only unacceptable but incomprehensible in a civilized country and made the future profoundly uncertain. The state terrorism chosen by the governing couple augured an alarming future that would require extraordinary strength to morally and spiritually reconstruct our country.
At the end of July, more than 100 days into the rebellion, Ortega and Murillo were reassuring the population that the country was normal again. But IACHR executive secretary Paulo Abrão, speaking from its headquarters in Washington, defined it as entering a third phase of repression.
He characterized the first phase as “traditional repression with excessive use of police force against demonstrators.” The government itself defined the second phase, in which heavily armed forces bulldozed the roadblocks people had erected all over the country, sparing no violence against those defending them, as a “clean-up operation.”
“We are now,” Abrão explained, “in a third moment: a process of criminalizing the protesters, using the institutions and the justice system to detain people and promote judicial proceedings against them.”
Phase 1: The evolution of
protests and repression
The protests on April 18 had began in Managua with a small number of unarmed pensioners and university students who found themselves up against Sandinista Youth wielding pipes and truncheons quickly reinforced by anti-riot cops. The next day, when the students, refusing to be intimidated, instead called out more demonstrators in several cities, the anti-riot police responded with tear gas and both rubber and lead bullets. The protestors defended themselves against this array of force with nothing more than stones, slingshots and homemade mortars, which typically shoot off only a wad of gunpowder that makes a very satisfying noise. In the ensuing days, an increasing number of students were killed by what were obviously trained snipers.
The rebellion also went through various phases. Those first confrontations between outraged and daring student demonstrators and both police and civilian paramilitaries were succeeded by massive and non-violent marches in Managua, Masaya, León and many other smaller municipalities. Managua saw three such marches between April 23 and May 9 in which hundreds of thousands of people walked peacefully carrying only the blue and white colors of the Nicaraguan flag and the occasional placard with such cogent handwritten messages as “Daniel has lost the people; the people have lost their fear” or “We let you get away with everything; you never should have killed our children,” and sometimes more aggressively, “Ortega and Somoza: the same thing” or “Ortega and Murillo: leave!”
Students had already occupied several universities. Rural populations, followed by urban residents in dozens of municipalities, blocked major transportation arteries and barricaded streets, the first as economic pressure on the government and the second to protect local neighborhoods from attack.
The attack on the fourth—and last—massive peaceful march, held on May 30, the traditional date of Nicaragua’s Mother’s Day, was the one that instilled terror, when para-police groups and snipers opened fire on the crowd on the last leg of the march in Managua. Fourteen youths were killed and nearly a hundred people were wounded.
Phase 2: “Heartless repression”
Between mid-June and mid-July, the terror spread all around the country as the regime dedicated itself to unblocking streets and highways and imprisoning or killing those guarding the roadblocks. Caravans of police pickups rumbled into each municipality like an occupation army, carrying contingents of hooded and heavily armed paramilitaries and special police forces dressed from head to toe in black, intimidating by their mere presence. The bulldozers smashed through the communally-built barriers, thus felling one by one the symbols of the rebellion that had guaranteed the population some defense, as they made it hard for government forces to enter the communities in resistance.
The regime used especially criminal savagery to dismantle the roadblocks around Jinotepe, a municipality and city of the same name in the department of Carazo, where in a single day 24 people were killed and dozens kidnapped and later imprisoned, according to CENIDH. Equally savage was the demolition of the barricades protecting Masaya, and especially Monimbó, which had successfully defended them against 19 previous violent attacks by government forces.
A particularly tragic end to the roadblocks occurred in Chontales’ municipality of Lóvago, where the peasant movement had erected them first. There the IACHR and local church leaders had mediated an agreement to dismantle the roadblock peacefully, but the regime didn’t respect it. The peasants defending it were ambushed, leaving a still unconfirmed number dead.
The IACHR’s Follow-up Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI), present in Nicaragua as of late June, confirmed that a similar dialogue “was maintained to peacefully dismantle the roadblocks” in different places where the clean-up operations were implemented to help move national dialogue forward in reaching its own agreements. But repression won out over any probable accords growing out of those dialogues. The last barricades to fall, leaving three dead and a dozen wounded and/or imprisoned, were those in Jinotega’s Sandino barrio, known as “the Monimbó of the North.” That was on July 23.
