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  Number 397 | Agosto 2014
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Nicaragua

Will we always use violence to deal with our problems?

The July 19 celebration of the revolution’s 35th anniversary was preceded by enthusiastic announcements about the promising future that awaits us with the construction of the Grand Interoceanic Canal. But it was followed by a criminal attack that took us back to the terrible past of the eighties’ war between brothers, showing how open the wounds of those years still are.

Envío team

Chinese businessman Wang Jing arrived in Nicaragua on July 5, accompanied by a retinue of functionaries from HKND, the company he says will make the canal dream that has dominated Nicaragua’s collective unconscious for centuries come true. Expectations had been building for days: we were finally going to learn the canal route and other data that would lend the project credibility.

Wang bombastically stated in Managua that “the canal will serve for the development and prosperity of all the world’s countries,” that it would be built in five years, that “this project will be the biggest construction in the history of humanity” and that “the canal is going to bear witness to another apogee of development for all of humanity.” After listening over the ensuing days to more of the same confusing and superficial “information” from his team, everybody hoped that President Ortega would refer to the canal in his July 19 speech, at best to clear things up, and at least to provide calming information. No such luck. Only at the end of a disjointed speech devoid of content that dragged on for nearly an hour did he dedicate this sentence to the issue: “We must not wait until the canal is here; we must continue waging battles to keep the country growing…”

The country’s economic dynamism is slowing down, the budget had to be cut, we’re facing a severe drought with hunger forecast in some areas of the country and migration to Costa Rica and Panama has only increased. Ortega’s speech covered none of these serious problems.

Personalism and sectarianism

On July 2, shortly before his 95th birthday, Emilio Álvarez Montalván passed away. He was a Nicaraguan ophthalmologist with 20-20 vision, a man of great wisdom and an acute analyst of our history and political culture. In his last interview for La Prensa, only days before his death, he repeated something he had said often before: “Dictators, like caciques and caudillos, are incubated by society itself. Until Nicaraguans change the anti-values of their political culture, they will continue to have autocratic govern-ments.” And he went on to name those anti-values: “The first are personalism, sectarianism and the lack of a consolidated vision of the nation. After that comes a magical sense of life that makes them believe a redeemer will pull us out of poverty from one minute to the next.”

Those same anti-values were expressed in the July 19 event commemorating a revolution made at great human cost to bring down the dictatorial and autocratic Somoza family government. The cult to the personality of Daniel Ortega abounded in songs, speeches, spots and TV takes. So did the sectarianism that years ago turned the celebration of what should be a national event into an increasingly party-based event dedicated to a single sector of the population.

The magical sense of life

It’s a constant that in economically and educationally impoverished societies with major inequalities between a few privileged minority groups and the vast majorities, people give themselves over with more conviction to magical thinking and are more vulnerable to those with power who feed that illusion. There is a correlation between social inequality and the prevalence of traditional religiosity, always so full of magical components. In her various interventions during the July 19 celebrations, First Lady Rosario Murillo appealed on no fewer than 34 occasions to the faith we must have to believe we can push ahead, but never even referred to much less analyzed the problems we must push away from.

The government is lavishly feeding that magical sense of life Emilio Álvarez Montalván spoke about so often, particularly through its propaganda about the project to build the Grand International Canal through Nicaragua. Ortega has said it will “pull us out of the Calvary of poverty.” And during Wang Jing’s visit, the First Lady added that it will allow us to live in “miraculous spaces” along “the route that God marked for Nicaragua, with so many wonders and so many blessings.”

It will be Route 4

On July 7, Wang Jing’s team finally reported which route the Chinese company had chosen for the canal. There had been six choices, all contemplated for years in designs originally prepared during President Enrique Bolaños’ administration. After meeting for barely three hours with the Grand Canal Commission, which represents the State, HKND’s business team announced that the one chosen is Route 4. This will cut the country across a 173-mile-long line following the Punta Gorda and Tule rivers in the Caribbean, crossing Lake Nicaragua just south of Ometepe Island and ending up at the Pacific Ocean via the Brito River north of San Juan del Sur.

