Negotiation time again: For real or another stall?
After 10 months of massive protests then resistance,
met with killings, disappearances, jailings and torture—
10 long months of mind-boggling government repression
accompanied by the regime’s steadfast denial of that reality—
Daniel Ortega finally agreed to sit down at the negotiating table
with representatives of the blue and white opposition on February 27.
He didn’t have many other choices left, given a crippled economy
and threats of new sanctions from various international quarters.
But that doesn’t mean he did it in good faith.
“We can no longer talk about how we’re going to return to the situation before April. No longer! That has now passed! .... We need to have a table, a meeting to open a new path that improves the conditions so the country and the Nicaraguan people can start recovering more rapidly from the effects of April’s attempted coup….”
These words, spoken by Daniel Ortega—with evident difficulty—at an official event to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the assassination of national hero General Sandino, were broadcast via national hookup on February 21. By saying them, he finally accepted that he would have to negotiate with the blue and white opposition, although still getting in his claim that it was a coup attempt. Tagged on to the last moment of his typically disconnected speech, he announced that the negotiations would start a week later, on February 27.
A string of powerful visitors
Since the new year began, it had increasingly felt like something was “cooking” in the political environment and the lack of hard news inevitably fed multiple speculations about what it might be.
The sense that something was up was fed by the arrival on January 23 of both a mission of European Union legislators, led by the Spanish Socialist Ramón Jaúregui, and two high-level US State Department officials. The latter, Michael McKinley and Julie Chung, are respectively the main adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. While the US officials left without a word, the Euro-delegation gave a press conference just before their departure in which they called for dialogue and warned that the current situation was “incompatible” with what is established in the Association Agreement signed between Europe and Central America in 2012.
Three weeks later, on February 13, Gonzalo Koncke, cabinet chief for Secretary General Luis Almagro of the Organization of American States (OAS), arrived in Managua, reportedly at the regime’s request. His three-day visit was extremely guarded. Once he had left, the government published a note saying that “important conversations” had taken place with the OAS envoy for the purpose of “advancing on a path to electoral reforms and to the 2021 presidential elections.” That it contained yet another oblique message that the regime is not contemplating early elections escaped no one’s notice.
The OAS communique had a different message: “…the delegation… proposed the release of political prisoners, the need for progress in the electoral political process and the importance of considering the recommendations of the Inter-American System, among other aspects.” It reported the government as responding that “the detainees have been subjected to due process,” and announced its intention to strengthen the electoral political process by 2021 within the framework of the Constitution and the law.” The OAS recommendations are among more than a dozen established by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) since May 2018 (end the repression, disarm the para¬militaries, etc.) and those presented by the Report of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), which included organizing an independent legal prosecutor team to investigate the crimes, compensating victims and others.
IACHR Executive Secretary Paulo Abrão added his own recommendation in an interview published in the Nicaraguan news daily El Nuevo Diario: “Nicaragua’s crisis is one of grave human rights violations. It is not exclusively a political or electoral crisis. The first step is thus to respond to the situation of the victims. The families of those killed, detained and exiled are essential sectors. They are the ones who were most harshly affected by the violence. Without them, there is no legitimate dialogue.”
Shows of support and suspicion
Koncke left on February 15 and the next day, a Saturday, five of Nica¬ragua’s top businesspeople met with Ortega, accompanied by two witnesses: Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, who is the Archbishop of Managua, and Vatican Nuncio Waldemar Sommertag. The businessmen’s main message to the governing couple was what all of the country’s economists have been repeating for months: the severe economic crisis will be resolved only by finding a solution to the political crisis. Ortega has ferociously insisted for the past nine months that the country “is returning to normality”, while freely using weapons and tribunals to impose it.
The following evening the five businessmen found themselves having to try to stem speculation coursing through the social networks that they were cutting a separate deal with Ortega. They published a signed communique clarifying that they had expressed to Ortega “the urgency of an inclusive, serious and frank negotiation with civil society,” specifically mentioning the Civic Alliance, formed in the heat of the uprising to negotiate with Ortega last May, although that attempt ended in an impasse.
Five days after the last of this string of powerful visitors, Ortega publicly admitted that he would sit down with the blue and white opposition.
