Here until 2021… and even beyond?
Daniel Ortega’s pretensions are ever clearer as
he repeatedly asserts publicly that he’s staying until 2021...
Will the rapidly nosediving economy allow him to do that?
Will he continue his cruel repression before the eyes of the world,
which is now well aware of what’s happening in Nicaragua?
And how will he be able to neutralize the persistence
of the blue and white resistance?
On July 25, Nicaragua’s Student Day, representatives of the different university coalitions formed around the April 2018 rebellion against the Ortega dictatorship called a march in memory of four students gunned down in León 60 years ago by Somoza’s National Guard.
That crime on July 23, 1959, was called a “massacre” from the very first moment and produced national indignation. The second half of April 2018 and first four days of May produced over 10 times as many deaths, all but 9 of them resulting from gunshot wounds, the majority of which were to the head, neck, chest or abdomen. Of those 45 people killed during the legitimate exercise of social protest in that 16-day period, 24 were young students and 18 were civilians supporting the student protest. Two of the other three were police agents and 1 was a journalist covering the violence in Bluefields.
The innumerable crimes committed by the State over the next three months increased the number of dead to 255, according to the carefully-kept records of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), which together with other human rights defenders and related social NGOs was stripped of its legal status by December. In that same three-month period, during which heavily-armed police and para¬militaries were sent to demolish the barricades erected by the population in towns, cities and highways around the country, CENIDH also reported a rise to 51 deaths among those repressive forces. Their orders are now for more selective violence and abuse, as described in the article in this issue analyzing the six phases of repression so far. But rather than quenching the flame of the civic resistance, it is keeping it alive.
Free homeland … and life!
As expected, the student march called for July 25 was prohibited and then blocked by a massive police deployment. Even though the government negotiating team had signed an agreement with the Civic Alliance on March 29 for the restitution of citizens’ rights, including the right to protest, the National Police, which is playing the lead role in the repression supported by paramilitary groups, has declared a dozen previous mobilizations illegal. But that didn’t stop the students, who staged at least four protests in different points of Managua, forcing the police to disperse.
Given that the last massive march was fired on by snipers a year ago May, killing over a dozen demonstrators, protesters have recently taken a leaf from what the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) called “lightning meetings” in the highly repressive months that culminated in the overthrow of the Somoza family dictatorship. Renamed “express pickets,” they are brief demonstrations that pop up in different places, frustrating the police.
These have added to boycotts of businesses owned by government officials and cronies and continuous small consumer strikes. Both are sometimes organized and sometimes spontaneous expressions of rebellion by a population determined to achieve a “Free homeland… and life!” This healthier twist on the romantically heroic slogan “Free homeland or death” of the Sandinista guerrillas in their armed struggle against the Somoza dictatorship is indicative of a change in mentality by a population largely eschewing the violence that has always accompanied past struggles to create a better country.
One leader of the “blue and white” movement, which has adopted the colors of the national flag to stress that it is self-convoked, not a response to the call of any political party, has referred to these tactics as the “war of the fleas.” This highlights the civic nature of the rebellion to which the majority of the Nicaraguan citizenry pledged its support nearly a year and a half ago and to which it is still committed according to recent polls. It is harder now than most Nicaraguans anticipated at the beginning, when they felt the power of a single march in Managua that brought out an estimated 8% of the national population and stretched for miles. But the unarmed resistance against Ortega has continued to come up with novel political protests to battle a dictatorship armed to the teeth.
The OAS and its ultimatum
July ended with no response by the Ortega regime to the resolution approved on June 28 in the 48th General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) “urging” it to renew negotiations with the Civic Alliance for an effective way out of the national crisis, this time in good faith, and to comply with what had already been agreed to and signed.
The resolution, which gave the government 75 days to do so, “reiterates” thas there has been “an alteration of the constitutional order” in Nicaragua given the innumerable human rights violations, lack of liberties and failure to move on electoral reforms. It thus “instructed” the OAS Permanent Council to form a commission to take diplomatic initiatives “at the highest level” in the framework of the application of the Democratic Charter to find a “peaceful and effective” solution to Nicaragua’s crisis.
But Grenada’s representative Yolande Smith, who took over the Permanent Council’s rotating presidency for three months starting in July, has not taken a single step to implement the resolution’s mandate. That small Caribbean country has also abstained in all resolution votes about Nicara¬gua’s crisis in unison with other island nations as a show of gratitude for the generous oil contracts they have with Venezuela. What can we expect from the OAS at the end of the 75 days?
The 40th “sort of”
reenactment of the Repliegue
With the OAS silent, the regime’s repression did not let up and the month of July brought the annual celebrations that are key yardsticks for measuring the support for the FSLN and the governing couple that runs it: President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.
