A year after the April rebellion: Still resisting and searching for resolution
It looked good for Daniel Ortega to enter into negotiations
given the international isolation he has brought upon himself.
Most Nicaraguans urgently want an agreement
resulting in fair, transparent and early elections,
the release of all political prisoners
and justice for the victims of repression,
They want to regain confidence in the country’s future,
which will help breathe life back into the stagnant economy.
While they hoped Ortega would negotiate in good faith,
he showed no desire to reach substantive agreements
or comply with the minimal ones signed as first steps.
It has now been a full year since last April’s rebellion.
People are tired but their resistance and their efforts
to find a solution are undeterred.
Way back in May-June 2018, a first round of talks was held to resolve the national political crisis that had been simmering silently for years but boiled over the previous month when President Daniel Ortega and his wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo ordered indiscriminate killings to quell university student-led civic protests. On that first occasion, the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy representing students, the business sector and civil society, negotiated the opposition population’s two essential demands—justice and democracy. After only six sessions that effort ended in an impasse and was “suspended” indefinitely.
A second round between the government and the Civic Alliance began this February 27, after eight more months of mounting international pressure and resistance to the government’s semi-selective terror. The six delegates representing each side this year included many of the same faces.
The unfolding of this new negotiating effort further revealed the governing couple’s unwillingness to renounce either its power or its repression. On April 3, this round was also suspended after only a few sessions. Unlike last time, agreements had been signed on a few issues, but the government violated them before the ink had even dried.
Nothing’s yet normal
At the time these negotiations began, a little over 10 months had passed since the start of last April’s civic rebellion, which government officials and spokespeople still insist on calling a “coup attempt,” following Ortega’s lead despite the lack of even a shred of evidence to prove this claim. They are smart enough, however, not to repeat another of last year’s official mantras: “Everything has returned to normal.” The unconcealable economic stagnation is the primary evidence putting the lie to any claim of normality. In the Speaking Out section of this issue, Nicaraguan economist José Vélez Morgan discusses the dangerous abnormality into which the national economy is sinking day after day.
Was it the economic crisis or fear of more international sanctions that made Ortega agree to negotiations? Or did he just want to give the international community the impression he was open to negotiations in order to buy time? And if he latter, time for what?
How we got to April 3
Suspense was high about what to expect from the negotiating table on April 3. After signing several accords on lesser issues, both sides agreed to extend the original March 28 deadline another five days to see if some degree of agreement could be reached on the same two key agenda points of democracy and justice, plus a new one: freedom for the hundreds of political prisoners illegitimately jailed over the past year. Many had doubted this was possible when the talks got started on February 27, and after everything that ensued in the next five weeks, many more doubted it on April 3.
On the issue of democracy, voicing the national and international clamor, the Alliance proposed holding the next presidential and legislative elections as early as feasible after first assuring their fairness and transparency, which is no easy task. In diametric and unyielding opposition, the government delegation not surprisingly repeated yet again that it would consider no earlier date for those elections, scheduled for November 2021.
As for justice, the Alliance proposed adopting “transitional justice,” a process designed for countries coming out of a war or dictatorship. Coordinated by an internationally supported truth commission, this would guarantee the victims justice and reparation and put a stop to the kind of revictimization that has been commonplace in the past year.
In this case the government presented a written proposal, again diametrically opposed: the creation of a “comprehensive system” of justice and reparation (it referred to the victims shot down with deadly aim as “deceased”). Rubbing salt in the wound, this proposal would be coordinated by the very government institutions most discredited during the crisis and now profoundly distrusted: the National Police, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the courts and the Ministry of Health.
“What you have presented us is a shameful proposal, a mockery,” said economic think-tank director Juan Sebastián Chamorro, one of the Al¬liance’s six negotiators. As has been shown to be his wont, university student leader Lesther Alemán, speaking from exile, put it more bluntly: “This is like sending Cain in to investigate the murder of Abel.”
Having again reached an impasse, the Alliance declared the deadline “expired” for finding consensus on these two issues considered “indispensable” for any positive way out of the national crisis. With this round of negotiations suspended, the Alliance published a list of the agreements signed over the previous five weeks that the government had failed to comply with and called on its counterpart to engage in a period of reflection.
Negotiating the “roadmap”:
Tedious but indispensable
After this brief summary of the disappointing but hardly surprising outcome of this new negotiating effort, it’s useful to go back over the many setbacks it experienced. There were so many that it raised concerns that the suspended talks might even breakdown altogether.
By agreement, the first five negotiating sessions involving more than 20 hours of discussion were not reported on by either side. Unlike last year, they were wisely spent discussing the Alliance’s “roadmap” proposal, which contained nuts and bolts rules of the game: schedules, turns speaking, maximum length of speeches, reporting to the public, the role of witnesses, points on the negotiating agenda, implementation of accords and the like. Meanwhile those on the outside impatiently awaited some news of substantive issues.
The strategic importance of one point of that roadmap was only revealed in the lead-up to April 3: the two sides had agreed that each bloc of issues on which agreement had been reached would be fulfilled with national and international guarantors. The unfolding of the negotiations demonstrated that this point straight¬jacketed the official delegation because it implied a verifiable step-by-step quid pro quo. Since the government had no intention of complying with each bloc or even necessarily agreeing to guarantors, the Alliance was protected from precipitously agreeing in good faith to more important commitments on its own side.
A population with little
culture of negotiations
The official and pro-government media simply said the talks were “advancing satisfactorily,” while the Civic Alliance reported what was taking place to the “blue and white” opposition within the constraints of the agreed- upon “confidentiality agreement.” The term “blue and white” was coined to define the population that spontaneously supported the rebellion and the ensuing demands. They respond to no political structure, and their only identifying colors are those of the national flag.
