The Ortega regime in the global and regional context
Nicaragua’s deputy foreign minister during the revolutionary years
offers elements of the international and regional context
that help us better understand the dynamics surrounding
the Nicaraguan people’s current struggle against
the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship.
Victor Hugo Tinoco
Nicaraguans’ civil struggle against the Ortega dictatorship is influenced by what’s happening in Latin America. At the same time, what’s happening in Latin America is being affected by what’s happening at a global level. Without claiming to provide an in-depth explanation of what’s changing in the world, I want to mention some elements I think are important to consider to be better able to understand the context in which our civil struggle against Ortega is developing.
THE INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT
Human rights now
Let’s look first at the changing global elements. A large part of the world is restoring the importance of respect for human rights within relationships between States. This issue wasn’t notable in the 1960s or 1970s or even the 1980s. While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was declared many years earlier, the text had been seen more as something symbolic or utopian in international politics. Proof of this is another dynamic that was more pronounced in relationships between nations. What counted most was force, military might. Human rights were seen as a Decalogue, but had no major influence.
I was Nicaragua’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1979 and 1980 and I remember how it seemed so natural to see a delegate from a democratic nation sitting next to the delegate of dictator Idi Amin Dada from Uganda, how at ease representatives from democracies would greet and relate to representatives from dictatorships, including Latin America’s military dictatorships back in those times. Nobody said a thing, nobody was particularly concerned about whether human rights in those delegates’ countries were being violated or not. In the United Nations the concept that really counted was non-interference, non-intervention: “Don’t mess with me and I won’t mess with you.”
For a long time, even the more developed expressions of Humanity didn’t prioritize the importance of human rights in international relations. Only recently have nations begun to seek to reconcile non-interference and non-intervention with respect for human rights, seeing them now as a universal value. There was no debate or reflection about what to do about the cases of countries in which there were flagrant and clear human rights violations, but they have now reached the conclusion that no nation should remain impassive in the face of this. This awareness began to develop very recently and is still more developed in some countries and societies than in others. This logic is more evolved in the Western world, of which Latin America is a part.
Along with the rising awareness about the importance of human rights, an awareness has also developed in our hemisphere around the importance of democracy, understanding it, among other aspects, as respect for the human right to elect one’s government in transparent elections. This was initially expressed in Latin America in the Bogotá Pact of 1948, and was specified more thoroughly in 2001 in the Organization of Americana States’ Inter-American Democratic Charter, a document that contains the commitments by the States and governments in our hemisphere to respect democracy and human rights.
This global awareness of the importance of States guaranteeing respect for human rights is what makes Ortega illegitimate to the international community. Even though Ortega had been committing electoral frauds to concentrate power since 2008, with no respect for the human right to elect one’s government through transparent elections, what is being questioned today, what has discredited him before the whole world is not rooted in democratic rights, i.e. elections. What underpins his moral and political illegitimacy is his disrespect for and grave violation of the most basic human right, life, his crimes against humanity committed since April.
New agreement between
the two superpowers
Another element I want to mention to better perceive and understand what’s happening in Latin America and Nicaragua, is the evidence that during the past year and a half an understanding has been developing between the United States and Russia, still the world’s two military superpowers, regarding their mutual security and co-existence. This unwritten agreement appears to translate into mutual respect regarding their immediate areas of influence. I believe we can’t understand what’s happening today in Latin America, particularly how things are moving in Venezuela or Nicaragua, if we don’t start by seeing this other new global political reality.
Many analysts have been talking about this entente, this unwritten agreement. They consider it to have surfaced after John Bolton, the US national security adviser, visited Moscow in October 2018, when we saw harsher US approaches toward Latin America, its adjacent zone. The assessment is that they were made after the US had agreed on a quid pro quo regarding Russia’s relations with countries in its adjacent zone: Ukraine, Crimea, the Baltic countries….
It was a month after that trip that Bolton spoke in Florida about the “Troika of Tyranny”: Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, without getting any reaction from Russia. The Russian government has been reacting to US plans for Venezuela more recently, but not very confrontationally. It has instead called for an understanding; a search for a way out through dialogue. Only when the war drums started sounding louder and there seemed to be a risk of military invasion did Russia raise its voice and use its veto in the UN. It has maintained a similar attitude, in and fact has even been more silent inNicaragua’s case.
