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  Number 455 | Junio 2019
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Will the transition speed up or will Ortega kill the negotiations?

Several events during the ides of May gave the citizenry’s resistance renewed energy. In response, of course, the regime intensified its control over the population and acted unilaterally, ignoring the Civic Alliance, its counterpart at the negotiating table. What might the ides of June bring? An acceleration of the difficult transition the majority of Nicaraguans want? Or will the regime scuttle the second shot at a negotiated solution?

Envío team

Although the way out of the national crisis is clear—a serious negotiation that returns civil liberties, guarantees justice to the victims and establishes democracy through fair and early elections—those lights at the end of the tunnel were looking particularly far away at the beginning of May.

No one expressed it better or more synthetically than La Prensa’s weekly columnist Fa­bián Medina: “There is so much darkness at this moment,” he wrote on May 9, “that we can’t tell if we’re coming or going. We don’t know if we’re getting close to the outer edge of a dictatorship or entering more deeply into it.” Days later, in the very ides of the month, several unexpected events suggested that maybe, just maybe, we were approaching its outer edge…

“An ember that just
doesn’t burn out”

These same events stoked the citi¬zenry’s indignation and strengthened its resistance. The first happened on May 16, when a highly respected political prisoner, a Nicaraguan who just happened to be a US citizen, was killed in La Modelo prison. After 57-year-old Eddy Montes Praslin was shot dead, the other prisoners on the same cell block were beaten with particular cruelty by anti-riot police and prison guards. These acts came after two days of demonstrations outside the prison by political prisoners’ mothers expressing open repudiation of the police.

Montes’ wake and burial in his birthplace of Matagalpa on May 18 and 19 were massively attended. These spontaneous outpourings were the first unimpeded public demonstration by the blue and white opposition since mobilizations were prohibited and attacked by the police last September.

Four days later, May 23, the Civic Alliance, the Blue and White Unity and organizations of political prisoners’ relatives staged a one-day national work stoppage. This time it wasn’t led by the opposition business sector, but by workers and consumers. And the citizenry responded massively by staying home, leaving streets totally devoid of traffic. The regime threatened banks and businesses with all manner of economic punishments if they failed to open their doors, but those that opened had few if any customers.

It was thus demonstrated that the April 2018 civic rebellion is still alive and has become an active civil resistance movement, albeit still a somewhat disorganized one, that is demanding a profound change of government and of the way the country is run. Or in Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramí¬rez’s words: “It is still soldering like an ember that just doesn’t burn out.”

A halt to the negotiations

May’s events also lit a fire under the prolonged stagnation of the negotiations, which had begun to bog down on April 3 and reached its most critical moment on April 29.

On May 20, the Civic Alliance decided to walk away from the table again, but this time declaring that it would not return until the government complies with the very first agreement that had been signed: the full releasing of all political prisoners. It was a national clamor with international backing and from this moment the Alliance started linking its own actions more closely with “the people’s feelings.” Mario Arana, head of the American-Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce and one of the Alliance’s six-member negotiating team, explained that “it was necessary to put a halt to the negotiation because it wasn’t going anywhere.” It was a conclusion many frustrated Nicaraguans had already reached.

What do the ides of June augur?

The two sides had signed an agreement on March 27 for the gradual release of all political prisoners, as well as the annulling of all the flawed trials of those the government even bothered to sentence. So far the government has removed between 50 and 200 from prison at a time, but only to put them under closely-guarded house arrest. It has also done so unilaterally, violating the agreement that it be done in coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The final deadline for full compliance with the agreement is Tuesday, June 18. Will all political prisoners be released? And will their release be “full”? That same Tuesday, the European Commission has scheduled a meeting to decide whether or not the 28 EU governments will approve sanctionsagainst officials of the Nicaraguan regime.

But June 18 isn’t the only weighty deadline Ortega must consider seriously. Three days later marks the end of the 180 days established in the Nica Act, approved by the US Congress last December, to evaluate the regime’s compliance with its demands regarding democracy, human rights and acts of corruption. If the secretary of state reports a negative situation, the sanctions provided for in the law will be applied without further ado. Can more sanctions be expected, and if so how many more and against whom?

Then on June 26, when the foreign ministers of the Organization of American States (OAS) member nations meet in Medellín, one of the “urgent” agenda points will be to debate Nicaragua’s situation. Will the decision be made to apply article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter to the Ortega government, which would mean Nicaragua’s expulsion from this regional body?

Conditioning compliance on
an inappropriate demand

These things that already happened in May and what could happen in June may very well speed up the transition in Nicaragua, activating the roadmap drawn up for a way out of the crisis… So how did we get to this point on the road?

