The civic path is taking on tinges of rebellion
This long-time Liberal politician,
now with the Independent Liberal Party—
which has just been stripped of its legal status
and thus can’t run in the November 6 elections—
analyzes some aspects of the situation
facing Liberalism and the country
as a whole.
Eliseo Núñez Morales
We in the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) were expecting the blow Daniel Ortega delivered, which prevents us from running in the upcoming elections. It was predictable and we’ve been analyzing it since November of last year, but there wasn’t really much we could do to avoid it. All we could do was raise the political cost he would have to pay. We did that and will continue doing it.
Nicaraguan society is experiencing an increasing sense of powerlessness against this government’s arbitrary acts. After what Ortega did to us we can certainly understand people who don’t want to go out demonstrating in the streets.
The collapse of the political
party system as we know it
Beyond those feelings, we also understand that elimination of the electoral participation of the PLI and the National Coalition for Democracy it heads means we’re witnessing the collapse of the political party system as we’ve known it up to now. This kind of collapse is also occurring in many other countries of varying strengths, including in Latin America. The serious aspect in Nicaragua is that this system, rooted in the 19th century and dominated by the “caudillo” or strong-man culture, isn’t being replaced by a political model in which we could create new groups and present new options. Instead we find ourselves up against the authoritarian government of Daniel Ortega, which intensifies the limitations on moving forward.
We inherited a tribal culture from the Spanish colonial period in which caudillos ruled, deciding for everyone else. That culture didn’t have a theory of succession and the political party system that has been collapsing all over Latin America has shared that same characteristic, among other things. Since we Liberals in Nicaragua didn’t have that theory in place either, we were obliged to force succession.
We began to shake off that 19th-century political party system during the transition initiated at the end of the war, which lasted from 1977 until 1990. The war against Somoza and the war of the eighties was the same war, and while there isn’t agreement on the exact number of deaths it caused—it was somewhere around a hundred thousand—there’s a shared conviction that we can’t go back to war, that we have to resolve our differences civically, learning to live in democracy without turning to military conflict again. That’s why we value that transition so greatly.
In 2006 we ended up going to the elections with Liberals running against each other, some under the banner of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and others under that of the new Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN).
The PLC was certainly a strong party, but it was built around the single leadership of Arnoldo Alemán, rather than defined and firm ideological foundations. That prevented spaces from opening up, allowing anyone to aspire to move up and succeed the single leadership. And that in turn led to an erosive internal war that ended up splitting the PLC, which Ortega was able to use to his own advantage. He even took sides in that fight, obviously on the PLC side, initiating a perverse and cynical game in which any time those of us who had separated from Alemán and the PLC were able to rise up a little, he would beat us back down to keep Alemán on top. That’s what his game has consisted of right up to today.
In 2006 people voted for, not against
I always use the 2006 elections as an example because they weren’t between two polarized options. For the first time we exercised the most pluralist form of democracy. That year four political parties with some possibility of winning competed: the PLC, the ALN, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). Two of them, the ALN and the MRS, ran with a modernist discourse, each from its own ideological platform, and the other two, the PLC and the FSLN, competed with discourses anchored in the past. I believe it was the first election in which Nicaraguans voted for the candidate they really felt represented them, for someone they wanted to see win.
Daniel Ortega got 38%, the ALN’s Eduardo Montealegre 28%, the PLC’s José Rizo 27%, and the MRS’ Edmundo Jarquín 6%. But instead of seeing those elections as an asset and an opportunity to emulate Costa Rica’s José Figueres by dedicating his victory to strengthening institutionality and transforming the country, Ortega saw that pluralism as a weakness and a danger. So having recovered the government he began to install his own model, veering in an authoritarian direction that has brought us to the dangerous moment we’re in today. The following year he stripped the MRS and the ALN of their legal status, all in the name of what he called ”direct democracy,” forgetting that direct democracy only functions when the rule of law is in place and functionin
Ortega plays divide and conquer
In those 2006 elections—which we first thought were clean, but now doubt given the narrow margins involved—Ortega gave the ALN second place to balance what suited him at that moment. He then continued his game: giving Supreme Court justice seats or a top post on the Supreme Electoral Council to the PLC, but not to the ALN, even though it theoretically took second place, because he already controlled both branches of State so could do what he wanted. He also accused certain politicians of wrongdoing but not others, even exonerating Alemán, who had already been convicted.