These people tried to provide critical civic support, urging the Alliance to show more determination, and even attempted to support it in the street, risking repression. Nonetheless, for many reasons—including accumulated pain and righteous skepticism—the new negotiations began in an atmosphere charged with more fears and doubts than hope. The civic resistance is still strong, but unceasing illegal captures and detentions have made massive demonstrations in the streets impossible for now. The government originally justified its repression as necessary to put down the alleged coup. Since it now claims the coup attempt failed, its current excuse is the need to “eradicate criminal trouble spots.”
There is another, even more deep-seated reason for the impatience with what is inevitably a drawn-out negotiation, much like those in many other parts of the world. Aside from the huge issues that divide the blue and white population from the red and black one (the latter defined by the colors of the governing party’s flag), the country’s very history means they are both ill-prepared to cope with negotiation processes. That history has consistently taught that solutions come from the barrel of a gun and winner takes all—even if not for very long. The idea of give-and-take concessions, Robert’s rules of order, setbacks and disappointments, is exceedingly frustrating for them.
The differences between the
two rounds fed the frustration
Given this history, the extraordinary novelty of the current moment is that the majority of Nicaragua’s society has repeatedly shown, even in the face of repeated provocation, that it wants a civic solution. By definition that means banking on change through substantive agreements, eschewing any violence. But the process’ slowness, rigid formality and “confidentiality agreement” exasperated many people.
Many also had doubts about the generational, gender and sectoral changes in the front line of their negotiating team: now instead of some two dozen nonhierarchical students, women, educators, entrepreneurs, peasants and Caribbean Coast representatives, many of them young and most of them largely ad-libbing from the heart, there were now only six, mainly aging, gray-haired men, at least half of them economists or businessmen speaking from a script based on a plan. While admittedly they were backed by alternates and advisers from the original mixed bag, the hardest part this time around was that we couldn’t hear what they were saying.
The population was familiar with the government’s many maneuvering tricks, but it didn’t know the lessons the alliance members had gleaned from their critical study of that first round. Still fresh in people’s mind was the thrill of that dialogue, much of it televised live, in which they had watched “their team” stand up to the impotent government delegates who could say nothing before consulting headquarters on their open cell phone line. It was the first time anyone had seen the official monologue bested. And etched forever in viewers’ memory was the vision of Lesther Alemán telling Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo straight to their faces that the Alliance was there only to negotiate their departure. It was terrific theater and a catharsis of far-reaching political consequences, but the older, more experienced Alliance delegates were convinced it was now time for less theater and more astuteness.
He crucial role of the bishops
and the human rights agencies
In the May-June 2018 dialogue, the bishops as a whole played a decisive role, recognized nationally and internationally, as “mediators and witnesses.” Despite all the methodological weaknesses of that dialogue, it produced a few important political achievements.
The most impactful concession obtained from the government due to pressure from the prelates, closely linked to the rebelling population in the streets and the hard-hitting Alliance delegates, was its acceptance of the presence in Nicaragua of international human rights agencies in those same two months.
Back then the international Left was much more vociferous than now in seconding the government’s whitewashing version of events. But these meticulous reports, first by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and later by its Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (Meseni) and its Interdisciplinary Group of International Experts (GIEI), officially presented the world with evidence of the Ortega-Murillo regime’s criminal response to citizens’ protests. After decades in which Nicaragua had been again irrelevant on the international stage, these shocking reports made world headlines. Once again, the world was watching
Right up to today, those multinational human rights agencies are continuing to observe, report and make demands with the same commitment. Their voices are crucial to ensuring that any negotiated agreements translate into reality.
The first short circuit
The roadmap for the new negotiations was finally approved and a date announced for the signing of a definitive agreement: March 28—almost exactly a month after the negotiation round had gotten started. Idealistic even under more propitious circumstances and with less diametrically opposed positions, it seemed impossible given the lack of any sign the government was willing to change. But the international media reported that those who had pressured it into sitting down at the table—the US and European governments, the Vatican and the four most powerful Nicaraguan business leaders—wanted quick results with no “short circuits.” Such reporting, true or not, fed the population’s own impatience.
Not oly were there were no quick results, however, there were several short circuits, the first surprisingly caused by Nicaragua’s Episcopal Conference. The government itself had asked the bishops to mediate the first talks last May, but the new round was unfolding in a different moment. On March 4, after only two days of meetings to discuss the roadmap, Cardinal Brenes announced that the bishops would reconsider participating as “witnesses and accompaniers”—they hadn’t been asked to mediate this time. Four days later the Episcopal Conference as a whole announced it would not participate, generating even more distrust in the new round.
After the bishops stepped back, only the Vatican representative, Waldelomar Sommertag, was left at the table for the Catholic Church.
“The Church will not lend itself”
Various factors influenced the bishops’ decision, including the verbal and physical attacks, threats and denigrating accusations the regime had promoted for months against the majority of the bishops and against priests in all dioceses. It was no secret that the regime opposed the bishops’ mediation and even their presence at the table this time. But pressed by the Alliance delegation, the government had grudgingly relented, permitting only three bishops—expressly vetoing several by name—in a limited role.
The doubts surrounding the negotiations among those who had pushed for them and wanted to wrap them up quickly and without short circuits also weighed in the bishops’ decision. In an Internet interview, Bishop of Estelí Aberlardo Mata alluded to this when he said he felt “halfway solutions were being secured in the negotiations to sidestep the real problems and avoid justice,” the catchword for reparations and the punishment of perpetrators. He concluded that “the church is not going to be quiet and will not lend itself to that.”