Everything that has come after the government signed the first two agreements with the Civic Alliance (freeing the political prisoners on March 27 and restitution of citizens’ civil rights two days later) only confirms that Ortega’s plan in seating his delegates at the negotiation table was nothing more than his well-known creed: “You can make me sign, but never comply.” Since then, he has demonstrated both his refusal to comply with any agreement and a determination to roundly ignore the Civic Alliance, acting unilaterally, when and how he feels like it.

The result is that not one civil right has been restored (thus failing to comply with the March 29 agreement), while the roughly 400 political prisoners removed from the prisons so far have not been freed and their records have not been expunged. Moreover, they were selected arbitrarily, without working with either the Civic Alliance (which countersigned the March 27 agreement) or the ICRC (its agreed-upon guarantor). The government then had the effrontery to announce that it had released the prisoners into house arrest as a sign of “good will.”

On April 29, the regime displayed even more improper conduct when its delegation suddenly conditioned its compliance on the Civic Alliance first calling on the international community to stop the sanctions in place against the regime and its officials and any new ones that could be announced in June. Washington’s sanctions have thus far de facto put the presidential consortium’s bank out of business and severely affected the financial present and future of the Vice President, one of the ruling couple’s sons, the national police chief (an in-law of the governing couple), the FSLN treasurer and other officials close to Ortega.

The Alliance, not surprisingly, refused, reminding the government negotiators that the roadmap agreed to in March specifies that this call will only be made jointly by the two delegations once a final and definitive agreement is reached on the three major issues on the table: democracy, liberty and justice, which have either not been discussed, not been agreed to or not fulfilled. In its view, conditioning fulfillment of a previously signed agreement to a call to halt the sanctions was simply the government’s attempt to hobble the negotiations, even perhaps kill them off.

A hate campaign
against the Civic Alliance

The government’s tactic in response to the Alliance’s refusal to call for the removal of the sanctions demonstrated its concern about both the existing ones and threatened new ones.

For days starting on that critical April 29, the government team’s chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Denis Moncada, read communiques that accused the Alliance negotiators of an endless string of improprieties that started by accusing them of “irreverent, destructive and chaotic dirty tricks” and of “exhibiting insensitivity, instability, misery, and mental and spiritual small-mindedness.” Upping the ante each day, they next accused them of “clumsy, infantile and miserable duality” and of being “total accomplices of Hate, anxiety, violence, discrimination, terrorism and the negation of Life.” Ultimately they called its negotiators “ridiculous and incompetent characters from fiction” and charged them with “innumerable crimes, atrocities and even diabolic acts”…

These desperate and offensive texts, in which the regime also reiterated its eternal claim of a “failed coup d’état,” were accompanied by biblical psalms and other religious references and were of course picked up by the pro-government news. They were even sent to people in the international community who are following the situation in Nicaragua.

One of those who received them was Ramón Jáuregui, who headed the delegation of European legislators that visited Nicaragua in January. “I personally have never had much confidence that the dialogue would be sincere,” Jáuregui said in an interview with the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa. “Despite the publicity bombardment we receive daily from the government of Nicaragua, we are losing hope in the dialogue. They are informative propaganda notes. The reality isn’t reflected in these communiques. They are texts that seem like priests’ sermons.”

No signs of any breakthrough

The Civic Alliance refused to be provoked by the childish insults. In its view, “accusing [it] of being guilty of crimes (atrocities, etc.) only proves the lack of will to sit at the table to discuss the fundamental issues.”

On May 13, the regime stopped the insulting communiques, but the stagnation continued, with no signs of a breakthrough. Before the events of mid-May, the Civic Alliance had reported that further advances would depend on the OAS team of election experts returning to Nicaragua to discuss the electoral reform, after the first contacts it made in April.

Meanwhile the Alliance explored other means of progressing. It got Vatican Nuncio Waldemar Sommertag and OAS envoy Luis Ángel Rosadilla, the negotiation’s “witnesses and accompaniers,” to propose to the government that on May 30, Nicaraguan Mother’s Day, it release all political prisoners on the list reconciled between the Alliance, the regime and the International Red Cross (ICRC).

It also sent Sommertag and Rosadilla a letter requesting they visit La Modelo men’s prison and La Esperanza women’s prison to verify the continuous charges of inhumane treatment, including torture, it had received from political prisoners in the respective penal institutions. Improving prisoner treatment is in an agreement the regime signed on March 27 and has allegedly not been fulfilling.

While there is no public information about the witnesses’ request to visit the prisons, the regime released from prison 1 female and 50 male prisoners on May 30. But as on past occasions, it did not coordinate with the ICRC and did not free them, but consigned them to house arrest. Given the horrendous conditions of political prisoners reported in the Close-up section of this issue, house arrest is no small improvement for the victims, but it falls abysmally short of recognizing that in most cases they were illegally picked up, unlawfully detained, tried on absurd charges in severely flawed processes if tried at al,; and given outrageous sentences. It also does not fulfill the agreement, which calls for their full release.

