The Nicaraguan Army: Spectator or accomplice?
Isn’t it strange that the Nicaraguan Army
has made no mention of the “coup d’état”
that is a staple of official propaganda?
Doesn’t the Army’s silence make it
complicit in the regime’s policy of terror?
Is the Army fulfilling its constitutional mandate
and complying with its own laws?
Will the US boycott of its “blood-soaked” money
be what it takes to make it react?
So many questions...
From the moment on April 22, five days into the unprecedented peaceful civic rebellion, that the Ortega-Murillo government withdrew its controversial Social Security reform and accepted a dialogue to try to settle the crisis, the governing couple knew they were cornered. They had nothing to offer in the dialogue to resolve the crisis they had provoked. They showed up at the National Dialogue with a disproportionate display of security, including two Air Force helicopters, and empty, blood-stained hands.
Between the government’s intransigence and the resolve of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, the dialogue had nowhere to go. On May 23, just one week after it was seated, it was at least temporarily suspended due to this tension.
“This is the path to a coup d’état”
As early as April 23, when hundreds of thousands of indignant Nicaraguans filled the streets in the first peaceful mass protest, the regime’s spokespeople began to refer to what was happening as a “soft coup d’état.” The regime couldn’t care less that the protestors referred to themselves as “self-convened” precisely to make the point that these massive turnouts were not the result of any political party organizing. Perhaps the leaders of the top-down FSLN simply couldn’t grasp a phenomenon involving such individual initiative and motivation.
Exactly a month later, on May 23, the same day the dialogue was suspended, the official propaganda narrative exchanged “soft” for “hard.” Ortega’s Foreign Minister Denis Moncada, who headed the government’s delegation in the National Dialogue, claimed that the agenda presented that day by the bishops of the Episcopal Conference in their role as mediators of and witnesses to the dialogue was “an agenda that, when seen in concentrated form, leads us to a single point: it is the design of a roadmap to a coup d’état, the pathway to changing Nicaragua’s government.”
What the agenda actually proposed was constitutional mechanisms for holding fair and transparent presidential, municipal and legislative elections, as well as those in the Caribbean autonomous regions, all for the first time in a decade. It also proposed a partial constitutional reform to permit the moving up of the elections and other concurrent reforms.
The rhetorical version
of the “attempted coup”
The rhetoric of an “attempted coup” spread like wildfire among the regime’s officials. Although it was a baseless accusation, a desperate grasping at straws by the regime to discredit and criminalize the clearly peaceful civic protests and cast itself as the unfairly maligned victim, it was also the most foolhardy. Strictly speaking, a coup d’état is a violent action headed by military forces or rebels who seek to take over a country’s government. It implicitly or explicitly expresses lack of recognition of the said govern¬ment’s constitutional legitimacy, and is by no means a negotiated affair.
Moncada’s words, spoken on orders from his boss, were thus a serious political and conceptual blunder, because constitutionally implemented “regime change” is not synonymous with “coup d’état.” The massive outpouring of protesters who clamored in streets around the country wasn’t made up of either military or rebels who intended to take over the government by force. The unarmed character of their civic rebellion is unquestionably the primary factor giving the lie to the official narrative of a coup d’état.
At an August 29 press conference in Managua, months after the coup label had become gospel for the Ortega–Murillo government’s loyal and unthinking supporters, Guillermo Fernández Maldonado, the mission coordinator in Central America of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), publicly made his organization’s response clear. “What we told the government,” said Fernández Maldonado, “is that if that’s their view, they should give us access to the information and places that confirm it, and if we discover that the facts really support this view, we will make it public. But they have not replied to any of our requests for information and have not allowed us to visit any of the sites we proposed.”
He added that the official information to which his mission had access “did not support the view of a coup d’état.” The following day, the fallacy of its narrative exposed and with no further argument beyond force and abuse of power, the regime ordered the OHCHR mission’s expulsion from the country. That’s more what a coup looks like.
Where was the Army when
the “coup” was being forged?