The first message of support came immediately from Kevin Sullivan, the new US Ambassador to Nicaragua, who noted that the negotiations must produce “real-time solutions for the Nicaraguan people.” Messages quickly followed from all of the international forces that have been following Nica¬ragua’s crisis with concern, expressing the need for this new encounter to end quickly in a negotiated solution to the crisis.
Why did he back down?
Ortega agreed to initiate a negotiation because he had basically run out of options. Maduro’s presumably terminal crisis in Venezuela, Nicaragua’s own collapsed economy and the imminent threat of new US and European sanctions were weighing increasingly heavily.
The Venezuelan crisis, with its seesawing uncertainty, is the mirror in which Ortega sees himself several times a day. “Depending on how Maduro ends up,” says Eliseo Núñez, a Liberal politician in the Broad Democratic Front (FAD), “Ortega will know how much he can or can’t cede here.”
But while Ortega knows he isn’t immune to what’s happening there, he’s facing a profoundly stagnated economy here: the budget is way underfinanced, national and international investment is frozen and the national banks have seen 30% of their dollar deposits withdrawn. To alleviate the financial crisis, the Central Bank has issued US$1.5 billion worth of bonds, but no one’s buying. Moreover Ortega, his Vice President and wife Rosario Murillo, and their government have all been irrecoverably delegitimized.
Although up to only a few months ago it seemed nothing could make him back down, Ortega began recognizing that something had to be done in November, when the US sanctions were applied directly to Rosario Murillo, and again in January, when they indirectly but very effectively went after his personal and family economy. What remains unclear is whether he agreed to sit down and negotiate seriously with the opposition or is only making a show of it to buy time, which has been one of his most common tactics over the years.
Nicaragua’s elite benefitted for
years from Venezuelan funds
It is common knowledge that the Ortega fortune has been generously fed by Venezuela’s petroleum cooperation funds, with hundreds of millions of dollars underpinning his “successful” government model for over a decade without ever passing through the national budget.
The regime allocated some of these resources to subsidize public services and finance social programs to palliate poverty, while the bulk of them were employed to set up a series of business under the umbrella of the Alba de Nicaragua (Albanisa) consortium, created in 2007 in a joint venture with PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company. The importation and sale/distribution of Venezuela’s oil around the country through the State’s National Petroleum Distribution company (DNP-Petronic), financed since 2009 with Albanisa/PDVSA funds, became the regime’s most profitable business.
It’s fair to say that Venezuelan cooperation contributed to the postponing of a much-need tax reform, because part of those funds were channeled into social needs that should have been covered by a more equitable tax burden. It’s also fair to say that those who most benefited from the postponement of that tax reform were Nicaragu’s business elite, who as Ortega’s prime allies for over a decade, paid much less in taxes than they should have.
PDVSA and ALBANISA
are now untouchable
On January 29, the US Treasury Department sanctioned PDVSA by ordering US financial institutions to refuse transferences of funds from PDVSA to any other entity in which it has at least 50% of the shares. Such is the case of Albanisa, in which PDVSA got 51% if the shares and Petronic the other 49%.
The sanctions against PDVSA go into effect in March, but its assets are already frozen and will pass into the hands of Venezuela’s “transition” government headed by Juan Guaidó. The sanctions affecting Albanisa, in contrast, were immediately implemented: US companies nay not do business with it or with any company anywhere in the world that deals with it.
Albanisa, which has grown into a sizable business consortium in the hands of governing party businesspeople, has created companies working in a broad array of economic areas, mainly petroleum but also renewable energy sources. It also has service companies, such as credits, security, warehousing, and the like, as well as construction, food and transportation businesses.…
The sanctions on PDVSA and by extension Albanisa also hit DNP-Petronic, administered for years by a daughter-in-law of Ortega and Murillo. To complicate the investigations into Petronic’s connection with Albanisa and PDVSA, the Petronic gas stations around the country have transformed their public image: new colors, new logos and new names. And they have transferred the ownership of all stations to a shell cooperative of the regime. Even before all this “prophylactic makeup,” the social networks of the blue and white movement proposed that vehicle owners not frequent the Petronic stations. The boycott has reportedly affected Petronic’s sales.
The regime’s bank
also caught in the net
Washington’s sanctions, nominally for reasons of corruption, are really aimed at economically asphyxiating the Maduro regime and warning the Ortega regime that it could be next, They were officially extended to the fgovernment’s Banco Corporativo (BANCORP), founded in 2016, which has never had any international correspondent bank.
