Reflections of Nicaragua’s crisis in Latin America’s new social uprisings
All of Latin America’s new exploding crises are political:
challenging power from one side or the other, or just from below.
They are also all social: shaking and polarizing their populations.
And beyond any specific economic spark that set each one off,
all have one root: massive disparity between the haves and have-nots.
In all of them, multitudes of citizens have taken the streets.
Sound similar to the crisis that blew up in Nicaragua
with the April rebellion?
Before comparing and contrasting what has been happening the past couple of months in countries as near as Honduras and as far away as Chile with what we’ve been living through in Nicaragua since April 2018, it’s worth recalling the unique feature of Nicaragua’s crisis: massive and systematic human rights violations from the very moment the protests started.
protest to rebellion
Like other, more recent upheavals, the initial spark in Nicaragua was a specific grievance: the decreeing of unacceptable changes to the social security system, particularly but not only a 5% cut in retirees’ pensions. In response, the order came down that “Anything goes!” and it was obeyed without quarter. Four days into the rebellion, itself fueled by the unexpected magnitude of the official violence unleashed against the initially small protests largely by university students, 23 people had been killed and hundreds wounded, while public health facility workers had been ordered not to treat them.
Rather than quell the protests, the government’s disproportionate and unrelenting lethal force shocked and enraged people of all ages. By the time Ortega rescinded the social security decree it was too late; he had tapped into far deeper resentments. The vast majority of the population took the side of their children. Thousands multiplied into hundreds of thousands who took to the streets in miles-long peaceful marches in May. Their new demands included an end to the violence and justice for its victims, but their most resounding one was for the ruling couple to leave.
To increase the pressure, protesters also erected dozens of roadblocks on roads and highways around the country, paralyzing commercial traffic. The idea started with the peasant movement in one rural sector, but caught on quickly all over the country in what Nicaraguan sociologist and envío contributor José Luis Rocha called “empathic indignation.”
The government made
no more concessions
Locked into its original repressive approach, the government police and para-police forces responded with what international human rights experts have amply documented as a variety of crimes against humanity, i.e. not those committed randomly in the heat of battle, but systematic, repeated, ordered ones. By August when the last roadblock had been cleared by heavily-armed police and paramilitaries, the death toll had risen to at least 328, of whom 28 were police agents sent out to kill or die in fulfillment of their orders.
Thousands had been wounded, some left permanently disabled. An unknown number of the hundreds of protesters arrested and imprisoned without trial or sentenced in deeply flawed hearings were tortured and/or sexually abused. And the country had been drained of some of its best people, most of them young, with an esti¬mated 80,000 exiled in neighboring Costa Rica alone, where they are seeking refugee status. A year and a half later, polarization, malevolence and more selective repression are still the chief characteristics of the government’s rule.
Another hallmark of the Ortega-Murillo government is its rigid refusal to recognize any responsibility for anything that has happened. The government’s spokespeople and avid followers continue to peddle the lie that the uprising was actually an attempted coup deftly nipped in the bud by the forces of order, and that no human rights abuses were committed in the process… except by the other side.
The crises in the other countries all have touches of all of this, but none have been so shot through with such tragic extremes…. at least so far.
Chile: Another rebellion of
Nicaragua’s rebellion had no leaders or direction; it all started spontaneously. Those who took to the streets defined themselves as “self-convoked,” a term that caught on immediately and is still used even though a genuine movement has now evolved. While the government doesn’t buy it, that term, like the adoption of the national flag as their emblem and the flag’s colors as their own, is the protesters’ way of saying their actions were not instigated by any political party or other outside force.
The social explosion in Chile has been very similar. It began in mid-October with young students and quickly escalated into a massive uprising of leaderless dissenters with no visible direction. In Chile’s case, the spark that ignited the underlying indignation was a 3% rise in the metro fare, which 3 million people use every day. The fact that the fare hike is only equivalent to US$0.04 speaks to the existence of an income inequality that makes it a much bigger deal than a foreigner might think. In no time the protesters went the extra mile, rejecting an entire economic model that has greatly increased the middle class but also deepened the inequity. The slogan fist chanted by the multitudes was “Chile woke.”
Early protesters encouraged others to join them in the streets, and, as in Nicaragua, the repressive ferocity of Chile’s police force (the Carabineros) only fed the empathic indignation. It resulted in a march on October 25 of more than a million people who, evoking the powerful 1974 song by Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés, again walked the streets “of what once was bloody Santiago.”
Now Chile is experiencing what Nicaragua went through in April and May 2018: President Piñera ordered the violent represion of the massive marches all over the country. In response, again as happened here, the demonstrators changed their chant to “¡Que se vaya!” (Go!). As of October 27, nine days into the protests, 19 had been reported killed, and the official figure of people shot was 470. And like here, all analyses stress that Chile is no longer the country it was before October 18.
Spontaneity and the lack of any visible leadership or larger strategy are not the only things uniting the uprisings in Nicaragua and Chile: both countries also still carry unhealed wounds of the past. Seeing the social convulsion, repression and torture, many people have evoked the dictatorships in both countries in living memory.
The streets of Santiago have been bloodied again for the first time since the dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet who came to power in 1973 following a US-sponsored destabilization campaign and ultimately a military coup. The massive presence of heavily armed and armored Carabineros recalled the horrors they perpetrated on the dictator’s orders.
