“The best solution for everyone, especially Ortega, is early elections”
With 22 years of experience under his belt
in over 50 political processes on 3 continents,
this professional electoral observer shares his thoughts
about the complex political negotiation required
to hold early elections and resolve Nicaragua’s crisis.
We in Ethics & Transparency called a press conference at the end of June in which we said the crisiswe’re now experiencing in Nicaragua is the result of the corrupted electoral processes we’ve had since Daniel Ortega took office in 2007. On that day we pledged to promote early elections. At the time we estimated nine months would suffice—as it should—between calling for elections and holding them. In truth, we were only acknowledging the national and international clamor for an electoral solution to the crisis.
We recommended that the government accept this solution as soon as possible and then we got down to work. We declared that we would immediately start observing the electoral system’s adaption process so it would be ready to conduct elections that would meet international standards of transparency and quality, “on a date yet to be defined.”
Nicaraguans express their opinion
on the crisis and the actors in it
On July 17 we conducted a nationwide survey of 1,200 randomly selected Nicaraguans with cell phones. We asked the following six questions of those who agreed to answer. [In the first five questions, the difference between the sum of the yes and no answers and 100 is the percentage of those who didn’t know or didn’t answer.
1. Is it useful to hold general elections promptly? 79% said yes and 16% said no.
2. Is it illegal or unconstitutional to shorten the presidential term? 27% said yes and 50% said no.
3. Is President Ortega acting in the best interests of all Nicaraguans? 28% said yes and 63% said no.
4. Are the bishops acting in the best interests of all Nicaraguans? 77% said yes and 18% said no.
5. Is the Civic Alliance acting in the best interests of all Nicaraguans? 56% said yes and 28% said no.
6. Which words best describe your political or party preference today? We offered five options, with the following results: 8% Daniel supporter; 23% Sandinista; 20% Opponent; 33% Independent and 16% didn’t want to answer or said “It’s secret.”
President Ortega may question these numbers but I have no doubt that if he does his own calculations he’ll discover the hard reality that he’s lost all his “soft” votes and cracks have even opened in his “hard” vote as a consequence of this crisis. As the worsening economy will only make them worse, the key to his political negotiation is to quickly safeguard what he seems to still have by maintaining his legislative majority through elections. That constitutional lock will also likely mean him getting to keep the keys to the dungeon.
Obtaining second place in these elections, with a straw presidential candidate running for the FSLN, would allow Ortega to govern “from below.” In the circumstances he’s in today, achieving that would almost be a reward. The only way he’d be exposed to justice is if the opposition wins a constitutional majority in the legislature. Because of the genesis of the idea for these early elections and the haste in calling for them, plus the “assets” Ortega will keep, the dispersed opposition will have trouble forming itself as a party or alliance and even more in remaining united.
Those of us who would like to see Daniel face justice find it hard to accept that the current correlation of forces isn’t enough to force him to agree to the two demands posed first by people on the streets and then as the goals of the national dialogue: justice and democratization. Ortega will never negotiate the issue of justice. Paradoxically, his need to govern by blood and without money could weaken him and bring him closer to paying for what he has done. Time is against him because it radicalizes his formidable enemies and provides them with tools: reports, studies, deaths, tortures, sanctions, capital flows and a very long etcetera.
A useful mental tool:
I’d like to analyze where we are in the negotiation that necessarily has to take us to the electoral process and hence to a peaceful solution to Nicaragua’s current social and political crisis. A mental tool I recommend for a cold analysis that will get us closer to truth in our predictions and permit us to talk about reliable numbers with our head and not an iota of heart is what’s called intellectual integrity.
Peter Drucker, a distinguished philosopher, educator-author, so-called “guru” of business management and fervent advocate of intellectual integrity, was one of the best advocates of this current of thought. According to the Drucker Institute’s biographical notes, he was born in Vienna in 1909 and received his doctorate in international law from the University of Frankfurt, Germany, in 1932, but moved to England three years later, after two of his essays—one on Friedrich Julius Stahl, a leading German-Jewish philosopher, and the other called The Jewish Question in Germany—were banned and burned by the Nazis. On attending a lecture by the famous British economist, John Maynard Keynes, he had what he called an epiphany: he realized that while the other students were interested in the behavior of commodities, he was interested in the behavior of people. He moved to the USA in 1937, where he earned the fame he has today as the founder of the Modern Theory of Management. Among many other things, he advocated a more flexible and collaborative workplace, with widespread delegation of power, arguing that it is the alternative to tyranny.
