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  Number 451 | Febrero 2019
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Are we getting closer to the way out of the crisis?

Events in Venezuela appear to have reached a point of no return in that Bolivarian country. While any changes there will also have important effects here, Nicaragua was dealt its own political blows the past three months. In November, Washington imposed sanctions on Vice President Murillo; in December the Nica Act was approved by Congress and signed by Trump and a report by the IACHR’s Interdisciplinary Group of Independent experts established that the Nicaraguan State has committed crimes against humanity. In January, Supreme Court Justice Rafael Solís, a member of Ortega’s inner circle, resigned and took exile charging that a “state of terror” reigns in the country. Those are only the most important events that have rocked the regime. Is a negotiation to find a way out of Nicaragua’s crisis getting closer?

Envío team

Daniel Ortega’s project has been closely linked to Venezuela’s ever since 2007, when Ortega signed a political and economic alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as one of his first acts after taking office. Nothing he has done or undone in Nicaragua since then can be explained without taking into account Venezuela and its petrodollars, not to mention Chávez’s Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of America (ALBA) project. The crisis that surfaced in Venezuela with Chávez’s death in 2013, Nicolás Maduro’s assumption of the vacated presidency, plummeting oil prices and the political, economic and social consequences of those factors even played a part in Nicaragua’s civic rebellion in April last year.

The crises currently experienced by the governments and societies of both countries have similar dramatic accents, albeit with variables. While Nicaragua’s geopolitical clout isn’t remotely comparable to Venezuela’s and our country’s natural resources don’t come even close to the importance of Vene¬zuela’s, everything that happens there has a rebound effect here, as the Ortega regime knows only too well. Even the uncertainties about what will follow the denouement of these crises are similar.

The voice of Ligia Gómez

Nicaragua closed out 2018 with a series of political blows, two of which—the sanctioning of Vice President Murillo and the report by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI)—were earth-shaking in a country already suffering a downward-spiraling economy and a mutual erosion of forces with the government increasingly isolated and the Blue and White movement battered by the state of terror.

On November 18, precisely seven months after the popular uprising and initiation of its deadly repression, the country heard the first voice to speak out from within the machinery of power. It belonged to Ligia Gómez, a largely unknown figure who for four years had been manager of the Central Bank’s economic research division and the political secretary of the FSLN’s Sandinista Leadership Council (CLS) in that institution. Gómez describes the latter “position of trust” as consisting simply of implementing orders received from Fidel Moreno, the FSLN’s political secretary in Managua, circulating memorandums from “Com¬pañera” Murillo and “mobilizing the BCN coordinators, who then organized BCN employees to participate in mandatory activities.” “I could not make independent decisions,” she says.

Gómez asked to be removed from her party post on April 25, while the rebellion was still raging, after refusing an order to mobilize BCN workers to a post she feared would endanger them. She was then separated from her professional job in the BCN in July, right around the time Moreno, also head of the ruling party’s Sandinista Youth organization, was sanctioned by the Global Magnitsky Act in the United States along with two other top FSLN operatives. In his case it was for directing acts of violence committed by the Sandinista Youth and pro-government armed groups. Like the other two operatives—Francisco Díaz, by then de-facto head of the National Police, and Francisco López, treasurer of the ruling party among many other things—Moreno retained his position in the government/party power structure after the sanction. He is effectively, if not legally, the country’s third in command given his control of all municipal powers from his post as general secretary of the Managua Mayor’s Office.

After receiving death threats, Gómez fled the country with her family and testified at a September 27 hearing by the House Human Rights Commission in Washington on “The Evolving Human Rights Crisis in Nicaragua.” While her testimony is available in English on Internet, we in Nicaragua didn’t hear what she had to say until November 18, when journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro broadcast a long interview with her on his then-nightly TV news program, Esta Noche.

Pulling out all stops

In both her testimony and that interview, Gómez told how she had been called to a midday emergency ruling party meeting last April 19, where she and the others heard Moreno issue this unchallengeable order: “”We must defend the revolution no matter what; we will not let them steal the revolution.” The implication, she said, was that all forms of repression would be pursued. Only hours later, the lethal strategy was put in motion: the protestors were shot at, and not just with tear gas and rubber bullets, but also with weapons of war

Gómez described the content of emails Vice President Murillo had sent to her and the other FSLN political secretaries and CLS members around the country between then and April 25, when she stooped receiving them. The messages show that Murillo perceived the protests to have escaped their control and confirm the regime’s first decisions to deal with the crisis. By that date, defending the revolution “no matter what” had already cost 55 youths their lives but hadn’t put a halt to the rebellion. To the contrary, the government carnage had only ratcheted it up.

The next and far bigger blow

On November 27, less than two weeks after we heard those revelations, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order giving the Treasury Department permission to block the property and interests of “Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Nicaragua.” The order, which itself does not specify any individuals, states that “I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, find that the situation in Nicaragua, including the violent response by the Government of Nicaragua to the protests that began on April 18, 2018, and the Ortega regime’s systematic dismantling and undermining of democratic institutions and the rule of law, its use of indiscriminate violence and repressive tactics against civilians, as well as its corruption leading to the destabilization of Nica¬ragua’s economy, constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”

The State Department defines it as “a new US tool to expose and promote accountability of those responsible for the abuses taking place in Nicaragua.” It is one of three mechanisms of “Nicaragua related sanctions” now available to Washington. The other two are the Global Magnit¬sky Act, already applied to four of the regime’s high-level officials, and the Nica Act, finally approved in December.

