Confronting the Ortega regime requires national unity
This leader of the Sandinista Renovation Movement,
which joined the PLI Alliance in the recent elections,
reflects on the challenges the country’s current situation
poses for both the political and civic opposition.
Dora María Téllez
Discussing the challenges facing the opposition in Nicaragua requires first characterizing today’s situation, because it’s radically different from what it was before January 10. On that day we didn’t witness Daniel Ortega take office; we watched the ceremony of his imposition. Legal and legally elected officials take office, but Ortega’s candidacy, expressly prohibited by the Constitution, was illegal, and moreover was imposed with the help of an enormous electoral fraud.
Prior to that day, we had talked about President Ortega’s “government” and about his “election” in 2006, even though that election left doubts given the 8% of the votes missing from the Supreme Electoral Council’s published data. But on that occasion they effectively swept what they did under the rug. On November 6, 2011, in contrast, the fraud was widespread and in plain view. Everyone knows about it, and not because they read about it or heard about it in the media or from someone else, but because they lived it firsthand.
We’re up against a powerful dictatorshipHowever much we wish we didn’t have to call it that, we’re up against a dictatorship. What is a dictatorship? It’s a regime imposed by force against the popular will by ignoring the laws. Over the past five years, we’ve seen how Ortega makes his own rules, issuing decrees or simply ignoring the law. It’s the same thing the Somoza dictatorship did, although the Somozas did it a little more elegantly, because they changed laws to suit their requirements while Ortega overrides them with decrees or de facto acts.
We’re also up against a regime with a huge concentration of power. Ortega, his wife and the rest of his family control the judicial system, the electoral system, the comptroller general’s office, the attorney general’s office, the office of the human rights ombudsperson, the prosecutor general’s office and the police, and have the army ducking its head. This concentration of political and institutional power leaves the citizenry, especially the poorest people, totally defenseless when they want to protest or demand something from the state institutions Ortega controls. There’s no justice, just impunity, when power is concentrated and people’s opportunities are reduced. Those with a lot of money or some quota of political power have no problems when power is concentrated, but ordinary people, those with no money and no power, the poorest, can resolve little or nothing.
Ortega, his family and his inner circle also concentrate enormous economic power, which was largely created with Venezuelan money and is going to increase at the cost of big Nicaraguan capital. To that must be added all the media Ortega and his clique have been acquiring; eager to liquidate the independent media, they’ve already bought a good number of national and local radio stations and TV channels. And we can’t forget the power of certain social organizations that have subordinated themselves to Ortega’s interests, not as counterparts or partners but as instruments.
The latest addition: The most recent addition to this model of total control is the announcement of the upcoming creation of Family Councils, which will effectively invade the private sphere. Those who aspire to concentrate power know no bounds: now they want power within families. The Family Councils will be very similar to the Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPCs) and are an admission of their failure, since in their five years of existence, the CPCs haven’t developed into anything more than organic structures of Ortega’s regime.
Like the CPCs, the Family Councils will be created by decree. The idea is to organize each family in the community and that way go scaling up control of the family to the community level, and from there to the municipal and departmental level and finally the national level. The councils will be assigned all functions imaginable: credit, care of people with disabilities, education… everything. The design involves the state, municipal and party institutions in establishing them by April of this year, with a primer handed out to each family that will serve as a guide.
I’m concerned about how those councils will respond to violence against women, sexual abuse and rape within the family, because Ortega’s thesis is that these are private issues that should be resolved in the family. They want to keep them from being seen as crimes, even though the laws define them as such.
In addition to their desire to exercise control in the family space, I’m worried they’ll want to swim against the current of our progress on these issues, threatening the physical, psychological and emotional integrity of women and children. Am I exaggerating? No, I’m just offering a heads up.