Drucker recognized that the heart impairs the intellect, explaining that we often make mistakes because we see the options we like best as probable and possible, giving them “probabilistic points” merely because we like them. He recommends a specific exercise for thinking and deciding with integrity: discounting some of these points from what we like and adding them to what we don’t like. By doing this we’ll come closer to the real situation, which in turn will enable us to decide and act accordingly. This appeal to intellectual integrity is pertinent to the circumstances we’re in today in Nicaragua, helping us to properly assess the civic movement that’s been challenging Ortega since April.
work for Ortega too
For this analysis, I’m also bearing in mind that although Daniel Ortega recently told Fox News that the elections won’t be held until 2021, he knows that’s not true. Everyone, inside Nicaragua and out, knows the solution must be free, transparent, competitive elections. And many of us believe that the sooner these elections take place the better, including for Ortega.
I think he knows it too, although he doesn’t say so. He knows better than anyone that influential international actors are quite capable of finishing off the accelerated erosion he started in April and also of holding him responsible for plunging the country into a terrible bankruptcy. For the last three months the nation’s business leaders have been in the other camp, along with God’s representatives on Earth. Daniel knows how dangerous it is to have both those sectors on the side of the inevitable and growing wave of discontent arising from the coupling of the economic and political crises.
Where are we with this
electoral option today?
Now at the end of July, 100 days after the April events, I see an enormous gulf between the government and what I’ll simply call the opposition. If they were two ships, it’s as if there’s an ocean between them… Reality, as we’ll see in cold analysis, brings them closer if the Civic Alliance is satisfied with free elections, postponing the rest of its agenda and accepting the results of those elections.
In the first days of the crisis, having free elections seemed like a quick and easy goal to achieve. The Civic Alliance’s roadmap to democratization, presented to the government in the national dialogue [published in the June issue of envío], also proposed changing the Supreme Electoral Council and the Supreme Court of Justice, and virtually remaking the entire state apparatus. That initial moment, when people became aware and started complaining and making demands, made the Alliance think it had tremendous bargaining power: Ortega would first leave and elections would follow. For his part, Ortega hardly had his own line of argument in those early days.
Things have changed now. He now has his argument, albeit a poor one, and even talks on Fox News. It can’t be left unsaid, however, that he did very poorly in his first interview in over 5,000 days, adding more repudiation to the undesirable image he has created and with which the whole Western world now sees him. Muammar Gaddafi’s ten years of behaving well didn’t count for much; once his former enemies saw he was down they came after him. Daniel doesn’t have to do an intellectual integrity exercise to feel similarities with Gaddafi… And I don’t think he’s counting on his spokeswoman, always so unreliable and counterproductive for this audience, to charm anyone… He’ll eventually have to yield; less if he hurries, more if he delays.
By not rejecting early elections,
we thought he accepted them
In those first moments we didn’t grasp the political solution to the crisis Ortega was proposing. Later, in June and July, with the bloody “clean-up operations,” it was still undefined; he didn’t mention any electoral solution at all.
We finally got a clue to his thinking at the first Organization of American States (OAS) Permanent Council meeting on the Nicaraguan situation on June 22, held to hear the reading of the final report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on its findings in Nicaragua. In his speech, Secretary General Luis Almagro mentioned early elections as a solution to the crisis, even indicating a timetable: March 2019 at the earliest and August 2019 at the latest.
In that OAS forum, the Nicaraguan foreign minister totally rejected the IACHR report on the seriousness of the human rights violations committed by the government but said nothing about Almagro’s proposed timetable for early elections. Since he didn’t reject it, we assumed he accepted it.
Never before that day had the OAS, which had been negotiating bilaterally with Ortega through Secretary General Almagro since 2016, put anything on the table that wasn’t previously agreed to and approved by Ortega. That’s another reason we naturally assumed Ortega accepted Almagro’s proposal of early elections.