BANCORP’s deposits began growing exponentially in September 2017, as a reaction to the US government’s warning to Nicaragua’s private banks that they could find themselves sanctioned if they had any financial relations with Albanisa. Almost overnight, all profits from the Albanisa consortium businesses that had been deposited in three of the country’s other banks were switched to BANCORP, which for its part equally quickly shuffled its board members since several of the founding ones were also linked to Albanisa. Washington must have enjoyed watching the scurrying it caused, but it would be another 16 months before it actually sanctioned Albanisa.
Given this whole set of sanctions, an eventual energy crisis could add to the country’s larger economic crisis. According to official data, 77% of the oil purchased and distributed by DNP-Petronic now comes from Texas, with much less lenient repayment schedules than Venezuela previously offered. Given Albanisa’s involvement with DNP-Petronic, won’t the US sanctions affect this market as well?
The Democratic Charter
In addition to the blow to the heart of his family business empire, Ortega was also getting warnings of new political sanctions with economic consequences. If concretized, they will end up totally isolating him from the Western world and will deteriorate the national economy even more.
There is now a distinct possibility of the OAS applying the Inter-American Democratic Charter to Nicaragua, the final step of which is expelling it from the regional body. The first step was taken on January 11. The next one, which we’re in now, is a phase of diplomatic initiatives that will hopefully produce results making expulsion unnecessary. In that regard, all eyes are on the negotiations Ortega agreed to.
If the application of the Charter hasn’t moved faster, it’s largely because the OAS has prioritized Venezuela’s crisis. Will Ortega see it is a last opportunity or just more time bought?
If approved, Nicaragua’s suspension from the OAS would automatically cut off any loan support from the Inter-American Development Bank, which is the government’s main source of public investment financing. It’s not clear whether it would also mean the end of loans from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), which is a regional lending bank not affected by the passage of the Nica Act last December as the US is not a CABEI member nation.
More sanctions coming
Other sanctions are also on the European Union’s list. The delegation of European legislators that came to Nicaragua in January saw firsthand the inhuman treatment of political prisoners and the lack of civil liberties. In a declaration upon their departure they urged changes in no uncertain terms. They expressed special concern about journalists Miguel Mora and Lucía Pineda, given that both are in solitary confinement for having done nothing more than report the news.
The regime’s response at the time was also in no uncertain terms: beatings for the female political prisoners who had dared to speak to the delegation members and even more inhuman treatment of the male political prisoners. The European Parliament parried by announcing that it would sanction Ortega himself in March.
As if that weren’t enough, the US government officials who met with the governing couple in January reportedly let them know that this was their last chance: the Magnitsky sanctions list is ready, as are personalized lists of sanctions ordered by the recently approved Nica Act.
Ortega and Murillo had seemingly reached the end of their rope. As they are already fingered in the mammoth GIEI report as authors of crimes against humanity, which can be prosecuted by in any court in the world and are exempt from amnesty decrees, the eyes of all regional and international human rights bodies were on what they will do next. The world also knows that the majority of Nica¬ragua’s population repudiates this government, is resisting its repression and demanding a change. With so many cards stacked against it, calling for negotiations, whether for real or as a stall, was just about the only move left to the governing couple.
Hope laced with distrust
“Firm negotiations” has largely replaced “dialogue” as the operative term because the conditions are very different now than in May of last year when the two sides sat down for the first time. With hundreds dead, many hundreds more imprisoned in untenable conditions, tens of thousands having fled the repression to Costa Rica where most are living in penury, and an economy that is fast falling apart, there is even greater urgency to find a way out of the crisis.
Nonetheless, many voices in the social media quickly began expressing distrust, even calling for rejection of the negotiation. While some suspected that these arguments were being planted by governing party provocateurs to undermine support for the Alliance negotiators, they were rooted in recent history.
The fact that business leaders appeared to be the ones forcing Ortega’s hand stoked the always latent fears of a new backroom pact between big capital and the government. Few stopped to ask what those junior partners of transnational capital would have to gain by a deal that would put them in line for US sanctions as government accomplices. Another source of distrust came from the well-worn Ortega slogan: “You can make me sign, but never comply.” But will Ortega have the capacity, given his currently dismal image, to repeat that slogan in practice again?
