At a critical juncture without knowing where we’re bound
With only a month to go before its elections,
Nicaragua’s situation has gotten even more complex
with the US House of Representatives’ passage of a bill
that would require clean elections here as a condition for the
determinant US vote on any loans Nicaragua requests
from the international financing institutions.
What more might happen before November 6?
And more importantly, what will happen after?
In response to all the moves by President Ortega to render Nicaragua’s November 6 general elections both a fraud and a farce, the opposition has been urging mass voter abstention to demonstrate their illegitimacy. Meanwhile, the US House of Representatives’ approval on September 21 of H.R. 5708, the Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act (NICA), dubbed the Nica Act by the Managua media, further increases the uncertainty that has accompanied the electoral process throughout the year. The scenario opened by Washington’s warning shot adds a new question to the citizenry’s “to vote or not to vote” conundrum. This one, however, is for the group in power and its allies from the business elite: what to do or not to do about elections already so severely discredited even before being held.
In 1984 US President Ronald Reagan irresponsibly called Nicaragua’s first post-Somoza elections a “sham” before they were held. On that occasion European Parliament members who then observed them on the ground disagreed. But this year it’s hard to imagine anyone who even superficially studies the electoral process finding fault with such a characterization.
Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío’s two anniversaries, the centenary of his death this year and the 150th anniversary of his birth next year, seem to have imbued the national dynamic with the angst he reflected in his most famous poem, “Lo Fatal” (Fatalism). We’ve floundered through this entire election year “lacking a way,” and are now approaching next year “without knowing where we’re bound.”
Expeditiously and unanimously
Cuban-American Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen [R-FL] introduced H.R. 5708 into the US House of Representatives on July 11. Two months later, on September 15—rather ironically the 195th anniversary of Nica¬ragua’s independence from Spanish rule—the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a hearing titled “Nicaragua’s democratic collapse.”
Less than a week after that, on September 21, the House’s 435 Democrats and Republicans unanimously approved the bill, which is something of an exception in today’s polarized Washington context. The bill’s summary introductory paragraph states that it is “To oppose loans at international financial institutions for the Government of Nicaragua, other than to address basic human needs or promote democracy, unless the Government of Nicaragua is taking effective steps to hold free, fair, and transparent elections, and for other purposes.” In fact, the US government’s vote in both the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) carries such weight as to be tantamount to veto power. No one had anticipated anything like this happening before the November 6 electoral simulation.
It came as a response to a string of decisions Daniel Ortega has taken since June 4 to ensure another five years in government without risking an iota of the power he has concentrated in himself and his family over his past ten years in office. Given his cooperation with Washington on several issues of importance to it, he apparently figured he could do anything he wanted without triggering any repercussions beyond Nica¬ragua’s borders.
Nica Act: A very clear signal
Ted Cruz (R-TX), a presidential hopeful during the US primaries, had already introduced a similar bill in the Senate earlier in the month, but the Senate is now in recess so its members can concentrate on the US electoral campaign. That puts its debate on the language of the two versions and the floor vote on the bill on hold until the senators return to work, and probably until next January when they, or their elected replacements, open a new session after the year-end recess.
Everything suggests that the Senate version of the bill, either identical or improved, with or without amendments, will get the required two-thirds vote. Nicaragua’s democratic collapse and governmental corruption will continue to concern Washington next year, probably even more so than before the US elections, which are only two days after Nicaragua’s.
The signal Congress is sending the Ortega government is quite clear. It will remain a latent challenge to Nicaragua’s economic and political scenario until the Nica Act is passed and things get even more complicated here… or until there is some response in Nicaragua that neutralizes it.
A “perfect storm”
President Ortega himself has been the most active delegitimizer of this year’s elections, ever since June 4 and even to a lesser extent before that, turning them into a cheap parody of themselves. Determined to obtain his third reelection, he ensured that there would be no observers and that the only competition with any credibility was excluded, granting slots on the ballot only to parties that are no threat to him. He also gained total control of the electoral structures, right down to the officials of each of the thousands of voting tables across the country. The capper to this list of decisions was the naming of his wife as his running mate and thus his successor in the post. Tying up the elections without a single loose end—other than the consternation caused both inside the country and out—ensures that there will be no surprises in the results. But everyone knows what happens to he who sows the wind.
