Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 412 | Noviembre 2015
Home Contact us Archive Suscriptions



The sum of all fears

Now in the countdown to next year’s elections, the government has offered a varied menu of signals that presumably indicate the power circle’s current concerns: more centralism, greater control, a new law, unusual repression in El Limón Mine, a sudden turnaround to demobilize the anti-mining campaign in Rancho Grande and a mega-display of military and paramilitary power to stop the peasants opposed to the interoceanic canal. The common thread seems to be the dread absolute power feels when it perceives itself to be threatened in any way.

Envío team

This month’s main events included the representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), who is also represents the UN system in the country, leaving Nicaragua abruptly upon being informed by the executive branch that its resources will henceforward be controlled directly by the government. Meanwhile, the police impounded trucks carrying 800 quintals of food donated by peasants along the canal route to hungry peasant families in the dry corridor whose crops had been lost, an operation based on an improvised executive branch regulation establishing that from now on the government will centralize all donations. President Ortega also ordered unheard-of repression at the mine in El Limón, León, a Sandinista bastion, to stifle labor demands only days after unexpectedly suspending the Rancho Grande mining project following a massive demonstration opposing it in that Matagalpa farming municipality. A new bill Ortega sent to the National Assembly on October 9 defines any social protest as “treason against the homeland.” And on October 27, the government pulled out all stops to prevent the thousands of peasants from other departments reaching the capital for what was billed as a massive march against the canal project. All this happened in a context now marked by the next electoral race, which appears a little less certain than one might have predicted. Let’s look in greater detail at all these moves and the context in which they occurred.

Cooperation under control

A rumor that had been circulating for a couple of weeks was publicly announced on October 7. That day the executive branch met with the heads of bilateral and multilateral development cooperation agencies in Nicaragua to inform them that as of now the government alone will decide which projects are accepted and which are not, and will assume total control of managing and executing the resources for any accepted project with no outside intermediation.

The decision immediately affected the UNDP, which intermediates resources from various countries for programs to strengthen civil society. At the moment of the government’s decision, the UNDP was managing a portfolio of eleven projects totalling US$20 million a year for four programs: development with equity, democratic governance, environment and energy, and gender equity.

In one week the government closed seven of those projects and began reviewing the rest. Uruguayan Silvia Rucks, the UNDP representative in Nicaragua, who had nearly three more years to go in this post, questioned the measure and made a dignified departure from the country.

The government’s move made it clear that what concerns it is any cooperation that strengthens civil society, which it sees as a breeding ground for autonomous movements that defy its model. Other bilateral agencies whose programs have a more economic focus or are more charity-oriented have not felt the blow .

The control actually
started in 2008

The tensions with international cooperation first began to be felt in response to the documented electoral fraud in the November 2008 municipal elections.The European Union froze the funds from what was called the Budget Support Group, to which it was the major contributor, being used to finance the national budget. At that time those funds represented 80% of the resources Nicaragua’s government allocated to public investments. For its part, the United States first froze and ultimately cancelled the disbursement of the remaining half of its Millennium Challenge Account, a US$175 million investment to redevelop León and Chinandega following the collapse of its cotton economy.

In retaliation, the government began to use different means to hinder the cooperation resources earmarked by governments and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for projects run by their local counterparts to promote democracy, citizen participation, governance, transparency and human rights. Labeling such projects “political interference,” the government was very successful in rolling them back thanks to the fearful or prudent response from a large number of the agencies. Many either left the country or shifted to prioritizing paternalistic handout projects much like the government’s own, thus abetting an old dependency-based mentality among the poor population rooted in religious charity rather than the empowering concept of being the subjects of their own development.

With the new rules of the game for the UNDP and other foreign government cooperation agencies as well as an announcement that no foreigners may sit on the board of any domestic NGO or social organization, egged on by the fear that domestic dissidence is being strengthened from abroad, this shift to disempowering projects will make even faster headway.

But this paranoid constraining of foreign cooperation has come with a cost. In addition to the departure of many organizations, the nature of the remaining assistance has shifted. According to the government’s 2007 Report on Official External Cooperation, 55.39% of all external resources received by Nicaragua were donations at that time. By the first half of this year, donations had dropped to 18.2%, with the bulk in the form of loans that indebt the country.

Guatemala’s model
is “exportable”

When European and US bilateral cooperation agencies began leaving the country some seven years ago, President Ortega expressed little concern, proclaiming repeatedly that increased Venezuelan cooperation more than made up for it. He went so far as to tell Caracas that their departure “makes us feel freer.”