Human Rights Watch director José Miguel Vivanco said of the barrier removals that “in some 30 years of observing the human rights situation in different countries of the world, I’ve never seen anything like what is being seen in Nicaragua. Nowhere have we witnessed joint actions by police and heavily armed thugs going all over the country, community by community, shooting, kidnapping, then later celebrating in the streets as if they had defeated an enemy in war… It’s brazen, brutal; this repression is heartless.”
“They’re sending them to kill and to die”
The clean-up operations significantly increased the number of dead, both on the side of those defending the roadblocks and barricades, and now also on the side of the police and paramilitaries who attacked them.
Between April 19 and August 4, CENIDH verified 306 deaths, 51 of which were police officers and paramilitaries. CENIDH president Vilma Núñez said the regime’s opponents have themselves caused some deaths in repelling attacks, even with nothing more than homemade weapons.
She added that “what we are living through isn’t a war between equals and we also know that not all youngsters are praying. We recognize that police and paramilitaries have been killed. Those deaths also cause us grief and we document them as well. But at the end of the day, the government is responsible for those deaths as well, because it hasn’t just sent people to kill, but also to die. We can’t even discard the possibility that the government is causing some of those deaths, as it is capable of anything.”
The latest figures
of the repression
Using CENIDH data, these are the figures of the repression, pain and mourning as of August 4. Of the 306 people killed, 21 were under 17 years old, and included young children and babies. The number of wounded is one of the least precise, because the majority either didn’t go to a public hospital or health center for fear of being captured, or were turned away and never registered. CENIDH calculated that at least 2,200 people had been wounded as of that date, many with serious injuries, and including life-long disabilities.
Equally imprecise is the figure of those kidnapped and arrested without a warrant. According to CENIDH, 300 people, the majority of them young men, were detained in different police units after being captured. Of those political prisoners, 70 were being held in El Chipote, Managua’s police judicial auxiliary prison. Another 112 had been transferred to Tipitapa’s La Modelo prison, part of the penitentiary system. Of all those detained, only 148 had been indicted by that date.
The accusations all follow the same pattern: not just one crime but a list of them, the most common being terrorism, organized crime, illegal arms possession, obstruction of public services (due to the roadblocks) and the like. With no evidence or investigation, the Public Prosecutor General’s Office accuses them never of a single crime but of a list of them, which of course increases the sentencing time. It even printed up forms for the accusations, in which the only thing left to do has been to fill in the name of the accused and send it to the judge, effectively leaving the detainee already tried and convicted.
The number of prisoners who have been tortured is also imprecise (read under-reported), as relatives are too afraid to say anything about it. The same is true of rape, of men as well as women.
Also imprecise is the number of forced disappearances—i.e. people allegedly captured by police or paramilitaries but never reported to be in prison. One reason the number is so hard to nail down is that their relatives often look for them without making their disappearance public. CENIDH received 180 charges about people forcibly disappeared, some of whom later appeared having been tortured and imprisoned, and others have been found dead. As of early August CENIDH still had 16 such cases open.
CENIDH also reported that at least 2,500 were detained and later released after spending only a few days in jail. The Catholic Church played a fundamental mediation role in those cases together with other Civic Alliance members who sit on the “verification commission” that grew out of the national dialogue. That commission presented the government lists of detainees it was advocating for and got some of them released, but the government stopped responding to the commission once the dialogue was suspended in late June.
The clean-up stage was accompanied by house searches, often at night, to capture or sometimes kill those who had participated directly or indirectly in the roadblocks —for example merely by taking water or food to those protecting them—or were only suspected of having done so. These hunts, usually by the paramilitaries, were and still are usually based on lists supplied by the FSLN barrio organizations. They triggered the massive flight—the technical term is “forced displacements”—of individuals, even entire families, to Costa Rica and beyond. The UN High Commission on Refugees reported that more than 23,000 people had crossed the southern border by the end of July to save themselves from prison or death. By November there was talk of more than 30,000.