A regime without legitimacyWe need to be aware that we’re up against a regime that lacks international legitimacy. Virtually none of the European governments have formally recognized the legitimacy of Ortega’s regime. Only Spain’s Prince Felipe attended the ceremony of imposition and he came because of major Spanish business interests in Nicaragua and Latin America as a whole. Europe has spoken clearly; the preliminary report of the European Union’s electoral observer mission was unequivocal. Although couched in diplomatic language, it made clear that the Ortega regime stole the elections. The Organization of American States observer report also suggested fraud, although saying so more surreptitiously. Nor does Ortega have legitimacy in Latin America’s main countries. Some countries didn’t even send congratulatory telegrams, which is the least that’s normally done.
Ortega doesn’t have national legitimacy either. The Catholic Church hasn’t recognized this government’s legitimacy. After the elections the bishops’ letter made that quite clear and even called on the faithful to mobilize and demand democracy and the rule of law. The independent media hasn’t recognized its legitimacy either. Nor have ordinary people outside of the pro-Ortega ranks. This has opened a deep wound that the acts of the government and party are making worse by the day, adding more illegality and more illegitimacy.
What sustains Ortega?More than US$2 billion in Venezuelan money has come into Nicaragua since Ortega took office in 2006. A new 200-bed hospital and a fully equipped technical institute could have been built in each of the 17 departmental capitals with that money. And $300 million could have been allocated to provide low-interest loans to small producers. But none of this has been done. What we’re seeing is that the Ortega-Murillo family now owns gas stations, hotels, haciendas, television channels, publicity agencies, florist operations…
Is President Chávez aware of all this? As early as 2007 the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) delivered a letter to Venezuela’s ambassador in Managua, Miguel Gómez. In this letter, which was addressed to President Chávez, we explained how Ortega was already using the income from the oil credit at his discretion. We’re sure Chávez received that letter, because Gómez is a very serious man. Of course Chávez knows what’s happening. If he has officials working in Nicaragua, how could he not know, if we all do?
Opposing a dictatorship This whole introduction is to explain what kind of regime we’re opposing, because it’s not the same to be the opposition in a democratic regime as it is in a dictatorship. In a democratic regime you play by the rules of the democratic game and advance or retreat according to how well you play. But opposing a dictatorship is different. Political parties have to act differently with a dictatorship, just like the population, which has a right to civic resistance and civil disobedience in these circumstances.
isn’t like opposing a democracy
There is opposition in Nicaragua. We’re the ones who joined together in the PLI Alliance. Other parties, such as the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and those that allied with the FSLN in the elections, like the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), have to decide whether they’re in the opposition or not. Many civil society organizations are also in the opposition, as are some media and part of the general population. And what is it we all oppose? An authoritarian regime that has imposed itself by force and in which there is impunity and corruption and no justice.
The challenge is how to oppose such a regime. Ortega got the huge quota of power he has today because he stole enough votes to have a steamroller majority in the National Assembly. He doesn’t have to consult or negotiate with anybody. He can even reform the Constitution with just the FSLN bench’s votes, and I’m sure he’ll reform it to allow Rosario Murillo to succeed him.
Will Ortega elect new Supreme Court justices with all those votes? I doubt it. He’ll keep the ones he has, along with the other top officials protected under his illegal 2009 decree. He won’t change anyone, because these people are proven loyalists and because he doesn’t want to upset the hornet’s nest. There’s no point feeding any conflictive ambitions in his close circle.
The PLI Alliance’s first major challenge:Our first major challenge as an alliance is to maintain our unity beyond the electoral scenario with two central objectives: reestablish democracy and fight against poverty. It’s not an easy task because there are differences, contradictions and various ways of seeing things.
To hold together despite its differences
The PLI Alliance is made up of different political forces that agree on the need to reestablish democracy in Nicaragua, but beyond that have major differences. The alliance includes both the center-right We’re Going with Eduardo Movement and the MRS, which is a leftist political party. There are Liberals from the PLC, grouped together in Maximino Rodríguez’s Liberals for a National Project, and Liberals from the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), as well as Conservatives who split from the Conservative Party. And there are also Fabio Gadea and Edmundo Jarquín, who made up our presidential ticket. In short, there’s a whole gamut of political forces. The alliance’s ability to hold together will depend on how it reacts in its political practice, not its discourse.
