Pressing questions at the end of this year of rebellion
This was a year of economic belt-tightening. If the political, social, economic and definitely humanitarian crisis doesn’t move toward resolution soon, the coming year will be nothing short of desperate for the already-poor majority in a small country in which close to half a million people have already lost their jobs with no unemployment insurance.
President Ortega has lost all his prestige in the international community, is increasingly isolated at home and is strategically defeated. While the repression has not stopped after seven months, the gunning down of protesting youths has been replaced with more targeted disappearances, imprisonment, torture and farcical trials.
Most Nicaraguans are anxious, if not actually desperate for the international pressure to pick up speed, as each passing day prolongs the government’s inhuman excesses, the economy’s erosion and the grinding down of society. The year is ending with a growing sense of uncertainty and many pressing questions that have no answers.
What could force
them to the table?
Will the inevitably worsening economic crisis and the economic interests of the Army and the entrepreneurs in the FSLN’s own economic group win out over the iron obstinacy of Ortega and Murillo to hang on to power at whatever cost to others? Or will the sanctions that Washington has not only announced but begun to apply with determination make Ortega and Murillo back down and return to the negotiating table? Even if they did, what would they be prepared to negotiate? And what price would the opposition pay to be rid of them?
The idea of Ortega being able to tough it out until 2021 with an economy wobbling on its pins but not yet collapsed can’t be discarded. Isn’t that possibility one that needs to be taken into consideration to undertake more effective strategies to pressure for resolution to the crisis?
Grim is the new normal
The government calls it a “return to normality.” But there’s nothing normal about the fear of leaving one’s house at night or of being picked up by the police in the middle of a shopping mall in broad daylight because you were spotted on Facebook carrying a small national flag in a demonstration—an act the government now considers terrorism.
Admittedly there’s an appearance of normality to the unsuspecting visitor, at least in the capital. The majority of those who had jobs still have them and are going through the motions to survive. But the insecurity hasn’t disappeared; the hunt continues inexorably for those who mobilized against the regime, are suspected of having done so or are even considered likely to do so in the future.
And life has been anything but normal for those hundreds of thousands who lost their job and had to migrate to Costa Rica, Panama or Honduras in search of work, fled to those countries or to Nicaragua’s own central mountains to save their life, or have relatives, friends or neighbors who have been threatened, jailed, tortured, disappeared or killed. Life isn’t even normal for people who never protested but have enough sense or sensitivity to recognize the massive, expensive and gaudy Christmas decorations and lights that now laden the traffic circles as an insult to the country’s bizarre and painful reality.
From recession to depression?
Like the political situation, and mainly because of it, there’s nothing normal about the economy either. The problems feed each other in a closed chain: more firings; less consumption; fewer tourists; more business closings; less tax income; fewer workers paying into the already drained social security system; more borrowers in arrears; more withdrawal of bank deposits, particularly in dollars; less credit available; falling production; more investors pulling out; less economic activity; less personal security…
The Treasury Ministry recognized that the deficit just in what’s left of the national budget to the end of 2018 is equivalent to “three times the impact of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and probably only comparable to that of the Managua earthquake in 1972.” Despite the budget cuts already decreed, what remains is still underfinanced, and no one seems interested in buying the over 9 billion córdobas (more than US$280 million) in bonds issued by the Central Bank to cover the deficit with public debt.
Next year’s approved budget is underfinanced coming out of the gate. The prognoses for 2019 indicate that everything will get even worse unless a political solution to the crisis is found. Nicaragua has gone from being the country with the fastest economic growth in Central America to being the only one whose growth is negative this year and could be much worse next year.
The latest analysis by FUNIDES contemplates two scenarios for 2019. In the best one, the economy will have the same critical rhythm as in the last quarter of 2018, in which case it will only shrink 5.2%. But if the uncertainty increases even more “due to the lack of political will to seek a peaceful way out of the crisis,” the drop could reach 8.7%.
“Confidence has to be reestablished”
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) had programmed a visit to Nicaragua for June, but due to the crisis it was postponed until the last days of October.
The government tried to portray the visit as evidence of the “normality” it’s trying to hype. Vice President Murillo underscored that the IMF praised the government’s monetary and budgetary policies and said “it is going in the right direction to continue normalizing the country.”