But there doesn’t seem to have been any agreement to bring the elections forward. That’s why the OAS had to resort to presenting this proposal not just from the General Secretariat but in the OAS General Assembly, where the correlation of forces doesn’t favor Ortega.
All this probably means the OAS secretary general no longer has an exclusively bilateral—and surely very slow—relationship with the Nicaraguan presidency on the election issue and all the work required for these elections to go well, as has been the case until very recently. The General Secretariat’s position is now more independent of Ortega’s interests and seems to be committed to promoting an international agenda for Nicaragua to move towards early elections. In this it coincides with the reading of the Nicaraguan crisis by the most influential governments in the OAS and with how a great many international actors beyond the continent view Nicaragua. This gives the OAS what it needs in its arsenal to tighten the screws on Ortega, including economic sanctions.
Elections are never a coup d’état…
To justify his refusal to bring the elections forward, Ortega is insisting that the civic uprising is a coup d’état. But elections, even fraudulent ones much less free and transparent ones, are never a coup d’état.
If we look at what happens when a governing party in a parliamentary regime, which are the vast majority of the world’s democracies, loses its majority by one vote, gets one vote of censure or of no-confidence, we see that elections are scheduled to resolve this “crisis” as fast as possible. If a government proposes something the citizens reject in the streets and the legislature converts that rejection into a vote of censure, the game’s over: new elections are called. Even extremely popular governments call for early elections to capitalize on the support they have and extend their term in office.
…And early elections
In order to justify his unwillingness to negotiate and minimally hand back the institutions he has captured during his years in government, especially the electoral branch, Ortega is also insisting that what the people in the streets are demanding is unconstitutional because his mandate runs until 2021 according to the Constitution. But no country’s Constitution is written in stone; it’s not the Ten Commandments handed down to Moses by God. It’s a political treaty reflecting the correlation of power forces in the State’s institutions at a given time. That’s why some Constitutions need amending or even discarding.
Elections have two timetables in the democratic world: one written and the other dictated by circumstances, often crises a thousand times smaller than the one we have in Nicaragua today. That’s why the whole world is clear that the solution in Nicaragua must be through elections.
Elections are a tool to resolve crises and must take place not only as indicated by the timetable but also when it’s hoped they will resolve a country’s specific problem. The OAS proposed bringing elections forward as a way to resolve Nicaragua’s crisis, and it isn’t contaminated by unconstitutionality or illegality. This has aligned the international community with the idea.
Elections as a response
to a humanitarian crisis
The solution has to be early elections, not only to solve the problem we have today, but also way to find solutions to the problems coming down on us now, because what we’re experiencing in Nicaragua is already a humanitarian crisis. This is another incentive for the electoral solution, because any electoral timetable, any Constitution, takes second place and needs to be rewritten when a country has a disaster.
A humanitarian crisis is the real-life situation that most overrides the national sovereignty argument and prioritizes the meaning of human rights, because in a humanitarian crisis we’re talking about something more important: peoples’ lives. Sometimes only a few dead activate a humanitarian crisis response while at other time a crisis can be of biblical proportions and the world looks the other way... But generally speaking, humanitarian crisis doctrine makes us all citizens of the world and if we’re mistreated by other citizens the entire international community is activated and borders are erased. The Constitution of a country facing a humanitarian crisis has little or no importance at that moment.
It isn’t clear when a crisis is a humanitarian crisis, because no clearly established parameters define it, but the United Nations and all multilateral organizations know that a delayed response to a crisis only worsens it, making the intervention less effective. Let’s say, for example, that an intervention is required when only six months of medicines are left in the warehouses instead of after six years without medicines. Arriving in time, acting preventively, makes a genuine difference, preventing the crisis from spreading. Arriving late means finding a society already tense, polarized and with no easy or quick solutions.
What happens after the intervention?
In any crisis, not just in Nicaragua’s case, if the international community doesn’t respond quickly it’s because its nature, its design, is always to question what will happen if it does intervene, i.e. after the intervention.
In Nicaragua’s case, it’s already known that the Pentagon has studied how much it would cost to take Ortega out of government and calculates that the costs would be very low. Its fear is rather what would happen afterwards because a government isn’t something that just disappears, ipso facto, in a moment.