Let’s assume for the purpose of argument that there was in fact an attempted coup, which according to one of Ortega’s international interviews in August was being plotted ever since his return to power in 2007. Let us also assume, as Ortega has reiterated in those same interviews, that the forces behind this conspiracy were “extremist US groups based in Florida,” and those who implemented it were “clandestine armed forces turned into an instrument of death of a rightwing coup.”
This assumption leads one inevitably to question why Ortega waited 11 years to denounce this coup-plotting. What’s more, where were the Army and the Defense Information Bureau (DID)—its “specialized strategic state information” body—and what did they do once the conspiracy had been discovered? Did they do nothing? How is it possible that the statement and two press releases by the Army after April’s events didn’t even make even passing reference to this “major attempted coup d’état”?
In any country in which intelligence agencies discover a coup plot, not to mention an actual coup attempt, security alarms are sounded to neutralize the conspiracy and capture the conspirators. Why didn’t this happen in Nicaragua in all those years? Did the Army not know or was unable to discover in time the threat closing in on its supreme chief, Daniel Ortega? Was it really gleaned by the foreign minister from statements made by the Catholic bishops? Is the DID really that inefficient or did the Army know about the 10-year conspiracy and sit on the plot for unutterable purposes? There is no angle from which the official version of the coup is plausible.
The Army’s attitude in the face of what genuinely happened—a civic rebellion—leads us to reflect on how the armed institution approached April 2018. Did it come as spectators or as accomplices? To answer this question, it’s important to review some history.
1990 was an unprecedented
and hopeful process
After the FSLN’s defeat in the February 1990 elections, the Nicaraguan Army began an unprecedented and hopeful restructuring process. The objective was to establish the foundation of its professionalization and institutionalization to survive in an adverse and overwhelmingly complicated scenario.
The process was unprecedented because, having spent more than a decade as an army taking orders from a political party (the FSLN), it was to be transformed into a national military institution belonging to all Nicaraguans. It would be the first time in Nicaragua’s history that the country would have an army not beholden to the interests of either a power group or a political party. The process was hopeful because this change meant the Army would recognize and accept the supremacy of the legitimately constituted civil authority, thus significantly bolstering the difficult process of building democratic institutionality in the country starting that same year.
Three prior steps
The first step in that process was taken even before the FSLN’s electoral defeat, with the July 1986 reform to the law Creating Honor Ranks, Posts and Military Ranks, in which the ranks military personnel obtained in their years as guerrilla fighters were abandoned and a hierarchical scale was established similar to that found in all professional armies around the world.
The second step was taken in 1990 with the formal rupturing of the Army’s ties to the FSLN in which its main leaders and officers stepped down from the roles they had occupied in the party bureaucracy in fulfillment of the mandates of the March 1990 Transition Agreement.
Time would show, however, that these two steps were little more than formalities. While the most “revolutionary” officers were dismissed in the massive cutback of the Army in the early 1990s, it was impossible to rid even the most compliant remaining military personnel of their loyalty to the political party that had been the womb within which they were formed. Its founders, leaders and top officers never lost their “red and black heart.”
The third step was the construction of the military institution’s legal scaffolding, whose man pillar is the Military Organization, Jurisdiction and Social Welfare Code (Law 181) of September 1994, under which the institution changed its name from the Sandinista Popular Army to the Army of Nicaragua. Years later more laws appeared, among them those related to military justice.
Up to the end of 2006 the Army rightly enjoyed widespread national recognition, as it was a first-line reference both regionally and in the hemisphere. Its role in the political transition of the 1990s, from authoritarianism to democracy, from Daniel Ortega’s regime to the government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, was important. It was especially key in the highly polarized arena of the early years, when the government was subject to intense destabilizing pressures, as much from the rightwing political reactionaries in the short-lived United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO) coalition that had put Chamorro up as its candidate and the most conservative factions of the US Congress as from FSLN extremists, whose leader, Daniel Ortega, decided to “govern from below.”
All that had been achieved
was squandered in 2010
During the two more legitimately-elected governments that followed Violeta Chamorro’s, all three of them of a decidedly neoliberal stripe, the Army continued to play a major role in the eventful process of building Nicaragua’s democratic institutionality. Nevertheless, when Daniel Ortega once again took office, his authoritarian involution project frustrated that trajectory.
