“We need new, authentic elections and a government of national unity”
Selected as the National Coalition for Democracy’s
vice presidential candidate only days before Daniel Ortega
blocked the Coalition’s participation in November’s electoral race,
this long-time social activist shares her views on politics, politicians
and the country she wants to see today and in the future.
So, what now, after the consummated electoral farce of November 6? Answering this question requires us to look further into the future. Discussing proposals for the future is what really matters in any properly administered electoral period, because I believe that’s what campaigns are for. I thought that even in this year’s damaged electoral process we Nicaraguans would have the opportunity to put the country’s key issues on the public agenda so that together we could dream of a better future for all. But they didn’t even let us do that; they eliminated us from the race altogether. And they still wouldn’t let us do it when we toured a large part of the country, although in some places we were able to talk about certain priorities. But as so often happens, what was urgent took precedence over what was important. Despite everything, however, we have to keep dreaming of that better future, which in turn requires making the transformation of the political culture that has prevailed in our country the strategic, even indispensable priority.
Why does it matter so much to me?
How did I find myself in the electoral arena and why am I continuing in this struggle for free and fair elections, full-blown democracy and the strategic transformation of our political culture? As an extremely brief vice presidential candidate, I think it’s important to inform people where I’m coming from because not everyone knows me. Recounting my own experience is also a way to talk about the evolution of the social-political scene, as I’ve been an activist in key civil society organizations for 25 years. And like all Nicaraguans, I’ve lived our country’s recent history intensely.
When I was very young I went to study sociology in France, and lived there for many years. Like almost all Nicaraguans, I was sympathetic to the Sandinista revolution at the beginning, but sadly great grief came between me and that project. Shortly before the overthrow of the dictatorship an FSLN commando unit assassinated my father, Ramiro Granera Padilla, who was a Liberal senator during the Somoza government. I made a huge effort to learn to live with that pain, and eventually succeeded, but I could never have worked with a group that had killed my father. Only over time did I discover that all Nicaraguan families, no matter which side they were on, felt some similar pain.
When it happened to me my family and I went to Guatemala, sincerely praying to God that the revolution’s dream of changing the life of the poorest would become reality. With all my heart I wanted the revolution to work for the ideals for which so many people fought. But in Guatemala I began to realize that people were leaving Nicaragua not only for reasons similar to mine. Every day I saw poor families crossing the borders with real difficulty. I saw them come with children whose feet were ragged from the long walk. In work that was more humanitarian than political, we organized to help them. That experience helped me realize that the way the revolution was being managed was affecting the very same poor people I believed it was struggling to help, and I became disenchanted.
That humanitarian work ultimately translated into a political commitment of rejection of and struggle against that same political system. I came to understand and admire the sacrifice of the peasants organized in the Nicaraguan Resistance, the Contra, as they were called popularly. I continue believing we have a huge social debt to both them and the demobilized Sandinista Army soldiers.
The search for reconciliation
I returned to Nicaragua after the FSLN lost the elections in 1990, and since then I’ve been working in civil society organizations to help build a more politically and socially just society, a democratic one in the broadest sense of the word. In those first years of the nineties, the logic behind my decisions was to seek the reconciliation of Nicaraguan families. It was a very difficult task in the polarized society the war had left us. At the beginning I worked in the Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association, an organization focused mainly on supporting the demobilization of the Nicaraguan Resistance. They were very rough years, professionally and spiritually. It couldn’t be otherwise. The wounds of the confrontation between brothers left us wounded as a society.
Psychologist Martha Cabrera reminds us how deep and persistent that pain is, even now. I admire the work, postponed way too long, that she’s doing to help us get over it. In those years we didn’t have the conceptual tools to understand the importance of that work; I just intuited it. I remember talking to officials of the Violeta Chamorro government about the need to create brigades of psychologists to go to the countryside to work with our peasants, who are always the ones most affected. I wasn’t persistent enough to insist on that and now I regret it.
After that, I began working in Grupo Fundemos, the first civil society organization to open a broad, pluralist dialogue in Nicaragua, bringing together people of all the political currents of the time. I particularly felt an interest, I’d even say the need, to reconnect with that other part of Nicaragua, the one I hadn’t been with in the years of the revolution and thus didn’t know.
I learned the best of the revolution after the fact
During that time I also joined the Civil Coordinator, an arena born of the need to reconstruct Nicaragua after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. It brought together some three hundred of the most diverse civil society organizations, most of them either social organizations from the revolutionary decade or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) formed after 1990 by Sandinistas seeking a way to continue the social work of different kinds they believed in. It was very enriching to meet such valuable, committed people who had dedicated their life to Nicaragua, offering it to the revolution with no material reward. They taught me about the mystique of those years. I learned to value the positive side of what many of them had experienced in the eighties. I came not only to value these people, but to love them, and today the majority of them are my best friends. They are the ones who today represent for me what the revolution was. I also grasped that Nicaragua is a very young country with a very incipient democracy, making it quite difficult in moments as intense as a revolution not to have both bright sides and dark sides.
