The river that must be crossed and the stones that must be felt for
Between now and November 2016,
Daniel Ortega will have to cross the river
that separates him from his third reelection.
In doing so, he’ll have to feel for no few stones,
and avoid more blunders in the international sphere,
where many things that have favored him are changing.
Chinese business magnate Wang Jing made a brief stopover in Nicaragua in December to star in a curiously insignificant inaugural act for such a colossal work as his projected Great Interoceanic Canal. While here he gave President Ortega a book titled La gobernación y administración de China (The governance of China in its English version), a compilation of 80 speeches by China’s President Xi Jinping covering the strategies and policies followed by the Chinese Communist Party on its road to development.
Perhaps somewhere in its pages is that pragmatic formula offered by Deng Xiaoping, who headed the Chinese government for nearly 20 years, as he started out on that new road: “You have to cross the river by feeling for the stones.” Daniel Ortega would do well to judiciously weigh that advice, because he’s not going to have an easy time getting to the other shore of his third presidential reelection.
Plunging oil pricesShortly before the November 2012 municipal elections, a full four years before the next presidential ones, the government spokeswoman announced that “we are already campaigning for 2016 and everything we do is a marker, because Comandante Daniel has to win the elections in 2016!”
Between then and now the Ortega government hasn’t stopped putting up markers on its road “to more victories,” as its propaganda billboards boast. Many things have changed since that enthusiastic and voluntarist promise, however. Reality has strewn a number of stones along that road.
One such stone, unimaginable even a few months ago, is Venezuela’s dire situation due to the significant drop in internationational oil prices. If up to now the poor administrtion of PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company, was masked by the high prices of the country’s crude, that camouflage has now been stripped away, revealing reduced production, increased operational costs and almost no investment in exploration.
Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, with oil representing over 90% of its exports and the majority of its fiscal income. That historical dependence has combined with the drop in prices, due to both falling demand and the US entry into the market with oil shale, to make Venezuela the big loser in the world’s current geo-economic and geo-political re-accommodation.
At the close of last year, Vene¬zuela’s Central Bank finally had to acknowledge that the country’s economy was in recession and President Maduro has had to improvise one important economic readjustment after another, with inevitable political consequences.
Nothing can be explained Daniel Ortega’s government would not be where it is today without Vene¬zuela’s cooperation. Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez created Petrocaribe in 2005 to promote the necessary South-South cooperation and weaken US influence in the region. Then-mayor of Managua Dionisio Marenco promptly signed an oil deal with Chávez for his and a number of other Sandinista municipalities, which incoming President Ortega turned into a national agreement in 2007 for 10 million barrels of oil a year. By 2009, once Ortega’s government had managed to guarantee storage for the oil, the economic consequences of Vene¬zuela’s cooperation began to be felt. In 2012, annual crude shipments increased to 12 million barrels.
The oil is refined in Nicaragua by Esso then the government sells it to electricity generating companies and gas stations through Albanisa, a joint Nicaragua-Venezuelan company controlled by the Ortega family and party. While the oil is billed at the international price, Nicaragua only has to pay 50% of it within three months. The other 50% becomes a public debt Nicaragua pays over 25 years at 2% annual interest, amounting to a credit that, along with the presumed profits from the sale of the oil, has been a determining factor in ensuring Ortega’s political project and firming up personal and business links with the leaders of the Chávez project.
Nothing this government has done, or not done, can be explained without that continually mounting petro-dollar income. By 2010, it amounted to more than $500 million a year, equivalent to the entire average annual international cooperation received during the Bolaños government (2001-2006) and even the first years of the Ortega government, before a number of countries began pulling out of Nicaragua or cutting back their aid for a variety of reasons.