This was especially true starting in 2010, when Ortega named Julio César Avilés as the Army’s new Commander in Chief. From that time on, the institution entered a process of accelerated de-institutionalization, soon squandering all it had achieved up to then.
Two weeks after the partial Constitutional reform of January 2014, Law 181 was changed to give the Army greater levels of functional autonomy and nearly complete institutional autonomy. By that time it was evident that General Avilés identified with Ortega’s political project to remain in power indefinitely, and that the Army’s corporate interests, administrated by the Military Social Welfare Institute, and the personal interests of the military top brass—generals and colonels—merged with those of the Ortega–Murillo economic consortium.
From the very day he returned to government, Ortega has never let pass an opportunity to remind the military of their “Sandinista provenance” in his official acts. It is mentioned not as one of the values shaping their original military identity but rather to ensure their political loyalty—or perhaps more accurately their personal loyalty—to his dynastic political project.
April 2018: Impassivity
in the face of massacre
Since April 18 the Army has remained apparently impassive to the political and humanitarian crisis affecting Nicaragua.
The repression unleashed by the Police and paramilitary gangs has left some 500 people dead, more than 4,000 wounded, 1,500 disappeared, hundreds illegally captured, kidnapped and tortured, more than 500 political prisoners and around 400 people legally prosecuted on baseless charges of terrorism and organized crime.
Many have wondered and continue wondering what has led to the indifference of the uniformed ranks. To no avail, sectors of the population and some political agents have called for the Army’s intervention to disarm the paramilitary gangs who, in conjunction with or under approval of the Police, have murdered, kidnapped and captured those who for the most part did nothing more than demand liberty, justice and democracy.
In truth, the Army’s imperturbability is obvious. Although it has not intervened directly in the crisis, the mere act of keeping silent in the face of repression and genocide makes it a silent accomplice of the regime.
We have just three statements from the Army in these months of political and humanitarian crisis: an April 21 press release, a statement from May 12 and another press release from May 30. These are the only three times the military has fleetingly left the cone of silence in which it had ensconced itself.
Three “neutral” messages
On April 21, immediately after the massacre began, in a press release titled “the Army’s position in light of the country’s situation,” the military brass said they were “filled with pain and mourning.” They joined and backed “the decision to seek a solution by means of dialogue to find a consensual answer to the issue that gave rise to these painful moments.” They also rejected “the manipulation of information developed around the Nicaraguan Army’s conduct,” without specifying what that “manipulation” consisted of.
The May 12 statement, nearly a month after the Police and paramilitary forces unleashed their orgy of innocent blood and criminal repression and four days before the National Dialogue was seated, continued the neutral style of the previous release. It expressed solidarity “with the families who have lost loved ones and with those who in one way or another have been affected by all the acts of violence,” stating that they supported “efforts to clarify these acts and to proceed in accordance with the law.” Dialogue, they indicated, “is the only path that will avoid irreversible affectations to our people, our economy, national development and security.” They backed “the labor of mediation and witness to the Dialogue led by His Grace Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes.” And they warned that “the current situation is dragging us toward divisions in the Nicaraguan family due to campaigns that foment hate,” without indicating who was doing the fomenting.
The May 30 press release was published right after snipers stationed in the National Stadium shot at the massive Mother’s Day protest march in Managua, killing eight youths in front of the Central American University (UCA). It was also the day that saw three other murders in Chinandega, one in Masaya and four in Estelí, three cities where marches similar to the one in the capital were taking place, not to mention dozens of wounded in those different places. It is an exculpatory text related to a video that made the rounds on social networks, in which trucks with armed personnel appeared entering and leaving the Military Hospital installations. The Army, said the release, “reiterates its rejection of all forms of manipulation of false information, which through different media is published to misrepresent our institution’s actions,” declaring that they would never accept slanderous information. The release added that “The Nicaraguan Army has absolute control of its forces and equipment.”