The bishops mirrored that commitment in their communique: “We are not physically present in the negotiation forum, but will accompany the people in these crucial moments for our country.” At the same time, they said it was “the laity’s turn,” trusting that the efforts of the Alliance’s negotiating team “will reach a good goal.”
The first impasse
People took the bishops’ warnings as a strong signal that Ortega was not going into the negotiations in good faith.
The Alliance met with the bishops several times, hoping to get them to reconsider, but their decision was irrevocable. The Alliance then left the table on March 9.
This first impasse demonstrated that while the Alliance gains power by sitting down at the table, it also perhaps gains even more by getting up and leaving. Either way, Ortega needs to have the international community see the government delegation at least “sitting there.”
In a move to get the image of negotiation back on track and restore the credibility and legitimacy it lost when the bishops withdrew, the government asked the Organization of American States to join the table. On March 11, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro sent electoral expert Luis Ángel Rosadilla, explaining that he was ony there to observe the negotia¬tion’s development and decide whether or not to participate.
Two days after Rosadilla’s arrival, perhaps to calm its base and show that Ortega still holds the reins, the government released its agenda for the talks.
The text states unequivocally that “the elections are established for 2021” and that once the agreements are finalized, the parties will “call on the international community to suspend all sanctions against the Nicaraguan people.” It also announced the “freeing of the prisoners in the context of the criminal events against the State of Nicaragua starting in April 2018.”
In short, the text prioritizes the lifting of sanctions, while reiterating two messages to the red and black base: “the comandante is staying” and the prisoners committed crimes against the State.
The next day, March 14, the Alliance returned to the table at the initiative of Rosadilla, who was officially accredited as an international witness and accompanier. The presence of the OAS is indispensable given that the electoral issue is on the agenda for discussion. Two years ago it worked out a detailed calendar for reforming the electoral system that would have to be agreed to and implemented before the next elections, whatever date they are held.
The Alliance returned without the University Coalition students, who conditioned their future participation on an express government commitment to free all political prisoners.
prisoners, not criminals
Ever since the negotiations opened on February 27, the prevailing position inside Nicaragua and the absolute consensus of the international community that has involved itself in the Nicaraguan crisis is that the government should free all political prisoners as a sign of its willingness to negotiate in good faith. This was demanded by the European Union, the IACHR, Amnesty International and the OAS, among others.
It was learned that during the hiatus caused by the bishops’ withdrawal, Almagro had sent Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada a letter stating that “freeing all people the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights has identified as political prisoners is fundamental to assure the presence of the General Secretariat in the dialogue.” Almagro’s missive carried weight not only by conditioning the OAS presence on the freeing of the prisoners, but also because it called those who had been captured and imprisoned “political prisoners.” Moncada’s response to Almagro used the same words, which is the first time the regime has accepted that those whom Ortega and other government officials repeatedly and indiscriminately called “common criminals,” “coup-mongers,” and “terrorists” are imprisoned for political reasons.
Out of prison,
but not freed
On February 27, hours before the negotiation officially began, the government gave what it considered a sign of good will by removing 12 women and 100 men from prison. It soon turned out they had not been released, but simply returned to their homes where they would remain under house arrest. The government even published their names and addresses, which was a signal to the regime’s paramilitaries and fanatics to hound them in their homes.
With the impasse resolved, the government responded to Almagro by pledging to release an “appreciable nucleus” from prison. The blue and white population, calling on its dwindling reserve of hope that the government meant what it said, expected the number to be much higher than those first 112. But the “appreciable nucleus” amounted to only 50 prisoners: 42 men and 8 women. Again, they were not released, but just put under house arrest.
To inflame sensitivities even more, the gesture was accompanied by a crass and senseless mockery. Journalists and relatives were led to believe that the prisoners were being delivered in a minibus traveling from Managua to Masaya or in a regular-sized bus on the longer route from Managua to León. The windows of both vehicles had closed curtains that concealed the passengers, who turned out to be only penitentiary officials.
The farce was double-edged, however. It inadvertently triggered an opposition outpouring, the first since the peak of repression last July, as hundreds of people overcame their fear and took to the streets and highways waving blue and white national flags to celebrate the “heroes of this moment of civic struggle,” as many refer to the political prisoners.
Unconscionable and stupid
repression on March 16
The population was indignant. It rightly saw the insignificant “nucleus” and the childish bus trick not only as politically self-damaging acts of human insensitivity, but more importantly as new evidence of the regime’s lack of good faith. In response, the diverse expressions of the blue and white opposition called for a mobilization in Managua to demand immediate release of all political prisoners.
Thousands were determined to participate, but the police and para-police impeded the marchers, including with rubber bullets. The repression showed the regime’s fear that the streets could again fill with blue and white flags and that it no longer dares measure forces in the street. Even in this critical juncture, with the eyes of the world on them, Ortega and Murillo are unwilling to stop applying the only advantage they still have: heavily armed special police forces trained to quell serious riots, not to maintain order in peaceful protests.
Even before the march could get underway, the massively deployed ominous-looking black-uniformed special forces beat and threw people around, detaining nearly two hundred and dispersing those they couldn’t catch. In their zealousness they grabbed mere passersby and shoppers at the Metrocentro shopping mall and even pulled people from their vehicles in the gas station near the Central America traffic circle. One social media video that immediately went viral showed a young man grabbing a chair from an outdoor restaurant and bringing it down on the back of a policeman who was bent over beating a youth already on the ground. With Nicaraguans’ unfailing bent for ironic humor, chairs were immediately anointed sacred objects of the resistance.
