With the international siege closing in, the social networks are now a target
Nicaragua’s government seems paralyzed by increasing uncertainty,
treading water rather than addressing urgent economic problems.
The international siege, particularly from Washington, is closing in,
while at home the government now controls virtually everything,,,,
except the social networks.
In its preparation for worsening domestic scenarios,
the government now even has them in its crosshairs.
The executive branch’s spokeswoman announced on March 12 that the legislative branch would be asked to conduct a “grand national debate” on “issues we must review” because “all of us or nearly all of us are connected to the Internet and social networks and we could be negatively influenced” by them. That, she warned, would affect the “necessary capacity for our coexistence as families and communities.”
The threat of control and censorship a good part of Nicaraguan society felt in her announcement was not paranoia. It can be traced to the uncertain geopolitical context that has the Nicaraguan government on tenterhooks.
An “uncertain” situation
Although President Trump’s international policy is unpredictable to say the least, he’s obviously careening toward greater toughness with those he sees as enemies, rivals or even just antagonists. Replacing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, a recognized Republican hawk, and naming as his new national Security adviser John Bolton, a man The New York Times recently called “a fellow practitioner of blowtorch politics,” are only the tip of an iceberg that has frozen out many.
How will this affect Nicaragua? On March 14, coinciding with the timing of Pompeo’s selection, Laura Dogu, the US ambassador in Nicaragua, gave a keynote speech titled “Perspectivas 2018 – El camino hacia 2030” (Perspectives 2018 – The path to 2030) to a gathering of the country’s business elite. Her message reflected the apparent objective of the hardline Washington rightwingers who are still managing to focus on Nicaragua amid the greater chaos whipped up by President Trump. The steps they have taken seem aimed at undermining President Ortega’s greatest achievement: his alliance with that same business elite. With uncharacteristic force, the ambassador explained that Washington sees Nicaragua’s situation as “uncertain” given the political path the government is taking, and also sees Nicaragua’s development in 2030 as “uncertain” unless there are significant changes in its economic strategies.
Dogu underscored two of the Ortega government’s most problematic political aspects from Washington’s perspective. Firstly, she reiterated her own view that Ortega’s decision to preserve the immunity of US-sanctioned Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) president Roberto Rivas and permit the CSE to continue with no significant change constituted “a lost opportunity.” Secondly, she announced that the visit by the Organization of American States (OAS) to observe last year’s municipal elections “identified no change as a fruit of its involvement.”
Dogu warned her audience that the Nica Act bill, already approved by the House of Representatives, is “still pending” in the Senate and that actions under the Global Magnitsky Act are still hanging over Nicaragua. While both these issues already form part of any analysis of Nicaragua’s national insecurity, she added a third: the US government is prohibiting any close work with governments that have recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, reminding listeners who may not be aware of it that Nicaragua is one of only four countries to have done so. Russia, Venezuela and Nauru are the other three.
To ingratiate itself with Russia, Nicaragua recognized these two territories that separated from Georgia as independent countries in September 2008, but President Trump only signed the law Ambassador Dogu referred to in May of last year. Does that mean Nicaragua is being punished retroactively for something it did nearly a decade before approval of the punitive law? Does it also mean the Nica Act is no longer necessary to keep Nicaragua from accessing US resources in the international financing institutions?
Something else Dogu had not mentioned previously was money laundering. She noted that the Latin American Financial Action Group, an inter-governmental organization working to prevent and combat this and other crimes, mentioned in its latest report (September 2017) that while Nicaragua “has made important efforts, it is not in agreement with the laws and regulations in a series of important areas.” All in all her list painted the government in very unflattering colors, implicitly discouraging the business class from standing too close
won’t be enough”
Ambassador Dogu then turned to our country’s challenges regarding the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” spending as much time on them as she had on the political aspects. The term was coined by Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, and is the title of his new book. The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production; the Second used electric power to create mass production; the Third used electronics and information technology to automate production, while the Fourth, building on the previous one, is a digital revolution that Schwab sees as already fundamentally changing the way we live, work and relate to one another.
The World Economic Forum’s review of the book describes this revolution as “characterized by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human.” It warns, however, that Schwab also has grave concerns: “that organizations might be unable to adapt; governments could fail to employ and regulate new technologies to capture their benefits; shifting power will create important new security concerns; inequality may grow; and societies fragment.”