All these decisions generated rising dissent in Nicaragua and very soon put the country back in the international headlines. Not since Ortega’s announcement of the construction of an interoceanic canal three years ago has his government been the subject of so many headlines, critical editorials and comments in US, Latin American and European media.
And while the US government’s decisions in countries such as ours are always disproportionate given the profoundly unequal balance of power between them, the reality is that this storm could be seen coming. Ortega bears sole responsibility for sowing winds that, given Washington’s predictable response, is reaping not just a whirlwind, but a “perfect storm” precisely at a moment when our hatches aren’t battened.
Forecasts and outcomes
In this month’s Speaking Out section, economist Arturo Grigsby analyzes in detail the effects of the mere announcement of the Nica Act on a national economy already facing serious problems with the drop in Venezuela’s oil cooperation. Ortega’s string of decisions and Washington’s response are triggering a loss of credibility in Nicaragua’s economy, affecting both international investors and national big business leaders. The latter have spent years legitimizing the current government based on the economic growth the country has achieved for them, the security and stability of the business climate provided by the model constructed in alliance with Ortega and, certainly not least, the generous tax exonerations he has continued to grant them.
If approved by the Senate as well, the Nica Act would affect the low-interest, long-term loans the World Bank and IDB provide Nicaragua, just as happened in the 1980s. The Ortega government annually finances a quarter of its public investments with such loans. In July, the month the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) was stripped of its legal status and thus prevented from running in the November 6 elections, PLI leader Eliseo Núñez Morales—quite accurately, as it turns out—predicted in envío’s pages that “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… after the proven fraud in that year’s municipal elections… 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.” Passage of the Nica Act would, in turn, pretty much be the end of that.
In an October 3 press conference in Managua, US Ambassador Laura Dogu pointed out the origin of much of those international bank resources, thus implying the weight the US government has within those institutions: “Many of the available funds in the international financial institutions come from the taxes paid by people in the United States. And [through that bill] the members of Congress expressed that they do not want those funds to benefit a government that does not listen to its citizens.” Dogu clarified, however, that the sanctions contained in the Nica Act do not amount to an “economic embargo” and would not affect CAFTA, the US free trade agreement with the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic, in effect for over a decade.
Before the Nica Act appeared on the scene, the group in power and its big business allies were already planning how to ride out the waves that would surely be stirred up by the illegitimacy of these elections. One of the first challenges is the pressure Venezuela’s crisis is placing on their economic model, reducing the amounts of oil being supplied to Nicaragua under concessionary payment conditions.
On September 2, the anniversary of the post-Somoza Army that Daniel Ortega’s brother Humberto directed until 1995, the now-retired general publicly proposed a “national concer¬tation” for after the elections with the clear, albeit unstated purpose of legitimizing his brother’s third consecutive reelection. The questions most often heard with respect to Humberto Ortega’s proposal were which actors would be invited and which would agree to try to hammer out some sort of new deal at a negotiating table headed up by a reelected President Ortega and his new Vice President, his undisputed wheeler-dealer wife Rosario Murillo.
Six days later, José Adán Aguerri, president of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), the government’s main economic ally, bragged that “the results of the economic order are our endorsement with the population, the business class, investors and the world. That is not the case with the results of the political order, where we have all failed.” These words were part of his acceptance speech upon being reelected as COSEP president for the tenth time—a record the Ortega-Murillo family apparently dreams of breaking in the executive sphere. Countering Humberto Ortega’s proposal, he demanded a “political dialogue” with the government, implicitly only for COSEP and apparently also after the elections, an event to which he made no reference. He argued, as always, that the uncertainty in the political sphere is affecting the “business climate.”
The rotten electoral system
The House hearing was only a week after Aguerri’s counterproposal. While it sparked a number of new suggestions, they didn’t slow down the many questions about who would participate in Humberto Ortega’s concertation proposal or when it should take place. While the general and those supporting his brother’s administration propose that it be after the elections, others argued that it was so urgent it should take place before.