But the bottom line for the IMF was more ambiguous than that. It knows as well as the government that for some time the Nicaraguan economy has needed structural reforms to guarantee fiscal sustainability. These reforms are now more urgent than ever. The Social Security Institute’s finances also needed to be cleaned up, with experts saying it is heading for the worst economic crisis in its history. Moreover, the tax system also needs reforming, including a careful review of all the exonerations to business sectors. The IMF made clear that “those reforms are inevitable,” noting that they require “broad support.” But broad support is precisely what the government has lost since April.
Unlike previous visits, the IMF didn’t hold a press conference in Managua at the end this time. In a communique published once the mission was back in Washington, it only recommended one thing: “reestablish confidence.”
Due to the loss of confidence, both foreign and national investments have dropped like never before in the last decade, when Ortega did an unexpectedly successful job of attracting them. For the same reason, depositors have withdrawn more than US$1.05 billion from Nicaragua’s banks between April and the start of September, representing 18% of the deposits, according to economist Néstor Avendaño.
The drop in consumption is evident. Even the part of the population that still believes in the government has had to tighten its belt, foregoing purchases. Fewer córdobas are circulating and, according to FUNIDES, some 417,000 people had lost their job by the end of October. Christmas promises to be a lean affair for many families, and also a grieving one for many.
The greatest confidence is focused on exports, but even they have dropped, in this case due to the steep fall in coffee prices and generally low international prices for Nicaragua’s other traditional exports. There is growing confidence that the remittances sent home by people who have left the country will increase next year thanks to the still-rising number of forced exiles and the solidarity in such difficult moments between older emigrants in other countries and the families they left behind.
IDB “not thinking about anything hew”
The economic sanctions included in the US Congress’ Magnitsky-Nica Act would require US representatives to international financial institutions to vote against loan requests by Nicaragua. Last year these institutions financed 24% of the national budget, especially for public investment projects.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Nicara¬gua’s main lender, left pending its approval of the “Country Strategy 2018-2022” which would finance such projects for that period. The IDB’s vice president referred to loans for US$566 million for a dozen new projects the bank still hasn’t disbursed. “We are being very careful about what already exists,” he said, “rather than thinking about anything new. Moreover, the crisis is making us much more cautious and we are redoubling efforts to supervise and audit the government’s use of our resources.”
Campaigns against Nica products
Four income sources fundamental for Nicaragua’s economic growth depend on the United States: foreign direct investment, tourism, exports (from the free trade zones as well as the traditional ones) and remittances. The latter are growing, but even without the probable sanctions, two of the other three—tourism and investments—have already virtually dried up.
In a speech to the American-Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce on October 29, just before leaving Nicaragua at the end of her term, US Ambassador Laura Dogu referred to the first three sources with unusual frankness. Regarding investments, she said: “When current and potential investors ask the Embassy for advice today, our response is that Nicaragua lacks the democratic institutions necessary for sustainable economic growth.”
She used the opportunity to question the regime’s narrative and its influence on both investors and tourists: “The government’s decision to label peaceful protestors as ‘terrorists, assassins and coup-mongers’ will cause businesses and business owners major problems. Most insurance policies have a terrorism exclusion, dramatically raising the cost of doing business in Nicaragua. Nicaraguan travelers will be subject to extra scrutiny in order to identify terrorists and assassins. Anyone who has lived through the last six months knows there are no non-state terrorist groups in Nicaragua but people outside of the region who do not follow the situation carefully will take these words seriously.” She added that the State Department “travel advisories” for US citizens traveling to Nicaragua “will not change anytime soon.”
Regarding exports, she talked about a previously unmentioned factor: “In today’s global economy, companies cannot afford to take on reputational risk. I have already seen campaigns in the United States asking companies why they are buying products from Nicaragua. These campaigns are similar to the campaigns on African ‘blood diamonds.’ Companies can buy the same textiles, coffee or meat from other countries that do not put their reputation at risk. This problem with reputation will not change with the current government in power.”
“I see no signs”
During her three years here, Ambassador Dogu, an Obama appointee, made a consistent effort to cultivate good relations with the Ortega government, and maintained a diplomatic tone even since April. Direct and challenging statements regarding the government such as the following were thus particularly powerful: “Contrary to what the government propaganda wants you to believe, Nicaragua has not returned to normality. Ortega’s decisions have already cost $500 million of Nicaragua’s wealth that could have been used to build houses, start new businesses, treat the sick or educate youth….. No amount of propaganda on state-controlled media will change these facts. There will not be a return to business as usual without transformative change to restore free elections, the separation of powers, the rule of law and the protection of the human rights of its citizens. Unfortunately, I see no signs that President Ortega or Vice President Murillo is willing to consider a negotiated solution.”
