Rearming in the north and reforming the Constitution
The authoritarian model, the closing of spaces and the policies of exclusion and social control in areas that lived through the war of the eighties have led peasant groups to take up arms again. The planned reforms to the country’s Constitution
will deepen the authoritarianism and the concentration of power
in the President of the Republic and do not bode well for any attempts to deactivate this problem. In fact they are more likely to aggravate it.
Right before the Day of the Dead, we learned that the FSLN National Assembly bench had been given a sneak preview of a bill reforming 39 articles of Nicaragua’s Constitution. All bench members backed it with their signatures. The following day President Ortega formally sent the Assembly the reform bill, which the government has been talking about for some time. They were revealed at a moment in which the population in rural areas of our country is experiencing uncertainty and anxiety.
“We’re being harassed” On October 9, a skirmish between Army troops and armed rebels in the Anisales 3 district of the municipality of Pantasma, Jinotega, left one armed man dead. According to the Army a local peasant, 28-year-old Yairon Díaz, was killed in the crossfire but the community insists he had been tortured and executed. More than a thousand community members attended his burial. Those who saw his body say he had a bullet wound in the leg, a stab wound to the heart, his throat had been cut and half his head was smashed in.
“Pantasma has 84 communities and 4 urban neighborhoods and everybody knows they killed a man we all knew and loved,” said 61-year-old Julio Meza, who described himself as “born and raised in Pantasma and a lifelong resident.” “I’ve cried for him as if he were my own family, as if he were of my own blood. He wasn’t one of the armed men; he was an unarmed farmer who tilled his land and gave us food. He wasn’t a delinquent. The fact that they’re saying that about him has pained our heart. And we’re in panic, wondering who’ll be next.”
Mr. Meza also described himself as a poet, and graced us with a simple rhyme he composed after the tragedy, which summarizes what various communities in the northern part of the country are living through today: We find ourselves with fear / on a dead-end road / What we want / is for our life to be respected / The fear hasn’t passed / they aren’t things of destiny / The man they killed / was a poor peasant / Poverty isn’t a crime / but we are harassed / There’s no work in the field / because we’re scared.”
“There are indeed Since 2009 Nicaragua’s Catholic bishops have been talking about the presence of groups in rural zones that have taken up arms again in opposition to the Ortega government. The bishops have not supported them, but have stressed the need to pay attention and put a halt to this situation.
Five months after Nicaragua’s Episcopal Conference first denounced the fraud in the November 2008 municipal elections, several bishops stated that the evidence of this fraud had motivated some groups to take up arms in the northern mountains. The Army minimized this, saying they were “criminal gangs” that had been operating for the past 15 years in various areas of the country.
On that first occasion it was Abelardo Mata, the bishop of Estelí, who most strongly insisted that politically-motivated rural discontent was moving toward armed violence. He has continued referring to the presence of rearmed groups in his diocese ever since. When “Yajob,” the pseudonym of one of the leaders of those groups, appeared dead under strange circumstances in 2011 and another, “Pablo Negro,” suffered the same fate in 2012, Bishop Mata repeated his call to reflect on what was happening. The recent confrontation in Pantasma has put the reality of the armed rebels back in the news and made the country much more aware of it.
Bishop Mata’s political profile casts obvious suspicions on his always incisive and intellectually articulate declarations. He headed the committee that defended the innocence of former President Arnoldo Alemán, accused of serious acts of corruption, and was also active in defending former General Tax Division director Byron Jerez, Alemán’s right hand during his administration (1997-2001), against similar charges. But Mata isn’t the only one making this claim. The bishop of Matagalpa, the archbishop and auxiliary bishop of Managua and the bishop of Jinotega have seconded his declarations over the years.