While the executive order was itself generic, its first application went straight to the top: the first of two people sanctioned that same day was Vice President Murillo, for rampant corruption, using public resources for personal benefit, dismantling institutions and violating human rights through her control of the Sandinista Youth and National Police. The other was Néstor Moncada Lau, an obscure figure defined by the State Department as a “national security adviser,” who has worked in the background for the presidential couple for decades. He was sanctioned for similar offensives, as well as for having covered up the President’s alleged sexual abuse of an underage girl in at least one case. This was not in reference to the famous case of Ortega’s own stepdaughter, but to charges against him by Elvia Junieth Flores Castillo as reported in the right¬wing Miami newspaper Diario Las Américas in October 2015.

All such sanctions, which are administered by the Treasury Depart¬ment’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, are described as “financial death” for those targeted, as they block any relationship or transaction with the US financial system, whose banks have correspondent relations with all Nicaraguan banks and most of those in the rest of the world

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement that his department “is intent on ensuring that Ortega regime insiders are not able to access the US financial system to profit at the expense of the Nicaraguan people.” But Roberto Cahina, a former adviser to the Sandinista Army and now an independent consultant on national security issues, told Reuters that this “is not an economic blow; it’s a political blow,” as neither Murillo nor Lau have investments in their own names. “Everything is done through front men.”

“The sanction reflects a certain frustration”

Who could possibly believe that Nicaragua poses any threat to the United States, much less an “extraordinary and unusual” one? Trump’s charge is as absurd as President Reagan’s in 1986, when he warned that “Nicaragua is “a privileged sanctuary for terrorists and subversives just two days’ drive from Harlingen, Texas.” What no few in Washington do believe, however, is that the seriousness and prolongation of Nicaragua’s conflict could further destabilize the already violent and unstable Central American isthmus, particularly the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras). These countries are riddled with uncontrolled drug cartels and other forms of organized crime, and are expellers of emigrants fleeing to the United States to escape the violence.

The sanctioning of Murillo surprised former Liberal foreign minister Francisco Aguirre Sacasa. He sees it as reflecting a certain frustration by Washington with the way Ortega and his wife turned their noses up at US efforts to facilitate a “soft landing.” He recalled meetings the governing couple agreed to in June 2018 with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chief adviser Caleb McCarry and US representative to the Organization of American States (OAS) Carlos Trujillo, who reportedly offered them personal safety and security for their wealth in exchange for their agreement to negotiate a rapid solution by moving the elections forward.

Aguirre Sacasa’s surprise is also based on this understanding that the strategy that has enjoyed consensus in Washington so far was to “gradually up the ante for Ortega and his family circle to induce the soft landing. But it now appears the White House has discarded that scheme in favor of pulling out all stops. Just like Ortega seems to have done.”

“It’s an exceptional message”

The interpretation of US political scientist Richard Feinberg adds another twist. He sees the sanctioning of Murillo as an “exceptional message” sent by the US specifically to Daniel Ortega: “Touching the person they see as the most difficult, the one opposed to any political deal, sends the FSLN and Daniel Ortega the sign that she’s the problem, not the solution; the past and not the future. By so doing, they’re appealing to the pragmatism Daniel Ortega has demonstrated on other occasions, giving him an incentive to sideline her and decide to negotiate.”

The high aim of the executive order’s first target indicates that Washington believes the Ortega-Murillo regime no longer has a future. Could the sanction also be read as a warning that the solution must include the ruling couple’s resignation and a constitutional succession that opens the way to a transition stage?

The only public reaction to the sanction was a brief official communique stating in the Vice President’s own inimitable style that “Full of love of country, of valiant and fraternal coexistence, we declare all accusations that ratify the imperialist perspectives and practices of the United States of North America and the servile and abject condition of the creole sellouts to be improper, disrespectful, false and illegitimate.”

The meeting of big business

Trump’s executive order and Murillo’s invective fed rumors in the pro-Ortega camp of “under-the-table negotiations” to revive the “soft landing” plan with the participation of Nicaraguan big business (counted by the government among the “creole sellouts”).

Given expectations of more sanctions from Washington, 400 Nicaraguan business leaders, including representatives from the country’s three major finance capital groups that have remained silent since May 29, held an emergency closed-door meeting on December 11. At its conclusion, they released a letter to Ortega reminding him in clear but careful language of the “dramatic reduction of economic activity and an unprecedented contraction of the financial system,” then urging him “to consider what the majority of Nicaraguans crave”: dialogue, negotiation, early elections with a guarantee of transparency; in short, a resolution of the crisis. “It is vital that the repression in the country cease,” the letter added. “Freedoms must be assured.”

In the letter, big business also threw its weight behind the “blue and white” clamor on behalf of the hundreds of political prisoners, calling for a “Christmas without people imprisoned for exercising their fundamental rights.”