The first big issue that could pull us apart:The people most profoundly questioned today are the illegal, illegitimate, usurping magistrates who run the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE). Will Ortega change them? Another round of municipal elections is coming up in November, so the first thing the opposition political parties have to decide is whether or not to participate in them. Some parties will surely run candidates in exchange for benefits and perks from the Ortega regime. The only genuine political opposition that has to be asked that question is the one that joined together in the PLI Alliance.
Should we run in the municipal elections?
Will the alliance run in the municipal elections? We in the MRS think that minimum conditions would first have to be met to ensure clean elections without fraud. Going into the elections with the same people who organized and executed the frauds in 2008 and 2011 means knowing we’re heading for more fraud. In my opinion that’s unacceptable, because we already know what they’re capable of doing.
That means changing all the magistrates, leaving not a single one, including any of their alternates, and replacing them with independent, honest people who love Nicaragua and can act in full accord with the law. Such people exist in Nicaragua. They existed in the FSLN once upon a time. There was no fraud in 1990, when the electoral branch was headed up by Mariano Fiallos Oyanguren, an honest, independent Sandinista activist who loved Nicaragua. At that time the FSLN was still a revolutionary political party that didn’t steal elections in direct contrast to the Ortega regime today, which does.
We in the MRS also think that, in addition to changing all the magistrates, the CSE structure has to be totally stripped of its party bias, top to bottom, to wipe out Ortega’s control of the whole apparatus. I don’t think new appointees to the CSE should obey a pact that assigns a number of magistrates to the FSLN and a number to the PLI Alliance. That’s just a divvying up of posts, like Alemán did some years ago. Some say we have to accept that, because “at least it’s something.” But we want to reestablish democracy, not grab what we can. With Ortega’s magistrates in the CSE we wouldn’t do anything. What use would those posts they give to the opposition be to us? They might allow us to denounce what they do. Big deal! We already have enough denunciations of the fraud to fill halls! There’s no need to demonstrate that Ortega and his cronies steal elections; it’s more than demonstrated already. What has to be done is ensure free, transparent and democratic elections, where the communities elect their authorities transparently. Does the 4 +3 formula [4 CSE magistrates for the FSLN, 3 for the main opposition party] guarantee that? No. Would a 3 +3 + 1 formula do the trick? No. Neither quotas nor pacts nor changing some Ortega loyalists for other Ortega loyalists would change anything or serve the Nicaraguan people. What we need to achieve transparent and viable municipal elections is to put independent, honest people in the Council and change the rules of the electoral game that gave Daniel Ortega absolute control over all the voting tables. That’s the MRS position. I’ve heard Eduardo Montealegre say that his movement doesn’t agree with going into the elections with that CSE either.
The PLI Alliance will have to make its official position public by the time the call for these elections goes out. We hope it will clearly demand the minimum conditions for participating in genuinely free, democratic and transparent elections. If the alliance doesn’t participate due to a lack of real conditions and guarantees, this will increase the Ortega regime’s legitimacy crisis and there will be no way it can announce to the world that it has held democratic elections. Will Ortega win all the mayor’s offices that way? I guess so because if there are no adequate conditions, there will once again be enormous fraud, allowing them to end up with all the municipal governments, as they’ve already announced.
The second big issue that could divide us:The second question the alliance has to decide is whether its legislative representatives should participate in the National Assembly. Many people who voted for the PLI Alliance didn’t agree with our new representatives occupying their parliamentary seats because they think it would legitimize the electoral fraud. Other people, me included, were in favor. The PLI Alliance representatives who have taken up their seats in the Assembly are obviously facing a crucial test, because all of us on the outside will be watching what they do and don’t do, and what they say. Given that the situation is so critical, those of us in the street aren’t going to let them get away with any dualistic behavior.
Should we participate in the National Assembly?
The different parliamentary groups in the alliance have to watch their behavior very carefully not only in the National Assembly, but also in public and even in private when it’s of a political nature. None of these representatives won their seat with a blank check. They won it with a popular mandate to reestablish democracy and combat poverty, because that’s what Fabio Gadea, the alliance’s presidential candidate, promised. In a situation like the one we’re up against, their positions have to be consistent with people’s interests and sensibility.