Lies in Geneva

On May 15, the day before the murder of Eddy Montes, the Ortega regime gave the world another taste of its crudely fabricated parallel reality.

At a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where its Universal Periodic Review was being applied to Nicaragua and 13 other nations, Ortega’s deputy foreign minister, Valdrack Jaentschke, presented bald-faced lies about the human rights situation here. He began with statistics about gender equity and the struggle against human trafficking, which were perhaps no more exaggerated than any self-serving government would claim. But then, moving to the topic of political rights, he claimed without so much as an involuntarily twitching eye that there are no para-police groups and no political prisoners in Nicaragua, that no protests have “ever” been repressed and no journalist has suffered imprisonment.

Jaentschke spoke as if no one in the room had ever seen the viral video clips of paramilitary attacks on last year’s massive peaceful marches; knew about the reports by international human rights investigators of crimes against humanity committed by government; or heard of 100% Noticias TV journalists Miguel Mora and Lucía Pineda, who were visited in their maximum security isolation cells in January by European legislators, after having been imprisoned in December for simply reporting the news. Pineda is the only imprisoned female journalist in the Americas, which has heightened the already considerable media attention on her case. What on earth was Jaentschke thinking?

His presentation was followed by more than three hours in which diplomats from 90 countries demonstrated that they not only didn’t buy his story, but were fully conversant with concrete cases to the contrary. They made 259 recommendations to improve Nicaragua’s severely deteriorated human rights situation since April of last year. Several of the delegations went so far as to recommend that the 2021 elections be moved forward to resolve the national crisis. Only Venezuela and Cuba, Nicaragua’s two staunchest allies, openly defended the Ortega regime.

“Alone in the world”

In keeping with the Council’s protocol, Jaentschke declared several days later that he welcomed all the recommendations, and would respond to the Council in September, as requested, after consulting with his government.

Liberal politician and jurist José Pallais, a member of the Civic Alliance negotiating team, interpreted this international response as proof that “Ortega is alone in the world.” A former diplomat, he recalled that “very seldom in international forums does one see such agreement about a country’s situation from such a diversity of countries from different geographic sectors, with different ideologies and cultures. It is evidence that for the international community as a whole, Nicaragua’s human rights violations are of sufficient gravity that they merit the world’s condemnation.”

The tragedy in
La Modelo prison

The human rights violation that occurred in La Modelo prison they day after the Human Rights Commission meeting immediately put the lie to what Ortega’s apologist said in Geneva.

The government’s official version of Eddy Montes’ death was that in the context of a 10th prison riot in that facility, Montes had struggled with a prison guard in an attempt to grab his weapon. The guard fired a single shot in self-defense, seriously wounding Montes. He was immediately taken to the hospital, where they unsuccessfully tried to revive him.

A diametrically opposed version soon emerged in two forms: a written account smuggled out days later by relatives who were able to visit prisoners who witnessed the tragedy, and on cell phone videos captured by common prisoners. According to that version, later ratified by prisoners released on May 30, a significant number of political prisoners were in the yard, separated from the guards by wire mesh. One of the officers of the prison’s tactical ops department began to verbally offend them, pointing an AK rifle at them, as he had done on previous occasions.

The political prisoners responded in kind, “protesting as we always do to get them to respect us.” Eddy Montes was playing chess with prisoner Alejandro Guido at the time, but went over to the younger prisoners to try to calm things down. “The boys need me” were his last words to Guido. Several guards and police continued with the verbal abuse and finally opened fire from different points. One bullet wounded Montes fatally. It was the prisoners themselves who tried to help him, dodging a rain of bullets in their attempt, but he bled out right there among them.

“We’ll kill you all!”

What happened afterward was almost as serious: dozens of anti-riot police, accompanied by officials of the prison’s Rapid Intervention Division, poured into the wards where they proceeded to violently beat dozens of political prisoners for half an hour, wounding some seriously, with shouts of “The comandante is staying!” and “We’re Daniel Ortega’s cubs!” Cubs (cachorros) was the affectionate nickname for the young Sandinista government army recruits during the 1980s’ war.

They also fired teargas and stun grenades and sprayed eyes, bodies and genitals with pepper gas. A Red Cross team visiting another area of the prison heard the explosions and raced to the scene, where they provided first aid to the wounded prisoners.

This violence and cruelty against political prisoners didn’t emerge from nowhere. Several prisoners had already told relatives that prison guards had threatened to “kill you all if something happens to the comandante!”
Despite how little informed the penal officials and police who beat the prisoners are, they do know that the comandante is internationally discredited and not articulating any national plan that could put out the smoldering embers of the citizen’s resistance.