Some travel with documents, but most fled undocumented. Sources in the border zone told the Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario in early July, when the clean-up was at its most intense, that between 1,000 and 1,500 Nicaraguans were crossing the border daily without documents. The flow dropped at the end of July, once those operations had ended, but only by about half.
The Costa Rican government has been supportive of those arriving, both with and without documents. But the lines for miles of people seeking asylum have exceeded its capacity to attend to them. In July, the government established two refugee camps for those who don’t have relatives living in Costa Rica who can take them in. More than 200,000 Nicaraguans had already emigrated there before April.
The Ortega regime has reportedly infiltrated agents into Costa Rica’s Nicaraguan community to obtain information, threaten and even kill.
Serious violent incidents occurred in San Jose’s La Merced Park on August 18, with xenophobic expressions against the Nicaraguan community that traditionally gathers there. The police detained 44 people and seized several Molotov cocktails. In response, Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans held a joint demonstration in San José a week later under the motto “Ticos and Nicas are brothers.”
In a long interview with Teletica Radio, Nicaragua’s Comandante Mónica Baltodano said she didn’t have “the slightest doubt” that the repudiation of Nicas had been orchestrated by agents of the Ortega regime infiltrated into Costa Rica to persecute those fleeing death in Nicaragua and sow conflict in the Costa Rican government regarding its openness to receiving Nicaraguans and granting them refugee status. Her perception coincided with that of Costa Rica’s last seven Presidents (Arias, Calderón, Figueres, Rodríguez, Pacheco, Chinchilla and Solís), who issued a communique after the incidents referring to “perverse interests that could be trying to destroy our harmony and stir up hate and xenophobia. We will not allow ourselves to fall into temptation.”
Phase 3: Repress with
laws, attorneys and judges
In what Abrão astutely identified as the third phase of the repression, once the roadblocks and barricades had been dealt with, the regime focused on existing and newly emerging leadership figures all over country, as well as on public employees in the state institutions who were not “loyal.”
The Ortega regime. expert in twisting existing laws or writing new ones to suit its interests, has torn hundreds of people from their home at night or picked them up on the street in broad daylight. Those detained are then taken to jail and from there to the courts, where they are tried and convicted in trials that are macabre mockeries of justice. Innumerable anomalies—closed-door trials into which not even their relatives are allowed and in which they are sometimes prevented from choosing their own lawyer, the Public Prosecutor’s cookie-cutter accusation forms, the lack of verifiable evidence, and many more—leave these political prisoners victims of a flagrant lack of guarantees.
Hundreds of political prisoners;
hundreds fired for political reasons
Among the hundreds of people continually imprisoned, sometimes raped, tortured or psychologically abused, then eventually tried and invariably convicted are peasant leaders Pedro Mena and Medardo Mairena; Oriental Market leader Irlanda Jerez; territorial youth leaders from the April 19 Movement in Matagalpa and Masaya and many other sectoral or territorial leaders.
At the same time, hundreds of public employees were fired in July and August simply because they weren’t “loyal” to the regime, i.e. they had participated in a protest or uttered critical opinions and/or simply hadn’t shown up at pro-government marches and counter-demonstrations, an obligatory part of their job description.
The Nicaraguan Medical Association denounced the arbitrary dismissal in August of 135 general practitioners, specialists, surgeons, nurses and even gurney operators from public hospitals all over the country as reprisal either for having treated, cured or cared for people wounded in the protests or the clean-up operations out of sympathy or a sense of civic or professional duty or for not having demonstrated “loyalty” to the government’s politics. Association sources calculated that “over 3,000 years of studies and more than 4,000 years of medical services have been thrown into the garbage” with those firings.
The first firings were in the León hospital, followed by hospitals in Jinotepe, then Masaya… and ultimately all over the country. By November, 300 people had been summarily dismissed just from the health system.