In this context, Dogu offered the business leaders some concrete suggestions, referring specifically to the cost and skills of Nicaragua’s work force and the cost of electricity. “Up to now,” she warned, “Nicaragua has depended largely on its low labor costs. But in the Nicaragua of the 2030s that option will no longer be viable. If Nicaragua doesn’t want to end up lagging behind, it has to focus on generating electricity with competitive prices and on training its youth.”
The ambassador explained that this new revolution “offers opportunities for people around the world to participate in economic development in totally different ways than they previously did.” She gave as one example, “new and creative forms of mobile banking” developed in Africa.
In this second part of the ambas¬sador’s lecture, it became obvious she wanted to shake up the limited vision of the businesspeople present when she pointed out that “very often Nicaraguans are happy with the same methods their grandparents used, and while it is good to honor tradition, they sacrifice earnings by doing so.”
Avanz, a state-of-the-
art new Pellas bank
A week after Ambassador Dogu’s speech, Carlos Pellas, the most conspicuous representative of big Nicaraguan capital, announced that his new bank, Avanz, would focus on mobile banking businesses. The enormous media display with which Pellas launched his new project revealed that her message, which implicitly described the Nicaraguan business sector as shortsighted and backward, had gotten under this business magnate’s skin. He therefore wanted to use the occasion to affirm his leadership among the three largest national capital groups: his own and two others also centered on finance capital.
By surrounding the announcement of the launch of his mobile banking project with such fanfare, Pellas sought to beef up his recently obfuscated image by appearing as a businessman with a long-term view fixed on the challenges of the 21st century, and also as the first to take Ambassador Dogu’s suggestions into account. This technical project, however, contributes little or nothing to resolving the serious institutional problems central to Dogu’s presentation of Washington’s message.
“Not just between the
government and you”
Carlos Pellas’ business strategy also offers no response to the ambassador’s critique of Ortega’s corporative economic model based on the government-business elite alliance, which Pellas and other business leaders use as their get-in-free pass when lobbying in Washington against the Nica Act and other threats to their profitable business relation with the government.
Dogu exhorted her audience to confront the challenges the future poses for our country not only with mobile banks, but also in a “frank and open conversation in which all members of society participate, not just government officials and leaders of big business—like many of you—but also leaders of communities outside of Managua and the workers who will be in charge of implementing the decisions.”
“The sanctions are in effect”
A was to be expected, the government media said nothing about the ambassador’s speech. For their part, those businesspeople present didn’t comment on the message explicitly dedicated to them and only implicitly questioned the alliance many of them maintain with a government embarked on an uncertain political course that is jeopardizing both them and the country as a whole.
On March 22, a week after Dogu’s talk, her Embassy provided an even more direct conduit for another message from Washington. In a teleconference call with the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to which the Embassy invited representatives of the country’s banks, business leaders in the Chamber of Energy and Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), and representatives of the UNO and PUMA oil companies, OFAC reaffirmed that the sanctions the United States imposed on PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company, last August and those established more recently are “in effect.” In addition, it stated that they are also being applied to Albanisa, PDVSA’s partner in Nicaragua, which is heading up the governing party’s business consortium created with the Venezuelan oil cooperation income.
“Roberto Rivas won’t be the only one”
No representatives of the businesses belonging to the Albanisa consortium or directly related to its oil and electricity business were invited to the US Embassy to hear OFAC. Those blackballed included Disnorte-Dissur, the national electricity distributing company; Petronic, the national oil distributing company, whose dozens of gas stations around the country compete with UNO and PUMA; the renewable energy generating companies Alba Vientos and Alba Generación; and Banco Corporativo, which administers the extensive network of businesses of all kinds Albanisa now has in Nicaragua and which has no correspondent relationship with any US bank.
The Embassy’s economic adviser, William Muntean, who headed up the meeting, specified the limited deadlines OFAC is currently allowing US individuals or businesses operating in Nicaragua to pay off the debts of any commercial or financial transaction they have to conduct with Albanisa without getting caught up in the sanctions. Munean mentioned that for reasons “of reputation,” no national banks have any relationship with the Albanisa businesses any longer.
At the end of the meeting, when Muntean was asked if new names would be appearing on the list of corrupt individuals sanctioned by the Global Magnitsky Act, he simply said that Supreme Electoral Council president Roberto Rivas “of course won’t be the only one,” adding that OFAC “was studying other possibilities,” although there was “no more information about future steps.”