The Army has followed these three communications with absolute silence on the massacre. That silence reigned while the bloody “clean-up operations” took place, while the official version of a “coup d’état” was shored up, while the country’s jails filled with “coup-plotters” and “terrorists,” while the country was plunged into a critical situation from which escape was increasingly uncertain....
The contradiction between the
Constitution and the Military Code
The military’s silence in the face of the political crisis plaguing Nicaragua since April needs to be analyzed from three dimensions: legal, political and financial.
The assessment of the legal dimension starts by considering constitutional principles and the principle established in the reformed Military Code (Law 855) of January 2014.
There is a contradiction between its constitutional mandate and what Law 855 stipulates regarding the Army’s intervention in missions of public security and internal order. Article 92 of the Constitution establishes that “Only in exceptional cases may the President of the Republic, in the Cabinet and in support of the National Police, order the Nicaraguan Army to intervene when the stability of the Republic is threatened by major internal disorders, calamities or natural disasters.” This constitutional article determines a clear restriction on the military, permitting them to act “only in exceptional cases” and facing “major internal disorders,” by order of the President of the Republic. In fact, what is happening in Nicaragua is an exceptional case but those who have caused the major internal disorders have been the Police and paramilitary forces. So it would not be in support of the Police that the Army would need to intervene, but rather to disarm both the participating police branch and the paramilitary forces. But how could one think of Ortega ordering the Army to intervene to neutralize the very forces keeping him in power?
Counter to what the Constitution stipulates, Article 2 of Law 855 stipulates that one of the Army’s 20 duties is “to provide its forces and equipment to fight threats to security and national defense, and any illicit activity that puts at risk the existence of the Nicaraguan government, its institutions and the founding principles of the nation.”
Thus while the Constitution conditions the Army’s intervention, Law 855 does not, instead giving it a free hand to intervene without a Presidential order. Without expressly saying so, the Army is taking advantage of this contradiction for its own convenience, since the Constitution is above any regular law. Given the bloodshed in our country, however, it’s worth asking why the Army is not complying with what its own law mandates.
Avilés’ limited political authority
The political dimension explaining the Army’s silence is very clear. The current Army Commander in Chief, General Julio César Avilés, obviously has neither the political authority nor the personal talent to put his foot down with Ortega–Murillo, as those who preceded him did with previous Presidents, each in his own time and for different reasons.
Avilés is among the founders of the Sandinista Popular Army, but his level of political heritage is inferior to that of the generals who came before him as commanders in chief: Humberto Ortega, Joaquín Cuadra, Javier Carrión and Omar Halleslevens. Avilés took command of the Army in February 2010 for a five-year period ending in February 2015. Given his submission to the presidential couple, however, Ortega “awarded” him an extension of his period for five more years, until February 2020.
“Blood soaked” money
The third dimension that allows us to assess the military institution’s silence was little known among the citizenry, with the exception of specialists and perhaps a few politically-informed sectors. It regards the Army’s millions of dollars in resources, administered so efficiently by the Military Social Welfare Institute (IPSM).
An audit by Deloitte & Touche determined that in 2002 the IPSM had US$29.5 million in capital, an amount that had increased to US$72.3 million by 2009. By 2012 these funds may well have increased to US$100 million, with 40% of them invested in US bonds administered by the investment firms Russell Investments, Reverence Capital Partners and TA Associates. Without stopping to calculate complicated financial operations, we can imagine by how much the IPSM resources may have increased today, six years later.
With all this in mind, Nicaraguans in the United States have launched a campaign for these investment firms to cease administering the Nicaraguan Army’s pension fund, denouncing it as stained with the blood of Nicaraguans murdered by the Ortega–Murillo regime. “We must let them know,” they declared in a letter sent to the general managers of the investment firms, “that they are sitting on money soaked in the blood of our Nicaraguan brothers and sisters, so they break off their relationship with the murderous regime of Daniel Ortega and his benefactors in the Army.”
Will they be willing to
squander their millions?
The Army knows full well that the funds it has invested in the United States would be automatically frozen if it were to get openly involved in the Ortega–Murillo regime’s bloody repression. This would have a devastating impact on the institution. The Army would have virtually no way to cover its obligations to the officers who have already retired or will retire, nor could it maintain the additional benefits it provides to its own. This partially explains not just the military’s silence, but also their veiled participation in the crisis and the repression.