Given the very centralized control Ortega has exercised over the FSLN and the government, it’s necessary to guarantee the greatest possible stability both in an abrupt post-Ortega scenario as well as a post-election scenario if elections are held and the opposition wins. The international community may well recall that the “piñata” was a destabilizing factor that came up again and again in Nicaragua in the 1990s. The one that will come up over and over again on this occasion is the subject of justice for the crimes committed at this time.
After 100 days the
situation has changed
We’ve now reached a situation, 100 days after the uprising, that we never imagined when the national dialogue started in mid-May and we thought it would be easy to have free elections with Ortega out of government and with enough time for the Civic Alliance to become an electoral option. That’s what Lesther Alemán made us feel on May 16 when he opened the national dialogue by putting Ortega in his place and clearly telling him the Alliance was only there to negotiate the terms of his departure.
Not only have things changed a lot but I think there was even a lot of wishful thinking at the start. I also think that initial enthusiasm weakened the opposition camp—where we’ve seen contradictory messages and a lack of organization and clarity. While those are defects, they are also virtues and the beauty of a spontaneous movement arising from indignation, a movement of self-motivated people determined to struggle, without strongmen or a traditional top-down structure. Even if it’s a little amorphous, it’s precisely that which invites us to participate, to give it better shape.
We have to understand today’s reality. It’s clear that the international community supports elections and that the government’s silences are different than they were initially. We’ve now heard from Ortega that he won’t end his term before 2021, although he hasn’t clarified whether he’ll run again. At the moment he only says he’s staying, nothing else; nothing about running or about providing conditions for a more genuine election with, for example, changes in electoral authorities or reforms to the electoral law as a first measure. This makes the maneuvering room for elections enormous, given the gap between early free elections and elections as they have been to date in 2021.
What is most negotiable?
If we’re to analyze with intellectual integrity how we can resolve this crisis, we must bear in mind the two main issues posed by the national dialogue and demanded from the start by the people on the streets: justice and democracy. Negotiations between the government and opposition include both issues but we need to be clear that the one the government shies away from the most and is least willing to concede is justice. The issue where it might concede something is democracy, and even more so if it determines, as I believe it has, that early elections suit it.
We also need to bear in mind while working through this analysis that negotiation not only means give and take but also that each side of the table will inflate or deflate the interests of one side or the other for its own ends, negotiating always from a position of greatest possible strength.
What would facing
justice mean for Ortega?
Justice demands that Ortega and his people pay for their crimes, but we know that everyone who commits crimes, from small-time delinquents to the worst criminals, seek to evade justice: they hire a good lawyer, try to drag out the trial, bribe judges, pay for release… It’s human instinct. Raskolnikov, the protagonist in Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, who surrenders to justice after his crime because his conscience is killing him, is just a literary figure. That’s not our instinct as human beings.
It’s therefore logical for Ortega not to want to concede anything on the issue of justice because no matter how little he concedes, it brings him closer to facing justice himself. This means, at the very least, impoverishment for his family.
One reason the idea of exile also doesn’t appeal to Ortega is that being internationally sought for crimes against humanity could make him a bargaining chip for the country sheltering him. He’d have this problem almost anywhere he went and the only places where he might not have it aren’t attractive, especially for his children.
So, he’ll concede very little or nothing on the issue of justice. But when two sides are negotiating two issues and one side won’t concede anything on one of them, it opens more possibilities to negotiate on the other.
The democratization issue has
more negotiating possibilities
Back when we thought free elections would be easily achieved, the university students in the national dialogue said let’s talk first about democracy. Let’s first democratize the country because it’ll be the new government that will give us justice. They were right, because without a change of government, without a renovation of the state institutions, those dispensing justice today won’t do anything.
What they said then is even more valid now, when the correlation of forces has changed, when Ortega knows that the criminality of the paramilitaries he has organized is his greatest international liability and that evidence of this criminality favors the opposition. The international community is taking all this into account and is why Ortega is trying to counter by calling those who have rebelled against him “criminals,” even “terrorists.”
Let’s analyze what Ortega could offer on the democracy issue based on him already having told us “I’m not going and they can’t make me,” the correlation of forces indicated in our survey and what we see throughout the country. We should also take into account that the government is banking on people generally tending to be passive on political matters and, although they have preferences, leaving the active promotion of those preferences to those more involved in the political game. We also need to bear in mind the “normalizing” effect Ortega has achieved with his bloody “clean-up operations,” resulting in so many dead, wounded, arrested or fled.