A paralyzed government
and an indebted country
The siege is closing in. This threatening external political context and the energies required to analyze it or even just remain informed about the reach of Washington’s pressures seem to have paralyzed the Ortega government with respect to the urgent structural economic reforms it needs to deal with.
Following the end of Venezuela’s oil cooperation, the economy is becoming increasingly fragile, forcing the government to withdraw currency from circulation to maintain the international reserves level. Increasing tax collection and reducing fiscal exonerations are also urgently needed to continue maintaining the reserves level and assuring public investment and social spending.
President Ortega’s favored tactic of “buying time” at critical moments is proving destructive given the economy’s fragility. The time “gained” by not implementing any political response to the institutional crisis or any structural economic responses to the end of Venezuelan cooperation and the Social Security Institute (INSS) crisis has only further indebted the country. Last year saw a record increase in Nicaragua’s external public debt for the Ortega government’s latest decade in power, while INSS batted historic records for its deficit.
There’s no mystery
about what must be done
The International Monetary Fund has explained numerous times that the government needs to reduce the tax exonerations enjoyed by a number of big business sectors and to respond to INSS’ insolvency with concrete measures. And it needs to do it now.
But if the government knows this, why isn’t it doing anything? Could the paralysis be fed by fear of affecting the alliance with big business by reducing their privileged exonerations or increasing the taxes that even those without exonerations should be paying?
The survival of Ortega’s hitherto successful corporative model depends on both of those structural reforms, but the political cost will be high. It will also be high for the population in general no matter what, because many are affected by social security, although far fewer than in countries with more formalized and advanced economies.
With his usual moderation, economist Néstor Avendaño’s March blog described the seriousness of the situation, leaving open a margin of doubt: “Nicaragua’s economy is traveling through unsafe terrain, rife with political uncertainties and with few options to reduce the risks given the prevalence of political decisions that impede dealing with it effectively, unless the public servants already have a contingency plan to cushion it.”
Will such a contingency plan emerge or will the government be tripped up by a crisis it doesn’t see how to deal with at an acceptably low political cost?
The social networks’
The government’s proposal to “review” the social networks needs to be placed in this broader political-economic context because they are being accused of “negative influences on families.” This is a hard argument to swallow, particularly when the official spokeswoman tells us the objective of the “great debate” about this harmful influence is to “strengthen the affective links in the families.”
Statistics on violence and sexual abuse have amply shown that the insecurity of women and girls is at its highest at home, so argiomg tjat the social networks are responsible for negatively influencing families is at best tendentious. The government’s argument can be further questioned given that in 2014 a presidential regulation distorted the Comprehensive Law against Violence toward Women (Law 779). The government even began closing the Women’s Police Stations in favor of creating Cabinets of the Family, ordering the latter not to refer any more to “violence against women,” using instead the term “family disengagement.”
Moving to another track, the government didn’t seem concerned that it might be contributing to negative family influences by installing free-access Wi-Fi in public parks all over the country. Was it perchance thinking it would be used simply for students to access Internet information for essays, reports and the like, rather than pornography and communicating with friends?
The real reason for wanting to control, regulate or block social networks is its fear that, as the only space the government doesn’t yet control, they could become a mobilizing tool, as recently demonstrated so effectively in the United States. As the refrain says, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of… repression.
A mere coincidence?
On March 12, the official spokeswoman referred in a very worried tone to what felt like a suspicious coincidence: following the kidnappings of a boy in Chinandega and a girl in Managua, both resolved by the police with remarkable speed, the “fake news” that a band of traffickers in children’s organs was operating in Nicaragua quickly went viral on the social networks.
Although the spokeswoman only referred to “reviewing” the social networks, a good part of the populace and an even greater part of the network users took that to mean “control.” That interpretation was so widespread and immediate that she had to issue an officially categorical disclaimer: “At no time has anyone proposed that.” Since then, those participating in the “debate” have persistently assured that the objective isn’t censorship, but the defense of families, women and children.
Venezuela, Honduras, Bolivia
Other countries are also scapegoating the media. Last November Venezuela’s government-controlled Constituent National Assembly approved a “Law against hate and for peaceful coexistence and tolerance” that covers all written, TV and radio media, with article 14 referring to the social networks.
Then on February 8 of this year, three months after President Juan Orlando Hernández won reelection in allegedly fraudulent elections, Honduras’ Congress—dominated by representatives of his National Party—approved in the first of three debates the “National law of cybersecurity and protection measures regarding acts of hate and discrimination in the Internet and social networks.” And in Bolivia the government of Evo Morales is also analyzing a law that would regulate the social media.