“The government killed him!”

Eddy Montes Praslin was on the thus-far reconciled list of 232 political prisoners who were supposed to be released no later than June 18. Like so many others, he had been kidnapped by the police with no arrest warrant, in his case in October 2018 in Matagalpa. Also like many others, he was accused of several crimes, including, terrorism and his medium-sized farm had been invaded by paramilitaries.

In 1984, during the war years, he had headed up a protest against the military draft and was forced into exile. After a while in Costa Rica, he went to the United States, where he had lived as a child, acquired US nationality and joined the Marines, but never saw combat. In 1993 he returned to Nicaragua. “He wanted to contribute to his country,” said his ex-wife. “He could never get Nicaragua out of his mind.” His children stayed in the United States, but in December 2017 his two daughters came to attend his graduation as a lawyer, a profession he chose late in life to defend Nicaraguans’ human rights.

When April’s civic rebellion broke out, he joined it. His murder was especially deeply felt among Matagalpa’s self-convoked movement, as he was a familiar face in the local mobilizations and protests.

Given his nationality, the crime that took his life is being followed very closely by the US Embassy in Managua, which demanded the government investigate and permit an independent autopsy. By the close of this issue of envío in Spanish, the regime had done neither.

Don Eddy was a known and recognized compañero of both the political prisoners released into house arrest and those still in prison, almost all of them young. They say he was always “advising them” about what was happening; they learned a lot from him and his experience. He also acted as a pastor, holding services that “spiritually buttressed us.”

The circumstances surrounding his murder helped turn his burial into a march of repudiation against the regime. Freed young former prisoners carried his coffin, draped with both the Nicaraguan and US flags, through Matagalpa’s streets to the cemetery while people either joined the procession or lined the way chanting “Eddy didn’t die, the government killed him!” One person who participated in that spontaneous farewell said that a surprisingly large number of people dared come out to show their respects and carried small blue and white flags, now viewed as subversive by the regime. She called it the “first sizable blue and white activity since the crackdown” that wasn’t repressed and felt that people have been through so much they seemed to be breaking through their fear.

The last blue and white mobilization was in Managua in September 2018, the same month as the previous national work stoppage. After eight months of the government imposing “normality” by force and terror, the streets of Matagalpa filled again in mid-May and then emptied out across the country days later for the national work stoppage.

The fourth OAS resolution

As the condemnations multiplied internationally, the OAS Permanent Council met again on May 21 for a new “collective appreciation” of Nicaragua’s reality. Twenty countries appro¬ved a fourth resolution that again demands the government free all political prisoners, provide for the safe return of the exiles, allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to return to Nicaragua and hold fair and observed elections. Only three governments were opposed: the small island nation of St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Surinam, and of course Nicaragua itself, defended in a speech by Valdrack Jaentschke as laced with lies as flagrant as the ones he gave in Geneva. (Nicaragua’s allies in Geneva couldn’t help in this case as Venezuela is now provisionally represented by Juan Guaidó’s envoy, while Cuba decided not to return to this regional body following the lifting of its suspension in 2009.) Ten countries did abstain however: Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and six Caribbean countries benefited for years by Venezuela’s generous oil contracts.

The positive votes on the three previous resolutions were 21, 20 and 21, respectively. This was the final one required to fulfill the process of applying the Democratic Charter to the Ortega regime; it will now be discussed by the continent’s foreign ministers in mid-June. To finally apply the charter, 24 votes are required from them.

The loneliness
of absolute power

To improve its image with the OAS somewhat, the regime sent another 100 political prisoners off to house arrest just before the Permanent Council meeting. As before, it chose them without any input from either the Alliance or the International Red Cross. And also as in the past, the declarations of those released from the clavary of their time in prison thanked God, never the regime. Their joy at being with their family again was mixed with pain for their still-imprisoned friends and vows to keep struggling to free Nicaragua from the dictatorship.

The regime is alone, with an irreversible level of international disrepute and a national repudiation that urgently needs to be measured at the polls. Nicaragua’s economy is in a nosedive thanks to the lack of confidence Ortega’s misgovernment is provoking. The economic crisis is fast-forwarding and it is increasingly evident that no exclusively economic measure will end or even substantially reduce it as long as Ortega remains in power.

Devoid of any responsible strategy and armed only with a policy of vengeance, Ortega and Murillo have relied increasingly on repression and more lies. They are exhibiting to the country and the world as a whole one of the most tragic results of their decision to concentrate power to the extreme for a dozen years: having decapitalized themselves as rulers, they are left with neither strategies nor strategists, neither rationality nor reason. At the command post there is nothing more than the solitude of absolute power.