Business leaders have also distanced themselves from the regime with repeated individual declarations that they have no intention of re-allying with Ortega in the corporative model that shattered in April. Some hoped that, given these business people’s own responsibility in the national crisis resulting from their years of a highly profitable alliance with Ortega, they would have insisted more firmly that his legitimacy as an interlocutor in a negotiation was seriously shrinking, and that the clock was even running out for negotiations.

The expulsion of international “eyes”

Next, on December 19, the Ortega government, seemingly indifferent to legitimacy, “temporarily suspended” the stay in the country of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Special Follow-up Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI) and four-member GIEI. These international professionals, who had come to Nicaragua in June with the government’s acceptance, were summarily expelled the same day, with barely time to pack.

The GIEI had been scheduled the next day to present in Managua the report of its investigation into the violent events in Nicaragua between April 18 and May 30, 2018, a mandate agreed to in May between the IACHR, the OAS secretary general and the Nicaraguan government. Before even receiving the text from the GIEI team, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada said that “We do not accept its reports. We don’t accept them, we reject them, we do not acknowledge them, because they are subjective, because they are liars, because they are biased, because they respond to a policy of meddling and interventionism in Nicaragua’s internal affairs.”

A forceful report

The GIEI instead presented its more than 400-page report in Washington on December 21. It was the second earthshaking event for Nicaragua in less than a month.

In their presentation the four experts who make up the group—Amerigo Incalcaterra (Argentina), Claudia Paz y Paz (Guatemala), Sofía Macher (Peru) and Pablo Parenti (Italy)—described the “absolute lack of collaboration by the Nicaraguan authorities,” who refused to turn over police, forensic and judicial files, even those corresponding to the 22 police killed in the conflict. They also explained how, after some initial, merely protocol meetings, “they hindered our work,” thus violating the commitments of the agreement that had brought them to Nicaragua.

With respect to that official sabotage, Claudia Paz y Paz told journalists that the Nicaraguan government had signed the agreement back in May because “at that moment it didn’t have control and needed to buy time. It closed off once it got control back [in July, after the ‘clean-up operations’ that removed the roadblocks and barricades all over the country, in the process committing many more grave human rights violations]. The government that signed with us in May had one power, the one that received us in July had another power, and the one that never met with us again as of August had still another power.”

The report describes the context in which the violent acts occurred, investigating the most relevant ones in detail. It characterizes the violence exercised by the State and the actions of the penal justice system and health system, relates the experiences of victims and their relatives and presents a comprehensive victim reparation plan, ending its conclusions with recommendations to the State.

Although it covers barely 43 days, the GIEI report’s precision and professionalism is what a Truth Commission would hope to accomplish. Despite all the wars and episodes of violence that have filled both the past and more recent national history, Nicaragua has never had such an entity.

The forms of protest and repression

In the 43 days the investigation covers, the GIEI tallied 109 deaths, 95 of them from gunshots to the neck, head and thorax. All but 9 of these deaths have gone unpunished. The report also lists some 1,400 people wounded, 500 of them by firearms, and 690 people detained.

The text analyzes political and institutional antecedents “that permit an understanding of the reasons behind the massive social protests and the way in which the disproportionate response by the State took shape.” It analyzes violent events “that show the forms the protest and the repression by the State acquired.”

It establishes that “the State’s response to the demonstrations and protests that started on April 18 took place in the framework of a generalized and systematic attack against the civilian population.” It characterizes the patterns of state violence, the use of lethal firearms as a form of repression, the actors who implemented it, the promotion and political endorsement of the repression, the detention of demonstrators, the actions of the health system and the guaranteed impunity with which the violence was exercised.

The report assures that in the days investigated by the team “the majority of the killings and serious lesions were the responsibility of the National Police,” noting that the patterns of state violence did not change after May 30. It also clearly establishes that the President, Vice President, several police commanders and various government and party officials must be investigated for their responsibility in the state violence.

Crimes against humanity

The report’s greatest seismic impact comes in chapter 8 when the GIEI concludes that, based on the information gathered, “the State of Nicaragua committed crimes against humanity.” If the clamor for justice has consistently been one of two unnegotiable issues for the majority of Nicaraguans, the other being democracy, “crimes against humanity” is now the more specific, graspable and inescapable banner that people have taken up as their hopes have been reduced.

There is no statute of limitations on such crimes; they aren’t subject to amnesty and can be tried in any court in the world based on the principle of universal justice. Our own translation of that chapter appears in this issue of envío as the document’s official translation was not yet available when we went to press.

Claudia Paz y Paz had this to say about the possibilities opened by this conclusion of the report: “These crimes could be tried by the International Criminal Court. The problem is that Nicaragua has not signed the Rome Statute, which created the Court. The UN Security Council could present them to the Court. Another avenue is to present them in various States that recognize universal jurisdiction. Independent of the nationality of the perpetrators and of the victims or the place in which the acts occurred, the national justices of other States can hear these crimes. In this case the perpetrators would have to be outside of Nicaragua in order to be captured.”