Many others simply wondered about its real objective. If the dialogue is an attempt to calm Washington’s ruffled feathers, it’s a poor reading of the legislative bill. The Nica Act specifically requires free elections and, given the extent of the rot in Nicara¬gua’s electoral system, that implies a thorough cauterizing and restructuring. It means reforming or eliminating aspects of the electoral law resulting from the Ortega-Alemán pact and restoring a number of the rights eliminated at that time, including non-party candidates being able to run by popular petition. It also means selecting by national consensus truly independent top electoral authorities and officials at all levels; re-legalizing political parties arbitrarily stripped of their status; cleansing the electoral roll of the deceased, emigrants and possibly even fictitious names; issuing ID-voter cards to all who are eligible, not just those who support the governing party; guaranteeing electoral observation, etc.
Questions with no answers
Does the group in power have the political will to do all that? If so, where would it start? Is there time to do any of it before November 6? Wouldn’t it be better to suspend, or at least postpone, those elections? And if so, for how long? Should they be combined with the municipal elections scheduled for November 2017, dedicating a whole year to ensuring that they will be clean, free and transparent? Should the issue be decided in a referendum? Would this be an opportunity to call for a Constituent Assembly to reform the Constitution? Who would issue the call and who would make up the assembly? And what would be reformed? Should a transition period be opened? And if so, who would do so and for how long?
So many suggestions, so many questions, so much uncertainty in them and in the answers… And that in turn shows that we really don’t share a common idea of where we’re bound with any of the options, or with none.
When Daniel Ortega returned to government in 2007 he was determined to achieve the most harmonious relations possible with the US government. Washington’s basic demands at that time were to maintain the market economy, respecting CAFTA; respect democracy; and collaborate with the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s fight against drug trafficking.
Back when it was in the opposition, the FSLN had already supported CAFTA and its legislative bench had voted to approve that trade agreement, a legal expression of what is called the “free” market. Meanwhile, cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking would amount to continuing the policy of preceding governments.
Over the course of these ten years, Washington has appeared satisfied with Ortega’s compliance with its “geopolitical agenda,” which prioritized these US commercial and security interests. It therefore paid little attention to the anti-imperialist discourse and accusations of “savage capitalism” that Ortega continued to deliver with tedious regularity. And democracy? The Obama administration largely set aside its “democratic agenda,” tolerating Ortega’s continued push to consolidate increased control and authoritarian centralism.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden influenced this posture in Obama’s second term to avoid destabilizing the Central American region even more, given how convulsed the Northern Triangle already was. Ortega held a strong card, since no one could convulse Nicaragua better than him if he so chose.
The 2008 fraud
That does not mean, however, that Washington totally neglected the democratic agenda. There’s consensus in important sectors of US power on electoral and representative democracy, at least when other geopolitical concerns don’t trump it, as the Somoza dictator¬ship’s collaboration with those concerns did for nearly half a century. Discontent with Ortega’s failure to comply with his commitment to democracy has been communicated twice since his return to power. The issue was electoral fraud and current Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was still Obama’s secretary of State in both cases.
Nicaragua’s first palpable and demonstrable electoral fraud since the Somoza years occurred in the 2008 municipal elections. With Obama elected within days of those elections, one of his administration’s first tasks upon taking office in January 2009 was to announce the freezing of the $67 million still in the pipeline of a Millennium Challenge Account donation by the Bush administration. For three years, that program had been benefiting producers in Nicaragua’s northwest region with resources and training, as well as improving the area’s infrastructure.
The funds would flow again once Ortega dealt with the credible charges of fraud in those elections, but since that never happened the program was canceled and the loser was Nicaragua. The fraud that year also led the European Union to cancel its financial support to the national budget in the form of funds that could be spent freely rather than being tied to a specific negotiated program or project. Ortega demonstrated indifference to both decisions, trusting in Chávez’s aid and the international financing institutions to cover any deficit.
So what happened the next time?