While lack of confidence was not in short supply despite such logical counter-arguments, many called for a vote of confidence in the Civic Alliance to make the best use of the opportunity.
The international consensus (most notably Luis Almagro of the OAS, Paulo Abrão of the IACHR, Michele Bachelet of the UN Human Rights Office, Erika Guevara Rojas of Amnesty International, José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch and Ramón Jáuregui in the name of the European parliamentarians who visited Nicaragua) was to support the Alliance. There were expectations, and surely behind the scenes encouragement, that the negotiation would begin with a show of good will: specifically the liberation of the political prisoners since for them their release is not a negotiable issue.
According to the Committee of Political Prisoners, 777 people (714 men, 60 women and 3 transgender women), as well as 60 minors, having been captured and arrested for political reasons, were in the country’s various prisons or under house arrest as of February 27, when the two sides took their seats at the negotiation table. Back on December 11, the same committee reported 565 political prisoners, which means that in just over two and a half months the regime went after more than 200 additional people, an average of nearly 4 a day, for alleged participation during the demonstrations of the first months of the uprising.
“They haven’t released anyone”
A few hours before the meeting got underway on the morning of Wednesday February 27, the regime “released” a hundred people from the prisons, some of them from among the 138 already tried and convicted, others from the 408 indicted but not yet tried, and still others who had not even been formally accused. All, however, had been illegally captured and jailed anywhere from two to five or more months earlier, all suffering infrahuman conditions during their imprisonment and some tortured and/or sexually abused to varying degrees.
The nature of the “liberation” immediately generated suspicions among an already highly skeptical population. The list of prisoners chosen had circulated previously, and the regime left their families waiting all night at the prison gates before penitentiary officials took each prisoner to his or her house, giving the majority the “benefit of family coexistence,” officially known as house arrest. In other words they weren’t released and their trials had not been annulled.
Worse yet, and surely with malice aforethought, the Ministry of Government included the home addresses and even telephone numbers of all those “benefited,” making it easy for Ortega’s sympathizers to threaten, besiege and even harm them. Vilma Núñez, president of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), called the whole show a “mockery.” She added that “no one was released; all we have here is a change from imprisonment in a prison to imprisonment at home.” She added that the change “isn’t even supported by the judges, who have issued no judicial document.”
The courts’ subordination
If nothing else, the absence of judicial documents demonstrated the courts’ subordination to the rule of Ortega and Murillo throughout the whole process from imprisonment to the trials and removal from prison, as former supreme court justice Rafael Solís had stated in January in his letter of resignation. At that time he wrote that, by their orders, the governing couple “replaced the entire judicial branch.”
Julio Montenegro, a lawyer with the Permanent Human Rights Commission (CPDH) who has defended a good number of political prisoners and been present in some trials, says that all those detained need to be released and all trials need to be annulled due to lack of investigation, violations of due process and the grave anomalies affecting those held.
The CPDH knows of some 400 prisoners still facing judicial process, 22 of whom were among the 100 given house arrest, and more than 300 more who have yet to be formally accused of anything. “These should have been released immediately,” said Montenegro.
Whether or not moving some of the political prisoners to house arrest was a sign of good will, it was at least a relief for those who got to leave the prisons where they had been so mistreated. It was also a happy moment for their families, many of whom knew about their suffering in jail but could do nothing to alleviate it. Emotional scenes filled the social networks as the negotiation was getting underway, showing a constant stream of people arriving at their homes and communities.
Those of us on the outside had grown to love and admire many of them, even without knowing them. For example, the tireless Axes Vanegas, known affectionately as the Managua marathon runner for his habit of running in Managua in protest against the Ortega regime; or Ruth Matute, who nearly died in prison when her pacemaker was damaged; or José Antonio Guevara, the teacher from Ticuantepe; or “Aunt Delmi” from Jinotepe; or “Father courage” Carlos Valle…
It was also emotional to hear many of them speak clearly and bravely about the mistreatment and torture they received in prison and express their commitment to get their jailed companions released, referring to them with affection and respect and firmly relaying their conviction to continue the struggle against the dictatorship.
The ruling couple’s “generous act” belied the false rhetoric Ortega has repeated to journalists and the governing party’s own base: that Nicaragua had no political prisoners, just delinquents, and that during all these months the police had been arresting dangerous “terrorists.” The truth, which only the most devoted government loyalists failed to see, was that these hundreds of people were imprisoned in a failed attempt to quell the rebellion and then held as Ortega’s hostages, as negotiating chips for some future moment...