While determined not to accept the “good-faith” negotiation the ambassador referred to, the regime has taken great pains in recent days to halt Asian, African and Haitian migrants at its southern border and to seize cocaine and money from drug trafficking. This show is surely to remind the United States of the retaining wall Ortega has offered as a guarantee of stability that so pleased Washington for the past decade.
First a state of exception,
now a police State
There is no longer any way to dissemble Ortega’s authoritarian project, which first evolved into a dictatorship and then into a de facto state of exception that has left the population utterly defenseless. It is now evolving into a police State, with increasingly ominous control over everyone and everything everywhere.
As of November 1, the Public Property Registry ceased being public. A simple circular from the Supreme Court president ordered that “third parties” will have limited possibility of obtaining information about properties and commercial enterprises. The measure legalized hiding registry transactions in order to camouflage or outright hide property transfers by the governing family and its cronies to protect them from Washington’s sanctions and, as jurist José Pallais added, “to escape public scrutiny” about a number of surely challengeable holdings. But doing so also affects the general economy even more, as Alberto Novoa, another highly respected jurist, noted: “No one will be sure what’s being bought, so it’s better not to buy.”
Two new regulations applied to the Financial Analysis Unit (UAF) law and the anti-terrorism law, both approved by presidential decree and published on October 3, serve as another control measure. Without needing any judicial mandate or previously informing those being investigated, the UAF can now directly access all personal data and financial movements of individuals and businesses in eight state institutions: among them Customs, Taxes, Migration, Social Security and the Superintendence of Banks.
“This made financial espionage official,” said Pallais. “Data are no longer confidential and private. And the UAF moves from being a preventive body to one of persecution and repression to intimidate and politically act against Ortega’s opponents.” COSEP President José Adán Aguerri added that they’ll be able to require someone’s private information on the mere presumption that the person is guilty or is committing a crime.
This measure violates the Constitution by violating the right to privacy. It is a new repressive tool, since the UAF, under Ortega’s total control, will be able to temporarily or definitively close businesses, companies, financial institutions, NGOs and the like at his discretion.
“They hurt the economy!”
Just as it assumes no political responsibility for this national crisis, the regime also refuses to admit any blame for the economic crisis. In addition to attributing all deaths and other human tragedies since April to the “golpistas” they now claim are defeated, Ortega and Murillo also hold the same protesters responsible for the collapse of the economy.
Ortega told his peers from the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) meeting in Managua on November 8 that “they caused an enormous wound among Nicaraguan families with the deaths, and an enormous wound in the Nicaraguan economy with the destruction, the terror and the vandalism. Now they’re trying to peddle the story that the government is responsible for the difficulties we are having at this time. They are the ones responsible, they hurt the economy! But the Nicaraguan people are workers, a fighting people, and are now working to recover our country’s economy.”
The government’s gamble on the “grassroots economy” sidesteps the evidence that it is precisely that economy that is suffering the most. It also ignores the fact that however much Nicaraguans are fighters and workers they can’t recover an economy as open and as dependent on the United States as this one.
Statizing Venezuelan cooperation?
That rhetorical promotion of the “grassroots economy” has been complemented by other steps that have to do with trying to minimize Washington’s sanctions. The regime is particularly worried about those that would hit Albanisa, the Venezuelan-Nicaraguan private consortium created to manage and invest the oil revenues generated in Nicaragua by Venezuelan cooperation; Vene¬zuela’s already-sanctioned state oil company, PDVSA, is he nominal owner of 51% of Albanisa’s stock. The regime is reportedly transferring a good part of Albaisa’s extensive holdings to a new state company called the Nicaraguan Import and Export Company (Enimex) to minimize the damage, although the closing of the Property Registry to public scrutiny makes that impossible to verify.
On October 4, Ortega sent a bill to the National Assembly to convert the inefficient state-owned Nicaraguan Import Company (Enimport), originally established in 1980, into Enimex. This “new” company will be able to import and export goods and merchandise and commercialize them on the national market, as well as offering a menu of business services (warehousing, transport and others) to any commercial activity. Where the “grassroots” economy comes into this scheme is that the government defended the project with the argument that its objective is to facilitate the power of micro, small and medium-sized individual businesses and cooperatives to export their products. Since Ortega’s real objective is simply to reconstitute Albanisa, Enimex would simply be a parallel state structure to dodge Washington’s sanctions against PDVSA.
