The players move to their own beat as real time advances relentlessly
Nicaraguans are living in uncertain times,
grappling with the still-abnormal situation,
while Ortega is playing irresponsibly with time,
dragging out the crisis for his own purposes.
With the international community moving slowly,
the Civic Alliance has decided to crank up the pace.
In this year’s second national survey by the Borge y Asociados polling firm, conducted in mid-July, 63% of those surveyed said the country has not “returned to the normality that existed before April 2018.” An almost identical percentage (62.6%) gave the same answer in July of last year, in the midst of the government’s violent “Operation clean-up,” thus revealing that normality isn’t just the absence of rampant government-ordered violence Behind today’s negative responses are the ravages of the economic crisis and the evidence that the political crisis remains unresolved. Only 13.9% said the country is doing “well” and a mere 2.1% said it is doing “very well.”
A new stage of uncertainty has opened with Ortega’s cancelling of the negotiations with the Civic Alliance after the latter suspended its participation due to government inncompliance. For its part, the Organization of American States (OAS) finally created the commission—approved back in June—to seek “at the highest levels” a solution to Nicaragua’s crisis.
The¬y want to get
us used to it
Ortega’s priority is still repression. In the cities where the April 2018 rebellion began, an average of four people are arbitrarily detained every day just for opposing the Ortega regime, acording to a report by the National Blue and White Unity—which debuted last October as a “common front” of the Civic Alliance for Democracy and Justice, the Articulation of Social Movements and Civil Society Organizations (both of which include student, peasant, feminist, indigenous and business sectors), the Broad Front for Democracy (FAD) and civil society platforms such as the University Coordinating Body (CUDJ), the April 19 Movements and others. Those picked up are held for a minimum of hours and a maximum of days by the Police, who steal their belongings (cell phones, money and ID), usually beat them, and book some for common crimes. All are intimidated and threatened, as are their families.
The strategy is more brutal in northern rural zones. the latest report of the Nicaragua Nunca + Human Rights Collective says at least 18 peasants have been murdered so far this year, including 3 in the border zone of Trojes, Honduras, where they had sought refuge. Two belonged to a single family.
This collective of human rights lawyers states that “the killings are selective if we consider that 15 occurred in the northern zone known during the 1980s as the ‘contra corridor’ and all were opponents of the government, at least 11 of them openly. One was a worker in the Wiwilí mayor’s office, governed by the PLC [Constitutionalist Liberal Party]; three belonged to the Resistance; three were members of Liberal parties (two belonged to Citizens for Liberty-CxL and one to the PLC) and four were killed when leaving events or meetings.” The characteristics of the murders led the human rights defenders to conclude that “they are arbitrary and summary extrajudicial killings.”
Daily repression and unpunished crimes are precisely what the government wants us to get used to.
The new “normality”
Ortega is counting on people getting accustomed to this new “normality.” Official and pro-government media do their part by reporting daily on new business undertakings, fairs, anniversaries, inaugurations and other upbeat events, without so much as mentioning what’s happening on the “other side,” where there are repressive crimes, demands and multiple protests broken up by special police forces.
When a tiny group of adult men took it into their head to walk through the streets in late August carrying a national flag, a Bible and a crucifix and calling for liberty, they were immediately surrounded for nine hours by 30 anti-riot cops with shields and assault rifles ready to prevent them from taking a single step. They didn’t shoot, but rather just encircled the protesters, intimidatingly, without a hint of humanity behind their visors. They have been trained to leave their humanity behind.
This symbolic image reflects the regime’s daily conduct anytime and anywhere anyone attempts to protest in the streets. On the blue and white side, there is a tacit determination not to employ violence or allow themselves to be provoked under the continuing conviction that there have already been too many deaths in the streets. The majority wants change, but not another war.
Sandinistas are back
The regime’s response to the rebellion has come in stages. First was the move to smash it with blood and fire (“Anything goes!”). In the wake of hundreds of dead, thousands of wounded and tens of thousands in exile, the next stage was to install strict social control mechanisms, sparing no human or economic resources to create a repressive apparatus that intimidates, encircles, harasses and hounds.
Now, without abandoning the repression, the focus is on exploiting the discouragement and wearing down of the blue and white movement by fomenting divisions and contradictions within it. The goal of unilaterally terminating the dialogue was to delegiti¬mize the Civic Alliance, blurring its presence and possibilities in the opposition’s self-identity and its vision of its own future.