The Nica Act finally passed

On December 20, the day the GIEI was to have presented its report in Mana¬gua, President Trump signed the Nica Act into law. Both houses of Congress had finally approved its latest version by a unanimous vote of both Democrats and Republicans nine days earlier, after two years of heavy opposition lobbying by both the Ortega government and Nicaragua’s big business interests and several rewrites. Because it is a congressional product, it can only be repealed by Congress, as was the case with the Helms-Burton Law, which reinforced the blockade against Cuba since 1996.

A fusion of two bills, the final Nica Act establishes that in a period of no more than 180 days, the State Department must present a list of Nicaraguans who are sanctionable due to their direct participation or indirect complicity in corruption and/or human rights violations. Nicaraguan banks are legally prevented from conducting any operation with those who find themselves on that list. Moreover, international banks that have correspondent relations with Nicaraguan banks must reinforce the controls on those banks to avoid them affecting the sanctions. According to the new law, President Trump must now instruct the US representatives of all international financing institutions to vote against any loans solicited by Nicaragua. The Nica Act now also leaves a door open to the Ortega regime by including a waiver possibility in which the State Department must verify each year whether or not “effective measures” of rectification are being taken; i.e. if the repression is ceasing, the state institutions are recovering their independence, human rights are being respected, democratization is taking place, etc.

There is no law like it against any other country, even Venezuela, despite the fact that Trump’s ultra-hawk national security adviser John Bolton has included both countries and Cuba in what he defines as the “troika of tyranny” that is “the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere.”

The Ortega government’s retaliation

The day after the passage of the Nica Act and in keeping with its tactic of demonstrating its strength to its base by unflinchingly returning any such shot across its bow with a repressive counter-shot, the Ortega government used its legislative majority in the National Assembly to cancel the legal status of two of the most prestigious Nicaraguan nongovernmental organizations: Let’s Make Democracy (Haga¬mos Democracia) and the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH). The day after that, five more NGOs suffered the same fate with equal celerity: the municipal strengthening organization Popol Na Foundation; The River Foundation, which had been the first to sound the alert about the forest fire in the Indi-Maiz Reserve; the Segovias Leadership Institute; the Institute for the Development of Democracy (IPADE) and the Communication Research Center (CINCO).

Days earlier, both the Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policies (IEEPP), whose executive director, Félix Maradiaga, is an internationally known opposition figure, and the Center of Information and Advisory Services in Health (CISAS) had also been stripped of their legal status. In the latter case, CISAS director Ana Quirós, a nationalized Nicaraguan who was one of the first to suffer serious injuries in the events of April last year, was held in custody for several hours then summarily expelled to Costa Rica with only the clothes on her back.

The legislative decree applied the Law against Terrorism to all of them, on accusations of promoting “terrorism, crimes of hate, encouraging and carrying out the destruction of public properties and assaulting the dignity of thousands of individuals and families.” They were further accused of using the resources they receive from international cooperation to commit these alleged crimes. It is surely no coincidence that at least some of them receive funds from the US National Endowment for Democracy, whose financing of a number of unsavory activities in the 1980s and early 1990s in Nicaragua has left it with a very suspicious reputation.

Without presenting any evidence or respecting legal time periods for any of the suspended organizations, the government froze all their bank accounts on December 14. That same night groups of police ransacked all of their premises, confiscating vehicles, computers and other work equipment and other physical assets in their offices, which then remained militarily occupied.

In an interview on one of the regime’s six TV channels five days later to justify the expulsion of the GIEI and MESENI, Foreign Minister Moncada called both international organizations “little mobile Trojan horses,” adding that “there are already permanent Trojan horses in our country and we know who they are: the NGOs whose legal status has been removed by our legislative assembly.”

“Assume your responsibility”

Next, on December 29, after the representatives of the OAS member States had had a chance to study the GIEI report, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro announced that he felt “obliged” to initiate the process of applying the sanctions established in the Inter-American Democratic Charter to Nicaragua. The Charter is a juridical instrument created in the OAS in 2001 to call on the mat any member country that has committed an alteration of the democratic order and, if the behavior continues, to suspend it from the OAS.

In his announcement, Almagro, who himself comes from a leftist tradition, made a very personal call to Ortega, with whom he had maintained visibly cordial relations until April: “It is a pity that one of the main living historical revolutionaries of Latin America, who until a year ago still represented the possibility of a revolutionary and democratic Left in our continent, has chosen the path of authoritarianism, human rights abuse and repression to keep himself in power….” Switching to the plural—was he addressing the presidential couple, the party or close supporters who still see themselves as revolutionaries?—he implored them to “assume your responsibility, be decent, don’t lose the revolutionary dignity you once had.”

The kiss of death

Unlike other sanctions, or perhaps given the piling up of them, the announcement of the application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter seemed to concern the regime. Nicara¬gua’s expulsion would, among other things, be the kiss of death to its already plummeting economy.

Foreign Minister Moncada wrote a 21-page letter to all his Latin American homologues requesting them to “kindly” not allow or support this measure. In it he tried to show it as “improper and illegal,” basing his argument as always on principles of national sovereignty and interference in the internal affairs of countries. He ignored the fact that those principles are currently trumped by the universality of human rights and of justice to protect those rights.

In addition to firing off the letter, Moncada was sent on an urgent junket to the Caribbean countries that have supported the Ortega-Maduro tandem in the OAS in order to assure their future votes in opposition to application of the Charter. These small countries are effectively using their votes to thank Venezuela for the oil they receive on preferential terms through the Petrocaribe initiative.