This agreement between the superpowers is nothing new. We experienced it in Nicaragua during the late 1980s. The negotiations to end the war during those years came about due to agreements between these same two superpowers, which respectively started pressuring both the Sandinista government and the Resistance to find a way out. The USSR urged us Sandinistas to do so because the war had turned out to be too costly so they diplomatically made it clear to us that they couldn’t support us anymore. And the US was saying the same thing to the Resistance.
I remember speaking to a contra leader about five years ago who told me they learned they had to negotiate when the US met with the Resistance leadership in Langley, Virginia. to tell them they had to deal with us and find a way out. “The only thing they required from us,” he said, “was that we give back all the anti-aircraft rockets they had given us, without exceptions. That was their only concern; they weren’t worried about the other arms, much less about us.”
I remind you of this so we can see the role played by global factors during other moments of our national reality. Today, international interests, mainly those of the US, are again playing a role in the negotiations for Ortega’s way out. After 11 years of Washington’s “soft understanding” with Ortega and with US-backed international financial institutions the main providers of loans for Ortega’s regime, the US government is now convinced of the risk of destabilization this dictatorship represents for it due to a regional factor I’ll explain below.
The China phenomenon
But before getting to that, I want to mention a third global factor that’s weighing in a lot, not just here but around the world. It’s the shared concern of both these traditional military superpowers about China. We all know that if the variables don’t change, China is striving to become the world’s top economic power, and since it’s rapidly advancing in its technological development, this could serve as the basis for a leap, also accelerated, into the military terrain and space competitions. This is a concern for the US but also for Russia since China is a neighbor with whom it has had major differences in the past. The China factor weighs heavily among US concerns in Latin America because the Chinese government is already the largest moneylender in the world and the number one investor in Latin America. It has fabulous levels of investment in large countries of the continent: Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru, not to mention Venezuela! For the US, China is a larger rival than Russia, not only because of Russia’s small economy, but also because China now is a regional commercial threat and could become a global military one.
Such enormous entries of Chinese capital into Latin America make the US feel it is losing influence, losing space and markets in our hemisphere. And after having already lost economic supremacy in the world, as well as influence and markets in Africa, it doesn’t want to lose those in Latin America.
The Chinese factor is weighing especially heavily in the Venezuelan crisis, a fact that former Uruguayan President José Mujica highlighted when he referred to it as being the fact that most concerned the US and the one aggravating the Venezuelan crisis, and our region’s crisis on the rebound.
THE REGIONAL CONTEXT
Fears of destabilizing migration…
Now I want to point out some of the changes that are happening in our hemisphere. The one I wanted to mention above when I referred to the destabilization a dictatorship like Ortega’s could cause has to do with a factor we’re seeing develop as an increasing concern among Latin America’s political classes. They are more strongly considering leftist dictatorships as regional threats of great concern. I call them “leftist dictatorships” so we can understand each other, though they are not of the left, they are dictatorships. The Venezuelan and Nicaraguan regimes fit this classification. Others prefer to call them authoritarian left, but that seems like an academic classification, one used by those who aren’t suffering under one. We in Nicaragua aren’t suffering authoritarianism, but a dictatorship, pure and hard.
Until a few years ago, if there were dictatorial tendencies or actions in a country in the region, the rest of the region would say: “There’s a country around that violates human rights, another that’s going for reelections, another that stole the elections…It’s not good, but it’s their problem…” Now they’re starting to find out that that fraud, human rights violations and that way of governing in general affect its surroundings and can also affect them, in fact everyone. The regional concern is no longer just about the importance of respecting human rights and democracy. It comes out of each State’s own interest, because they are seeing that the countries where these leftist dictatorships have developed are starting a regional destabilization problem that begins with mounting migration to neighboring countries and to a lesser degree abroad by people fleeing economic problems, unresolved insecurity, violence and repression. Venezuela’s dictatorial system has resulted in a humanitarian crisis and migrations in dimensions never seen before in Latin America. This is now greatly affecting several countries of the continent that aren’t prepared to take in so many people.