I appreciate the Civil Coordinator for having welcomed me. It was an unusually trusting gesture given that I came as an exile. I was even one of the Coordinator’s representatives in the National Economic and Social Planning Council (CONPES), a government-civil society dialogue arena created in 1999, then expanded and made more relevant after President Enrique Bolaños took office in 2001. I mention this to stress that Nicaraguans of all political persuasions can work together and we have experiences proving it. Even though we come from times of terrible polarization, many of us have succeeded in reaching out to each other, and we mustn’t allow them to polarize us again. Beyond our differences, which we must see as a value and a richness, we have many things in common that unite us all.
After that experience, I worked for three years in the World Bank, where I learned a lot and witnessed very interesting processes. It was the time when Nicaragua’s Poverty map was being prepared, which cost millions… and isn’t even being used now. In that same period, the State’s institutionality also began to be strengthened as a condition for applying the Budgetary Support Program. This was a major institutional step forward because international aid agencies felt confident enough to provide financing to the government for its free use in the budget, without being tied to a specific negotiated program. It was interesting work, but after three years I realized it wasn’t for me.
The government side of citizen participation
At that point, President Bolaños called to offer me the position of CONPES executive director. I was there about a year and a half, starting late in the Bolaños government. It has been my only government position and I accepted because it was a mixed post, as the CONPES director had to serve as a bridge between the government and civil society. Unions, social movements and a great diversity of civil organizations across the political spectrum all had a seat in CONPES at the time.
After so many years working in civil society arenas, I’m almost fanatical about the Citizens’ Participation Law, approved in 1993. I think it’s not only a means for civic advocacy in politics, but also an instrument to produce changes in the political culture by both developing people’s civic involvement and getting public officials to listen to them and inform them what the officials are doing.
Regrettably the process that law began to generate has been truncated as the Ortega government’s first measure in 2007 was precisely to take sole ownership of civic participation, concentrating it exclusively in the Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPCs), the pyramid of structures Ortega and his wife, Rosario murillo, created back then, which are now called Cabinets of the Family. As a result, he turned his back on all the municipal and other organizations that had sprung up after that law. The law still exists, shelved rather than abolished, so we’re going to dust it off, together with the process it proposed.
When President Bolaños turned his office over to the new government he forgot to dismiss me as head of CONPES, so I continued “directing” it for a month and a half. I was one of those who insisted that we shouldn’t worry, that we had laws and a functioning institutionality and the new government was only going to add to everything we’d already created with even more emphasis on the social aspect, so we would keep moving forward. My sin was ingenuousness. Friends who knew Ortega’s authoritarian nature better refuted me, and in the end they were right.
Meanwhile, I wanted to ensure a good transition, to maintain the government-society dialogue that CONPES had encouraged with such great effort during its seven years. That dialogue had never been perfect, but it was on the right track and I believed it was a valuable instrument for changing the political culture in the ways I just mentioned. We know such change isn’t easy because officials consider dialogue with the population a waste of their time. We’d already seen that a lot of work needed to be done to get public servants to assume that duty as an important responsibility.
It soon became clear that given the new conditions I wasn’t the right person for the job, as it required having the confidence of both civil society and the government, so I started sending letters requesting to be relieved of my post. Finally someone showed up one day and said: “Señora, don’t come back here anymore.” I knew about the institutional processes we functionaries are supposed to follow so I asked who I was supposed to turn CONPES over to. “Don’t worry about it; we’ll let you know.” That was the last conversation anyone had with me. In November of that same year, 2007, Ortega named his wife as CONPES director. She was already director of the CPCs, which as I mentioned were considered the be all and end all of civil society, and CONPES disappeared soon after. We quickly realized that the plan was to destroy the system of citizen participation.
Ortega squandered the support he could have enjoyed
I want to share an anecdote from that short time I was still head of CONPES. I invited Olando Núñez, the original architect of the new government’s insignia program, Zero Hunger, which I found very interesting, to present it to us. People from all over the country organized to hear Orlando, because everyone wanted to know more about how it was going to work and how they could help since he had said during the electoral campaign that it would be run on the ground by civil society organizations already working in the countryside. They seemed quite willing to work with this government.
At 9 o’clock the night before the meeting, Orlando called me to say he was furious with the presidency because it had prohibited him from making the presentation to CONPES! And he authorized me to say so to the gathering. We quickly changed the program and I made excuses because it wasn’t in my nature to cause any conflict, also aware that my time there was fleeting. After that, I did manage to organize meetings with the new labor minister and a top Health Ministry official, which both generated enthusiasm among CONPES’ labor and social commissions.
It was clear that Daniel Ortega could have gotten everyone’s backing for his government, maintaining the institutionality we had by then, but he squandered that opportunity.
We had a national plan
When I left CONPES I went to work for the Movement for Nicaragua where we warned about what was coming. The fate of CONPES and the legalization of the CPCs clearly showed us the path Daniel Ortega was going to follow with the rest of the country’s institutionality. It was fine that the government formed the CPCs, because everyone has the right to organize, but the correct thing would have been for them to join the existing Municipal, Departmental and Regional Development Councils and CONPES, all created by the Citizens’ Participation Law. That, of course, didn’t happen because the CPCs weren’t about civic participation. They help in the communities and give out things, but they take orders with no possibility of actually making decisions, much less affecting those made by government authorities. They have a top-down dependent relationship with the central government, which contradicts the very spirit of civic participation.