“This road leads to disaster”
Fifteen business associations grouped under the COSEP umbrella signed a communique on October 17 “recommending” that the government not approve the law creating Enimex. They argued that it “puts at serious risk the sustainability and efficiency of the export and import processes the private sector has managed for the past 28 years and that have generated tangible benefits for Nicaragua.” As expected, however, the creation of Enimex was approved on October 30 by the governing party’s legislative bench, which has absolute control over the parliament.
“The regime is acting as though it can replace the private sector with state-owned enterprises,” said Ambassador Dogu, implicitly referring to the new state business. “A country with Nicaragua’s history knows that way leads to disaster.”
Does this transfer mean we can also expect the huge oil debt with Venezuela—which the regime has always assured us was a private debt Albanisa would pay out of the profits from the companies it created—to now also become public, paid off with taxpayers’ money?
The Ortega-Murillo dictatorship seems immune to the destructive effects of the economic crisis, to the disaster the economy is heading towards. Mentally Ortega seems to still be living in the 1980s when he governed a country with a war economy that was more ruinous than the current one. If this is the case, the hope harbored by many that the economic crisis will finally force him to the negotiating table, even to resign, would be little more than a pipe dream. What more could the business sector do to put a stop to the governing couple’s misrule?
“Too much blood has already been shed”
The ruling couple seems equally immune to the international community’s rejection and pressures. Or is the problem that the pressures haven’t yet been very forceful?
The OAS Permanent Council has met repeatedly since June to address Nicaragua’s crisis. Successive declarations condemning the Ortega regime for its repressive policies have been approved by a significant majority of the member countries, including most of the largest ones, but they have rolled off Ortega like water off a duck’s back.
On October 19, in yet another of these meetings, Secretary General Luis Almagro warned the regime that the OAS may well turn to article 20 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. This article establishes that in the event of an unconstitutional alteration that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state, the Permanent Council can be called upon to apply any decisions it deems appropriate to restore democracy, which would obviously go beyond the mere declarations and resolutions already issued. Should that not produce results, it can moves to a special session of the General Assembly. If diplomatic initiatives at that level also fail, Article 21 can be invoked, which involves suspending the offending country from the OAS, with the economic and political consequences that implies. “Too much blood has already been shed,” said Almagro that day. “The time has come to question, ask, require, request, even demand that the violence be stopped.”
The “hunt” in rural zones
During that same Permanent Council meeting, IACHR executive secretary Paulo Abrão made another presentation, which he opened with these words: “I am worried about what is coming.” Based on the information he’s receiving from the IACHR’s Follow-up Mechanism (MESENI) mission in Nicaragua, he explained that what was coming was a “state of exception” characterized by the persistent use of detention as a form of reprisal for the protests, criminalizing people who participated in any way in peaceful demonstrations against the government since April.
Abrão said they have been seeing concentrated attacks against the independent media and commented for the first time on violence unleashed by the regime in the rural areas, which is not sufficiently known or reported on. He described a more intense atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the countryside than in Managua, with lists circulating of people who oppose the government that have led whole families to abandon their homes and flee into the mountains. He added that it has been impossible to quantify their number.
The previous month, Freddy Navas of the Peasant Movement had put the figure of peasants who have been imprisoned at 300. “The greatest fury in the repression was suffered by the peasantry after the roadblocks were dismantled,” he said. “This was seen particularly along the canal route, and began in Chontales. The Army has participated together with the Police in the hunt for peasants, and there are rural zones that are literally militarized.”
The vote to apply article 20
Ortega even appears immune to Almagro himself. A month after Almagro’s warning about the possible invoking of Article 20, there had been no further advances in the OAS, so the regime continued scorning the regional actors.
The current IACHR president, Jamaican attorney Margarette May Macaulay, traveled to Nicaragua on October 26. The government didn’t even respond to a request from the OAS secretary general announcing her visit, and refused to receive her. That same day, a three-member team from the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a continental organization that works for human rights in coordination with the national organizations of each country, was refused entry. It had come to meet with Macaulay, but its members were expelled at the airport itself under the argument that they had not made their request to enter early enough.