Playing games with
the political prisoners

From the great weakness and dangerous rigidity of their unquestioning vanguardist self-righteousness, the ruling couple launched a counteroffensive after the unfavorable events starting in mid-May. On May 22 they published what they called the “Work program to achieve stability and peace in Nicaragua.” It is significant that nowhere in the program do three of the words the population is demanding appear: liberty, democracy and human rights.

The program does mention the “definitive release of those no longer in prison, those who are still incarcerated and those who have a process open.” According to the regime’s figures, with the 50 released into house arrest on May 30, a total of 386 people have now been removed from prison, supposedly leaving only 92 more to be released by June 18 at the latest.

Using the careful investigation done by the Committee for the Liberation of Political Prisoners based on information provided by relatives of the hundreds of people captured and jailed over more than a year, the Civic Alliance insists that 233 more are still incarcerated. The confusion is in part due to the unilateral way the government has removed prisoners, preventing any formal corroboration of how many were affected and whether any were truly released or simply transferred to house arrest, or even their names, thus making it hard to cross them off the ICRC list. The Alliance’s objective is that “no one remain in any prison for political reasons; that no one remain as a hostage of Ortega.”

Seven juridical paths
This unilateral government “program” for resolving the crisis does not mention how the annulling of the trials or expunging of the judicial files of those released will be handled. In fact, the regime insists that the prisoners it is letting out are “individuals who have committed serious crimes” and those who are “linked to the violent terrorist acts of last year,” thus implying that their files will not be wiped clean. Its immediate aim in defining them in that way, however, is to give its fanatic followers motive to hound them as enemies of the State.

Supreme Court Justice Francisco Rosales, a member of the government’s negotiating team, let it be understood that the definitive release of all political prisoners and the annulment of the invented trials might occur through a reprieve or an amnesty law. But a group of over two dozen lawyers who have defended dozens of the political prisoners since last year presented a document on May 21 with juridical paths for the seven kinds of cases identified among those still in prison, under house arrest or on the run: detained but held without processing, indicted, tried, sentenced, appealed, sentence upheld, and accused with an arrest warrant but not found, which is the case of many of those currently in exile.

The lawyers took care to explain that the proper procedures need to be followed for these different kinds of cases so that all dossiers can be cleaned in line with the law—if, of course, the government has the will to do so. Their document advocates a juridically correct legal solution and explicitly rejects “the legislative and political route as a means of absolute liberation of political prisoners because it leaves the doors open to still presuming their possible participation in criminal activities.”

“Amnesty is inacceptable”

The defense lawyers’ document explicitly rejects freeing the political prisoners via an amnesty law: “It is inacceptable as it is a strategy to benefit persons who have not been processed, but may have committed crimes in the context of the political crisis.” That is the most diplomatic reference possible to government supporters responsible for hundreds of crimes for which none have even been indicted, save one who was sentenced for murdering a Brazilian citizen, and then only due to pressure from the government of Brazil.

“An amnesty,” says the document, “would close the doors on a genuine process of transitional justice in Nicaragua, on the investigation of crimes against humanity committed in this context, and would generate impunity.” Nicaragua holds what may be a world record of 52 amnesty laws, which have impeded the healing of the wounds of a long history of wars and violence. To avoid amnesty number 53, the lawyers who made this proposal studied the judicial files of each political prisoner. They calculate that the seven juridical strategies they are proposing could lead to all the prisoners being released and their files cleaned in 15 days at most, if the government has the will. The Civic Alliance adopted their proposal to take it to the negotiating table when the time is right.

Democracy and justice

Regarding the unmentioned word “democracy,” the unilateral “program” presented by the regime only mentions “strengthening” the electoral process in line with plans previously drawn up with the OAS, insinuating that electoral reforms will not be negotiated with the Alliance. The government also continues insisting that elections will not be held prior to 2021. It has consistently held to its refusal to move up the elections, despite (or perhaps because of) it being a national clamor and a continual international demand.

And as for the issue of justice, a word that does appear, the “program” states that it is being complied with through the work of “Justice and Peace Commissions.” These were created by Law 985, approved in the National Assembly in January, the text of which sounds like one of the Vice President’s daily appearances in the official media. In a textbook example of assigning a fox to guard the henhouse, the National Police is participating in these commissions. The government claims that 500 have already been set up and are meeting at various levels all over the country. Are they just the Commissions of People’s Power—the governing party’s para-state local organization structures—with a removable name plate?

A mockery and
a slap in the face

In its eagerness to accumulate more unilateral commitments it has no intention of fulfilling, the regime fast-tracked approval of legislation on May 29, the eve of Mother’s Day, that it pompously titled “Law of Comprehensive Attention to Victims.”

As happens with so many laws, this one was approved by the absolute majority FSLN bench in one day, reflecting its scant importance. Despite being a highly relevant issue in Nicaragua’s current situation, there is nothing “comprehensive” in its content, which contains barely five articles.

