|Central American University - UCA
Number 446 | Septiembre 2018
A time of uncertainty, a time of hope
It is still not at all certain when
or how the April uprising will be resolved.
Two parallel narratives about the origin of the crisis
and the government’s continuing repressive response—
one by the regime and its national and international followers
and one by the civic rebellion and international investigating bodies—
have polarized the country into seemingly irreconcilable positions.
The United Nations basically endorsed the civic rebellion’s narrative
in a report that resulted in it being thrown out of the county.
How much longer before we finally see the “truth and accountability,” t
he UN human rights’ office called for upon leaving Nicaragua?
Five months into the insurrection of civic consciousness that hit the country in April, President Ortega is now proclaiming that the country is “normalized.” He appears determined to remain in government until the 2021 elections while the rebellious population seems equally determined to prevent him from doing so. In the absence of any prompt solution to this very unequal standoff, the humanitarian crisis and the increasingly grave economic and financial problems provoked by the conflict have pushed us to the edge of the abyss. “Nicaragua is now a time bomb,” was a warning heard in the UN Security Council when it addressed the issue on September 5.
“You should never
have touched our kids”
In April, and even into May, a solution seemed just around the corner. But the regime’s disproportionate and criminal use of force against the protests hasn’t let up a single day since April 20. The ever-rising toll of dead, wounded, imprisoned, tortured and forcibly disappeared has exponentially fed people’s indignation, in turn unleashing even more repression.
In the first mobilization in April, one woman scrawled the following words aimed at Daniel Ortega on a piece of cardboard and held it high above her head,: “We let you get away with everything else, but you should never have touched our kids.” Indignation at those first deaths of young people were the spark that ignited a rebellion that is showing no sign of burning out. The anger fueling it is “the result of deep-rooted grievances,” as the UN report so rightly pointed out. Yet the government still doesn’t recognize those crimes even happened much less its responsibility for them.
The government responded to the first peaceful protests against social security reforms by “shooting to kill,” as Amnesty International charged in its May report. Rather than recognizing and halting that initial overreaction, it continued with more of the same for each new protest, resulting in Nicaragua’s greatest peacetime massacre. As of August 24, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the bottom line is 322 people killed and more than 2,000 wounded. Those figures include dead and wounded on the regime’s side, as the institutional violence in turn engendered acts of both legitimate defense and violence, as the UN acknowledges in its report. This is also recognized by the IACHR, although it reiterated at the end of August that “the great majority of victims died as the result of state action or that of para-police forces at the service of the State.”
The great majority of people lost their life exercising their right to demand rights, justice and democracy; another kind of government, another kind of country. But even those who died trying to impede that right can be chalked up as the government’s responsibility for sending them out to kill or die.
That’s the narrative of those who oppose the regime and it’s shared by the top regional and global human rights organizations.
“It was a US-led
The regime’s parallel universe narrative denies having repressed the right to protest with firearms; in fact it denies that there have even been any civic protests. Instead it claims that it responded to an attempted coup d’état planned, organized and financed by the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and/or some other nefarious US agency.
On the face of it, it’s not an unreasonable assumption, as Nicaragua has virtually been synonymous with US imperialist intervention for over 150 years. The past two years of efforts sponsored by Congress’ knee-jerk anti-Communist Cuban-American members to push through the Nica Act and add more pro-Ortega names to the Magnitsky Act sanctions list are open examples.
But the only thing pro-Ortega solidarity apologists have been able to dig up as evidence of covert ops is an ineffectual amount of money the NED spent on an array of projects and organizations in Nicaragua over the past few years. It was hardly enough to foment a grassroots insurrection even if that had been the intent, which at least in the few cases we investigated it was not.