After that brief but violent sweep by the police, some 160 protesters who had been thrown into the back of police pick-ups were taken to the police holding prison called El Chipote and others to local precincts for booking. Among them were national leaders of the blue and white opposition, including four members of the Alliance’s negotiating team.
Attempting to recover the initiative, Foreign Minister Moncada called it “inconceivable, contradictory and unprecedented” that counterparts in the negotiation would participate in a “provocation and alteration of the public order.” It was a particularly pathetic stretch given the abundance of cell-phone videos posted in social media and footage from the few national and international reporters able to film what was happening before the police turned on them as well. They all revealed that the only ones altering the public order were the anti-riot police. Once again Ortega and Murillo, acting impetuously out of fear of losing power, hammered another nail into the coffin of his future. There couldn’t have been a clearer expression of his lack of will to seriously negotiate an acceptable solution to this unending crisis.
In a move to improve his profile, satisfied that he had made it clear to the demonstrators that the streets still belong to him and feigning that the police had not acted on government orders, Ortega requested that the papal nuncio secure the release of those detained. Sommertag showed up at El Chipote late that night, requested that all the detainees be assembled in one large room and called out their names from the booking list. To a mixture of gratitude from those happy to be released and boos from those suspicious about his decision not to stand with the bishops, all prisoners were out by midnight.
In repudiation of this show of brutal and gratuitous repression, the Alliance again left the table. Second impasse.
The Alliance’s agenda
When the Alliance told the media it would return to the table on Thursday, March 19, it did so visibly empowered by the results of the repressed demonstration on the 16th.
With all six delegates, their respective alternates and advisers present, they released and publicly ratified their own negotiation agenda, adding liberty to their previous demands of democracy and justice. All are well known and by now fully understood catchwords respectively encompassing free, fair, transparent and observed early elections with a reliable electoral system and guarantees of the right to mobilize and organize; processes to reveal the truth of what happened, punish the guilty and compensate the victims, with guarantees of non-repetition; and freedom for all political prisoners without revictim¬ization and with full respect for their liberties.
To this triad they added two more points. The first was implementation mechanisms for everything agreed to and signed, with the presence of international guarantors to supervise implementation. And the second was fulfillment of the 18 recommendations made to the government by the IACHR on May 18, signed by the government during its participation in the first incarnation of the national dialogue. So far it has only complied with inviting international human rights organizations… only to expel them from the country months later.
The consensus agenda
On March 20, only one day after reconvening the second time, a negotiation agenda agreed to by both sides was released. It contained the Alliance’s three points of liberty, democracy and justice only in general terms. but with reported agreement that all three would be “amply” discussed.
According to the announced consensus, the agenda would move forward, while all prisoners would be released “in a period of no more than 90 days” and the trials in which some had already been sentenced would be annulled. Both sides agreed to ask the International Red Cross to act as a guarantor of this specific agreement.
Cristiana Chamorro, daughter of journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, assassinated by Somoza, and his widow, former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, tweeted that “Ortega and Murillo yielded. In confusing language they accepted freeing all prisoners and annulling trials with Red Cross supervision, electoral reforms with OAS supervision, and reestablishing the citizenry’s rights and guarantees with international support.”
Despite that “confusing” language, the governing party’s loyal base grasped that something serious was happening. The red and black social networks began to express discontent, demoralization and even rejection, but not without some voices of eternal faith in their leader: “The comandante knows what he’s doing; you’ll see.”
The 90-day deadline
The ebulletin Confidencial, directed by Cristiana Chamorro’s brother Carlos Fernando, reported that the 90-day period for releasing prisoners “was an offer made by Ortega and accepted by the OAS, which the Alliance could neither modify nor reject,” even though the blue and whites were very critical of it. They saw it as an excessive period as those captured have already been illegitimately behind bars for too long, many of them isolated, almost all of them tortured in some way and a lot of them with health problems.
The conditions in which the regime is keeping the political prisoners are inhuman. “They aren’t jails, they’re dungeons,” said one of the first to be placed under house arrest. Many suffer chronic illnesses that are not being attended or were caused by the terrible conditions.
“They are all going to come out with traumas and with their illnesses aggravated,” said a doctor who has treated several of those under house arrest. “This must stop now!” she insisted.
But the prisoners’ deterioration as the result of drawing out the deadline wasn’t people’s only fear. What might happen to them if the comandante continues “yielding”? Several political prisoners had confided to visiting relatives that guards who have already tortured them threatened that “if anything happens to the comandante, we’re going to kill all of you!”
Since the International Red Cross’ mandate is humanitarian, the Alliance asked an IACHR team to come to Nicaragua as an international guarantor of the prisoners’ human rights. The government fiercely refused.
Exactly how many political
prisoners are there?
Since the announced “agreement” on the 90-day deadline, the issue of political prisoners has taken center stage. Trying to calm the anxiety of the prisoners’ families and the blue and white population in general, Alliance members repeatedly explained that the date could be shortened that this was only a maximum deadline. They also argued that before any orderly release, the lists of detainees first had to be “reconciled” to produce a single list, as there were currently several: the government’s; the Alliance’s, which coincided with the IACHR’s; and the one drawn up by the Committee of Political Prisoners.
The Alliance reported that as of April 5, the government admits having 288 political prisoners, compared to the Alliance’s list of 578. “This is a difference of 290 prisoners and 40 of those we have aren’t on the Red Cross list,” said Liberal jurist and former legislator José Pallais, a member of the Alliance negotiating team, adding that they would meet with the Red Cross to clear up the numbers. A few days earlier, political prisoners from three corridors of La Modelo prison sent a written message stating that if they aren’t released before April 19—the anniversary of the civic rebellion—”the cry ‘freedom or death’ will be heard and you will learn of a massive prison rebellion.”