When he started playing divide and conquer, Ortega did it relatively evenhandedly, but when in 2006 he saw that the ALN could consolidate itself as an electoral party with possibilities of beating him, he upped his game. In February 2008 he ordered the electoral branch to strip us of our legal status. Now he’s repeated that maneuver with the PLI. In 2008 it was to prevent the consolidation of a new kind of national politics, and, as always, to open spaces for the PLC. When he took the ALN away from us, preventing us from running in the 2008 municipal elections in our own slot, we created the We’re Going with Eduardo [Montealegre] Movement (VCE) and ran in alliance with the PLC.
After everything that happened in those elections [alleged fraud favoring the FSLN and PLC to take a number of mayoral seats away from ALN candidates, including Managua, for which Montealegre himself ran], the VCE decided to ally with the PLI. In the 2011 presidential elections, Ortega couldn’t steal enough votes from us to totally falsify the results. In the alliance the PLI headed that year, we pulled 33% and the PLC, whose ticket was again headed by Alemán, got less than 5% even though maintaining his alliance with Ortega. We’ll never know the real results of that election, because by then the electoral system was rotten to the core. Nonetheless, the PLC’s unexpectedly low results threw Ortega’s game off kilter, but he happily began his second consecutive term in 2012 with 63 legislative representatives and turned his attention to consolidating his power. Now, with the new general elections coming up this November, taking up his divide and conquer game again required dealing us another blow. And he achieved this through a ruling by the Supreme Court of Justice, which he controls, that disqualified the PLI, preventing us from running.
We contributed to our downfall
by not connecting with people
We have to admit that we weren’t just innocent victims of a wall called Ortega. We were also victims of our own internal war, which I attribute to the lack of a theory of succession. Fifteen years ago we were obliged to create a split that never healed. Then, of course, we ran up against the Ortega wall both times that we attempted to create a more modern party.
A third factor has buttressed Ortega in his games with Liberalism, and this one is entirely our responsibility because we have failed to connect with the people as Liberals. We—and I include all of us in this criticism—were unable to talk about things people related to.
It’s partly a generation gap
Perhaps it’s a generation gap that doesn’t allow us to create that connection that normally joins one generation to the next. The great majority of political leaders in Nicaragua are over 55 while the emerging leaders are under 40 and are involved in business and other social areas rather than politics. That 15-year gap corresponds almost exactly to the 1980s. It’s the generation of those who left the country with their parents because of the economic situation or the war and didn’t come back, or who stayed but didn’t complete their studies because they went to war. The transmission that normally occurs between the generation that is now 55 or older and is on the cusp and the next generation didn’t happen in Nicaragua. And that has created a disconnect that has affected everyone, including us, because we haven’t been able to connect with that 65% of young people from the next generation down who think about things very differently than we do.
While this physical gap isn’t common to all countries, I know the generational problem isn’t unique to Nicaraguan society. We’re also seeing it in other countries. It was expressed in ”Brexit” in Great Britain, where the voting revealed a total disconnect between what the older and younger generations are thinking, resulting in a social rupture that will go well beyond Great Britain pulling out of the European Union. But there this rupture will continue to be debated within a model that’s democratic. This generational rupture is even more serious in Nicaragua because we have to resolve it within the authoritarian model Ortega has imposed on us.
We’re not offering the
youth anything they want
Young people’s current distancing from politics is our responsibility, not theirs, because we haven’t offered anything they want. I teach university classes and it’s clear to me that when those young students say they don’t understand me, it’s because I’m not explaining well what I want to transmit to them. If this generation isn’t getting involved in politics it’s because we haven’t done the things they hoped we would do.
We have to recognize that we’ve failed with respect to inter-generational communication. I think the FSLN government is banking on that, but what it has offered the youth is basically diversion, entertainment. When I see that I feel more optimistic, because I’m one of those who believes that when those kids the FSLN has used during these years get a little older and go looking for a decent job that allows them to take care of their own kids, they’ll begin reflecting and will realize what kind of a system they got into. They’ll wake up to the fact that they were pampered but not prepared, and they’ll rebel. It’s just a matter of time.