This miniscule law says nothing about recognizing the truth or providing access to any form of justice. It offers the victims or their surviving relatives nothing more than prioritized access to public health, education, housing, employment, business ventures, leisure and recreation services that the State is constitutionally obliged to provide to the entire population, specifically guaranteeing them priority in educational grants and free entry at public sports and recreational centers.

This treatment of the issue is so superficial and demeaning that Francys Valdivia, president of the Association of Mothers of April, dismissed it as “contemptuous.” “We, the victims’ families, weren’t even consulted,” added Valdivia, the sister of Franco Valdivia Machado, a 24-year-old student who together with 23-year-old Orlando Pérez Corrales died in a hail of bullets fired from the Estelí mayor’s office on April 20.

Azucena Castillo, a Constitutionalist Liberal Party parliamentary representative, seconded Valdivia’s sentiment: “Hearing on Mother’s Day that this law is a gift from the legislative assembly to alleviate the pain of mothers and fathers whose children were murdered or who have relatives in the prisons is a slap in the face.”

The law doesn’t even specify the budget that will be allocated for this “prioritized” attention. It furthermore establishes that the register of victims to be benefitted will be kept by one of the most inefficient institutions, the Office of Human Rights Ombuds¬person, whose director, Adolfo Jar¬quín Ortel, is also one of the five members of the “Truth Commission” created by the Ortega-dominated National Assembly in May 2018 to record the victims of April’s violent events, seemingly for the exclusive purpose of contradicting the figures offered by the IACHR.

In an interview with La Prensa on June 4, the IACHR commissioner for Nicaragua, Antonia Urrejola, used the term “unacceptable” in her critique of the new mini-law. “I can say with certainty that it does not meet any international standard on the issue of reparation. Its presentation of motives offers comprehensive reparation, but its articles omit essential aspects, such as truth and justice as symbolic forms of reparation. Nor does it offer guarantees of non-repetition as a form of reparation, just to mention the most evident flaws of that law. On the other hand, the law ascribes to the official narrative of a ‘failed coup attempt’ and thus denies the State’s repression of all the victims. That is inacceptable and for that reason it lacks legitimacy and the collective construction that any reparation system must satisfy in conformity with inter-American standards on the matter, which Nicaragua is obliged to follow. It is legislation that will be invalidated by the actions of Nicaraguan society itself or the international community.”

The challenge of
transitional Justice

The Civic Alliance, the Blue and White Unity, the Mothers of April, the Committee of Political Prisoners and the entire blue and white opposition in general have been assimilating the idea of adopting a real “transitional justice” process that will guarantee truth, justice, reparation and our country’s right to non-repetition with regard to the victims of the regime’s massive human rights violations since April 1018. They have also been coming to terms with the fact that a transitional justice process is so complex and takes such a long time that it can only be implemented and led by the new government that replaces the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship.

The new “program” and law approved on May 29 show that the regime is either ignorant of the trasn-sitional justice approach or openly rejects it by proposing its own three principles: Forgive, Forget and Don’t Repeat. Only the third one is shared by the concept of transitional justice, but they are interpreted very differently in the two approaches. (For more on this relatively new conceptual human rights focus, see the reflections in the June 2014 issue of envío by Vilma Núñez, director of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center, CENIDH, whose legal status was cancelled by the government last December.)

What non-repetition means

The forgive and forget part of the government’s “program,” which is implicit in the new victims law, is often referred to by the government as the “law of pardon.” Sounding a lot like “clean slate and start from scratch,” as if nothing ever happened here, this could be the predecessor to an amnesty law, which the regime has not yet dared to propose.

As for non-repetition, what it means in the transitional justice approach is structural changes in the institutions and laws that gave rise to the human rights violations as well as the creation of a truth commission or, as the IACHRH’s International Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) proposes, an independent special counsel’s office to get to the bottom of the events and establish paths to justice. In the “rogram,” in contrast, the regime makes a mockery of the past year’s events and of the concept of transitional justice, defining it as follows: “All individuals involved in the failed coup d’état attempt must commit themselves to Non-Repetition, to absolute respect for the Political Constitution and the Law of the Land, contributing in this way to Peace, Tranquility, Security and Reconciliation among all Nicaraguans.”

Campaign against
the Civic Alliance

The regime’s counteroffensive hasn’t focused all its energy on the publication of this unilateral “Program” on May 21. Since the nationapl work stoppage two days later, it has also been punishing pharmacies, restaurants, stores and other businesses in different departments of the country that didn’t open for business that day, canceling their operating licenses or simply shutting them down with a police order.