Sólis on elease of prisoners
and annulment of trials
After learning of the future release of the detainees, former Supreme Court Justice Rafael Solís spoke out again on the subject on March 27. Solís, once one of Ortega’s closest advisers, resigned both his court post and his militancy in the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in January of this year. Unlike others who have done so claiming personal health or other issues, Solís did so in a public letter detailing his numerous differences with the actions of his party and government, including the judicial branch, particularly since April.
In an even more extensive document than that first one, Solís analyzed from a legal perspective how it would be possible to reduce the 90-day period to 30 and suggested that it be done. He also agreed that the work of the Red Cross should be complemented by the IACHR, given its experience in human rights and specifically the rights of those deprived of liberty. He also enumerated the content of 10 of the 16 rights that articles 33 and 34 of Nicaragua’s Constitution guarantee to all detainees and convicted prisoners, none of which had been respected in any of the trials of political prisoners held so far. He concluded that “all these rights have been violated in their totality in all these processes, with no exception.” Solís argued that the political prisoners should be freed and their trials quashed.
closed on this point”
In the lead-up to March 28, the date when according to the roadmap the final agreements would supposedly be signed and begin to be implemented, skepticism mounted not only about the feasibility of that date but also why it had been agreed to. Many were convinced Ortega’s only objective in agreeing to the talks was to “buy time,” although no one was quite sure to what end. It increasingly appeared that he also intended to bring the counterpart to its knees all over the country, making clear where power lay. The capture of youths continued, as did the besieging of those now under house arrest, the abuse of those still in prison, and the general threats posted on the red and black social networks. Meanwhile, the only “advances” were on paper. There were no signs of any will to change, to negotiate in good faith.
March 28 saw an intense workday at the negotiation table. President Ortega authorized his foreign minister and head of his negotiating delegation to grant an interview to a journalist on the day’s earliest and most watched TV news program, broadcast on one of the few channels that doesn’t belong to the governing family. The message Ortega wanted Moncada to transmit for the nth time was that there will “definitively” be no early elections; that issue wasn’t on the table and never will be.
Was Moncada sent to assuage the angst of demoralized red and black loyalists? If so, why not do it on TV channels they watch rather than an independent one? Or did he do it for the reason offered by Sólis, who had been very close to the governing couple for decades? The former Supreme Court justice commented that “Moncada’s declaration surprised me. If that’s the government’s bottom-line, it seems to me the dialogue might collapse. Moving the elections forward was one of the two fundamental points talked about from the very beginning…. I don’t think it’s only a publicity ploy for the outside or to calm the Sandi¬nista grassroots. I was left with the impression that it’s a final decision by the comandante and Rosario, that they’re utterly closed on this point.”
The “red line”
Hours after Moncada’s declarations, Marco Rubio, the influential Republican senator from Florida, who is seemingly Trump’s unofficial counsel on all things Latin American, posted four tweets listing the negotiation’s “indispensable” conditions from Washing¬ton’s perspective: unconditional and immediate release of all political prisoners, freedom of expression and mobilization, guarantees of security for the return of exiles, disarming the irregular paramilitary groups, early, free and inclusive elections, and permission for IACHR members to return to Nicaragua.
The last tweet seemed a P.S. to the governing couple: “A cordial reminder: the Nica Act will continue to be applied with all its force if the Ortega-Murillo regime try to use these negotiations as a farce.”
In the afternoon, the Alliance also responded to Moncada’s declarations in the form of an ultimatum. Azahalea Solís, the feminist jusrist who is the alternate for Carlos Tünnerman, the negotiating team’s leader, warned in no uncertain terms that “the negotiation has a red line: freedom for the political prisoners and early elections. Otherwise there will be no more dialogue table.”
As expected, no final agreements were signed that day. The date was pushed back, but only to April 3.
The next day, in the middle of this undeclared impasse, the Alliance met with the government delegation and with undisguised satisfaction announced at the end of the afternoon that it had gotten Ortega to sign two important agreements: “to free persons deprived of liberty” (they avoided calling them political prisoners on this occasion); and “to strengthen citizens’ rights and guarantees” (again, they diplomatically used “strengthen” not “restore”). For its part, the government delegation has never similarly informed public opinion at the end of any of the sessions nor accepted questions from independent journalists. It made no exception this time.
The language of the two signed documents is very ambiguous, leaving them open to a skewed interpretation favorable to the regime, which is known to use all manner of maneuvers to evade responsibilities and get around complying with agreements. In this case, the language even assumes new discussions, with possible new stalemates.
Moreover, although it was stated that the agreements will “immediately” go into effect, each agreed issue requires “operational protocols” and “specific protocols” for its implementation, all of which must also be agreed to by both parties. These details necessarily take more time, involve new debates and require new guarantors, yet to be chosen. If the devil really is in the details, it is not groundless to suspect what the “devil” will do.
Here is just one example of the linguistic run-arounds and ambiguities of the texts. The agreement on the prisoners says that “The Government of Reconciliation and National Unity (GRUN) will proceed to the definitive release, understood as the definitive closure of the juridical situation of the persons beyond the release of the referred-to persons deprived of liberty, as well as the regulation of their juridical situation, in conformity with the existing legislation and constitutional guarantees of the case. The juridical measures and procedures necessary for the above will be discussed at the Negotiation Table.” Say what?
The agreement on their restituted rights refers to a list of constitutional rights violated by the regime, some for years, some since April, and all since September, when it installed the “de facto state of exception,” as the IACHR has repeatedly referred to it.