It began this time on July 6, with the 40th commemoration pf the repliege, the tactical retreat from Managua of thousands of residents of the capital and guerrilla fighters, all of them exhausted and many injured, the night of June 27, 1979. Led by combatants of the FSLN internal front, they walked silently and orderly the 30 kilometers to safety in already liberated Masaya. They made it almost all the way before being discovered by the National Guard.
For years, the commemoration reenacted that walk, which began at dusk and ended with a speech by Ortega in the plaza of the combative indigenous barrio of Monimbó before dawn as the bulk of the blistered participants straggled in, newly appreciative of the feat it had been. It didn’t take too many years, however, before alcohol and strident music began to be a feature of different points along the route. In recent years, Ortega, approaching 70, no longer walked. He drove his armored Mer¬cedes Benz slowly alongside the thousands of walkers, occasionally stopping and getting out to greet people.
By 2017 the event had become a caravan of state and private motorcycles, pick-ups and SUVs and Ortega stopped using his Mercedes. Instead, he and Murillo had comfortable box seats on the second tier of an air conditioned bus from which they looked down on their followers.
Last year’s defeat
Last year, the ruling couple decided to hold the Repliegue on the afternoon of July 13. It was smack in the middle of “operation clean-up” when caravans of trucks full of heavily armed police and paramilitaries were deployed, accompanied by rumbling bulldozers and back-hoes, to topple all the highway roadblocks and urban street barricades, with the combative Masaya a top priority. The Civic Alliance had already called a second national work stoppage for the same day, which was largely respected all over the country. The caravan of government supporters and state employees (not necessarily synonymous terms) was effectively a ploy to fill the normally busy artery from Managua to Masaya, which was empty that day thanks to the stoppage.
The image of Ortega rolling into Masaya, again in his Mercedes Benz, escorted by motorcycle police, was unforgettable. For the previous 39 years, the whole city, particularly Monimbó, had joyously greeted the exhausted walkers with music and refreshments, but this time all doors were closed on the President and no one was on the street. Ortega couldn’t even get into Monimbó as it was still blocked off by barricades. With the caravan cooling its heels out on the highway, Ortega and Murillo had no one to “celebrate” with except hooded police and paramilitaries and nowhere to do it except the parking lot of the local police station/barracks. At that time, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had already accumulated a list of 32 youths killed by state repression in Masaya, and by the end of Operation Clean-up the number had grown.
This year repeated the scene the ruling couple played out two years ago, peering out of an air-conditioned bus, but this time surrounded by 250 cops on motorcycles and 100 police patrol vehicles crammed with police and para¬militaries. A good part of the 500 anti-riot agents assigned to control the route had to trot under the scorching sun alongside the bus. Two helicopters and three drones flew overhead and various strategic points were protected by 28 snipers.
Homes along the route in both Masaya and Managua again closed their doors, as did many businesses and stores in a spontaneous consumer strike. Ortega had to make his speech, a historically short seven-minute one, in a vacant lot outside Masaya before a smaller than normal crowd. His empty words and his body language expressed defeat and frustration.
40/19 in a filled plaza
The government pulled out all stops for the 40th anniversary of the historic July 19 triumph of the revolution—abbreviated to 40/19—to erase the negative images of the Repliegue.
The plaza was full. As always, public employees, who alone total more than 200,000, were obliged to attend. But this year, even more control measures were applied to ensure that they showed up and stayed until the end. Bus and truck owners were forced to bring in sympathizers under threat of losing their permits.
Despite the symbolic power of the number 40, the only head of State who came to celebrate was Anatoli Bibilov, President of South Ossetia, a small territory of 50,000 inhabitants that seceded from Georgia in 2008, supported by Russia, which financed Bibilov’s trip. The only countries to recognize South Ossetia in over a decade are Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the tiny island of Nauru in Micronesia.
No European or Central American governments sent a representative, and the only Latin American countries to do so were Venezuela, which sent Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, and Cuba, which sent the first vice president of its Council of States, Salvador Valdez. “No one wanted to get close, to stain themselves with the blood spilled by this dictatorship,” said Víctor Hugo Tinoco, Nicaragua’s vice foreign minister during the Sandinista government of the 1980s.
The event’s script was similar to other years and, as always, was broadcast on an obligatory national media hook-up. Also as always, Ortega, Murillo and their invitees on the main stage were flanked by dozens of youths decked out in identical tee-shirts allusive of the occasion. Their job was to stand there for more than eight hours in a choreography that looked like a school event designed by Kim Il Sung.