My last task in the Movement for Nicaragua was to draft a brief reader-friendly Basic Agenda for the Nation culled from at least 20 proposals written by diverse social organizations between 2007 and this year, all of them the result of broad consultations. We in CONPES had already used a number of those proposals to draft the very important document of 300-plus pages supported by the UN Development Programme titled “Civic Action for the Next Five-Year Period 2007-2011.” Some two thousand leaders from all over the country participated in that work, which gathered proposals and suggestions from the citizenry to strengthen Nicaragua’s democracy and development. The document contains proposals both by sector—health, education, labor, etc.—and by department, including a specific chapter with proposals for the two Caribbean Coast regions. Looking back through it, all the proposals are still both valid and unmet. All that would be needed is to beef up some of them given the rapid deterioration that has taken place since Daniel Ortega took office.
We put that entire document on CONPES’ web page so it could be read and shared, but the Ortega government removed not only the document but the whole website from Internet. The only Internet reference you can find to the document now is in a footnote to a study of Nicaragua’s civil society by CIVICUS. The few hard copies that still exist are evidence that we’ve lost an entire decade. They also show that this government’s defenders are wrong when they argue that we only criticize, without having any proposals. We could wallpaper Nicaragua with all the proposals we’ve put forward and published, many of which are excellent. But regrettably, authoritarian culture is also hermetic. Our decision makers don’t listen to those impacted by their decisions. And Nicaragua is the loser.
Then suddenly I was a vice presidential candidate
I was just wrapping up the drafting of the Basic Agenda this year when Luis Callejas invited me to join his ticket as vice presidential candidate for the National Coalition for Democracy. It was very hard for me to say yes because I’d never held public office other than my time in CONPES. The only public post I’d fought for years earlier, when it was first created, was that of human rights ombudsperson, but I didn’t get it. I spent a month rejecting Luis’ invitation, by which time my conscience was beginning to badger me, making me wonder if I was simply being cowardly. For years some people have been urging me to take the step into politics, so I finally accepted, thinking this would be a key arena in which to continue working for a better future for Nicaragua. The Coalition didn’t impose any conditions on me, like joining any of the political parties that made it up; I felt welcomed by them. But before accepting I assured myself of three things: that all groups in the Coalition agreed with my candidacy; that we all had a similar vision of the Nicaragua we have and the one we want; and that we would never participate in an electoral farce.
I agreed to join the ticket on Friday, June 3, but the very next day we heard the first warning of the farce to come. Daniel Ortega prohibited the entry into the country of any electoral observers. Some months previously, while I was still in the Movement for Nicaragua, we’d met with the team from the electoral office of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington and they had told us they believed he was going to invite them to observe the elections. They had already penciled it in on their work calendar.
And just as suddenly it was all over
Four days after that the Coalition’s participation in the elections was annulled. The Independent Liberal Party (PLI) was the largest party in the Coalition and the only one that hadn’t yet lost its legal status, so it was entitled to a box on the ballot. But on June 8, the Supreme Court ruled that a small PLI splinter group headed by Pedro Reyes was the “real” PLI. We had already understood that the elections would be a tough battle, but I don’t think anybody expected such perverseness. Taking us out of the game also meant we lost the representation at the voting tables we had won by coming in second in the 2011 elections. With no other legitimate opposition, people answering to Ortega now controlled all the voting centers.
Until those first days in June, I thought we had to make the effort to participate even though I didn’t see the conditions as at all good. I considered it worth it if electoral observers were here, particularly given our representation on the voting tables, as corresponded to us by law, understanding that the only path to resolving our problems is the civic one, through elections.
But in the end my debut in the electoral arena was ephemeral. I never even got to be an official candidate. I laugh about it now, calling it a case for Ripley. But I’m glad I accepted and also glad to have joined a new team struggling in what was a new battlefield for me. It has allowed me an intense and enriching immersion in the political and political party arena. Above all, this experience has opened up the opportunity for me to contribute from an arena that’s crucial for Nicaragua right now. Whether as a candidate or not, I’m in this struggle—which is the struggle of all of us who love this country—for the long haul.
We have to fight to ensure authentic, free, transparent, competitive and observed elections in Nicaragua, in which the citizenry not only votes, but elects and decides, because the possibility of electing is the only value in voting. As a country we can’t ignore the clear message that the massive abstention on November 6 means the Nicaraguan people are overwhelmingly rejecting the electoral farce.
We have to rid ourselves of the culture of violence
We can’t continue being hostages to impunity. I don’t agree with just “turning the page” on violations of such a fundamental right as the right to elect. We’ve already turned pages after four previous fraudulent elections… and the book is getting thicker and darker. We can’t allow violence to again be the only way power changes hands, because the circle of violence has only caused us enormous pain over the course of our history.