In this ever more globalized continent, the “guides” by which the governments are running their administration, independent of their ideological stripe, seem increasingly similar. The massive and drastic changes in communications are worldwide, and are worrying all those with power.
The transmitter/receiver duo is a thing of the past. Today’s technology has exponentially multiplied both receivers and transmitters. And in the virtual space of the social networks everyone can be one thing today and another tomorrow, frequently and with total liberty. And this is just foreshadowing what the “fourth revolution” will bring.
COSEP: “We will be a wall”
The government took its first shot at controlling the Internet in 2013, although the social networks didn’t yet have the breadth in Nicaragua they have today. In May of that year the Nicaraguan Institute of Telecommunications and Mail (TELCOR) released a proposed bill for the promotion and development of the national broadband telecommunications service network, which had never been subjected to any state regulation.
Both the business elite allied to the government and numerous social sectors pointed out that the proposed legislation was aimed at controlling the information that circulates through the Internet, since it would give TELCOR the right to access the confidential information of both state institutions and private businesses. It also contemplated the creation of a state company “aimed at making it a monopoly,” according to COSEP,. Its member business associations promised to be “a wall” against the law’s approval. And they succeeded.
Slow growth at first…
Even though the use of the social networks to create citizen awareness, promote substantive political debates and mobilize people is still “green” in Nicaragua, the government feels the need to intervene in what is already circulating in the networks. Nicaragua connected to the Internet in 1994 but the growth in the use of the worldwide web was very slow for many years. Even today, despite the surge over the past four years, Nicaragua is the least interconnected country in Central America with the widest gap between those who access the Internet and those left out.
Writing in envío in June 2009, William Grigsby Vergara offered a picture of the use Nicaragua’s youth was making of the cybernetic tools at the time. Things have changed so much that the data in that article now read like something from another era.
At that time there were some 2,000 cybercafés in all of Nicaragua, and they had only been open an average of 18 months, with some closing and others opening. Some 120,000 people used them per week and up to 70% of their income came from long-distance calls, which were costly and of poor quality. Spending $30 a month on an Internet connection at home wasn’t only a question of economic power then; perhaps just as importantly it reflected a lack of “intellectual curiosity.” Two years earlier, in 2007, not even 15% off the 180,000 Nicaraguan families with enough income to afford that service was connected, while in Costa Rica the opposite was true: more than 85% of the families in that same social strata were already connected.
…followed by dizzying growth
In June 2008 the Nicaraguan Telecommunications Utility (ENITEL) began to offer mobile phone Internet connection in Managua and the technological gap began to close very quickly,
Already that year, the scandalous acts of electoral fraud organized by Ortega through the Supreme Electoral Council to win that November’s municipal elections were transmitted by some journalists in the capital reporting live from their cell phones. In the ensuing years, after Nicaragua’s electoral observation organizations were prohibited from monitoring voting, they trained volunteers to report via their cell phones what they observed when they went to vote. By the 2016 presidential elections and the 2017 municipal ones, the social networks documented minute by minute the massive abstention with which the majority of Nicaraguans responded to the collapsed electoral system.
Wi-Fi in the parks
The social network boom really took off in 2014, when the government grasped the importance of hooking the youth into this tool and instituted a “virtual communication strategy in parks.” The strategy consisted of installing free Wi-Fi services in the parks, first in Managua, then slowly in the main municipal seats around the country.
Four years later there is now 24-hour free Wi-Fi access in virtually all parks in the capital—not only the new ones but also the now spruced-up old ones—and in almost all of the country’s 153 municipal seats, although only 65 have the best velocity.
The Nicaraguan Electricity Transmission Utility (ENATREL), a strategic link of the quasi-monopoly in fuels and energy (electricity generation, transmission and distribution) now controlled by the government’s economic group, was put in charge of implementing this project. It has become immensely popular, as an incalculable number of people, especially youths, have benefited, gradually rendering the cybercafés obsolete.
A huge number of Nicaraguans who couldn’t afford Internet in their homes now spend hours in the park with their cell phone living in a virtual world of networks, especially the social ones. “I no longer live in Barrio Domitila Lugo; I now live in Facebook,” happily joked one very poor young man…
More cell phones than people
According to social network expert Manuel Díaz, who as early as 2000 had created one of the most successful Facebook pages among Nicaraguans, called “Bacanalnica,” the country now has 1.2 million Facebook accounts, similar to the number of the country’s Internet users. Subtracting repeated accounts, there are probably around a million, equivalent to over 15% of the national population. Díaz calculates that there are many fewer Twitter users, some 100-150,000.