But things are different now. A new election is approaching, the international economic scenario is no longer favorable for Nicaragua, and Venezuela can’t provide a safety net anymore. To make matters even worse, the UN role in what happened in Guatemala seems to have visibly concerned the government. The UN-supported International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) documented and courageously denounced the government’s corruption, , thus encouraging the citizens’ mobilization that helped bring the government down. From prison, deposed far-right President Pérez Molina denounced CICIG for its “destabilizing” objective, employing the same discourse used by the Nicaraguan government’s propaganda, a previously unthinkable coincidence.

Many see the Ortega government’s hobbling of the UNDP as an attempt to inoculate itself against a similar turn of events. In the midst of the massive street demonstrations in Guatemala, Valerie Julliand, the UN representative in that country, told the news daily El País that “what happened in Guatemala could be the start of a change in the entire region, because people in the other countries have realized what can be done. CICIG was designed for Guatemala, but the corruption problems here are similar to those of many other Latin American countries, so the model is exportable…. In this age of Facebook, Twitter, smartphones and Google, movements grow quickly.” And in fact, the anti-government demonstrations in Honduras at the same time as Guatemala demanded the creation of a “CICIH.”

It was only a few weeks later that the Nicaraguan government changed the rules of the game for cooperation with the United Nations.

Centralized donations

Meanwhile, in a show of both identity and solidarity, the National Council in Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty, a peasant movement fighting to protect its fertile lands from the interoceanic canal, decided to send 800 quintals of food produced on those lands to more than a thousand peasant families of five municipalities in the northern dry corridor that are suffering hunger after two consecutive years of drought. When the four-truck caravan reached Ocotal, capital of the department of Nueva Segovia, on October 19, the National Police confiscated the food. The justification was that the drivers couldn’t produce health registrations, which are in fact only needed for food being exported. When people resisted the operation, the police responded with violence.

To give the extremely unpopular measure a legal cover, First Lady Rosario Murillo, one of whose many government and party roles is communications director, immediately issued a note stating that “all aid to be delivered to individuals and families affected by any situation must be channeled through SINAPRED [the National Disaster Response System].” However, SINAPRED has never had this power and the government has refused to declare the hunger being suffered in the region’s drought-ravaged dry corridor a “situation,” much less an emergency, as other Central American countries have done.

A wide array of figures ranging from Cardinal Brenes to the presidential adviser on economic affairs, Bayardo Arce, questioned the decision. , Arce said he didn’t “know where that came from” and called the measure “a mistake, above all when we’re going into an electoral year.”

A surprising turnaround
for Rancho Grande

A week earlier, in her noon transmission on all official media, Murillo announced, in the standard tone she uses to announce earth tremors in the previous 24 hours, that the gold mining project planned for the Matagalpa municipality of Rancho Grande had been “declared unviable.” This utterly unexpected announcement seemingly surprised even the representative of Canada’s B2Gold mining company, which owns the concession, and the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), whose members have enthusiastically been trying to drum up mining investments in the country.

On October 3, nine days prior to Murillo’s announcement, more than 15,000 Rancho Grande peasants, both Catholics and Evangelicals, together with people from all the department’s social organizations, participated in a “pilgrimage” to reject yet again and more massively than ever, the open pit gold mine B2Gold was planning to open in a nearby hill called Cerro Pavón. The pilgrimage was called by Rolando Álvarez, the bishop of Matagalpa, and Pablo Espinoza, the local parish priest, and during a Mass celebrated at the end, Álvarez spoke to the multitude quoting from Pope Francis’ powerful environmental encyclical “Laudato Si’.”

Why did the
government back off?

From a government that never rectifies anything, the announcement of the unviability of a project it had openly backed up to that very day was quite a happening. Did the environmental “explanation” offered by Murillo (“studies developed over the years and visits made recently”) convince anyone? Those supposed studies have yet to be presented publicly.

In fact the actions of both the central and local government authorities have suggested quite the opposite. In open complicity with B2Gold, they have harassed and persecuted peasants opposed to the mine for some time and even spent a significant amount of money to bring people from distant departments to participate in a countermarch the same afternoon as the one called by the bishop.

Álvarez called the government’s rectification “smart” and in Rancho Grande the organized population celebrated. If the government hoped its about-face might lead the mine’s opponents, organized in what they call the Guardians of Yaoska, to drop their guard, that hope was dashed. They’ve called for publication of the environmental study and official resolution declaring the project unviable, which is very wise since in a separate statement the government merely used the term “suspension.” They’ve even declared themselves determined to struggle to get other mining concessions in the municipality annulled as well.