Never had a Nicaraguan government had such voluminous resources under such favorable conditions. (The Chamorro government received significant amounts in the first years of the nineties, but much of it was earmarked to pay off Nicaragua’s vast accumulated foreign debt.) With all these millions from Venezuela, which have never been included in the national budget and thus never audited or more than loosely accounted for, the government has financed subsidies, social programs and some infrastructure, capitalized the business group linked to the Ortega family, moved into businesses of all sorts and even injected resources into the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
The future of PetrocaribeWhere will the current crisis of the Bolivarian model end up? What consequences will it have for the Petrocaribe agreement? Will Ortega make it to the other side of the electoral “river” with that agreement intact? The shipments of crude to Nicaragua represent 26% of what Venezuela currently provides to 17 countries through similar agreements. Will it have to cut those supplies? Renegotiate them? Eliminate them altogether? And if it is forced into one of the above actions, when might it happen?
Other questions are rooted in the Petrocaribe agreement’s text itself. According to a detailed study by Nicaraguan economist Adolfo Acevedo, a drop in international oil prices below certain limits will also reduce the percentage of the bill Venezuela grants to us in the form of credit. With prices now having broken through that limit, Nicaragua must supposedly pay 70% in three months, not 50%, thus reducing the amount available for Albanisa businesses to 30%. The text further establishes that the agreement “may be modified or renounced when the interest of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela so requires.” Will Venezuela apply the letter of the agreement to Nicaragua?
The US looks southwardIn late January in the context of the plummeting oil prices, US Vice President Joe Biden met in Washington with the leaders of the Caribbean basin countries, 17 of which receive Venezuelan oil through Petrocaribe agreements, although neither Cuba nor Nicaragua attended. They were there to discuss what Washington is calling its new Caribbean Energy Security Initiative. Biden offered them technical assistance and advice and the promotion of private investments that would ensure them energy diversification: the use of natural gas, promotion of renewable energy sources and trade with other suppliers.
Officials of the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund also attended the meeting in support of the project. “The best time to fix a roof is when the sun is shining,” said the folksy Biden. “The sun is shining now, figuratively speaking. The time is now.” Although it’s a bit counterintuitive, Biden presented the drop in oil prices as the best moment for the countries to cut their dependence on Venezuela.
The White House’s new initiatives in Latin America don’t just involve oil. Just days later Biden announced that Obama will ask Congress for US$1 billion for what is being called the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), part of which will be earmarked for strengthening the institutions in those three countries.
These hardly subtle meetings indicate that the US is again looking south, to its immediate “backyard,” through a security lens now that it occupies a relevant place in the new world petroleum map.
Central America’sThe drop in oil prices began to be felt in Nicaragua in 2015 but not proportional to international prices. Meanwhile the cost of electricity has not changed at all. Although the population and businesses of all sizes began to complain and demand explanations, the government, as usual, offered none. The most concrete response was that the electricity rates would be reviewed in April.
highest electricity rates
Nicaragua has the most expensive electricity in Central America, which not only discourages foreign investment, as the business elite rightly argue, but can bankrupt the multitude of small businesses so many families rely on for their survival. How many neighborhood house-front shops have failed in Managua because they can’t pay the electricity bill for a small refrigerator to keep the little they sell chilled? How many small-scale tourist projects are unable to show even a minimal profit because they can’t pay for the hot water and air-conditioning most of today’s tourists expect? And how many households illegally connect to the powerful electricity cables on their street because even the bill for a couple of light bulbs, a television and a fan or two is unaffordable. Both the business economy and people’s econo¬my are feeling the effects of the high cost of electricity.
The reason the government is providing so little information about why the rate remains high with such little hope of a significant drop in April seems to be the US$200 million debt it assumed—with Venezuelan resources—some years ago, when the price of crude shot up, to keep the energy rates fixed as long as possible. Perhaps the government hopes to have paid off the better part of that debt by April. But why not keep people in the loop? Ignorance is not bliss.
An impossible calculationThe oil-price nosedive has triggered a massive global redistribution of the resources involved in the oil trade, transferring the income from producing countries to consuming ones. It’s not the first time this has ever happened, but it seems to have caught many by surprise that it is happening now.
Such a drastic price drop should be good for Nicaragua’s economy since we’re strictly a consuming country. But the benefits aren’t being felt in the national economy because Ortega and his group control the strategic energy sector; the big distributing companies, both Sandinista and non-Sandinista, control the prices of Nicaragua’s major consumer items, and the governing party has privatized the oil-based Venezuelan cooperation for its own discretional use.