In early September, in statements made to a US television chain, Florida’s Republican Senator Marco Rubio warned the Nicaraguan military that participating in the repression would have “consequences,” specifying: “The retirement funds of Nicaraguan military personnel are invested in the US stock market. They will be frozen.” The threat was enough to at least keep up appearances...
There’s more. Through IPSM, the Nicaraguan Army is one of the principal stockholders in the Banco de Finanzas (BDF), one of four Nicaraguan banks negatively rated at the end of August by Fitch Group, a global leader in financial information services and credit ratings. This has put the military’s financial interests at risk, given that in the case of bankruptcy, shareholders will be the first affected. As the economic crisis generated by the political crisis triggered by the Ortega–Murillo partnership deepens, the risk will grow.
This should have set off alarm bells and a red alert among military authorities. No one knows the measures they are taking or have already taken. There are enough compelling reasons for them to warn Ortega and Murillo that they are headed over a cliff, assuming the couple is oblivious to that fact. But they have closed ranks around them. Will the military be willing to squander their millions in resources, leaving the officers who pay into IPSM helpless and bankrupt?
An army tailor-made
for Ortega and Murillo
Article 93 of the Constitution defines the Army as “a national institution with a professional, non-partisan, apolitical, obedient and non-deliberating character.” Article 94 stipulates that “the members of the Nicaraguan Army and the National Police may not engage in sectarian political activities.”
In practice, Ortega and Murillo have rendered these constitutional precepts meaningless, as demonstrated by apparently irrelevant facts that in reality are highly pertinent. For example, prior to 2007, Army, Air Force and Navy anniversary celebrations appropriately took place in their military units, usually in the morning and following military protocol. This changed when Ortega returned to government. The Secretary of Communication and Citizenship and now also Vice President, Rosario Murillo, took over the military celebrations, conducting them outside the military units and at the end of the day.
Typically understated military protocol was replaced by Murillo’s trademark style: tons of flowers and the blue and white national flag overshadowed by the red and black FSLN flag. National celebrations were transformed into partisan rallies with the acquiescence of military authorities. While this is in open violation of Article 94 of the Constitution, military personnel have appeared more satisfied than uncomfortable.
These acts send a far from subliminal message: “The Army stands with the government.” With the deeply-rooted hawkish tradition that inhabits Nicaraguans’ collective imagination, this message easily takes hold among the population, giving the regime a privileged position of power: firepower, the power that today props up the Ortega–Murillo regime.
What’s the tradeoff for
the military leaders?
What does the Army receive in exchange for supporting the two-headed regime? Apparently nothing but promises to modernize its air and sea fleet, which is outdated and highly precarious.
First, Ortega tried to obtain this modern equipment from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but the government of that ex-KGB agent was not and is not now in any state to make the kind of generous donations Nicaragua enjoyed in the 1980s from the now-defunct USSR. Ortega was only able to negotiate with a Russian shipyard to purchase six land vehicles, four patrol boats and two unnecessary missile carriers. A clueless general spoke of acquiring Mig-29 war planes with the silly idea of fighting drug trafficking... It was also rumored that they would receive a fleet of Russian Yak-130s, a training and combat plane that is of little to no use in the interdiction of international drug trafficking planes.
In the end, the Army had to settle for a Russian donation of T-72 B1 tanks rejected by the Russian armed forces. They only bring increased costs for Nicaragua because they require maintenance even when they are only used for exhibit in military parades.
In this context, something unexpected appeared out of nowhere: the government announced that it had hired the Dutch company B.V. Schepswerf Damen Gorinchem to purchase two Damen Stan Patrol 4207 boats worth US$14 million. With no further explanation, and despite the fact that the National Assembly approved the corresponding loan to pay for them, the two patrol boats have yet to arrive at the country’s ports.