Then on May 27, the regime used its daily communique to question the Civic Alliance’s legality. And on the same day, it broke into a business belonging to a son of Carlos Tünner¬mann, the Alliance’s prestigious educator and chief negotiator. Equipment was confiscated and four obsolete military weapons—of the kind the Police and Army have—were “found” in the roof. According to the harebrained official allegation, Tünnermann’s son had hidden them there, thus “proving” his participation in the coup-mongers’ violence.

Feeding the
Sandinistas’ blind faith

The regime’s obstinate refusal to admit what has happened and its insistence on a strategy of terror and lies was finally questioned by Bayardo Arce, a journalist in his younger years, one of the nine comandantes of the FSLN National Directorate in the 1980s, later a bank board member and now Ortega’s economic adviser. Speaking at an assembly of judicial workers of the departments of Léon and Chinandega on May 17, Arce criticized the recent tax reform for its effects on the economy. More surprisingly he said there should be no political prisoners in Nicaragua and added that Eddy Montes never should have died the way he did. Arce was also the first and only top-level public official still in his post who criticized the governmental repression in the early days of the April 2018 rebellion.

Quite contrary to Arce’s intelligent position is the mindless hate-mongering the regime is promoting through its spokespeople on radio and TV programs. It feeds the Sandi¬nista militancy’s blind faith in the parallel reality the government constructs day after day, generate fanatical attitudes that block any possibility of achieving a negotiated way out of the crisis and recklessly stoke the hatreds, quarrels, desires for vengeance and other negative passions that hang menacingly over the country’s present and future.

Did the government
just kick over the table …?

Is the “program” the government pulled out of its sleeve on May 22 after the Alliance walked away from the table supposed to be its new agenda, drafted unilaterally to be imposed unilaterally? Is it a parody of a “final agreement” that treats the Civic Alliance as if it didn’t exist, trying to illustrate that it is dispensable?

Was the official communique of a few days later, which states that the Alliance “claims to represent organizations whose legal existence has been impossible to confirm,” a definitive break with the Alliance or just a provocative disqualification?

Is the government thus putting the final period on the negotiation by imposing its agenda, in which it again explicitly insists that “it is staying” until 2021 and indicates implicitly the conditions in which it intends to do so? Did the government just kick over the governing table? Did it kill the dialogue? And if so, what is its Plan B?

If, as IACHR executive director Paulo Abrão expressed it, “the government of Nicaragua has been very efficient internationally in showing that it is supposedly willing to dialogue,” has the moment arrived in which it’s calling that alleged willingness quits, and is imposing its own “accord”? Can it not see that even if it succeeds in imposing it, the country will not return to “normality” and nothing will be accomplished?

…or does it want
a different table?

Many see the regime’s unilateral agenda as being aimed at pulling the plug on negotiations with the Civic Alliance, beefing up the morale of the party rank and file with signs of strength and determination, and confusing and confounding or weakening international pressures. But others see it as a signal that Ortega is tired of negotiating with Nicaraguans and looking to deal directly with the United States.

The latter, including retired Army General Roberto Samcam, argue that the Trump administration’s difficulties in dislodging Maduro from power in Venezuela are leading Ortega to gamble on participating in a more high-level international negotiation. Samcam believes that since Ortega’s dynastic project is no longer possible to achieve, his current strategic objective is nothing more than to “save himself from a long prison sentence, and protect both his family and his usurped wealth.” His hopes to achieve this don’t lie with the Alliance in Managua, since an amnesty inside the country wouldn’t protect him internationally from the crimes against humanity he could be accused of committing by any country at any time as there is also no statute of limitations on them.

If that’s what Ortega wants now, Caleb McCarry, an expert on regime transition was rumored to have offered a lesser version of it in exchange for agreeing to move up the elections when he came exactly a year ago as an envoy of the then-chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Whether or not there was truth to the rumored deal, to which Ortega is said to have agreed, he did not move up the elections and went on to cause much more human damage in the ensuing year, showing how little his word is worth.

How does he think he can
cut a better deal now?

According to Samcam, “Ortega has seen how the threats against Maduro have slowly dissipated into violent rhetoric without going any further; instead a sort of multinational negotiation would appear to be brewing among Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, China and the United States. He wants a sixth seat at that table, to try to negotiate international impunity and the protection of all or at least part of the stolen money in exchange for leaving power and leaving Nicaraguans in peace.”

If this really is the point the governing couple has reached in its thinking, it means that “the coman¬dante is staying” could now have an earlier expiration date than they would like the country to think.

Can Nicaragua
hang on until 2021?

Between Ortega’s incoherent interviews on various international media and the recent spate of repetitive communiques to the negotiating table, he has consistently insisted he’s staying until the regularly scheduled elections in 2021. He affirmed this vehemently to his sympathizers for the first time at a Mother’s Day rally on May 30, 2018, virtually at the very moment snipers were opening fire against the Mothers’ March not 15 blocks away. And he continues to repeat it. It doesn’t seem to matter to him how destroyed the economy will be and in what moral and material exhaustion the population will find itself by then.