In December 2011, less than a month after the even more blatant manipulation of Nicaragua’s general elections the previous month, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, at that time chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called a special hearing much like the one this September, in that case titled “Democracy Held Hostage in Nicaragua: Part I.” Secretary of State Clinton announced the fruit of that hearing’s resolutions the following month. Recognizing the severe criticism in the European Union and OAS observer mission reports of the “opaque” election results in which Ortega was not only reelected but gained total control of the legislative branch, the US government would conduct “severe scrutiny” of IDB and World Bank resources for financing projects in Nicaragua.
In 2008, Ortega had reacted with aggressive insults, safe in the knowledge that Venezuelan cooperation would make up for the lost resources. In 2011, however, with the consolidation of the corporative government model with big Nicaraguan capital already well underway and Venezuela’s continued cooperation uncertain, he became cautious. Avoiding any provocation, he backed the concerned business leaders who flew off to the United States to negotiate. That was enough to shelve or at least low key Clinton’s scrutiny plan.
Relations with Russia
There has now been a climate change in Washington’s tolerance level, largely because of Ortega’s manipulations and abuses to assure victory in November’s elections. The result in Washington of such a blatant violation of its “democratic agenda,” has been “a significant change of Nicaragua’s image, and not in a good way,” according to Ambassador Dogu.
The attacks on democracy haven’t been Ortega’s only contribution to reawakening US government concern, however. In the September 15 congressional hearing, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Juan González made a brief opening presentation in which he not only succinctly bulleted that string of election abuses but also raised the issue of Russia.
“Russia,” he said, “is Nicaragua’s security partner of choice. We share congressional concerns about Russian activities around the world. We are closely monitoring Russia’s presence in Nicaragua.” The congressional members attending the hearing expanded on this issue, as it is a security topic high on Washington’s geopolitical agenda.
In the wrenching geopolitical re-accommodations the planet is currently undergoing, with the major powers disputing territories, areas of military and commercial influence, resources and power, Ortega has legally turned Nicaragua and its natural wealth over to a Chinese businessman with whom he has associated for the construction of an interoceanic canal in Nicaragua. While that project is currently at a standstill and seemingly illusory, the government continues feeding the illusion, with increasingly measured drabs of propaganda. No one at the hearing raised the issue of the canal or relations with China derived from that mega-project. But Russia was a different story.
Ortega has spent years attempting to get back under the wing of Russia, a country with an imperial vocation independent of its ideological stripe that is looking to recover its Cold War allies. Who sought out whom first? The reality is that Russia’s presence in Nicaragua has been on the upswing since 2007, when Ortega returned to power. The largest Russian embassy building in Central America is now being built in Managua. And Russia is re-militarizing Nicaragua’s Army, as security expert Roberto Cajina details in the Analysis section of this issue.
Another mission accomplished
González focused on Ortega’s assaults on democracy in the House hearing, pointing out for example, that “Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has been working to transform the country into a de facto one-party system” and that the “cumulative effect of these actions threatens to render the upcoming elections a pantomime of democracy.” At the same time, however, he recognized that on the “security agenda” the Ortega government is “a willing partner in countering irregular migration and drug trafficking.”
Since taking office, Ortega has fulfilled to the letter his commitment to the United States to halt and even detain migrants from any part of the world attempting to pass through Nicaragua on their way to the USA. Gon¬zález even said, with implicit praise, that he “has resisted domestic and international pressure from countries to the south to allow these groups free passage.”
How many migrants have been detained in Nicaragua in recent years to fulfill this commitment? In his article “Thousands of African migrants on our borders” in last month’s issue, José Luis Rocha provided some eye-opening figures.
A wall against migrants
With the migration problem global, there is an increasing flow of people not just from Central and South America but also from other continents attempting to make it to the United States. It became evident at the end of last year that President Ortega is indeed living up to his commitment to the United States, even generating the disdain of his Central American colleagues, particularly Costa Rica, in the process, as González noted. He reinforced the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border with Nicaraguan troops to prevent thousands of Cuban migrants crossing the country on their way to the northern “mecca.” And more recently has done the same to impede thousands of Haitians and Africans, creating a bottleneck in northern Costa Rica.