The most important leaders of the protests were not among the hundred removed to house arrest. They are surely the highest chips in the negotiation.
Bait for big business
Right up to the last minute Ortega tried to avoid having to accept a negotiation that would end in political agreements scuttling his determination to remain in power at least until 2021 if not beyond. Forewarned by the US government officials and European parliamentarians of the new sanctions awaiting him, Ortega launched one last ultimatum to private enterprise to force it to agree to negotiate new economic agreements On January 28 he sent the National Assembly drastic fiscal reforms as well as social security reforms very similar to those that triggered the first protests last April.
He apparently thought that sitting down with the leaders of the business class to discuss those two bills would improve his image and delay the political sanctions in what amounted to the regime’s last effort to lure the business class away from its participation in the Civic Alliance and into a bilateral economic deal.
Both reform bills included tacit recognition of the economic debacle caused by the disproportionate levels of repression with which the regime responded to the civic protests. Despite that, however, the treasury minister’s explanation to legislators of the need for the reforms again blamed the economic crisis on the “attempted coup.”
The social security reform
The content of the reforms upset all the country’s economic agents, and for that matter the entire country, because everyone would be affected.
The Social Security reform bill was passed immediately without consultation or debate by the governing party bench, which enjoys an absolute parliamentary majority. Like last April’s bill, it increases the contributions of employees from 6.25% to 7% of their earnings and of employers from 19% to 22.5%, which of course businesses would make every effort to pass on to consumers.
The only differences between this bill and April’s is that it doesn’t slice 5% off of existing retirees’ pensions, but changes the formula for calculating the pensions received by those who retire from here on out, effectively reducing them by between 30% and 40%. “If the pensions were pathetic before, they will now be miserable,” said Juan Sebastián Chamorro, director of the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES), a think tank that is part of the Civic Alliance.
The reform does include measures to reduce the disproportionate administrative costs of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS), but makes no mention of the murky and financially risky investments made in recent years with social security funds with no accountability.
“When rulers tell young workers that no matter how much they work they’re not going to end up with a decent pension,and may not even be able to retire, ” declared Róger Murillo, former manager of the Pension Superintendence, “they’re really telling them not to pay into Social Security but instead leave the country in search of a better future elsewhere…. When that savage reform was applied in April, which cost so many deaths, Nicaragua’s economy was better. Now a worse reform is being applied, in worse economic conditions and with INSS in a much worse financial situation than in 2018.”
He was referring to the fact that between April and December 2018, as a result of the political and economic crisis, INSS lost 142,760 contributing workers.
The tax reform
The tax reform, which, tellingly, was not approved at the same time, reveals the regime’s financial desperation. All economists agree about this and all say that in times of recession like the one Nicaragua has been grappling with for five months, it is inadvisable to increase taxes. “Everyone in any part of the world knows this,” said Mario Arana, who heads the American-Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM).
The reform hopes to collect more than $300 million, needed to fill the gap in the 2019 government budget. It affects government spending as little as possible while delivering a severe blow to businesses by increasing the advance payments on their estimated annual income tax from 1% to 2% for medium-sized businesses and up to 3% for the country’s 400 big businesses. It is calculated that this tax hike could have the most negative effects on the economy as a whole in a chain reaction: more taxes, less production, less investment, more unemployment, higher prices, less consumption, and in the end, less tax collected.
The reform will also increase the cost of the basic market basket by taxing previously untaxed foods and basic household cleaning supplies. The only positive element is the important increase in taxes on cigarettes, alcoholic and carbonated beverages, and casinos.
In a communique titled “Coup d’état against the economy,” the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) opposed the fiscal reform, calling it “confiscatory.” In their own names, the business chambers that form part of COSEP as well as other associations of producers and exporters spent days explaining the disasters these tax increases would provoke.
“No one showed up”
If the economic objective of both the tax and the social security reforms was to collect more money, the political objective was to strong-arm big business to meet with Ortega and carve out some agreement.
With the social security reform approved and put into effect, Ortega held back approval of the tax reform using the excuse of tweaking superficial changes to it. He was really waiting for the business class to return to some form of the “dialogue and consensus” model they had maintained with him for a decade, in turn hopefully improving his situation and dividing the Civic Alliance.