With no clear idea of how much the government owes for that cooperation; how much it has used and for what; or how much it might have deposited in the national banking system, including its own new bank (Bancorp), as a cushion against critical situations, it’s impossible to calculate how much the inevitable reduction of the freely assignable US$500 million Venezuelan cooperation has guaranteed over the past four consecutive years will affect things.
The oil variableAll projections indicate that oil prices will probably only rise a little between now and 2016, Nicaragua’s next general election year. Some opponents have begun to merrily predict that the consequences of the low prices will be an important stone in the reelection river Ortega must cross, as he will inevitably have to cut his social programs and other perks and gifts pivotal to the voter support he has harvested since his return to government.
But the fall in oil prices isn’t as significant an electoral variable as Ortega’s detractors seem to think. With the oil bill cut in half, the Nicaraguan economy should improve once the electricity debt is paid off and construction of the Tumarín hydroelectric project—the most important in the past 40 years—gets underway, increasing economic growth. Furthermore, many of the social programs that have so favored Ortega could then be maintained and even included in the budget. In fact, that already began to happen in 2014, and we mustn’t forget that the government wisely calculated the 2015 budget based on the high oil prices.
We also need to remember that Ortega and his group won’t be tight¬fisted with resources if doing so would risk his continuation in power. Only if the entire Bolivarian project collapses—which is not an impossibility—will the oil price variable have as much influence as some political opponents would like.
The opposition should accept that it’s positive for our country for social spending to depend less on foreign resources and be transparently reflected in the budget, because it makes Nicaragua a more manageable country. Wouldn’t an opposition alternative benefit from such a situation?
The international variableThe variable that could be decisive in getting Ortega across the reelection river unscathed is the international one.
There are many stones to feel for. Venezuela’s situation, with its unpredictable outcome; the strengthening of US world hegemony with its oil strategy; Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, and therefore Latin America, as a harbinger of a new ideological climate in the region; the international controversy the transoceanic canal project is triggering; neighboring Costa Rica’s transparent relations with China, which contrast so sharply with the secrecy maintained by the Nicaraguan government and the canal’s Chinese entrepreneur; the new political correlation inside the US with the Republican majority in both houses of Congress…
The Republican variableToday’s correlation in the United States is more unfavorable to Ortega than when he was reelected in 2011 with the help of an unconstitutional ruling by the FSLN-packed Supreme Court. The elections were so riddled with fraudulent irregularities that year that the Carter Center called them “the most opaque in the past 20 years in Nicaragua,” adding that it was “impossible to verify” the results. Particularly questionable was the adjudicating of eight parliamentary seats to the FSLN, giving Ortega enough votes to rewrite the entire Constitution without a single opposition vote.
With that absolute parliamentary majority for the past three years, Daniel Ortega has gotten any law he wants passed. This included a significant unconsulted reform of the Constitution, favoring what the Nicaraguan bishops defined as “the establishment and perpetuation of long-term absolute power, exercised dynastically by a single person or party or through a political and economic oligarchy.” He also pushed through Law 840, again with no real consultation, which has given away our entire country and its future for at least 50 years to businessman Wang Jing for the construction of an interoceanic canal.
The majority the Republicans now have in both houses of Congress will surely result in much closer scrutiny of the development of Nicaragua’s 2016 electoral competition. How would elections similar to those in 2011 affect Ortega’s relations with Washington, particularly if the Republicans also win the White House in the US presidential elections that same year, within days of Nicaragua’s?
The pieces on the international chess board have changed a lot and this is no time for a new electoral fraud of the magnitude Nicaragua has experienced since the 2008 municipal elections, with such negative consequences on both European and US cooperation. Among other things, the 2008 anomalies led to the freezing then cancelling of the US Millennium Challenge Account financing of economic recovery in Nicaragua’s northwestern departments, impoverished by the collapse of their cotton-based economy.