I sense that we’re already seeing the end of what I hope is the last dictatorship we’ll have in Nicaragua. The time to reach that end may be shorter or longer, but we’re not going to speed it up with violence. None of us wants that. The blood of a single Nicaraguan is worth too much to continue spilling it. The latest killings of peasants in Ciudad Antigua on the day of the electoral farce is both painful and unacceptable. Everyone, including the government and the de facto powers, must understand that if we don’t change our way of doing things we’ll just keep ending up with the same results. If we continue believing we can only unseat a dictatorship by force, we’ll only open the doors to a new one. The first thing we have to change is our way of thinking, to strip the inherited culture of violence and exclusion from our minds.
Convincing ourselves of this is harder in the rural zones. No one wants another war, but on the trips I’ve made around the country with Luis Callejas and other members of the opposition I’ve heard more and more people who think the only way to resolve this is through the barrel of a gun. It’s very difficult to keep insisting that we have to resolve it civically, because we all know the government is repressing and frightening peasants who oppose it. Moreover, our machista culture means that for the most part men see civic struggle as something trivial that woman engage in. We have to try to get them to understand what civic struggle is, that it isn’t free of risks and dangers and often requires more courage than battling a dictatorship with weapons. We have to explain that the cost of a violent solution would be enormous for the country and has to be avoided.
I’m convinced the high costs of confrontation and chaos are borne time and again by the most vulnerable. It isn’t us city dwellers who pay the price of violent confrontation. I’ve seen in my country’s recent history that the poor contribute the bodies while the ambitious climb over them to reach the heights. That’s why I believe a civic solution to this dictatorship must be found, one involving the greatest possible dialogue and respect for human rights. And in my opinion, any dialogue must start by focusing on how and when we can reestablish the laws violated by the electoral farce. We’re preparing alternatives on this point, which I think needs to be the only condition for a negotiation.
Calling things by their name
We’re convinced that the electoral farce the regime engaged in this time, which is the culmination of four previous electoral frauds, is the consequence of President Ortega’s progressive dismantling of the democratic institutionality since 2007. For some time now, while many people were still too scrupulous to call things by their name, various civil society organizations were already characterizing this regime as a dictatorship, which now has clearer dynastic pretensions.
And we’ve called this government a dictatorship with assuredness because we couldn’t find a single indicator in any political theory we looked at that didn’t justify doing so. Understanding this is important because it shows us that Nicaragua’s problem isn’t only an electoral one. We’re focused on the electoral aspect right now, because what happened on November 6 is extremely serious, but the problem goes much deeper. While important, elections are just one step in the full democratization of Nicaragua, and our objective must be to achieve complete political, economic and social democracy.
Yes, we’re convinced this regime is a dictatorship. Do we have a rule of law, that basic element in a democracy that ensures that all are equal before the law? Is there a separation of the state branches? Does anyone think the judicial branch decides anything without the presidential couple ordering it? Has all of this not brought enormous corruption? We have information that the business elite is now quite worried about the corruption in the judicial system, among other reasons because they have had to pay millions of córdobas in bribes and because the judicial security is precarious. We’ve also been told that this issue has been included in their ongoing dialogue with the government.
There are still more questions regarding the nature of the regime… Do we have a truly national Army and Police? What has happened in this respect is regrettable because we have to recognize that the armed forces underwent a professionalization process that took years but made significant progress. Nonetheless, we’ve backpedaled since the head of the Army and Police started being named de facto and the military Code and Police Law were reformed then later reinforced through the perverse Sovereign Security Law.
Is there respect for human rights? Every year the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center and the Permanent Human Rights Center put out excellent reports on serious individual and collective violations of fundamental rights. An extremely serious case is the approval of Law 840, the canal concession law, which endangers national sovereignty and threatens the rights of all Nicaraguans, particularly by permitting thousands of peasants to be dispossessed of their lands and putting our right to a healthy environment at even greater risk.
And freedom of expression? We now know that the strategy has been to coopt, extort or even buy up the media. This was demonstrated in journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro’s latest charges of Army espionage against the independent media he heads up, about which there was typically no investigation.
Can we speak of respect for basic civil and political rights? Is there freedom of mobilization or of organization? Is there respect for one’s vote? As the bishops and other sectors have been saying, the Ortega dictatorship is clearly heading toward the consolidation of a single party system with some functional flunkies. There has been a systematic and violent campaign to discourage civic mobilization and free expression, and it has certainly had its effects by successfully implanting fear. Despite all this, I’ve always said that the rising curve of fear begins to drop again when indignation wins out over it. I believe this is happening in Nicaragua and we’re beginning to see it. We’re definitely being governed by a corrupt, violent, exclusionary, dictatorial political model that is functioning through the dismantling of institutions and accumulation of power in the hands of the Ortega-Murillo couple.
The economic model is just as exclusionary
This political model has gone hand in hand with a similarly exclusionary economic model that has not favored the great majorities precisely because there’s no democracy and no institutionality. As the old saying goes, “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” This model is designed to favor only a small sector: Ortega’s economic and political interests and the economic interests of those he wants to protect. And the forces of public order are at its service. We can see this in the case of the workers who protested in mina El Limón, the cane workers suffering from chronic renal insufficiency who demanded health care in Chichigalpa, and the free trade zone workers who tried to demand better working conditions, not to mention the peasants struggling against the canal project and Law 840. We all know that a handful of big business interests is being treated with economic favoritism.