The Guardians of Yaoska

B2Gold acquired the Rancho Grande concession in 2007, when Daniel Ortega’s term in office was just beginning. It was purchased from another mining company, which had been awarded it by the Bolaños government but had yet to initiate any work.

By the time of this government’s reversal, B2Gold had four years of exploration work in Rancho Grande under its belt, and has also spent money on propaganda in all national and local media to convince the population of its “green and responsible mining” and on local social activities in an unsuccessful attempt to win the population over to its mining plans.

A year ago, in a fascinating text about an exemplary model of civic struggle, two representatives of Guardians of Yaoska, named for the river that begins near the mining site, explained to envío how they had organized against “that monster.” (See http://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/4931.)

The massive October 3 “pilgrimage” wasn’t their first mobilization against the mine. In March 2013, some 5,000 people from Rancho Grande gathered for the third time to say “no” to mining, and that same year parents from the municipality kept their children out of school in protest. By then the population already had evidence of the kind of environmental disaster the mine could cause when the cyanide used for exploratory drilling was found to have already contaminated the Yaoska River.

Rancho Grande’s struggle is neither spontaneous nor recent; it has been organized in an area nourished over previous years by the systematic educational work of organizations promoting agro-ecology and educating people about their human rights. The Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) has been at the head of that work of sowing knowledge, awareness and determination. That and the strength of liberating religious ideas cultivated by both Catholics and Evangelicals convinced that defending Nature is a divine mandate, formed the fabric of an undetainable struggle. It was made even stronger in March 2013 by the exemplary accompaniment of a Catholic authority when the bishop and 42 Catholic priests from the diocese issued a document calling B2Gold’s planned exploitation in Rancho Grande a “deadly sin.”

Earlier this year, a member of the envío team asked a gathering of some 25 Guardians of Yaoska that included young and old, men and women, Catholics and Evangelicals, all of whom participated actively and equally in the conversation, how they explained their exceptional unity. Their first response was that all were leaders and none were leaders, explaining that this means no one can be bought off or jailed leaving the organization headless. Then one of them gazed out over the lush green surroundings that supply food to much of the rest of the department and said “God gave us this rich land, and we are thus obliged to defend it. It is our privilege and our commitment.” Another person seconded that view, explaining that he was one of the few who was not a native of Rancho Grande but came from one of the dry corridor municipalities. He described how hard life is for his former neighbors, leaving them neither time nor incentive to organize collectively.

And he was right. No other cause in the north of the country has led to such a firm convergence. In almost ten years of coopting social protests or stifling them if they dared to grow, the Ortega-Murillo government hasn’t confronted anything like this anywhere else in the country. The government’s “wisdom” counseled stopping it in time.

“We are the light
of the nations”

When the international price of gold began its greed-provoking climb in mid-2009, the Ortega-Murillo government and its COSEP allies swung open the country’s doors to investors in mining exploration and exploitation. A study by the Centro Humboldt shows that the concessions granted by the government for metalic mining increased 24% between 2011 and 2013 and already covered 13.4% of the national territory. The government granted the permits easily, without taking environmental laws into account, and the tendency to establish mining lots in the buffer zones of almost all the country’s protected areas increased.

In August of last year, when Managua hosted the country’s first International Mining Congress, attracting 300 investors from 22 countries, Nicaragua was touted s the “most attractive” country for mining investment after Chile. At the time it was reported that mining production (mainly for gold and silver) had increased 300% during the Ortega-Murillo government. Denis Lanzas, the vice president of Nicaragua’s Chamber of Mining, enthusiastically declared that “Nicaragua is the light of the nations. Everyone is asking how we’ve done it.” At least one way they did it was to send the police to repress a delegation from Rancho Grande that tried to get to the event.

At that time many people currently struggling against the environmental and social disasters caused by open-pit mining in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and even Costa Rica were asking why Nicaragua was not involved in the debate and the anti-mining struggles given all this growing investment. The triumph of the persevering organized population of Rancho Grande thus has the added value of having opened spaces that previously barely existed in Nicaragua’s media and society to reflect on and debate the issue of mining investments to which the neoliberal governments, including this one, have been so compliant. People are becoming more aware that these operations are socially and environmentally unsustainable, leaving great destruction and very limited earnings in the country.