In so doing, Ortega’s orders have violated the victims’ human rights. The United Nations Committee for the Protection of the Rights of Migrants criticized the measures taken in September against this new wave of migrants, presenting the Nicaraguan government with its concerns and recommendations regarding their treatment. It referred to the “use of force,” threats by government officials to “limit” the role of civil society and individuals trying to aid and support the migrants, and the fact that many migrants are being held for longer than the legally-stipulated 48 hours, sometimes by months. It also noted the use of detention and fines as the only way to deal with this challenge and recommended that the government use no military force against them, guarantee them legal assistance and consular services, and investigate the deaths of 10 Haitians and Africans found drowned in Nicaragua in August.
The most tragic part of this policy is the evidence that it’s not stopping migrants who are doing nothing more reprehensible than seeking life and opportunities, just as hundreds of thousands of poor Nicaraguan emigrants have done and are continuing to do. It just means they fall into the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers who charge huge sums, sometimes assaulting them or abandoning them well before the agreed-to point. If the Costa Rican government has reported receiving 11,000 Africans and Haitians since April and only 4,500 are still in the overcrowded refuge centers on the border with Nicaragua, where this military wall has blocked their way, it suggests that a good number may have already crossed Nicaragua.
A wall against drug trafficking
Complying with Washington’s demand that it collaborate in the anti-drug struggle was the most novel of the commitments Ortega assumed upon taking office.
Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) leader and historian Dora María Téllez discussed this in envío’s August 2007 issue, only half a year into Ortega’s new term: “Another essential issue for the United States is the fight against drug trafficking and there are signs that the government is going to move on this issue. An anti-drug policy is something new for today’s FSLN, particularly if we recall that FSLN judges have freed many traffickers of hard drugs in recent years and that FSLN Supreme Court justices were involved in the disappearance of over half a million dollars in seized drug revenues. It’s thus clear that while containing drug trafficking is a policy of Daniel Ortega as President, it wasn’t his policy before taking office. The struggle against drug trafficking is a fundamental piece of the US national security scheme, so to maintain harmonious relations with the United States Ortega has taken it up as well. We welcome this policy and only hope it remains coherent and consistent throughout his term, because it’s very important for Nicaragua to shut the doors to drug trafficking that were opened in recent years by both the judicial system and some political apparatuses.”
Various cases reveal how novel that policy actually is. Many still recall the scandal caused in 2005, before Ortega took office, by FSLN Supreme Court Justice Roger Camilo Argüello’s removal of US$609,000 from the Court’s treasury that police had seized from drug traffickers. (See the November 2005 and January 2006 envío issues for more details.)
The passage of the years has shown ups and downs in fulfilling the commitment. In 2012 the mistaken murder of Argentine singer-songwriter Facundo Cabral in Guatemala by gunmen apparently targeting Nicaraguan businessman Henry Fariñas, who was linked to the governing party and to regional drug trafficking, was revealing in this regard. So was the “false Televisa” case, involving a drug ring disguised as journalists from that Mexican media chain. (Ample information on both cases is found in various envío issues of 2012, with the Televisa trial covered in several issues at the end of 2015 and beginning of this year).
Already in December of 2010, security researcher Roberto Orozco stated in envoi that “A phenomenon has appeared on the Caribbean Coast, in Managua and different areas on the Pacific Coast that we consider extremely dangerous: societal legitimization of drug trafficking. And it’s growing. National organized crime structures also exist in these places. When we hear the words ‘organized crime’ we think of big Colombian or Mexican mafias, but national and local organized crime is already among us and it’s more dangerous than international organized crime. We at the Strategic Studies and Public Policy Institute (IEEPP) have already been warning the authorities.”
Less than two years later, in the August 2012 issue of envío, Orozco warned that “the social legitimization that drug trafficking has achieved, the social and economic vulnerability of many indigenous and rural communities and the fragility of our institutions and our democratic system have all enabled drug trafficking to develop so much muscle.”