The bishops all agreeThe Franciscans have had an ongoing pastoral presence for decades in Matagalpa and Jinotega, two northern departments of Nicaragua where the main “contra corridor” routes were located in the war zone of the eighties. They know these areas and their residents better than many other social workers or public officials.
dialogue is necessary
The words of a brief text by Franciscan Carlos Enrique Herrera, Jinotega’s bishop, therefore merit highlighting. He made them public two days after the confrontation in Pantasma, which is in his diocese. It had followed two crimes of political vengeance in Bishop Herrera’s diocese: first the murder of 54-year-old José Cruz, the FSLN political secretary in Aguas Rojas, Wiwilí, and days later that of 56-year-old Trinidad Cano, a member of the Family Cabinet, in another district of Wiwilí. Strangely, the FSLN hadn’t even mentioned these two murders or attempted to defend its militants’ names, perhaps because doing so would imply accepting that their murderers were politically motivated.
In his communiqué, Monsignor Herrera asked “with all my heart that the Army of Nicaragua act with respect for the human rights of the civilians. I remind you that they are not to blame for the fact that armed people are going around in those places.” He also called on the government to “act wisely to conduct a genuine dialogue” and on the armed men to “recognize that weapons are not an effective instrument to claim your rights; it must be done in a civic manner.”
In all their messages the bishops have coincided in suggesting government dialogue with the rearmed groups as a mechanism to deactivate a movement that has only grown in recent years. No analysis, either impassioned or reasoned, of Nicaragua’s current situation fails to mention the danger that closing democratic spaces to dissent, demand and debate could encourage violence as an option among people who don’t like the government’s current course, know how to use weapons and clearly remember the war of the eighties. This is true in extensive areas of the north, the mining triangle and an area extending from central Nicaragua to the southern Caribbean side of the country.
Pantasma: A tragic historyGonzalo Carrión, the legal director of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), went to Anisales 3, Pantasma, with a CENIDH team after the confrontation. He calculates that a quarter of the population living in the municipality today also lived there when Pantasma was a battle ground in the eighties. Carrión himself did his military service in Pantasma months after some of the war’s most tragic events occurred there.
What events? Early in 1980, only months after the triumph of the revolution, Pedro Joaquín González, known as “Dimas,” led a peasant uprising against the new government in Yalí, some 60 kilometers from Pantasma. They were known as the Grassroots Anti-Sandinista Militias (MILPAS).
What had triggered this early outbreak of armed discontent? Those who investigated it on the ground referred to a combination of factors that had triggered real fear among the population that the new Sandinista State would burst into the zone and into their lives with unusual force. The State was confiscating lands and becoming a landowner, and ended up totally controlling all the commerce of the zone’s agricultural products. The government had also replaced the community leaders, who were successful local farmers, with its own leadership.
A factor that added to the discontent was that a column of landless peasants in Jinotega commanded by “Macondo” had participated in the insurrection against Somoza under Germán Pomares’ leadership. Macondo expected the revolution to give these peasants individual plots of land, but the revolution’s initial collectivist project was to turn the lands it confiscated into state farms.
“That man saw armed In Pantasma, the State confiscated the Estancia Cora farm from Ricardo Argüello Pravia, a famous Somocista. Carlos Barquero, the FSLN’s political secretary, set himself up in the farm’s hacienda house. The revolutionary fanaticism of Barquero, who was from Managua and had no clue about peasant reality, fed the discontent. He was an unredeemed representative of the urban FSLN, with an authoritarian mentality and narrow-minded ideological discourse. He even flaunted his atheism.
enemies on all sides”
“Barquero saw armed enemies everywhere,” recall witnesses of that period. Although there was no consensus at the time among the FSLN political authorities in Jinotega and Matagalpa about how to deal with the peasant uprising, i.e. how to obtain information, intimidate and even repress, Barquero tortured and executed a great many peasants and threw their bodies into common graves. Responsible for innumerable cruelties, he ended up being tried and sentenced to 30 years of prison in 1984, although he didn’t serve it in full. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ June 1981 report documented some of his crimes.
A memory that remains alive On October 18, 1983, with the counterrevolution now better organized thanks to US financing and strate-gizing, contra commander Luis Alfonso Moreno Payan, aka “Mike Lima,” took over Pantasma at the head of a 500-man task force, destroying all the work the revolution had created—cooperatives, a school, a bank—to erase Barquero’s “original sin.” But witnesses from back then say he couldn’t erase it: “The FSLN could never seduce those peasants, nor impose its will on them. Mike Lima was received as a liberator by many in the Pantasma valley.” For nearly seven more years Pantasma continued to be a cruel battleground.
