An urgent message for the Army of Nicaragua
Martin Luther King, Jr., once said:
“I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell
are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis
maintain their neutrality.
There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”
He was explaining his controversial decision
to speak out against the Vietnam War,
but his reflection is also applicable to institutions.
Is it not appropriate today for the Army of Nicaragua?
The national crisis resulting from the Ortega-Murillo regime’s bloody repression of the unarmed civic uprising starting last April 18 has had devastating socioeconomic, political and even ethical repercussions. Figures on the economic collapse are horrific. Virtually all are in free fall and the prospect for 2019 is even bleaker given the anticipated effect of the sanctions newly imposed and still to be imposed by the US government, and the threat of our country being expelled from the Organization of American States via the probable application of its Inter-American Democratic Charter and from DR-CAFTA, the regional free trade agreement with the United States.
Not the first but certainly the most extensive and thoroughly documented report of human rights violations following April 18 was released on December 21 by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) on December 21. Its punitive fallout is only beginning to be felt. Barring a change of course we heading closer and closer to the precipice.
The labyrinth became a trap
Faced with this ominous projection the only thing that appears clear is that the Ortega-Murillo regime is determined to drive all Nicaragua and its people over that precipice. We’re all going to suffer the consequences; some much more, others perhaps a little less. Among those who will suffer more are the most vulnerable sectors of the population and, paradoxically, those who have the largest financial resources, among them the Army of Nicaragua. If the US investments of the Military Social Security Institute (IPSM) had already reportedly grown to US$100 million by 2012, we can only imagine how much more they have increased by today, seven years later.
While the current scenario is dire, the immediate future is even more so. From the first days of the crisis three of my biggest concerns have been and still are: the Army’s role in the conflict, what will happen “the day after,” and citizen security in the transition to democracy.
At the very outset of the crisis, the military made a strategic decision not to get involved. To achieve this they moved ever further into a labyrinth, thinking that both their institution and their IPSM-administered financial interests would be safeguarded there. It was a very simple strategy: survive the crisis without getting mired in it. At first it appeared logical and even sensible. While it meant they “didn’t get blood on their hands,” the men and women in uniform found that the labyrinth had gradually turned into a trap as the crisis deepened rather than getting better. The new year has begun with no sign from the Army of how it plans to extricate itself; what if any escape route it has from that trap.
An urgent consideration
Finding one’s way out of a labyrinth is never easy, but in the Army’s case it didn’t even try; it just moved further in and hunkered down there. It was a serious and costly tactical mistake, with strategic implications. While it entered the labyrinth to avoid being dragged into the crisis, its complicit silence dragged it in anyway, now with increasing speed and force.
Although strategic situation assessments were originally the purview of the National Defense sphere of Military Arts and Science, it’s not clear that they carefully thought through the path they chose. But if they didn’t, it’s crucial that now, in Nicaragua’s current, essentially political crisis, they engage in this reflection to find a way out of the trap the Army is caught in. They need to carefully reassess every step they took as well as their current situation, weighing up national vs. institutional interests, analyzing the relative situation of the different forces that are defining the main issues, interpreting their scenarios from the perspective of national security objectives and the threats to those objectives, defining what courses of action can be taken to deal with those threats, and then on that basis proposing how best to proceed.
In this assessment, the military authorities (the General Command Chiefs, the Military Council and the Commander in Chief’s Study Group) should take very seriously the public’s severely diminished confidence in the Army as an institution. Prior to April 2018, the Army had the highest level of legitimacy and social acceptance of any Nicaraguan institution, but the 2018 Informe Latinobarómetro, a public opinion study conducted last September by the Chilean-based NGO of the same name, showed that the Nicaraguan public’s confidence in the Army had plummeted from 46% in 2017 to 22% in 2018, while the Latin American average only dropped from 46 to 44%.
The silence the Army has maintained throughout the crisis, especially about the massacre, has undoubtedly been the main factor contributing to the institution’s loss of legitimacy for the public, which sees it as the regime’s covert accomplice. I’m not sure the military is aware that this political cost is anything more than just collateral damage for the institution. It’s still unclear, and impossible to predict, to what extent these two public perceptions will influence the Army’s role in the transition, but is will quite probably not be irrelevant.
How does it get out of the trap?
The military ought to be aware of the way out of the trap, since they know how and why they went in. But getting out requires more than awareness; it also needs political will, an institutional mindset and a lot of political tact. The latter is critical because the appeals for them to intervene in the crisis range from the righteous call to disarm the paramilitaries to the exaggerated ultimatum for Army Chief General Julio César Avilés that circulated on the social media: “to arrest and hand over the international criminal José Daniel Ortega Saavedra for crimes against humanity.” While it’s not the time for fence-sitting, the military needs to make clear to the population that they can’t and shouldn’t be the ones to resolve the political crisis, precisely because it is a political crisis, not a military situation.