But it didn’t work. “You don’t negotiate taxes while there are political prisoners, forcibly closed media and human rights violations,” said FUNIDES director Juan Sebastián Chamorro. “The measures were intended to make us negotiate, and nobody showed up.”
The tax bill sat in the National Assembly for days, but still nobody arrived to discuss it with Ortega. He finally ordered his parliamentary bench to pass it, right as the negotiating table was being set up. Vindictive reprisal or a desperate show of force?
The Civic Alliance’s negotiators
The team the Civic Alliance sent to the negotiating table on February 27 was headed by long-time educator and once FSLN militant Carlos Tünner¬¬mann. He was accompanied by the Liberal constitutional expert José Pallais, AMCHAM president Mario Arana, COSEP president José Adán Aguerri, student leader Max Cortés and FUNI¬ES director Juan Sebastián Chamorro. This all-male team of “big league” players was backed in the dugout by an equal number of alternates, including Azahálea Solís, a feminist jurist specializing in human rights, and student leader aValeska Valle. Several of the advisers are also women.
“We have prepared ourselves a lot for this moment,” said the former rector of the American University, Ernesto Medina, one of the advisers. “We have listened to the concerns of our people and know who we’re going to be sitting across from; we know Ortega very well.” These assurances only minimally assuaged people’s skepticism, which had redoubled in view of the disproportionate number of economic power figures in the front row seats.
The regime didn’t reveal who would be in its six-person negotiating delegation until hours before the first scheduled meeting. As in the first round in May, it is headed by Foreign Minister Denis Moncada, together with National Assembly representative Edwin Castro. They are accompanied by Castro’s colleague José Figueroa, Supreme Court justice Francisco Rosales, and two seriously questioned figures: Luis Andino, a pro-Ortega student leader, and the once-Liberal-now-ruling-party legislator Wilfredo Navarro, tje epitome of cynical political opportunism.
Cardinal Brenes and Vatican Nuncio Sommertag participated as witnesses in the inauguration of the negotiating roundtable. The negotiations are taking place in the entrepreneurial terrain, the building of the Central American Institute of Business Studies (INCAE).
The Civic Alliance’s objectives
So what exactly are they negotiating? When Ortega announced on February 21 that he would set up the “table” for the 27th, he spoke of peace, stability and security. Nowhere in his speech did he mention the words democracy, justice and liberty.
The Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, so named because those were originally the population’s two most fervent demands, promptly assured the population that those two objectives had now been joined by a third: liberty, specifically referring to the release of the political prisoners.
In the ensuing days, society added more content to all three.
Freedom: It must include all political prisoners and annul all trials opened given the absolute absence of procedural guarantees in all cases.
Democracy: It must involve the recovery of all constitutional rights of expression, mobilization and electoral reforms that ensure free and transparent elections as early as possible.
Justice: It must follow the underpinnings of international processes of justice, which include revealing the truth, guaranteeing justice, compensating victims and providing guarantees that the acts of violence will not be repeated.
For its part, the regime didn’t say what it intends to negotiate.
While much of the anxious and impatient population wanted to see the two sides immediately get down to negotiations and produce results, the process began on a different footing. The Civic Alliance, which had studied the flaws of last May’s dialogue, came with a well-conceived plan to hammer out a “roadmap”: 16 initial points to be agreed on as “rules of the game” to ensure that it is played cleanly.
It wasn’t easy. It took five 6-hour sessions to reach agreement on those basic points, many of which are as simple as the daily work schedule or the maximum time anyone can speak (six minutes). More specifically, the six lead members of each delegation “will work in private and confidentiality” (i.e. no public televised sessions as there were in May) and the “tentative” date by which the negotiation should conclude is March 28. There were also more important and stickier points, such as who the witnesses and national accompaniers of the whole process would be. It was agreed that these would be Cardinal Brenes, advised by two bishops, and Evangelical pastor Jorge Ulises Rivera, advised by two pastors. Nuncio Sommertag was named as the international accompanier and witness.
So many days consumed in agreeing on nuts and bolts issues created even greater anxiety in the population, which was only added to by concern about some of the points agreed to. One example was the “communication policy,” in which it was agreed by consensus that “the participants in the negotiation could only offer declarations and other disclosures on already approved issues,” indicating that society would not learn what was being debated, where the differences lay or even why given agenda items were approved.