Medical personnel aren’t the only targets. Educators also were and continue to be fired from schools and both private and state institutions. Some were told they no longer had a job via a terse email or WhatsApp text, but most were simply given their walking papers at the workplace, with no explanation in writing- All have been defined as terrorists and dozens have fled the country after receiving death threats.
A new anti-terrorist law lets the
regime decide who’s a terrorist…
On July 16, the National Assembly, totally controlled by a governing party bench whose role is limited to following Ortega’s orders, fast-tracked approval of a bill titled “Law Against Asset Laundering, Financing of Terrorism and Financing of the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” (Law 977), a.k.a. the anti-terrorist law. It imposes sentences of 15-20 years in prison for “whoever individually or acting together with terrorist organizations conducts any act intended to cause the death of or bodily injuries to any person or to destroy or damage public or private goods or services, when the purpose of said acts, by nature or context, is to intimidate a population, alter the constitutional order or oblige a government or an international organization do carry out an act or abstain from doing so.”
The problem is less in the language than in who defines its terms. In practice, the regime, which itself has conducted most of the actions defined in the law, decides who qualifies as a terrorist, what actions qualify as terrorism, and what financing terrorism consists of. Legally speaking, it will be done through the “National ALA/CFT/CFP Commission” (the initials are the Spanish acronym for Law 977’s full name), but even the commission’s ts head is designated by the President and all its members are loyal, obedient representatives of government institutions who were given sweeping and discretional investigative powers.
“Terrorist” is how the regime has decided to label university students, youths in general, peasants, medical personnel, educators, journalists, lawyers or anyone else for that matter, for no reason other than opposing it. Those in the opposition marches who chanted that Ortega and Murillo should leave have already been included in the regime’s definition of having “altered the public order.” In its narrative, the very exercise of the right to protest is synonymous with terrorism.
Over the course of these months, people who have done nothing other than release blue and white balloons into the air, or in one case sang the national anthem, have been detained as collaborators with the terrorist project and at least one man who simply sold blue and white flags has been sentenced to prison. Analyzing not just the law, but more importantly the practice following its approval, it becomes clear that any exercise of one’s civil and political rights critical of the regime falls into the criminal sphere of “terrorism.”
...and a new UAF law lets it
decide who’s financing terrorism
That same July 16 the National Assembly also approved Law 976, which expands the faculties of the government’s Financial Analysis Unit (UAF). As head of the ALA/CFT/CFP Commission’s technical secretariat, the UAF director can now discretionally investigate without a warrant any individual or business it “suspects” of laundering money to finance “terrorist acts.” The UAF is also empowered to identify “trends and patterns” related to the financing of terrorist acts—which in the regime’s view could include printing flyers—and determine the existence of related threats and vulnerabilities.
The new UAF law establishes 15-20 years in prison for “anyone who by whatever means, directly or indirectly, illicitly and deliberately collects, attracts, channels, deposits, transfers, moves, assures, administers, protects, intermediates, lends, provides or gives over assets, be they from a licit or illicit source, with the intention or knowledge that they be used, all or in part, to commit or attempt to commit terrorism.” A similar statement is found in the anti-terrorist law itself.
These new “legal” faculties permit the UAF to act with predictable arbitrariness, virtually encouraging it to dig up “evidence” to apply punishment and other reprisals to the business elite, NGOs and individuals opposed to the regime. Terrorism and its financing are defined in both laws in a way that also gives judges loyal to the governing party the discretion to interpret their scope and punishment in a way that legitimizes the criminalizing of public civic protests and solidarity among Nicaraguans.
Buttressed by the Sovereign Security Law—which CENIDH called “the most serious threat hanging over the exercise of human rights in Nicaragua” when it was passed light years ago in 2015—the UAF can now also immobilize the assets of any persons suspected of financing “terrorism,” understood as loosely and discretionally as this government chooses to understand it. Given the regime’s penchant for petty vindictiveness, it doesn’t take much imagination to suspect these laws of also being retaliation for the Magnitsky sanctions.