Unlike the Carabineros, Nicara¬gua’s National Guard, which caused the deaths of thousands at Somoza’s orders, disappeared with his fall 40 years ago, replaced by a Sandinista police force and army heralded as being the people’s protection. The memory of the hated Guardsmen made the sight of today’s heavily armed special police and their para-police accomplices shooting at students on Ortega’s orders even more complicated, especially for anyone reluctant to accept the analysis of those who have found increasing evidence of dictatorial traits in Ortega’s second shot at power.
Differences small and large
between Nicaragua and Chile
For all the eerie similarities, however, there are differences. One is that the Carabineros were created in 1927, and while they acquired a dreaded reputation during the Pinochet regime in Chile, they can’t be compared to Ortega’s special force snipers and lawless para-police who began shooting down demonstrators on the second day. The Carabineros mainly targeted looters and, comparing the figures, seem to have been aiming to wound rather than kill. In Nicaragua it has also been proven that the police, not the demonstrators, provoked the majority of the torching and looting or stood by watching when the perpetrators were governing-party loyalists. Still another difference is that the initial episodes of destructive violence in Chile were greater, in part because there’s much more infrastructure to destroy.
In Chile, President Piñera at least felt forced to call for the resignation of his Cabinet members, rescind the metro fare hike and propose some social reforms, while Ortega’s first and last concession was to withdraw the social security modifications (only to quietly reinstate even worse ones in February of this year). Nor did Piñera order public health facilities to deny treatment to the wounded or fire doctors who disobeyed, as happened so astonishingly in Nicaragua.
But these differences have been too few, too late. The protests, which spread all over Chile, show no signs of abating as of the close of this issue in English, given that Piñera’s proposals came nowhere near addressing the underlying issue of inequality.
Two other differences are more important on many levels and are interrelated. One is that the self-convoked opponents of the Ortega regime launched their protests in the most impoverished country on the continent, while those opposing Piñera did so in what has been touted for decades as the model of successful development, the benefits of which have gone mainly to the elite. The other is that even though the Ortega regime has created ostentatious and very visible inequalities with the hundreds of millions it has received via the Venezuelan oil operation and other illicit sources, it wasn’t so much economic inequality that turned an economic protest into a social uprising a year ago last April. It was mainly the political inequality, the stifling social control that excludes and humiliates those who aren’t “their people.”
Chile’s elitist model
Chile’s uprising has a little of everything, but it was largely triggered by an economic inequality that shouldn’t be measured only in macroeconomic figures or averages. It is experienced in the crass elitism of the economic model, top contender for the “savage capitalism” title. The model and those who flaunt its benefits provoke not only miserable poverty but indignation.
Only days before the rebellion, President Piñera called Chile an “oasis.” But in that oasis, even water—the first human right—was among the privatized public services. The State was supposed to be the regulator, but the elites got it all, from the privatized businesses to the State itself, and in its greed it forgot its regulatory responsibility. It takes a particular kind of insensitivity to impose what were defined as “austerity” measures on what is boasted as being an “oasis.”
With that same insensitivity, he President saw “war with a powerful enemy” where there was really profound malcontent with being so economically shut out. As one of the wealthiest men in Chile, Miguel Juan Sebastián Piñera Echenique doesn’t get it. His family, among the 17 most economically powerful in the country, effortlessly reaps the advantages of a neoliberal economic model in its purest state, the first to be applied in Latin America back in Pinochet’s day, thanks to US economist Milton Friedman and his famous “Chicago boys.” Presented for years by Friedman and others as the continent’s “economic miracle,” Chile’s reorientation to extreme capitalism, particularly under Pinochet’s 17 years of iron rule, created a kind of apartheid: first-world health and education services for the elite, third-world health and education for the majority, and a “fourth-world” pension system.
According to the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, that small elite to which Piñera belongs skims 28% of the national income off the top and ensures that the bottom 50% of Chilean households struggle to survive with only 2.1% of it. ECLAC also says that a full half of the Chilean labor force only receives the minimum wage.
Describing the country as the “flagship” of progress in Latin America, Peruvian sociologist Carlos Basombrío wrote: “thirty years of democracy. Competitive and irreproachable elections. Respect for human rights. Institutions that function well. Sustained economic growth. Reduction of poverty...,” ending that list with “it is now in flames.” Piñera was forced to admit that Chile cannot host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in November or the United Nations’ COP25 climate summit in December, which would have been an opportunity for the country to play a greater role in global affairs.
planet’s most unequal region
Chile’s crisis has gotten the whole continent thinking, given that it and the other social explosions are occurring in the planet’s most unequal region. For decades Latin America has held the record for having the greatest and most unmovable gap between the few who have so much and the many who have so little.
Is Chile’s model ultimately non-functional or does it just need a few serious tweaks? Will reforms be enough to socially compensate for its inequalities? If so, what adjustments need to be made? And what backing can be expected from the multilateral financing institutions?
All of Latin America is asking these questions and testing out answers. Despite the economic growth and poverty reduction statistics that have graduated some Latin America countries—Chile at their head—into the middle-income ranks, the gap has not only remained but grown. And it is experienced even more strongly in this interconnected world where we can all see what other countries have and how some people there are living. We are constantly exposed to today’s anti-value consumerist message that you are what you can buy and can also all see in real time how and why crises are breaking out in other countries.