Nicaragua’s Chamber of Internet and Telecommunications (CANITEL) reports that there are more cell phones than people: 8.6 million in the hands of 6.4 million people. But only 2.1 million of those are smart phones able to connect to the Internet.
Other statistics show that of the more than 6 million cell phones in Nicaragua two years ago, only some 400,000 were owned by people buying minutes, which suggests the rest were owned by people not to navigate the Internet or get caught up in the networks but so relatives or friends either in the country or abroad could text or call them.
“It wasn’t an innocent project”
By installing Wi-Fi in the parks, the government surely aimed to achieve three goals: win sympathy among the neediest population segments who can’t pay for the Internet at home; and turn Wi-Fi into both a tool of control and an addictive distraction.
As with all insecure Internet access, open Wi-Fi in the parks exposes all the users’ information (texts, photos, calls, contacts...) to providers and administrators of the service who can intercept, download and store it. The government now has a new means for obtaining the personal information and data of anyone using the Internet in any park at any time.
The government must also be banking on distracting the youth population by facilitating access to the infinite supply of stimuli on the Internet, taking their minds off of political concerns and social commitments. “It’s very good that people are increasingly interconnected and better yet if the government is paying for it,” journalist Xavier Reyes Alba told envío a couple of years ago. “But this project isn’t innocent and doesn’t seek only to create an interconnected country for free. Surely the government prefers to have youths connected in a park than participating in some social protest.”
The park project began in 2014. Is there any chance that what happened a year earlier wasn’t on the gov¬ernment’s mind at the time? June 2013 was the first and so far only time the then-incipient social networks mobilized hundreds of young people in Managua, under the hashtag #ocupa¬INSS. They took to the streets in support of a group of retirees who, on behalf of thousands of others, were demanding the partial pension established by law for those who had been unable to make enough weekly contributions to INSS to collect their full pension.
As the call went viral, increasing numbers of youths took food and water each day to the third-age protestors, some of whom had gone so far as to occupy the main INSS building. They challenged the police repression in the streets and sang together at night. Some were arrested, but neither the youths nor the elderly protestors gave up until the dawn hours of Saturday June 22, when people trucked in from the Managua mayor’s office stormed the areas where some 40 elderly people were sleeping in the street, accompanied by around 60 youths. Wearing hoods and armed with clubs and irons, they attacked the young people, dispersing them with blows, tearing the clothes off some, threating to rape the women protesters and stealing everything belonging to them: documentation, cell phones, watches, wallets and musical instruments, as well as 7 vehicles. It all happened right in front of police agents, who did nothing to stop these acts of vandalism, and the perpetrators all went unpunished despite ample evidence and testimonies.
Two days prior to this violent repression of the first demonstration of the social networks’ mobilizing power in Nicaragua, FSLN legislator and faithful propagandist Gustavo Porras called the youths’ solidarity with the protesting retirees “a rightwing conspiracy,” and warned that “those who believe they are going to create Arab springs and the Turkish plaza in Nicaragua are mistaken!”
Why so much control?
Does this determination to control the social networks reveal a concern that something like that could be repeated? Perhaps.
The economic context resulting from the end of Venezuela’s cooperation and the investor uncertainty generated by Washington’s threats is very different from that year’s reality. The macroeconomy is becoming more fragile, the household microeconomy is beginning to deteriorate, and with less currency circulating, sales are dropping in small family businesses. In addition, some of the announced cuts in public transport and water rate subsidies previously paid for with the Venezuelan oil money are beginning to be implemented; the government is earmarking fewer resources to social programs that helped alleviate poverty; and small and still isolated protests are cropping up throughout the country over unresolved problems that are affecting people on a daily basis.
On the other hand, the desire to control the social networks could express the failure of the government’s communication strategy, which has only transmitted “uncontaminated” information through its vast media system. To avoid informative “contamination” and “protect” (read isolate) large sectors of the population from the most important and controversial national issues, thus blocking any informed plural debate, the government has constructed its own system of press, radio and television communication.