The CELAC meetingThe Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), created by Venezuela’s President Chávez to promote the region’s unity and incorporate Cuba into regional forums, held its third summit in San José, Costa Rica, on January 28. Although the summit obviously had a larger agenda, the issue that stole the show was the start of a détente between the United States and Cuba surprisingly and simultaneously announced by Raúl Castro in Havana and Barack Obama in the United States on December 17.
and Ortega’s faux pas
Unanimous accompaniment was expected from the Latin American community for the most complex step in the normalization of bilateral relations: the lifting of the blockade against Cuba. And indeed, in speech after speech, the leaders at the summit enthusiastically backed the idea, expressing positive expectations for future steps forward, at least until it was Daniel Ortega’s turn.
His faux pas was even more surprising given the international scenario, which is changing in ways that don’t favor his electoral interests. The room was stunned when, after President Raúl Castro’s firm but non-rhetorical words, Ortega downplayed Obama’s decision and dragged out his eternal anti-US rhetoric: “Who’s behind the blockade of Cuba? The power that violates the human rights of an entire people.... We are here with our efforts to eradicate misery and poverty, and they, the Yankees, are conspiring against us…. The Yankees don’t change! The world changes but the Yankees don’t.... They want to present the concessions announced by President Obama as major ones.... But what is he conceding to Cuba? That tourists will be able to spend a little bit more, that the Cubans will be able to receive a little bit more in remittances…. These are days of changes in our planet, where multipolarity is emerging… despite the Yankees!”
After that unusually brief imprudent speech, Ortega pulled another surprise: he abruptly gave up his seat to independent Puerto Rican politician Rubén Berrios. When Berríos finished talking, Costa Rica’s President Luis Guillermo Solís, the meeting’s host, pointed out to Ortega that procedures had to be respected, to which an agitated Ortega shot back that “the voice of Puerto Rico is Nicaragua’s,” then criticized Sólis for having allowed Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza to speak, since he is at “the service of the Yankees!”
That same night Ortega decided to abandon the summit and return to Managua with Venezuelan President Maduro. He appointed Berrios as Nicaragua’s representative in his place, leaving him to participate in the planned private meeting of Presidents and foreign ministers in attendance. Forced to cancel that meeting and close the summit, Solís afterward explained that “the presence of Mr. Berrios was inappropriate because it would have generated undue tensions among various delegations that rejected his participation, but the Nicaraguan dele¬gation’s intransigence was absolute.”
“A disastrous precedent” Ortega’s foolishness astonished the other heads of State. Ecuadoran President Rafael Corea, Ortega’s peer in ALBA and host of the next CELAC summit, backed Solís’ decision not to accept Berrios. “It would have been a disastrous precedent,” he explained, “because the United States could use it to cede its seat to England in April’s Summit of the Americas in Panama to defend its possession of the Malvinas Islands (which England calls the Falkland Islands) against Argentina.”
envío had the opportunity to speak with several Latin American observers at the CELAC summit. Requesting anonymity, they described the visible and deep unease Daniel Ortega had provoked throughout the meeting. “He was seeking protagonism,” some told us. “He made the Cuban delegation so uncomfortable they complained to him about it in private,” said others. They all agreed that he even seemed to want to boycott the summit.
Back in Nicaragua people found it extraordinary that Ortega could contemplate leaving the country represented by a foreign politician unknown to anyone here and ignorant of our realities, while in Puerto Rico they found it equally extraordinary that Ortega would give away the power to represent Nicaragua’s interests.
“Misplaced declarations” Ortega’s diplomatic blunder also distressed the business elite. César Zamora, who always attempts to look on the bright side of whatever the government does, predicted that Ortega’s declarations “would have consequences” and recalled the obvious: “The United States is an important trade partner and there are family ties that are important for the Nicaraguan business class.”
In December, at the summit to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of America (ALBA), Ortega had proposed promoting “our own list of terrorist nations and putting the Yankee State at the top.” On that occasion Zamora had called his declarations “misplaced,” stating that “they had a deep impact on Washington, in the State Department,” and that, as business¬people, they would continue working “to repair relations.”
Perhaps the autism that seems to be affecting those currently deciding Nicaragua’s course is what triggered Ortega’s faux pas, leaving not only him but also Nicaragua looking ridiculous. This illness is diagnosed for people suffering “impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior.”