A demonstrated dictatorship
“Its signature confirming that it is going to comply with what is supposed to be its obligation is the clearest demonstration that this government is a dictatorship that represses and violates human rights,” wrote Azahálea Solis.
For example, the agreement guarantees, again in ambiguous language, “the right to public meetings, demonstrations and movement, in compliance with the Constitution and the relevant laws. In fulfillment of the requirements established by the law on the issue, the National Police will authorize the exercise of this right. It is also recognized that the right to peaceful gathering requires no prior permission if it does not affect the free circulation of individuals and vehicles and does not alter the normal harmony of the population.” Who in today’s Nicaragua will determine what the “normal harmony of the population” means?
It is rather extraordinary that it was necessary to agree that “the unrestricted right of all Nicaraguans to the respectful use of the National Flag be recognized, in accord with the Constitution and the law on the matter.” But again, in today’s Nicaragua, who will determine what “respectful” use of the flag is if in the past months people have been imprisoned for simply carrying it on the street?
The accords and
The government also agreed, often with the same ambiguous wording, to “guarantee the creation of organizations of any sort,” to “review the decisions adopted with respect to cancellation of the legal status of nonprofit associations,” to “guarantee that no worker in the public or private sector will be fired for their political preferences,” to “review the decisions adopted by the State with respect to property: installations, assets, equipment, documents, licenses and any other material and immaterial goods belonging to the media,” to “strengthen university autonomy,” etcetera, etcetera. For all these existing constitutional rights that have been denied and violated and now have had to be agreed to anew, protocols will also have to be agreed to for the regime to fulfill them.
On even more difficult and complex issues, such as disarming the paramilitary groups, the illegality of police officers using weapons of war or returning the equipment and buildings of NGOs whose legal status was cancelled, the verb “instar” (urge) is used: The government is urged to fulfill the law; the Army is urged to respect the law, the Police is urged to obey the law...
The night of March 29, many appeared confused by everything that had been agreed: if the process just to return existing constitutional rights took so long and the results were so uncertain, what would it take to get agreements on profound electoral reforms from a regime that has organized seven consecutive fraudulent elections? And how much more difficult would it be to reach agreements on the issue of justice with a regime whose maximum authorities have been fingered for committing crimes against humanity?
More unmerited repression
On Saturday March 30, less than 24 hours after the signing of an agreement guaranteeing the right to protest and meet peacefully as long as the free circulation of individuals and vehicles is not affected, some hundred people gathered in the parking lot of a Managua mall and began to sing and chant slogans, waving national flags. Similar demonstrations, called by the Blue and White Unity as a “national sit-in,” were also held in Tipitapa, Matagalpa, Somoto and other municipalities, where the event went off without a hitch. In Managua, however, a man in the crowd opened fire, wounding three people. He was quickly subdued and beaten by several protesters. Checking his pockets, they discovered a governing party membership card. Instead of arresting him, the police captured and beat about a dozen of the demonstrators, including youths and women, as dozens of anti-riot cops surrounded the group and pointed assault weapons at them.
A police press release claimed the man who had fired the shots was 70 years old (his ID card showed he was 57) and the victim of an attempted “lynching.” It defined the demonstrators as “violent,” guilty of “altering the normal harmony of the population” and claimed they had hurt women and children.
The Civic Alliance immediately fired off a public complaint to the government using firmer terms than it had employed on previous occasions. It also sent a report to OAS delegate Luis Ángel Rosadilla and to Papal Nuncio Sommertag expressing its “frustration with the regime’s incompliance less than 24 hours after having signed its commitment.” The Alliance hoped both would play an active role, at least making a statement about this incompliance and “urging” the regime to show some sign of good will.
The tensest session yet
The roadmap both parties had signed establishes that each signed agreement requires the supervision of international guarantors. The Alliance spent all Sunday night and most of Monday, April 1, preparing a proposal to present to the government delegation that afternoon arguing the need to have the IACHR or the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) present in Nicaragua to guarantee the agreement on restored rights the two parties had signed on March 29.
Ignoring the roadmap’s stipulation, the government proposed that the guarantor be none other than its own Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office, one of its most inefficient and discredited institutions. The Alliance unequivocally refused.
Members of the Alliance’s negotiating team said that the meeting that day began with an “angry tone” and had been the tensest of any session so far.
“They don’t want
“The negotiation is at a standstill because the Alliance is insisting on the IACHR or the OHCHR being the international guarantors of the agreement to restore the violated human rights given that both agencies have been in the country and are human rights specialists,” said José Pallais in an interview that same afternoon.
“We’ve told them it’s the only thing that can give the citizenry renewed confidence in the dialogue’s credibility. We cannot continue piling up documents that are not complied with,” Pallais added. “The dialogue will have no credibility if it continues like this. We’ve said that we don’t want to address any other issue until this one is fulfilled with the designation of the international guarantors.”
The IACHR’s necessary return
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has expressed its willingness to return to Nicaragua from the very beginning of the negotiation.
Its first mission, headed by Executive Secretary Paulo Abrão, arrived in May 2018 and prepared a report based on testimonies received from hundreds of witnesses who talked with IACHR officials. On that occasion it worked not only in Managua, but also gathered information in León, Matagalpa and Masaya.
Then in June the IACHR’s Special Follow-up Mission for Nicaragua (Meseni) and its Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) arrived in Nicaragua along with an OHCHR representative. The three agencies met with continuous obstacles in developing their respective missions, culminating in the govern¬ment’s expulsion of the UN representative in August and both the Meseni and GIEI teams in December.