Does it matter to the international community? Left to his own devices, Ortega could surely maintain himself as a “weak dictatorship” until 2021 should that suit his purposes; he has been arranging things to make it possible. Pulling it off will depend in large measure on the positions members of the international community take with respect to the Nicaraguan people, and of course their own interests.

Ever since it saw the force of the April 2018 rebellion, the international community has feared a return of the chaos this country that spans the width of the Central American isthmus can cause to continental trade, tourism and investment. More than one country began to emphasize the need for a “soft landing” and the importance of achieving an “ordered transition” in Nicaragua. Are these ideas still viable after the regime’s lack of scruples was laid bare last year? Is there any possibility of genuinely free elections with Ortega still in power, or even still in the country? Will the international voices that consider it better to hold the elections on the scheduled date to ensure an “orderly” way out of the crisis be listened to? And will they carry more weight than the voices of the majority of the population, which is demanding the elections be moved forward and preceded by both national and international pressure to force Ortega’s departure from power before then?

The economic crisis
waits for no man

Will the transition be speeded up with the new pressures and sanctions expected in the ides of June? Or will the international community give Ortega yet another opportunity? If the latter, will he use it to kill off the negotiations inside Nicaragua and prepare the conditions to sit at a different negotiating table? The answers aren’t yet clear, but the economic crisis isn’t waiting around: it is accelerating with all due speed.

The official report on tax collection for the first quarter reflects a palpable drop in revenue, forcing the regime to come up with a major austerity plan. With private national and international investment collapsed, international loans and donations frozen, and tourism in ruins, the remittances sent home by emigrants are virtually the only source of income feeding the starved economy.

After several months without publishing the amount of international reserves the Central Bank of Nicaragua (BCN) holds, which determine macroeconomic stability and the exchange rate with the dollar, it reported that between April 2018 and April 2019 the reserve of hard currencies fell by US$795.8 million, or 27%. The BCN didn’t offer details of the fall of reserves for the first three months of this year, but while all the main indicators that move the economy—investments, exports, tourism and international aid—are dropping, remittances from emigrants and exiles have been increasing. Between January and April, US$518.3 million in remittances entered the country, a 7% increase over the same period in 2018, when US$482.3 million came in. This is due to the greater number of people who have left the country for political reasons and a greater effort by previous emigrants to support their families, given the acute economic crisis.

An implosion within
the circle of power?

May also brought a new element feeding the erosion within the circle of power that could result in an implosion. Long-time Attorney General Hernán Estrada, one of the presidential couple’s most trusted officials, announced his resignation on May 8. His letter to Ortega cited health reasons, but by then he had already left the country undetected.

From his position as the State’s prosecuting attorney, Estrada also acted as “the family lawyer.” With the legal weapons at his disposal, he was thus responsible for an interminable list of legal abuses regarding private properties and state goods that favored the governing party’s leaders and harmed individuals of all social classes. He was replaced by his deputy attorney, a young woman who had just been incorporated as a lawyer and notary in the Supreme Court in July of last year even though the person occupying the post should have spent at least 10 years as a lawyer.

Estrada is the third high-level government official to resign since the April rebellion. He follows the departures of Supreme Court justice Rafael Solís and Superintendent of Banks Víctor Urcuyo in January of this year. To replace Urcuyo, Ortega finally named Luis Ángel Montenegro, who had headed up the General Comp¬troller’s Office for the past 19 years. Constitutional lawyers consider Mon¬tenegro’s appointment illegal and illegitimate because there was no public call for applications and because he was fast-tracked into the position on May 15, even though it had been vacant for over four months. The Comptroller General’s Office has been one of the State’s most inefficient institutions, and Montenegro had kept notoriously silent about the flagrant cases of corruption.

Estrada and former Supreme Court justice Rafael Solís—who assumed the public role of dissident and regime critic after leaving the country, which Estrada hasn’t yet done—were the two pillars on which the current government’s corruption scheme were mounted. In all probability Estrada is a candidate for the Mag¬nitsky Act’s sanctions list, which will begin to be applied as of June 18.

Will the end of the crisis be by implosion or will it come as the consequence of the ongoing “breakdown” suggested by Daisy George, the Caribbean Coast’s representative to the Civic Alliance, in this issue’s Speaking Out section?

“Birth pains”

The country has been experiencing the “birth pains” of a new Nicaragua since the April rebellion, as the Franciscan Silvio Romero described this uncertain and difficult moment in a Mass held in Managua to commemorate the massacre unleashed at the end of the “Mother of all Marches” in the capital city on May 30, 2018. Amen to that, and may the much awaited new arrival ultimately have strong and healthy new genes

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