“We’re Still Concerned about the Human Rights Situation”
A veteran human rights activist reflects on the promotion and defense of human rights in the new setting created by
the governing FSLN.
Gonzalo Carrión Maradiaga
When Daniel Ortega was elected President, his sym-pathizers said to us in the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), “You’re going to have no reason to exist any longer! Human rights work in Nicaragua is finished!” But that’s impossible. Anyone who exercises power is capable of abusing it.
Most of CENIDH’s work is with the poorUnfortunately, there are always human rights violations, and there will be in this government, too. For 17 years we have struggled to help people suffer less and enjoy their rights more. Today, there are people who expect less suffering under this government, but public speeches are one thing and reality is another. The majority of Nicaragua’s population has huge economic problems that aren’t just going to go away for all the international cooperation our friends in the South are now sending us.
In these 17 years, we in CENIDH have received many charges of violations of economic and social rights from people who are excluded, marginalized and discriminated against. Some 80-90% of those who come to us are poor people with serious economic difficulties and no opportunities. The main human rights violations they’ve filed in CENIDH are related to property problems; labor problems, especially in the maquilas; mistreatment of prisoners; and domestic violence against women. Given that virtually all those filing the charges are poor, they’ve had serious problems accessing justice. The general pattern has been impunity for the practice of abuses due to lack of state protection.
No sign of violations goingOn average, CENIDH receives about 5,500 cases of human rights violations a year through our head office in Managua, our three branches in Matagalpa, Estelí and Chontales and our network of promoters all around the country. And we’ve continued receiving charges in these first five months of the new government—a lot of them—against both the state and the private sector. On June 25 alone, 13 different groups and individuals presented new cases of human rights violation in our offices—that’s a record, 13 in one day.
down with the new government
Regrettably, this government, like others before it, is acting with a “winner takes all” philosophy, the mentality that “it’s my turn and now that I’m at the top I’m going to do to you everything you did to me when I was at the bottom.” This new administration has swept out a lot of the old state workers, although not as many as with the previous three governments because it has been hampered by the recent Civil and Administrative Service Law, which guarantees greater stability for public employees.
Land-grabbing is nothing newThe issue of the “land-grabbing mafias,” which has been such a hot topic recently after the Esta Semana TV program exposed extortion charges against FSLN officials, is also nothing new. It crops up again and again in the denunciations CENIDH has received since 1990. Law 88, issued by the FSLN just before leaving office that year, gave rural property titles to huge numbers of people, but how many of them still have their land? There ought to be a study of how many still do. I only know that the change has been drastic. We’ve received so many cases of cooperatives or collectives that had a 50-hectare farm, for example, and the coop leader cheated all the members, made them sign papers they didn’t understand and ended up with all the property. It’s a story we’ve heard over and over.
The same sort of thing has happened to Army and Ministry of Government veterans, as well as demobilized members of the Resistance—the “contras.” We’ve heard so many stories of a collective of say 30 people who were given 700 acres by the Chamorro government for reinsertion after the war and as they aren’t used to working such a big farm or didn’t have the economic capacity to make it produce, they ended up selling it for a pittance to a landlord interested in accumulating land.
We’ve seen a return of the big rural estate owners and housing landlords in Nicaragua. In Chinandega there’s a guy who’s already bought over 18,000 hectares this way. And we’ve received a charge from a cooperative located in the middle of that huge estate. The main river that irrigates the whole area passes through the coop’s land, so this landlord is harassing them every which way to make them sell it to him There’s no judicial institutionality or police patrol to defend that cooperative.
The case of Vicente Padilla, who owns 3.5 acres in the middle of another big estate, which was documented by envío in September 2006 is emblematic of the property problems, abuse of power and judicial partiality toward the wealthy. Both Padilla and the author were sued for libel by the powerful landowner who has been harassing that peasant for years and the judge found her guilty despite her rigorous research into the case.
Child support by irresponsible fathersAnother hot issue is that of women suing to get irresponsible fathers to comply with their child support payments. Poor women who demand their right to child support get treated very negligently by the Public Ministry, and justice fails to act. In 2006, Managua’s penal courts received 137 charges by women demanding their right to child support payments, and so far in 2007 they’ve already received 31, but less than five men have been arrested for that crime. We know of poor women who have spent up to six months begging the Public Ministry to accuse the irresponsible father. And if the case does finally go to court, what we observe are prosecuting attorneys who are either disagreeable toward the women, don’t prepare well or don’t even show up to the hearing…
is another big and complicated issue
One case CENIDH took on was the flip side of that. Businessman Manuel Ignacio Lacayo was sentenced to two years in prison after his ex-wife sued him for $2,000 a month more than the $1,000 he was already paying for their daughter. Charging that his case was judicially manipulated by Lenín Cerna, who was state security chief in the eighties, is the current FSLN organizational secretary, and happens to be the brother-in-law of Lacayo’s ex-wife, Lacayo asked CENIDH to look into the guarantees of due process, which we did and were able to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of this case.
Some question what CENIDH is doing getting involved in the case of a man with so much money, who can defend himself and could certainly afford a lawyer. Our answer is that we have to defend the human rights of all people, without distinction. And in this case, Lacayo is up against someone who has more power than he does. CENIDH took no stand on whether he had or had not paid a given amount of money for the child.