The OAS Permanent Council met on January 11 so the member countries’ representatives could engage in a “collective evaluation” of Nicara¬gua’s crisis, the first step to applying article 20, and if necessary article 21, of the Charter. Article 20 provides for diplomatic pressures to urge the offending country to change course and, if that fails, Article 21 provides for the country’s at least temporary expulsion.

“As if he had
nothing to do with it …”

In his New Year’s message, President Ortega sidestepped any reference to sanctions or any mention of the possibility of dialogue. He didn’t even seem to take seriously the political reasons underlying the mounting economic crisis. To the contrary, he suggested that everything is now coming up roses by claiming that “our challenge was to achieve peace and, while it cost so much pain to do it, we achieved that peace.”

Nearly 10 months after the April insurrection, Ortega has refused to offer any sign of flexibility or rectification. Many are dumbfounded to see him ignoring what happened last year as if he had nothing to do with it In her own New Year’s message, Vice President Murillo said “we are closing this year, which filled us with grief for some time. We are closing it now! And in Jesus’ name we are opening another time.”

“They’re going
after everybody”

The regime’s repression against the independent media intensified in December. Some 60 journalists have now been forced to leave the country due to threats against their life or their families. Luis Galeano and Jaime Arellano are now broadcasting their opinion and interview programs from the United States, while Carlos Fer¬nando Chamorro and the “Nicaragua Investiga” team are doing so from Costa Rica. A culminating point of the repression against the media came on December 21, when the installations of the 100% Noticias channel were ransacked, its equipment destroyed and its director Miguel Mora and press chief Lucía Pineda Ubau were arrested and locked up in the police holding prison known as El Chipote for doing nothing more than reporting the news. Both are very popular journalists, faithful to everything they expressed on the channel in defense of freedom of expression and journalistic ethics. The channel itself played a transcendental role in keeping the population informed all day long every day.

“They aren’t just pulling out all stops, they’re going after everybody,” a CENIDH lawyer told envío. Among the organizations affected by such unjustified moves was the multifaceted media communication system created by Carlos Fernando Chamorro, which is not an NGO. Its different elements, which include the daily bulletin Confidencial and the TV news programs Esta Noche and Esta Semana, are registered as private businesses. Like the NGOs, its installations were searched and destroyed and all its equipment confiscated, but unlike them, its different parts were able to continue functioning via internet.

With the exception of Hagamos Democracia and IEEPP, all these organizations were founded and have been directed by people who were once distinguished FSLN members and most of their personnel also come from that tendency. Carlos Fernando Chamorro directed the FSLN newspaper Barricada between its founding in 1979 and 1994, when he was shoved out by a faction that wanted a more orthodox party paper (it failed financially and closed four years later). IPADE was founded by Jaime Wheelock, one of the nine members of the FSLN National Directorate in the eighties, as well as the minister of agriculture and agrarian reform during the same decade. CENIDH was founded in May 1990 by then-FSLN militant Vilma Núñez Escorcia, a former Supreme Court justice who was even considered a potential presidential candidate at one point. And among the many founders of Popol Na was FSLN Comandante Mónica Baltodano, its director at the time it was intervened. This all suggests an element of political vengeance in addition to the objective of silencing any alternative organization and any critical thinking.

A good part of the personnel of these organizations had to leave the country after the attacks, given continuing threats. Chamorro and his wife took exile in Costa Rica a month later, where Esta Noche and Esta Semana continued transmitting via Channel 12 until that channel was forced not to show it. Esta Noche was then cut to one night a week (Wednesdays) and together with the Sunday program Esta Semana began broadcasting via YouTube and Facebook.

The international reaction to the attack on these civic organizations and independent media was unanimous. The IACHR said “there was no doubt that Nicaragua was going through one of the worse human rights crises on the content in the past thirty years” and that “a regime of terror has been installed in Nicaragua with the suppression of all freedoms.”

Rafael Solís’ resignation
and denunciation

If 2018 ended with a series of major events that left Nicaraguans on all sides reeling, the start of 2019 offered no respite. On January 10, Nicaraguans learned about a three-page letter of “resignation and denunciation” by 65-year-old Supreme Court Justice Rafael Solís, a member of Ortega’s most intimate circle of power. In it he not only resigned from the Court but also renounced his 40-year militancy in the FSLN.

In one of the letter’s two central paragraphs, he told the governing couple: “You have sown fear in our country and no existing law is respected any longer, with the inevitable consequences of the installation and consolidation of a dictatorship with the characters of two kings of an absolute monarchy, which has meant the disappearance of all branches of State.”

In the other he said that “if it had really been about a failed coup d’état or an external aggression in these months of 2018, and if so many people had not been killed, I would still be with you and would continue in the Court and in the FSLN…. What there was instead was an irrational use of force. You are determined to continue doing things badly until you take the country to a civil war, in which I do not want to be a participant, much less at your side.” If there indeed had been a coup attempt or external aggression, Sólis would have known about it.