Conflict in the Limón mine

In the long-time mining town of El Limón, the same hand that halted gold mining some 240 kilometers northeast in Rancho Grande to avoid a greater conflict exacerbated a serious conflict with El Limón’s miners by rejecting negotiations and unleashing a brutal repression. Located on some 12,000 hectares that straddle the border between the departments of León and Chinandega, that mine also belongs to B2Gold and produces 30% of the gold exported from Nicaragua.

Since early this year, the historically Sandinista “Pedro Roque Blandón” mining union has engaged in a number of strikes to demand compliance with the collective bargaining agreement. The high international price of gold, which peaked at just under $1,890 per ounce in late 2011, produced some improvements for the miners and enormous earnings for the Vancouver-based mining company. But with the sharp fall in the price of gold, currently down to $1,085, B2Gold began to cut costs, violating the labor contract.

Three of the union’s leaders led the strikes, especially denouncing B2Gold’s outsourcing policy. Only 235 of the 600 permanent workers the company contracted in 2012 still remain. The others found themselves working with no security or labor benefits.

“They’re vandals”

Negotiations became impossible and the company, counting on the government’s unconditional backing, got the Ministry of Labor to endorse its firing of the three union leaders heading the strikes and annulment of their contracts. With both the union and the collective agreement destroyed, the benefits previously achieved were in even greater danger and the outsourcing of the contracts would most likely intensify.

A good part of the mining town’s population responded by boycotting work in the mine as of September 30, demanding the union leaders’ reintegration. Despite losing a lot of money, the company still refused to negotiate. With the mine paralyzed, the protests continued, barricades were erected in the streets and the people rebelled.

On October 6 the government sent a contingent of young and inexperienced police officers to the town. They were completely overwhelmed by the determined population, which burned down the local police station and two patrol cars and held off the police with a rain of stones for two hours. They even managed to disarm them all. In the end, 23 police officers and 8 local residents were wounded and one 18-year-old police officer died. The official version is that he died from a mortar shot to the chest, while the population’s version, corroborated by medical findings, is that he died of a heart attack. Police and government authorities called the residents “vandals,” which only enraged them more.

El Limón under siege

The clear disproportion between police and residents in that first clash suggests that the government underestimated the level of discontent and/or overestimated the governing party’s support in an area historically loyal to the FSLN. Others, however, interpret it in the context of the National Police’s currently deteriorated social legitimacy. “It would appear they were sent into the lion’s den to later project the image of the police as victims,” hypothesized security expert Roberto Orozco.

Local Catholic and Evangelical authorities repeated called for dialogue. But the government ignored them and even ratcheted up the repression after October 6. Dozens of anti-riot cops in full gear invaded the community and blocked all access roads into the town, isolating it totally. The fired union leaders were arrested and taken to El Chipote in Managua, a prison denounced by all three of Nicaragua’s human rights organizations for the torture and other abuses practiced there. The prisoners were accused of a long string of offenses, even including “organized crime.”

Unwonted repression

In the early morning of October 17, 400 anti-riot police violently took over the town. Although it had already been under siege for a week, the marches had continued with the population demanding the reinstatement of the union leaders, dismissal of four B2Gold officials and removal of the police.

This time the police operation involved the use of teargas and flamethrowers. The police broke into houses and temporarily detained more than 20 men, terrorizing entire families and destroying their household belongings. Even the Catholic church was raided. The majority of the men fled into the hills while the women initiated daily marches, defying the police, who remained in the community.

“Institutionality has prevailed for the 11,000 inhabitants of the mining district and for B2Gold,” proclaimed the transnational mining company’s manager in Nicaragua, considering the conflict thus resolved, but at the close of this issue of envío on November 6, the union leaders were still being held prisoner and tensions were still running high in the community.

What do mining companies
leave in the country?

Mining companies’ contribution to Nicaragua’s economy is minimal, particularly considering the environmental devastation they cause by mining for gold. Andrés McKinley, a specialist in mining and environmental issues, explained to envío that 20 tons of rock and soil must be extracted and removed to produce an ounce of that precious metal—enough for one ring—and some gold mines use as much as 250,000 liters of water per hour.

As for their more positive contribution, the Centro Humboldt report says that “Mining companies only pay a 3% royalty for the amount extracted and even that is deductible from their income taxes—which they virtually do not pay. That is the only direct income for the State other than the hardly lucrative tax on the surface conceded (US$0.25 per hectare, which doubles annually until reaching a maximum of US$12 per hectare once the concession has been in operation 11 years).”

