Will we have new Army leadership or five more years of the same?
The second term of General Julio César Avilés
as the Army commander-in-chief ends next February.
Daniel Ortega must name his successor in December.
General Bayardo Rodríguez is first in the line of succession.
If he in fact ends up appointed to this top leadership position
it remains to be seen how much autonomy and independence
from the political interference of the ruling couple he can muster.
The military leadership’s succession process is very relevant to the building of democratic institutions in Nicaragua. To date, despite that importance, the media and limited opinion circles have focused collective attention on the renewal of the Army’s leadership only every five years, and that attention has usually been rife with speculations and uniformed theories.
and legal loopholes
One of the reasons for such sketchy scrutiny full of loopholes is the military’s customary secrecy about issues it considers to be its exclusive business, convinced it’s not compulsorily accountable to the general public. That’s why the Roman poet Juvenal’s iconic question Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? (Who will watch the watchmen?)—the central premise to civilian control over the military in every democratic government—is left floating in the waters of mystery in this process as in many others in the military world. The little we do know about how such a transcendental decision is made is written into the Military Code (Law 855), but it only refers to what is strictly procedural and says nothing about this process’ internal dynamics, operation and development.
It’s significant that Clause V, National Defense and Security, Citizen Security, of Nicaragua’s Constitution, makes no reference to the military leadership’s succession. Moreover, among the President’s 17 attributes, listed in Article 150 of the Constitution, no reference is made to the Executive’s role in this matter. Even the National Assembly is left out of the process. Is this an intentional omission or not? In either case, it’s one that should be remedied.
Legally, the President
has a narrow margin
Article 6, Number 5, of Law 855, on Reforms and Addendums to Law 181, the Code of Military Organization, Jurisdiction and Social Welfare establishes that it is the task of the Military Council to propose a new Army commander-in-chief to the President, who has the authority and responsibility to either accept and appoint that nominee or reject the proposal and request another. It leaves a relatively narrow margin for political and technical maneuver by the President, unless there’s prior agreement with the military or the President can levy enough political will over them.
Article 8 of that same law establishes that the commander-in-chief will be appointed by the President on December 21 for a five year term beginning on February 21 of the following year. The Military Council must send its recommendation to the President at least one month before the appointment, i.e. on November 21 at the latest. This means that prior to making its recommendation the Military Council must meet to decide who should take the post. In accordance with the legal timetable, this meeting must take place between late October and the third week of November. At the time of this writing, we have already entered this decisive period.
Military Council is made up of
the 40 highest-ranking officers
Article 13 of that same reform law defines the Military Council as “the highest consultative body of the chiefs of staff for issues related to Army doctrine and strategy, development of the Military Institution and the defense plans the chiefs of staff consider important for decision making.”
The Council is chaired by the commander-in-chief and its secretary is the head of the General Staff. In the absence of the commander-in-chief, it is chaired by the secretary, whose own role is assumed by the inspector general.
This consultative body is made up of the heads of the General Staff directorates, the General Command’s support bodies with hierarchical equivalence, the Air Force and the Navy; the large units directly subordinated to the Chiefs of Staff and any senior officers the chiefs of staff believe must participate on a permanent basis or by invitation.
The Army’s large units are brigades, regiments, military detachments, regional military commandos and units equivalent to all of the above. Altogether, the Council involves approximately 40 of the Army’s highest-ranking officers.
The internal functioning of the Military Council is one of the Nicaraguan Army’s best guarded secrets and has been ever since it was officially constituted in 1994. It is a level of secrecy comparable to the Catholic cardinals’ conclave when they meet to elect the Pope; although in the clergy’s case it is at least known that the new pontiff is elected by voting. How the new commander-in-chief is chosen in the Military Council is an enigma, as is who proposes the candidate.