The memory of those years is still alive in the municipality of Pantasma, where, given this history of unhealed wounds, the FSLN didn’t dare alter the 2012 electoral results. According to members of his family, the FSLN’s alteration of the electoral results in the nearby municipality of Wiwilí motivated Gerardo de Jesús Gutiérrez to take up arms against the government. Known then by his nom de guerre, “El Flaco,” Gutiérrez is today one of the local farmers most persecuted by the Army.
Is rearming the solution? Other municipalities near Pantasma share, transmit and construct memories similar to those events. They feed the strong anti-Sandinista roots in the area that date back to the years of the war between the revolution and the counterrevolution.
The ballot box followed by official disarmament ceremonies ended that war, although there was never a lack of rearmed rural groups from one side or the other in the nineties, demanding lands to work, health care to cure their war wounds and job opportunities to reinsert themselves into civilian life. All of that was called the “peace dividend” at the time, but little of it materialized in postwar Nicaragua. Veterans of that war are still claiming their right to medicines, work, housing, pensions, etc. even today.
Turning to weapons, rearming to claim rights, political spaces and economic opportunities has been a virtual tradition in Nicaragua. Professor and political scientist Salvador Martí wrote in envio in 1998: “In its 1992 mid-year report, the Army estimated that, between recontras and recompas, the rearmed totaled 21,905 men. They had access to 13,980 automatic weapons, as well as machine guns, mines and even anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons. All of this material had been stored away before the ‘official disarmament’ supervised by the OAS and the UN through CIAV and ONUCA.
“The rearmed men with whom I spoke in La Patriota, Matiguás, confirmed that when they demobilized they had only handed in their old weapons. ‘We gave them the useless guns, we just put on a show.’”
Places that had been military zones in the 1980s quickly returned to ‘the peacetime war’ of the 1990s. Matiguás, Pantasma, Waslala, Wasaká, San Juan de Limay, Wiwilí, El Cuá, Yalí, El Ayote, Quilalí, El Jícaro, La Concordia, La Trinidad, Yolaina, Río Blanco and other areas once again experienced violence.
Does today feel Is the clash between peasant culture and the revolution’s authoritarian culture what’s encouraging today’s rearmed groups? Times have changed a lot and while the State no longer confiscates or owns land, the businesses of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America (ALBA) have the same profile of monopolist privilege as the big traditional landowners in some rural zones. It’s a constant in peasant areas of the country that those with ties to the FSLN and its authorities enjoy clear advantages in the network of middlemen for the marketing of agricultural products and have acquired growing power in the commerce of basic grains, crops grown by thousands of families in the old contra corridor.
On top of the social control and the political and economic exclusion of the government’s opponents in those areas, bean and coffee prices have dropped and coffee groves not just in Nicaragua but throughout the region have been hit by a fungus… There’s thus more than enough of an economic breeding ground for rural discontent.
Nor is there any lack of political elements to stir up the collective memory and channel the discontent, frustration and anger of the peasants into seeing arms as an enticing “solution.” They mention the withholding of ID/voter cards from those sympathizing with the opposition; the frauds they have seen, felt and resented; and most of all Daniel Ortega’s illegal reelection. They will surely now add the constitutional reforms to that list… Today their situation is very similar to what it was in the eighties: the FSLN political secretaries are again the all-powerful intermediaries between the population and the State.
When contemplating the rearmed groups, it’s necessary to bear in mind that the closing of the democratic spaces for free expression, mobilization, gathering and organizing is felt more keenly at the local and municipal level than the national one. Both fear and impunity are also greater at those levels.
Are they just delinquents? The Army refers to today’s anti-FSLN armed groups as “delinquents” dedicated to cattle rustling and extorting peasant families. It refuses to acknowledge any political motivation among them.