Things aren’t looking good economically
Ortega knows he’s in an adverse political situation internationally, and that he’ll also be in an adverse economic situation in his new term. He has lost Venezuelan cooperation and the prices of Nicaragua’s main export products are tending to fall. In ten years this government has failed to take steps to convert the country’s productive model, which continues to be moved by only two engines: agriculture—and I don’t mean agro-industry—and the assembly plants for re-export known as the maquila industry. And in the latter I’m talking about the textile plants, which are the lowest rung. All we do is sew clothes; we don’t assemble computers or televisions.
Actually a third engine also moves the economy: the remittances sent back by emigrants to their families. Like the low assembly plant salaries and the meager income from small-scale agriculture, remittances are what keep the poorest families in this country afloat. They are their most direct form of income. We export emigrants—I call it the export of sweat and poverty—and paradoxically Ortega is increasing this because of his authoritarianism and because his economic model can’t generate any decent opportunities for them here.
From the economic perspective, what Ortega did after taking office again in 2007 was to follow faithfully the macroeconomic policy he always rejected, but which pulled Nicaragua out of the disaster his first government left it in. The Liberal governments of the 1990s had to ”dance with the ugliest partner”: apply the structural adjustment plans and reduce the fiscal deficit. It also needs to be recognized, however, that for lack of either resources or will, the governments of those years also failed to put any energy into social cohesion or generating a more inclusive model that took the poor majorities into account.
What does he think he’s doing?
Knowing he’s facing an adverse international situation, an economy with engine problems and a future without Venezuelan aid so he’ll now have to take his turn dancing with that ugliest partner, what does Ortega have in mind with the new situation he has put the country in, eliminating the PLI and the Coalition from the elections? A reasonable government, one respectful of the parameters of what we know as democracy, would include the greatest number of people so that together we could find solutions for a period we all know will be hard.
But that would imply conceding a little bit of power to attract others and find solutions to the country’s problems, and Ortega only thinks about his power, not about the country. So what will he do? He’ll hunker down and begin to lash out on all sides, as we’re seeing. The first thing he did from his trench was proclaim loud and clear that there would be no electoral observation. And he did it in the name of ”self-determination”—of course only in the sense in which he understands it, because self-determination belongs to peoples, not the President of a country. Immediately after that came the blow he dealt us, stripping the PLI of its legal status. And he’s surely not through yet.
Hit us before we build momentum
What is he looking to accomplish with the blow he gave us? Given that the political and economic setting isn’t in his favor now, Ortega doesn’t see the elections as an opportunity to win legitimacy. He sees them as a threat to his power. Although there are poor urban sectors that aren’t Ortega followers, he knows that the bulk of the voters who reject him and his model come from the urban middle sectors and the peasantry, where Liberalism has always had deep roots.
Ortega also knows, as do we, that electoral campaigns represent something different for Liberals than for the FSLN as the latter is a party that’s mobilized constantly while we Liberals only get the lead out for elections. Normally parties that run against the FSLN grow exponentially in the electoral period, so he’s aware we could grow more during the campaign than he could control.
The FSLN is like a boxer who trains and fights constantly. We’re like a skinny boxer, even a weakling, but when that boxer prepares for a fight, he trains, builds muscle, gets his body in shape and occasionally even ends up outweighing his opponent. Something like that has already happened. They knew they’d have to deliver the blow before we even got into the ring.
Physical threats are out,
economic repression is in
Ortega is well aware of the growing social unrest out there. Last year gave clear signs of it in the mines, the proposed canal area, the transport sector in the Caribbean region, and also in the free trade zones. He’s not stupid and he knows that this unrest could align itself against him in the elections. So he hit before that could happen, leaving those of us who don’t accept his model with no alternatives. After Noel Vidaurre, a credible candidate, turned down the PLC’s offer of the presidential candidacy, Ortega understood that it could polarize the election: it would be either him or the Coalition. And a polarized election would be the worst scenario for him this year. He needed to eliminate as quickly as possible the competitor that would trigger that polarization and line up the social dissatisfaction against him.