Junsong Dong, HKND’s chief of engineers, accompanied the announcement of the route with a power point presentation of the construction “design,” with some figures and photos that seemed to have been taken from the Internet. In this awesomely simplistic presentation we discovered that HKND plans to build four tourist complexes, none of which had been discussed in the initial concession but now seem to have attracted the Chinese investors’ peak interest, to judge by the details they offered.

Albert Vega, president of Environmental Resources Management (ERM), an environmental consulting company contracted by HKND, in a clear conflict of interests, to do the environmental studies, also spoke that day. Neither HKND nor ERM have presented technical, environmental or financial feasibility studies. They promised them for the end of the year, although HKND has insisted the canal construction will itself begin in December.

Essential national experience

On July 30, eight social, scientific and environmentalist organizations—Humboldt Center, Nicaraguan Foundation for Sustainable Development, Academy of Sciences of Nicaragua, Río Foundation, Center for Legal Assistance to Indigenous Peoples, Boletín Ecológico, Local Development Network and Popol Na Foundation—delivered a letter to the HKND representatives, the Grand Canal Authority, President Ortega and the First Lady, formally requesting copies of the technical, environment and social studies these companies have done.

“We are convinced,” they wrote,” that a detailed review by professionals independent of the company would increase the credibility of the studies and incorporate the national experience that is essential to assure environmental and social sustainability and hence financial sustainability for the investment. They also asked for the addresses of the Grand Canal Commission and HKND headquarters so they can clear up concerns and make contributions based on their knowledge. The signers assume the commitment to prepare a technical report whose results they would make available to the national authorities and the general population.

Secret investors

Other “formal” presentations followed the July 7 announcement of the route. In one held in Managua, HKND public relations manager Dong Lu was asked who the investors were for a project whose cost has been calculated at US$50 billion. His answer was that “the financing is ready but confidential. These affairs are secret because the companies are trading on the stock exchange and there are details it is not proper to reveal.”

Víctor Campos, the Humboldt Center’s deputy director, has warned that “with respect to environmental care, it is important to know where the capital is coming from,” particularly if it’s coming from Chinese banks, the majority of which are not linked to the Ecuador Principles, which guarantee environmental standards as obligatory requisites for their creditors.

A publication by the US Milken Institute reported this month that the government of mainland China is indeed behind HKND. It was also reported in Nicaragua’s Confidencial bulletin in late July that McLarty Associates, one of the companies HKND presented in Managua in June of last year as contracted to lobby and attract resources for the canal construction, left the project after completing its contract and will not continue. According to Arturo Cruz Sequeira, Nicaragua’s former ambassador in Washington, the company, directed by Thomas McLarty, Henry Kissinger and John Negroponte, among others, only represents private investors, not government ones or institutions associated with governments, implying that HKND is connected to the Chinese government.

Public consultations?

HKND and ERM made other presentations between July 21 and 30, showing a 20-minute video in San Miguelito, Nueva Guinea, Punta Gorda, Rivas and Ometepe, all of them points along the canal route. Although referred to as “public consultations,” they used language difficult for the rural population to understand and the “consultation” following the presentation consisted of a series of stands like those in fairs organized by companies to promote a new product.

Hundreds of residents, farmers and cattle ranchers showed up at the presentation in the different municipalities affected, all of them expressing a generalized sense of concern. The First Lady spoke of some 10,000 people “consulted” in these meetings.

The people who went to learn what was really going on from the company that has received a concession not only for a canal but for ten other major projects didn’t get the sense they were being “consulted.” At best they were informed about a done deal. Their many concerns were not addressed, such as how much they will be paid for their lands when they are expropriated, where they will be relocated to and what they will be able to work at once they are resettled.