The big questionThe business elite, Ortega’s best allies today, know and are worried about the changing international scenario and the magnifying glass the United States could focus on Nicaragua’s electoral process. For years they’ve been insisting publicly on a change of the electoral authorities, and in their own interests have reportedly been insisting to the President in private that “if you’re going to win anyway, then at least do it well.”
And that touches on the big question making the rounds now, less than two years before Daniel Ortega’s presumed reelection: would he still win if the elections were fair, clean, transparent and competitive? Some say he wouldn’t, which is why he’s needed successive frauds. But others say he would because Nicaragua has changed, anti-Sandinismo is a thing of the past, Ortega has found a way to win over “independents” and the FSLN has broken through its traditional percentages as opposition since 1990, which never exceeded the mid-40s.
To clear up this debate, last May Nicaragua’s bishops asked Ortega “with all respect to give your word of honor to ensure Nicaragua an absolutely transparent and honest presidential electoral process in 2016, with new and honorable members heading the Supreme Electoral Council in which the popular will shines through with no shadow of a doubt.” Representatives of four political parties and four expressions of civil society requested something similar on January 13 of this year, when they presented a proposal of the changes required to make the 2016 general elections “free, fair, transparent and competitive.”
The decision whether or not to be honest and transparent is the biggest stone Ortega has to carefully feel for while crossing the river.
The rotten treeThe opposition also has stones hindering its crossing to the other side of the river with any possibility of electoral success. Those vacillating between a yes or no answer to the chance of clean elections and whether Ortega might lose them aren’t looking at the uncon¬cealable conflicts and rejection triggered by the governing party’s model of exclusion and social control as much as at the weakness of the opposition challenging that model. Above all they’re seeing the lack of any leadership in addressing the social demands that continually spring up. As some street analysts put it, “The procession’s ready to move out; but there’s no saint to follow.”
Last June, after eight years of rivalries and ill will, the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) put out feelers in search of unity with the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC). The PLI’s idea was for the process to conclude in a political alliance, not just an electoral one. Originally a 1944 split from the Somoza family’s Nationalist Liberal Party, the PLI had become a listless also-ran until taken over by banker-politician Eduardo Montealegre prior to the 2011 elections. Montealegre and his followers had split from the PLC in 2005, exploiting his ability to garner financial resources to form the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), made up of other small Liberal party splits young and old—including the PLI—and the Conservative Party. The ALN took second place away from former President Arnoldo Alemán’s PLC in the 2006 elections, but Monte¬alegre was soon deprived of his ALN leadership through a maneuver implemented by both the PLC and FSLN magistrates on the Supreme Electoral Council. He then moved to the PLI, morphing it into the second political force by the time of the anomalous and irregular 2011 elections.
Throughout the process, the corrupt Alemán has nonetheless continued to exercise control over his now shrunken and discredited PLC while the FSLN has shown its astuteness in continuing to give space and even resources to other Liberal groups with the objective of increasingly atomizing Liberalism, its historical enemy. In early October of last year, a more recent split of PLC dissidents created the Ramiro Sacasa Constitutionalist Liberal Movement and signed a National Plan as well as the recent proposal for free elections. They explained their split from the PLC by arguing that “a rotten tree can’t bear fruit.” The tree they’re referring to is Alemán.
After four months, the PLI announced on October 21 that it was suspending the talks with the PLC “due to the lack of seriousness and coherence in the national upper echelons” of that party, which it said was made up of “election peddlers who continue playing Daniel Ortega’s game.” A month later, two other PLC leaders shook free of the “rotten tree” to form what they called the PLC Crusade, describing Alemán’s party as “trapped in a caudillist knot, a family agenda and political disorientation.”
If these Liberal divisions continue—and Ortega’s strategy is to fuel them—they will become an important stone in the path of achieving a unified opposition that could firmly demand free elections.
There will always be either real or government-fabricated parties willing to play Ortega’s game of participating in elections to make them appear competitive and pluralist. But even if all the dispersed Liberal groups were to unite, that wouldn’t mean the unity of all the opposition, which goes well beyond the various Liberal factions.