…and of the contagion
of dictatorial methods
Another concern is the contagiousness of the method these dictatorships have been using to get into power and later remain there. It’s not the political or ideological model that is of concern. What is concerning is the method or route followed to get to where they are now. A practically identical behavioral pattern is beginning to appear in all these regimes: they get into power through free elections in some cases, and more or less free ones in others. That is followed by steps to undermine all the counterbalances represented in the state branches and institutions: they take control of the judicial and electoral branches, subordinating all the different institutions to the executive branch. Step by step the institutions start losing the strength given them by the liberal political culture, leaving society more and more defenseless. The next step is to control the armed institutions, especially the Police, because it’s in direct relationship with society. In the case of the Army, the cooptation is more discreet, but is also a part of this method. The armed institutions are co-opted by promoting some sort of patriotic message in them, some sort of ideological truth, but basically they’re sold the need and obligation of unconditional loyalty to the governing individual and not to the law, the Constitution or society.
This cooptation process is always achieved through favors, perks, gifts… In Nicaragua, those of us who had any relationship to the military establishment know how this process started… Rosario Murillo began giving some gift to all Army officers from captain on up every Christmas. The first year I found out from a friend of mine that they all received a flat-screen television. The next year it was a washing machine. The next it was a two-door refrigerator, one of those big ones. And the last year I heard of, they had all received a Toyota Hilux double cabin pick-up. That is how the Nicaraguan Army’s corruption process began, how a sense of loyalty to one person is created. Later more steps are taken and it becomes harder and harder to obey the law.
What’s worrying in Latin America today isn’t whether a government is won by a party from the left or the right. The different ideologies have become more relative and many times the only difference is the level of sensibility towards social problems and of public resources available for solving the population’s main problems. What is concerning—and it’s very concerning—is the method used by those who call themselves the Left to get into government through elections then take the road of destroying institutions until they end up stealing elections to keep themselves in power, backed by an armed group and controlling everything. Then, when people finally rise up, along come instability, violence and migration…
An imperialist diktat
or a generalized fear?
Taking all this into account, we’re aimply following the anti-imperialist manual if we believe that the discourse and attitude of Latin America’s most important countries—Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador—about the cases of Venezuela and Nicaragua are based only on a diktat from the US empire,. It isn’t an imperial order; it’s a generalized fear of the risk that the continent’s leftists could all adopt that same method.
This fear weighs today on all Latin American countries because there are forces in all of them,some large, others medium size but all with the possibility of becoming their government. If they make it into government, will they do the same thing being done in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia…? It isn’t a problem of right or left. It’s a problem of a model, a method that causes regional instability and crisis.
In this context there’s a latent fear of Mexico’s new government. How is Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government going to evolve? Without denying that AMLO won with major voter support and now has even more, voices are starting to be heard in the region noting a tendency in him to concentrate power, to coopt the military institutions. So, a fear arises that AMLO could decide to follow the method. This makes relevant analysts and politicians from Mexico and the US uneasy. Personally, I believe the model AMLO is going to follow will be more like the one Lula or the Kirchners followed than that of Maduro or Ortega.
The Latin American
Left’s complicit silence
Another element that has kept us from learning earlier about the fear caused by the dictatorial Left’s “method” is the silence of their historical counterparts in the hemisphere, even when those who claim to be on the same side start behaving criminally. This dreadful silence, which destroys the ethical foundation of any organization, has gone on in Latin America for too long and still prevails. The code is that if it’s from the right we’ll denounce it, but if it’s one of ours, if it’s from the left, we’ll say nothing. This complicit silence was deafening in Latin America, with the honorable exception of Mujica, when everything blew up in Nicaragua last April.