A woman community leader in Matiguás told me, “Doña Violeta, all the children in my community are anemic, because we don’t have anything to give them to eat.” That’s a Nicaragua we in Managua don’t see easily. These differences, this poverty and inequality, are age-old structural problems we’ve made very little progress in resolving. Efforts have been made, but the results are limited. This inequality needs to be dealt with intelligently, all the way to its core, addressed with a capacity for consensus and with firmness. That’s the State’s main function: to seek agreements and consensus, always prioritizing those who most need its protection.
Despite the highly favorable conditions in which Ortega took power, with high export prices and the copious Venezuelan cooperation, Nicaragua’s structural problems are still waiting for solutions after almost 10 years of his government. While we certainly can’t blame everything on this regime, those exceptional resources could have been used to move towards sustainable human development, which unfortunately this government didn’t do. That’s why I’d call it a lost decade.
One of our critiques, voiced both publicly and privately, of the government’s ongoing dialogue with the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), the only sector that even has the government’s ear, isn’t about the dialogue itself, but rather that it has served mainly to favor very specific and myopic interests. I’m not against private enterprise; I believe in business freedom, but I also believe it implies responsibility. And I’m not talking about the business social responsibility of planting trees or financing the building of a school. That’s fine, but it’s far from enough.
The fact that this government governs only for a few isn’t sustainable, for both political and economic and social reasons. We have to have a national commitment to the most vulnerable, the great majorities who need state support most and are currently living in terrible conditions. At the moment the priority for guaranteeing sustainability is to clean up the electoral system, but that’s barely a first step to achieving a genuine and authentically inclusive national dialogue that will benefit the whole country, led by a government of national unity.
We need to build consensus on the priorities
We’re fully aware that we have to work for national consensus if we’re going to find a solution for Nicaragua, because it can’t be based on impositions or arbitrariness. It’s about everyone in Nicaragua becoming aware of the priorities. I’d like to share with you some of the strategic priorities we’ve identified that require efforts from all of us.
Building a democratic culture. Our challenge as a society is to change the country’s culture, by which I mean both culture in general and political culture specifically. We’ve worked to strengthen the exercise of citizenship because we know that without an active citizenry we won’t have good governors and I believe we’ve made a lot of progress in Nicaragua on that score.
In this, as in everything, we can see the glass half full or half empty. I believe that through the struggle against Somoza, the Sandinista revolution and the 26 years since then we’ve changed from seeing ourselves as simple people who live in a given place to seeing ourselves as citizens, more conscious of our role in domesticating the State and influencing public decisions. But if that’s true, why did we return to a dictatorship? It’s because processes are slow and not always linear, involving both advances and backpedaling. We’re in a moment of backpedaling because our traditional, authoritarian culture persists among the country’s elites and a good part of the population as well. But I’m convinced that the Ortega dictatorship will be the last one in Nicaragua, providing we don’t permit the intergenerational transmission of our authoritarian culture.
That’s why transforming our political culture must be a strategic undertaking. And we’ll achieve it if we keep working in two dimensions. One is training and forming the youth, as many civil society organizations are already doing, and seriously reforming the educational system with a more comprehensive focus on quality. The other is ensuring at least decent governments that reinforce that new political culture. Never have we seen such an abject electoral process as the one this year, where even nepotism was exacerbated: Daniel ran with his wife; Alemán put his wife at the top of his party’s legislative slate so she would be sure to win; and Byron Jerez [Alemán’s crooked head of the revenue division during his government] was the top candidate for the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance and his son was also on the slate. And they all ended up with parliamentary seats. Those who pass for our leaders are a very negative counterweight to the efforts so many are making to change the political culture.
Linking politics with ethics. A new political culture has to rescue the meaning of politics, which has historically been so devalued in Nicaragua. We have to reconsider the goals of politics and then take them on. As monsignor Silvio Báez and jurist, philosopher and writer Alejandro Serrano Caldera have both said, our problems are more ethical than political. Our leaders want to accustom us to seeing cunning as intelligence, lies as astuteness, abuses of power as inevitable realities and incoherence as prowess… How many times have we heard political analysts say that Ortega is a very skilled politician because he has kept our people happy with populism and satisfied the international community with an ad hoc discourse that has nothing to do with reality? What they’re really saying is that it doesn’t matter what he says or that he rants against the international community; what matters is what he’s doing… But it does matter; our words need to correspond to our actions.
It’s impressive how everything has gotten twisted around. I believe that by talking like that we’ve reinforced our traditional culture’s anti-values and bogged down the efforts to be more coherent, more authentic, correct and decent. All the justifications for the behavior of a dictator are a setback. We have to recover the basic quality of decency.