At the same time, Ortega is pumping up the self-image of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in the media. Every other day in the media, one of the FSLN’s most loyal spokespeople goes back over all the details of the heroic history and sacrifices of those who gave their life for the revolution. Its romantic and nostalgic appeal is part of a ploy to halt the erosion in the Sandinista base after the regime’s massacres in 2018. So is the reappearance of still-living but formerly relegated “historical” Sandi¬nista militants appealing to personal and family loyalties.
A mini-maxi strategy
to keep ruling
Asked in the Borge y Asociados poll what party they identified with, 46% said “none,” 44% said the FSLN, 4.5% mentioned other parties and 5.3% did not respond. While that may reflect the success of Ortega’s strategy to regroup the Sandinista rank and file, the percentages did not not directly extend to support for the FSLN’s leader. Asked for whom they would vote for President of Nicaragua if the elections were held today, “doesn’t know or didn’t respond” won with 37.7%, followed by Daniel Ortega with 35.5%, and “no one” in third place with 21.4%, leaving 5.4% for the taking. In contrast, when asked which party they would vote for if the elections were held today, 39.5% said the FSLN, 31% said none and 17.5% did not know or did not respond, leaving 13% to a field of six other options. The differences in the answers to thos two questions are particularly interesting given that when asked which they pay more attention to when deciding their vote, 63.7% said the candidate and 26.1% the party which suggests stronger support for the FSLN today than for its leader.
The poll also revealed the paucity of alternatives. Asked if it would be good for the opposition to unite to beat the FSLN, 44.6% said yes and 42.6% said no. Asked immediately afterward if they believed opposition leaders would sacrifice their own aspirations and support the candidate most likely to beat Ortega, 46% said yes and 40.6% said no. Given a list of possible opposition candidates, the winner was again “doesn’t know or didn’t respond,” this time with a resounding 60.8%, followed by “none” with 30.l%. The six choices split the remaining 4.1%. Asked if they trust the political parties, 62.4% said no.
Ortega has no compunction about dragging out the crisis to assure he’ll make it to the 2021 elections, a date that many both inside and outside of Nicaragua are beginning to assimilate as inevitable. The hope spawned last year by hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets all over Nicaragua demanding the Ortega family’s departure and early elections is a dimming memory.
Ortega has now bought himself enough time to plan for different ways to keep governing—a sort of mini-maxi strategy. Having rejected any further negotiation with the Civic Alliance, he is now making it explicit that the regime intends to unilaterally hammer out an agreement with the OAS General Secretariat on “technical” electoral reforms that will guarantee him at least sufficient control of the electoral branch to continue governing from above.
The maxi-plan is obviously to win the elections again. If for one reason or another he cannot pull off a personal victory, a fallback plan is to retain enough control of the electoral branch to at least ensure him a large enough legislative bench in the National Assembly to make life difficult for a new government.
to “peace battalions”
That is one way to govern from below again, as he did to great effect for the 16 years between his 1990 electoral defeat and his reelection in 2006. But if in some currently unimaginable universe the elections were to turn out so unfavorable as to escape his control entirely, Ortega is already organizing what he calls “peace battalions,” institutionalizing the sizable paramilitary groups he debuted in “Operation Clean-up,” which would significantly enhance his clout in ruling from below.
These battalions are headed up by historical FSLN guerrilla combatants, mature men who until recently had been cast aside, but have now been called back to defend “the coman¬dante” and “the revolution.” The battalion members are younger men demobilized from military service in the early 1990s and even younger pro-regime fanatics—or just people who need the income. The first battalion was organized in July in Carazo and the second in August in Bluefields.
Many consider it unthinkable to hold elections in 2021 or any other time in a country full of active paramilitary groups. Consensus is also growing that the idea of the Army fulfilling its constitutional obligation to disarm this illegal third armed force must be discarded. Retired Major Roberto Samcam goes a step further: he believes it was the Army itself that both “organized and armed” it. And in his opinion, “only an international force with full autonomy could disarm it,” which is a still remote possibility.
The Army’s power
Demonstrating he has the Army at his side is crucial to Ortega. After over a year’s silence, with the exception of occasional innocuous and neutral-sounding pronouncements, two recent appearances by Army Chief Julio César Avilés left no doubt about its absolute loyalty to Ortega’s power project.