The wounds of warMultiple factors explain the weakness of the party-organized opposition. In a society so rooted in its traditions as this one, with a political class that has a very high proportion of older adults and no historical culture of dialogue and debate, the Sandinismo/anti-San¬dinismo that for years fed the fire of war isn’t yet a thing of the past, and it has scuttled all processes aimed at achieving unity.
The wounds and distrust resulting from that militarized past are tangled up with other old and new economic interests, bad reputations of multiple sizes and causes, favors owed and personal histories some would like to keep hidden… The group currently controlling the FSLN knows where all those bodies are buried and has been using its knowledge to demonstrate that many professional politicians have a price. It goes without saying that Ortega has had no restraints, either financial or moral, to pay it. On the other side of the equation, Nicaraguan society is essentially peaceful, forgiving and tolerant, fearful of the consequences of a new conflict like the one still so vivid in many adults’ memories.
This, then, isn’t some simple context for “another opposition.” One does exist however. It isn’t organized, but it has been growing, and could develop even more in the current setting, agitated by the canal project.
The peasant resistance to the foolishness of power personified by the canal project is beginning to show that Nicaraguans’ resigned religiosity has its limits, that the stability achieved in these post-war years is fragile, that the wounds of war remain open and that the peasant culture has the powerful roots of an old oak.
< h2>Land, lake and sovereigntyThe peasant resistance to the interoceanic canal project in the municipalities through which it will pass or in areas that will be affected by the sub-projects associated with it is another stone Ortega will have to feel his way around with great care. And so will the opposition. Entire communities oppose having to sell their lands and move elsewhere, a reaction the government peculiarly appears not to have anticipated.
Could that autism afflicting the circle of power also explain its seeming “lack of imagination,” another characteristic of this ailment?
In late November leaders of the resisting districts of the departments of Rivas, Río San Juan and Juigalpa and the municipality of Nueva Guinea created the National Commission in Defense of the Land, Lake and National Sovereignty. Its very name encapsulates the ripple effect the canal could have for the whole country, affecting first those who will be expropriated from their lands; then those in the Lake Cocibolca basin and beyond who will lose the water they drink and live off and the landscape that shelters them; and finally those of us who will lose our country, permanently rent in two by a private enclave belonging to a foreign company.
Why did so many marches The 16th anti-canal march since the first one in September took place in Managua on December 10, International Human Rights Day. The government did everything short of physical repression to keep the residents of the municipalities in resistance from getting to the capital, including threats to bus drivers not to rent their vehicles to bring the demonstrating peasants, police barricades on several highways, searches of vehicles for unstated reasons that forced the caravans to wait endlessly along the highway, and even detentions. But they came anyway, those from the geographically most distant points after almost 24 hours of clearing obstacles. Some 5,000 people straggled into the city to say NO to the canal that day.
get away without repression?
At that point, and in several of the marches that followed, again back in their localities, the government had not yet decided to respond with repression. Was it to avoid an inevitable confrontation with peasants who in a number of the anti-canal zones once belonged to what was known in the eighties as the Contra; banking instead on wearing them down, on them getting tired of a lack of response and simply giving up on the effort; or trusting that it would be enough to intimidate and threaten them to get them to desist? Or was it simply more of the improvisation seen in the whole canal project so far, with the government lacking a plan for imposing the expropriation of and eviction from the lands that would be given over to Wang Jing’s HKND Group to do with as they wished?
Violence was last year’s The repression came just in time for Christmas, as the protests intensified in different points in anticipation of the touted “inauguration” of the canal works on December 22.
In fact, two inaugurations took place that day. In the morning, Wang Jing broke ground on the construction works in Brito, department of Rivas, which between then and the end of January will be limited to expanding existing dirt roads and paths with machinery belonging to the Rivas mayor’s office, providing work to no more than a couple dozen people. The afternoon inauguration consisted of a protocol act presided by Wang Jing and Daniel Ortega, with the former dubbing the canal through Nicaragua the “21st Century’s Silk Road.”
Wang also announced new data about the stages of the work: the first quarter of 2015 would see the measurement, design and acquisition of properties and the opening of bids for the preliminary project design, with the environmental impact study delivered at the end of that quarter. The bidding for and start of the canal’s excavation in the most important point of the route would begin in the third quarter, while the last quarter would see bidding for the design and construction of the locks.