While Washington admittedly always bets on more than one horse, Ortega’s notable efforts to get along with the US administration over the past decade were very effective. Sandinista ideologue Julio López’s July article in envío lists cooperation on US immigration, drug and organized crime issues, and having made Nicaragua the safest country in the region for both tourists and investors. Until Ortega’s fatal repressive overreaction to the civic protests, he might not have had any friends in Washington but it wouldn’t have been a stretch for Trump, a known fan of autocrats and dictators, to apply to him Roosevelt’s famous remark about Somoza: “he may be an SOB, but he’s our SOB.” That door has now closed, however, and it would be naïve not to expect the State Department to try to influence the outcome in line with its own interests during such a convulsive moment, as it is now unarguably doing.
Its problem is that after a century and a half of contributing to the stunted growth of Nicaragua’s political class, the US doesn’t have much to work with if Ortega is right in claiming that Nicaragua’s extreme right–wing political parties are instrumentalizing the US plans on the ground. Ortega was even able to coopt much of a self-serving political class that turns to “Uncle Sam” rather than resolving its own problems. The most rightwing leaders are now his thoroughly corrupted prison-bitch equivalents. Contradicting his own claim, it is Ortega who is now trying to insert a couple of Nicaraguan political parties into the national dialogue, after five months in which his adversary in the dialogue, the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, has been studiously free of political party involvement.
But even if it were demonstrated that the US government has been more involved over the years, it is inconceivable that it could have conjured out of nothing the insurrection of consciousness we’ve witnessed in these past five months. As one of our staff commented in those first days of late April, it’s impossible to detonate a people that has not already reached the end of a long, slow-burning fuse. And that puts the origin of the crisis back on the government side of the ledger despite its litany that all was harmony and peace pre-April.
And the claim that it
was a terrorist coup?
The idea that what occurred was a coup d’état was first floated by the government delegation in the national dialogue, in part inspired by the massive peaceful demonstrations in late April and early May in which many protesters chanted “Que se vayan” (Leave!), referring to the presidential couple. It was further inspired by Lesther Alemán, the exuberant communication major who told Ortega to his face in the inaugural session of the dialogue that “this is not a dialogue table, it is a table to negotiate your departure, and you know it very well because it is the people who have requested it! In one month you have torn the country apart; it took Somoza years to do the same, and you know it very well! Surrender before the entire population!”
No one knows better than Ortega that rhetoric and actions are two separate and not necessarily related things. Nonetheless, that media moment gave Foreign Minister Denis Moncada, the head of the government delegation, the ammunition he needed to try to denigrate the opposition. The term golpista (coup-maker) has been dutifully and unthinkingly adopted by government supporters ever since, while belied by every move the organized opposition has made. It has continued to call for unarmed marches against the government and in negotiations mediated by Nicaragua’s Catholic bishops has proposed early elections as a solution to the crisis. The opposition makes no secret of its unequivocal vote of no-confidence in the government but if its request that Ortega step down even before the early elections is equivalent to coup-making, it will, if successful, go down in history as the first ever negotiated coup.
“Clean-up operations” to
“restore pre-April peace”
The national dialogue hit an impasse when the government refused to negotiate until the Civic Alliance removed the roadblocks and the Alliance responded that the people had erected them as both an unarmed pressure instrument and a self-defense measure, insisting that only the people could decide to dismantle them. With that the dialogue was shelved and the regime organized “clean-up operations” to recover the territorial control it had lost to the hundreds of highway roadblocks and street barricades. If during the early street protests most of those killed and wounded in this extremely unequal confrontation were demonstrators, the clean-up stage caused the greatest bloodshed on both sides.
The August report on that period by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is reproduced in full in this issue. The following is an excerpt: “As the crisis unfolded, the level of violence against protesters by the police and armed civilians further increased, and so did the level of resistance of some individuals participating in roadblocks and occupations.
“There is ample data on the use of violent means by some protesters, including stones, homemade mortars and weapons, and firearms (mostly rifles). However, OHCHR found no evidence that these violent acts were coordinated or responded to a pre-existing plan.”