It converted El Nuevo Diario, one of the country’s two national newspapers, characterized for years as a diligent leftist monitor of corruption in power, into an unofficial voice of the government’s policies and especially its economic successes. It also invested millions in the purchase of both national and local TV channels and radio stations. Today, the presidential family owns three national channels and controls a fourth (Channel 6). To make this quasi-monopoly even more complete, Ortega associated with the powerful Mexican-Guatemalan magnate Ángel González, who owns media all over Latin America. Ortega provided him licenses to operate four TV channels in Nicaragua, to which González added the national television flagship, Channel 2, which he bought outright.
Only four TV channels remain independent of the duopoly, but they don’t have national coverage and suffer from both technical and economic limitations, among other reasons because they have no access to the government’s publicity spots. Powerful radio stations with a musical profile function around each of the duopoly’s channels. The system has been buttressed by closing critical local radios and news programs, and also by winning over, pressuring or silencing influential journalists.
The Youth Communicators’ Network of the Sandinista Youth completes the official communication system. It defines itself as “a front against informative muzzling and censorship by the major media.” The government has trained these youths to direct program slots on the official channels and radio stations and to post “non-contaminated” information in the social networks. In 2011, they announced at their second congress that the network now had 5,000 people around the country.
The “uncontaminated” information broadcast by the official system monotonously repeats the boring and untrue message that peace and security reign in the country. It is living proof of why “the grass is growing” is not considered useful news reporting.
To guarantee such uncontaminated information, the importance of any national conflict is ignored or diluted and any small or large protests are minimized or not reported at all. Examples include the peasants’ anti-canal struggle or the small and medium-sized protests against the inefficiency of the institutions or the impunity of excruciating human dramas, especially those involving violence against women.
The worse part of this official system is that only the government is portrayed as being in a state of rosy harmony. Everything else reported is bathed in blood, following the old media saw that “if it bleeds it leads.” Every day, the news programs of two of the duopoly’s channels (Acción 10 and Crónica TN8) and the most popular government radio station, Radio Ya, all three of which have huge audiences, report endless cases of vehicle/motorcycle accidents, dramatic deaths from machete fights between drunks in bars, brawls in the barrios, suicides, the exorcism of people supposedly possessed by the devil (usually epileptics or alcoholics), and all manner of other painful and tragic news, in which the protagonists are always the very poor. As if the interminable footage of these events wasn’t crude enough, the reporters and news anchors add to the morbidity with derisive sexist, homophobic, misogynous commentary, undaunted by any ethical limits.
Regulate, censor, block…?
How is the government contemplating regulating the social networks? All networks have their own regulations and make them known to the users. Facebook, the network used most in Nicaragua, has established clear policies to avoid criminal offenses such as cyberbullying or slander, and its users are advised that they should familiarize themselves with these norms. But given that they are in “small print” and users are not a particularly diligent lot, they tend not to read them. And if perchance they do, they anarchi¬cally dismiss them as unimportant, like others all over the world.
It would be technically impossible for the government to completely eliminate the social networks. Nor does this seem to be its objective. As the social networks are private companies owned by foreigners who operate according to the laws of the “free” market, it’s hard to imagine the government banking on the kind of censorship imposed by just a few countries in the world where the Internet is totally blocked or controlled by the State.
What might the government censor, if it decides on that tack? According to studies by CANITEL, only 11% of the people in Nicaragua who have Internet ever use it for educational purposes, presumably spending at least some of their time perusing “the world’s greatest library,” as CANITEL president Hjalmar Ayestas calls it. A full 80% of Nicaragua’s Internet users access only the social networks and the other 9% use it for other purposes.
Amidst the worsening context for the economy and the country’s institutionality, which is forcing the government to decide to take action rather than continue treading water, yet another issue has gone viral. The appearance this January of the web page Política 505 has attracted and is continuing to attract the attention of a growing number of people.
In only its first three months the page has already gained a sizable number of readers who have begun to share information revealing an authentic network of corruption and nepotism in the judicial branch of government. It provides names of implicated public officials mixed with stories about their private life.
The government interpreted this as cyber-harassment, while communication experts argued that the bar for considering criticism as criminal is higher for public figures who voluntarily assume a public post than for regular citizens. Public officials are subject to public scrutiny and the decisions and actions they take in the exercise of their public functions need to be accountable to the citizenry.