Despite González’s recognition of Ortega’s role in the anti-drug struggle during his speech at the House hearing, several congressional members questioned the sincerity of the Nicaraguan President’s willingness to be an ally in that struggle. They asked how it was possible that cocaine keeps entering the United States in equal or greater amounts from the South, crossing Central America while managing to leapfrog Nicaragua…
The Nica Act goes beyond democracy
González introduced the problem of relations with Ortega, assuring that the US government had “spoken out against these developments in public and private, in both the United States and Nicaragua, and is working to internationalize the response via the UN, OAS, EU and like-minded democracies.” He added that his government “will vocalize our position bilaterally, and we will work together with our many partners in multilateral fora to underscore our support for Nicaraguan democracy.”
The contents of the legislation and the contributions of those attending the hearing, who proved to be well informed about everything that has been happening in our country, indicated that the Nica Act transcends the democratic agenda as its objectives also include tracking the corruption of Ortega and his government officials; the lack of transparency, including money laundering; and human rights violations. The approved bill also orders the US government to conduct an intelligence investigation into corruption and human rights violations by top Ortega government officials including the President himself. H.R. 5708 states that the report, with specific names and activities, must be ready in 120 days.
The government’s response: Take the high road
The challenge is complex, and won’t go away anytime soon. Not only are there no easy answers, but many opposing opinions and interests are at stake. What responses to this crossroads Ortega has dragged the country to can be expected from Ortega himself, the old “historical” members of the governing party, the business elite, the organized and non-organized opposition, civil society and the population in general?
On September 22, the day after the House vote, First Lady Rosario Murillo included a brief written official reaction in the extensive daily message she reads over the official media: “The Government of Reconciliation and National Unity comments on the latest information from members of the US Congress that has coincided through Times, in Media Campaigns of disinformation and intimidation against Plural and Progressive Democratic Processes developed in Latin America and the Caribbean. We reject as violations of International Law and the United Nations Charter the Proposals and Initiatives moved in the Chambers and Houses of the United States’ Legislative Bodies, which are a customary part of the Intrusive Policy that throughout History has intervened in our Own Sovereign Political, Social and Economic Processes, more intensively and particularly at Electoral Moments. We in Nicaragua are continuing and will continue to enhance Peace, Stability, Governance and Progress through unprecedented Proposals, such as the Alliances Model, Dialogue and Consensuses that have Constitutional Rank and have been mobilizing the Economy and attaining important Achievements in the Struggle against Poverty…” (all capitalizations follow the original Spanish version).
After that first government declaration defining the bill as “intrusive,” a term also employed by Vice President Omar Halleslevens in his speech to the UN General Assembly, public silence predominated in both party and governmental spheres. It was an attempt to give the sensation that “nothing has happened here.”
Meanwhile, the government did try to respond to the uncertainty the Nica Act has generated among national and foreign investors. On October 3, President Ortega unveiled a plan containing dozens of new investment proposals totaling more than US$5 billion, which he called “Development policies and projects to strengthen the 2017-2021 investments.” He says the plan will be presented not only to national and foreign investors but also to the international financing institutions “to assure their political and financial backing.” Is it also an attempt to get the financial request for this package of investments in to the multilateral banks before passage of the Nica Act?
Its business allies’ response: Take the low road
If the government has remained prudently silent on the issue of the Nica Act, its allies have filled the vacuum. Elements close to the government have begun to use the social networks to threaten opposition figures, blaming them for approval of the bill due to a trip made to Washington to inform the OAS about Nicaragua’s reality. Even COSEP has taken part in this attempt to deflect responsibility from its rightful owner.
In his reelection acceptance speech on September 8, two weeks before the House vote, COSEP President José Adán Aguerri attacked MRS leaders, albeit by barely veiled innuendo. He spared no energy in laying the responsibility for everything the Right considers reprehensible about the 1980s revolution at the feet of this 1995 split from the FSLN with these words: “Over the past 26 years we have worked arduously to get the economy back on its feet, to create businesses, to generate the jobs the population demands, to rebuild from the ashes a country left as scorched earth by many of the same voices that are today hoping to see their flag of confrontation and destruction fly again over our country. Some of these voices are now accusing us of implementing a corporativist model in which we businesspeople are sacrificing democracy in exchange for the economy. They are the same voices that sacrificed freedom of business, freedom of mobilization, freedom of religion, individual freedoms to promote the dictatorship of the proletariat…. They sacrificed the economy in exchange for that so-called democracy, which impoverished the country, and now they are seen as white sheep, brave and virtuous democrats. It is their legacy of destruction in which there was neither democracy nor prosperity that we have had to surmount, and today they are attempting, with no objectivity whatever, believing themselves to be owners of the truth, to disqualify what the business sector has been building. The economic results we have today are ignored by those who have nothing to lose, who live in the past as if we were still at war and who, by attacking the private sector for doing our job, would like to see these results halted.”