With the “clean-up” concluded, the regime wrapped up the narrative of its version of events: there was an attempted coup d’état in April; the roadblocks were never civic but rather controlled by armed people; the coup-makers used terror to impose themselves, but were defeated and are being tried and judged as what they are: terrorists and traitors.
In late July the government fast-tracked a new law defining even peaceful protests as terrorism, thus greasing the skids for such trials and convictions.
This isn’t ike in the eighties
On August 7, after having repeatedly presented differing figures, the Ortega regime settled on a definitive number of deaths and a new slogan, repeated in pro-government counter-marches: “It was 198. They killed them! They must pay for their crimes!” In the government version, all deaths were caused by the “terrorists,” none by the regime’s gunmen.
The goal of this official narrative is to re-coalesce the governing party’s base and the international solidarity “Left,” both of which have shown signs of raveling around the edges. Given the obvious nostalgia for a revolutionary party and a time that no longer exists, the idea is to recall the narrative of the eighties, when a genuinely revolutionary government was the victim of armed aggression that received hundreds of millions in US financing, as well as heavy-handed CIA strategizing and managing.
This narrative hasn’t actually suffered any rethinking in five months, although President Ortega has either intentionally or unintentionally changed some of the details in international interviews along the way, including that there are no hooded and heavily armed paramilitary groups; that there are, but they belong to the extreme Right; and that they are actually “volunteer police.” There has been no government recognition that it might have handled things differently to avoid so many deaths and the political censuring that may yet lead to its downfall. To the contrary, Ortega has consistently dug his hole even deeper, becoming increasingly belligerent, obstinate and punitive, almost like someone who knows he’s going down, but is determined to go down fighting.
But that’s totally in character. For more than a decade the governing couple has swept away any obstacles to its dynastic project of perpetuating the Ortega-Murillo family in power, convinced in vanguard tradition that they are the best thing for Nicaragua, whether Nicaraguans agree or not. Now they logically resist accepting that such a carefully crafted and executed plan, with each step granting them more and more power until they virtually have nothing further to gain and everything to lose, could so unexpectedly be crumbling before their very eyes. Having so systematically nipped any opposition in the bud through careful application of intimidation and repression on the one hand, and massive doses of populist clientelism and revolutionary rhetoric on the other, they may genuinely have had no clue of the underlying discontent. And if they didn’t, it’s only because they failed to apply lessons learned: Ortega and Murillo also had no clue 28 years ago that they were about to lose the 1990 elections. Not bothering to listen to the people is an occupational hazard of autocrats.
The UN doesn’t buy
the coup accusation
The UN report, which covers the events of the first four months of the crisis (April 18 to August 18), takes issue with the regime’s narrative: “Rather than recognizing responsibility for any wrongdoing during the crisis, the Government has placed the blame on social and opposition leaders, human rights defenders and media outlets for what they have termed ‘coup-related violence’; as well as for the negative impact of the political crisis on the country’s economy. Moreover, the Government has attributed the responsibility for all violent actions to those who participated in the protests, including concerning the 197 deaths it had recognized as of 25 July. It has not acknowledged any disproportionate use of force or illegal action by police agents.”
In presenting the report in Managua on August 29, Guillermo Fernández Maldonado, who coordinated the OHCHR mission in Nicaragua, said: “The narrative of a coup d’état was what was proposed to us from the first meeting we had in the Foreign Ministry. We said that if that was the vision, they should give us access to the information and the places that ratify it, and if we effectively found facts that sustained that vision we would go public with it.
They have not, however, responded to any of our requests for information, nor have they permitted us to go outside of Managua or to any of the places we proposed. The information to which we had access does not support that vision. There is no indication of a coup d’état. To the contrary, from the human rights perspective, what we have found are governmental actions in response to a civic protest that are contrary to international human rights law.”