Two complete surprises
in the military succession
Despite so much secrecy I have managed to establish through my research, and I believe it to be true, that it’s the outgoing commander-in-chief who proposes his successor. Everything seems to indicate that no voting is involved in this decision; it is apparently arrived at by gradually built consensus among the Military Council members throughout the year in which it must present its recommendation to the President.
This prior consensus is a kind of sui generis internal military lobby of which nothing is known. Nor is it known what would happen if a second proposal were to arise, as this has apparently never happened.
Another explanation for the loopholes in this process could be that up until 2014 the military command’s succession occurred normally and without incident, with only two exceptions.
The first was during Arnoldo Alemán’s administration (1997-2002). In late 1999, President Alemán tried to impose a commander-in-chief of his political preference on the Army but came up against a cohesive and firm institution and had no choice but to accept the one recommended by the Military Council.
The second, and much more serious occasion occurred in 2014 when the Military Council allegedly proposed that President Ortega keep General Julio César Avilés as the commander-in-chief for a further five years. It is more than doubtful that the Military Council would independently offer that proposal. It is more logical to conclude that it was to a direct order by Daniel Ortega or a prior agreement between him and General Avilés.
on burning coals
Up until 2014, establishing the regular functioning for replacing the Army’s leadership was far harder and more complicated than one might think. During the administration of President Violeta Chamorro following the end of the revolution in 1990, she and then-Army chief General Humberto Ortega as well as their respective institutions had to walk barefoot on the burning coals of multiple contradictory interests on both sides in a highly polarized setting, and avoid a barrage of fire from Washington at the same time.
The February 1990 election result was the key that opened the doors to a transition from authoritarianism to democracy in Nicaragua, albeit one that was traumatic, imperfect and incomplete. The terms of that transition were contained in the Protocol of Procedures for the Transfer of Executive Power of the Republic of Nicaragua—better known as the Transition Agreements—signed on March 23 of that same year by the late Minister Antonio Lacayo, Chaamorro’s son-in-law, and General Ortega, Daniel’s brother, representing the ingoing and outgoing governments, respectively.
It was a negotiated transition between doves and hawks in which, in my opinion, the incoming government was trapped by naivety, weaknesses, political inexperience and pragmatism. In the end, the FSLN ended up with the largest piece of the power pie when the Sandinista Popular Army and the Sandinista Police were left in place as foreign bodies within the fragile democratic fabric that was just beginning to be knit together.
The President and General Ortega
Although President Chamorro could never be classified as a counterrevolutionary, it’s patently obvious that she personally had nothing in common with the Sandinistas, although two of her own children were in the party at that time. She had known them up close from when she was a member of the Directive Board of the National Reconstruction Government between July 1979 and April 1980, which had not gone well. Ten years later, even before winning the presidency, one of the things that made her most uncomfortable was the presence of General Ortega as head of the Army.
It’s impossible to determine if she knew that she didn’t have the power or the backing of the law to uproot those two toxic bodies lodged in the fabric of nascent Nicaraguan democracy, as rightwing extremists in both US Congress and the fractured UNO coalition that ran her as their candidate were demanding. We only have General Ortega’s revelation four years after the 1990 political overturn that prior to her inauguration, the President-elect, accompanied by her brother Jaime Chamorro, the director of La Prensa newspaper, and one of her sons, had met with him in the Army’s headquarters in the presidential palace built by Anastasio Somoza Debayle on the northern slope of the Tiscapa lagoon to ask him to resign from his post as the Army’s commander-in-chief. Ortega knew there was no law to force him to do this and, as was to be expected, he rejected her request. Also knowing the contradictions existing within the UNO political coalition that brought Chamorro to power, as well as the weaknesses of the new administration, he hoped to remain at the head of the Army indefinitely or, at least, during the her presidency and—why not?—even aspired to becoming her fragile govern¬ment’s guardian angel.
September 2, 1993:
A memorable date
But General Ortega’s days were numbered. It was all a question of time and that time came on September 2, 1993, a memorable date for the armed forces: the annual celebration of the Sandinista Army’s creation.