Ortega seems to be counting on both Venezuela, his staunch ally in the OAS, and the small Caribbean countries that benefit from Venezuelan oil through the Petrocaribe scheme to obstruct the majority needed to invoke article 20 of the Democratic Charter. Those countries have absented themselves, abstained or voted against all resolutions on Nicaragua, resulting in a typical vote in favor of 21 out of 34 countries, 2 short of the 23 needed to apply that sanction. Does Almagro not yet have those 2?
“The Europeans aren’t welcome!”
In the last days of October, German Minister of State Niels Annen visited Nicaragua to sound out the possibilities of reestablishing the national dialogue. As Germany is the world’s fourth largest economic power and Europe’s main one, he met with other national actors and was received by the government itself. His visit provided an opening for a European Union (EU) delegation to announce its plan to visit Nicaragua at the end of November to seek ways out of the crisis.
Nonetheless, on November 8, barely a week after Annen’s visit, a livid Ortega announced in a public event held in Managua with ALBA representatives that he wouldn’t let the Europeans into Nicaragua, just as he had already denied entrance to the representatives of the Working Group of 12 OAS countries headed by Canada.
“They aren’t welcome in Nicaragua!” he said of the OAS Working Group members. “We’ve communicated this to them with complete clarity. They are better off dedicating themselves to seeking a way to resolve the problems they have in their own countries—deaths, instability, insecurity, human rights violations…”
In the same angry tone, he then referred to the expected visit of the EU delegation. “The Europeans should do the same. Another grouping of Europeans has now formed, and we’re saying no to them as well! …They’ve forgotten that they have been large-scale slave traffickers, human rights violators, have committed crimes against humanity, full-scale genocides! …We can’t accept the threats they are launching at us.”
His rage didn’t skip an allusion to Germany: “And where was World War II born? Where did fascism, Nazism come from, if not Europe? How did Hitler come to power if not with the backing of Germany’s big capital, and the big capital of the United States? They’ve now forgotten that; they’ve forgotten who put Hitler in government!”
Is Ortega so immune to pressures from the international community because they don’t move beyond declarations of condemnation or, at the very worst, the freezing of development aid projects? The slowness in applying greater force and the politically correct tepidity of the pronouncements seem to be giving Ortega wings to forge ahead with the state terrorism policy on which his power is currently based.
The solution is
“sanctions to the max”
After Ortega’s imprudent imprecations, Josep Borrell, foreign affairs minister for the European Union and cooperation minister in Spain’s socialist government, lamented the lack of effective international actions in response to what he called the “Nicaraguan tragedy.” Speaking in Madrid’s Ibero-American Forum, he said that “following such bloody repression, the international community has not been able to impose a demand for accountability and a political dynamic on the dictatorship in Nicaragua that would permit this situation to be surmounted.”
Alluding to Venezuela, Borrell attributed that reluctance to the fact that our tragedy is that of a “small country hiding behind the crisis of a large country on which all eyes of the world are turned…. If we discard the solutions that use force from outside or from within, which seem improbable, and we discard an evolution of the regime, which also seems improbable, the only solution would be for the international community to apply pressure, sanctions to the limit. But regrettably that isn’t on the radar screen for the immediate future either.”
The US alerts international banks
The announced US sanctions are envisioned precisely to go “to the limit” and given where they’re coming from could end up being what forces the governing couple—and the corrupt circle around them, the Army included, that has benefitted by their rule—to negotiate a way out of the crisis.
In fact, in a speech at one of the continuous string of FSLN marches organized in October to buttress his cult of followers, Ortega called on US legislators to “reflect” before approving the sanctions. And he did it in a different tone than the irate one he used for the OAS and EU.
On October 4, the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) sent out an “advisory” to US financial institutions about the “growing risk” that funds from “high-ranking” Nicaraguan political figures could come into the US financial system or pass through it on the way to other countries in money laundering maneuvers aimed at avoiding Washington’s sanctions on the Ortega-Murillo regime. The funds that need to be watched would be coming out through Nicaragua’s Corporative Bank (Bancorp), which now belongs to the governing family. Its assets increased hugely at the end of 2017, when the United States first warned Nicaraguan banks that they could be sanctioned if they had any financial relations with businesses of the Albanisa consortium. In response, the regime promptly transferred all the Albanisa business moneys previously deposited in three national banks to Bancorp, which is now surely looking to transfer them out of the country under different names.