“An instrument of
the policy of terror”
On August 30, Daniel Ortega maligned the UN report presented the previous day. He told his supporters that “increasingly no one in the world believes in the international bodies because they are becoming an instrument of the powerful, of those who impose their policies of death on the peoples of the planet Earth…. These United Nations bodies, in this case the one that has to do with human rights, is nothing more than an instrument of the policy of death, the policy of terror, the policy of lies, the policy of infamy. They are vile, vile!” Any similarity to the deranged style of the current US President is presumably coincidental.
That same night the Foreign Ministry sent the representative of the UN Office a message: its stay in Nicaragua had concluded. It was a de facto expulsion.
The UN Security Council agreed to receive the OHCHR report, a major step that moved the massive human rights violations committed by the Ortega-Murillo regime beyond the regional sphere of the OAS, to be discussed in the world’s maximum institution. It ushered in a new moment of hope in the midst of so many uncertainties.
The regime hardens its response
to the human rights agencies
The unexpected pressure from the massive street protests, the national dialogue and the Episcopal Conference seems to have initially caught the regime unprepared to defend its violent response with the blatant obstinacy it is now displaying. In a decision Ortega now surely rues, he agreed to invite international human rights institutions, starting with the IACHR, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to scrutinize the events. If he thought he would earn any points for allowing them entry he was seriously mistaken. The reports by all three plus the international media’s slow-growing coverage have opened the world’s eyes to what’s happening in Nicaragua.
The final IACHR report titled “Gross Human Rights Violations in the Context of Social Protests in Nicaragua” submitted on June 22 to the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States, of which the IACHR is an autonomous entity, helped convince that body to vote in favor of involving the OAS in Nicaragua’s crisis. But that was only the start of a snowballing process. Next the regime had to let the IACHR set up a Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI) inside the country on a permanent basis and allow four professionals of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) to come for an extendable six months with the mandate to investigate all deaths that occurred between April 18 and May 30. The regime later also had to accept the OHCHR team in the country.
But they ran up against a wall
The expectations awakened on the civic rebellion side by the arrival of these international eyes and ears were enormous. The opposition naively thought at the beginning that Ortega would see the handwriting on the wall and leave; they also thought the human rights investigations would oblige the government to see the error of its ways and behave differently, or at least do so to take international attention off Nicaragua. But Ortega either seems to have found his stride or from the outset planned to apply his typical response to pressure: you can make me sign, but you can’t make me comply.
After the IACHR’s initial mission, which was relatively free to move around the country and meet with different groups and individuals, the agencies ran up against a wall of non-cooperation. Any request by MESENI to visit prisons, attend the trials of persons accused of “terrorism,” travel outside of Managua to any “hotspots” to interview victims of repression has to be submitted to the Foreign Ministry, which then simply fails to respond. The forensic, judicial and police files to which the GIEI requested access for the cases it is supposed to investigate have never been handed over. Most recently Ortega matched the brutality toward his own population with self-destructive sledgehammer diplomacy toward the prestigious OHCHR by expelling it right after it issued its report.
The Ortega-Murillo regime realizes now, if perchance it didn’t at the beginning, that human rights has been the most effective instrument to put Nicaragua on the international radar. If at first it saw no choice but to invite the agencies in, the only possibility of maintaining its narrative now is to erect a wall against anybody attempting to seek evidence and to vilify those who dare hold it responsible for the massive human rights violations it has wantonly committed.
“The IACHR lacks
any scientific rigor”
On August 18, at one of the “counter-marches” the government organizes every time the opposition calls one, both to pump up its base and try to intimidate its adversary, Foreign Minister Denis Moncada tried his hand at winding up the crowd. Even though he’s no one’s idea of a pulpit-thumper, they energetically booed the IACHR when he read the official government text trashing the Commission’s reports as “questionable given their political bias and their work methodology, which lacks any scientific rigor, as one of its more notorious failings is the lack of verification of the information it receives and the irresponsible use of sources with no credibility.”