In general, the communication policy followed so far by the Civic Alliance leaves a lot to be desired, which is only heating up the suspicions and rejection, and therefore contributing to one of the regime’s objectives: sow mistrust and create divisions.
One obviously critical issue was the international guarantors of both the process and fulfillment of what is agreed to. Not surprisingly, consensus was not reached on this point in those first sessions. The roadmap says that the guarantors will be agreed to by consensus “once the agenda is approved,” but since the agenda must reflect the objective of the negotiation, and the objectives of the two sides appear to be diametrically opposed, the map hit its first roadblock.
The Alliance’s proposed international guarantors are representatives from the OAS, the United Nations and the European Union. Both OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and Spanish parliamentarian Ramón Jáuregui, who headed the European Parliament mission to Nicaragua in January, said their respective institutions were willing to play that role. Almagro has also declared that the currently infringed rights of expression, mobilization and organization are non-negotiable.
Even the positions of the two sides regarding international guarantors are diametrically opposed. The issue for the regime isn’t who it should be, but rather that none is required. Through its spokespeople, it has argued that international guarantors are unnecessary, offering the stale argument that “Nicaraguans’ problems must be resolved among Nicaraguans”
to the negotiation
In May-June 2018, during the first attempt to “dialogue” a way out of the crisis, Ortega was still surprised by the consequences of the April uprising and unsure how it would affect his regime. He was facing an unfavorable correlation of forces, with continuous mobilizations in the main cities demanding his resignation. And as former FSLN political analyst and activist Víctor Hugo Tinoco told envío, “There is nothing Ortega fears more than the street.”
The Ortega delegation had claimed then that the main obstacle to moving forward in that dialogue, with its huge delegations and lengthy statements broadcast in living color, were the roadblocks and barricades that blocked highways in much of the country as well as entry to many communities and urban neighborhoods. The Civic Alliance responded that they were erected spontaneously by the population as a show of strength in the case of the highway roadblocks and of self-protection in the case of the barricades, and that the Alliance was not a top-down organization that could order them dismantled.
The talks thus hit an impasse, while the government continued its repressive police/parapolice behavior unabated. With the talks stalled, the regime ordered its infamous “clean-up operation” which went after the roadblocks and barricades in June and July. When the dust settled, not a single one remained and hundreds more people had been killed in the process. Feeling like “king of the mountain” again, Ortega promptly sent his minions out to occupy the traffic circles waving FSLN banners.
The first talks had
It’s very likely that he didn’t measure the valuable and decisive products of that first dialogue and of his responses to them, which have increasingly weakened him. First was the arrival in Nicaragua of the IACHR in May and of the UN Office of Human Rights and the OAS’ Interdisciplinary Group of International Experts the following month, both at the invitation of President Ortega himself. Surely he and Murillo initially underestimated the role these international organizations would play. Their globally disseminated reports have hoisted the ruling couple by their own petard.
These reports on the extremely serious human rights violations the regime has committed on the governing couple’s orders and the crimes against humanity attributed to them are roadblocks they can’t bulldoze out of existence. They are now exposed to international sanctions, have become the object of international rejection and are potential future prisoners of international justice.
Ortega is thus presumably coming to this second stage—now rightly called negotiations—with another position and another correlation of forces. There are no longer mobilizations in the streets because they were first repressed with bullets and later officially prohibited, but the resistance remains alive and exists in many forms. Moreover, the international community, which was not really a serious factor in May and June, is now fully alert to the situation. Meanwhile, for all concerned, the political prisoners have remained in the front lines.
The political prisoners, the heroes of the civic resistance, have managed to send out various written messages to inform the population how they are doing and what they’ve suffered in prison. Their courageous expressions buttress the resolve of those who are free but unable to publicly protest. Messages have been written on toilet paper, or on small scraps of paper in tiny letters that require a magnifying glass to read…
In early February, a note from 38-year-old Lenín Antonio Salablanca Escobar was tossed out through the bars. He is from the department of Chontales and was detained last August carrying a national flag to join a peaceful blue and white march in the town of Santo Tomás. He is currently in La Modelo prison in Tipitapa, accused, like so many others, of a long list of crimes he didn’t commit: terrorism, illegal possession of arms, aggravated theft and kidnapping. In his message he said he is prepared to “continue facing this illegal process” because he expects that “one day Nicaragua will be free.”