“It’s only a start”
Ambassador Dogu referred to the FinCEN alert in her parting words: “There are two notable items in this advisory. First, that this is an ongoing campaign [the US financial institutions must present continuous reports of “suspicious activity”]. And secondly, that there is a focus on all individuals who engage in corruption, not just public officials. Anyone engaging [in] or benefitting from corruption can be targeted. Again, this is a start, not an end.”
Nicaraguan political analyst Óscar René Vargas offered this addition: “As long as the dictatorship doesn’t have access to another Swift, to an alternative channel for its commercial businesses with the world, an independent system of financial transactions beyond the reach of the dollar and the US banks, the two laws Washington will use to sanction it will be catastrophic for it.”
Where will the acquired fortune of the Ortega family and allies end up? Russia? China? The small Caribbean countries allied to Ortega out of gratitude for Venezuelan oil? The advisory cuts across all international financial institutions that have correspondence with US ones, so the governing circle urgently needs to get their millions out of the dollar and euro camp.
In what may well not be a coincidence, the Ortega-Murillo regime recently named nationalized Libyan Nicaraguan Mohamed Lashtar, who has worked in the Nicaraguan government for years and is a nephew of Muammar al Gaddafi, as its new ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the United Arab Emirates. As such, Lashtar will also be in charge of three other embassies: in Kuwait, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Some analysts have suggested that naming someone so trusted by Ortega could be linked to the movement of financial resources to those countries to avoid their being caught up in US Magnitsky sanctions.
How will Law S.3233 be applied?
After what Ambassador Dogu defined as the “start” would come US Senate approval of the Nica-Magnitsky bill officially known as S.3233. Because the Senate Foreign Relations Committee significantly amended the version already approved by the House, that revised version would have to go back to the house once approved in the Senate. The sponsors of the House bill have already guaranteed its immediate passage.
Section 2 of the revised bill addresses the issue of a negotiated solution to the crisis, asserting that “credible negotiations between the Government of Nicaragua and representatives of Nicaragua’s civil society, student movement, private sector and political opposition, mediated by the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, represent the best opportunity to reach a peaceful solution to the current political crisis.”
Once passed, will Washington keep the onerous law as a sword hanging over Ortega’s head to see how he reacts to both the pressure and the exit path it offers via the waiver, thus prolonging the crisis? Or will the personalized sanctions begin to be applied without further ado? Will the new balance of power between Democrats and Republicans in the US House of Representatives after the November 6 midterm elections have any influence on its application?
“The troika of tyranny”
On November 1, less than a week before those elections, John Bolton, President Trump’s very hawkish national security adviser, revealed what is presumably the White House position on Nicaragua in a strident rhetorical speech in Miami. Bolton had gone there to whip up votes for Republican candidates among the rightwing Venezuelan, Cuban and Nicaraguan communities that make up an important part of Florida’s population.
Playing to his audience, Bolton referred to Nicaragua as a member of the “triangle of terror”—the other two members obviously being Cuba and Venezuela. He called their rulers “dictators and despots” who belong to a “troika of tyranny,” and compared them to “the three stooges, pathetic figures, clowns most like Larry, Curly and Moe.” He also named the three governments as “the cause of the immense human suffering, enormous regional instability and genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere,” language we’ve seldom heard since the Reagan administration.
“Under President Trump,” Bolton announced, “the United States is taking direct action against all three regimes to defend the rule of law, liberty and basic human decency in our region.” While his exaggerated language could have been electoral hyperbole, Vox.com saw the speech as portending “a massive escalation in US foreign policy,” a significant about-face from the Obama administration’s famous assurance that it wouldn’t interfere much in the Western Hemisphere’s affairs. Specifically with respect to Nicaragua, Bolton said the Trump administration wants fair and democratic elections soon, or “the Nicaraguan regime, like Venezuela and Cuba, will feel the full weight of America’s robust sanctions regime.”
Anticipating Ortega’s current defense of his own actions by pointing to his enemies’ hypocrisy, it’s worth mentioning that Bolton had just aligned the US with Brazil’s new President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, calling the extreme right-winger a “likeminded leader.” Bolsonaro, who has expressed fondness for his country’s past military dictatorship and wants to bring back torture to stem rising crime rates, is also a confessed admirer of Trump, which suggests that his powerful country will be a natural Trump administration ally in the region.