The following day, according to detailed information obtained on the ground by the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), an operation involving 250 police violently broke up an anti-canal demonstration in Rivas, detaining more than 20 people.
Then early the next morning, a police contingent aided by Army personnel used rubber bullets and tear gas against several hundred peasant farmers of El Tule and neighboring districts in the department of Río San Juan who had been protesting the canal for a week along the Managua-San Carlos highway. Dozens of people wounded and more than 40 detained were the toll of that repression of peaceful demonstrators. There were even accusations that levels of torture were applied.
Because it was just before Christmas, the government must have thought there would be no reaction. But there was. News of the rejection of the canal and the disproportionate violence by the government made it into important international media. And in Managua, anti-canal activists, CENIDH and the ever fewer independent media in Nicaragua repeatedly denounced what had happened and negotiated the release of those detained, which they were able to achieve before year’s end.
A token adjustmentOn December 27, government canal spokesman Telémaco Talavera showed up in La Fonseca, a community in the municipality of Nueva Guinea, to listen to peasants who are rejecting the canal project. Then on January 1, he went to the municipality of San Miguel¬ito with the same mission. On both occasions he was guarded by heavily armed riot police and soldiers. It was the first time any government official had shown even the most minimal interest in their opinion and also the first time the government was forced to admit that there’s strong rejection in those areas and that peasant farmers are demanding repeal of the canal law.
On January 10, Talavera reported that the canal route had been modified and would now run some 30 kilometers to the south of El Tule. This change is yet another sign of the irresponsible improvisation with which the government is managing everything related to this mega-project, for which there are still no technical, environmental or even economic viability studies. On January 26, Ortega named Talavera, until then an adviser on agricultural issues, “Adviser to the President of the Republic on all Government Cabinet issues, with the rank of minister,” and announced that he would become a member of the Cabinet.
How many more stones? Even after these episodes of institutional violence, the government continued selling the fantasy of the canal project, with Managua’s public transport buses now carrying the motto “God bless the Canal.”
The marches rejecting the canal also continued. By the end of January there had been 21, with the participation of thousands of people, including rural farmers and peasant men and women from the interior of Nicaragua, the people no one ever hears about or pays much attention to.
That “absolute intransigence” Ortega exhibited in the CELAC summit also continued cropping up in the government’s daily actions.
In the face of this now closed pre-electoral horizon, the firm peasant resistance to the international canal is the most novel political and symbolic sign of recent months. Will the unfortunate canal project succeed in modifying the course of things in our country? How many stones will be placed in the river by the peasantry that’s rejecting the canal, whose banners call Ortega a “vendepatria” (sellout or even traitor) and demand repeal of the canal law? How far will that peasant revolt get?
Some of the messages posted by Managua youth on the social networks insist that “This riff-raff can’t halt progress,” while others applaud and thank them. Even before the canal has split Nicaragua in two, it has already divided it.
“Campaigns of Good Hope”On January 4 Rosario Murillo, the President’s wife and government spokeswoman, released the official 2015 government strategy, which she titled “We’re going forward… in Campaigns of Good Hope.” The section referring to the canal project reads as follows, with all punctuation and capitalization in the original: “All Good News will be multiplied, and, God Willing, there will be much, this Year, which will announce all the changes achieved and being achieved. No one can block out the Sun. Nicaragua has changed, for the Good. Nicaragua is exhibiting its Good Heart, and the Good Energy of its People, its Individuals, knowing that all the Strengths and, the Wings with which we are propelling ourselves, in the flight to Other and Better Days depends on that Energy, this Spirit, which comes from God. This Year we will work united so that the Grand Canal, its construction, its strategic dimension, will be valued by all Nicaraguan Families, from the commitment to assure improvement in Life, for those who have lived, and live nearby, for the whole Country, and for the World! The challenge of continuing to accompany this Project in Leading and omplementary Majority, will be assumed fully by our Media and in the direct and positive Communication we will deploy in formidable Campaigns of Good Hope.”