Dualistic behavior isn’t admissible. The only acceptable opposition is one that transparently defends the reestablishment of democracy and people’s interests by really fighting against poverty. The PLI Alliance’s 26 representatives aren’t ordinary legislators. Any diddling around, any flirting or any mini-deals cut with the governing party will have dire consequences for them and for the alliance as a whole. They have to present bills designed to rescue democracy and engage in a genuine battle against poverty. That’s what those of us outside expect of them. And even if Ortega has his steamroller to mow down any PLI Alliance initiative, those representatives have to demonstrate their political will with respect to what they want for Nicaragua. Even assuming the governing party bench will shelve their initiatives, the PLI Alliance has to demonstrate with crystal clarity what it wants to achieve in the political, economic and social camps. We want to hear their initiatives; we want them to show us that they’re exercising the representation we gave them with our vote. We expect that they took up their Assembly seats because they intend to speak for those outside who have no voice. And what they say has to be clear and powerful. They have an enormous challenge, and they may not feel up to it, but one is expected to grow to fit the measure of the challenges one has to face.
The PLI Alliance bench has to speak publicly about its parliamentary agenda. This hasn’t been evident so far, perhaps because they’ve barely begun to work. But we want to see that agenda. I understand they’re working on it and we hope they’ll unveil it publicly very soon. I think one of the first tasks of that agenda should be to investigate how Daniel Ortega and his family have turned into an economic octopus. PLI Alliance Representative Pablo Ortez now chairs the parliamentary Probity Commission and I’m hoping he’ll launch an investigation into that.
The PLI Alliance agenda also has to include initiatives to put an end to the privileges and perks that benefit this country’s political caste: extremely high salaries, mega-pensions for Supreme Court justices, privileges for ministers, vehicles without license plates for top officials who go through the streets with bodyguards and sirens and live in houses guarded by police officers who should be out protecting the grassroots barrios...
The alliance’s second major challenge:Another challenge for the PLI Alliance is to build anti-dictatorial unity, to pull together all those in Nicaragua who oppose the Ortega dictatorship. To achieve that, there’s no place for sectarianism or intolerance or underhanded competition. There has to be patriotic spirit and a long-term vision. Adding is more complicated than subtracting; it takes more intelligence. The PLI Alliance is obliged to bring together all Nicaraguans, all political and social forces, all who oppose the Ortega-Murillo family clan’s dictatorship, all who want to really, genuinely be an opposition. Building such unity is a huge challenge in a country where mutual distrust predominates and political cannibalism is a daily occurrence.
To build massive anti-dictatorial unity
Is the PLC in the opposition? I think it’s still unsure whether to oppose or try to reheat its pact with Ortega, even though neither the PLC nor Alemán matters to him at all anymore. The results the electoral magistrates fabricated for it actually contained even more votes than it actually got. So the PLC took a direct hit, with Nicaraguan voters severely punishing its presidential candidate Arnoldo Alemán as the embodiment of the pact. The PLC is now saying it’s retooling the party. We can already see a sector that ran off to court the governing party in search of perks while others are saying the PLC shouldn’t participate in the municipal elections and want it to really act like an opposition.
Will the Alliance for the Republic (APRE) remain allied to Ortega and his followers? That’s a decision they’ll have to make. Will the Conservative Party stay with the electoral alliance it made with the governing party or will it join the opposition? I think that if they decide to become an opposition again, we have to unite with them to do it jointly. And the ALN? If it wants to become opposition, we should welcome them to the ranks. It’s not the time to fight about who’s more to blame for what happened. The MRS position, which we believe should also be the PLI Alliance position, is to invite all those willing to oppose the dictatorship from all possible positions. Our duty is to foster a single opposition that is really pluralist, inviting everyone to form part of it.
The alliance’s third challenge:The PLI Alliance needs to keep the international community abreast of what’s happening. The groups that make up the Alliance are obliged to keep their respective international currents informed: the Liberals to the Liberal International; the Conservatives to the Conservative International and other conservative groupings; the MRS to the Left… so no one has the excuse of pretending they didn’t know Ortega is a dictator even though he evokes memories of the revolution. We leftists can’t be slaves to the memory of what we lived in the revolutionary years, which should be the underpinning to free ourselves, not enslave ourselves.