In a crisis such as the one in Nicaragua today, the military can only be a contributing factor, not the determinant one. To give the Army brass “moderating power,” as Professor Samuel E. Finer, the British political scientist and historian, called it in his 1943 book The Man on Horseback: The role of the Military in Politics would mean forever mortgaging democracy by granting the military a political power they cannot and must not have. I’m absolutely certain that the military don’t even want this role and entered the labyrinth for precisely that reason.
Three strategic objectives
Since 1990, the Army of Nicaragua has had three strategic objectives: 1) survive as an institution over time; 2) hang on to the multi-million dollar resources they have amassed over the years; and 3) the stability of Nicaragua. That’s it, and in that order.
While in third place, national stability is crucial simply because the Army’s existence as an institution depends on the existence of Nicaragua as a nation. In that sense, the bad news is that the Army doesn’t have many options, since there are only two ways out of the crisis in Nicaragua: dialogue (negotiation) or the precipice.
While it’s true that the Army has called for dialogue on at least three occasions, the Ortega Murillo regime hasn’t budged or even listened to it. It has to be emphasized once again, however, that the military chiefs haven’t made a single direct reference to the hundreds killed, thousands wounded and hundreds more kidnapped, illegally arrested, tortured and/or missing, not to mention the tens of thousands who have left the country fleeing repression. If they don’t take pleasure in the tragedy—and I don’t think they do—they appear to be impervious. Nor have they said a word about the “attempted coup d’état” advanced by the regime in an attempt to justify the bloodbath. When will they do so since they surely know it’s fictitious?
There’s not much time
More bad news is that the military decision-makers don’t have much time left. Unlike chronological time, Nicaragua’s historical time is currently moving at dizzying speed and it’s running out. If the Army doesn’t act quickly and correctly, there will be consequences.
In point of fact, information is circulating in Washington about the names of individuals and institutions being considered for inclusion on the sanctions list the US State Department is preparing to send over to the Treasury Department in compliance with Donald Trump’s November 27 executive order. Among those names are the three members of the Army’s General Command, the heads of the Information Directorates for Defense and for Finances, the executive director of IPSM, IPSM itself as an institution, and retired Major General Denis Membreño, head of the government’s Financial Analysis Unit (UAF). Sooner or later the very long arm of US justice will reach them. They truly are stuck in a trap.
President Trump’s Executive Order 13851 clearly states, and will sanction:
“…any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State:
(i) to be responsible for or complicit in or to have directly or indirectly engaged or attempted to engage in, any of the following:
(A) serious human rights abuse in Nicaragua;
(B) actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Nicaragua;
(C) actions or policies that threaten the peace, security or stability of Nicaragua…”
The prevailing logic in Washington’s hardline sectors is that those responsible or complicit, through action or omission, must be punished equally.
But what’s the point?
Seen from a closer viewpoint, it is probable—at least there’s no evidence to the contrary—that none of the military whose names are being considered for the sanctions list have personal accounts or investments in the United States. But if that’s the case, what’s the point of sanctioning them?
At first glance it would seem to make no sense but, while those sanctions won’t affect their personal assets, they will have secondary effects such as denying them travel visas and prohibiting any financial transactions with US-related banks. But most importantly, it will send a direct political message to Nicaragua’s Army as an institution.
What will “the day after” be like?
An even bigger concern is what happens “the day after” any dialogue or negotiation that kicks of the highly touted transition to democracy. 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.
I disagree with certain expressions sometimes bandied about by local politicians that Nicaragua won’t go back to being a Republic. It can’t “go back” simply because it’s never been one. Perhaps, over the years, there have been Conservative, Liberal, Somocista, even Sandinista and now Orteguista republics, but never in the specific and full meaning of the word. We’ve only had facsimiles.
I also disagree with a couple of statements I’ve heard or read by local political actors in their media declarations tabout “re-founding” Nicaragua or “re-founding” the Nicaraguan State. The extraordinary task we’re facing is to found, not re-found, the Nicaraguan Nation-State for the first time. The initial step in that task is to dismantle the Ortega State.
In the new scenario of freedom, justice and democracy to which the vast majority of Nicaraguans aspire, the first massive task is similar to that facing the triumphant Sandinista Revolution in 1979 with respect to the Somoza State, including the National Guard and its security forces, the Office of National Security (OSN) and the Anti-Communist Secret Service (SAC).
But there are asks notable differences. In 1979, the National Guard and its security forces collapsed, so they were immediately replaced by members of the FSLN’s guerrilla columns. Not only were a new army and police force created, but so was a new political intelligence service: the General State Security Division (DGSE). Perhaps the most important difference is that in 1979 the irregular FSLN guerrilla army triumphed militarily over the Somoza family dictatorship’s National Guard, while what’s expected this time will be the result of an unarmed civic insurrection against a regime that has silenced protests with blood and lead. The only viable way to organize the change will be through national dialogue that sets the terms for the transition.
A complex and difficult transition
The transition to democracy will certainly be more difficult and complicated than the one started in 1990 with the elections that ended the revolution and the contra war.