A guardian of secrets

Solís studied both law and economics, was a Sandinista subcomandante who fought in the Internal Front against the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Before joining the Supreme Court, Solis served in the Nicaraguan legislature and as a military leader, reaching the rank of major. Ortega appointed him to the Supreme Court during the Alemán government and in 2005 chose him as the only witness at his church wedding to long-time partner Rosario Murillo. Elevated to Supreme Court president after Ortega took office in 2007, he became chief juridical and political adviser to safeguard the presidential couple’s interests. Solís bears enormous responsibility for the juridical and political construction of the absolute power he is now denouncing, as he was a key figure in the 2009 Supreme Court decision to remove Presidential term limits, thus allowing Ortega to run for re-election indefinitely.

While serving in the Court, Solís became a millionaire “resolving” complex and costly cases. The US government canceled his entry visa in 2004 arguing acts of corruption in the performance of his duty. In that post and with that power for two decades, Solís was privy to a great number of secrets, which he guarded jealously. Until now. It is hard to believe he would have decided to resign and denounce based on a sudden attack of ethics. It is also difficult to imagine that his influence in the unfolding of the national crisis will end with this letter given all the secrets he knows.

Surprise, denial,
more surveillance

The shock and surprise throughout the regime was unhidable. Was it the start of an implosion? What else might Solís have said to Ortega and Murillo beyond what was in his public letter? For the first two hours, they both denied it to their base, and the base swallowed the denial just like it swallows everything else the governing couple says. But in the end there was no choice but to accept that it was true. The government media remained silent, but one pro-government outlet and the social media aligned with the government branded him a “traitor.”

The following day, the US representative to the OAS confirmed that another high-level Nicaraguan government official, Víctor Urcuyo, had also resigned. Urcuyo had headed the Superintendence of Banks and Other Financial Institutions (SIBOIF) since 2004. It turns out he had resigned back in August, together with deputy superintendent Soledad Abaunza. Although both claimed health problems like other officials of various ranks who resigned or “were resigned” over the years, the real reason was fear of US sanctions for their involvement in government corruption.

The departure of Urcuyo and Abaunza from the Ortega administration is more important than it might appear because it happened in the middle of the country’s worst financial crisis in many years (to the International Monetary Fund’s great concern, over US$1.55 billion, 28% of the total deposits in Nicaragua’s banks, was withdrawn between April and December). Moreover, it’s going to be very hard for the regime to find anyone to direct that institution who iswilling and able to bow to the governing couple’s interests and at the same time be acceptable to the national banks and business chambers in the Superior Council of Private Enterprise.

Repression continues,
desperation mounts

Despite the forcefulness of the White House sanctions and the multiple calls within Nicaragua for the regime to halt the repression and head off the unfolding economic crisis by negotiating a peaceful solution, that repression continues apace. There was no hiatus in the illegal captures, the cooked-up trials leading to long and absurd sentences or even the inhumane treatment of the hundreds of political prisoners. The regime has also continued denying reality, determinedly insisting the country has returned to normal and the alleged “coup attempt,” which Solís confirms never existed, has been averted. The new slogan is “They weren’t able to, they won’t be able to!”

The repression, including killings, is still continuing particularly strongly in some rural areas, although little information is filtering out to the rest of the country about this tragedy. In Nicaragua’s deep mountains, there is a very tense environment between rearmed groups and the Army. Some places represent potential focal points for that “civil war” Solís warned about in his letter and that the European parliamentarians mentioned as a possibility “because there is a very bellicose past in the country and a dangerously growing hatred between the two sides.”

Enrique Zelaya, a.k.a. Dr. Henry, a member of the Nicaraguan Resis¬tance’s Chiefs of Staff in the ¬1980s, spoke of this in an article envío published in November. “It all feels like the Army is trying to trigger a civil war… but a civil war has to be avoided at all cost. I never stop saying it to those kids. The problem is how to deal with the desperation of people in the countryside who are being hunted and have been hiding in the mountains for five months without seeing their wife and children, sleeping in the bush… In their despair they believe that going to war against that man is the only choice.”

January 23 was a tough
day for both countries

Was it really any coincidence that the clocks sped up simultaneously in both Nicaragua and Venezuela in January? On January 23, the same day Venezuela was rocked by the swearing in of Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s “interim President,” challenging Maduro as a “usurper,” a European Parliament delegation arrived in Managua. Its 11 members included legislators of different political stripes from different countries. Ortega had prohibited their entrance in November and again in early January. But this time the mission, headed by Ramón Jaúregui of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, made it clear that it was not in Ortega’s best interest to insult them yet again.

At virtually the same time, two important US State Department officials also arrived in Managua: Venezuelan-born Michael McKinley, chief adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Julie J. Chung, principal deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Ms. Chung’s past posts include serving as deputy political counselor in Bogota, where she managed the US government’s largest extradition program, including paramilitary and drug-trafficking cases.

One private visit and
one very public one

The US envoys met for several hours with Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo and also met with other national actors. The contents of their meetings were never made public.

The European delegation, in contrast, openly shared the results of its visit. In an hour-long press conference, the parliamentarians referred to “two Nicaraguas” that had provided them “totally antagonistic visions” of events. The mission dismissed as baseless the coup d’état/external aggression version, describing what they saw not as an “international conspiracy, but a social fracture.”