Bolivia: Rejection of
reelection and fraud
Other uprisings in countries much less developed than Chile seem more like Nicaragua, albeit with different detonators. As here, the questioning or outright rejection of presidential reelection is clearly part of the agenda of the current crises in Bolivia and Honduras, with levels of repudiation that have triggered repressive violence.
Daniel Ortega has governed uninterruptedly for 13 years after reelections in 2011 and 2016 with highly questionable legality. He even reformed the Constitution to do so by citing Art. 23 of the American Convention on Human Rights, arguing that as a citizen he has the right “to be elected in genuine periodic elections” full stop.
Former President Óscar Arias earlier used the same argument in Costa Rica, but was out of office at the time, did not monopolize his country’s legislative, judicial end electoral branches of government and saw to it that the proposal was put to a popular vote in a referendum. In Nicaragua, which does not enjoy Costa Rica’s 70 years of stable institutionality, but still bears the living memory of a nearly half-century ruling family dynasty, reelection is not a debatable issue for most people. While it didn’t spark the first protests in April 2018, a clean and competitive election that would surely remove Ortega from power is now the main demand.
If reelection per se wasn’t the detonator in Nicaragua, it was in Bolivia. Evo Morales has governed there a year longer than Ortega has here, and just won his fourth term this October 20, pulling 47% of the vote in a nine-candidate race whose transparency was questioned by the Organization of American States (OAS) election observers. A referendum Morales himself called to eliminate the constitutional two-term limit was rejected in February 2016 by 51.3% to 48.7%. Simply overriding that result, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice ruled a year later that no public offices would have term limits, citing the same source Arias and Ortega used.
Street demonstrations calling for Morales to step down began with the announcement of his reelection, although the violent clashes were be more between pro- and anti-government protesters than in equally polarized Nicaragua, where pro-government activists quickly ceded the repression of demonstrators to the special police forces and their para-police associates. As of the close of this issue, only one death had been reported in Bolivia. It also doesn’t appear to be the case that the protestors in Bolivia were as independent and self-convoked as in Nicaragua.
Ortega and Morales
The economic models the two regimes constructed are very different. Morales built his power on a very solid base, not at all like the precarious one on which Ortega’s government rests.
Bolivia is the third largest producer of hydrocarbons and the largest producer and exporter of natural gas in South America so he didn’t have to rely on Chávez’s economic support, as Ortega did. Morales also nationalized gas and oil, making the energy trans¬nationals minority partners. He achieved an economic solidity for years that allowed him to negotiate with the Santa Cruz elites, while Ortega reapplied Somoza’s simple formula with Nicaragua’s big capital: you deal with the money and I’ll handle the politics. Nicaraguan unrest began to simmer precisely with the decline of Venezuelan cooperation.
During his decade in office Morales also gained indigenous support for important social inclusion programs that Ortega never achieved with the equivalent peasant base. Another of Morales’ strengths, which Ortega never had, is the powerful indigenous roots that brought him to power and ensured him massive indigenous support… up to now.
Evo Morales’ crisis
The NO in the reelection referendum Morales called in 2016 was his first defeat at the polls in ten years. It alerted him to the discontents simmering in society despite the cultural revolution of having an Aymaran President in a country with an 80% indigenous population.
By that time, Morales, promoter of the greatest social and economic change Bolivia has ever seen, was already suffering clear erosion due to his administration’s corruption and the personality cult he promoted, abetted by his Vice President, Álvaro García Linera.
Morales also made the mistake of not preparing for his presidential succession in his Movement to Socialism Party. Former President Carlos Mesa (2003-2005), his main adversary in October’s election race, cautioned him that the referendum results were Bolivians’ way of saying that “there are no indispensable individuals, only indispensable causes.”
Frauds in Nicaragua and Bolivia
Given the negative results of Evo Morales’ 2016 referendum on reelection, the alleged fraud in Bolivia this October was surely motivated by his fear of a second-round run-off ballot between him and Mesa, candidate of the Civic Community party. It was a risk he was unwilling to take, sure he wouldn’t win it.
The same fear led to suspicions of fraud in Nicaragua’s 2006 elections, when Ortega won with only 38% of the votes. Since his nefarious pact with President Arnoldo Alemán determined that a candidate only needed 35% as long as it exceeded the runner-up by 5%, Ortega allegedly ordered the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) to hide the ballots of 8% of the voting tables, presumably ones that would have clo¬sed that gap. And to free himself from the specter of ever having to face a second round, he eliminated it entirely in the 2014 constitutional reform.
Since then, all municipal, legislative and presidential elections have been tainted by never-investigated allegations of fraud, particularly the 2011 general elections, in which Ortega would have probably won the presidential race, but needed to assure the governing party a large enough majority of legislative seats to make Constitutional-ranking changes. It was the only election in the country’s historical memory in which more National Assembly ballots were “cast” than presidential ones.
Unlike Morales, Ortega not only controls Nicaragua’s CSE from top to bottom, but it now has so many frauds under its belt it has honed the process to a fine art. This was Morales’ first attempt, and he seems to have blown it. On election day, when the quick counts of over 80% of the votes showed only a seven-point lead for Morales and thus the need for a second round, the computer system suddenly “crashed” for 20 hours. When it was back up again, Morales had somehow picked up three more points, giving him the 10% legally needed to avoid a second round when the front-running candidate has less than 50%.