The concerns have other nuances in the Rama Kriol indigenous territory in the Caribbean that will be slashed through by the canal. Indigenous peoples conceive of their communal lands as a continuous territory, which is very different from the mestizos’ idea of individual plots and farms. Furthermore, Law 445, which determined the demarcation of indigenous territories and resulted in the titling of the Rama Kriol territory in 2009, also established that this territory cannot be sold, mortgaged, embargoed or ceded in any other way and that the territorial government must approve any use of it.

Are we really
a blessed country?

The government’s propagandist for the project, National Agrarian University Rector Telémaco Talavera, who President Ortega calls the “bearer of good news,” insists that “there will only be beneficiaries and everyone will be a winner.”

The Chinese businessmen and their national partners respond to all concerns with nothing more than appeals that feed magical thinking: we’ll all be beneficiaries, no one will be hurt, there will be jobs for all, Nicaragua will finally climb out of poverty and rather than damaging our environment, the canal will ensure us a totally reforested country… It’s as if we’ll finally get the winning lottery ticket, as if we’ve been given a divine gift, as if we were a blessed country…

Who did it?

The question on thinking peoples’ lips in the days leading up to the July 19 celebration was “Do you believe the Chinese will really build the canal?” But on the night of the 19th and in the ensuing days it was replaced by another, much more immediately upsetting one: “Who do you think did it?”

“It” was a tragedy. Just before 10 pm near Ciudad Darío, on the return trip from Managua to Matagalpa that Saturday night, an undetermined number of people opened fire on three buses in the convoy carrying governing party sympathizers who had filled the plaza hours earlier. Four people were killed and nearly twenty others seriously wounded. Hours later and some 50 kilometers further on, another bus was shot at on the road to San Ramón, killing the driver’s assistant. Strangely, no information was disseminated nationally about yet another bus attacked that night near Ocotal or still others detained that same day at different points around the country to politically harangue their passengers. Those events were only reported locally.


The next morning, statements from political and social organizations condemning the previous day’s events began to be reported. In the ensuing hours the repudiation of the criminal actions was firm and seamless from all national sectors and several international ones. Few issues in Nicaragua today achieve so much heartfelt unanimity.

An unknown and some believe “prefabricated” group calling itself the Armed Forces of National Salvation-People’s Army (FASN-EP), claimed responsibility for the action in the social networks. Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan Guerrilla Coordinating Body, which was already known by some independent media and claims to represent politically-motivated rearmed groups operating in the northern part of the country, sent this message to independent media: “It is valid to investigate who is behind the FASN-EP and other so-called ‘opposition organizations’ linked to the Military Intelligence and Counterintelligence Division, a body ascribed to the Army, which is also developing a dirty war, passing itself off as ‘opposition…’”

Peasants, Sandinistas
and “delinquents”

National Police director Aminta Granera said on Sunday, hours after the attacks, that “no more than four” were responsible for the killing, and in fact four suspects had been captured. For his part, FSLN National Assembly representative Gustavo Porras called the act a political crime for which he blamed “the few remaining dregs of the Somoc¬ista culture.”

The surprise came Monday morning, when relatives of the four people arrested showed up at the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) insisting that one of the four was a 16-year-old boy while the other three were young peasant militants of the FSLN, showing their party cards as proof.

The boy was freed, but the others were locked up incommunicado in El Chipote, Managua’s maximum security prison, beyond the constitutional limit of 48 hours. On Thursday the 24th, they were finally transferred to the Matagalpa courthouse, guarded by more than a dozen hooded anti-riot police, like highly dangerous criminals.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office charged them with responsibility for a “containment” operation that consisted of throwing rocks at the convoy so it would slow down, allowing others to shoot at the buses. It accused them of being “co-authors of conspiracy and proposition in the commission of crimes overlapping the crimes of murder and grave lesions” causing dead and wounded. It claimed they had each received 500 córdobas (just under $20) for their role.

The judge hearing the case, a known political cadre of the governing party, called for the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. The next day, the driver of one of the buses shot at was added to the accusation as part of the conspiracy. As of the close of this issue on August 6, neither the intellectual authors of the crime nor those who did the shooting have been identified or found, and the clouds around this criminal act continue getting denser.