A secibd hypocritical aspect of Bolton’s speech is that he aimed it at populations who in their time had been welcomed as refugees or exiles because they came from Latin American countries defined as leftwing, while Trump is intransigent against people seeking protection from violent rightwing Central American countries he has no thought of taking action against.
Lastly, it barely needs mention that the Trump administration has not been notably associated with fair and democratic elections at home. In addition to the discoveries so far in the Justice Department Special Counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections on behalf of Trump, and the Trump campaign’s possible involvement in it, there are also multiple examples of Republican attempts to corrupt this year’s mid-term elections, ranging from blatant cases of gerrymandering, to attempting to prevent certain sectors from voting using one excuse or another, to North Carolina’s still deepening fraud scandal.
Little Nicaragua is the weakest member of that “troika.” Cuba has successfully withstood pressure from the North for nearly six decades, its institutionality is more solid and its population has lived with its domestic system for four generations. For its part, Venezuela has infinitely more resources than Nicaragua. Nonetheless, Nicaragua’s very smallness and lesser importance makes it easier to “hide” in the shadows of Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, even though it is unmatched by what we’re living through here.
The latest figures of the tragedy
The year is coming to an end with 320 people killed, some 3,000 wounded, an unknown number disappeared and more than 40,000 having sought refuge in Costa Rica; the other main options being Panama and Spain. It is ending with a policy of repression currently exercised through the regime’s control of the justice system after four months of outright murdering peaceful demonstrators and those who erected barricades as a form of civil disobedience in some cases and sheer self-protection in others.
The police, including anti-riot and other special forces, continue to intimidate, capture and kidnap people in the streets and even in the middle of shopping centers. They also hunt them down in their homes and throw any they catch into prison. Hardly a day has gone by without one or more people grabbed and imprisoned on grounds of terrorism. As of mid-November, more than 4,000 people had been reported captured illegally, either without a warrant or by unofficial paramilitaries or both. Of those, 536 remained in prison, 46 of them women and 4 of them members of the transgender community.
Sentenced in kangaroo courts
In the jails of police stations all around the country or in the dungeons of Managua’s notorious El Chipote prison, other police agents investigate, threaten, interrogate and often psychologically and even physically torture many of those detained. An estimated 189 prisoners were confined in El Chipote as of mid-November.
A good number of all those captured start in El Chipote but are then moved to La Modelo prison if they’re men and La Esperanza prison if they’re women. There are currently 335 political prisoners in those two prisons and other penitentiary centers, all of them in precarious conditions that are affecting their health. They are in the hands of penitentiary system officials who control, threaten, punish and impose restrictions on them.
Eventually—although sometimes not for weeks or even months—the prisoners are actually taken to court, generally in groups, where the prosecuting attorneys almost always accuse them of a string of serious crimes rather than just one. The most frequent are terrorism, organized crime, illegal bearing of arms and obstruction of public services (referring to those who built roadblocks and street barricades or even who only supported them by supplying food or water). In some cases, detainees are also accused of murder or damage to public property (arson).
The “evidence” the attorneys present is often weak, contradictory or downright false; the witnesses are either police or people allied to the regime and the trials are closed-door affairs, with neither relatives nor the media allowed in. They are frequently announced with no lead time, or are reprogrammed just as unexpectedly, throwing families into debilitating anxiety for long periods of time.
As of mid-November, 431 political prisoners had been tried and, despite that entire chain of illegalities, irregularities and inconsistencies, the judges almost invariably ended the repressive farce with a conviction. According to CENIDH data, between April 18 and November 18, 61 people had been sentenced to prison terms ranging from 5 to 13 years, and only 19 were absolved, 16 of whom remained detained illegally.
Is the reconciliation law
really an amnesty law?
Amnesty has been a constant in Nicaraguan history. Crisis after crisis, time after time, we’ve turned the page on crimes by proposing amnesia, leaving bone-deep wounds unhealed.
The brutal, arbitrary nature of this repression with its orgy of imprisonments has led to speculation about whether the dictatorship’s aim is to prepare the ground for yet another general amnesty, one that will guarantee impunity for the crimes the government and its supporters have themselves committed.
Is the “reconciliation policy” Rosario Murillo floated in early November, which she announced would become law, really just that new amnesty? Is it the trade-off she or Ortega might agree to in an eventual negotiation? How would those on the other side of the negotiating table respond to such a trade-off, particularly given that democracy—understood as Ortega stepping down followed by clean elections—and justice—understood as punishment for those who committed the crimes resulting in the deaths of over 300 protestors and reparations for their families—are felt to be the two deal-breaker demands? Isn’t it also an aberration that the policy Murillo described proposes the National Police, responsible for so many of those crimes, as one of the institutions charged with implementing the reconciliation law?