While economic recovery will be one of the new authorities’ priorities, it won’t be possible without obtaining security in the country. According to the Informe Latinobarómetro mentioned above, 79% of Nicaraguans distrust the police—rightly so—while the most recent CID-Gallup poll, released in mid-January, shows 61% saying the current police don’t guarantee Nicaraguans’ protection. The rejection and even hatred this sizable majority of the population now feels toward the police force is a direct result of the criminal repression it has unleashed since the beginning of the civic protests, killing, illegally detaining, torturing and inventing non-existent charges to prosecute those who demand democracy. With the National Police self-delegitimized, who will deal with the inevitable and “natural” increase of common criminal violence in a confusing situation, a violence enhanced by the inclusion of powerfully-armed paramilitaries, already visibly transformed into new common criminals..?
We are already seeing increases in the three kinds of robbery (with force, violence and intimidation), motorized street muggings, homicides and murders, and the atrocity that accompanies these crimes. The new CID-Gallup poll shows 53% of the population believing that crime and delinquency have increased in the country. And this before the new wave of economic impoverishment has reached the predicted tsunami proportions.
The “new breed” of common criminals have guns, even weapons of war, military training and a social and political base: the ruling party’s Councils of Citizen’s Power (CPC) and Sandinista Leadership Councils (CLS). Furthermore, they feel protected by the impunity the regime has given them. If they didn’t hesitate to burn down a house taking the lives of six people, including two babies, what wouldn’t they do?
Nor can it be forgotten how, after his defeat in the February 1990 elections, Daniel Ortega distributed tens of thousands of weapons among his supporters in order to continue “governing from below.” It wouldn’t be strange for his people to repeat this tactic. Nor would it be strange for unusual crimes, until now almost unknown or non-existent in Nicaragua, to begin to flourish: bank robberies, kidnapping for ransom, politically motivated kidnappings, political contract killings and an increase in sex crimes.
Who will guarantee public security?
With the collapse of the old regime, the new one will face extreme challenges. How will it reform the corrupt Criminal Justice System (Police, Public Ministry, Judicial System and Penitentiary System)? Which authority will be responsible for reducing and putting into custody the police, prosecutors, judges, penitentiary guards, ministers, FSLN political secretaries, municipal mayors and Council members, CPC and CLS members who have been directly or indirectly involved in the crimes against humanity and other crimes identified in the GIEI report? Who will safeguard the country’s land, air and sea ports to prevent the flight of those responsible for the atrocities against the unarmed civilian population and to control the entry of drug cartels and other organized crime?
The new authorities’ cardinal priority will have to be guaranteeing citizen security and internal order, at least in the initial stage until a significant level of normality has been reached.
The Army will survive,
but why and for what?
The transition to democracy will be very different from what happened in 1979. The Army of Nicaragua is very likely to be the only institution currently existing in Nicaragua to survive. But it will only guarantee that if it makes the right decision and contributes—only contributes—to resolving the crisis. Support for its continued existence won’t be the result of any favor to the military, which wouldn’t deserve it given their complicit silence, although the fact that they apparently weren’t directly involved in the massacre should be taken into account.
The Army of Nicaragua might also survive neither on its merits nor even for significantly contributing to resolving the political crisis should it do so, but because of necessity. As the military bass are well aware, it would have a primary role in the maintenance of public security in a scenario that looks extremely complex.
If on the other hand, they decide to throw themselves over the cliff together with the regime, I have absolutely no doubt that the new authorities will seek and find the necessary international support to deal with the security emergencies that will surely multiply exponentially.
A resolute appeal to reason
There’s still one small glimmer of hope that would let the Nicaraguan Army out of its own trap. It’s more complicated than it seems, but is absolutely feasible if the military cloak themselves with an appropriate institutional mindset. It depends on them deciding not to confront the Ortega-Murillo regime, but to stand up to it.
They can do this by appealing to reason and resolutely stating that the regime is putting the Nicaraguan State’s national security at grave risk and that the road to the precipice will be shorter, the fall more violent and the effects more catastrophic if the presidential couple continues to entrench itself in El Carmen.
While that would be a lot, it won’t be enough. The military leadership must also propose that the government create the conditions for a genuine dialogue: stop the repression, stop illegal detentions and raids, release the political prisoners and stop the rigged trials. They should also make it clear that national dialogue must lead to early elections.
According to the new CID-Gallup survey, dialogue and early elections represent the combined demand of 84% of Nicaraguans. Will the military chiefs, the commander in chief, the head of the General Staff, the inspector general and the Military Council continue to cover their eyes so as not to see? Or will they recognize, as MLK did, that “there comes a time when silence becomes betrayal”?
If they don’t throw off their mantle of complicit neutrality and tell Daniel Ortega, resolutely and unequivocally, that there’s no other way out except for dialogue and early elections, they will just as unequivocally become identified with the problem, earning their place in hell, unaccompanied by their millions of dollars.
Roberto Cajina is a civilian consultant in security, defense and democratic governance.