Disturbing questions

The defense attorney for the three peasant youths described the charge against them as “the plot of a cheap novel.” In CENIDH’s judgment, the contradictions, gaps, inconsistencies and lack of specifics in the accusation make it inadmissible. CENIDH believes they are just scapegoats with the weakness of the accusatory instrument leaving the true authors of the crime unpunished.

The confusing information given to the population, still consternated by the criminal act, leaves many questions that the government institutions are making no attempt to answer. The population that sympathizes with the governing party is perplexed about how FSLN militants could do something like that. The most fanatic accused the independent media, personalities critical of Ortega and his project and the opposition parties in general of having promoted the crime to instigate hate. The official rose-colored propaganda version, which bears the telltale stamp of the government’s communication and citizenship coordinator, Rosario Murillo, reduces the crime to an action of “hate against love.” But in some sectors there is an underlying feeling that something is definitely fishy in this terrible episode and that the police are turning a blind eye for some reason.

Fear and arrests in the north

Jumpiness, fear and even panic followed the initial sentiments of unease and uncertainty, as police, army personnel and even hooded individuals who didn’t identify themselves began indiscriminately muscling their way into houses without a search warrant, conducting round-ups and harassing and spying on the residents of various municipalities, communities and districts in the north of the country.

Almost two dozen illegal detentions were reported in predawn operations that were violent and showed no consideration for the family of those held. After they were taken away no authority revealed where they were or why they were being detained.

The climate of fear in those communities has not abated since the day of the attacks. On July 26 former Resistance leader turned coffee farmer Carlos “El Mejicano” García was murdered in a community of Jinotega. Four days later, 30 Resistance members showed up at the Red Cross office in Ocotal, the safest place they could think of to denounce the persecution and harassment they have suffered at the hands of the government’s armed forces.

Certain paranoia can be perceived in government circles. Many people are appealing for collective reflection and calling on President Daniel Ortega, who now directly controls all power, including the military and police, to cease this violent response and be more consistent with his July 19 speech, when he stated, with curious timing, that on all occasions, happy or sad, he has invoked God saying “Lord, make me an instrument of peace.”

Are they rearmed contras?

The bishop of Estelí began speaking out about the presence of politically motivated rearmed groups in rural areas of his diocese in 2009, the year following the FSLN’s fraudulent victories in some 40 mayoral elections in strongly Liberal municipalities in the interior of the country. His declarations were later backed by the bishops of Matagalpa, Jinotega and Managua, who also know about this reality first-hand and through their congregations. The government has been denying it ever since, insisting that the armed groups are nothing more than common criminals.

On July 28, the Army chief again insisted that there are no armed groups and strangely added that the July 19 attacks should not be seen as “politically colored.” In media interviews, however, the survivors have displayed no doubts about the “political intentionality” involved. Moreover, those detained in connection with the assault were most definitely targeted because of their political colors, and those released after being picked up and investigated have explained that during the interrogations they were insistently asked about the “armed groups.”

“Act with respect
for human rights”

Less than a year ago, there was an armed confrontation in Pantasma, Jinotega, following the killing in districts of the same department of an FSLN political secretary and a member of that party’s Family Cabinet—who the governing party never identi¬fied as “its,” perhaps because doing so would imply accepting the political motivations of those who took their lives. In the wake of the confrontation, Jinotega’s bishop, Franciscan friar Carlos Enrique Herrera, published a statement calling “with all my heart for the Army of Nicaragua to act with respect for the human rights of civilians. I remind you that civilians are not to blame for the fact that armed individuals are going around in those places.” He invited the government to “act wisely to hold a genuine dialogue,” and the rearmed groups to “reflect on the fact that weapons are not an effective instrument to demand your rights; it has to be done in a civic manner.”