President Chamorro’s speech on that day in the Olaf Palme Convention Center rocked the foundations of the military institution. She spoke confidently and without hesitation, “My goal is to continue institutionalizing the Army, as happens in every democratic society, by appointing a new commander-in-chief of the Army next year.”
General Ortega and his brother Daniel, secretary general of the FSLN, present at the event, lost their composure in a shameful public political tantrum disrespecting the President. However, nothing stopped her announcement becoming reality in 1995. The Army’s Military Council, a hitherto unknown entity, held an emergency meeting and hours later issued a statement claiming it was responsible for proposing the appointment of the new commander-in-chief. It cited the Law on Military Organization of the Sandinista Popular Army, one of many laws passed after the electoral defeat but predated in what I have called the “legal piñata.”
This argument was false, because none of the 30 articles in that law confers this attribute to the Military Council. In fact, there were no legal requirements at that time regulating the succession of military command, which left the President’s hands tied.
In those moments of extreme tension, direct relations between President Chamorro and the Army’s leadership were virtually severed. Restoring them was an oblique, finely crafted, political task that culminated in August 1994 with the National Assembly approving the Law of Military Organization, Jurisdiction and Social Welfare (Law 181), which for the first time established the procedure for the military command’s succession, the path to be followed for appointing the Army’s new commander-in-chief.
The Army’s development strategy
The appointment on December 21, 1994, of General Joaquín Cuadra, until then head of the General Staff, replacing General Ortega as the new Army chief, began the implementation of the hitherto unknown Institutional Development Strategy, conceived by General Ortega and agreed to within the military body even before Law 181 was approved.
The strategy had two fundamental objectives: one was to ensure the long-term existence of the Armed Forces and consolidate its institutional development; and the other was to guarantee it a relative degree of institutional autonomy in electing its new commander-in-chief. Although the strategy was conceived in an unsolicited but fortuitous coincidence of times and events, it favored democratic civilian control over the military institution, at least theoretically, through the brief overlap th
at would occur between the President’s five-year term of office and that of the Army’s commander-in-chief.
That timing meant the new President would receive a commander-in-chief he/she didn’t choose and leave his/her choice as replacement for the presidential successor. Both that and the requirement that the President be limited to the Military Council’s recommendation were intended to prevent political pollution or instrumentalization of the armed institution by ensuring that the President could not choose an officer who shared a political affinity to serve a parallel term. It was as simple as that.
A key factor in the strategy’s succession process for military leadership was that the chief of the General Staff would replace the outgoing commander-in-chief and the head of the Operations and Plans Directorate would move into the vacated post of the chief of the General Staff. A final piece sealed the Army’s institutional development: the outgoing commander-in-chief would not be able to interfere in in his replacement’s post or performance. This has at least been accomplished to date.
General Cuadra, appointed by President Chamorro, took over leadership of the Army on February 21, 1995. Her term was exceptionally long, both due to early 1990 elections and to the then-six year term, which was changed to five years in 1995. It ended on January 10, 1997, when Arnoldo Alemán took over the presidency. On December 21, 1999, President Alemán begrudgingly accepted the Military Council’s proposal of General Javier Carrión as Cuadra’s replacement. And so the succession continued… until December 2014, when Daniel Ortega announced that he had decided to keep General Julio César Avilés in his post for a further five years, which ends in December of this year.
The demolition of the strategy...
This wasn’t in the strategy’s script and, while it didn’t cause an institutional crisis in the Army, it did accelerate the process of dismantling the Army’s institutionality and politically polluting the armed forces.
At this point it’s essential to call attention to a fact almost nobody has noticed: that pollution process began back in February 2005, when General Omar Halleslevens, after taking over as Army commander-in-chief, decided not to approve the head of the Operations and Plans Directorate to replace him as Chief of the General Staff but instead appoint General Julio César Avilés who, although he had troop training and experience, came from military intelligence. He thus became the choice to replace Halleslevens as commander-in-chief
By keeping General Avilés in a commander-in-chief for a second term in 2014, both the Military Council and President Ortega broke one of the Institutional Development Strategy’s cardinal principles, the Military Council by “unanimously proposing” him and Ortega by “accepting” the proposal and ratifying him for a new five year term (Decree 230-2014, on December 19, 2014).