On July 25, at a press conference held for national media directors, Avilés claimed that the Army has no legal basis, structure or equipment for the mission of disarming the paramilitary groups, a task that security experts and former Army chiefs Humberto Ortega, Joaquín Cuadra and Javier Carrión have been demanding of it for over a year.
Avilés argued that “the Constitution commands us not be deliberative. And our non-deliberation is not only in the political sphere. We also interpret non-deliberation as meaning that we must not encroach into aspects that do not correspond to us.”
Next he used celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Sandinista Popular Army (renamed the Army of Nicaragua in the early 1990s) on September 1 and 2 to “deliberate” on the national crisis. On a stage laden with the FSLN’s red & black flags, Avilés shouted out that “They will never divide us as officials of nongovernment organizations attempted to do when they made calls to our loyal compañeros to open up the possibility of a coup d’état against the legitimately constituted government, which we will never do!”
He went on to issue the following threat: “Be aware that we know who is behind the brutal campaign of attacks and provocations against our institution and we hold you responsible for the physical and moral effects on our compañeros and family members!”
Avilés defined Ortega as being “as clear as water and as firm as steel.” His speech, accompanied by a very costly military parade, was broadcast on a national hook-up with a clearly intimidating intent. Ortega was effectively letting the population know that both the illegal weapons and the legal ones were on his side.
Some economic actors
are tightening their belts…
With the opposition pressure on the regime lessening due to the unrelenting repression of any attempts at social mobilization, one of the factors weighing most heavily against the “normali¬zation” Ortega wants in order to make it to 2021 is the economic recession.
Foreign investment is unquestionably in crisis and investments by large national capital have been shelved. But since the majority of Nicaragua’s economy is in the hands of small and medium private businesses, they were among the first to absorb the Nicaraguan economy’s blow to living standards. They have been forced to adjust possibilities, knowing things aren’t going to get better as long as Ortega remains in power, and have had no choice but to tighten their belts, cut costs and adapt.
The State is also feeling the crisis. Despite the government’s drastic and ill-timed tax reform this past January, the new taxes haven’t come close to closing the budget deficit. So in August the regime decided to tax another 16 basic products in an already regressive tax system that charges a 15% value-added tax to rich and poor alike. Among the new items taxed at point of sale are instant soups and toothpaste.
The municipal governments, which depend on the transfers the central government assigns them, received only 12.4% of what was due during the first half of this year, leaving them unable to pay for the public works that provide jobs and move the local economy.
Given its structure, however, the Nicaraguan economy has one advantage over Venezuela’s. Remembering the negative experience of the 1980s, Ortega didn’t nationalize the economy after returning to government in 2007, unlike Chávez and then Maduro in Venezuela. So while Nicaragua’s economic crisis is being felt on all sides, the economy will not collapse like Venezuela’s.
…while others are
Meanwhile, there are very visible signs that only part of the economy is stagnated. A large number of people have clearly come up with money to buy lands, build mansions, remodel homes and set up businesses of all types and sizes throughout the country. The activity bears all the classic signs of money laundering and is presumably being done by officials of the regime acting as front men. While the money comes from the “dark side” of the economy, it is giving it a certain vitality it would otherwise not have. Chances are pretty good however, that these investments aren’t being included in the tax hikes.
Some calculate that a second wave of protests isn’t far off given the difficult situation experienced by the majority of the population. In response, Ortega is reactivating his populist machinery, giving out urban lots on credit to the poorest families and distributing perks and favors to those providing intel to the paramilitaries.
Playing with people’s lives
Ortega hasn’t stopped playing with time since the April 2018 rebellion. In the national dialogue the following month his game was to buy time to organize the paramilitary forces that only a month or so later would use military weapons to put down expressions of the rebellion all over the country, including the roadblocks designed to apply eco¬nomic pressure and the barricades on urban streets to protect residents. Hundreds died as the government violently wrested back control.
In the more recent negotiations he has now declared concluded, he again made no serious attempt to negotiate. Instead, he bought time to confuse the international community, presenting himself as a “dialoguer” while never abandoning his principle that “you can make me sign, but never comply.” In this case he was playing with the lives of people who had been previously captured, imprisoned, tortured and held as hostages. He used them as chips stacked up on his side of the table to suggest he was conceding something by releasing them, even though they had never committed any crime.