We need a project
of transitional justice
While Nicaragua has had 52 amnesties in its history, it has never had a plan for transitional justice. The tendency has always been to forget, to turn the page, to not heal the wounds opened, hoping time would heal them… but it never does.
Four years ago, long before the April insurrection and the state terrorism with which Ortega and Murillo responded were even imaginable, CENIDH President Vilma Núñez offered a thoroughgoing reflection on Nicaragua’s need for a transitional justice process and a Truth Commission to implement it (see “Would a truth commission be possible here” in the June 2014 issue in www.envio.org.ni)
Transitional justice, the former Supreme Court justice explained, “is a relatively new concept in human rights doctrine that refers to the justice that should be fostered in countries that have gone through transition processes from a dictatorship to a democracy or from an armed conflict to peace. Since it has done both, Nicaragua is a country that clearly applies to experience some of the judicial and non-judicial strategies required to ensure justice in those difficult transitions, which basically involve three aspects: learn the truth, do justice and compensate the victims.”
When all this passes, Nicaraguans will urgently need to learn, as a society, the truth of what happened, and do all justice and make all reparations possible to the thousands of victims and their families.
Is the passage of
time in Ortega’s favor?
The Nicaraguan people have already strategically defeated the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship. But given the repressive power on the regime’s side, the confrontation has been so unequal throughout 2018 that, despite so many efforts, the people haven’t achieved the capacity to force a solution to the crisis that would permit them to start on the path to a transition in which we can all find peace, justice and democracy.
The cost of dragging out the stagnated correlation of forces with which we’re ending 2018 will be paid with blood because the only thing left in the dictatorship’s arsenal of measures is weapons and more repression. The lack of closure works to the benefit of Ortega and Murillo as we end the year. It tips the balance in favor of their determination to continue misgoverning Nicaragua until 2021, with no clarity that we would even have “free and competitive” elections at that time after three more years of a firmly installed police State and an economy in ruins. What freedom might we still be able to exercise then in a society whose capacity to resist would likely be drained by fear, exhaustion and even hunger?
The volcano’s magma is intact
The illegalizing of civic marches in late September making the repudiation of the regime harder to express doesn’t mean it has been dampened. The indignation at the killings and the determination to achieve a change remain intact.
These feelings are like magma building back up in the volcano that first erupted in April and will surely do so again. “Protest has been sown in the heart of the people,” says Henry Ruiz, another of the nine comandantes of the FSLN National Directorate of the 1980s and now a longstanding critic of the regime, “and repression isn’t going to suppress it.”
That being said, realism requires acknowledging that state terrorism has delayed the eruption. Terror is highly erosive. The ongoing jailing or forced exiling of important local leadership figures has been another undermining element.
The Blue and White Unity
needs to become visible
Another scenario is necessary but is yet to be constructed. Aware that they are the social majority everywhere in the country, the regime’s opponents must understand that the time has come for the newly formed Blue and White National Unity, with its 41 organizational members headed up by the Civic Alliance for Democracy and Justice, to demonstrate that it is both national and unified. It has to achieve a pluralist coordination with visible faces capable of challenging the dictatorship boldly and astutely. We urgently need to collectively imagine the path of transition, both nationally and internationally.
To counter the repeated polls that show the vast majority of Nicaraguans fed up with traditional political figures, we need proposals that show all of us and those in solidarity with us abroad that there are real individuals who can administer a stable government with the people’s support, and can initiate a process of transitional justice to achieve a credible electoral process.
Seeing their faces and learning about a concrete, non-rhetorical program for the future will generate confidence and mobilize the resistance, accelerating the solution to the crisis and the end of the dictatorship.
There is a time for everything
The book of Ecclesiastes wisely says that “There is a time for everything….: a time to be born and a time to die, … a time to weep and a time to laugh, …a time to tear down and a time to build, …a time to be silent and a time to speak….”
There was a time, more than 200 days, in which hundreds of thousands of us struggled at our own initiative—self-summoned—with the silent support of many hundreds of thousands more. The time now seems to have come for a few to assume the representation of those millions of Nicaraguan citizens.