Given what they called a “serious crisis of democracy and of human rights” in Nicaragua, they argued that the country urgently needs a dialogue with elections as the single negotiating point. In other words they believe a way must be hammered out for the popular will to be expressed through votes.

They asked for three gestures from the government to “facilitate and favor” that dialogue: 1) granting house arrest to those imprisoned for exercising their rights; 2) ending the harassment and sanctioning of opposition leaders for merely exercising their right to freedom of expression and demonstration and a free press, and 3) permitting the international human rights organizations to return to the country.

The parliamentarians found that those opposing the government had “a firm and clear desire for peace in their exercise of the legitimate right to political opposition.” They asked Nica¬ragua’s political parties and social movements to strengthen their “cohesion” and achieve “linkage” that would facilitate dialogue. They firmly defined Nicaragua’s current situation as “incompatible” with what is established in the Association Agreement signed between Europe and Central America in 2012, which began to influence exports in 2017.

The Civic Alliance had apparently asked the parliaments for EU help in achieving a dialogue in Nicaragua aimed at negotiating a solution to the crisis. In an interview with Nicara¬gua’s daily newspaper El Nuevo Diario during the visit, delegation chief Jáuregui responded that the EU would be willing to act as facilitators, but not as mediators.

In that same interview, Jáuregui specified the measures the European Union would take “should the Nicaraguan government remain absolutely closed to the petitions we have made.” He described it as a gradual process, in which the first sanctions would have to do with embargoing military materials that could be used in the repression. The second phase would apply individual sanctions to those responsible in the regime, including denying visas and freezing bank accounts, and the third would remove Nicaragua from the free trade and association agreement between the EU and Central America. In the final press conference, however, Jáuregui only referred to Nicaragua’s withdrawal from that trade agreement. Could it be that Europe, like Washington, is abandoning the more gradual approach as ineffective?

Surprising visits to
political prisoners

The government allowed the EU delegation to visit the women’s prison, where they met with the female political prisoners, and the notorious El Chipote detention center, where they talked to 100% Noticias director Miguel Mora and Lucía Pineda, both of whom have been held in what the Europeans called “inhuman conditions.” Mora’s wife and Pineda’s uncle have only been able to visit them once a month for eight minutes, starting a month after they were first locked up there.

In their meeting with the EU delegates both remained firm in their positions. Pineda said they had interrogated her more than 30 times and wanted her to agree to be videoed expressing her regret at having called Ortega a “dictator.” When she refused they put her in an isolation cell. Mora told them he hadn’t seen a minute of sun and was going blind from spending so much time in total darkness. “The only thing he asked us for was a light bulb and a Bible,” said Basque Country legislator Javier Nart during the press conference, adding indignantly, “That is unacceptable.” Nart fought in the FSLN guerrilla ranks against Somoza in the 1970s and also served as a lawyer for political prisoners of the Franco dictatorship. Referring to the latter experience he said “I didn’t see things then like I saw here.” The situation of the political prisoners violates the internationally recognized rights of those deprived of liberty.

The delegation recorded messages from Mora and Pineda, who both asked the Nicaraguan people to pray and trust in God, as well as interviews with prisoners in the women’s prison. These recordings were published after the delegation left Nicaragua.

Could finally allowing the Europeans to enter Nicaragua and then to visit the two prisons be the first signs of Ortega’s flexibility, after seeing what might happen in Venezuela? Or was the decision born out of fear that its rigidity could affect its trade and other relations with the EU? A clue to the answer can be found in newspaper reports that the women prisoners have suffered reprisals for the valiant posture they demonstrated in the videos.

What will become of them?

As of January 8, the Civic Alliance’s Verification and Security Commission counted 77 political prisoners incarcerated in El Chipote; 42 in police station cells in the country’s different departments in equally inhuman conditions; and 449 in the different prisons of the national penitentiary system, mainly La Modelo in Tipitapa and La Esperanza women’s prison. Of those, 114 have been sentenced in very questionable trials and 23 are fighting to be released on bail. Meanwhile, another 149 have been reported as kidnapped but not yet located, for a total of more than 700 captured and still not freed. The worst problem for those actually located is the lack of medical attention. Many suffer chronic illnesses but are not being given the medicines they need. Many more are now being affected by new ailments caused by the subhuman conditions of their incarceration.

The challenge posed by all those political prisoners will be crucial in any eventual negotiations. The Blue and White bloc is unanimous that the release of all of them is a prerequisite for engaging in a dialogue with the regime. But these hundreds of imprisoned people, whom prison guards have threatened to kill if “anything happens to the comandante,” are Ortega’s hostages. Is the idea to play these “aces” when he runs out of other options and has to sit down to negotiate?

Solís’ letter of resignation provides more weight to the demand to release the political prisoners and annul their trials. As one who knows inside and out how the judicial branch works, Sólis confirms that the trials are based on “absurd accusations about crimes they never committed.” At the same time he defends the judges who have to hand down the sentences condemning them: “They have no alternatives other than to obey the orders from El Carmen [the presidential compound] and the Public Prosecutor General’s office or be fired from their positions.”