Ortega and Avilés had already begun to demolish the Army’s Institutional Development Strategy a year earlier, in December 2013, when Major General Oscar Balladeres, Avilés’ replacement as head of the General Staff and thus first in line for the succession, was sent into mandatory retirement without explanation or justification.
At the same time, they appointed an upstart in his place, General Óscar Mojica, a wild card whose function wasn’t really to be chief of the General Staff. He had been the broker for the Army’s corporate interests (financial, economic and commercial), administered in the Institute of Military Social Welfare, coordinating them with the personal interests of the generals and the Ortega-Murillo consortium.
Balladares’ untimely retirement left doubts in the air. For me, at least, the doubt remains today about whether it had already been decided back in 2013 that General Avilés would remain in his post for a further five years. The doubt is more than reasonable because what other reason could there be to detach from the institution the one who ought to be Avilés’ successor, according to the Institutional Development Strategy if not to open the doors to continuism in the Army?
Restoration of the strategy?
The moving of General Óscar Mojica to a post for which he wasn’t trained and lacked the necessary experience made the Army’s chiefs of staff uneasy. That unease became volatile given that Mojica apparently devoted more time to his private businesses and those of his colleagues than to his responsibilities as head of the General Staff.
The likelihood of an institutional crisis was building and General Avilés had no choice but to take a drastic measure to exorcise it. Without further explanation, both Mojica and the inspector general went into unexpected early retirement, respectively replaced by Brigadier General Bayardo Rodríguez and Rear Admiral Marvin Corrales. In perspective, General Avilés’ decision opened the doors to a new scenario that virtually nobody expected: appointing General Rodríguez, head of the General Staff, thus placing him in the front line of succession to the military command, hinted at a possible partial restoration of the old strategy.
In the current setting
of repression and crisis
General Avilés’ second term ends on February 21, 2020. This means that this December Daniel Ortega will have to appoint a new commander-in-chief in a setting marked by political crisis with the serious social and economic consequences of the bloody repression the regime unleashed against the massive civil uprising that began in April 2018.
Those killed by the police and para-police number in the hundreds, the wounded in the thousands, with almost a thousand incarcerated, most of them tortured. An unspecified number of people were kidnapped and remain missing, while tens of thousands are in exile, mostly in Costa Rica, having fled the repression.
The economy is in recession, thousands of workers are unemployed, the informalization of the economy is out of control and the minimum wage has been frozen since September, 2018. The flow of foreign financing, except from the Central American Bank of Economic Integration, is virtually cut off. International organizations including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts have verified massive human rights violations and crimes against humanity committed by hit-men acting for and on the orders of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.
Irrationally, Ortega and Murillo are clinging to power via repression, turning a deaf ear to the citizens’ demands and the international community’s calls to return to the negotiating table and find a peaceful solution to the crisis. The regime is isolating itself from the concert of democratic nations. The US and Canada have imposed sanctions on members of the dictatorship’s family and officials in their inner circle. The Organization of American States has set in motion the process to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter. And the European Union has already approved a legal framework that “provides for the possibility of imposing targeted and individual sanctions against persons and entities responsible for human rights violations or abuses or for the repression of civil society and democratic opposition in Nicaragua, as well as persons and entities whose actions, policies or activities otherwise undermine democracy and the rule of law in Nicaragua.”
The Army’s current dilemma
In this ominous setting the Military Council will have to weigh up two possibilities: either renovate the military leadership or keep General Avilés for a third consecutive term.