Economist Adolfo Acevedo told envío that “in 1952, when Nicaragua was already a major gold exporter, the World Bank challenged the mining companies about such an unequal relation. It suggested that the country from which the gold is extracted should share the income from the gold to obtain resources to invest in human capital and basic infrastructure and thus be able to compensate for the exhausting of a non-renewable resource. With 3% they aren’t sharing anything. The wealth is being sent out and when the mining boom is over, what’s left? Empty tunnels, mountains blown apart by open mining, contaminated waters and ghost towns.” It would appear that the mining corporations didn’t take to the World Bank’s suggestion.

To date the Limón Mine has already produced 3 million ounces of gold and projections for 2015 alone are for 55,000-65,000 ounces. Even at current prices, that is a minimum income of nearly US$60 million. According to B2Gold’s local manager, the gold reserves there will run out by early 2018.

“We can’t backpedal”

On October 13, with the Limón mining crisis in full swing, Ortega dedicated a good bit of his extensive speech at the celebration of the Ministry of Government’s anniversary to mining in Nicaragua. These were the main ideas he shared that night:

“We can’t backpedal. There aren’t the conditions to go backward. Going backward now would mean passing the mines to the State, nationalizing them. And that can’t be done; it mustn’t be done! Simply because those mines wouldn’t be able to operate. The Nicaraguan State doesn’t have the resources to sustain the operation of a single mining company.…

“Are the mining companies taking out a good profit? It’s true; they are. Is that unfair? Yes, it’s unfair. The ideal would be for the mining companies to take out a reasonable profit. But no investor in the world today would invest even a peso unless it’s going to take out a huge amount of pesos.…

“What’s the advantage of investment? The advantage is that it generates work, it directly generates jobs, and also commercial activity for all the people who live in the town, so they can sell food, wash clothes, iron, open a bar to sell beer…. And what’s the cost of all that for the country? That they take a good part of its wealth. That’s the profit they take out for investing in any country, and in our country, where we have a reputation for not respecting foreign investment…

“We can’t go backward, because we simply don’t have the resources to make those investments ourselves. We’d love Nicaragua to have the resources to make those investments and not depend on any foreign investor…”

The “people criminal”?

As in all mining districts, there are areas around the town of El Limón with a lunar landscape, obvious deforestation and contaminated waters. Since 2007 Centro Humboldt has been taking samples to test the degree of contamination in the area and confirmed the presence of cyanide in the water sources.

In late 2012, when Aracely Sánchez, a 28-year-old pregnant woman, died in Santa Pancha in the same mining district because her house was swallowed up by mine tunnels dug under the town, CENIDH officials were not welcome there given its critical position toward the Ortega government. At that time, Centro Humboldt detected a “fear of denouncing the company because both the municipal and central governments have turned a deaf ear.” The people were afraid of losing their jobs if they said anything critical and even of being seen with environmentalist organizations.

Years later, those fears seem to have been overcome with the firing of the union members. Perhaps that and the confidence that they would be listened because the Límon Mine has always been an FSLN bastion led them to forcefully demand the rights they were seeing rolled back. “When the FSLN wasn’t in government, they’d bring mortars and tell us to fight hard against the company… Yet now they come to attack us,” said one union leader, deeply hurt by the repression his party’s government unleashed against them. “Should the ‘people President’ now be called the ‘people criminal’?”

Things are changing today. As economist Adolfo Acevedo explains in the “Speaking Out” section of this issue, an economic situation ever less favorable for the government is behind this and other conflicts. And as happens in any country, when contradictions appear that previously weren’t expressed, authoritarian power typically responds with violence.

Institutional violence
and a violent response

During the conflict in El Limón, the messages from the business elite, buttressed by leaders of the pro-government unions, condemned the violence, but only the population’s. They dragged out their constant refrain that it’s hurting the country’s image and scaring away foreign investment. God forbid they should criticize the labor abuses of a powerful mining company.

In this respect it’s worth recalling one of the central messages of Monsignor Romero, who lived through a period of extraordinary violence in El Salvador. Always opposed to violence as a conflict-resolving method, he also consistently differentiated between “institutionalized violence” and “violence as a response.”

“Institutionalized violence is that which abuses its power,” he said in one of his homilies in those years of massive bloodshed. “A sign of the times is a universal desire for liberation and in response to the institutionalization of violence, liberation movements arise that respond with violence.”

The martyred archbishop understood that the violence on both sides multiplies and always spirals into something uncontrollable, particularly endangering the poorest and most defenseless. He was also aware that institutionalized violence ends up being repressive and corners people into opting for “violence as a response” to demand enforcement of their rights. Taking the side of those who respond in that way was what cost him his life.