What could Ortega
offer on democratization?
What could Ortega concede regarding democracy when his position is “I’m not going and they can’t make me,” no elections until 2021, and not even the offer so far to change any magistrates in the Electoral Council?
I don’t think he’ll offer a real restructuring of the Electoral Council, but he might, for example, offer some new magistrates in it, even if they only have a symbolic presence. At a maximum he would offer three independent magistrates, keeping three of his own and debating who would preside…
I very much doubt he’d offer even that much for the judicial branch. He’s very interested in keeping the Supreme Court under his total control because he depends on it to evade justice. I also don’t think he’ll offer any change in any other state institution.
He could offer to release political prisoners. By holding lots of them, he expects to guarantee a general amnesty law for them and all his own people. It’s a good bargaining chip that favors him on the issue he cares about most: not going to jail. He could also offer some favorable solution to those whose lands are being invaded under the patronage of FSLN political secretaries.
He could even offer not to stand for reelection again although we know this wouldn’t mean “No more Daniel,” since that has no place among his possibilities. It would rather mean him governing “from below,” as happened during the 1990s. Back then he sabotaged Violeta Chamorro’s government by forcing her to negotiate. He got along so well with Alemán in government that they made a pact. Then under the Bolaños administration, he exploited the cracks between Alemán and Bolaños, still governing “from below.”
Why can’t Ortega offer more on democracy?
According to our July 17 survey, only 8% of those polled defined themselves as supporters of Daniel Ortega, and another 23% defined themselves as Sandinistas, which means a maximum hard-core support of 31%. It would be easier for him to maintain this hard core and increase it a little if the country were to become “normalized,” which is one reason he’ll make a few democratic concessions.
The problem is that he knows that any real concessions make him more vulnerable to having to face justice for his crimes. If he establishes a new institutional system in the country, those new institutions would pass him the bill.
Ortega’s biggest problem with early elections is thus the real possibility of losing his majority in the National Assembly. Even if the FSLN loses the presidency but takes a strong second place, it would at least keep the opposition from winning that majority. His fear of losing it is that a new National Assembly not dominated by the FSLN could appoint new Supreme Court justices. His total control of the current Supreme Court is his only shield from justice. Among other things a new one would do is annul the amnesty he’s surely thinking of decreeing, and may even have already written.
If he were to offer not to run for reelection Ortega would have to find an FSLN candidate as a successor, which would be a challenge because he would tend to fear it could go badly if he chose a Bolaños for Alemán or a Lenín Moreno for Correa in Ecuador… Playing for second place is safer for him.
In the end, there are ranges and levels to each of these possible concessions Ortega could make.
What could the opposition
offer Ortega on democracy?
In the negotiations, the private sector, which is a member of the Civic Alliance, could offer collaboration in “normalizing” the economy, some realignment of the economic alliances it had with Ortega before April, some national agreements that would allow them to return to some point near where they were before the rebellion. Economic normality is extremely important to Ortega. Among other things it would help him emerge better from early elections, in turn enabling him to capitalize on his biggest advantage: the still raw, improvised, variegated, prejudiced and divisible nature of the possible electoral alliance he would face.
The Civic Alliance could also offer to ramp down the international community’s pressure, to stop its denunciations and insistence on sanctions against Ortega. This is crucial because international pressure is the most dangerous factor for Ortega’s plans. He knows, as we all do, that a nonviolent revolution can’t win without international pressure; its checkmate is always the result of international pressure.
This intellectual integrity exercise we’ve done helps us see that comparing everything the opposition has in its hands today with the little the government has in its, the opposing side has a lot to offer and Ortega has very little to concede. Put another way, the opposing side has to give a lot to obtain very little. With everything it has, it should be able to “buy” a lot more. In fact, it has so much that it shouldn’t settle for Ortega’s concessions, particularly if we consider that Ortega is trying to sell us some elections that he knows suit him best.
What does Ortega want
from the negotiations?
After doing this exercise, trying to identify what each one has to offer or is willing to offer, keeping in mind that the issues to be negotiated are never stable and depend on the potential each side has, let’s now look at what each side wants in the negotiations.