The Army tolerates
the paramilitary groups
If the Army has only received broken promises in exchange for supporting the Ortega–Murillo regime, why has it kept silent in the face of the criminal repression unleashed by the governing couple? The only thought is that perhaps it’s defending not only its corporate and financial interests, but also the military leadership’s personal interests, which could collude with those of Ortega, Murillo and their closest circles.
There’s no other apparent explanation because if one thing is certain, it’s that their relationship is grounded in neither ideological nor political affinity as was the case in the revolutionary period. Now the commonalities are essentially utilitarian, of mutual financial gain.
It may be true that the Army has “absolute control of its forces and equipment,” as its May 30 press release stated, but the reality is that, willingly or not, the military have allowed the Police and paramilitary groups to strip them of their legitimate monopoly on force, turning them into supporting actors in the national tragedy. The Constitution recognizes the existence of two separate armed institutions in Nicaragua, one military (the Army) and the other civilian (the Police).
Intending to contain and neutralize the unexpected massive, self-convened and peaceful civic rebellion, Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo turned to the Police and paramilitary gangs, organized out of the Vice President’s office in coordination with the 135 municipalities headed by FSLN authorities and on the ground with the Councils of Citizen’s Power (CPCs) Murillo also controls.
Paramilitary gangs, an armed
force outside the Constitution
The paramilitary gangs are made up of former police and military personnel, active-duty police officers who dress as civilians by night, municipal workers, an indeterminate number of the over 800 prisoners serving time—including for hard crimes—who were liberated on Ortega’s orders, demobilized military service conscripts, former or active gang members and at-risk youth, in addition to smalltime drug dealers. Leadership is distributed among members of the Association of Retired Military (AMIR); former special troop members of the now defunct Interior Ministry known as Pablo Úbeda Troops (TPU); active members of the Police Special Operations Unit (DOEP) which includes anti-drug/organized crime and anti-riot forces; and Police officials with military experience.
Although it is virtually impossible to determine the exact number of troops, it is critical to indicate that these paramilitary gangs are a genuine irregular force with military capacity that mobilizes in a quasi-military format but does not respond to the security forces’ official command structures, in this case the Police.
In photos and videos making the rounds in the social media it’s possible to identify the weapons they use, including AK-47, FAL and AR15 assault weapons, 12-caliber rifles, M1 rifles, pistols and revolvers.
If the Constitution expressly stipulates that “there can be no more armed bodies on national territory than those established in the Constitution” and the paramilitary gangs are a third armed force, to whom does it fall to comply with this constitutional precept? The Constitution indicates that it is the President of the Republic. But if he doesn’t do it, who should instead? The answer to this question is found in both the Constitution and Law 855, the “Army Law.” The Constitution indicates in Article 95 that “the Nicaraguan Army shall abide in strict adherence to the Constitution, for which it will maintain respect and obedience.” Law 855 stipulates in Article 2 that one of the Army’s duties is “to put its forces and equipment in service to fight threats to national security and defense, and any illicit activity that puts the Nicaraguan government, its institutions and the founding principles of the nation at risk.”
The Army is complying with neither
the Constitution nor its own laws
It is plain that the paramilitary forces, as an illegal armed force, constitute a serious threat to national security and defense, and their illicit activities put the government, its institutions and the founding principles of the nation at risk. This article neither conditions nor restricts the Army’s intervention to control and neutralize this “third armed force” organized, armed and financed by the governing couple.
As a result, if the Army is not providing its forces and equipment to fight the threat, it is simply because it is unwilling to comply with what the law mandates, thus de facto backing the Ortega–Murillo regime against the will of the vast majority of Nicaraguans who are calling for justice and democracy and demanding that the pair step down.
Military personnel are also in violation of the Constitution because by not disarming the paramilitary forces, it becomes clear that they are not governed by it, neither respecting nor obeying it. Although the Army has the legitimacy of its origins, its complicit silence has stripped it of legitimacy of action.
Evidence is found in the little or no trust the majority of Nicaraguans today have in the Army, as well as their unfavorable opinion of General Julio César Avilés, its commander in chief, according to a CID Gallup opinion poll taken in September 2018.
Robert Cajina is a civilian consultant in security, defense and democratic governability.