The UN called an
“accomplice of terrorism”
Even the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which had a team in Nicaragua at the time the anti-terrorism law was passed, warned that the government could use it to “criminalize protests.” The OHCHR spokesperson called its text “very vague,” permitting a broad interpretation that could lend itself to including in the definition of terrorist people who are simply exercising their right to protest peacefully. In fact the regime was already doing that before this legal maneuver was rushed through and has only continued doing it since then.
If the UN reaction was immediate and strong, the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry’s protest note was unprecedented: “This type of declaration makes them [the OHCHR] accomplices of the actions of terrorist groups, killing Nicaraguans and destroying our country with an eye to bringing down a constitutional government democratically elected by our people.”
The “war” against
the “golpista Church”
The attacks and threats by the regime and its ardent supporters against Catholic bishops and priests have stood out particularly strongly in all three phases of the repression. Attacks in the social networks denigrate them and paramilitaries have physically attacked and threatened priests for ringing the local church bells to warn the population they are coming or for being heard in their homilies to encourage churchgoers to exercise their rights. Churches in several different municipalities have also been profaned or robbed by mobs riled up by the government.
The ire produced in Ortega and Murillo by the actions and words of the bishops in the national dialogue and in their role as coordinators of the parishes throughout the country has driven this “war.” Although “terrorist” has increasingly replaced “golpista” (coup-plotter) as the demonizing epithet for the opposition in the government’s narrative and attempts at legal penalties, the earlier term has become part of the pro-Ortega argot, and has even been used against the Catholic hierarchy.
In agreeing to the bishops as mediators and witnesses of that short-lived confrontation formally known as the national dialogue, they expected a condescending neutral role that would favor their interests and interpretation of events. But they were sorely mistaken. “We are mediators in the dialogue, but we are also the people’s pastors and, sensitive to their pain, we can’t be neutral,” explained Managua’s Bishop Báez to one pro-government reporter. Báez’s frank style has made him a particular target of government loyalists riled up by the governing couple ranting about him.
Diriamba: July 9
One of the pivotal moments of the war against the Catholic Church came on July 9, when Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the archbishop of Managua; his auxiliary bishop, Silvio Báez; the recently arrived papal nuncio, Waldemar Sommertag; and various priests went to the city of Diriamba to rescue youths who had taken refuge in the San Sebastián Basilica to avoid being captured by paramilitaries after the clean-up operation had turned excessively violent there.
A predominantly male pro-Ortega mob insulted the clerics as they arrived, and assaulted them once inside the church, drawing blood. They also stole their cell phones and even the cross Bishop Baéz wore around his neck.
Hours later, this time in Jinotepe’s Santiago parish, another pro-Ortega mob, this time mainly female, surrounded the priests and after elbowing their way into the church, destroyed everything they got their hands on. They threw pews, the confessional and medications stored there to attend to the wounded into the street and set fire to it all. Similar attacks were also repeated in the parishes of Masatepe, Rivas, Jinotega and Matagalpa.
Enter the international community
The tragic numbers of deaths and other abuses finally moved the international community to turn its eyes toward Nicaragua, first in surprise and later indignation. The attacks on the Catholic Church and its representatives had an especially significant weight in that renewed attention.
While the world now knows what’s happening in Nicaragua, it isn’t totally clear about the simmering accumulation of aggravations, abuses of power and authoritarian arbitrariness, not to mention corruption, impunity and electoral frauds that contributed heavily to the April uprising. It is, however, observing our country’s unacceptable present and uncertain future with extreme concern. Over the past months documentaries, testimonies, videos and mountains of social media information have shown the entire world Ortega’s violent responses to the right to protest exercised by a good part of the Nicaraguan people to express their desire for a change of government. What is being seen and heard reveals the criminal nature of a regime practicing state terrorism.
The OAS defines its role
As corresponds to it, the OAS has been the arena that has most dealt with the concern about Nicaragua’s crisis. Once the issue was put on the table on June 5, that regional body moved forward with a speed atypical of multi-nation diplomatic bodies.