What interests Ortega is to obtain a State with a low level of democracy that will guarantee him impunity. That’s really nothing new; even before going through the trauma of April he ensured that institutions would always be on his side and would keep him free from punishment for everything he did and got away with.
Let’s also recall that the executive and legislative branches were the last state institutions he took over. He already had the others under control from the opposition, while governing “from below.” That’s why I think an early election would suit Daniel Ortega, although he’s more interested in giving it as a concession than asking for it.
Ortega’s bargaining chips don’t
buy more by increasing them…
While Ortega was weaker some months ago than he seems to be now, the first thing that comes to mind is that all the things he has in his negotiating hand, the ones that constitute his correlation of forces, are things he doesn’t want to see get worse. Ortega gains nothing by escalating the violence or the number of political prisoners, by threatening to kill more people. It will only worsen his position, especially internationally, where major steps are already being taken to isolate and condemn him. Holding political prisoners as hostages so as to exchange them in an amnesty makes sense but increasing the number of them doesn’t. Increasing the violence, which may have made him seem to have gotten the country back under control, only complicates things more for him from here on out, especially on the issue he fears most: having to pay for his crimes.
Ortega bought space to negotiate and clarify his ideas with blood but he won’t advance with more and more of it. Even if there are no more deaths, the number of illegal detentions—political prisoners—are sufficient reason for the international community to continue pressuring Ortega.
The humanitarian crisis will begin to weigh in on international opinion: the deaths that have already occurred, the economic crisis that could reach the point of collapse, the political prisoners, tortures… And if 300 are “missing,” which we already know is a euphemism for dead, there’s going to be much more proof of serious human rights violations if they aren’t found and clandestine graves start appearing.
…but his adversaries’ chips do
On the contrary, his adversaries improve their hand by continuing to escalate what they already have: they can make the economy increasingly less normal, increase international pressure, resist with new strategies… Doing so improves their position. In fact, with all the international pressure Ortega’s adversaries have already achieved, they can be expected to resort to the justice issue by invoking the crimes against humanity committed in Ortega’s repressive wave, by turning to the International Criminal Court.
Actually, the opposition only has to properly administer all they’ve obtained so far to win. Time is already in their favor and accumulating possibilities.
A bad economy doesn’t
stand up well in free elections
Saying this isn’t optimism. It’s a no-brainer that Ortega would do better in the polls with his hands less stained with blood, the least number of dead and the economy as little dilapidated as possible. We only need to remember 1990: a bad economy doesn’t stand up well in free elections. Even Lenin said that a good government isn’t the one that prints the most pamphlets or fills the most squares, but the one that gives its people a better economy.
Given the economic disaster caused by the crisis, what’s at play today is the solution to this crisis. A bad economy doesn’t make either the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise or Sandinista entrepreneurs a bit happy. What they both want most is to continue making money. That’s why, when the final moment comes, Sandinista entrepreneurs will line up with whoever best guarantees them that.
I don’t see them unconditionally supporting the comandante or whoever he leaves in his place… The economic crisis, unemployment, the impoverishment of so many people all goes down to the government’s account in red, not the opposition’s. Daniel’s ability to restore the economy is absolutely zero if he decides to aggravate the cards he has in hand: violence, deaths, prisoners…
That’s why I think he should capitalize on the relative recovery he has achieved to restructure a negotiating position that includes elections. Much of his behavior suggests he knows there’s no way he can get to 2021 with an economy in a tailspin, risking the situation heating up again at any moment and thus having to accept bringing forward elections when he’s in a worse position. He’s in such a delicate situation that every skirmish he seems to win could accelerate his defeat.
What about the Army?
The Army could throw the current correlation of forces out of whack just by privately giving elections a green light. Tell me where the Army’s going and I’ll tell you why it’s going there. I think that for different reasons it can’t go over to the government’s side and is currently hovering towards the opposition side. Daniel would have to do ten thousand miracles for the Army as an institution to back him.
The Army has important economic interests and isn’t interested in a broken government. It also pays a lot of attention to international pressure. I think it’s clear that Ortega can’t turn back the clock to April 17 and that an economic catastrophe could ensue if the situation continues as it is today, sucking the Army into having to do a lot of dirty work it doesn’t want. It won’t let this happen.