Oscar Solbavarro, a signer of the 1990 peace agreements that put an end to the war begun a decade earlier, recalls that “since my participation as a founder of one of the first armed movements in that period, called MILPAS, they first called us delinquents, then Somocista guardsmen, mercenaries and finally counterrevolutionaries. Even with all those dis¬qualifiers they couldn’t hide the reality.” He goes on to explain that “the cause that most incited thousands of peasants to join the armed struggle was the repression and torture of civilians. And, of course, the murder of innocent civilians, all under the argument that they were collaborating with what the FSLN was at the time calling delinquent groups.”
A “militarized” conflictThe people of those zones speak of groups of some 20 people who go around well armed and uniformed and neither assault nor steal. To the contrary, they say they pay for the food they need in the local shops and homes they come across as they move through the hills. Bishop Mata, who acknowledges that there has always been banditry in these areas, insists that these aren’t bandits and says he has learned there are between 25 and 38 groups, each made up of between 10 and 20 men.
CENIDH’s Gonzalo Carrión thinks the word “delinquent” is used to disqualify the groups in the population’s mind and “lead people to conclude they have no rights.” The Army reinforces that prejudice when it talks about “going to hunt them” and “annihilate” or “exterminate” them. Carrión is emphatic: “If it were really about common delinquents, it would be the National Police’s obligation to capture them to be judged for their offenses. Yet it’s the Army that’s out in the zone militarizing this conflict.”
“My husband was a rebel” In July, in another skirmish between the Army and an armed group in Tamalaque, Pantasma, one soldier died, another was wounded and one peasant was seriously wounded and captured, and today is serving a 30-year sentence. The latter’s wife and brother categorically stated in Managua that he belonged to a group of men who had “risen up” against the government.
It was the first time relatives of these men had spoken out so clearly. Although they made these declarations to CENIDH, that human rights organization concluded at the time that “we can’t assure that they are armed groups with political ends, but nor can they simply be discounted as criminal groups.” Today, after what happened in Anisales 3 and the political killings of FSLN activists in Wiwilí, CENIDH has spoken more forcefully, considering the situation to be “very serious” and arguing that it’s “imperative to avoid militarizing the conflict.”
In favor of It seems crucial to take this conflict seriously before it grows bigger and stronger. Bishop Fray Herrera laments that “the government is treating it as something small and of little importance.” He and the rest of the bishops consider it very serious and propose a dialogue between the authorities and these groups that should lead to a rectification in the policy of control and marginalization the government has practiced in traditionally anti-Sandinista areas.
Monsignor Herrera says he would be willing to mediate “if a sincere dialogue were to occur” and mentions some issues that should be addressed to bring about a rectification. These include rural residents not being issued their ID cards, the lack of maintenance for roads linking the peasant communities and the lack of support for production.
That dialogue must become possible if, as First Lady Rosario Murillo, the government’s communication and citizenship secretary, wrote in her June release, “The new times.” “we have to see to it that Nicaragua consolidates its harmony and its model of dialogue, alliances and consensus.”
A red alertAmong Bishop Mata’s most recent declarations, the following is one of the most worrying: “We suspect that the weapons they are receiving are connected to drug trafficking.” It’s the same alert issued by security researcher Roberto Orozco in the digital publication InsightCrime: “The geographical points of operations of these armed groups are areas where organized crime, particularly drug trafficking, has great presence and control.... Drug trafficking moves enough resources to co-opt these armed groups. It is a fear that drug trafficking may be supplying these weapons, but so far it’s just a fear.”
If this “uprising” has no national, regional or international possibility of becoming a political alternative (“it seems to me a suicidal decision, as I’ve said to those who have come to see me,” says Bishop Mata), the crossing of these groups’ political interests with the economic and also political interests of regional drug trafficking groups, who are looking to control new territories in Central America, would turn this conflict into something unimaginably explosive and tragic.
Only partial reforms? President Ortega sent the executive branch’s constitutional reforms to the National Assembly on November 4. According to Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) legislative representative Víctor Hugo Tinoco, “They’re like a cart loaded with dry wood parked alongside the pockets of fire the rearmed groups have ignited in the rural zones. They’re a threat for the country because they feed the political violence.”