Since late 2016, the OAS had been in discussions with Ortega about the profound reform required by the country’s collapsed electoral system, which had become a veritable fraud machine by 2008. In early 2017, Secretary General Luis Almagro signed a bilateral agreement hammered out with Ortega about each step to be taken to finally have free elections again. Prior to April of this year, everything had been reduced to those agreements and to what the implementation calendar dictated: elections in 2021 with a system “purged” by the OAS with Ortega’s approval.
Almagro began to change his language about Nicara¬gua’s reality in late June, abandoning his previously lukewarm declarations. By July, the OAS was pledging to promote an institutional agenda to put Nicaragua on the path to early elections. But not until July 11 did Almagro clearly and eloquently establish his own new position and the role the OAS would play. He did it in a speech at a regular session of the OAS Permanent Council regarding the Nicaraguan crisis called after Ortega rejected any possibility of moving up the elections. He said that “a people attacked by its own government—by the government it elected to protect and guarantee its rights—is one we must support even more, by denouncing and using the diplomatic tools at our disposal…. No country is sustainable in human rights, social or economic terms when its government attempts to prop itself up on the basis of force and repression. No country is sustainable when the political equation falls victim to the logic of measuring strength through violence.”
The member nations had met that day to consider the current human rights situation in Nicaragua and hear the final version of the IACHR report titled “Gross Human Rights Violations in the Context of Social Protests in Nicaragua,” written following its May 17-21 visit to Nicaragua. They met again two days later in an extraordinary session to discuss a resolution drafted by seven countries—Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia Costa Rica and the United States—that for the first time not only condemned the violence but held the Nicaraguan government responsible and urged early elections. The text expressed “energetic condemnation” of all acts of violence, repression, human rights violations and abuses, including those committed by the police and para-police groups against the people.
An unforgettable Friday the 13th
That same day, Friday the 13th, as the Permanent Council labored through a standoff by Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada with the support of Venezuela and Bolivia, various events unfolded back in Nicaragua that in only a few hours reflected the tragedy the Ortega-Murillo regime was dragging the country through.
The Civic Alliance had decreed a national work stoppage endorsed by its big business members for that day in which virtually all businesses, stores, banks and other services—except, of course, government ones—closed their doors. Ortega and Murillo responded by organizing a long caravan of state and party vehicles that same afternoon to celebrate the annual Repliege in memory of the FSLN’s famous tactical retreat from Managua to Masaya under the very nose of the National Guard. Thousands of people, including exhausted combatants and over a hundred wounded, some of them on improvised stretchers, made the 30+hour trek.
By the retreat’s original date, June 27, 1979, Masaya, which had already been liberated, welcomed and fed the exhausted hordes, who had been detected and aerial-bombed in the last stretch. This time the visitors weren’t received with music and fireworks, as had been traditional for decades. The closed city stayed closed. The caravan waited on the highway while the vehicle carrying the presidential couple was escorted by bodyguards on motorcycles through the desolate streets. Barricades, still standing at that time, prevented them from even entering the once pro-Sandinista indigenous barrio of Monimbó. They “celebrated” behind closed doors in the police barracks.
The same afternoon, two peasant leaders—Pedro Mena and Medardo Mairena, the latter also a member of the Civic Alliance negotiating team in the national dialogue and coordinator of the anti-canal movement—were arrested in the Managua airport as they were about to board a plane to the United States to participate in a solidarity act with Nicaragua. They were later indicted on seven counts of crimes linked to “terrorism” and were reportedly tortured. Their trial was originally scheduled for October—nearly four months later—but was postponed twice and finally began in mid-November. It had not concluded by the end of November, by which time four other peasant leaders had also been arrested.
Also the afternoon of Friday the 13th, police and para-police forces with high-caliber weapons initiated an attack against some 200 students who had been occupying the UNAN campus in Managua. The attack, which went on until early the next morning, extended to the Divine Mercy Church down the street where a number of the besieged students had taken refuge with three priests, three national journalists and one foreign journalist from The Washington Post, whose account of the events moved the international community.
Even after making it to the church, a 20-year-old folkloric dance enthusiast and an adult who had accompanied the youths died after being shot in the head. The church’s exterior walls, pockmarked by the impact of the powerful bullets, remain as testimony to what happened there.