He acted like all kidnappers, using his hostages’ lives to negotiate his demand—in this case that the Alliance request the suspension of international sanctions. When he didn’t achieve that he unilaterally released most of them, but only into house arrest and without complying with the agreement to coordinate with the International Red Cross to provide a clear record.
He then pushed through an amnesty law—the 53rd in the country’s long history of violent solutions to political conflicts—that supposedly exonerates the political prisoners. The law is a cruel and cynical joke that’s really aimed at exonerating those on the government side who have committed criminal human rights violations. While the latter continue to go unpunished, released political prisoners are now besieged by police, paramilitaries and pro-regime neighbors.
In early August, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported that 120 political prisoners are still being held in different prisons in Nicaragua, more than 400 health professionals have been fired for political reasons and 144 students have been expelled from public universities for participating in the protests against the Ortega dictatorship. A month later, the Civic Alliance has amended the number of political prisoners to 126. None of the roughly 600 released by the regime at different moments of 2019 have had their trumped-up case closed or their record expunged. In late August five of them were condemned to different prison sentences, accused of common crimes such as aggravated robbery, possession of weapons or drug trafficking. Are we seeing the emergence of a new repressive pattern?
Can he play out the clock with the international community?
Ortega’s seeming show of generosity regarding the poolitical prisoners won the approval of OAS Secretary Gene¬ral Luis Almagro, who called the release of so many of them “extraordinary results,” even though none of the bottom-line requirements of negotiating “seriously and in good faith,” as the OAS resolution required, actually occurred. Democratization and the end of the repression were never even addressed and while an agreement had been reached on the restitution of some liberties, it was not complied with even once.
Ortega has also played with time to take international attention away from Nicaragua’s crisis, which seems so small in a world full of truly colossal military, social and climate crises.
He is now letting the clock tick on to “see what happens,” i.e. if possible events such as victory for Cris-tina Kirchner in Argentina, the Workers’ Party’s return to power in Brazil following Bolsonaro’s corrosion, and even the return of the FARC in Colombia could bring him more favorable conditions in the continent. In addition to Mexico’s declared “neutrality” in the face of his human rights violations, having the “Left” of Brazil and Argentina on his side would be an important shift from the isolation he has been suffering, particularly in the OAS.
The Venezuela chip
In this irresponsible game, the variable that has Ortega the most worried is the timeline for Venezuela’s President Maduro, who appears to be immovable but has admitted that he and other officials of his regime are negotiating a solution with the Trump administration. Will he leave government with guarantees for himself, for any others and/or Presidential elections with him no longer in power? Will there be a negotiated transition and, if so, nego¬tiated among whom?
The dialogue promoted by Norway between Maduro’s team and Guaidó’s could be significantly influenced by Cuba. Norway has a good relationship with the Cuban government given the mediating role it played in the Colombian peace talks, which were held on the island. Cuba now hopes Norway’s mediation will achieve a transition that ensures it keeps quotas of power in Venezuela.
Meanwhile the White House is continuing to pressure. On August 5, Trump signed an executive order imposing a “total blockade” of the Venezuelan government’s properties and financial resources in US territory and authorizing sanctions on foreign individuals and companies that provide support to Maduro, which Trump’s ultra-hawkish national security adviser John Bolton predicted would be a “moribund” regime after the blockade.
Commenting on this measure to representatives of 59 countries in Lima, Bolton threatened Ortega by referring to similar US embargos: “It worked in Panamá [1988)]” he said, “it worked in Nicaragua once  and will work there again...”
Ortega views the Trump team’s threats with skepticism and perhaps to demonstrate this he bestowed a decoration on Venezuelan Army General-in-Chief Vladimir Padrino, sanctioned by the United States. Padrino was the Army of Nicaragua’s most important invited guest at its ostentatious military parade marking the anniversary of its founding.
Meanwhile, back at
the Civic Alliance…
Ortega’s unsurprising announcement in late July that the negotiations were over, yet again bogging down the national crisis and increasing the anxiety of a good part of the population, did not produce despair in the Civic Alliance, as some had calculated. Although it was originally pulled together hastily in May 2018 only to represent key sectors in the dialogue with the government, its members announced on August 16 that they would restructure the Alliance to help bring together all the expressions of the blue and white movement into an opposition coalition that could exert enough pressure on Ortega to finally force him into serious negotiations and genuine compliance.