The now traditional invocation of God at the beginning of the act fell to Cardinal Obando y Bravo until his death last year. This time it was performed by Nicaraguan-born Pentecostal pastor Antonio Bolainez, whom Ortega met in 2008 when Bolainez, a spiritual adviser of the then-newly elected US President Barack Obama, returned to head a conference on world political conflicts, the crisis of the Church and the vision of the apocalypse. More than an invocation, Bolainez, an expert in eschatology, delivered an extensive and rambling sermon.
Bolainez was followed by what the regime considered the “star” of the event: Ralph Drollinger, the retired US basketball player turned founder of Capital Ministries, who now leads a weekly White House Bible study group and provides President Trump with Bible study print-outs. He arrived with his wife, members of his team and his own translator. Wikipedia defines him as “a conservative evangelical Christian who describes his belief that there should indeed be an ‘institutional’ separation of Church and State, but that the Church should still ‘influence’ the State. He has also asked President Trump to use his presidency to turn the American government into a ‘benevolent dictatorship.’ Drollinger is also on record as being anti-LGBTQ, anti-women’s rights, and declaring Catholicism as ‘one of the primary false religions of the world.’”
He told the crowd he was bringing Nicaraguans greetings from his “Bible study students” in the Senate, the House of Representatives and the White House and said Ortega had invited him to explore the possibility of offering Bible studies to Nicaraguan politicians. He then turned to explaining what it meant to be a “Christian” politician. When he was through, Ortega sprang from his seat and crossed the stage to greet him effusively, a gesture followed by Murillo. The “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s ninth symphony played in the background.
“Stop the Magnitsky Law!”
By that point it was already clear that the regime was using the participation of these two Evangelical pastors to reinforce the anti-Catholic strategy it has been implementing for more than a year by attacking churches and disparaging and threatening both priests and bishops. But listening to Drollinger, it seemed as if he had been invited for something more: to act as a “biblical bridge” to the Trump administration.
It only took a few more seconds to confirm the suspicion. With Drollinger’s sermon over, Murillo invited Catholic priest Antonio Castro to lead a “prayer to God to keep lavishing miracles and wonders on our Nicaragua.” Castro, parish priest of the Mercy Church in Managua, who has remained loyal to Ortega through thick and thin, dutifully invoked the expected “miracle.” In a prayerful tone, he said. “I would like to ask a favor of you, my brother pastors of the United States, and teachers of the Bible in the US Senate: use your good offices with the Congress, with the Senate of your country, to get them to cease the impositions on Nicaragua. Stop the Magnitsky Law, stop the Nica Act!” The plaza erupted in applause.
breathe in peace!”
That was followed by short speeches by the top three visiting dignitaries. In her usual inflammatory rhetorical style, Rodríguez said the celebration of the 40th anniversary had come “in the midst of dangerous threats against the three revolutions: against Cuba, against Nicaragua and against Venezuela, when criminal economic blockades are attempting to flog the consciences of our free and independent peoples. Impossible, impossible!” she cried, raising her voice higher. “I want to remind Mr. Trump that they are bad times for him. From Free Nicaragua that is resisting and winning, from free Cuba that is resisting and is victorious, from free Venezuela that is resisting and is indestructible, we have to say to him: Bad news, Mr. Trump! Nevermore will we be anybody’s backyard! Take your Monroist doctrine far away with you!”
Encouraged further by the ovations from the plaza, she ramped up the rhetoric: “And I want to remind him of the words from his campaign. You said then, Mr. Trump, that you would not meddle in the internal affairs of other countries. I remind you of it and I tell you and those extremist guards who are accompanying you, Mr. Pence and Bolton, to take your hands off Nicaragua, take your hands off Cuba and take your hands off Venezuela! Leave humanity to breathe in peace!”
The “Drollinger effect”
went up in smoke
We don’t know the exact moment Reverend Drollinger—his resentment mounting at the offenses against his country’s authorities, to whom he preaches the Bible being voiced from the podium and applauded by the hordes below—marched off the stage and left the event with his wife and team. The official TV channel, the only one allowed to televise the event, did not turn the cameras in that direction, but independent cell phone shots show him shaking off an official who tried to stop him.
We only know that Drollinger didn’t hear Rodríguez’s final words, which referred to “the failure-bound imperial geopolitical re-articulation, in which Russia and China are plotting “new paths.” See said of Russia that “just as it freed humanity from fascism, it is today defending stability and international peace.” As for China, she insisted that with “its own development” it is outlining “a new world of respect, justice and international equilibrium” together with Russia.
In a matter of seconds, the carefully designed “Drollinger effect” went up in smoke. Its key figure not only left the plaza, but also the hotel and the country, standing up a meeting with the governing couple scheduled for the following day.