Knowing that it’s the urban middle sectors that largely make up the ranks of opposition to his model, Ortega is also counting on the value of economic repression against them. When we opposed Somoza they threw us in jail, tried to recruit us or ostracized us, creating a certain halo of heroism in being victimized by him. That hard-hand method Somoza used against those struggling against him lent a certain prestige to the opponent. But Ortega has a different method. He keeps physical repression to a minimum and outsources it; he prefers economically undermining his opponents, taking away their source of income. When those from the middle class are economically undermined and can no longer pay their house mortgage or the loan on their car and have to take their kids out of private school, nobody sees them as a hero; they just see them as a loser. That’s the permanent threat hanging over those of whatever level who have a business or a job. He knows that threatening people physically is out of vogue; the new way is to threaten their pocketbook.
His gamble with
From his trench, Ortega is also banking on Nicaragua’s insignificance in the international community. He’s gambling that it would cause the United States more problems to mess with him than leave him alone. He expects Europe to look at us with concern (”Poor country, after we’ve given it so much help…”), but is counting on it being a greater problem for the Europeans to figure out what to do here than to let Ortega take care of it, since he he still has the support of the international financial institutions.
It’s true that he’s jeopardizing the country’s economy with his authoritarianism and his attack on the electoral process. But something more dramatic has to happen if we’re going to see a change, because the world’s large power blocs apparently have no interest so far in economically hammering at this regime. We only have to look at the earlier example of 2008, when international cooperation began to leave or at least economically punish Nicaragua after the proven fraud in that year’s municipal elections. What happened at that time? Some bilateral agencies pulled out and Washington cancelled the Millennium Challenge Account, but immediately afterward the Inter-American Development Bank came in and doubled its credit offers. The World Bank was close behind, while the International Monetary Fund relaxed its conditions so this government could get resources. Donations from international cooperation were replaced with debts to the international financial institutions, and that was pretty much the end of it.
Based on this experience, Ortega is convinced that using a hard hand with illegal migration, keeping up an apparently successful fight against drug trafficking and presenting Nicaragua as a territory safe from terrorism will win the favor of the major world powers and they won’t bother with him. So far he has sold the idea that Nicaragua is an enclave of security in contrast with the insecurity reigning further north in Central America. The focal point of the official discourse has been moving from economic successes to his success with the security situation, with official messages continually reminding us that ours is the safest country in the region. It’s a message beamed to the United States, and its subtext is: Don’t touch me because I could turn into the same problem you have in Central America’s northern triangle…
Where we see him being aggressive is in the Organization of American States (OAS). And that’s because he needs to inherit what remains of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of America (ALBA) to protect himself with when Venezuela falls. Ortega is both cynical and pragmatic. He knows President Maduro has an expiration date and will be replaced either by the opposition or another leader of Venezuela’s Socialist Party. He’s gambling that once Maduro falls and Venezuela is no longer playing such an important role in the region, he’ll need protection. His way of getting it is with a show of strength in the OAS, laying claim to an anti-imperialist leadership there that will allow him some armor. It’s a little like putting chips on both red and black: on the one hand gambling on Nicaragua’s insignificance and on the other playing tough in the OAS… not to save Venezuela, but to prevent the 11 votes needed to activate the Democratic Charter against him. He needs to keep those 11 countries on his side because what will be coming in the next five months won’t be easy; he knows that after Venezuela falls he could be next. And he also knows that his seemingly favorable relationship with the United States is simply tactical.
So what’s the silver lining?
Ortega may have taken us out of the electoral running, but the silver lining is that he’s given us the opportunity to rethink what we Liberals have done wrong and to change it.
We need to totally change our discourse. We have to recognize that it has been based more on the enormous deterioration of democracy than the enormous deterioration of many people’s standard of living. We’ve talked more about institutions, democracy and corrupt magistrates than how people live and feel. So our first change has to be to repair our connection with people, prepare a discourse that speaks to them. If we can’t do that we have nowhere to go.