In a normal situation this wouldn’t pose a dilemma but in the abnormality Nicaragua and Nicaraguans have been experiencing the last year and seven months, it would be a grave error to leave out of the likely political calculations the possibility of a third term as commander-in-chief for General Avilés. Law 855 leaves open that possibility, but though legal, it would lack legitimacy.
It wouldn’t be unprecedented, as he already did it at the end of 2014, when the conditions were relatively normal and there was no political crisis or massacre to consider. At that time, the only factor, which is still there, was Ortega’s dictatorial tendency, his dynastic obsession, and the complacency of the military top brass to submit to his wishes.
Neither the Army nor
Avilés are at their best
The Nicaraguan Army is undeniably not at its best. Except for those who want the military to intervene to resolve the political crisis—which would have been political suicide because it would give the Army a blank check by making it the supreme moderating power—the citizenry has become increasingly disenchanted with the military, to say the least, in the current tense political environment.
That disenchantment is expressed in the loss of the social legitimacy the Army managed to maintain for many years. Some voices have even been heard asking again for its abolition, a demand that has no logic in the light of the developments that will have to take place in the near future in the sphere of citizen security.
Disaffected people believe the Army’s silence about the crisis initiated with the civic uprising of April 2018 is submission to the Ortega-Murillo regime’s political will. In Avilés’ September speech to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the armed forces, he firmly stated: “Mr. President, count on this institution to continue along the road to a Nicaragua that enjoys security, stability, economic development, prosperity and peace.” The Nicaraguan daily bulletin Confidencial, now publishing out of Costa Rica after being closed by the Ortega government last December, titled its article on the event, “General Avilés lays the Nicaraguan Army at Ortega’s feet.”
The Latino-Barometer Public Opinion Study on Nicaragua (#91, September 2018) showed citizen confidence in the Army gradually falling from an approval rating of 50% in 2016 to 45% in 2017 and down to 22% in 2018, while the Latin American average was at 44%. In addition, CID Gallup’s September 2018 poll revealed that General Avilés, the Army’s most representational figure, had an approval rating of less than 10%.
These figures are the clearest indication that a third term for General Avilés would not only further damage his own deteriorated image, but would affect the military institution and its regular development as well. Furthermore, failing to renovate the Army’s General Command—commander-in-chief, head of the General Staff and inspector general—would straitjacket the natural ascent process and cause a virtual bottleneck in all the ranks, especially those of general and brigadier general.
It’s imperative that the Military Council analyze this moment strategically and make its decision with a vision of the nation and the future, considering the institution’s continuity and not that of individuals. The Army must not be allowed to go down with the Ortega-Murillo regime, which is already sinking. The best way to prevent that, for now, is to propose a new commander-in-chief, returning to the path of the Institutional Development Strategy.
Will it be Bayardo Rodríguez
or will it be Avilés again?
The Military Council should propose Major General Bayardo Rodríguez, a capable professional trooper with extensive experience and prestige among the military ranks, who has the training, experience and ability to be at the head of the Army.
It isn’t a matter of personal or political preference; it’s one of realism about doing what’s best to ensure the existence of the armed forces as an institution serving the nation over the particular interests of power groups, and personal, familial and group political projects. Otherwise, Nicaragua will see more of the same... and the same is nothing good.
Unless it reaches the extreme of opting for General Avilés’ third term, the odds are in Rodríguez’ favor. But expectations shouldn’t be raised when facing a regime like this one, in which anything could happen given its notorious contempt for democratic institutionality and its clear leaning towards authoritarianism and irrationality.
If General Rodríguez gets to the top of the military pyramid it remains to be seen how much autonomy he would have to lead the military institution and what level of independence from political interference by Ortega and Murillo he would be able to muster. Will he manage to recover the Army’s lost social legitimacy by stopping the political pollution of the institution?
We’ll soon know. The coin is already in the air: when it falls we’ll know if the military have finally decided to rise up with their gods or sink down with their demons.
Roberto Cajina is a civilian consultant on security, defense and democratic governance.