Salablanca Escobar also analyzed the national reality with a succinct poetic ear. Nine months after the April uprising, he said, Nicaragua is today, to Ortega’s discredit, a country of “desterrados, encerrados, aterrados y enterrados.”
Desterrados (uprooted), because more than 60,000 have been forced into exile. Encerrados (locked up), because more than 700 are still imprisoned “for denouncing injustice, exercising their free expression and not remaining silent.” Aterrados (terrorized), because thousands “live in fear of being captured or fired just for thinking differently than the government.” And enterrados (buried), because hundreds were the “victims of oppressive vultures for demonstrating the force of love and the capacity to make decisions to help their brothers and sisters.”
In his litany of adjectives, he purposefully didn’t include derrotados (defeated). Not only is he not prepared to do so, he knows that the majority of Nicaragua’s people, at the tremendous cost of those exiled, jailed, terrorized and killed, have defeated Ortega. The only thing that remains is for the dictator to recognize it himself at the negotiating table.
Will Salablanca’s analysis turn out to be right or wrong? What will become of the negotiation in which Ortega has been forced to participate? Will he manipulate it to buy time? Although he had no choice but to enter into this process, he certainly isn’t doing so in “good faith” and he is far from recognizing defeat. How many maneuvers will he come up with to try to divide, wear down, frustrate and demoralize the blue and white delegation and society as a whole, prolonging as long as possible the moment of substantive agreements, to the detriment of the population itself?
If on the other hand he were to approach the negotiations with a certain capacity to accept serious agreements for his own political and economic survival, what would he concede? One thing he doesn’t appear willing to back down on is his determination to stay in government until the next scheduled elections in November 2021. The slogan “The coman¬dante is staying” has been chanted by his sympathizers for months and both he and his spokespeople have constantly repeated that early elections will not happen.
...and still more questions
Shortly before Ortega announced he would agree to negotiations, Estelí’s Bishop Abelardo Mata stated that “Ortega cannot make it to 2021 because the crimes have been atrocious, the destruction of the rule of law evident and the abuses of power irrefutable.”
But if he were to insist on staying and this were to be accepted in the negotiation, how many vital signs would the national economy still be showing by November 2021?
Would the OAS and the international community agree to not moving the elections up, even though this has enjoyed consensus for months as the most civilized way out of the crisis? And would the population agree, despite this being a firm demand since its children began to be shot down by Ortega’s police and paramilitaries?
Moreover, if the Civic Alliance’s agenda is unrestricted release of all political prisoners, an end to the repression and respect for civil liberties, would Ortega accept as guarantors of any agreements the international bodies that have been making the same demands?
“If Ortega genuinely agrees to negotiate and not just maneuver,” Víctor Hugo Tinoco told envío, “he will seek a result in which he retains the maximum political and economic power possible for himself, his family and his close circle. The issue of impunity is sensitive for him, but will he tie it to the question of political prisoners or to early elections? It remains to be seen along the road what our side will concede. It is important to have communication between the negotiators and society to see what isn’t negotiable and what to yield on.”
Will Ortega succeed in putting off the regional/OAS, European and US sanctions just by keeping the negotiations open? Could he even prevent the sanctions from being applied?
The threat of a power vacuum
Will the fear of a post-Ortega power vacuum, which Ortega himself has done his best to feed, weigh in the international community’s attitude?
According to Víctor Hugo Tinoco, “I think that worry was clearer at the beginning of the April rebellion. But in these ten months the international actors have been seeing the cohesion of the anti-dictatorial society and the strength of its opposition. Trust between people is fundamental to being able to move forward. And the international actors have perceived that the capacities exist to avoid a power vacuum when Ortega goes.”
The power the Civic Alliance has is much like the power of workers. Workers have the power to strike, and, as several have said, the Civic Alliance has the power to get up from the table, secure in the knowledge that the international forces will be more inclined to believe them than the discredited, maneuvering Ortega. But walking out on the negotiations is a card to be played only after serious consideration.
Many questions more
Will the tense, drained and wary population anxiously awaiting the results of the negotiation have the capacity to not be swept away by radical proposals and by the disparaging statements of some against others? And if the negotiation were to fail?
As we put the final period to this text at midday on March 7, these and many other questions are on every¬one’s mind.