Watching what the
OAS is doing in Bolivia
The OAS acted with alacrity. The very day after the elections, an OAS observer mission statement sounded an unequivocal alarm: “At 20:10, the TSE stopped disclosing preliminary results, by decision of the plenary, with more than 80% of the votes counted. 24 hours later, the TSE presented data with an inexplicable change in trend that drastically modifies the fate of the election and generates a loss of confidence in the electoral process.”
While calling for calm, the state¬ment’s allegation of such a crass maneuver had the opposit effect: it helped detonate the crisis in Bolivia’s streets, which filled with protesters opposing Morales, increasing the country’s unprecedented polarization.
While the protesters were demanding a second electoral round with international observation, suggesting their confidence that Morales could no longer claim the support of the majority of the Bolivian people, the OAS agreed to the government’s request for an audit of the results by a team of experts whose finding would be “binding.” The preliminary OAS report, released on Sunday November 10, said there had been “clear manipulations” of the voting system making it “statistically improbable that Morales had obtained the 10% difference to avoid a second round.”
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research disagreed. He said CEPR’s own analysis of the tally sheets, released two days before the OAS findings, showed a steady increase in votes for Morales coming in during the blackout period from the more distant rural areas, where he has strong support, that statistically could have closed the 3% gap.
The same day as the OAS report, Evo Morales announced that he would hold new elections as proposed by the OAS (apparently not the run-off elections the opposition originally demanded). But soon afterward he announced his resignation following the withdrawal of police support and a public call by the head of Bolivia’s armed forces that he step down. As the officials next in the presidential line of succession all resigned as well, the military took charge. Morales, who accepted Mexico’s offer of asylum after his home was attacked by opponents, called on both Carlos Mesa and rightwing position leader Luis Fernando Camacho to “pacify” Bolivia.
Unlike Ortega’s frauds, which never attracted such world attention, the international community, including its media, immediately turned its attention to the Bolivian crisis. The eyes of the Nicaraguan opposition also focused on Bolivia and on the OAS role in the crisis to see what attitude it might project with respect to future elections here. The complexity of our own elections, whether they are moved up, held in 2021 or not even held then, is described in this month’s Speaking Out section by Nicaraguan political scientist and election expert José Antonio Peraza.
The unfolding of events in Bolivia as of the close of the English-language edition of envío has produced a similar Manichean polarization of responses as in Nicaragua. They are either moved solely by Morales’ definition of his departure as a military coup, dismissing any political errors or possibly fraudulent moves on his part, or unequivocally defend electoral democracy, arguing he should not have run again after losing the 2016 reelection referendum. The later show no interest in his commendable achievements and the former exhibit none in what the underlying interests of the opposition forces might be. Either way, nobody seems to be seeking any common understanding.
Honduras: A genuine coup
and a repudiated election
Honduras’ population mobilizes periodically to repudiate a politician also determined to get himself perpetually reelected, although the circumstances could hardly be more different than those of Bolivia.
In 2009, Honduras witnessed Latin America’s first 21st-century coup d’état. It was also so far the only one that complied with all the parameters of this method of replacing governments. The military establishment, backed by the country’s most powerful economic and political sectors (hardly a democratic majority) sent soldiers to force their way into the home of President Manuel Zelaya in the middle of the night, dragged him from his bed and put him on a military plane to Costa Rica, without even giving him time to dress. It was a scene from last century’s best Latin American barracks tradition; none of this massive unarmed street demonstration stuff Daniel Ortega keeps trying to pass off as a coup attempt. The closest Nicaragua’s rebellion came to meeting coup criteria was that the huge crowds in the streets were demanding that the ruling couple step down. But in most countries that’s more respectfully called freedom of expression.
Once Zelaya was out of the country, the Honduran Congress, with US support, voted to depose him without benefit of trial. With that, Juan Orlando Hernández (also known as JOH, for his initials), then head of the National Party, launched the meteoric rise of his political and economic career. Even his first election as President in November 2013 had a whiff of fraud to it.
In April and May 2015, in the middle of his first term, thousands of indignant Hondurans carrying lit torches took to the streets for weeks shouting “Out with JOH!” in protest against the demonstrated pillaging of the social security coffers to finance Hernández’s political party. His determination to run for reelection, riding roughshod over the Honduran Consti¬tution’s prohibition of multiple presidential terms, brought the masses back out into the streets.
“By not changing the dynamics of what began 10 years ago,” concluded Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno in his article on Honduras in the August edition of envío, “rejection of the coup will continue to be active, like sim¬mer¬ing magma in an active volcano. And it will again explode against the regime, whether still under the leadership of Juan Orlando Hernández or after he has already been prosecuted and extradited.”
Honduras carries very
little geopolitical weight
The November 2017 elections produced denunciations, a critical observation report by the OAS, vote recounts, and a new round of mass demonstrations representing the majority of the population that rejected the whole process. But by then JOH had consolidated his power and there was no alternative to Washington’s liking. The electoral tribunal, which JOH controls, declared him and his rightwing populist project the winner.
Like Ortega but unlike Morales, Hernández met the mobilizations with ferocious repression. Dozens were killed and hundreds detained in climate of terror that had already earned Honduras the reputation as one of the most violent countries in the world. JOH initiated his second term in January 2018 with that environment still prevailing.