In a press release it issued six days later calling on the State of Nicaragua to cease criminalizing protests and to respect persons deprived of liberty and their families, the IACHR reiterated that the “the monitoring work through MESENI and other available mechanisms is carried out with extreme methodological rigor. This entails contrasting multiple information sources, including the testimonies of victims, victims’ families, civil society organizations, the media and official sources. The IACHR keeps a record of its sources of information on the persons killed… (and) has included each and every one of the fatal victims that the State identified as reported to the Commission…. According to the observed and verified evidence, the vast majority of victims died as a result of State action or vigilante forces in the service of the State.”
"The IACHR points out
The IACHR press release also challenged the government’s own scientific rigor with regard to the narrative of 198 deaths all caused by the “gol¬pistas”: “The numbers of deceased persons provided by the State are inconsistent. In notes sent by the State to the IACHR between June and July 2018, the State reported 37 deaths, most of them State agents or persons related to the government. Subsequently, in response to repeated requests for up-to-date information, the State reported in a note dated August 7 that a total of 450 people had died in Nicaragua between April 19 and July 25. This note remarked that 197 of these people [not the 198 on pro-government placards] were ‘victims of terrorist attempts to overthrow the government” and 253 had died as a result of “homicide (common crime), traffic accidents and other causes which were manipulated by the coup-mongers and associated organizations in order to discredit, slander and damage the image of the government of Nicaragua.” However, the report in question did not include a list of those who had died.
Given the inconsistencies in figures reported by the State and its questioning of the Commis-sion’s record of fatalities, the IACHR reiterated “the urgent need for the State of Nicaragua to provide access to detailed information on those who have died so that it can compare and check its own figures against those provided by the Nicaraguan authorities.” To date there is no indication the State has done so.
The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts is being equally ignored by the regime. Pressed for time, the GIEI experts decided to report in a press conference on August 16 not what they were doing, but what they were not being permitted to do.
They explained that on July 2, when they began gathering information about the deaths that occurred during the period defined in their mandate, they requested “the files on the investigations conducted by the national institutions, the reports by the Institute of Legal Medicine and the list of individuals detained, as well as the reparation plan for the victims.” Since that time they haven’t received so much as a single sheet of paper.
After listening to the diplomatic complaint expressed by GIEI’s four professionals, Vilma Núñez, president of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), commented that the government has given them nothing because “it hasn’t investigated anything.” As proof, she mentioned that in April and May CENIDH officials accompanied some 30 relatives of murder victims who went to file charges with the Office of the Public Prosecutor General, the first step of the legal path to an investigation. But the office “only received the charge, stamped its seal on the paper and never called any of the people back to ask them anything.”
Five months since
the April rebellion
Admittedly, fewer people are being killed now, but that said, police officers and hooded civilian para-police continue capturing local protest leaders and anyone else they consider suspicious. They are taken to the dungeons of El Chipote prison, where they are threatened, brutalized, even tortured, then sometimes freed in a matter of hours or days or else held for longer in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. Sometimes they are transferred to La Modelo Prison, where they are subjected to trials rife with illegalities and human rights violations. All are accused of being “terrorists.”
Although detentions and arrests occurred from the very first days of the crisis, as the OHCHR report recognizes, they have intensified in the current phase with the “criminalization of protests.” CENIDH alone has received 340 denunciations by relatives since the passage of the anti-terrorism law in late July.
It is on the issue of the innumerable violations of the right to liberty and personal security and of generalized violations of the guarantees for due legal process that the new OHCHR offers a more detailed and precise recounting of the patterns of repression.
The repressive wave also includes arbitrary firings. The Nicaraguan Medical Association has reported that at least 300 health professionals were fired for attending to people wounded during the protests or criticizing official policy. Lists are also circulating of lawyers who have provided legal advice to families of those detained; they are now receiving threats. The government has used the budget cuts forced on it by the economic crisis as an excuse to clear state institutions of non-loyal officials (read: those who don’t attend all pro-government marches and rallies).