By the time the Alliance proposed the IACHR’s return for this second round of dialogue, the latter had already expressed its interest in participating in four aspects growing out of the negotiation. First is the process of releasing the hundreds of political prisoners and guaranteeing that it is done following Inter-American standards. Second is the creation of adequate and effective conditions for the return of the tens of thousands of exiled Nicaraguans, with appropriate guarantees. Third is the process of restoring the legal status of the nine nongovernmental organizations—including human rights defenders, environmental, health and other social organizations and political bodies—that had been canceled in December 2018 on accusations of “funding the coup d’état.” And last is the design of the reparations program for the victims of the violence the State unleashed last April, as the IACHR wants to guarantee the right to truth and justice of the victims or their survivors.
“You can make me sign,
but never comply”
The disproportionate, unnecessary and unexpected repression of a peaceful protest the previous Saturday brought to the collective memory one of the public slogans of the Ortega government of the 1980s: “You can make me sign, but never comply.”
Such immediate non-compliance by the regime had a profoundly frustrating effect on many. At its root is the feeling there is no light at the end of the tunnel and the continuing pain of thousands of people anxious for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners or the return of the hordes who fled out of fear of joining them. As various analysts have been saying since the massive detentions began, the prisoners are serving as hostages for Ortega, to be used as chips at the negotiations table.
“The entire country is his hostage,” commented José Luis Velázquez, former Nicaraguan ambassador to the OAS. “Ortega has lost everything, but he still has one recourse: he has sequestered the people of Nicaragua. He’s like a bank robber who … ends up surrounded by the police, so negotiates with the hostages’ lives.”
The Alliance’s role
What can the Alliance do with a kidnapper? Pallais had a decidedly firm answer the afternoon of April 1: “We will not continue signing worthless pieces of paper. We know who we’re dealing with. But someone has to do the work we’re doing. We have to show the international community that we’re not the intransigent ones, that the government is not making use of the negotiating opportunity. We are in ongoing contact with the international actors to let them know the government’s continuing obstinate refusal to comply with what it agrees to and signs. We have to have the patience to stay at this table until we can say to the international community: we tried our best, but we are up against an impassable wall. We tried, but we couldn’t do it.”
And that was how the country got to the established deadline of April 3… only to start again with a new deadline. Will the regime use this pause to reflect? Will the threat or actual application of new international sanctions make it reflect?
The “other” negotiation
The above briefly chronicles what has unfolded publicly since the negotiations began. But many know, and many more suspect, that these negotiations inaugurated on February 27 at the Central American Institute of Business Administration (INCAE) aren’t where it’s really happening. That neat round table covered with white cloth we’ve all seen in video clips may be where the two sides argue how the agreements reached will be implemented, but what will actually be agreed to is decided behind the scenes.
That backroom is where we find the hemisphere’s real wielder of power: the government of the United States, Nicaragua’s main trading power and an unfailingly decisive actor in every conflict of Nicaragua’s conflict-riddled history. It has had an indirect if not direct negotiating weight again in this one, starting with last July’s visit first of Caleb McCarry, an expert on regime transition sent by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, and followed 10 days later by the US Ambassador to the OAS, Carlos Trujillo. Then on January 23, a bigger gun came: Michael McKinley, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s chief adviser, who spoke for several hours with the governing couple.
to the backroom
Venezuela’s critical situation is the backdrop to the US negotiations with Ortega. For months now, the declarations of Washington’s top-level officials have negatively linked Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
If everything Daniel Ortega has done and undone in Nicaragua for over a decade involved Venezuela’s financial support, the destiny of his regime is now also linked to the destiny of Nicolás Maduro’s. January 23, when Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself “acting President” of Venezuela and Maduro the “usurper” of the presidential post, marked a point of inflection in Venezuela’s future.
Ever since that day, which was surely not by accident the same day as McKinley’s trip to Nicaragua, Ortega has been watching how hard it is for the US to close in on Maduro and remove him from government. As he urely sees himself in the Venezuelan mirror, does Ortega feel strengthened by what he’s seeing?
Does he think the government’s continual stratagems to turn Nicara¬gua’s negotiations into a farce can convince ths US that there’s no chance of reaching a valid and credible agreement? And should it succeed, what does it think will happen next? How much time does Ortega think he can buy? Is he calculating that by hanging on until 2021, Maduro will have resisted, Guaidó will be forgotten, and Trump, Pence, Bolton and Abrams will no longer be around after the November 2020 US elections?
Todd Robinson joins the cast
It was at this stage in the negotiations that we heard from Todd Robinson, senior advisor for Central America in the US State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. A career foreign service diplomat, Robin¬son has served as deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, then from 2009 to 2011 was deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Guatemala. Having also served in four other Latin American countries, he returned to Guatemala in 2014 for a three-year stint as ambassador and was thus there for the “Guatemalan spring,” the months of demonstrations against President Otto Pérez Molina’s corruption that contributed to his resignation on September 2, 2015, and his arrest the following day. From there Robinson was posted to Venezuela as charge d’affaires but was expelled by Maduro and declared persona non grata in May of last year.