The wounded were treated as best they could by medical students who braved the siege to help given that hours of efforts by the religious leaders to negotiate permission for ambulances to remove them were denied. Finally, after 15 hours, the youths were bussed out and released to their families thanks to efforts by Nuncio Sommertag.
Learning of the attack while the OAS Permanent Council was still in session Friday 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.”
Ortega with few friends in the OAS...
Five days later, on July 18, the OAS Permanent Council called another special session, this time to vote on the proposal regarding Nicaragua presented on the 13th. 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 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 Inter-American community’s response to Nicaragua’s tragic situation,” with its “spine-chilling number of deaths.”
The Ortega government’s defeat was further magnified when 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: it isn’t a civic rebellion supported 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 surely continue to be Ortega’s unfavorable correlation of forces inside the OAS.
The diplomatic pressure continued to mount. On August 2, the OAS Permanent Council met yet again, this time to approve a new resolution on Nicaragua. It also created a working group made up of representatives of 12 OAS member countries to help find a way out of the crisis through a national dialogue in Nicaragua in coordination with other regional and international agencies. The resolution was approved by 20 votes in favor and 4 against, but not before the Nicaraguan foreign minister tersely announced that the government would not allow the group into Nicaragua, a decision it held to.
...and few friends in
Europe and the UN
While this was playing itself out in the OAS, European Union countries met in Brussels on July 17 with 12 members of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (CELAC), an entity created by late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as an alternative to the US-dominated OAS. During the meeting the EU called for the same thing the OAS had: an end to the repression and the holding of early elections. It was the same day the seven former Costa Rican Presidents wrote United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, on a visit to San José at the time, calling for UN intervention “to promote a solution that reestablishes peace and democracy in Nicaragua as soon as possible.”
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy representative, wrote 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.
From Geneva, OHCHR High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein didn’t hesitate to make his own firm declarations about what’s happening in Nicaragua, both condemning the tragic events and defining them as the result of “systematic erosions of human rights over the years.” He later said his team in Nicaragua “is hearing testimonies of deep frustration and desperation, as well as generalized fear.”
Another July 19
On July 19, with the bloody clean-up operation still underway, Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo celebrated the 39th anniversary of the insurrection that brought down the Somoza dictatorship.
The setting was similar to 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 the regular population and unwanted journalists couldn’t get near it. Camera shots showed either the stage or the seemingly multitudinous crowd, but never both at the same time. Social media posts immediately appeared claiming that the crowd shots were from previous years. One was from a man who said he had sold sunglasses on a huge piece of cardboard at the event every year except this one, and expressed surprise at seeing himself in the footage… People on the main avenue leading up from the site reported a mere handful of cars driving by honking their horns at the end of the event.
Ortega used his speech to project himself vigorously as both a warrior who had just won a war and a governor who had just discovered the plot: an attempted coup. He also dedicated a significant part to attacking the bishops, accusing them of being part of that alleged plot, referring to it as “diabolical.”
His objective was not to reassure 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 started scrawling the word “plomo,” a euphemism for lead bullets, on walls. The intimidating word soon also appeared on their tee-shirts. Regime supporters also started singing an unimaginative and un-rhyming song that interminably repeats the same line: “Even if it hurts you, even if it hurts, the comandante is staying.” He’s staying, Ortega told them, at least until the 2021 elections, making clear that early elections are not on the table.
Unlike previous July 19 events with similar rituals and similarly aggressive speeches, the celebration wasn’t ignored by the rest of the world this time. Ortega’s triumphalist and bellicose speech declaring himself the victor after the spilling of so much blood may have nourished the loyalty of his militant followers, but it only worsened his already deteriorated international image.
An avalanche of interviews
Whether in the belief that he could repair that international image or for some other less discernible reason, Ortega, who had never previously held a single press conference or permitted an interview by the national media since taking office 11 years ago, requested or granted international televised media interviews one right after the other in the days after July 19: Fox News, Telesur, Euronews, CNN in Spanish, France 24, BBC, Grayzone Proyect, Russia Today… In them all he donned his soft-spoken, amiable, statesmanlike persona.