In August, the government narrative added a new tag line: “everything is now normal” or in its no less false version: “is normalizing.” To demonstrate it the regime is attempting to regain exclusive control of the streets, organizing counter-marches, infiltrating the civic mobilizations with agents provocateurs who try to spark violence, and using either force or intimidation to impede any form of civic protest in the streets, whether marches or “stand-ins” along the highway. The goal is to superimpose an image of “normality” and calm so the population feels “they won” and “it’s all over” while also pressing home the idea that “the comandante is staying.”
The solution is
political, not economic
The pressing question heard everywhere is how and when all this will end; what the solution will be. It is now palpably clear to most that the conflict hasn’t been and won’t be resolved by imposing or repressing. For one thing, the economy has put severe limits on Ortega’s political pretensions, as economist Néstor Avendaño demonstrates in his Speaking Out article in this issue. And for another, the majority of the population is still determined to achieve a change. The Ortega-Murillo government has done nothing in the past months to make itself more desirable to anyone.
Avendaño responded in the following way to those asking what the solution might be: “”Release all the political prisoners captured during this crisis from the prisons, get all the hooded paramilitaries off the streets, start applying justice to those who have killed our young people, and move the elections forward. Only once an answer to these demands is found can we consider what the Central Bank might do. Then and only then. We don’t need economic policy solutions, we need political solutions in order to provide economic tranquility. No economic policy will give us tranquility in a setting as dramatic as the one we are in today…. Those in the executive branch’s upper echelons argue publicly that the country is now ‘normal.’ Saying that is not only disrespectful to Nicaraguans but generates more distrust and increases the distance between the political problem in which we are immersed and any political solution.”
The national consensus
So far only two polls have sought the population’s thoughts on what the solution to the conflict should be. The first was conducted by the CID Gallup polling firm with a national sample of 1,200 people back on May 5 to 14, not even a month into the insurrection. At that time, 69% of those polled said they wanted Ortega and Murillo to “resign” from government. Interestingly, 30% of those who gave that answer defined themselves as Sandinistas.
Two months later, on July 17, with the bloody “clean-up operation” underway, the Ethics and Transparency Civic Group polled a national sample of the same size by cell phone. When asked if “It is useful to hold general elections promptly,” 79% responded affirmatively. Asked to define themselves politically, the breakdown was Danielistas 8%, Sandinistas 23%, opponents 20% and independent 33%, while 16% did not want to respond or said it was a “secret.”
There isn’t a great difference between the figures of the two surveys, although after two months a larger percentage wanted the elections brought forward.
Now, nearly two months later, as we await new polls, we would suggest that the majority of the population wants a prompt and civic change of government. This includes both those who mobilize in the streets risking bullets, intimidation and capture to demand justice and democracy and those who stay at home and just follow events on TV but repudiate what has been happening these past five months and want it to end. In other words, they want the governing couple to resign peacefully.
The international consensus
If that’s a fair appraisal of the national consensus, the international one is quite similar, with the OAS in the lead and the European Union echoing it rather more tepidly: that the solution must be electoral and as soon as possible, with the regime negotiating it in a national dialogue.
We in Nicaragua and those in the OAS have known for years that this doesn’t just mean agreeing to a concrete date for early elections. The calendar must include other dates for essential changes to the collapsed electoral system, riddled with fraud for at least a decade now. Only in this way will it be possible to provide guarantees to the entire population and assure transparent, competitive races with national and international observers. These changes require both time and political willingness on Ortega’s part.
In his speeches to his followers, Ortega is insisting, at least for now, that the elections will be held as scheduled in November 2021. Moreover he is making no mention of the profound changes required beforehand, no matter when they are held. But the economic debacle and the international pressures are making it hard for him to pull off the plan he’s clinging to—to continue running the government until 2021 and even longer if possible.