Keep the international community informed
I remember Daniel Ortega when we were struggling against the Somoza dictatorship, but I don’t recall that we fought to enrich his family. I didn’t take risks, including with my life, to change one dictatorship for another. For many of us who still carry Sandinista values and principles in our heart, it has been very hard to recognize that Ortega’s project is the only thing remaining in the FSLN, because that project isn’t the Sandinista project. It’s a parasitic aberration of what the FSLN once was. Sandino would be turning in his grave if he knew how they’re using his name in vain.
The alliance’s fourth challenge:The other challenges for the political opposition lie outside the National Assembly. They’re out there in the street, in meetings, in our work with people, with communities. The sphere of political mobilization is very broad. As citizens, we have the challenge of expressing our opposition, and as the political opposition we’re obliged to articulate that civic opposition in a platform and in organized struggle.
Mobilize as a people
We have to mobilize as a people if we want to shake off this regime. It doesn’t have a majority, and the majority of people who disagree with what it’s doing have to say so whatever way possible. With the means at their disposal they have to express their opposition, whether talking to their neighbors, in their group, at work or in the streets when necessary. They must not remain silent, because silence is the main accomplice of dictatorships. The success of a dictatorship comes from getting everyone to hunker down and say nothing, to no longer talk about the situation. It comes not from cracking heads, but from not having to do so because people are afraid to speak out. It’s comes not from tightening the knot around a journalist’s neck, but from not having to do so because the journalist censors himself. We have to speak out wherever, however and with whomever we can. And we have to do it all the time, until we put an end to this regime.
The Ortega project’s goal is to make us insensitive, to get us used to everything they’re doing, starting with that craziness of having a dozen Christmas trees in all of Managua’s traffic circles lit up using electricity all year long. Will we get used to it? That’s what the Ortega regime wants. That we get used first to the Christmas trees, then to the pseudo-religious speeches, and then to all of its arbitrary actions, even getting us to believe what they want us to believe: that they will govern for forty years.
Our challenges as individuals, as citizens, are as important as the challenges of the PLI Alliance legislative representatives. And the first thing we have to do is resist becoming insensitive, getting used to and accepting that”that’s how things are and how they’re going to be.” Our challenge is to be revolutionaries in the most profound sense of the term: not accepting what this family clan wants to impose on us. And to be clear: if a family is governing the country today, it’s logical that the little municipal caudillos want to do the same, and are doing so, in their municipality. Caudillismo is contagious. We can’t get used to that either. It’s true that Bolaños and Alemán also put their own relatives into government positions. But we mustn’t get used to it, justifying their continuing to do it just because it was done before.
How long a life does this regime have?Frankly, I think this regime will have a short life. It’s starting its second term mortally wounded by its crisis of legitimacy, because it doesn’t have the support of the majority of people. If it did, it wouldn’t have had to steal the elections. It’s going to come up against some economic problems, some of its own making and others due to the international economic crisis. It’s going to have a short life because we’re in the 21st century, because communications function differently now, because it can’t control everything; no one can, no matter how much they may want to. The Arab mobilizations to bring down dictatorships demonstrate that. They can’t control the messages on mobile phones. Nicaraguan society has changed. Young Nicaraguans are different now.
It will also have a short life because it has internal contradictions. In the past five years, the heads of the oldest militants in the FSLN have been rolling. And now, coming up on the municipal elections, we’re seeing a movement of people within the party who are demanding primary elections to select the mayoral and Municipal Council candidates. That demand in so many municipalities is another sign of the regime’s short life, indicating that a substratum of people within the Ortega fold wants democracy and is going to act at some point.
There are still those within the FSLN who value the original Sandinista principles, and are now demanding primary elections. And they’re right to do so; it’s healthy. I frankly wish them the best, but they need to remember that Herty Lewites, Víctor Hugo Tinoco and Mónica Baltodano were thrown out of the FSLN because they pushed for primaries. Everyone who has demanded democracy within the party has been thrown out.