Ortega speaks for himself
The only thing left on the agenda that day was Ortega’s speech, listened to from adjacent stages by historical FSLN leaders, including various guerrilla commanders.
Unlike in previous years, several of them recorded spots calling on people to go to the plaza and gave long televised interviews evoking the feats in which they had participated to overthrow Somoza, while in the plaza itself the mistress of ceremonies called out their names one by one, each followed by a round of applause. At a time when the red and black party has suffered undeniable internal erosion, the motive behind putting the spotlight on the “old” ones is unclear, given that some of them have been relegated and forgotten for so many years...
Ortega spoke for half an hour mainly to his base, not the nation. His words were aimed at imbuing them with confidence, demonstrating that he has strength—which he actually no longer has—and assuring them yet again that he will stay until 2021 “and beyond.” The same message was repeated in giant brightly-colored numbers and letters along the base of the stage, since the threadbare national budget no longer permits the tons of fresh flowers that had previously always decorated any stage on which the ruling couple appeared. As always, and as those who know him well have confirmed, Ortega spoke for himself, demonstrating that he’s still strong and will be here for at least another two and half years.
“We don’t accept sanctions!”
Ortega also talked about the sanctions, which last year he said were of no importance to him. This time, he said angrily, “We cannot accept sanctions because they must be grounded in international law to be applied! Otherwise, no State has the authority to sanction another State, and any State that acts in this way is simply committing crimes of an international nature.”
As Ortega is well aware, sanctions have not yet been applied to the State of Nicaragua, only against two members of his family and nine of his government officials. While he avoided referring to those applying them, would Ortega have railed quite so vehemently had Reverend Drollinger not left the event?
The end of the dialogue
Some expected his speech to touch on two questions: whether he would return to the negotiating table and whether he would move the elections forward. While they were not let down, anyone foolish enough to expect responsible answers was sorely disappointed.
“Dialogue with whom?” exclaimed Ortega rhetorically. “With peasants; laborers: small business owners; artisans; small, medium and large producers; with all who are willing to work for peace and for economic and social production in this country... That is the only dialogue that makes any sense, the only dialogue that has a place in Nicaragua’s current historical circumstances!”
He thus implicitly rejected returning to the negotiating table with the Civic Alliance and again explicitly threw out “bait” to the business class, including the “big fish,” who are increasingly worried about the disaster the economic crisis is causing in the country.
Other sources confirmed that Ortega had “killed” the negotiations with the Alliance that had begun in February and limped forward with stops and starts ever since, signing agreements that the government had no plans to fulfill. The only exception was the freeing of most political prisoners, and even that was accompanied by an amnesty law approved by the FSLN-dominated legislative body and rejected by most of the population, since it protected those who had actually committed the vast majority of crimes during the protests and ever since.
On August 1, the Vatican Nuncio, Waldemar Sommertag, confirmed that a letter signed by Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada had been sent to Pope Francis on July 30 communicating that the negotiating table “culminated with the definitive absence of the other party.” A similar letter was also sent to Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States.
He’s staying until 2021
In the run-up to 40/19 rumors circulated that Ortega planned to announce that the elections would be moved up to the first half of next year. “Who’s going around repeating that the elections have to be done now?” Ortega said mockingly. “What do they want? Do they want us to sweep the elections so they can then say we stole them? The elections will be held in 2021, and we are prepared to win them! And there will be reforms to the electoral law, the adjustments necessary within the framework of the law… So nobody will be able to complain afterward that we stole the elections.” More ovations.
Although his remarks were to be expected, since he was addressing his own rank-and-file—albeit a combination of authentic, forced and fanaticized supporters—Ortega’s speech in the plaza was again irresponsible, as it almost always is. He shows not the least willingness to seriously negotiate an electoral solution. He not only refuses to move up the elections, but makes it understood that whenever they are held they will still be under his control and he will not comply with the obvious condition of a democratic process as stated clearly by European parliamentarian Ramón Jáuregui at the end of his delegation’s visit to the country: “democracy has one rule: to accept the possibility of defeat.”
Ortega’s speech indicated that this possibility isn’t even contemplated. And it doesn’t seem mere bravado. Electoral reforms are now ready to be negotiated with the “parties” that have played his game in the successive elections of recent years that concluded in frauds. Five of these “parties” got a few seats in the National Assembly in exchange for their acquiescence and are now prepared to cut deals with Ortega in exchange for their vote to make any electoral law reforms look negotiated.
From below and from above
Everything suggests Ortega is preparing to govern after 2021 “from below” or “from above.” Either way he can count on an institutionalized structure of hired killers, his now well-armed and organizsed paramilitaries, protected by the shield of impunity he guarantees them. He also now has his approved self-amnesty law and an army of straw men to whom he is busily transferring properties, businesses and money.