If the Army did intervene as a consequence of Ortega’s miscalculation, the Supreme Court, which is responsible for interpreting the Constitution, wouldn’t rule it unconstitutional. The Court is now aligned with the government but in a certain moment of the crisis it could be the one to checkmate it.
The view from the bridge
One hundred days after the April revolt, I see Ortega’s behavior as that of a guy clinging to power, who says he’ll stay on until 2021 but is prepared to negotiate, having accumulated greater force than he had even a month ago, although he obtained it from blood and barbarism.
I understand why he didn’t want to negotiate with roadblocks in place throughout the country since it’s much more favorable for him to negotiate without them, but I don’t understand or accept the bloody way he removed them. The escalation in violence isn’t the way to resolve the problem he got into and is still in, yet it has continued to escalate. There’s not a single scenario in which it works for him to get to 2021 with political prisoners, more deaths and a disrupted economy, assuming he hopes those elections won’t go really badly for him.
Other tricks still up
Ortega is also maneuvering to set up another dialogue, with other mediators and different interlocutors on the opposing side of the table: satellite political parties, like-minded Evangelical leaders… But can he easily exclude the bishops, peasants and university students from the dialogue and still appear credible to the international community, which has already unanimously legitimized them? I don’t think so. I do, however, think he’ll continue trying to weaken the Civic Alliance. If Ortega’s efforts to sideline it bear fruit, the Alliance will have to start playing more serious politics pretty quickly.
Ortega could also maneuver to accept elections even earlier than has been discussed. He would do it to dilute the electoral competition’s indignation about the deaths and catch the Civic Alliance off base… He also knows that in a very early election the PLC is susceptible to wanting to hammer out an agreement with him.
Jumping the gun by calling for early elections could create divisions in the Alliance, show they have no shared understanding among them, so people start to feel “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Speaking of the devil, an old Spanish saying puts it well: the devil knows more because he’s old than because he’s the devil. Daniel is a cunning old politician, very crafty in the bluntest sense of this word, and he won’t stop working to reverse the difficult international situation he’s in before his time runs out.
Nicaragua isn’t Venezuela
To suddenly hold early elections would be a maneuver copied from what Maduro recently did in Venezuela. But Maduro receives two million barrels of oil every day at $50 each to pay officials and military officers, an advantage Ortega doesn’t have. Venezuela’s social, economic and political conditions are also very different from Nicaragua’s, as I know from having observed six or seven electoral processes there during the Chávez years. Ortega may dream that Nicaragua is Venezuela but it’s a pipe dream. When Ortega told Carlos Trujillo, the US Ambassador to the OAS, that Nicaragua would end up like Venezuela, Trujillo warned him that, unlike in Venezuela, the United States had “all” its options on the table in Nicaragua.
Having been emboldened by so bloodily removing the roadblocks and barricades at the cost of creating adverse international opinion, Ortega may believe he could come out winning and make the mistake of thinking the Civic Alliance and others are going to squander the advantages they have.
Will there be civil war?
Many people are wondering whether this crisis will end in a civil war. Obviously, there’s a fever in Nicaragua that seemingly won’t subside… When there’s as critical a situation as the one we have today, it frequently doesn’t improve but worsens. I have absolutely no doubt that the reality of a humanitarian crisis and the danger of a civil war has the international community on full alert and could even force Ortega to leave before early elections. I think it’s our responsibility not only to warn about the possibility of that disaster but also about what it would cost.
Although the statement that there will be a civil war in Nicaragua isn’t 100% realistic, even a 1% possibility makes it worth ensuring against that eventuality. That will help all the foreign actors put pressure on Ortega aa Trujillo already did in his talk with him.
Our analysis is encouraging
Many things still can and will happen. But, right now, the opposing side still has a great many advantages if it only administers them well to at least pluralize the country and get us away from the unhealthy threat of the dynasty that’s now on the horizon.
A rigorous analysis and reading of the reality encourages us to stay optimistic and believe that Nicaragua will take a quality leap forward to resolve this crisis, that it will again be true that “never was so much owed to so many by so few.”
Roberto Courtney is executive director of the Ethics & Transparency Civic Group.