In his years as ambassador in Guatemala, Robinson strongly supported the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the lead force in uncovering the corruption of Pérez Molina and the mafia-like criminal structure around him. As Juan Hernández Pico, SJ, envío’s correspondent in Guatemala, wrote in his July 2016 coverage of CICIG’s continuing investigations into that corruption ring, “Everything that is happening in Guatemala today, both these cases and others to come, lead us once again to underscore the role of the US Embassy. Without it none of this would have happened.” Hernández Pico, however, concluded his praise of Robinson with this caveat: “Many people today both in Guatemala and outside think this ‘protectorate’ the US has installed in our country has the advantage of putting the heartless business classes, those whose only homeland is their own wealth, up against the wall. While true, we must remain cautious having seen the disasters induced by US intervention in other countries with cultures deeply different from the Anglo Saxon one.”
press briefing on Nicaragua
Robinson now seems to be the liaison with the rest of the international community on policy toward Nicaragua. In Brussels on March 14 for a meeting with European Union officials, he participated in a telephonic press briefing on what the moderator defined as “the ongoing human rights abuses and violations in Nicaragua and the importance of US-European cooperation to see a negotiated solution to the crisis.” In his opening remarks, Ambassador Robinson said that “the ultimate resolution of the crisis lies with Nicaraguans.
The United States strongly supports all credible efforts to develop a national dialogue to resolve the crisis. While the United States and the international community,” in which he included not only Europe and the Western Hemisphere, but also Asia, “have a role to play, a lasting solution to the crisis can only be achieved by political action that involves all stakeholders in Nicaraguan society.”
In answer to a journalist’s question about what the international community would like to see, he responded that “we are urging the Ortega regime to negotiate in good faith and to take concrete actions now to restore democracy by ceasing its repression, releasing arbitrarily detained persons, and agreeing to hold early free and fair elections. And we’re going to push the idea that in those elections we look for new leaders in Nicaragua. Leaders that don’t include Ortega and Murillo”
On the subject of talks between US officials and Ortega, he said “We have an excellent ambassador on the ground, Ambassador Kevin Sullivan, who has had several opportunities to speak with Ortega and Murillo and other members of the government.” While not disclosing the substance of the talks, he called them “very direct and very frank,” adding that “I don’t think Ortega or Murillo have any doubts about where the United States stands in terms of reaching some kind of political agreement.”
On the issue of human rights abuses, Robinson was adamant in saying “We are going to use every tool in our toolbox” to identify and sanction individual abusers, although it could also include “sanctions by category. That is to say people who, for instance, are involved in the security apparatus, people who are involved in the judicial system, people who are involved in the executive.” With respect to a reported EU resolution to apply sanctions, Robinson said he hadn’t seen it, but “we would obviously be gratified, overjoyed” if the Europeans also sanctioned those “who have brought violence on their own people.”
Is the international
The European Parliament resolution condemning the Ortega-Murillo govern¬ment’s human rights violations was approved that same day by a vote of 322 in favor, 25 against and 39 abstentions.The 11 European parliamentarians who visited Nicaragua in late January presented this resolution after seeing firsthand the regime’s inhuman treatment of the hundreds of political prisoners, as—unlike the international human rights organizations—their mission had been given permission to visit the country’s main prisons.
It asks the governments of the 28 EU countries to apply individualized sanctions to those responsible for the violations. As in the United States, the sanctions involve canceling their visas and freezing any goods and financial assets they have in Europe. It also asks them to analyze the possibility of eliminating Nicaragua from the Central America-EU Association Agreement for failure to respect its democratic clause.
The resolution also puts political pressure on the EU Foreign Affairs Council, made up of the 28 member countries’ foreign ministers. Once a list of those sanctionable is adopted, each government is responsible for investigating the goods and accounts that those mentioned have in its country.
On April 1, Carlos Trujillo, the US ambassador to the OAS, assumed the pro-tem presidency of the OAS Permanent Council for six months. In declarations to the international media, Trujillo apointed out that while the Ortega government is in negotiations, it is also repressing peaceful protesters in the streets at the same time. He warned that “if there are no negotiations and we make no headway on the issue of democracy and human rights, we will have to apply article 20.”
He was referring to the article of the OAS Democratic Charter that lays out a diplomatic process that, if unsuccessful, culminates in the expulsion of any country from that regional body that has committed a “democratic rupture.” Three days later, Argentina, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica and the United States requested an extraordinary session of the Permanent Council for the next day to report on the latest events in Nicaragua. All country representatives who spoke that day, with the exception of those of Venezuela, Bolivia and two Caribbean countries, unanimously agreed that the presence of the IACHR in Nicaragua is urgently needed due to the continuous repression and Ortega’s lack of “good faith” at the negotiation table.
Both these moves—expulsion from the OAS and from Europe’s Association Agreement—have been in the wind for months. Is the slowness to move on both of them normal bureaucratic sluggishness, a lack of consensus, a preference for saber-rattling over action, or the fact that both measures, unlike individual sanctions, affect the population more than its rulers?
Who won this round?
Did Ortega win some breathing space in this second round of negotiations or did he make himself even more sanctionable by playing with loaded dice, thus showing that he still hasn’t decided to negotiate seriously?
Some blame the Alliance for the limited results, for not handling the situation in a more technical way and for lacking a more adequate methodology for responding to the challenge of making Ortega back down. But would the round have had any better results with a different methodology? Pallais is among the many who doesn’t think other methods or techniques would have made any difference, given all the weapons at Ortega’s hand. “He will use all the tricks possible to deceive or avoid compliance.”
While in practice Ortega ceded nothing, he came out of this round with less legitimacy. In this titanic struggle against Ortega and Murillo, the Alliance is slowly but steadily unmasking their criminal self-deceit, revealing not only their repressive essence but also their dangerous con game.
What was unthinkable
These past 12 months have been and still are producing more questions than answers, with an extremely painful learning curve and with physically costly and emotionally exhausting resistance. But we have come to the first anniversary of last April’s revolt confident of having brought about the strategic defeat of Ortega’s dynastic dictatorial model, something that seemed impossible and even unthinkable on April 17, 2018.