Nor has Ortega given positive signs regarding the OAS demand that he return to the dialogue table for “good faith negotiations.” The last session of the national dialogue was on June 25, a little over a month after it began, when the bishops who were acting as mediators and witnesses suspended it because the regime had shown no willingness to enter into a discussion of the roadmap for the country’s democratization. Since then, Ortega has unsuccessfully pushed for “another” dialogue with different interlocutors, mediators and guarantors who will assure him the conditions he needs to hammer out an agreement that will permit him to evade justice and remain in government.
Ortega tried to convince UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to be the guarantor of this new dialogue, but Guterres only replied that the dialogue must be “inclusive.” He even went so far as to send his beleaguered foreign minister Denis Moncada to the Vatican to try to convince Pope Francis to pull the “non-impartial” bishops from the national dialogue. Moncada got no further than the second tier of the Vatican Secretariat of State, and with a distinct absence of protocol.
There’s no denying that the brutal policy of terror has had its effects, including on the initial impetus of the civic protests. Hundreds of homes are in mourning for their dead, thousands more are still caring for their wounded family members. And hundreds more are desperate for their relatives who have been captured, imprisoned and tried as terrorists. More than 20,000 people have fled to Costa Rica to save their lives. And the slow-motion collapse of the already fragile economy has left 200,000 people jobless so far, with the country now at the threshold of a severe financial crisis, as Avendaño explains in the Speaking Out section.
Although the number of new murders is dropping—which doesn’t mean they’ve stopped and we have little information about what’s happening in some rural zones—armed paramiliaries continue controlling areas of some municipalities with total impunity. Even where they don’t appear as a regular feature of the landscape, most people in both urban and rural areas still prefer not to venture out after dark. While the forcible dismantling of roadblocks and street barricades has returned the circulation of traffic, although at lower than normal levels, that’s about the only thing in the country that can be defined as anywhere near normalized. Nothing is normal about most households’ consumption capacity, tourism, university life or even daily life in general, including the guarded conversations among neighbors, relatives and friends, whether due to security fears or because they find themselves on opposite sides of the “parallel narrative universes.”
Most people on both sides find it hard to believe that it’s “all over,” as the official line tries to insist. The kidnapping, capturing, threatening and filling of the jails goes on. And even if it were to scale down, a country can’t normalize if its population’s indignation is neither addressed nor even acknowledged.
Not even Ortega’s occasional speeches or Vice President Murillo’s daily messages in the official media are returning to normal. Murillo still insults protesters as the “plague,” “vampires,” “miniscule,” “toxic souls,” “trash,” “stinking cigarette butts” and the like, while Ortega calls them “rabid dogs,” “satanic” and “Nazis”…. That display of utter disrespect for the profound concerns of people unwilling to grovel at the feet of power is only a current example of the accumulation of grating daily abuses that pushed people to the brink of their emotional tolerance in the first place, even before the government started shooting their children. Such ugly stigmatizing of those demanding a change not only does nothing to contribute to normality; it reveals the shocking lack of humanity of those who believe they are fit to govern the country.
Are we winning?
After five months of rebellion, one of the slogans that has most caught the population’s attention is the one with which political analyst and interviewer Jaime Arellano passionately opens his program on the 100% Noticias channel every morning: “We’re winning.”
Arellano recently interviewed Arturo Cruz, Ortega’s first ambassador to the United States after returning to government (2007 to 2009) and himself a political analyst complacent with the Ortega governing model until recently. Asked whether he shared this assessment, Cruz answered that “strategically you’ve already won.” He explained that the correlation of forces is teetering between what he defined as legitimacy and “coercion”—his attempt to skirt the word repression. Appraising the weight on both sides of the scale he concluded that while coercion might win in the short term, legitimacy always ends up winning over the long haul.