It’s not that struggling to reconstruct the institutionality Ortega has destroyed doesn’t matter. Of course it does. But the questions many people in Nicaragua have when evening comes and they sit down to dinner—at least those who have something to eat—aren’t about democracy, institutionality, the rule of law… They’re about how to pay for their children’s schooling next month, or how to buy them shoes, or even the more anguishing question of how they’re going to buy food for the next day…
Over 40% of our population is at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, the survival level, concerned about ensuring basic physiological needs: food, clothes, water and the like. So one of the problems of our discourse about the ”long term” is that the long term for them at breakfast is what they’re going to find to eat at lunch time. Talking about how they could lose their job or wage without democratic institutions and respect for the law holds no interest for them because they don’t have a job or a wage, and if they don’t rummage around for something to sell or do for a few pesos, they won’t eat today.
That level of impoverishment has allowed this government to destroy the public education system without anyone calling it to task. Most are nowhere near demanding education, much less quality education. The students’ protest in Chile has been possible because the high school education level they received wasn’t up to European standards, their math and physics level wasn’t comparable, so it prevented them being able to study in European universities. That demonstration happened right here in a Latin American country, but it seems like science fiction in Nicaragua…
There’s a political marketing maxim that the message isn’t found in the leadership but in the people. The best political marketing technician doesn’t create a message, but rather captures it from the people and turns it into discourse. The challenge for us Liberals is to do precisely that and then transfer it into options that can create hope.
We need to take a look at ourselves. It’s important for all of us Liberals to see ourselves, understand who we are and what we want for this country. The leaders are probably conscious of that and understand it, but the base needs to appropriate it. Part of the Liberal base under the PLC wing—and virtually all of us in the PLI today came from the PLC—has an enormous ideological weakness because it hasn’t taken on a coherent ideological discourse. What there has been instead is an amalgam of interests.
Our political discourse needs to be accompanied by a social and economic one. We can’t keep turning our back on the concentration of wealth that has taken place in the country. But does that mean making enemies of COSEP? Do we really need yet another enemy? Hardly. Every time I talk to any of the COSEP leaders I tell them they need to be clear that their relationship with Ortega is tactical. But if private enterprise doesn’t yet realize that in this crisis that relationship has strategic value for Ortega, he’ll eat them alive. With the end of the Venezuelan aid the economic pie has gotten significantly smaller. Will Ortega share his piece of what’s left with private enterprise? Of course not. If the pie was once 100 and Ortega split it 50-50 with them, and now the pie is 80, they’ll get 30, because he’s not giving away any of his. According to the government’s own data, 65% of the taxes in this country are paid by 2,500 companies linked to no more than 100 economic groups. That means that 100 business leaders could bring Ortega to his knees. And it seems they haven’t figured that out yet…
We need alternative proposals. It’s not enough to say Ortega needs to be replaced; there needs to be a reference point for the future. We have to lay out a proposal, to say not only that we would change Ortega and his authoritarianism, but also what we would do for the poor trapped in clientelism if we were to take office. We can’t keep ignoring that clientelism Ortega has generated.
There’s this guy in the neighborhood who receives a sack of rice, beans and sugar every month. The only problem he’s had with Ortega was when he was drunk and beat up his wife. They threw him in jail and he had to seek out the barrio’s Citizen’s Participation Committee to get him out… He has no fixed job and no income that would allow him to climb out of poverty, so that sack of food they give him every month is better than nothing, which is all we’ve offered him. We just tell him we want Ortega out of office and all he hears is that we’re potentially standing in the way of him getting rice, beans and sugar every month.
The social programs we have to offer can’t be like the ones this government has offered, which have been welfare-oriented. We have to offer gradualist social programs that guarantee to truly pull people out of poverty. The productive food bond from the Zero Hunger program, which delivers a cow, a sow and some chickens to rural women, is one of the things the government has propagandized most. They say Venezuela had something similar, that they gave a pig and a hen, so people said they were giving them ”cracklings and stew,” because the first thing people did was eat the gift. Here maintaining a cow is costlier than maintaining a child, making that part of the deal difficult. And they give the cow to women who already have problems maintaining their children and often end up selling it.