Other responses across the board
Most independent analysts have insisted that Ortega must seriously change course to avoid the country suffering an economic recession, although few imagine it will do so or have any idea how. Less independent analysts are much more cautious, although they too are describing the moment as very worrying. And, unlike their leader, many of the business elite allied with Ortega are also exhibiting this mixture of caution and unconcealed concern.
The political parties that decided to participate in this electoral simulation in the hopes it will result in some post for their candidates, avoid referring to the crisis ushered in by the Nica Act, attempting to give the impression that “everything’s normal.” For their part, leaders of the parties that made up the National Coalition for Democracy—the PLI, MRS and other smaller forces—until Ortega prevented it from running in the elections have not hesitated to hold the President himself responsible for this bill’s approval.
A crisis foretold in the opposition
The Coalition suffered a crisis in September that was predictable after this heterogeneous alliance of nine organizations found itself excluded from the elections when the Ortega-controlled Supreme Court ruled that the PLI’s legal status should be switched to a small splinter group claiming to be the “real” PLI. The crisis was also predictable given an announcement by Eduardo Montealegre that he was pulling out of the Coalition. Montealegre is a banker whose career includes having been a minister in two former Liberal governments; founding the National Liberal Alliance, a split from the Constitutionalist Liberal Party that beat it out for second place in 2006; and more recently heading up both the now disqualified PLI and the Coalition itself.
In the last envoi issue we briefly reported on a message Montealegre sent while in the US stating that it had become “impossible” for him to continue as Coalition coordinator, and intimating that he might be retiring from political life. This triggered major uncertainty in the group of Liberal politicians who have functioned for years in the shadow of his leadership and had just announced that the Coalition would reorganize as a new party called Citizens for Liberty. At the time, the MRS wished them the best and proposed “building a Broad Front for Democracy” from “each territory and in all sectors.”
Then on September 5, just as that issue of envoi closed, Kitty Monterrey, Montealegre’s assistant since his banking days, announced the Coali¬tion’s “relaunch” as Citizens for Liberty, but excluding not only its five allied parties, but also a number of well-known Liberals from the PLI, including Eliseo Núñez Morales and Carlos Langrand. She added that the next step would be to request that the Supreme Electoral Council grant Citizens for Liberty legal status as a party.
This immediately gave the excluded Liberal politicians a clearer picture of the post-electoral scenario Montealegre appeared to be preparing: he would head up the new party, which given his long political trajectory would easily position itself nationally and internationally as “the opposition,” thus giving it entry to the “dialogue” with Ortega after November 6. After a couple of weeks rife with speculation and mutual recriminations, Monte¬alegre denied he had definitively left politics. And he apparently told some of his followers that he would be in the “front line” as a qualified interlocutor in the post-election “national dialogue,” presumably in early 2017.
One of the first paragraphs of the official pronouncement of the Coali¬tion’s “relaunching” states that “It is time to assume new tasks aimed at building a political alternative that permits us Nicaraguans to do away with violence once and for all. Contrary to some members of the National Coalition for Democracy, the organizations present here reiterate our firm belief only in civic struggle and political solutions, as those who promote violence as a mechanism of accessing power end up sooner or later becoming dictators.” The implicit allusion to the firmest—but not violent—positions of those weeded out was clear.
What really went down?