But he is not giving up on continuing to govern from above and will retain control of the electoral apparatus. A source inside the regime recently told Confidencial that Lumberto Campbell, who replaced the sanctioned Roberto Rivas as president of the Supreme Electoral Council, “is working silently and full steam ahead, greasing the electoral system in case there should be early elections. If an eventual electoral reform requires a change of magistrates and Campbell has to leave his post, the work in the Council’s middle structures is now done and assured.”
How will the international community react to electoral reforms agreed to without the Civic Alliance? With more individual sanctions? How long before the dozen strongly worded international reports on the grave human rights violations committed in Nicaragua—which continue to be committed—have an effective impact on the regime? Does the international community grasp what it means for Ortega to govern from below, as he has before?
and toward the Middle East
Ortega seemed whipped around the time of the Repliegue, then appeared emboldened only days later during the 40/19 celebration. It’s all political theater. Behind the scenes the ruling couple is extremely concerned about the sanctions already being applied and those probably still to come. They are also worried about their international isolation, which doesn’t seem surmountable, and about the budget gap they are not managing to fill.
The economic crisis, for which they are responsible given their refusal to cede anything, is weakening their base and fanning the flames of discontent and national repudiation. The economic consequences of the sanctions are getting in the way of administering the government and managing a power that looks to be absolute but isn’t.
In their flight forward, they urgently need resources and allies. With the same logic they employed in the 1980s, they are looking for both in the zone of “my enemy’s enemy”: in the Middle East, where in the “reformatted” world referred to by Venezuela’s Vice President Russia is the power disputing geopolitical spaces with the United States.
With the stages set up for 40/19 barely disassembled, Iran’s Foreign Relations Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Nicaragua the afternoon of July 21 on a junket that included the United States, Venezuela and Bolivia.
The tensions between the United States and Iran were already red hot after months of crisis caused by the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal followed by Iran’s enriching of uranium for atomic energy projects Zarif was still in Managua, having declared he had come to join forces with Ortega to deal with Wash¬ington’s “economic terrorism,” when President Trump announced from the White House that he was “ready for the absolute worst” with Iran.
in the 21st century
Ortega hopes this high-level relationship will alter the Trump administration, which has created kindred souls through its sanctions on both governments. “Our peoples,” said Zarif, “are suffering that economic terrorism imposed by the United States and we can’t allow them to impose obstacles to our people’s development.”
Nicaraguan sociologist Óscar René Vargas believes that “Ortega wins little and loses a lot by getting involved in this conflict.” But in Ortega’s logic, which is only aimed at conserving power, what he wins is a shield against Trump’s assaults. The likely big loser is Nicaragua. Ortega isn’t even considering the price that will be paid by such a small country, which should be neutral in conflicts of this size.
Ortega’s cozying up to Iran isn’t explained only by the isolation he is experiencing in this stage of the crisis. It is an affinity that goes back for years, motivating him to ally with others facing off against the empire—or what some more evenhandedly defined as empires—of the North, in a revival of that “third world” of “nonaligned nations” that aspired to join forces in the now remote 1970s and 80s in order to be mice that roared.
Is Iran’s cooperation a smart
tradeoff for US commerce?
Will this new alliance with Iran result in any resources for Nicaragua? After taking power again, Ortega maintai¬ned a tight friendship with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who made dozens of promises of investments in and collaboration with Nicaragua. According to official Central Bank of Nicaragua (BCN) figures, however, Iran’s cooperation with our country has been laughable: just US$1.2 million in 12 years.
Other BCN figures reveal the potential economic risk the Ortega regime could be running. Playing at challenging Trump in his dispute with Iran is tantamount to economic suicide. While Iran bought products valued at US$66,507 in 2018, the United States paid US$3.24 billion for exports from Nicaragua, including from the free trade zone sweatshops. Nicaragua receives just under 70% of the oil it needs from the United States, buying the rest in small quantities from various countries of the region. Nary a drop comes from Venezuela anymore. The United States buys more than 70% of the products from the free trade zones installed in Nicaragua and roughly half of the family remittances that permit thousands upon thousands of families to survive and help alleviate social unrest come from the United States.
From Turkey to Serbia,
from there to Ethiopia and…
The alliances Ortega is trying to forge today extend throughout the convulsed Middle East, focusing on countries in Russia’s sphere of influence.