Things are taking
a different turn

It is true that things have taken a different turn in 2019. The events in Venezuela as of January 23 offer no way back to the pre-Guaidó time. It is increasingly likely that Maduro will have to negotiate his departure with certain conditions. But does that mean we are now also moving faster toward a way out in Nicaragua as well? Is the timing of the pressure on both countries by Washington and Europe coordinated? Is a negotiation near?

In this “new time,” the options for the Ortega regime appear ever more limited. Apart from a Somoza solution—converting all fixed assets into cash, getting that cash out of the country before the sanctions close off that option, then simply abandoning the country to its fate—the regime only has two possible options. It can simply continue to pursue its irresponsible determination to keep on repressing, hoping it can hang on until the next presidential elections in 2021. Or it can cut its losses before doing any more damage to the country and enter into serious negotiations that lead to a way out of the crisis... and to the Presidential couple’s own way out.

Ortega in the first scenario

Left to his own devices, Ortega would opt for the first scenario, in which he goes right on repressing for as long as it takes. The 74-page budgetary reform fast-track approved by the FSLN legislative bench at the end of January, without consulting any economic actors, indicates that such an obsession with remaining in power until 2021 has taken solid root in Ortega’s mind.

The grave economic crisis already beginning to be felt by even the most cushioned sectors of the population, nor to mention the families of the nearly half a million Nicaraguans who have already lost their employment, requires an urgent political response. That’s nothing Ortega hasn’t already been told by everyone from IMF officials to national economists. “The government is trying to resolve the existing political problem with economic measures,” economist Néstor Avendaño explained to envío back in September, “but it can’t resolve anything that way, because the economic problem can only be worked out through political dialogue. The same mistake is being made now as was committed in the 1980s. And it’s being made by the very same political figure.”

By imposing the budgetary reform, the regime is implicitly recognizing that the country isn’t “normal.” It is also acknowledging the depth of the crisis, which Ortega’s purely economic measures are only deepening even more.

The long list of fiscal measures included in the reform is an attempt to palliate the budgetary deficit and “save” the social security system, but simply crunching a few numbers reveals that their merely tax and tariff collection role will deteriorate the pensions of existing and future retirees, increase basic goods prices, affect most businesses and consumers, further increase unemployment and force more people out of the country in search of work and opportunities elsewhere. envío will analyze that long list of measures in greater depth next month.

Doesm’t Ortega realize that he won’t resolve anything with his budget reform and prolonged repression? Does he not see—or care—that more sanctions will rain down on his regime if he keeps repressing and that the economic strangulation will only detonate a second rebellion fueled by both political and economic resentment? While the first rebellion was remarkably unarmed, would a second one have the same restraint after so many months of repressive cruelty? Would any armed outbreaks give Ortega the justification he’s looking for to send in the army to put them down, again claiming national security concerns in the face of an alleedly “externally sponsored” coup attempt?

Or is the President confident that diplomatic pressure will remain at manageable levels given his prediction of chaos if he doesn’t maintain his tight grip? After recent events, does he still hope the world will quickly forget the brutal repression he and his wife have unleashed?

What basket will be he put his eggs in when Nicolás Maduro falls?

Ortega in the
second scenario
In the second scenario, with Maduro’s negotiation—and eventual fall—as a backdrop, Ortega would realize that his scheme to make purely cosmetic changes that leave everything essentially the same so he can continue governing until at least 2021 is no longer possible.

Venezuela is at a “now or never” moment. What will remain for Ortega once Maduro leaves and Albanisa is paralyzed by important new sanctions as the political and economic noose continues closing in on the regime and the continental correlation of forces leaves him totally isolated? Following the FMLN’s recent electoral loss in El Salvador, he has already lost an important regional ally. Will he have any choice other than to negotiate a way out in increasingly less favorable conditions? In this scenario, seeing the handwriting on the wall, Ortega would begin to lay the groundwork for a negotiation. But with what conditions?

The Blue and White side
in both scenarios

In the first scenario, the Blue and White opposition has no choice but to continue resisting, as it has done up to now in ever more restrictive circumstances.

In the second one, involving a dialogue or negotiation, the hour of the Blue and White opposition will have arrived. It will have to select a group to act as an interlocutor representing the millions of self-convoked people who filled the streets and the many hundreds who have given their life or lost their freedom demanding a better country. This group’s job will be to challenge Ortega, and make him see reason.

We can only trust that the “political vitality, the high sense of patriotism, the depth of the democratic sentiments, the fortitude in the face of the suffering, the will to achieve peace and dignity for the people of Nicaragua,” that so impressed the European legislators upon leaving our country will enable the selection of such representatives and ensure negotiations in which this fractured country can find a dignified, democratic, patriotic, fair and peaceful way out of its crisis. Many critical things remain to be seen, including whether the cohesion and articulation of the opposition forces urged by the Europeans can hold against the self-serving competitiveness that prevails today both in Nicaragua’s political and economic class and the rest of the world.
In the article titled “An urgent message for the Army of Nicaragua,” independent security analyst Roberto Cajina expresses some of his concerns about “the day after.” He warns that “you don’t have to be a soothsayer to foresee what’s coming: an inevitable social upheaval and enormous tasks to deal with the immense challenges involved in founding the Nation-State we have never had.”

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