One day I tried to find out the effects of the productive bond over all these years, so I asked the minister of the Ministry of Family, Community, Cooperative and Associative Economy if they had any statistics on how it had impacted the social mobility of the bond beneficiaries. You know what she answered? ”You need to see the face of those women when they receive that little cow and little pig. They’re so grateful they cry; they even hug the people delivering the animals.” Conclusion: they either don’t have statistics on social mobility or don’t want to make them public. With a social program like that the government ought to know by now how long it takes a women to move up a notch or two on the social scale. Its objective can’t be to give people food. It has to be to give them the capacity to get their own food. We have to present an alternative to that monthly sack of food, the productive bond and all the other social welfare programs…
We can’t ignore the tax system. I believe that Liberalism also needs to begin proposing an alternative to the enormous number of tax exonerations granted today. I think a targeted subsidy is preferable to a subsidy hidden in a huge number of exonerations, which at the end of the day are taken advantage of by those who have better accountants. Small and medium business owners who don’t have an accounting system capable of making use of these exonerations are only going to watch the opportunities pass them by. It’s preferable to bring that money back into the budget by charging taxes then feed it back in a targeted way.
Our discourse must talk about redistributing income rather than wealth. Redistributing wealth is when the State takes it away from some and gives it to others. That has already been done. Redistributing income means taking it away from some through fair tax charges and converting it into improved productive capacity so people can increase their own income, their salaries. The country’s productivity has fallen year after year during Ortega’s ten years in office. The semi-yearly minimum wage discussion has become a Manichaean debate between the ”white hats,” the unions, who want to increase it, and the ”black hats,” the businesspeople, who don’t. What’s not being said is that the minimum wage should automatically increase if the country’s productivity increases, because a worker who produces three times more should receive a better wage.
Our proposal also needs to offer plans to transform the current destructive economic model. Along with clear-cutting forest land, extensive cattle raising has taken over the country. First the trees are cut down, then beans are sown, and when the soil—which is good for trees but not beans—no longer produces, it’s turned into pasture for cattle. And so the deforestation and environmental destruction have advanced across the country toward the Caribbean. This devastating model is fueled by the rural population’s lack of education until it becomes a vicious circle, because no one needs to be an agronomy expert to raise a cow on a manzana [0.7 hectare] of land, which is the Zero Hunger requisite. It’s enough to have a machete and a pair of rubber boots and barely know how to read and write. In fact, better yet if peasants don’t know how to read very well, because the boss can then pay them whatever he wants. That’s the vicious circle. We have to present an alternative model for technified cattle raising, in fact for all agriculture. And for that to work we need better trained people. And for that to work they need to earn more. Breaking that vicious circle would halt or at least slow down the destruction of our natural resources.
We need to unite with
all genuine opponents
This country needs a change, and to achieve that we have to work with all other opponents. The issue today is how to get more people to climb on board. Is the solution the unity of all branches of Liberalism? Certainly the PLC is going to run in the elections, but I don’t believe one can consider Arnoldo Alemán an opponent of the government. I believe he has already bought in to this system, just like some others in the PLC and other Liberal expressions. But others can be rescued.
If we can construct a solid central concept based on principles, values and a good programmatic offer, I believe unity will gravitate toward us by its own weight. And the unity I believe in goes beyond Liberals. It’s the unity of all people who think Nicaragua deserves better than what we have today. Already in 2011 many people had started to see and decide what direction to take, because our presidential candidate, Fabio Gadea, got 30% of the votes, even given all the ones they stole, while Arnoldo, again the PLC’s candidate, didn’t even get 6%. This told us a lot about where people thought Liberal unity was to be found.
Some say Eduardo Montealegre needs to step down. To repeat, the challenge is how many people we can attract, not how many we can expel. One of my criticisms of the PLI that we used to be, and Eduardo knows this, is that we applauded at certain moments when someone went up against us and we expelled him: He’s gone, he’s gone! But two months later we found him on the other side of the street making our life miserable. We forget that there are more resurrected than dead in politics, and if we pronounce them dead they resuscitate on the other side...
If we had made a pact or an arrangement with Ortega we’d be running in these elections. It’s that simple. I’m not worried about Eduardo continuing in politics. All that concerns me is that he understand, as we all must, that this country’s fate will only change when we began to change that culture based on party political bosses to a culture rooted in ideology, with a coherent discourse. That’s when new faces will emerge. Right now we’re going to commit ourselves to create transparent, verifiable and acceptable mechanisms for anyone who wants to be heard, so they can move up the leadership ladder and thus do away with the political boss model. That commitment is both to create mechanisms that permit replacements to emerge and also to prevent anyone from taking over and stultifying the party leadership.