This ongoing crisis is mentioned little because Honduras carries very little weight in regional geopolitics, much less international ones. When it is mentioned at all, it is usually in the context of what is known as the region’s Northern Triangle, in which Honduras is not unreasonably lumped together with El Salvador and Guatemala as corrupt, violent and generally crisis-ridden countries. Little distinction is made among them other than the money Washington has poured into each one over the past two decades, largely with the goal of stemming their migrant flows to the US.
The presence of drug-trafficking is most visible in Honduras’ seemingly interminable crisis. While the illicit drug trade and the power of the cartels also pull political strings in other countries, only in Honduras is the string-pulling viewed as determinant to its crisis.
There’s no skirting reality in Honduras. It is referred to today as the “hemisphere’s cocaine capital” and openly fingered as a world-class example of a “narco-State.”
By more than just the logical extension of being President of a narco-State, Juan Orlando Hernández is a narco-ruler. The still unclarified death of his sister and closest collaborator Hilda Hernández in December 2017 remains shrouded in mystery. Among other versions that attempted to cover up the motive, it was attributed to a settling of accounts between drug cartels. That was followed a year later by the arrest of their brother and former congressman Tony Hernández by US authorities on suspicion of being one of the highest-level drug traffickers in Central America in the past ten years. JOH has obviously not escaped the fallout unscathed. His brother’s conviction in a New York federal court in October of this year for conspiring to import cocaine into the US and related firearms and false-statement offenses has brought Honduras’ President even closer to a similar fate.
Mexico: When the mask is
stripped from narco-power
Drug traffic’s power in the region—and in its crises—became scandalously visible in Mexico with the political and social explosions that began shaking Latin America in October, But those who took to the streets in Mexico to protest against the government weren’t indignant youths or your average citizen with a gripe. They were members of the Sinaloa drug cartel demanding the release of Ovidio Guzmán, one of 10 sons recognized by that powerful cartel’s former leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
Ovidio was arrested in an “improvised and failed” operation, as the Mexico’s own authorities admitted. To rescue him, his buddies put the city of Culiacán, capital of Sinaloa and the cartel’s bastion, in check for hours of crossfire that killed eight people during which the cartel demonstrated greater military capacity than Mexico’s Army. The hooded and armed men captured soldiers and their families, set fires and threatened to repeat their acts in other states of the country to force Oviedo’s release, imposing terror and openly demonstrating their power.
In what was a major blow to his image, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had to back down and order Ovidio freed. This parallel power, normally interspersed behind the scenes into the institutional branches of a good number of our countries, showed what it can do when its interests are challenged.
In that regard, “The crisis revealed our country’s true face,” Nicaraguan academic Ernesto Medina, a member of the Civic Alliance, wrote in a September article for envío that “we were the safest country in Central America, admired by the region. But we discovered tragically that this was because criminal groups were part of the power apparatus and, at a mere signal from their chiefs, they donned balaclavas, loaded their AK47s and with no compunction whatever went out in to the streets to sow terror and death.”
Ecuador: The spark was
a 123% hike in fuel prices
Like the other rulers, Lenín Moreno in Ecuador, who was Rafael Correa’s Vice President between 2007 and 2013 and succeeded him as President in 2017, was surprised by the fury and size of the protest that began on October 3. There was no lack of violence at the beginning.
The spark that lit the fuse in Ecua¬dor was also a measure that increased people’s cost of living. Following International Monetary Fund prescriptions, Moreno increased previously highly subsidized fuel prices, par¬ticularly the price of diesel by 123%. This immediately affected public transport, hitting the pocketbook of small producers and the poor in gene¬ral very hard. The measure’s aim was to alleviate the fiscal deficit left by Correa’s corruption, waste and grandiose projects.
Moreno attributed the upheaval to “obscure forces linked to organized political crime and directed by Correa and Maduro in complicity with gangs and foreigners.” Apart from casting his net of culprits so wide that virtually no one was left out, his accusations had a potential kernel of truth other governments hadn’t bothered with: the actor best positioned to turn the protests to his own advantage was indeed Rafael Correa.
Even though Lenín Moreno wasn’t Correa’s running mate in his successful bid for a second term in 2013, Correa considered him so loyal that he selected him as his successor, heir of the “citizens’ revolution.” His plan was that Moreno would keep his seat warm until Correa could win reelection for a third term.
But he clearly misjudged Moreno, who promptly distanced himself from his mentor and began to actually govern. Correa dubbed him a traitor. Undaunted, Moreno went after Correa’s second-term vice president, Jorge Glas, one of the artifices of Correa’s mega-corruption, who is now in prison. There’s even an arrest warrant out for Correa, who fled and now lives in Belgium with his wife.
Ten thousand kilometers away from the current events, Correa’s inflamed tweets showed that he was playing a strong role in his country’s crisis. Seeing the repression Moreno decided to unleash to impose order, he even proposed holding early elections as a solution to the crisis, in which he, of course, would be the “winning candidate.” It was at that point that Moreno alluded to him heading up a coup attempt with support from Venezuela’s Maduro, still not accepting the unpopularity of the harsh IMF measure he had imposed.
descend on Quito
The unique variable in the Ecuadorian crisis came from the country’s indigenous peoples, many of them impoverished. They were humiliated and mocked during Correa’s decade in office and disrespected by Morena, who promised them no more mining, then filled their territories with concessions. As organized communities, they decided to make their voice heard and demonstrate their power.