In the week following July 19, he sought to open other windows to let in a little political and economic oxygen. His foreign minister visited Turkey, another country whose government is on the outs with the United States and the European Union given Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarianism and repressive tactics. The immedia¬te goal of the visit was to open an embassy in Ankara to buttress economic and political relations between the two countries. From there, Mon¬cada traveled on to Serbia and Ethiopia, both of them allies of Russia. The diplomatic junket next went on to the United Arab Emirates…
At about the same time, then-Health Minister Sonia Castro also made a trip to three other Middle Eastern countries open up new relations, first traveling to Qatar to explore possibilities of that government investing in Nicaragua’s agricultural, industrial and tourist sectors. She then visited Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The improvised diplomat was accompanied by late dictator Colonel Gaddafi’s nephew Mohamed Lashtar, who represented Libya’s investments in Nicaragua back in the 1980s and had a lot of power in the revolutionary government. Lashtar then served as Ortega’s private secretary until December 2017 when he was dispatched to Kuwait and Egypt as Nicaragua’s ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary.
While Castro was still on her trip Ortega removed her from her post due to the administrative difficulties she represented to the Health Ministry after both the US Treasury Department and the Canadian government sanctioned her a month earlier for her active participation in the repression of April 2018. She is held responsible for orders given to all public health centers and hospitals in those days not to treat those wounded protesting against Ortega. Re-designating her as his health adviser, Ortega replaced her as minister with Carolina Dávila, wife of Deputy Health Minister Enrique Beteta, in a continuation of the nepotism that characterizes the Ortega-Murillo regime.
Techniques to “neutralize”
the pressure inside Nicaragua
With all this international activity in July, the blue and white movement was itself busy inside Nicaragua, with the continual mobilization of “the fleas,” a resistance that requires persistence, patience and long-term dedication. The blue and whites proved they are the social majority in the streets of towns all over the country between April and July 2018, with their continual enormous mobilizations. A year later they have to prove it anew and in a different way, as the regime’s disproportionate repressive machinery prevents normal protests.
In addition to instilling fear, the repression is aimed at provoking violent reactions that would justify still more violent responses and discredit the opposition, but the determination to stick to civic resistance has been enduring and has become rooted in the national consciousness. No one wants the war Ortega would like to spark…
The capacity of the blue and white “fleas” to exert national pressure is also limited by the nation’s mental and social exhaustion resulting from what criminologists call the government’s “neutralization techniques,” applied consistently from the first moment of the April uprising. The regime denies all responsibility for what is happening, denies the damage it has caused, denies the victims, condemns those who condemn it and cynically appeals to higher values: peace, reconciliation, stability, governance…
unity of “the fleas”
The “fleas’” capacity for domestic pressure also has self-limitations born of what Sergio Ramírez called the “tumult of opposition,” due to its massive nature and the opportunism it triggered.
The exacerbating of rivalries and egos, an expression of Nicaragua’s inherited political culture, opens cracks that are very useful to the regime for infiltrating groups, undermining alliances and creating splits. Ortega knows that the constitutional-rank Electoral Law, which he himself reformed, would allow him to win cleanly and continue governing from above without risking another fraud if the “tumult” continues and no credible alternative forms that represents the entire blue and white unity. Ortega only needs 35% of the vote to win on the first round, which would not be hard to get if a number of other parties get in the race. It would be a replay of his first administration (2006-2011), in which the greatest problem was that he only controlled a minority in the legislative body.
At the brink of
While Ortega continues his repressive rule, believing it will keep him in power until at least 2021, the economy is continuing its steadily downhill roll. It is doing so at a faster pace than in 2018, and on the back of last’s year’s severe deterioration, when the gross domestic product (GDP) had a negative growth of 3.8%. This year the forecast is for even greater negative growth of 5.5%.
The seriousness of the recession is measured cumulatively. Nicaragua never fully recuperated from the negative economic growth of the 1980s, which conditioned the economy in the following years, in fact right up to today. Now we have entered a new cycle of cumulative losses, including of human capital, which has had to flee into exile.
In its latest analysis of Nicaragua, The Economist reports that the econo¬mic recession is threatening to turn into a full-blown economic depression. It predicts that there could be mi¬ni¬mum economic growth by 2021, but only if internationally legitimated elections have been held by then and confidence in the investment climate has begun to be restored. Should that happen, the country would still not see any growth in per capita income until 2023, which means five years without any improvement in people’s living standards, and then only depending on the distribution of the country’s inco¬me. According to calculations by the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development, 1.9 million Ni¬caraguans will be trying to survive on the equivalent of US$1.76 a day by the end of this year.
Although the government is trying to hide the economic crisis, there is no way to paint it over in the streets, the countryside and people’s homes. The gasping hole in the national budget is unclosable and the regime has even increased its spending to consolidate its repressive apparatus. The projected fiscal deficit for 2019 is approximately US$500 million. The government has been unable to obtain funding to close this budget gap, since the mul¬tilateral lending institutions are not granting new loans or releasing funds from already approved ones, while private national and internatio¬nal banks have no interest in buying mo¬re government bonds.