Ortega’s strategic defeat is based on his illegitimacy, a black mark that has accompanied him most visibly since his 2016 reelection, when he appropriated (as opposed to won) the government for the third consecutive time without genuine opponents, without the presence of either national or international observers and with virtually no voters… i.e. a higher abstention rate than the country has ever seen.
vs. brutal repression
So who’s really winning? Although the scales haven’t yet definitively tipped in either direction, Ortega has “won” in the short term because he hasn’t hesitated to use the repressive brutality of the Police and paramilitaries, with the complicity if not physical participation of the Army. But the insurrection of an important part of the Nicaraguan people against the Ortega regime is strategically winning by hanging in and insisting on maintaining the civic and peaceful nature of the struggle, albeit at a very high price.
It is that price, paid in blood and pain, that finally opened the eyes of the international community to what’s happening in Nicaragua. And that community is now acting on what it has seen, isolating and unmasking Ortega.
The crass, incomprehensible and in some cases even suicidal-seeming errors Ortega and Murillo have been shamelessly and unhesitatingly committing have increased the international community’s concern to help resolve Nicaragua’s crisis. Last month the governing couple was unstinting with such errors, one of the more shortsighted of which was to close Nicaragua’s doors to the Working Group created in August by 12 OAS member countries.
Well over a year ago Ortega signed an “agreement of understanding” with the OAS general secretariat, presided by Luis Almagro, to reform the electoral system. But Ortega is no longer even responding to Almagro’s proposal to move the elections forward. Adding diplomatic insult to personal injury, Ortega is challenging the OAS by questioning the IACHR and obstinately declaring that he’s “staying” until 2021. And for an encore, after first seeking out the UN secretary general to get the United Nations to act as a guarantor of the national dialogue, he then de facto expelled the UN Human Rights Office mission from the country.
Such erratic international policy moves have only ratcheted up this unending tragedy, turning Ortega’s implausible narrative into another source of wins for the civic insurrection. Are they an attempt to try to cover up and deny the brutal repression they unleashed so unnecessarily in April or to “punish” the international community the same way they have punished the population for daring to question them?
A valiant youth and
a more united nation
Two other gains can be credited to the civic rebellion, both of them strategic as they promise a better future for Nicaragua. One is the awakening of the youth, whose valor and determination helped awaken many others. The other is that the gravity of the crisis has brought various social sectors, interests and generations together in an embryonic national unity aimed at tackling the dictatorship together.
After April, rebellion became a virtue for a good part of the youth, who courageously took on the “hegemonic thinking” the regime has tried so insistently to impose. Since much of that rebellious youth has Sandinista roots, the rebellion has drawn a much clearer division between Sandinismo and the inflexible line of thinking behind Danielismo or Orteguismo, as that thinking is variously called. It is a more significant asset than it might seem at first glance as the transmutation of the FSLN was central to Ortega’s dynastic project, edging out the historical militants with their values, their memory and their trajectory to remake the party with youths displaying blind, uncritical and unconditional loyalty to the Ortega-Murillo personality cult.
New horizons for
a better Nicaragua
This crisis has demonstrated that the country has a solid fount of potential national leadership made up of young abd not so young men and women who come from both business and social sectors, not the traditional political class. We have both a seasoned and a nascent but quickly maturing human capital that is proving to be up to both the present tasks and the challenges of the extremely complex future we can already foresee amid so much uncertainty and so many hopes.
The civic rebellion still needs greater organization. It also needs to temper the excess horizontality of the self-summoned groups, shaping them into a collective leadership with a strategic direction that clearly defines an achievable future.
The compass is already pointing toward that horizon and the magnetism is assured. What guarantees it is the persistence of the social indignation and the determination to continue demanding a nation that is different and better than what we have today: the top-down and centralist one in which Ortega and Murillo act as shepherds, benevolent or punitive by turns, to keep the rest of us as docile sheep. With its own unique nuances, that model is not all that unlike the one we’ve had throughout our history. Although the solution still can’t be clearly made out on the horizon, we’re on the path to it.