The road run by the Alliance between April 2018 and the reaching of this decision bring it closer to being an entity actively dedicated to politics. The decision is described in detail and refreshing candor in the Speaking Out section of this issue by Alliance member Ernesto Medina Sandino, who represents the academic sector. Rector of the American University since 2007, Medina had announced in November 2018 that he was resigning to dedicate himself full time to helping find a peaceful solution to the crisis. His reflections reveal how improvised the Alliance’s efforts have been, like those of the spontaneously and loosely formed opposition movement as a whole, even as the situation itself has become increasingly complex.
Time for political unity
and real organization
The very origin of the massive, fragmented and spontaneous rebellion of April, which had neither national unity nor organization—the best proof that it was not an attempted coup—has meant that its inherent dispersion and multiple leaderships have played a part in weakening the domestic pressure on the regime, although the repression has been the main cause.
Despite this great diversity and fragmentation, the Civic Alliance has provided the movement’s voice in opposing Ortega in the two failed negotiation attempts since the April rebellion. In the July Borge y Asociados poll, 41.5% had expressed a “good” opinion of the Alliance while 25.2% had a “bad” opinion of it, at least some of them because they distrust the big business sector’s participation in it. The Civic Alliance is now committed to breaking that skepticism and working to create “unity and organization” within the movement.
After a reflection process, the Alliance team believes the time has come to dedicate itself to a more political role, based on what has already been achieved. It is convinced of the need to build greater unity to work in the same direction while at the same time fully respecting the heterogeneity of the movement’s members and the diversity of their trajectories. Only by strengthening its unity can it stave off not only the regime’s threats and infiltration but also the bait it is throwing out to buy off sectors and forge a new divisive pact. As Medina put it, “We’re convinced that without a correct balance of national and international pressure there will be no peaceful solution to the crisis.” The Alliance is, however, under no illusion about how hard this task is, particularly given what Medina calls the “allergy” most young people have to anything that even remotely smacks of centralism, authoritarianism and caudillo leadership pretensions.
The movement is adapting
to the state of exception
Despite the difficulties, the different expressions of the blue and white movement are working on achieving “unity in action.” Its two most successful actions have been the constant communication and agitation in the social media and the boycott of the regime’s activities and businesses.
One social media “influencer,” an activist who goes by the name Yaser Morazán, is promoting a national and international plan of civil disobedience as a goal for these times. “I’m starting by recognizing the violent nature of this regime,” he says. “Our capacity for struggle has to be adapted to the reality of the degree to which we understand that we’re living in a state of exception. On that basis we have to decide on actions such as national stoppages; school strikes; fiscal and tax strikes; paralyzing the state institutions’ bureaucratic procedures; and non-participation in fairs, festivals and congresses called by the regime. In other words we have to stop participating in the country’s social, cultural, political and economic dynamic. The idea is to create a social siege to demonstrate that the regime has no country to govern.”
Similar new resistance initiatives emerge every day. In a setting in¬creasin¬gly limited by harassment and threats, even Catholic parish church Masses have become arenas for expressing discontent and the determination to continue the struggle. Anti-riot police may surround the churches, but people haven’t stopped participating with national flags and slogans from the church doors at the end of the Mass.
12 immediate electoral reforms
On August 29, a week after the Civic Alliance announced its restructuring, Liberal jurist José Pallais—who heads up the political sector in the Alliance’s recently created Executive Council—met with a sizable and pluralist group of the blue and white movement’s base to present the Alliance’s proposals to reform the collapsed Nicaraguan electoral system.
“Having a credible and solid system,” wrote the Alliance, “requires reforms to the Electoral Law, the Constitution and the Political Parties Law. In addition, a code of electoral procedures, an electoral branch organizational law and a national voter ID institution are needed, but we have prioritized reforms to the Electoral Law and the Constitution, considering that the rest will correspond to a democratic government.”