Nonetheless, the “presentation of motives” states that what is being sought is “the institutionalization and buttressing of a new model… of the government model being applied in the country in a context where democracy is taking a new turn… where we can speak of an unfolding Constitutionalism.” If only for that reason, the reforms are significantly more than partial and merit ample debate, even a Constituent Assembly. Nonetheless, what we already know of the “new model” allows us to imagine that the necessary two-legislature approval process will be met by passing them before the current legislative session closes in mid-December and then again just after the next one convenes in January 2014.
In synthesis, the constitutional reforms strengthen the executive branch even more, weaken the legislative branch, buttress the judicial branch’s procedural law to some degree, get nowhere near touching the highly questioned electoral branch, devalue representative democracy and “partyify” citizens’ participation under the formula of “direct democracy.” With their own variants and particularities, the reforms follow the warp and weft of the other ALBA countries’ Consti¬tutions.
Presidentialism The reforms give constitutional rank to two of Ortega’s presidential decisions that contradict the existing Constitution. They eliminate any limitation of presidential reelection and establish that the Supreme Court justices, electoral magistrates and other top government officials whose terms have expired remain in their posts until the Assembly reelects or replaces them, eliminating the fixed terms that previously existed.
Ortega thus “constitutionalizes” the illegal decision handed down by the Supreme Court in 2009 that allowed him to be reelected in 2011 as well as the illegal decree Ortega himself issued in 2010 to keep his loyal magistrates in their posts. With this reform they’ll no longer be there “de facto.”
The reforms reinforce the country’s presidentialism, in which the balance of power among the state branches is tipped in favor of the executive branch. First of all they give the President the power to issue “decrees with the force of law on administrative matters,” a category that can be used to cover many presidential decisions. This new power granted to the executive branch effectively strips the National Assembly of powers that previously corresponded to it alone. Ortega had this power in the war years of the eighties, when a permanent emergency situation arguably justified it.
The reforms will also allow the President to name military personnel on active duty to top civilian posts such as ministers, justices and judges when so required by “the supreme interest of the nation,” another category that permits a very broad interpretation. This reform gives constitutional rank to a mechanism for coopting the armed institution and committing its officers to “the new model.”
With the reforms, the President will also be elected with any percentage as long as it’s a “relative majority” of the valid votes. This eliminates the 35% needed to win in the first round agreed to in the pact between Ortega and then-President Alemán in 2000, annuling any possibility of a second round in the presidential election.
A corporative stateThe reforms give constitutional rank to the alliance between the government and private big business in the new model of corporative co-government being developed in recent years. Ortega had already announced this innovation two months ago, in his September 4 meeting with the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP).
It’s incredible that the “presentation of motives” with which the presidency justified the whole package of reforms quoted businessman Carlos Pellas backing these constitutional reform, explicitly committing him to “the new model.” “The FSLN went from the paradigm of [its founder] Carlos Fonseca to the paradigm of [COSEP leader] Carlos Pellas,” quipped MRS leader Dora María Téllez.
Direct democracy in “Christian” NicaraguaContradicting article 14 of the Constitution, which establishes that Nicaragua “does not have an official religion,” the reforms define the country as a confessional nation, whose “principles” are “the Christian values.” The reforms will also define “the socialist ideals” as another “principle” of the nation, thus violating both the ideological impartiality and secular nature that a democratic State should have in a plural society.
The exercise of “direct democracy” is constitutionally established through referendums and plebiscites—which have never been applied in the country—and also through the Family Cabinets, the new name the presidency gave to the Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPC) in 2012. It’s obvious to anyone open to seeing it that, whatever name they may be given, these party structures created in 2007 are on the receiving end of a top-down structure in which they follow direct orientations from the presidential offices.
Other mechanisms of “direct democracy” cited by the new constitutional text are the Territorial Councils and Sectoral Councils, focal points of the corporative model with which the business elite will co-govern in public administration according to the model dubbed “shared responsibility.” These mechanisms, which will now be of constitutional rank, weaken the representative democracy that reflects the popular vote to elect parliamentary representatives. In practice, both Councils and Cabinets will be able to make more decisions on a daily basis than the legislators themselves.