A number of excellent texts about our disastrous political culture have been written by people such as the late Emilio Álvarez Montalván, a former Nicaraguan foreign minister and writer on politics who particularly emphasized our national political culture. But while learning our weaknesses is an important first step, it’s useless if we continue practicing anti-values such as nepotism, political bossism and the practice of seeing the State as something to plunder. We have to break the links in that chain. And we know it can be done. We cut the chain of wars and there’s now a general awareness that we must avoid returning to the cycle of violence. But the only way is to deepen this cultural change. Despite everything, I’m not going to lose my optimism. I firmly believe we’re witnessing the death rattle of that inherited culture.
Returning dignity to politics. We’ve all devalued politics, and I say all, because I also feel responsible, given how critical we in civil society have been of the political parties. Admittedly they have a lot to improve on given how authoritarian our entire political culture still is, but we can’t forget Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán had a systematic strategy through their pact to weaken and destroy the entire party system . We only have to look at how Ortega stripped the MRS, the PAC and more recently the PLI of their legal status. With no legal justification, he stripped it from those he wanted out of the game and gave it to those he chose as accomplices. Our constant disparaging from civil society of politics, politicians and the political parties has now come back to haunt us. We have to re-dignify politics because it’s the only way to fight for the common good. And politics is dignified only by being practiced with dignity.
Encouraging the involvement of the entire citizenry. We as citizens have to help dignify political action, recognizing that politics is the responsibility of the entire citizenry, not just the political class, because it directly affects our lives. We also have to be proactive as well as critical of our political culture because it’s very dangerous to see political activity only from the perspective of criticizing the system. The monumental rejection of the electoral farce through abstention, contradicting the polls, has demonstrated that the population understands the link between politics and daily life.
We’re quite clear about the weaknesses of our political culture and we know that this government’s total dismantling of the institutionality dragged the political party system down with it. And we’re now seeing the consequences. Ortega’s Pyrrhic victory on November 6 has backfired on the dictatorship, leaving it without any credible institutional-political interlocutors. Who is it going to use to seek a solution now? For any approach to be legitimate it will have to be hammered out with all sectors of the country, including those the system swept out.
Pushing for economic and social democracy. We believe the goal of politics is people’s wellbeing. The means for achieving that wellbeing is a healthy economy, while democratic institutionality is the way to make it sustainable. We want to push toward that full democracy. Speaking of democracy almost always makes one think of political democracy, but we know there can be no full democracy without economic and social democracy. Let’s look at some more examples of how economically exclusionary the current model has been. Between 2007 and 2015 the percentage of the work force in the informal economy rose from 65% to 80%, increasing underemployment from 33% to 50%, while the real value of salaries suffered a significant drop. A recent poll designed by COSEP showed that 70% of the small and medium businesses surveyed were stagnant or their incomes had even dropped in the past two years. But it was the exact opposite for big businesses, 70% of which saw their income grow during that same period. While eloquent, it’s not the only evidence of the unequal distribution of the benefits of economic growth the government and its cronies have so crowed about.
We’ve also seen how socially exclusionary this model is. How else can we explain the fact that the latest budget reforms for 2016 have cut millions from education and health to give it to the Supreme Electoral Council? And this isn’t the first time it has happened, even though we all know that Nicaragua invests less in education than any other Central American country.
It’s great that Ortega had resources for various social programs. We don’t oppose those programs, which have lightened the burden of some of the poor. But various studies have shown that they didn’t concentrate on the poorest population pockets, and the distribution of their benefits was based less on poverty than on a party skew for electoral purposes. While the US$500 million annually that Venezuela’s petroleum cooperation left this government for most of its years in office financed some of those programs, they essentially became the source of massive corruption. That money should have been used to finance small and medium producers, improved education and all the other pending strategic goals so that Nicaragua could push toward sustainable human development.
The chronicle of a farce foretold
We knew ahead of time that we would be witnessing the chronicle of a farce foretold on Sunday, November 6, and to make matters even worse, the election price tag was very high: 900 million córdobas [some US$31 million]. The intelligent thing would have been to suspend or postpone the elections, but that wasn’t done. We couldn’t record the high abstention rate we saw that day because observers were excluded and photographs of the polling places were prohibited, but it at least sent an important political, if not statistical message of rejection of the regime imposed by Daniel Ortega. Another reason it was impossible to measure the abstention that day was that his people controlled the voter list, the voting centers, the ballot boxes, the ballots themselves and the tallies.
But it doesn’t matter; the estimates by all independent eyes round out at about 70%. The empty lines at the polling centers, noticeable even in the careful coverage by official media cameras, were evidence enough of the rejection of the electoral farce.
Some risks we see for the future
So where so we stand after that farce and the new stage opened by the government’s dialogue with the OAS? I’ll mention some risks we can observe.
Polarization is spreading. This is the greatest risk we see, not just between Ortega’s people and us, but among all Nicaraguans. Even declared Ortega partisans are displeased with what has happened, including public employees, higher-level officials and businesspeople who are now seeing the risks in what Ortega is dragging them into, but they still don’t have the courage to say anything publicly. When I talk to them I ask why they don’t say anything, if voicing their views isn’t the same as fighting. In my view, as long as those people surrounding Ortega who don’t agree with the continuation of those outrages fail to let him know, they’ll all end up accomplices who are equally responsible for what’s happening. I think that a lot of people close to Ortega can’t possibly like what he’s doing at this point, because he’s gone too far. I’m sure so many intelligent people couldn’t be so senseless.