The “heavy hand”

Presidential economic adviser Bayardo Arce, who was seemingly blindsided by the confiscation of the food donation trucks, was ready to react on cue with a standard bromide for the Limón mining conflict. He claimed to see the “heavy hand” of the political opposition behind it, an attempt to “deal a blow to the economy.” That same old hand, working in the shadows, never showing itself, is dragged out like the boogie man to explain away any problem that would otherwise have to be recognized as real and genuinely coming from the people, and thus have to be dealt with. So much easier for the government to blame it on the “political opposition,” even though the rest of the time it brags that said opposition is down for the count.

Lacking an alternative, agued Arce, the opposition, “in its twisted logic, is trying to depreciate the government’s economic achievements,” calling the Central Bank and Social Security statistics into question, criticizing the government’s use of Venezuelan oil cooperation and challenging the recent measurements showing spectacular poverty reduction… Arce’s interpretation of the data that “reduced” the poverty is very different than the one offered by economist Adolfo Acevedo in these pages.

According to Gonzalo Carrión, CENIDH’s legal director, the government’s repressive response to the conflict in Limón Mine was an experiment, planned to demonstrate what any mobilization and social protest can expect with the approval of the new Sovereign Security Law Ortega sent to the National Assembly on October 9, just as the repression of the miners was escalating. “With that law,” says Carrión, “we’ll see an increase in the criminalization of social protest and those who protest will henceforward be traitors to the homeland and their protest a crime against national sovereignty.”

Sovereign security

This bill, like all others the executive branch has sent to the parliament, could well be approved without any meaningful debate relying on just the votes of the governing party’s bench, an absolute majority of 63 out of the total of 92, at least 8 of them allegedly obtained by fraud in the 2011 elections. In the view of most jurists and constitutional and security experts, the bill is an assault on democratic rights and overrides the Constitution. Moreover, it’s “unnecessary” because the Democratic Security Law, approved in 2010, already gave the army a huge new leading role in domestic “security.”

“The Sovereign Security Law is the most serious threat to the enforcement of human rights looming in Nicaragua at this time,” said CENIDH president Vilma Núñez. It is aimed at bolstering the current model, in which the armed forces already predominate over the civil institutions, and grants the new National Sovereign Security System, presided over by Ortega, a dangerously ample margin of discretion to abuse its functions in the resolution of social and political conflicts, considering them risks or threats.

“The imperial hand”

Rosario Murillo defined this new concept of “sovereign security,” which exists nowhere else in world jurisprudence, as follows: “Sovereign security is Nicaragua united in faith, family and community,” thus highlighting the latest of the slogans she has designed for all the governing party’s propaganda. Her firm identification with the new law is also found in its own language, which clearly bears her imprint.

“Sovereign security” also figured on no fewer than six occasions in the message from Daniel Ortega that Vice President Omar Halleslevens read on October 1 to the United Nations General Assembly. Ortega’s letter denounced the “increasing greed of global capitalism” and charged that “the hand of empire can be seen in all regions of the world in the form of intrigue, aggression, manipulation and all kinds of interference directed against legitimate democratic processes and intended to weaken governments and influence institutions, wreaking havoc and…spreading insecurity, destruction and all forms of crises.” In a rather interesting example of “do as I say, not as I do,” he proselytized that working for justice, equality and development “requires the establishment of a culture of coming together, of dialogue, of consensus… a recovery of the essential values of humanity.” Calling for the “recasting” of the UN itself, “reinventing it to become democratic,” he also took a shot at UN agencies. A harbinger of his crackdown on the UNDP only weeks later, he advocated that they play a “respectful, responsible and ethical role…devoid of any form of interference and intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign States.”

The determined and crucial role played by the UN’s CICIG in whipping the wraps off the corruption and impunity of Guatemala’s government and private enterprise very probably encouraged both Ortega’s speech and his new protective security law. But his impetus to better armor his government and allies was surely spurred on significantly by the US Office of Foreign Asset Control’s recent surprising move against Honduras’ powerful Rosenthal clan. It formally accused that economic group of using its bank and seven of its corporations in one of the most important money-laundering networks for drug cartels in Central America. With Central America such a small region that all regional oligarchies are connected and share businesses, investments and other transactions, that criminal charge has more teeth than appears at first glance.

53rd march against the canal
violently blocked in Managua

The third national march opposing the construction of the interoceanic canal in Nicaragua was organized for October 27, with plans to march to Managua’s National Assembly to demand the repeal of Law 840, which granted the canal concession to the Hong Kong Nicaragua Development (HKND) Group. It was the 53rd demonstration against the canal since the law’s passage on June 24, 2013.