Lacayo was subpoenaed to appear for a pre-trial hearing in the Public Ministry on Easter Thursday and Good Friday, and he was formally accused within days. It was virtually record speed, and that was only the first exceptional aspect of the case. Such diligent treatment of his case is suspicious at the very least, and the way he was treated in jail constitutes a violation of his human rights.
In contrast, we attended an appeal hearing on another case in those same days in which a prosecuting attorney showed up who knew nothing about the case and said whatever came into his mind; the accused ended up being declared innocent.
Part of our strategy is toCENIDH took an interest in Lacayo’s case because it’s about human rights, as the media has rightly demonstrated. The reality is that if he hadn’t been so well-known and well-heeled, the media wouldn’t have given his case so much coverage. On the other hand, they pay no attention to quite a lot of important cases because certain interests want them kept low profile. We in CENIDH, for example, are accompanying one woman who is suing her daughter’s father—a university lecturer who teaches in six universities—for failing to provide child support. The media doesn’t want to touch the case and only one radio station covered it.
make a lot of noise in the media
When CENIDH makes a ruckus in the media, we’re trying to provoke a mass reflection to motivate women to claim their right and demand justice for themselves and their abandoned children. We want people whose human rights have been trampled in the same way to realize that they can file a claim, can demand that those rights be respected. We want this media ruckus to have a multiplier effect, and it works. Every time we get an exemplary case in the media, similar cases show up at our door the next day.
But we don’t only make noise in the media. We also accompany at their pretrial hearings or family trials a majority of the women suing for non-payment of child support or suffering so many forms of violence. How is a poor woman going to stand up in court and accuse or sue a man all on her own? What lawyer will go with her, and how much will he charge? We accompany these women and give them advice. And then we send reports to the appropriate institutions and pressure the Public Ministry not to repeat its negligence. We present complaints, meet with the judges who have issued the verdict... And we do the same with the police chiefs when the police violate human rights as well.
Respect for human rights What have we achieved? How effective have we been? Changes in respect for human rights don’t happen overnight. Getting to the roots of how justice is imparted in Nicaragua and altering the practice is a very long-term goal. We aspire to and struggle for that strategic goal, but we’re convinced that effectiveness doesn’t depend only on us as a human rights organization. It largely depends on the victims having the will to fight and on those who abuse their power having the will to change.
doesn’t just depend on us
Respect for human rights isn’t determined by the existence of a human rights organization; it’s determined by the decision of the victims to fight for their rights. Humanity hasn’t won a single right that hasn’t been preceded by a fight. You don’t get rights by begging for them and rulers don’t give them away. That’s why our motto is: “A right not defended is a right lost.”
The Councils of Citizens’ Power worry us tooIn these first months of the new government, we’re also concerned about the future of the Councils of Citizens’ Power, which are being officially established across the country on July 19. Will these Councils be used to consolidate civil rights or to limit them? They are being organized from the executive branch as bodies of civic participation, but our concern is that they could contradict national laws if they exceed the power granted to institutions by law. The FSLN has worked intensely on the ground to create the Councils, which are supposedly state entities. This is already a contradiction, one that will become even greater if the FSLN’s party structures direct and control the Councils, because that would make them State-Party bodies, which would be illegal. The fact that the Councils will be launched on July 19, during the FSLN’s annual celebrations of the overthrow of the Somocista dictatorship, is in itself an indication of this illegal State-Party linkage.
The Councils are still in the early stages of development, but we already know the control that the FSLN’s political leaders have over some of them, and some of these leaders are less than exemplary, while others are very unpopular in their own territories. We know that some Councils are being headed up by the FSLN’s base committees, while in other territories the base committee has simply transformed itself into a Council.
We are also worried about how these Councils will function. What are they going to do, why were they created? Will they be mechanisms of social control or of civic participation? It is said they will have an eminently consultative function, but the official propaganda is stating that they “will decide” and that the ministers will respect their decisions. It is also said that the Councils will decide laws. But will they do so without going through the National Assembly, which is responsible for debating and passing laws?
With so much power, wouldn’t these Councils of Citizens’ Power and their functions have to be established in the Constitution? And wouldn’t this require a constitutional reform?
In some neighborhoods we’ve seen that the existing and functioning community organizations or residents’ associations are “joining” the new Citizens’ Power Council. Will these organizations maintain their independence or will the Councils want to monopolize organization to the point that everything in the community is done through the Councils alone? If this is the aspiration of the Councils, it would contradict the legal order.
President Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo are publicly proclaiming that they are changing the system of government. But it can’t be changed by decree. It can only be changed by amending the Constitution. Do they think they can change it through the power they’re going to give these Councils? When they claim that they’re going to change the system of government then talk about the power that the Councils are going to have, one can assume they want to change the model at its roots. But without making constitutional reforms?
For the past 17 years CENIDH has received complaints against authorities of all political stripes who are abusing their power. We will continue on the same path and receive any denunciation presented to us against the current presidential couple or any public official or private individual who violates human rights. Our independence is guaranteed in our day-to-day work, always in favor of the life and quality of life of the majority.
Gonzalo Carrión Maradiaga is director of CENIDH’s Juridical Area.