Support for armed groups in the countryside. Another risk the electoral farce has bequeathed us can be seen in the rural sector. Peasants are seeing that the possibility of a peaceful solution is increasingly difficult. They don’t want war and I don’t think there will be another like the one we recently came out of, but it’s true that there are armed groups in the north of the country who are taking up arms for political reasons. I haven’t seen them and can’t say anything about them, but there are people in the countryside who’ve seen them, support them and are willing to go join them. We were in a northern municipality speaking with a very belligerent young man who was pooh-poohing the efforts to organize a civic struggle, when a young woman joined the conversation as we were trying to convince him. She calmly said this: “I travel through this valley on horseback and sometimes come across the rearmed groups. Look, I have seven brothers and they’re all ready to go off with them, and I’m going too!” The Army calls these people delinquents, just like Somoza, who said the Sandinista guerrillas were bandits…
The Nica Act could be approved. If Ortega doesn’t come to his senses, there’s a risk that the United States will approve the Nica Act, which would have negative consequences for Nicaragua. I want to make it clear that when a group of us went to Washington to report on what’s happening here, that bill had already been drafted. We have the responsibility, the right, to report what’s happening in Nicaragua both in Washington and to the entire world, and we don’t evade our responsibilities. But Daniel Ortega is the only one responsible for that bill, and only he has the key to deactivate it.
In our trips through the most remote parts of the country I’ve been impressed by the level of information people have, particularly how many of them already knew about the Nica Act. And also how many peasants have told us: “So what if they pass that law; let ’em approve it!” I understand that attitude, because life will go right on being hard for them with or without the Nica Act. I don’t mean to say that the consequences of that law will be light, because I know they won’t be, but Ortega is the person responsible for taking that pressure seriously. If he has agreed to dialogue with the OAS it may be because he’s realizing he can’t keep treating us Nicaraguans and the international community like children.
The opposition isn’t up to the challenge of being an alternative. Another risk I see in this post-farce phase that I want to share in all honesty has nothing to do with the Ortega regime, because I don’t think it can offer much anymore, not because it’s going to end today or tomorrow, but because it’s a totally delegitimized regime and that makes any government vulnerable. What worries me most is that the opposition, which is involving more and more people, won’t be up to the circumstances facing us. And that’s our responsibility, not anyone else’s.
What Daniel Ortega might or might not do is his responsibility, but preparing ourselves for when the moment comes to be an alternative that could avoid chaos in the country and redirect Nicaragua down the democratic path is ours, and it’s an enormous challenge. We have to be conscious of that and also of our many weaknesses: the deficit of our political culture, the lack of resources and all the non-political conflicts. That’s been one of my major discoveries in this immersion into politics: the conflicts that have nothing to do with huge political differences, but rather with our emotional childishness, which keeps us from being able to resolve our differences.
Seeing all this from within, I’m very committed to bringing the experiences we’ve had in the civil society arenas—which haven’t always been easy—into the political spaces. I’m committed to introducing ideas into politics about the importance if individual responsibility to improve our emotional intelligence.
This is the time to join forces, tolerate our differences, set them aside, and even better yet see them as wealth. Unity, as Serrano Caldera says, isn’t uniformity, and never should be. This is the moment to understand that Nicaragua needs everyone’s contribution. There’s nobody who has nothing to offer in this effort. It’s not fair that people in the countryside, the most vulnerable people who live in places where the Army or the Police turn up and do whatever they want with them, are making the greatest effort to defend Nicaragua.
There are also opportunities
But let’s not only talk about risks. I’m positive by nature and I also see opportunities right now.
Raising civic consciousness. This crisis Ortega has gotten our country into is an opportunity to raise people’s consciousness as citizens. I believe the citizenry is overcoming the fear that’s been instilled in us. And above all I see that people are exercising their citizenship more proactively, with an increasingly clear awareness that this country isn’t going well and needs to be set right.
Constructing a national strategy together. We have people in this country who are putting together proposals to do so many things, including conserving water, improving education, repealing the canal law… And it’s also happening locally. It’s a struggle—perhaps it’s better to call it a positive effort—that has now transcended the political parties and the electoral moment to become something much larger.
Taking advantage of the talks between the OAS and Ortega. These talks are opening a window of opportunity for us. Without creating false expectations for ourselves, because we don’t even know what’s going on in those conversations and haven’t seen the report, we do know that it must be very clear and very clinching for Ortega to have agreed to receive a mission from a body that only a few months ago he called “shameless,” demanding that its secretary general resign. By merely engaging in this dialogue Ortega is recognizing that he has a serious problem. It’s also recognition of our State’s commitment to the Inter-American Democratic Charter. It will depend on us to take advantage of this opportunity and then shape everything needed.
More important than knowing what Ortega’s proposal will be is being clear what solution we want, because the ball’s in our court. The OAS, the former Latin American Presidents, the continent’s political parties and the international community in general are helping of course, but the key thing is what we in Nicaragua do.