Pallais presented the following priority reforms, which need to be “immediate”:
1. Choose new electoral authorities who generate confidence.
2. Eliminate the partisan nature of the electoral structures.
3. Authorize alliances that can freely choose their name and legal representative.
4. Free the accreditation of party election monitors from discretionary electoral branch decisions.
5. Adjust the reforms to the particularities of the Caribbean Coast cultures.
6. Simplify the procedure for granting legal status to parties.
7. Guarantee national and international election observation.
8. Ensure the transmission of audit¬able, verifiable and observed results.
9. Publish the electoral results in real time.
10. Update the voter roll.
11. Regulate the way for results to be challenged.
12. Activate the procedures to guarantee the vote of Nicaraguans abroad.
And 5 reforms to
Among the Constitutional amendments required for the immediate transformation of the electoral system, the Alliance identified five that are indispensable:
1. That the next general, municipal and regional elections be moved up and all held at the same time.
2. That a candidate must receive 50% plus one of the votes to be elected President.
3. That a second round be held if no candidate obtains that percentage.
4. That presidential reelection and presidential succession by the spouse be prohibited.
5. That legislative representatives be elected as individuals, not as part of slates proposed by parties or alliances.
These last two proposals were vigorously applauded by the audience. Both presidential reelection and dynastic family succession are unequivocally repudiated following the decades-long Somoza family dynasty. That was followed by Ortega’s manipulation of the Supreme Court to change the Constitution, establish indefinite presidential reelection and prepare the way for his wife or one of their children to succeed him.
The election of legislative representatives via slates of candidates selected and listed by the political parties according to their own priorities so that voters can only vote for the party, not specific candidates, has also been questioned for years.
Its proposal, said Pallais, “is not a finished product; it’s a process under construction that is being consulted with diverse national sectors.” This broad-based consultation is already underway, but the Alliance wants to speed it up since Ortega aims to make merely technical electoral reforms, working unilaterally with the OAS gene¬ral secretariat, which would finance some reforms such as the cleaning up of the voter rolls. A good part of what the Alliance has now announced are political reforms that at one point the OAS said would need to be negotiated by Ortega and the Civic Alliance. The Alliance said the OAS supports its proposed reforms that would permit elections with guarantees.
The pact between Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán in 2000 that resulted in constitutional reforms and an Electoral Law that effectively created a two-party State and a society in the hands of caudillos is at the root of the current crisis. The consummation of that pact eventually brought aboutthe creation of the Electoral Reform Promotion Group to undo those changes to the Electoral Law. That Group, which brought together diverse social sectors, is still working to achieve a national consensus along the same lines as the Civic Alliance.
The Borge y Asociados poll reflects strong distrust of the political parties, with 62.4% saying they have no confidence in them. With respect to moving forward the elections, the poll shows only 38% in favor and 52.1% opposed. While at first glance that response strongly contradicts the demand of a year ago that Ortega aqnd Murillo leave and the elections be moved up. Are the repressive conditions and the lack of a united and strong alterntive the reasons for such backpedaling now?
Where is the OAS ultimatum”…
On June 28, the OAS General Assembly—meeting in an ordinary session in Medellín—announced what we considered at the time to be an ultimatum to the dictatorship.
Six months earlier, Secretary General Almagro had initiated a process in the OAS to apply the Democratic Charter to Nicaragua and in Medellín they seemed to be getting on with it. With a 21-vote majority of the 35 member nations, including most of the continent’s most powerful ones, a resolution was approved that reiterated “concern” about what is happening in Nicaragua and urging the government to renew “effective and good faith” negotiations with the Civic Alliance (by that time the negotiations had already been suspended for a month and a half and Ortega was making clear that he considered them concluded).
The resolution also urged the government to comply with what had been agreed to in those negotiations, an implicit recognition that doing so would be a novelty. It further insisted on the IACHR’s return to Nicaragua, reiterating that there had been an “alteration of the constitutional order” due to the human rights violations, lack of liberties and failure to make any progress on electoral reforms.
Given all this, the resolution “instructed” the OAS Permanent Council to create a commission that would undertake diplomatic initiatives “at the highest level” to find a “peaceful and effective” solution to Nicaragua’s crisis “in the framework of the process of applying the Democratic Charter.” What made it seem like an ultimatum was that the commission would be given no more than 75 days to evaluate our country’s reality and its compliance with serious negotiations.
…two months later?