The Economist suggests that the government will have to seek “non-concessional” financing from “other” sources not subject to the sanctions being applied by the US government. What “nontraditional” sources might be willing to help the regime survive?
The economic information
that’s kept hidden
There is clear foot-dragging by the Central Bank to avoid publishing figures that would reveal the extent of the economic crisis. As of mid-July no information had been released for the previous seven months about the state of the construction sector, a standard harbinger of an economy’s health. Nor was there any for the tourism sector, on which Nicaragua depends so heavily. Three months have lapsed without the BCN providing indicators about the public finances (tax collection, the Social Security deficit and the like) or any information about the level of international reserves or the assets, liquidity, credit and capital wealth of the private banks in Nicaragua. Similarly absent are data about imports, exports, the trade deficit and national production as a whole.
These delays in providing information—and the possible fiddling of the books that may be going on before it is provided—are the high cost the country is paying for the centralizing of all decisions, including economic information, in the hands of a single person; the lack of autonomy of the public officials who head the state institutions; and the regime’s need to hide the fact that the national ship is navigating “abnormal” waters.
Ortega is offering
In his July 19 speech, Ortega offered to dialogue with “those sectors” interested in contributing to peace and the economy. His “concessions” in such a dialogue would be to hold elections in 2021 with electoral reforms...
Who does Ortega have in mind when extending this “generous” offer? His closest and most powerful allies until April—the big business elite—don’t want things to drag out until 2021 as they are suffering enormous losses with this unstoppable economic crisis. Like the international community, they want early elections, and will not accept just any old electoral re¬forms. But it is debatable whether it actually suits Ortega to wait until 2021, given the accumulating crisis for which his obstinacy is to blame...
Electoral expert Roberto Courtney, director of the national electoral observation organization Ethics & Transparency, is of the opinion that “there seems to be some room for nego¬tiation” if “Daniel would be delighted to stay until 2021” and the Civic Alliance’s priority is fair elections with full guarantees that people can come out to vote and their votes be counted correctly. Is it reasonable to think Ortega might actually trade off genuine electoral reforms for the holding of elections as scheduled in 2021, given that he seems so determined not to negotiate a single thing… or at least not comply with anything he signs?
Doors closed to
the United Nations
Can Ortega make it to 2021… and “beyond”? It is certainly his intention, and as his only strategy to achieve it is more repression, his perverse logic of terror is increasing little more each day.
In addition to whether or not there will be reforms that guarantee technically clean and fair elections, the mere idea of even holding elections is unimaginable if the current levels of repression remain in effect. The capital, Masaya and other territories are under a veritable state of siege in which mobilizations are effectively prohibited and the para¬militaries have free rein.
While the repression hasn’t let up, it has varied, becoming less visible to those who are not its targets. As outlined by security expert Elvira Cuadra in the Analysis section of this issue, it is entering a sixth phase, characterized by selective murders and brief detentions involving threatening interrogations.
After the updated report on the human rights situation in Nicaragua presented in Geneva on July 10 by United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore, there was a brief moment of hope when it was announced that a high-level delegation of the regime would meet with UN representatives in Panama on July 13. The discussion point would be to set a date for the return of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to Nicaragua, after Ortega cancelled its presence and expelled its team in December 2018.
The hope was dashed when the regime refused to set a date. It simply doesn’t want the UN back in the country. Diplomatic sources in Geneva told the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa that Ortega’s envoys insisted that the media and national human rights organizations were part of the coup attempt.
Other sources said the envoys complained about the content of High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s new report. Still others were more specific: “They fear a devastating report if the OHCHR comes back, like the one it issued on Venezuela.”
The blood that keeps being
spilled in rural Nicaragua
The repression hasn’t ended in the cities, with new people detained, beaten and imprisoned daily and those released from prison under siege even in their homes. But the repression is still more violent and much less known in rural Nicaragua, where the worsening poverty is also wreaking greater havoc, as economist Luis Murillo describes in his Speaking Out article in this issue.
The Colectivo Nicaragua Nunca+, an organization made up of human rights defense lawyers from CENIDH forced into exile in Costa Rica, says the regime is “beefing up a strategy it had been implementing since Ortega returned to government. “While in CENIDH,” says lawyer Juan Carlos Arce, “we were able to document more than 25 murders of peasant leaders, many belonging to the Resistance and all in opposition [to the government. All these killings, committed by the Police and the Army, went unpunished. Now, in 2019, we have already documented 14 murders with similar characteristics. The only new aspect is that there is another actor: the para¬militaries.”