On July 31, the 10 bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua issued a communique reiterating their condemnation of the criminal acts of July 19. They also condemned the capture and kidnapping of individuals without respecting their rights, defining it as “a very serious mistake that attempts to reestablish justice acting in an unjust way and using methods that belong to terrorism.”

In point 4 of their communiqué, they referred to the situation after the attack: “We call on the National Police and Army authorities to ensure that the investigations and the detention of individuals are always legitimate and necessary and that they be done fairly, in conformity with what is established in the broad framework of the Human Rights Standards and Practice for Police, promulgated by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which establishes the following: ’Treat all suspects as innocent persons, politely, respectfully and professionally.’ We exhort them to act at all times respecting human rights without using any type of pressure, intimidation, torture or violence against anyone. Authorities commit a very grave error trying to reestablish justice by acting unjustly and using terrorist methods. In so doing, they both bring their professionalism into question and engender a climate of panic, insecurity and painful traumas in many communities and families, above all among children and young people.”

“What perturbs
peasant Nicaragua”

In last November’s edition, we remembered the armed resistance triggered in the eighties by the authoritarian culture of the revolution when it clashed with peasant culture:

“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 that the big landowners have in some rural zones. It is 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.

“Nor is there any lack of elements to stir up the collective memory and channel the discontent, frustration and anger into seeing arms as an enticing ‘solution’…. 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. Fear and impunity are also greater at those levels.…”

In her article in the May issue of envío on this same topic of increasing political frustration in rural Nicaragua, sociologist María Angélica Fauné, who has been interviewing Resistance leaders since the eighties, wrote that “Sandinista imposition still perturbs the Nicaraguan peasants. Worse yet, the government has now imposed FSLN mayors in those same areas of resistance. They previously had Liberal mayors they recognized and had elected at least until 2008 and in some cases 2012. Now they don’t even have that.”

This seriously perturbs people like the now murdered “El Mejicano” García and so many other Resistance leaders who have since joined one of the Liberal parties but still carry wounds that have never healed and now threaten to reopen.

We already went through
that in the eighties

It has been some time since anyone has analyzed Nicaragua’s current situation without considering the danger that closing democratic spaces for protest, demands, debate and dissent could trigger the way to violence in the hearts and minds of people in extensive areas of the northern mountains, the mining triangle and the center-southeast part of the country who don’t agree with the FSLN government’s course, know how to use firearms and have vivid memories of the war of the eighties.

The tragic events of July 19 and the response of the State’s armed bodies are evidence that the path of violence is slowly gaining currency in the country. The government’s military rather than political response, harassing and repressing the civil population amount to playing with a fire whose previous embers are still smoldering.

This month’s situation takes us back to what we lived through in the war of the eighties. If there are armed groups as a result of so much accumulated frustration, what options do they have? They know they can’t expect international support this time yet they feel persecuted and harassed by the Police and Army, which have already killed several of their leaders in the past two years in obscure actions that have gone uninvestigated or unpunished; they protested uselessly about the electoral frauds in municipalities that have never before elected Sandi¬nistas…

Could the condemnable ambush and shooting of civilians who support the FSLN on such a symbolic date have been a political-military tactic to surprise the government, letting it know it doesn’t have the control it thinks it has and that they are prepared to do whatever it takes?

We need to remember that nothing happening today is totally new in recent history. During the war of the eighties defenseless civilians were military objectives of both sides. They were intimidated, persecuted and killed by both bands, which also forcibly recruited them, although the Army at least had the law behind it. It also needs to be said that the Army’s abuses were significantly fewer and milder than those of the Contra, whipped up by the CIA and its infamous contra manual. It was only late in the war that the US managers realized that reports of peasant civilians found with their throat cut, of entire families wiped out, or of civilian transport blown up by contra mines on rural public highways were doing Reagan’s propaganda war no good and human rights suddenly became an important topic to promote.

According to the probable logic of those who committed the July 19 crime, this demonstration of capacity and the government’s questionable military response against civilians with surgical and preventive operations—which also happened in the eighties—would provoke fear in part of the population and outrage and infuriate another sector, shaking it out of its passivity and attracting it to its ranks. That also happened in the eighties.