First in the National Coalition for Democracy and now in the Broad Front for Democracy, we’ve been working very seriously to prepare ourselves to be ready for this moment of change and take charge when the time comes, to assume responsibilities and propose something serious to the country. To present our proposal, we’re forming teams on each issue: health, education, the agrarian situation, the environment… There’s already a team reviewing proposals made over the years to identify not so much what to do, because we all know that already and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but rather how to do it, because that’s the most important part. The part we need to get our teeth into and seek the broadest possible consensus about is how to make the structural changes this country is demanding. We’re already clear on some of the key issues and great challenges I’ve mentioned, and they will be our commitments and priorities.
The first is to restore democratic institutionality, starting with transforming the entire electoral system: the authorities, structures, law, all of it.
The second is to promote local-level civic participation, which is crucial because it’s going to allow us to make better decisions and buttress a new political culture.
The third is to ensure social justice and decent work. We believe some of the government’s social programs need to be kept, but without the party bias. But we also believe the way to climb out of poverty is through job opportunities, not those programs.
A country’s development doesn’t just result from creating investment opportunities. Conditions need to be generated for decent jobs and that presupposes respect for the labor laws and labor justice. Our comparative advantage for attracting investments can’t continue being low wages. Development and progress has to be for everyone, for the country’s workers, not just a few national business executives and the foreign investors. The whole country has to be committed to incorporating the excluded into development. And that has to be the result of an agreement among the rest of us that, in addition to institutionality, greater equity is an issue related to both justice and our viability as a country.
We have to prioritize education to achieve what we want. We will assign 7% of the budget to education, which is what civil society is calling for and is the least we can do to improve the deficient education we have today. When all these storm clouds have passed we should also sit down and reach a national agreement that assuming concrete commitments to achieve quality education with well-trained and well-paid teachers is the number-one priority of everyone in the country. That was what Costa Rica did 50 years ago and that’s why it doesn’t have our problems today.
We must support everyone’s progress, promoting small and medium businesses through financing, technology and training. We’re all clear that it’s easier today to get credit in Nicaragua to buy an SUV than to buy a tractor. These economic policy distortions will have to be sorted out, which will necessarily involve a thorough review of the tax law, because this country has exonerations for taxes on yachts while imposing taxes on school uniforms. All this should have been reviewed long ago, because the country has been losing the equivalent of more than US$800 million a year in tax exonerations and we have to know what benefits they provide, not to a given group but to the country as a whole. Moreover, the first employment law has to be approved to open opportunities to youth. And in all these efforts it will be important to better ensure respect for private property and promote greater equity in rural land tenure.
Last, but certainly not least important, we need to guarantee that Nicaragua belongs to Nicaraguans again. We must start by achieving a correlation of political forces to repeal Law 840, the canal law, and jointly with the civil society organizations in each territory apply laws and policies that protect and care for the environment . We urgently need to stop damaging the natural wealth and restore the environment so that short-term economic interests don’t win out over our huge responsibility to leave a healthy environment to the generations that come after us.
Discussions society needs to have
I also believe we need to decriminalize therapeutic abortion and return to the original design of Law 779 [the Comprehensive Law against Violence toward Women]. In addition, we must introduce sex education into the educational system to avoid teenage pregnancies and prevent sexual abuse.
I further believe we must respect the constitutional principle of a secular State. But all these are issues we need to discuss as a society until reaching broad consensus. I hope we can work together on all these issues, dialoguing, seeking consensus and building bridges, no matter who ends up elected in the authentic elections we are demanding after the electoral farce.
We’re very aware that the blow Ortega dealt to the National Coalition for Democracy by preventing us from participating in the elections caused divisions among the Coalition members. I’m putting my money on providing positive messages rather than confrontational ones because I have faith that the differences that arose can be surmounted. Luis Callejas went with the group Citizens for Liberty and I’m in the Broad Front for Democracy, but we’re in communication and we’ve reached an agreement to maintain “unity in action.” Now, after the electoral farce, I think we all want to work together in a long-term, strategic alliance. I’m confident we’re going to achieve it and I see possibilities of doing so.
We’ll need a government of national unity
We know we’re facing an enormous challenge, because to achieve all this we’ll need a government of national unity, one that seeks and achieves consensus on the work ahead, one backed by the poorest of the poor, who are the ones who most need these changes. We want and will struggle for a government that includes us all, Sandinistas included, even former Ortega backers who are prepared to rebuild the country. It will be difficult of course, but we’re going to fight for new elections, genuine ones, and for that national unity government, remaining open to seeking solutions with all sectors, joining forces with everyone. What we can’t do is continue governing for just a few, turning our back on the majorities.
So here I am involved in this and I don’t regret having gotten into the political arena. When I accepted I felt, and continue feeling, that my essential nature isn’t to be a candidate, but to be a citizen. So I’m continuing in the same struggle I’ve always been in, just in a different arena. And I’m not going to leave it until we win. My main work will always be the building of citizenship because I’m convinced we’ll never have good governments without good citizens.
Violeta Granera is a sociologist who has worked for two decades in different Nicaraguan civil society arenas.