The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) represents the country’s 14 indigenous nationalities, a fifth of the entire Ecua¬dorian population. Its leaders, together with those of the two other indigenous and Afro-desdendant organizations Ecuadorian population. Its leaders decided to join those from the rest of the country who were protesting the measure imposed by Moreno, calling on their communities to march on Quito to demand he repeal Decree 883, which establishes the fuel price rise.
In colonial times, “Indians” invading the city was the nightmare of the Spanish elite and it has remained so in the hardwired mentality of their locally born descendants. CONAIE’s announcement thus re-awoke that deep-seated racist panic.
Thousands of men and women from all the indigenous nationalities flooded into Quito in trucks and on foot, chanting their demand. There they mixed with the angry population of all skin hues and stayed until the decree was quashed by Moreno, who in fear had moved the government to Guayaquil. Back in their communities the indigenous peoples disassociated themselves from the groups that had committed violence and clearly distanced themselves from Correa’s pretentions.
The powerful indigenous root
“You haven’t listened to us in a year,” the indigenous leaders told Moreno from across the negotiating table in which the United Nations and members of the Catholic Church also participated. This time the President had no choice but to listen as they were representing all the discontented and thus were able to force Moreno to return to Quito and sit down and negotiate with them. After getting him to repeal Decree 883, they now aspire to hammer out a different economic model to deal with the crisis Correa willed the country.
The indigenous ancestral root in Ecuador showed that it runs strong and deep. Given the singularity of the Ecuadoran crisis, marked by the decisive participation of that country’s indigenous movement, this issue of envío also offers more detailed article on the subject.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that in Nicaragua, the “peasant root” rose up against Ortega in defense of its own lands and of national sovereignty starting in 2013, five years before the April 2018 explosion. Organized peasants from all over southeast Nicaragua protested in a hundred massive marches in their own territories against the ominous interoceanic canal project, unknowingly presaging the April rebellion, which the peasant movement actively joined.
The heads of State of Nicaragua, Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador were all caught off guard, disconcerted by the massive protest demonstrations that seemed to spring from nowhere in their countries. Any government minimally interested in the pulse of its population and remotely sensitive to the response to its governance would have had some inkling of the roots of the discontent. But these governments, only interested in the portion of their citizenry, however small it might be, that agrees with them, opted to define those who disagree as the enemy. With no further thought, they labeled the tempests whipping them about as “rightwing conspiracies,” refusing to recognize that they are reaping the winds they themselves had sown.
Both the rulers of the Nicaraguan regime and their accomplices have now spent more than a year and a half in a pathological state of denial, insisting to themselves and anyone else who will listen that they are victims of a “failed coup d’état.” They refuse to consider even the most irrefutable evidence to the contrary and repeat in their propaganda and communiques, and even in international forums, the litany that these fabricated coup-mongers “could not [achieve it] and will never be able to.” It’s a strange “barracks plot” that is led not by military officers or a group deeply embedded in state institutions but by angry unarmed masses.
In Bolivia, Evo Morales also attributed the repudiation of the fraud that got him reelected to a military coup. While it was initiated with much more finesse than in Honduras and certainly Chile, and could arguably have been avoided by Morales stepping down after grooming a successor within his party, it was certainly the implied muscle of the armed forces that determined his departure.
In Chile, Piñera referred not to a coup but to “organized vandalism” and got so carried away at first that he claimed “We are at war,” which only further stoked the indignation and made him the more personal focus of the anger.
hurricane is coming”
Meanwhile, the Latin American Left would like to claim responsibility for the upheaval in these countries. “What’s happening in Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina and Honduras is barely a little breeze and what is coming soon is a Bolivarian hurricane,” predicted Diosdado Cabello, Nicolás Maduro’s second, with undisguised glee in a United Socialist Party of Venezuela event in Caracas on October 26. Chile’s crisis had just exploded two weeks earlier.
Three days later, Maduro himself said in a calculatedly mysterious and prophetic tone: “From Venezuela I can tell the São Paulo Forum that we are fulfilling the plan, now in full, victorious development…. All the targets we have proposed in the Forum are being met, one by one…. I can’t say more, but you understand me.”
The São Paulo Forum was founded by Brazil’s Workers’ Party following the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 as a place where leftist parties and movements of Latin America and the Caribbean could join forces to analyze the new reality and rethink the region’s political course and the Left’s role with the end of the East-West confrontation. Over the years, which were dominated by neoliberal governments and the Left’s inability to define a viable alternative paradigm to the failings of real socialism, it extended its invitation out to social democratic and democratic socialist forces, doubling its participants from 48 to more than 100 today.
The dominant conclusion by the end of the nineties was that the struggle for state power should be postponed, as winning “would only mean administering neoliberal policies.” Meanwhile leftist parties should seek to gain as many seats as possible in their countries’ legislative bodies and municipal governments, the former to act as a brake on the worst neoliberal legislation and the latter to gain experience governing.
By the middle of the next decade a number of progressive and leftist parties had taken power and the complexity of issues facing the forum members had become significantly more complicated. To its credit, the contradictions, conflicts and multiple disparities among its members given that complexity have not split the structure and, according to Wiki¬pedia, only two parties have withdrawn in all these years, both of them from Brazil.
Nine countries are still ruled by forum members and another five were until recently. All of the countries embroiled in conflict mentioned in this article are among those 14. In late October, several Latin American media and rightwing governments accused the forum of being partially responsible for the political agitation in Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.