We spent a decade before April, basically since the 2008 electoral fraud, warning everybody on the left about the route Ortega was taking. We told them during the Sao Paulo Forum meetings. We told them in the Socialist International meetings. We told them around the world, but the Left chose to look the other way because they didn’t want any problems. They were unwilling or unable to accept a political debate about the issue of the authoritarian Left. This silent complicity seems closely related to an esprit de corps. When that spirit is so strong, ethical values don’t weigh as much, so people lean towards silent complicity. It’s like what’s happening in the Catholic Church: the idea is that if you report abuses within the Church, you’re harming the Church and thus betraying Christian values. But as Pope Francis said, this is how abuses continue, because the worst harm is done by remaining silent and not dealing with the problem.
Even the democratic Left turned a blind eye
We need to take into account that during the last seven or eight years the conviction has grown within this silent complicit Left that this “method” of attaining and keeping power is the right one. In one of the most recent meetings of the Sao Paulo Forum, held in El Salvador about four or five years ago, I could perceive that position and a clear directive: we’re going to get into power and then proceed with this same dictatorial method we’ve been talking about. The determination to adopt this method advanced while the debate among the democratic Left never took place.
There were essentially two leftist models during this last decade. One was the Venezuelan model with Chávez and more clearly with Maduro, and the other was the variants like Brazil with Lula and Argentina with the Kircheners, or the Chilean or Uruguayan Left.
However, and we must say this loud and clear: while the democratic left parties gambled on developing their values and principles, opting to reach power democratically and using it without institutional destruction and violence, they never dared to open up the debate about the method being used by the other Left to achieve social, political and economic transformations based on deceit, corruption, and subverting and holding onto power indefinitely. No matter how much we tried to get Lula’s Workers’ Party in Brazil to understand what was happening in Nicaragua, it just looked the other way. It was also hard with the Uruguayans in the Broad Front. We would tell them, and they even seemed to understand, but they wouldn’t say or do anything. How many times did we tell the Socialist International, where all the European leftist parties are, that Daniel Ortega had to be stopped, that he shouldn’t be considered a democratic leftist? Again, they would listen to us, but then do nothing. Only now has the SI finally expelled the FSLN.
THE US CONTEXT
A new consensus about the dictatorial Left
Another important regional element, related to others I’ve been listing, started to advance during the last couple of years, this time in the United States, the hemisphere’s power. That new element is a broad consensus both in its society and among its political class regarding rejection of the dictatorial Left. This explains the cohesion between Republicans and Democrats with respect to the Venezuelan problem. Although most Democrats clearly oppose any type of military intervention while Republicans are “not discarding it,” both parties are in agreement on everything else. Frankly, I’m not convinced that even the Republicans can or want to do anything more than threaten the use of forcé.
We see that same consensus between Democrats and Republicans in the case of Nicaragua. During the Obama administration, only the more radical sectors of the US Right proposed applying pressure on Ortega. But more recently, as Ortega began to reveal himself as he really is, applying pressure and sanctions acquired consensus among the entire US political class. The fact that not one of 500 House representatives—not one, not even Bernie Sanders!—opposed the approval of laws sanctioning the Ortega regime speaks volumes about today’s reality. During the 1980s, both US society and its political class were divided about Nicaragua. Even though the Cold War mentality still reigned, it was very hard for Reagan to get congressional approval for resources to finance the Resistance. I remember, because I did a lot of lobbying in US Congress against that financing. On one occasion Reagan managed to push through a request for US$100 million for the counterrevolution, the most he ever got, but he did it with only a one-vote lead!
That division about what to do with Nicaragua was very different from what we see today in the decision-making about Venezuela or Nicaragua… and to a lesser degree about Bolivia as a lot of people in the US still like Evo Morales for being the first indigenous President. But there is s starting to be worry that Morales may want to stay in power indefinitely, seeing he has ignored the results of the plebiscite showing that the majority was not in agreement with his reelection. Some sectors in the US are starting to realize that he may be another one using the same method to concentrate power and remain in office.
Domestic US political calculations
I’d like to add one final factor to consider in what we’re seeing today in US policies toward the region. It’s more circumstantial, but carries some weight. Due to the US electoral system, Trump, who wants to be reelected, can’t afford to lose Florida in November 2020, and that greatly increases the weight of the Cuban and Latin American political lobby since the Cuban, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan communities in Florida are key to winning the state. There may be many differences among Cubans between the older and younger generations, but not about how to deal with leftist dictatorships.