Some fifty thousand peasants from around the country were expected to arrive in the capital that morning. Many thousands did make it after enduring sun, hunger and sleeplessness in up to 50 hours on the road, sometimes in trucks, sometimes on horseback and sometimes on foot, overcoming one obstacle after another thrown at them by the government to impede their progress: barriers in the road, armed police blocking their way on both rural roads and highways, police threats issued to drivers of the trucks, the seizing of trucks, and the puncturing of tires by sharpened metal objects placed by the police themselves… Thousands more failed to make it on time for the same reasons.

A trap awaited
them in Managua

Even those who battled their way successfully to Managua were pre-vented from marching even a single block due to a trap the government had laid for them at the northern entrance to the city, clearly aimed at provoking their ire in the hope of generating a confrontation that would justify arresting the peasant movement’s leaders. The trap was a mega-military operation with hundreds of fierce-looking riot police carrying huge bullet-proof plastic shields. Hundreds of armed paramilitaries on motorcycles also intimidated and attacked the protestors in front of the unresponding police.

The peasants came armed with work tools—machetes and large curved stubble-slashing knives—but also with clubs. Along the obstacle-strewn highway to Managua they had brandished them to pass the police blocks, when the numerical disproportion was in their favor. Angry and tired by the time they reached Managua, they came in a mood to raise them there as well, but realizing the trap the government had set and finding themselves in unknown territory, they wisely sidestepped it, reaffirming that their struggle is a civic one. After spending two hours blocked from proceeding along the northern highway, they turned around and went back home, not in the slightest defeated, but rather even more determined to continue struggling to defend their lands, the water of Lake Cocibolca and national sovereignty.

Before the peasant demonstrators returned to their lands in Punta Gorda, Nueva Guinea, San Miguelito, El Tule and elsewhere, which they have made unequivocally clear that they will defend to the death, Francisca Ramírez, a leader of the municipality of Nueva Guinea and one of the leaders of this peasant movement, said in her brief speech that “it hurts us that this government isn’t for all of the people, but only for some.”

There was no such colossal repressive presence against their movement in December 2014, when thousands of peasants came to Managua for the first national march against the canal, nor when a larger national march was held in Juigalpa several months ago.

A government “only for some”

That same October 27 the government organized a countermarch of party sympathizers and thousands of state employees and public school students “in favor of peace and work” and “against Nicaragua’s bad children.” They occupied a number of streets, traffic circles and plazas in the capital to demonstrate the now familiar message that the streets belong to red and black flags alone. Journalists from the TV news program “Esta Semana” interviewed several Sandinista youth leaders and at least one government minister, getting nothing but silence and desperately trapped looks from them when asked their opinion of the repression of the peaceful anti-canal march on the other side of the city.

The continuous assault on social peace in the country by a government that still calls itself one of “reconciliation and national unity” and preached those and other similar values before the other member nations in the UN general assembly, indeed hurts. What we saw in the capital wasn’t some test of strength, one legitimate expression of people’s views against another, any more than there had been in Rancho Grande weeks earlier. Rather there was one march with complete freedom of movement and a squandering of public resources, whose aggressions were permitted by the police. And there was another one, even more massive than previous ones despite the absence of all those unable to reach the capital, that was blocked by that same squandering of public resources, prevented from expressing its “life-and-death demands.” Instead of recognizing the legitimacy and fervor of those demands, instead of “establishing a culture of coming together, of dialogue, of consensus… a recovery of the essential values of humanity,” to use Ortega’s words to the UN, the government pitted one side against the other: its workers and police against the people. It sure looked like an act born of fear.

The sum of all fears?

Does the governing couple want to control foreign cooperation out of fear of something similar to what happened in Guatemala and could happen in Honduras? How influential have the shivers the Rosenthal case sent down the spine of the now integrated Central American financial oligarchy really been? And how much weight is being brought to bear by the dark horizon in Venezuela and the wearing down of the long cycle of leftwing governments in Latin America?

Did they back off in Rancho Grande to deflate the example, out of fear it would grow? Or was it just a rational fear that suggested the need to keep up appearances? Could it even have been nothing more than a tactical retreat, in line with the falling gold prices, with B2Gold ever at the ready to jump back in should prices again tweak its greed, hoping the local residents will have dropped their guard? And what about the seemingly tirelessly struggle being waged against the canal and on behalf of their land by the peasants, who the repressive forces still haven’t figured out how to stop when they march in their own territories?