Despite the urgency expressed in the resolution, it was followed by stagnation rather than acceleration both in Nicaragua and the OAS Permanent Council. Two months passed without the Council doing anything, including even creating the commission. Was the delay due to the invariable vacations taken by the hemisphere’s diplomats in July and August? Or was it because the rotating presidency of the Permanent Council, which was charged with consulting the members before forming the commission, fell during that quarter to Yolande Ivonne Smith, representative of the island nation of Grenada? Hers is one of the small Caribbean countries that vote against, abstain or absent themselves during votes that would displease the Venezuelan government, which provides them with a highly beneficial oil agreement.
To the pleasure of some Nicaragua-watchers and consternation of others, at an event in Chile during this hiatus, Luis Almagro referred to Cuba and Venezuela as the two dictatorships “we are up against in our hemisphere.” Nicaragua’s absence from the list was an unmistakable backpedaling from his words in the 15th Latin American Summit in Miami a year ago when he called on the international community to “asphyxiate the dictatorship that is being set up in Nicaragua.”
The General Assembly’s mandate to form the commission was finally fulfilled in a regular session of the Permanent Council on August 28, and the 75-day countdown began. At play is whether or not to apply article 21 of the Democratic Charter, which involves expelling the Ortega dictatorship from the OAS.
Once it was approved, Ortega’s representative told the plenary that his government does not recognize a commission it has not requested and said it amounts to “interference in Nicaragua’s internal affairs.” He assured the members that his government wants and is willing to work with the OAS to “strengthen the electoral institutions.” Mention of working with the Civic Alliance on electoral reforms was conspicuous by its absence
The blue and white movement is constantly learning about the complexity of issues that make the international community move and at what speed, and this whole episode is yet another chapter in an ever-growing manual on the subject.
Trujillo talks tough
The commission formed to take initiatives “at the highest level”—understood to mean reaching all the way to Ortega himself—is made up of diplomats from five countries: Paraguay, Jamaica, Argentina, Canada and the United States. The last three are also members of the Working Group on Nicaragua, which has already been refused entry to the country.
Everything indicates that Carlos Trujillo, the US representative to the OAS, will be heading the commission. While he has been to Nicaragua seve¬ral times since taking up that post last year, his first declarations to the national media this time were that he predicts a “very difficult conversation” with Ortega, considering the regime does not recognize the commission and is not willing to work with it because, in Trujillo’s view, “he wants to hide the truth about what’s happening in Nicaragua.” Should that turn out to be the case, he warned, “the reactions of the United States and the other countries will be forceful.”
Trujillo also said that both economic and individual sanctions “always follow on the negotiating table,” adding that for the United States “Nicaragua is not going to be different” than Venezuela. He was categorical that “absolutely no progress has been made in the negotiations,” calling them a “waste of time” and insisting that the agreements in the negotiation the commission wants Ortega to engage in must be “real and in good faith.”
Will the “forceful” response of the other countries Trujillo alluded to include the Europeans? After a nearly four-year stint as ambassador of the European Union’s delegation to Nicaragua, Britain’s Kenny Bell said on departing that the Europeans consider dialogue the essential condition for resolving Nicaragua’s crisis. He listed the four areas that require “good faith” agreements as political prisoners, gua¬rantees and liberties, electoral reforms and justice, all of which coincide with the areas the Civic Alliance has insisted on.
The Nica formula for happiness:
Do they have it?
While Ortega is obstinately proceeding at his own unalterable pace, the Civic Alliance is accelerating to increase the internal pressure and international diplomacy dragged its feet during the dog days of August, the majority of Nicaraguans are finding the times ever harder, more insecure and increasingly uncertain and unpredictable.
A popular Nicaraguan refrain mentions having “health, money and love… in that order” as the formula for happiness. How happy are Nicaraguans today?
Health: Public health has suffered significantly in the crisis. The national budget hasn’t been prioritizing health care since the Venezuelan money began to dry up and people are suffering from the lack of medicines and the drop in quality of care in the public system. Many are also suffering stress-related maladies.
The firing of some so many health professionals, many of them specialists, for political reasons, is unquestionably influencing the serious problems in this sector. Just one symptom of the health crisis affecting the State is that this year dengue seems to have gotten out of control, so that public hospitals and health centers no longer have the capacity to deal with so many patients. Is it a lack of resources to continue the mosquito control programs? Or is the shrunken budget being applied to other priorities… such as paying the paramilitaries and providing perks to maintain loyalties? Or is there a loss of interest in maintaining control over professional efficiency and capacity?