But the context
is different now

Turning to violence to establish justice and demand rights, to impose oneself, even to propose solutions, has a long history in Nicaragua, especially in rural areas. The culture of dialogue is a utopia in our country. No one really dialogues, not in homes, schools, churches or workplaces. Silence, acceptance, submission and obedience are imposed. The concept of give-and-take negotiation is alien to the culture of the disempowered… The only escape valves are rumors and, ultimately, when the aggrieved have reached the end of their tether, diverse forms of all-or-nothing violence.

The violence that had to be employed to get the Somozas out of government, and then found continuity in the violence of the eighties, started much earlier. It has been virtually the only way to get a party out of power ever since Independence, and as in the eighties it often enjoyed the support of the US government, backing whichever side best suited its interests of the moment. Today history could repeat itself, but only a part of the history, because the context is different. Now there’s no war that justifies armed control and imposes censorship. And also there are now independent media that provide access to versions of events that differ from the official one.

The new and
more dangerous aspect

In addition to these important differences, something else is totally new, and more dangerous, in the current context: strands of other economic interests in the weave of the traditional political violence. In October 2013, Nicaraguan citizen security and organized crime expert Roberto Orozco warned in the digital publication Insight Crime that “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…”

Today the crossing of the rearmed groups’ political interests with the economic and also political interests of the powerful, well-armed regional drug-trafficking groups, which already control significant areas of Central America, makes resolving our country’s current tensions even more complex.

We mustn’t forget that drug traffickers are already present in Nica¬ragua’s institutional spaces, as demonstrated by the mistaken murder of Argentine singer Facundo Cabral in Guatemala by bullets actually meant for Nicaraguan nightclub owner Henry Fariñas, a figure closely linked to top Police officials. Only months later the case of Mexican drug money runners who passed themselves off as journalists for Mexico’s Televisa TV company again suggested institutional links because they had been able to cross our borders dozens of times under the same guise.

Two pending challenges

In the same days as the criminal attack of July 19, Nigerian Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Agricultural Development Fund, visited Nicaragua. In evaluating the situation of our country, which the Fund has been cooperating with since 1980, Nwanze noted two pending challenges Nicaragua is saddled with. There are many more, but he only mentioned two.

The first one, which he called “the heart of the matter,” is the low productivity of our agriculture and livestock activity, which puts us at the tail of the Central American countries. That low productivity has a lot to do with lack of investment in and support to the rural sector, particularly for cooperatives and small farmers, that immense sector of the grassroots social economy. The poor who won’t climb out of poverty with the canal could get out of it with more institutional coordination and more resources to provide technical support, credits, land… But the governing party has prioritized capital accumulation by its own business group, foreign investment and the traditional big capital it is allied with, which is taking our country back to the days of big haciendas and landed estates.

We mustn’t forget that it was mistaken policies of imposition and abandonment in rural zones that triggered the violence of the eighties. And it is in those same areas where that frustration is again triggering violence, which could increase if the govern¬ment’s only response is violence.

Are we going forward…
or backward?

The second challenge Nwanze mentioned is to improve our image as a country. Despite the fact that Nicaragua has much lower rates of violence than Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala, Nwanze reminded us where we come from: “Nicaragua,” he said, “still suffers from the old image of the eighties, of a country in perpetual war and conflict…. Nicaragua has to shake off that old image and get itself a positive brand mark.” Nwanze spoke of a country-brand, an intangible concept associated with a country in the current global world of commerce, making it more or less attractive.

Given the violent episode of July 19 and the violent governmental response, some have spoken of a watershed that should mark a change in the government’s course and our society’s consciousness.

If we have all unanimously agreed in repudiating the crime of that night, the government should understand that the current authoritarian model, the absolute concentration of power in the President, the closing of spaces for free organization and mobilization by those with different ideas, the electoral frauds and the policies of exclusion and social control will never enable us to offload our negative country-brand mark.

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