The Trump government’s attitude towards Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, what National Security Adviser John Bolton dubbed the “Troika of Tyranny” thus surely also responds to domestic political calculations. It’s no coincidence that each time Trump speaks about these three countries he says, “Ask Marco Rubio” [R-FL]. That electoral factor also explains all the attention our countries are getting from the US today, in spite of its many problems in so many other places in world.
The way “the method”
functioned in Venezuela...
Let’s now look, very synthetically, at the application ot the dictatorial Left’s method in Venezuela. It has been fully applied there, though we must acknowledge that during the whole Chávez period, his popularity and the social programs he organized guaranteed a clean win for his project in free elections. This only started to melt down with Maduro, who came in with less popularity, fewer resources and hence more repression.
After having applied virtually the whole method, including coopting and corrupting the armed forces, Maduro lost a large majority of the Assembly in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Unwilling to accept that, he took the final step to avoid losing power with the fraudulent elections of 2017, making it obvious that from then on the project was none other than to stay in power. Neither the process nor the results of Maduro’s reelection that year were free and transparent, as a large part of the western international community recognized, thus creating the foundation for the current declaration that he is a “usurper.”
I believe there are only two options in Venezuela today. Either they find a negotiated way out and hold elections soon. Or the economic and humanitarian crises will produce a confrontation, bringing the possibility of a military confrontation between Venezuela and its neighbors, even with US participation, which is not at all desirable.
…vs. in Nicaragua
Some analysts who say the Cuban model of repression is being applied in both Venezuela and Nicaragua, but I see Ortega’s repression in Nicaragua following the Somoza model. Those of us who remember the last Somoza’s repression know that he also used groups of civilians to persecute, intimidate and beat up the opposition; didn’t allow protests; and canceled political parties’ legal status if they posed any problem. He also didn’t hesitate to imprison, torture or kill… We in Nicaragua have our own repressive root, and it’s strong enough to nourish to all the abuses and crimes committed by Ortega today.
The application of the dictatorial method has gone through its own process in Nicaragua. The fraud in the 2008 municipal elections was the official launching of its application. Unlike in Venezuela, electoral frauds characterized the application of the method in Nicaragua from then forward. There was again fraud in the 2011 elections in which Fabio Gadea competed against Ortega. That was the year Ortega was going for his first consecutive reelection after Supreme Court Justices Chicón Rosales and Payo Solís stomped all over the Constitution by declaring that its two articles barring him from doing so were themselves unconstitutional.
We in the MRS denounced the frauds, the constitutional violations and the destruction of the institutions—all of which was happening at the same time. But it was the very time that the democratic Left in Latin America and the rest of the world chose to look the other way. Washington had been getting along with Ortega for years, seeing Nicaragua as a relative paradise where a leftist President controlled the unions and social forces—at least until the appearance of the peasant movement against the canal—so that US businesses could invest with the assurance that there would be no strikes and they could pay the lowest salaries in Central America.
The national business elite also felt very comfortable with their alliance with Ortega, living a honeymoon that lasted more than a decade. Not even Somoza had done that well. All this was happening parallel to Ortega’s gaining control of the judicial branch, the electoral branch and ultimately the legislative branch, increasing his power over the Police and buying off of the Army brass with televisions or washers…
It was also all happening with a rightwing opposition that supported the method because it benefiting from it and with the real opposition that was warning about what was happening being cornered, squashed and persecuted inside the country and doubted by its international counterparts.
Ortega removes his mask
with three actions in 2016
After 11 years of a “soft understanding” with Washington and a honeymoon with big national capital, Ortega began to show his true colors in 2016 by intensifying the method. Why then? Cooperation with Venezuela was dwindling and social discontent inside Nicaragua was mounting. Moreover, the opposition from the left and Liberal center had united to oppose him in the presidential/legislative elections that year, seeing possibilities of grabbing quotas of power in the parliament.