Is this mounting repression a confession of the government’s inability to resolve social demands any other way? Do the government and governing party fear they will lose the streets if social discontent is allowed free expression? Have they realized that fraud isn’t enough to guarantee control of government power, and believe they can only retain it with the use of force?

Is it fear of being unable to respond to the various fronts that have opened against it in the country and those that could open across the borders? Is it fear of the pressure to make the electoral process transparent, which would jeopardize its total control of power? Or is it the sum of all those fears?

Other anti-canal activities

After reading the executive summary of the canal project’s environmental and social impact assessment by Environmental Resources Management (ERM), Grupo Cocibolca, an umbrella of eight Nicaraguan social and environmental organizations, sent an open letter to President Ortega the day before the national march in Managua urgently requesting the repeal of the canal law. The letter argues that the summary, which can be seen on the web page of HKND, the canal project’s concession holder, “reveals the improvised and irregular way in which this concession was granted and that ERM [a British consulting company hired by HKND] had a complicit or complacent collaborating attitude by agreeing not to observe the procedures established in national legislation and good international practices. For example, the terms of reference for conducting the study were issued to ERM by the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources after the company had already done the baseline study. The ministry delivered the terms of reference in October 2014 yet ERM did the study between September 2013 and November 2014. This means that ERM became aware of the scope of the studies barely a month before concluding the infor- mation-gathering yet agreed to be contracted by HKND without knowing the scope of the work…. This is inadmissible in terms of good international practices.”

The letter added that “ERM could not help but recognize some findings already pointed out by the national and international scientific community that make the canal project unviable,” for example that the “land expropriation and involuntary relocation process does not meet international standards…” and that “Law 840 is not consistent with international norms on compensation and limits the landowners’ rights to contest many aspects of the expropriation process.” It also notes that ERM “recognizes that the project will be unable to comply with 21 IFC [referring to the World Bank’s International Financial Corporation] performance regulations…. This means that no self-respecting financial entity will want to risk its capital with so much stated uncertainty.” Last but not least, it reminds readers that “the project will have inevitable adverse impacts,” which reaffirms the fears and denunciations raised from the outset of this process by both the directly affected population and Nicaraguans who are struggling to defend the nation’s sovereignty, natural resources and patrimony.”

On October 6 the Cocibolca Group appeared before the Latin American Water Tribunal in Guatemala to charge the Nicaraguan State and its Grand Canal Commission with jeopardizing and affecting the country’s water resources through the canal’s construction, thus endangering the country’s water security. The tribunal, created in 1992 as an autonomous and independent environmental justice authority, accepted the denunciation and its nine jurists, including technical experts, scientists and representatives of indigenous people, will now work to help find a solution to this controversy, as has happened with others related to water systems in Latin America. Once the evidence-collecting and notification stage ends, the tribunal will invite the Cocibolca Group and the State’s representatives to a public hearing in San Salvador in February of next year and another one in Mexico City the following May or June. Unfortunately, however, its resolutions are not binding.

Meanwhile, in his October 13 speech to commemorate the founding of the Ministry of Government, President Ortega seemed to be starting to prepare the way for an announcement that the canal won’t happen: “The grand canal is in an environmental study phase… which is what has to provide the security that this great work will bring immense benefits for the country as a whole…. This project depends on concluding the environmental studies. They are well advanced but other studies are being done to complete them and only after that can the work on the grand canal get started….” Was it just a red herring? On November 5, just as this issue was closing, the Nicaraguan Canal Commission approved the impact analyses, meaning that the project could begin, according to commission spokesperson Telémaco Talavera. The official resolution was formally presented to HKND representatives in a public act. After analyzing ERM’s executive summary, former foreign minister Francisco Aguirre Sacasa “concludes that neither HKND nor the government has the experience or the for the capacity to execute a project of the canal’s magnitude. That is why I recommend they seek the support of institutions such as the World Bank Group and the IDB [Inter-American Development Bank] to advise them.” In his view, the study “does not give a green light to go forward with the canal, even if it were financially viable, which I personally consider improbable. But nor does it turn on a red light. It offers us a yellow light warning that the project faces enormous challenges that, if not handled carefully and seriously, could be catastrophic for Nicaragua.”

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


The sum of all fears

Nicaragua Briefs

We’re at an inflection point and should be concerned

The face and the cross of Guatemala’s “spring”

The rise and fall of the Rosenthal Clan

The political clout of immigrant organizations, et al

For a pact of dreamers
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development