“We are neither left nor right”
Although truly objective reporting is by definition a media myth, the coverage and analyses of Latin America’s conflicts coming from the Russia Today chain and Venezuela’s Telesur are particularly skewed, simplistically presenting them as a struggle between Left and Right, between the people and the empire and doing so in a particularly white hat-black hat manner. Neither one, for example, ever reported on the savage repression by the Ortega regime or recognized the liberating sense of the multitudes who have been rebelling and resisting in Nicara¬gua since April 2018.
If the heads of State affected by the massive protests attributed their populations’ discontents exclusively to rightwing and imperialist conspiracies, some rightwing politicians and analysts blame all or almost all of what happened, and even what will happen, to a conspiracy programmed and financed by forces that combine the conspiratorial experience of the Cuban government and the resources of the Venezuelan one. The Cuban government, which traditionally acts tough but says little, denied any participation in what is happening in these countries.
In any event, this simplistic vision ignores those who have rebelled for their own reasons and with their own capabilities and magnifies the powers and resources of the regimes of those two countries, which, it might be added, are dealing with their own crises. In all fairness, however, not all of those on the right-leaning side of the political spectrum have fallen into this oversimplification. Some have understood the reasons and roots of these massive uprisings and realize it’s time for a more serious reflection.
Seeing the different ideological signs of the various governments besieged by protests, Nicaragua’s bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, succinctly summarized what is happening: “The peoples are tired of both savage capitalism and antiquated Marxism.”
The same sentiment was seen on some tee-shirts during our 2018 rebellion: “We’re neither left nor right, we’re the pissed off Nicaragua.” It was a generalized sentiment impossible to affix to one of the two ideological poles. People with much of that kind of non-ideologized anger also took to the streets in Ecuador and will continue doing so in Honduras, Chile, Bolivia… and even Venezuela.
The Venezuelan crisis:
Maduro and Ortega
Since April 2018 Venezuela’s crisis has run parallel to ours, as the close relationship between the Venezuelan regime first under Chávez and now Maduro and the Ortega-Murillo one explains much of what Ortega does and undoes in Nicaragua.
Venezuela’s crisis is dragging out the longest and most acutely so far. It was exacerbated by the death of Chávez, the steep fall of oil prices and the accelerated economic crisis that became a critical humanitarian one resulting in the exodus of some four million people, something unprecedented on the continent. The climax came in 2017 when Maduro imposed himself in the presidency through elections recognized internationally as fraudulent.
The obstinate clinging to power of Maduro and his circle since strongly resembles Ortega’s. And the human rights violations over the course of the crisis have also been undeniable in both countries. The Bachelet report on human rights in Venezuela is staggering.
Like Ortega, Maduro claims to be defending a “socialist revolution” and struggling against “imperialism.” Ortega calculates his immediate future by looking in the Venezuelan mirror, Maduro counsels his Nicaraguan colleague to tough it out against external pressures and sanctions, and both receive encouragement from the Cuban government.
In recent months, the crisis in Venezuela, which commands a lot more attention than Nicaragua’s because it sits on the planet’s greatest oil reserves, has drawn media and diplomatic attention away from Nicaragua, which for its part only has Central America’s greatest reserve of water. President Trump’s recently terminated national security adviser John Bolton, an unabashed hawk, lumped the two regimes together with Cuba as the “troika of tyranny.”
So what are the
multitudes clamoring for?
While the Nicaraguan and Venezuelan crises remain unresolved, how will these other social revolts, defined in Caracas as “Bolivarian breezes,” end up?
In Ecuador, the most peaceful of the convulsed countries at the moment, negotiation agreements opening the way for a transition in Ecuador have left indigenous leaders “cautiously optimistic” about the opportunities for real change in that country. The organized indigenous people have not abandoned their role as interlocutors who confronted the racism and won. In their proposed economic plan they are asking for social justice involving a tax system in which those who have more pay more, and justice for Mother Earth, which means annulling the mining concessions in their territories. What are their chances?
In Chile the masses in the streets are calling for a change in the economic model that will bring equity and dignity. They are also asking for a new Constitution to replace the current one left over from the Pinochet dictatorship. In the demonstrations they demand “empathy” and explain why very clearly: “because a government with empathy is going to govern for the people and not for themselves.” They are against the political and economic elite and for that reason are asking for Piñera’s resignation. As the English-language edition goes to press, he has agreed to rewrite the old Constitution. It is definitely a bigger step than any others he has offered, but who will draft it and will stem the arrogance of the elites in power?
Nicaragua is an
Here in Nicaragua the polarization and hatred are unceasing. Graves of murdered young protesters were recently profaned; their mothers are persecuted; any expression of protest, no matter how minimum it might be, is impeded; torture continues in the prisons; and the ruling couple shows no willingness to negotiate anything because the “coup-mongers” have already “failed” and everything is now back to “normal”…
Pain and misery should never be subjected to comparisons, but Nicara¬gua’s tragedy is disproportionate to our small size and impoverishment. Joel Hernández the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ rapporteur for the rights of persons deprived of liberty, said as much last December, when the Nicaraguan regime expelled his organization from the country: “Our region has not seen a situation similar to Nicaragua’s in a long time: that such a number of human rights violations by the State against the population could have occurred in so little time.”