It is surely a mixture of all of those factors, and also includes a lack of motivation in the state institutions given the irrational prolongation of the crisis.
Money: There is less money in the state coffers, the banks and most people’s pocketbooks.
In the Borge y Asociados poll, 71.8% that they are living on only 8,000 córdobas (US$240) a month or less, an amount that permits a family of five to eat three times a day for only a week.
Others are much worse off: more than half a million people have lost their jobs since the crisis began and 70% of the employed population has informal jobs with no fixed income as their earnings depend on what they can sell or the service they offer. Their life is even harder than it was before, as there are now more of them and those who still have a job and salary are spending less than before.
All this has created an increasin¬gly anguishing panorama for Nicaraguans. Small business owners report that they are trying to stay open by adjusting and cutting corners wherever they can, but they are worried because the situation isn’t going to fix itself and isn’t going to get better in the foreseeable future. Most people now know that the crisis won’t be resolved while Ortega and Murillo are running the government.
Love: Given such generalized anguish, feelings of love are in short supply. Worse yet, the country is polarized to the extreme. All the advances in depolarizing the country following the cruel war between brothers of the 1980s have been wiped out by the horrors of the worst months of 2018 and the pain of everything said and done since.
The ruthless brutality of April to July 2018 has been followed by more selective repression, punishment and intimidation based on scrutinizing social media videos of the massive demonstrations and other forms of protest during those months, combined with intel provided to the police and paramilitaries by local pro-Ortega organizations and individuals motivated by loyalty, fanaticism, a misplaced sense of power or merely payment. Fear of losing not the “revolution” but the perks, personal security, favors, help, connections and status, and even their idealized past feeds the hatred of others siding with the govern¬ment. That wave of hatred based on the denial of reality extends to anyone who thinks differently, meaning that even apolitical people can’t trust anyone outside of a small circle of friends and relatives.
And on the other side, despite the commitment to non-violence and the frequent comments by spokespeople who recognize that Sandinistas will be a necessary part of any democratic future, will everyone in the blue and white movement be immune to the desire for revenge for what has been done to them, their family or friends?
Even in the most promising future, which feels ever more distant, how will all those feelings and traumatic experiences be grappled with? How much time will it take to dismantle brick by brick the walls of enmity within neighborhoods and communities and even families?
Does the blue and white movement have the capacity yet to start preparing for that task? There are small examples here and there of group work with people who have suffered trauma in these times, necessarily done carefully, under the radar. In a country with a vast experience of suffering trauma—wars, natural catastrophes, machista violence and the like—but very limited experience in trauma healing, these small efforts are paving new roads that may be of use in the future, particularly for the victims of the regime’s violence. But what of the victims of the regime’s contagious arrogance, authoritarianism and power-mongering, those who have convinced themselves that might makes right and that they are on the chosen side?
And what of the international community? Will there be any willingness to help strengthen the nation’s capacities by helping disarm the paramilitaries the Army has disavowed any responsibility for? And even if they should be successfully disarmed, what then?
Time will have the last word
The solution keeps slipping from our grasp. At the beginning, many thought that an eighth of the population pouring spontaneously into the street in miles-long demonstrations would be enough to make the government recognize it had lost the nation’s confidence and that most people actively desired change. The dozens of dead and hundreds of wounded dashed that expectation.
When the first dialogue started with the Civic Alliance, it was hoped that the roadblocks spontaneously erected across the country would bolster the strength of the opposition negotiators and help bring about that change. And then, as the government refused to negotiate and simply tore down the roadblocks with no shortage of violence, it was hoped that the reports of international human rights organizations would add weight to the blue and white movement in its asymmetric struggle with the government
When the government expelled those organizations and cancelled the legal status of national ones, the hope shifted to the international community, which appeared to be taking umbrage at such abusiveness by the government. As much as many people deeply resent the age-old US interference in Nicaragua’s affairs, its sanctions created new hope.
While each setback, each retreat of the goalpost, has been unsettling, they have offered the blue and white movement valuable lessons. But it has a lot of work to do if that broad movement with its many manifestations is to be the basis of the country’s future, an actor in change rather than just a catalyst for it, as Ernesto Medina describes in his article. Meanwhile, time will have the last word, telling us when and even whether we will be able to respond to the many concerns facing us.