The priority is to educate
Whether or not Política 505 triggered the “grand national debate” about the social networks, the majority of those who have posted an opinion have stressed—with different emphases and some more sincerely than others—the need to prioritize education as the way to deal with the challenge currently represented by the social networks and youth’s addiction to “living” in them. Given Nicaragua’s exceedingly low educational quality, that’s a very long-term challenge.
Moreover, the challenge of learning to function ethically, responsibly and measuredly in the social networks is enormous given the country’s current government, which has favored and disseminated so many anti-values—servility over critical thinking, submission over debate, impunity over transparency. It’s a struggle against the current. The two proposals made by the CANITEL president—”digital literacy training” and “self-regulation”—sound ideal but very far off.
A “national” debate
behind closed doors
The announced national debate, also called a “consultation,” the government organized to tackle the challenge represented by “false news” kicked off the week before Holy Week and continued after it. Falling a little short of being either “national” or a “debate,” it was held in closed-door sessions in the National Assembly building, with no media, social organization or individual identified by the government as critical of its policies present. Gustavo Porras, president of the legislative branch, coordinated it.
After the first six sessions, Porras announced that once concluded, various codes and laws—no fewer than 13 legal texts that even include the Breastfeeding Law—will have to be reviewed and reformed to include the new concepts, crimes and sanctions. Participating Supreme Court representatives added that the Constitution itself would have to be reformed.
“They want us to
The social networks are a privileged space for young people everywhere in the world, including Nicaragua. envío spoke with several young people to get their opinions. Although self-critical of the banalities that fill most of the networks, they feel they would be lost without them…
“With so many relatives who have emigrated to other countries, what would we do without Facebook?” one queried rhetorically.
“We use them continually; and it’s true we waste a lot of time on them, in frivolous entertainment and other nonsense. Now we’re realizing we don’t know the possible consequences of everything we say,” said the most concerned young man of those interviewed.
“Yes there’s entertainment, and a lot of foolishness, but the networks have reported on events that have gone viral, things that have shaken the government and that it wanted to hide. That’s why it’s afraid of them,” added the most convinced young woman.
“It’s true that the networks don’t help build citizenship or mobilize, but they do serve to pressure the authorities. We say what they’re doing wrong and post photos showing it, and that scares them,” said one young woman.
“All this is nothing but a pilot project for self-censorship,” added a young man.
“What they want is for us to censor ourselves.” “There’s no need to review laws to categorize cyber-harassment and sanction it. Threats are already classified in the Penal Code and so is harassment. Whatever medium I use, if I threaten someone I’m sanctioned. This whole ‘cyber’ issue is a semantic tag-on,” argued a law student.
Censorsh is already underway
The coin is still in the air. On which side will it fall? What will the government decide to do in the end? And how will it respond to society, to the youth, to the business elite? The only thing that’s clear so far is that, whatever it decides, social network use won’t drop off; it will continue growing. The deteriorating economic context and the boring routineness of the governmental communication policy, with its constant messages heralding happiness, favor both the growth of the social networks and their development as the medium for increased denunciations, complaints and criticism.
An investigation done by youths of the coyuntura.com web page confirms that authorities of the National Autonomous University campus in Managua and the National University of Engineering have blocked from their free and unsecured Wi-Fi service pages and platforms providing alternatives to the government’s “uncontaminated” information. These web sites include Confidencial, Radio Corporación, Onda Local, Coyuntura, Infobae, EFE and the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation. The young researchers concluded that “This demonstrates the intention to censor what doesn’t please them. Sufficient reason to sound the alarms of the student community and of society in general, since these are probably the kinds of measures they will attempt at the national level.”
What will prevail:
Provincialism or globalization?
During a trip to Africa at the end of last century, the late great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski reflected on our “seemingly global” world, later gathering his thoughts in his book The Shadow of the Sun. In it he writes that our world “is in reality a planet of thousands of the most varied and never intersecting provinces… each of which considers itself, in its isolation, a shining star. For most people, the real world ends on the threshold of their house, at the edge of their village, or, at the very most, on the border of their valley. That which is beyond is unreal, unimportant, and even useless, whereas that which we have at our fingertips, in our field of vision, expands until it seems an entire universe, overshadowing all else.”
In Nicaragua the majority of the social networks’ contents so far express our provincialism. But given their potentiality, they also point to the possibility of breaking with that provincialism, and making action beyond the threshold of the house or the border of the valley interesting, necessary and even urgent. What role will they actually play in the coming years? The government has them in its crosshairs to be sure they don’t break us out of our provincialism.