That’s why they don’t tolerate the MRS. They dismantled our whole territorial organization at least three times and have cancelled our legal status twice, both times when we were going to participate in municipal elections. They were gambling on the MRS collapsing, disappearing, but they didn’t kill the MRS; it didn’t die. The MRS is a reality in Nicaragua, increasingly consistent and stronger. And it’s going to continue being so, because it represents a leftist Sandinista option, one that’s no longer in the FSLN, and certainly not in Ortega’s project. That’s why they’re afraid of the MRS, and they have reason to be.
Is the opposition up to all those challenges?There will always be a force that’s up to the challenges. There are those who say there’s no opposition in Nicaragua, but that’s not true. The opposition consists of all of us who oppose what’s happening. The PLI Alliance has been a genuine opposition force. Now that the electoral scenario in which it was born has passed, its political leadership has to respond to the challenge of becoming a force that organizes, mobilizes, represents and links us all into a platform of struggle. And we must demand it of them. If it’s not up to that demand, there’s no lack of leadership to assume that role.
There’s no reason to become demoralized. People talk about the Nicaraguan population’s passivity, but that’s a false perception. We need to recognize that no social group mobilizes constantly. People mobilize, get tired, mobilize again, recoup their forces… That’s how societies operate. I think Nicaragua’s a very mobilized society, much more so than it was during the Somoza dictatorship, when there was hardly any organization. What happened is that everyone only remembers the last year and a half of the dictatorship and forgets all the previous ones, when only the university students, and very few of them, mobilized.
The mobilization is already startingI think we’re in the first stage of mobilization after the fraud, that we’re entering the new reality the fraud left us, and I think we’re going to see a lot of social mobilization. We’re already beginning to see it. Look, for example, at the taxi drivers firmly demanding the dismissal of Francisco Alvarado, the Ortega-Murillo family’s representative in the transportation business. That’s a social protest, social mobilization, as is the opposition of FSLN militants to the imposition of municipal candidates. Everyday we’re seeing outbreaks of protest in a society that’s beginning to make specific demands and continually confronting various expressions of the dictatorship that’s oppressing it, lopping off its rights and opportunities. They are all mobilizations against the dictatorship. People may not call them by that name, but that’s what they are, because they’re opposing the tentacles of the dictatorship that are doing damage to different social sectors. We’re going to see that level of mobilization grow and gain more and more strength.
Political mobilization has its rhythms and its moments. What political scientist foresaw the changes in the Arab world? In one year various countries went from apparent social passivity to a seething mobilization that brought down decades-old totalitarian regimes. The same thing happened in Nicaragua, where the opposition was a minority until 1977. Who would have said that only a year and a half later Somoza would be boarding a plan and fleeing Nicaragua? No one. People move in a moment and because of a spark. This dynastic dictatorship won’t last long. It will have a short life, and many people who aren’t mobilizing today will do so tomorrow.
We don’t need armed strugglePeople sometimes say to me in the street: “Are you ready for the armed struggle?” And I jokingly reply: “Nah, I’m too old, you go; you’re young!” One’s never too old to struggle, but I want to stress that we’re completely against armed struggle, and not because there’s no reason for it. Go to the rural areas and see how people feel: repressed, threatened, intimidated, harassed, fleeing their communities…
It’s true that there are uprisings in rural areas. It’s not hard to mount an uprising in Nicaragua, to organize armed struggle. There are weapons and bullets buried everywhere. And there’s a social base for it with plenty of experience, because everyone over the age of 40 saw at least one combat and was in some kind of military organization. There’s no need even for training. Organizing an armed struggle here is easy, but it’s not what we need right now. The country has to break the vicious circle of authoritarian regimes that climb to power at the point of a gun and are brought down the same way. We have to end this by mobilizing, by mounting a decisive political and civic opposition.
Dora María Téllez, former FSLN guerrilla commander, health minister in the eighties and National Assembly representative in the early nineties, was one of the founders of the MRS.