The benefit for Ortega of Montealegre’s move is that it would help legitimize his reelection and new term in office. What—apart from at least temporary legalization of his new party—might Ortega have offered Montealegre in exchange? For starters there’s a long-pending suit Montealegre filed for libel and slander related to an also pending lawsuit regarding his alleged involvement in renegotiating of the government-issued CENI bonds that caused bank collapses in 2006 (see envío of March 2008). It was announced in mid-August that the CENI case would be reopened, but it was again suspended indefinitely on September 5, immediately following Monterrey’s announcement.
And if that isn’t sufficient, there’s the case of his brother Álvaro, convicted of “organized crime” and sentenced to 22 years in prison for having organized a financial swindle affecting various families and social sectors in the country. That trial had been postponed, shelved and dusted off again innumerable times before the Coalition was eliminated from the race in July. A court under Ortega’s control finally handed down that sentence, by all measure exaggerated, but after September 5, the auctioning off of his belongings to reimburse the victims of his swindle was frozen.
As the Ortega government has been characterized as “judicializing politics,” few doubt that Montealegre negotiated an agreement to legalize his new party and his therefore legitimate participation in the “national dialogue” in exchange for sweeping away these legal problems.
On many occasions, in different contexts and with different political personalities, Ortega has used what MRS leader Edmundo Jarquín calls “official hostage politics,” which he describes as “one of the cruelest facets of Ortega’s authoritarian regime: keeping people under the Damocles sword of a legal sentence that never arrives in order to oblige them or third parties to meet certain conditions.” Everything in Montealegre’s case suggests that this is what happened here.
The common denominator
Montealegre represents a technocratic model with economic liberty and political freedoms much like the one President Enrique Bolaños’ team administered, which contrasts with the model focused on the excluded that seeks a more just distribution of wealth and a social equity that has never existed in the past and does not exist now, but is needed in order to deal with the country’s grave structural problems.
While the crisis was a difficult moment, sounder judgment prevailed after a couple of weeks among the majority of national and local leaders of the organizations previously in the Coalition. Given that the original Coalition had the weight of a heterogeneity of interests and ideologies, with a multitude of visions differentiated by class origin, political trajectory and projects for the future, they decided to leave their differences aside for now and seek common ground, concentrating on consolidating unity among their local rank and file. It was significant that when Monte¬alegre summoned the 17 departmental leaders of the dismantled PLI to persuade them to join Citizens for Liberty, only 5 showed up.
With only a month to go before the electoral simulation, a majority of the former Coalition’s national and local leaders, now grouped in the Broad Front for Democracy proposed by the MRS, have been working together locally around a single common denominator. This involves denouncing the “electoral farce,” actively promoting abstention, organizing to be able to quantify that abstention on November 6, not recognizing the election results and mobilizing via all media, in all parts of the country and internationally to isolate Ortega, demanding new “genuine” elections and rejecting any “national dialogue” either before or after November 6.
Another element in the common denominator that is currently keeping the real opposition together and even appearing in the speeches of some of the bought-off opposition politicians running in the elections is repeal of the canal law that turns national sovereignty over to the Chinese company called HKND Group.
At the critical crossroads
In the September hearings, State Department official José González characterized this point in US relations with Nicaragua as a “critical juncture.” But those relations aren’t the only thing to have reached a critical point. Nicaragua as a whole, its corporative model, the business elite, politicians, intellectuals, religious believers and authorities, civil society, we in the media… absolutely everyone is at a critical crossroads.
Will we know how to rise to the moment? Will we know how to find the best road? Will we know how to turn this crisis into an opportunity to move forward, to change course? What will those who have more power and those with barely any do?
Can dispersion become unity?
In his “Ode to Roosevelt,” Rubén Darío wrote:
“The United States is strong and big.
When it shakes there is a deep tremor....”
Nicaragua has felt that US-caused tremor more than once. But Darío also knew the “vigors” of those who tremble. He refers to them in “The Optimist’s Salutation,” although recognizing them as “disperse.”
While we may all be at the crossroads, we too are very dispersed. Will those who tremble be able to fuse their vigors, forming a “single beam of energy” that can defeat “the invincible” Ortega? If so, let us hope such a defeat also sweeps away that weak and shortsighted political culture that for so many decades has sown winds and is today harvesting the whirlwinds we must learn to defeat.