All the murders are of peasants in what is known as the “Contra corridor,” a broad strip of national territory running north-south, who most suffered the war between the US-financed peasant opposition and the revolutionary government’s Army during most of the 1980s.
They are extrajudicial executions
“We consider these murders both before 2018 and now as extrajudicial executions,” says Arce. “In these Army operations there was no attempt to capture the person, much less process him, and there were never any survivors. In 2019 we’re seeing the same pattern of extrajudicial execution, in which the proof lies in the shots, which are both deadly and express rage: aimed at the face to disfigure the victims’ features. And there has been no investigation by the State either before or now. The State not only favors but promotes this intermeshed system of impunity.”
Father José Iván Centeno, parish priest of Our Lady of Fatima Church in Wiwilí, Jinotega, very bravely declared them to be “well-planned executions by men with experience…. that are attributed to common crimes or revenge killings over property conflicts. This is not investigated; it is rather covered up. The victims are people who participated in the demonstrations and protests against the government and have been selected for death. There are many charges of rural people appearing dead in strange ways, which leads to the suspicion that they are selective executions.”
The Army Chiefs
of Staff speak
In the light of this crude reality it is very hard to accept the declarations made on July 25 to different national media directors and also read in a pre-written text by Army chief General Julio César Avilés, flanked by Major Generals Bayardo Rodríguez and Marvin Corrales.
Avilés argued that the institution he heads has no legal basis in the Constitution nor the structure and equipment for the mission of disarming the paramilitary groups, as demanded for a year now by security experts and three of Avilés’s predecessors as Army chief: Humberto Ortega, Joaquín Cuadra and Javier Carrión.
Avilés also opposed calling them “paramilitaries” and insisted that the mission of controlling them pertains to the National Police, as the problem is one of “public order.” According to him, the Constitution defines the Army as “non-deliberative,” which in his understanding means “not only non-deliberation in the political aspect. We also interpret it to mean that we must not invade any aspects that do not correspond to us.”
Without so much as a passing reference to the official version of a “coup d’état,” Avilés complained of the “brutal campaign” launched against the Army, which he claimed is “an institution that has put in blood, sweat, deaths and sacrifice to maintain Nicaragua in desirable conditions of security, tranquility and stability, permanently seeking to reinforce the peace.”
His most surprising comment was to legitimize the Army’s complicit silence, letting it be understood how much worse it would have been had any Army officer responded. “Just imagine,” he said, “a captain who commands 100 men, with 100 rifles with 3,000 rounds. If that captain, who’s also a human being with feelings and whose family might have been attacked, went out with his 100 men, those 3,000 shots could all be fired in less than five seconds…”
Retired Army Colonel Carlos Brenes, responding to Avilés’ declarations, said in an August 4 interview by La Prensa” that “the Army is indisputably coopted. What at one moment of the crisis seemed a patriotic, sensible attitude faithful to the law and the professionalization process, ended up frustrated and in frank deterioration.” The 66-year-old former guerrilla and career Army officer was arrested a year ago August on Ortega’s direct orders, accused of perpetrating terrorism and other crimes for his alleged participation in the highway roadblocks. He spent over nine months in prison in inhuman conditions. Brenes said he perceives “a supplanting by top Army brass issuing criteria and moving toward the regime’s positions. Very veiled, but they are doing it…. Although some officers with personal and political loyalties have been stripped of their privileges, I think the body will win out in the end.”
What we know
and don’t know
The crisis is at such a complex moment, thanks to Ortega’s unbending obstinacy, that it’s not at all clear how he expects to pull off his oft-repeated aim of remaining in power.
Will the business class ultimately go beyond keeping its distance from Ortega, as it has been doing since April 2018, and apply grater pressure for a solution? What effects would new sanctions on other Ortega officials have? Will those sanctions touch the top Army brass? Their latest declarations seem to implicate them clearly in what is happening given their unwillingness to deal with the irregular third armed force that is operating around the country with impunity.
What effects will the worsening economic crisis have on the pro-Ortega base? Will it divide them even more? Will the FSLN’s own business sector, enriched significantly during the 12 years of the Ortega administration and now strongly affected by the crisis, be the one to force Ortega back to the negotiation table? Will the economic crisis be what triggers the next social upheaval? Will a unification of the different expressions of the blue and white opposition be able to change the current correlation of forces?
Almost everything at play today is unpredictable. Evoking Rubén Darío, “there is so much we do not know and barely even suspect…” The only thing we do know is that Nicaragua is now living under the undeserved massive brutality of a perverse dictatorship and that no matter the outcome it will be very difficult to heal so many wounds anytime in the near future.