Months later, when people were no longer being shot down in the streets, but the political prisoners who had filled the prisons were being “tried,” he repeated his assessment: “It is unprecedented in Latin America’s recent history to see such a large number of persons subjected to detention and penal processes with such an accumulation of violations of due process.”
And lastly, given the persistent denial by those responsible for all this, he lamented that “The silence of the government of Nicaragua in response to the repeated requests for a solution is heartbreaking…. There is no normality. Nicaragua is in a state of exception. We have returned to a state of total close-mindedness to any kind of solution. All windows have been closed.”
“This is no way
to build a nation”
The Catholic Church continues speaking out about the wounds of the national tragedy. On November 4, the Archdiocese of Managua’s Justice and Peace Commission published a message seeking to offer “counsel and strength to our brothers in the difficult situation our country is continuing to experience, subjected to violence, injustice and the sacking of its wealth.”
The message adds that “the current social, political and economic crisis we are living through has been aggravating the situation of a society impoverished and pushed to misery, where it would seem that the ‘other’ has stopped having value.”
It refers to the “high unemployment rate, lack of even elementary education, lack of a basic health service” and “application of economic and tax policies aimed at evading the current crisis, and which are not an adequate response to the economic recession we are going through.” It proposes the creation of “an environment of trust, justice and freedom of expression to learn about the constructive criticisms coming from broad sectors of society.” It also proposes to achieve “the independence of the State branches to avoid the concentration of power.” And as none of this exists in Nicaragua today, it concludes that “fear and pressures are no basis for building a nation.”
Patience and resistance
Nicaragua is currently reflected in the mirror of the crisis shaking the other countries, and all those countries have something to teach us. We are still bogged down in our own crisis after more than a year and a half as an OAS-created commission that was given 75 days to determine the current status of the political, social and economic crisis resulting from the rebellion of April 2018 is about to release its report.
Everything is still the same—and thus worse—and the regime persists in denying the civil and political rights to demonstrate, organize and express oneself. As a result, the social majority, which still defines itself only by the colors of the national flag, has been learning from this dictatorial power—far from painlessly—that all that remains of the peaceful civic struggle it opted for from the outset is patience and resistance.
That majority continues resisting in all the ways it can, sending small but repeated messages that it has not cracked, that silence does not mean disappearance. Meanwhile its leadership, most of it forged in this young struggle, is still working diligently to form a unitary coalition that can recover the streets and deal with the enormous challenges. Not the least of those challenges is to create the unity, active support and consensus to go to elections, whenever they are held, with a single ticket, a new name, new symbols, new colors, and most importantly a solid program. And of course the greatest challenge is to beat out the FSLN for the presidency and parliamentary majority. If that is achieved, the immense challenge in the medium run will be to maintain that unity, strength and consensus to govern for a five-year term and implement the reforms needed to make justice and democracy possible, guaranteeing that this as-yet unending tragedy is never again repeated.
The social media revolution
From one of the most educated societies on the continent, Chilean literature professor, poet and media communicator Cristian Warnken warns that what is happening today is not easy to halt, and invites his audience to “read to understand.” But how many among the multitudes who have taken to the streets in our countries to express their demands have the time and money to read what so many thinkers have been presenting?
That said, there are a great many among them who already know about other needed revolutions in areas such as gender, ecology, new human relations… Many knew years ago that people would rise up against Ortega in Nicaragua; that peaceful multitudes would demonstrate in Puerto Rico’s streets against the corrupt and insensitive governor Ricardo Rosselló, actually forcing him to resign after only days. They see images of the “umbrella movement” in Hong Kong, the “yellow jackets” in Paris and “Occupy” in New York, the ongoing protests in Haiti that began in February of this year, or the worldwide demonstrations demanding action on climate change… all in recent months and years. Plugging into the social media, they are beginning to understand.
Not a single one of Latin America’s crises can be understood today without recognizing the power of social media and the ever widening access to smart phones that inform, warn, convoke and briefly explain what’s happening in the world, and even more abbreviated provide some of the reasons for what is happening. Like the invention of fire at the dawn of humanity or the wheel much later, the new communication technologies have changed our way of thinking, acting, and certainly protesting. But we need see its dangers as well as its values. In this modern world of tweeted policy statements and Instagram visions of reality, complex analyses and multifaceted debates are increasingly losing favor to 30-second sound bites and photo-shopping, which is hardly a firm foundation for informed opinions.is one of those who sees his country’s crisis in a structural world framework.
“We don’t know
what will come”
An academic to the core, Professor Warnken believes Chile is in the phase of liquid society defined by the late Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, which portends “the end of the Nation-State as we know it....” Warnken doesn’t view the crisis as political or ideological: “this isn’t Marxism; it’s not against the Right. It is instead the revolution that occurs in all nations as a product of the loss of value of the classic institutions, which are falling like leaves in autumn. The churches have foundered in the world. The political parties, the courts, the armed forces……”
If it is the end of one thing, it must bring in its wake the beginning of something else, but Warnken admits to not knowing what it will be. “This moment is the one the philosophers of our time called the end of the Nation State with all its institutions…. It is the beginning of something not yet defined. We are witnesses to the turning of a page more than 200 years after the three great revolutions that changed the world: the English, the French and the American. The planet changed and perhaps it is saving itself.” Did he omit the Russian revolution because, while it certainly qualified as great in its time, it was of the opposite sign and we have now been able to see what it brought in its wake for three decades?