Under those circumstances, Ortega decided to deepen the method through three actions in mid-year. First, he expelled all opposition representatives from the National Assembly. Second, he annulled the united opposition so they couldn’t participate in the elections, thus turning elections into a corrupted farce. And third, he named his wife as his vice presidential running mate. With those three acts, Ortega sealed his dictatorial—and dynastic—project. That was the real coup in this country, taking advantage of a fraudulent legality. The illegitimacy of Nicaragua’s 2016 elections was ai obvious to Nicaraguans that they abstained in droves, but the international Left continued to ignore the signs.
Ortega clearly believed that his moves to apply the method more acutely and hasten the journey toward a dynastic dictatorship was less costly than letting things continue the way they were, in which he risked losing the absolute control of the legislative branch he had gained by hook and by crook in since 2011. But it was precisely those three decisions that alerted the Cuban-American political forces. It’s no coincidence that the NICA Act was born in 2016, barely two weeks after they were made. The NICA Act didn’t come out of the human rights violations during the April 2018 rebellion. Its first version, submitted by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), was passed unanimously by the House in 2016 when Ortega revealed himself as a dictator and awakened the dormant fear of the dictatorial method in the US.
It was after the high level of abstention in the 2016 elections that Ortega began discussions with the OAS to do a makeup job on his deteriorated electoral system, but the following year’s municipal elections registered an even greater level of abstention. Even Ortega had to admit in public that the lack of participation was a problem. Despite everything, however, he thought he could continue sailing towards the dynastic dictatorship with no major squalls. And many of us thought so too. We knew that sooner or later it was going to run aground one way or another, but I’ll sincerely admit that talking among ourselves, we expected it could take another ten years. But then, in April 2018, an unanticipated spark ignited a spontaneous a social explosion, neither envisioned, planned nor organized by anyone. The “the self-convened youth” happened.
The rebellion in April was the civil insurrection of a whole generation of youth between 15 to 35 years of age who started to feel that Ortega was their enemy. Neither Ortega nor anybody expected it. But it happened and after the social explosion came Ortega’s response: an explosion of repression and death that has brought us to where we are now. And also to where he is, internationally discredited, strategically defeated, without legitimacy to govern, but still clinging to power.
Two options for Nicaragua too
And now Ortega says he’s going to negotiate… This plan has been in motion since January, promoted by the US, which has let Ortega know that the sanctions are approved and waiting for full application until seeing whether he decides to go for a credible negotiation. Since he has the streets under control, with repression that hasn’t let up for a single day, he thinks he still has room to emerge from the negotiations with colors flying because what Ortega fears the most is people in the streets who aren’t his.
It’s possible that he still sees the negotiations as a maneuver to buy time. But time for what? To further destroy the country? He must know that even though he’s silenced the streets, it doesn’t mean the social movement that repudiates him and demands change is done for. I have no doubt that if there are conditions for manifestations, the democratic opposition could get hundreds of thousands out on the streets in 72 hours.
There are two possibilities: Ortega could try to turn the negotiations into a farce or he could truly seek a negotiated way out with his main objectives being to keep the most political and economic power possible and guarantee his security. Seeking to deceive may be in his genes, but a political reading should make him realize he needs to find a way out for himself and for the country. And for the FSLN? The dismantling of democracy in Nicaragua that Ortega culminated via the dictatorial method has a precedent: the destruction of internal democracy in the two largest political parties, the FSLN and the Liberal Party. My personal experience was a decade of struggle within the FSLN to open up a democratic debate and we failed to achieve it, which is how we got to where we are now.
The future we’ve hoped for since before April, and even more now with the backing of the civil rebellion and resistance of the majority of the population, is the democratic reconstruction of Nicaragua, and that is possible only if Ortega is out of power. It is also possible only if the Blue and White opposition achieves elections as soon as possible and they produce a majority force in the new parliamentary body. The reconstruction of all that has been destroyed during these years requires new political conditions, and those conditions will come not from the negotiation table, but as a result of early elections. What should result from the negotiation table, besides freedom for all political prisoners, the end of repression and the recovery of all civil rights that have been violated is a new electoral branch of government that organizes free elections as soon as possible. Because if Ortega stays until 2021, like he wants to, we already know that those elections won’t be free.
Víctor Hugo Tinoco is now a leader of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).