Gender, Mother Earth To garner backing and consensus for the reforms, the drafters give constitutional rank to the “50-50 Law,” which since 2012 has established in the Electoral Law that half of the candidates on all lists of candidates for directly elected posts must be women. And to attract even more support, the reforms include Nicaragua’s new territorial limits defined by the International Court of Justice, which has expanded the country’s maritime limits in the Caribbean Sea. No one could or would question either addition to the Constitution.
and new limits
The whole text of the “Universal Declaration of the Common Good of the Earth and Humanity – The Rights of Mother Earth,” embraced by other ALBA countries, is also incorporated. This declaration, attributed to Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, was an international collaboration by jurists and social leaders that the World Forum for Alternatives presented to the social movements and organizations attending the “peoples’ summit” in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. It was looking for feedback before formally presenting the declaration at the 2013 World Social Forum in Tunisia.
And the canal? Law 840, the June 2013 law conceding the rights to an interoceanic canal through Nicaragua to Chinese businessman Wang Jing, textually establishes that in 18 months, i.e. by the end of 2014, Nicaragua’s Constitution must be reformed to modify any obstacle to the unconstitutional elements proposed in the concession.
To sidestep the complex drafting task implied by fulfilling this clause and avoid the political costs of such a large number of changes (there are over 30 suits of unconstitutionality against the concession law), the reform simply modifies article 102 of the Constitution by adding this paragraph: “Given the country’s advantageous geographical position, the State may sign a contract or grant a concession for the construction and rational exploitation of an Interoceanic Canal through Law.” This frivolous addition avoids the need for precise details, granting vague constitutional status to the canal concession. But it doesn’t mention the eight megaprojects also conceded in Law 840 as “associated infrastructures” to the canal project.
These are at least some of the most relevant modifications in an initial reading of the constitutional reform project. In the “new model” with which Ortega has been governing, it is to be expected that in order to approve it before this legislative session closes in December 15, the “consultation of all sectors” will be no more than a formality and no changes to the presidential proposal will emerge from the parliamentary debate. To include modifications, the opposition bench would need the votes of 31 legislators, but they only have 24. And no one doubts that all of the 63 FSLN representatives will toe the party line in voting for the reforms.
1995–2013: A long road With these constitutional changes Daniel Ortega has reached the end of a long road. Once in the opposition, he longed for the 1987 Constitution of the revolutionary years, with such a strong role for the President that it had allowed him to govern largely by decree. From the opposition, Ortega vehemently rejected the constitutional reforms of 1995, when thanks to a split in the FSLN and the splintering of the UNO coalition that had successfully run Violeta Chamorro as its presidential candidate dissident Sandi¬nista legislators together with those from center parties managed to become a majority in the National Assembly and reform the Constitution.
to the counter-reform
One of those dissident Sandinista legislators, Dora María Téllez, summarized the meaning behind those reforms for envío in January 1997: “…the first and foremost achievement of the constitutional reforms is the balance of power […] . Fundamentally, we wanted to move from a strong presidential branch in legal and constitutional terms to a greater balance of power. We wanted to give the institutions more independence and strength, open more democratic spaces and place certain legal limits on future governments.”
The institutions that came out of those reforms stronger and more independent were the electoral branch, the Supreme Court, the Comptroller General’s Office, the National Assembly itself, and also the Army and Police. The current initiative can thus be seen as a “counter-reform.”
Why take that paragraph out? It is significant and even alarming that the constitutional reforms designed by the presidency have eliminated an important paragraph of article 5 of the existing Constitution. That paragraph says the following: “Political pluralism assures the existence and participation of all political organizations in the country’s economic, political and social affairs of the country, without ideological restriction, except those aimed at the reestablishment of any kind of dictatorship or any anti-democratic system.”
Only time will tell the degree to which these constitutional reforms will aggravate the situation in rural areas. Many other daily, more immediate problems are also injecting this year end with an acutely disagreeable flavor of uncertainty in the north. And in the rest of the country.