If the purpose was to improve his image, it didn’t go so well. 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. In response to the clamor to disband and disarm them, Ortega had been known to deny that any such forces even existed. In the interview with Fox News on July 23, he switched to claiming they were organized by rightwing political parties. Then in the CNN interview with Andrés Oppenheimer, he defined them as “volunteer police,” apparently to sidestep the problem that Nicaragua can legally only have two armed forces, the Army and the Police. While that was a better explanation for 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 had pushed through making himself the supreme chief of police.
Spanish journalist Óscar Valero, who interviewed Ortega 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.”
After Ortega’s interview on Fox News, which many assumed was intended for President Trump, he got no reaction to his implicit request for a meeting with the man many increasingly see as having similar traits. But he did trigger an immediate and undesired reaction from Vice President Mike Pence. Despite the denials that Nicaraguan security forces and paramilitaries were attacking peaceful demonstrators, Pence tweeted that it was “undeniable” that Daniel Ortega’s government was behind the violence. He urged Ortega to “end the violence NOW” and bow to opposition demands to hold early elections. “The world is watching!” Pence added.
Humberto Ortega speaks
Daniel Ortega wasn’t the only member of his family to be interviewed by CNN’s Spanish channel in that 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. The retired general unequivocally contradicted virtually all the confusing versions or calculated lies his brother had already said to other media and would say on CNN to a different interviewer the next day.
General Ortega’s five main points were that: 1) the government didn’t know how to handle the protests within the law; 2) the government was responsible for the repression, thus sidestepping a question asking if Rosario Murillo was directly to blame for the massacre; 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 national dialogue format, considering it the arena in which agreements must be reached 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 “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” and “the Army can’t tolerate it.”
Shared opinions about
the US government
Despite their different perspectives, the Ortega brothers firmly agreed on one thing: the way out of the crisis must remain in Nicaraguans’ hands, which mainly translates for both of them into US nonintervention.
There’s no doubt that after six months of crisis it would be strange that the United States wouldn’t be interested in some sort of gain from the conflict. They have more than enough resources and experience. And above all, the excellent relationship that Ortega maintained for more than a decade with Washington almost forces Washington to take an interest in Nicaragua. However, the North’s interest in Nicaragua’s crisis is a consequence of the crisis and not the cause of its origin: a citizen’s insurrection.
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.” What has not been declared, but which no one who knows Nicaraguan-US history doubts exist, are plans by Washington to influence the outcome of the future elections in its own favor. “The United States is going to do everything possible to get Nicaragua to return to democracy,” Ambassador Trujillo told the media and also reportedly Ortega. “All options are on the table, except for the military one at this moment.” It was the most direct statement Trujillo had made to date.
As of the end of July, the State Department had applied a number of sanctions to Nicaraguan government and party officials close to Ortega. In two waves, it revoked the visas of dozens of government officials and their families, without revealing their names, while three officials close to Ortega were sanctioned by the Global Magnitsky Act and more are expected before the year ends. Declarations by both the White House and Congress demonstrated a bipartisan condemnation of the Nicaraguan government and a shared commitment to see it replaced by electoral means.
In late July, 100 days after the April insurrection, the US representative to the UN noted in the UN headquarters that the deaths in Nicaragua had well more than doubled those provoked in Venezuela in the same number of days of protests (295 vs. 112).
Ortega is the chaos
One of the key ideas about which Ortega did not contradict himself and in fact attempted to make very clear in all his international interviews is that his departure from government would create a vacuum of power in the country, bringing anarchy and chaos. After me the deluge, was 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 all moral authority and all capacity to deal with the challenges of the future produced by his own barbarity. The three phases of the repression, terror and massive human rights violations applied to keep himself in power at all cost have unified criteria among the international community: it isn’t “Ortega or chaos”; Ortega is the chaos. His continuation in government won’t bring stability or any economic or moral recovery to the country because he is the main obstacle to all of those things.