I believe there’s space to do something new
The National Coalition for Democracy has pulled together right, left and center, as well as people who have no party. They stopped us from running in these elections, so we don’t have an electoral offer, but we do have an offer for the future, one we have to build. Today we have even more political capital than before they hit us, and we’re obliged not to fritter it away. We still don’t know how to turn it into something more powerful, but we’re convinced that we have to change many of the things we’ve done up to now. And together all of us are going to look at how to change. We’re going to have to rethink the kind of structure people feel most comfortable with, the whole structure from A to Z. And if we come up against problems down the road, we’ll have to rethink it again. There’s no space now to let people feel we aren’t doing everything necessary to move forward. If we’re seen as part of the problem and don’t propose solutions, we’re history. We have to take advantage of the political capital we’ve gained by being prevented from participating in the elections. We have to demonstrate that we’re prepared to move forward, beyond the structures and parties that have existed up to now. I really believe there’s space to do something new.
Doing something new and winning over people requires an insurgent discourse, one about change, presenting alternatives, one that tells Ortega that he has to go not only because he’s authoritarian, but also because he isn’t ensuring Nicaragua’s wellbeing. We need an insurgent discourse aimed at the youth. We Liberals have to begin to discuss ideas that are taboo in our society, such as egalitarian matrimony, legalization of drugs, the right to therapeutic abortion, the conception of what a family is… We have to put these issues on the table and debate them because defending individual liberties is the essence of Liberalism. We can’t keep thinking we have to maintain a conservative discourse because this society is conservative and we’ll lose votes if we declare ourselves liberal.
The discussion of all these issues—all issues in fact—is important because when everyone feels included in some small piece of reality they’ll feel represented. When workers feel included in the discussion about a wage based on productivity, when students feel included in the discussion about equal access to universities and scholarships, when minorities feel included in the debate about their rights… then and only then will we be able to tell everyone that politics and institutionality are precisely about being able to resolve their problems. We’ll only be able to talk about either institu¬tionality or democracy once we succeed in putting together an insurgent discourse, one about change and transformation that people can believe in and put their hope in.
The social fabric is deteriorating fast
Will Nicaragua put up with another five years of Ortega in government? I don’t think so, because the social fabric is deteriorating very fast. That’s why I think that preventing us from participating in the elections did us a favor. In 2012, we argued that occupying our seats in the National Assembly despite the electoral fraud the previous year was a gamble to keep open the possibility of a civic solution. While we continue arguing that, a civic solution looks much more difficult today. I would even say that it has tinges of rebellion, not of war, but of civic rebellion.
If we had participated in the electoral process this year we would have run the risk of accelerating the deterioration of that social fabric and when it ripped apart we would all have fallen with it because we were part of the system. They did us the favor of separating us, because we now form part of what is going to change that system. We’re going to be here. We’re going to try to help that system fall around Ortega and those who are consciously playing his game.
Keeping our National Assembly seats these past five years meant losing prestige, but we’re convinced we had to hang on to those civic spaces as long as we could, although doing so implied an enormous deterioration of our prestige as politicians. Now that we’re on the other side, we have to think very carefully about what we’re going to do, how to do things in a new and different way and fill the spaces we can fill…
Democracy appears useless
in resolving people’s problems
I want to end with an idea of Father Xabier Gorostiaga, which seems to fit what’s happening to us today in Nicaragua. He said that as long as our countries’ economic policies continue to be defined from a desk in Washington, it doesn’t matter what President we put in, because nothing will change. And without a profound change, democracy will begin to lose content until people end up finding it useless.
We have to recognize that, unfortunately, many people in Nicaragua are now finding democracy useless in resolving their problems, and have found refuge in Ortega, who’s not democratic. He’s not resolving their problems, but he is alleviating them somewhat. Our challenge is to show those people that democracy is useful, that it can resolve their problems and do so more permanently. We need to show them that when authoritarianism can no longer resolve some immediate problems, it reacts the only way it knows: with repression, as is beginning to happen now; as happened to the PLI.
Eliseo Núñez Morales is a National Assembly representative for the PLI.