The effects of the unexpected Evo factor
Bolivian President Evo Morales’ resignation on November 10
triggered a chain reaction in the Ortega dictatorship
that revitalized the indignation and resistance
of the blue and white opposition.
Like a wounded beast, the regime lashed out with renewed violence
wielding its control of the State’s institutions, laws and weapons.
The chief effect was only to make the national crisis
even more uncertain and dramatic.
Evo Morales’ government, which enjoyed the best international media image of any in the ALBA group, came to an end following the loss of army and police support in the wake of an audit Morales himself had requested after an Organization of American States (OAS) observation mission alleged serious irregularities in Bolivia’s October 20 elections.
René Quenta Quispe, a businessman in El Alto, Bolivia’s second largest city, offered this sum-up: “Evo made the mistake of wanting to be king after the people voted for him as President. He should have quit four years ago, when he would have gone out with full applause. Now he has been thrown out by the people.”
In response to Bolivia’s crisis, the political council of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the brainchild of Cuba and Venezuela created in 2004, called an extraordinary meeting to review the political and economic links, both licit and illicit, forged over more than a decade between Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia, the four main countries then still in ALBA. Ecuador had already left the group in August 2018, reportedly over differences with Venezuela regarding the human rights crisis in that country, and the other members are a handful of small Caribbean island nations, most of which have a favorable oil deal with Venezuela through Petrocaribe.
The meeting, the eighth of its kind, was held on November 14 in Managua, by which time Morales had resigned and fled to Mexico and one day before Bolivia also withdrew from ALBA. Host Ortega called the events that accompanied Evo’s fall as “incredibly dark and unfortunately true.” True to form, he accused the “imperialists of the Earth” of having mounted a coup d’état—as did Evo himself—rather than recognize the consequences of a fraud to avoid a second electoral round Evo knew he would lose.
In his speech that day, Ortega warned his enemies they were “playing with fire” because what had happened to Evo had caused “revolutionaries” to lose even “minimum confidence” in “the electoral route on which we have banked.” Given what had happened in Bolivia, he claimed, “the peoples will feel totally within their right and obligation to seek weapons to take power via the revolutionary route.” It all came out a bit confusing, as it was hard to identify which “peoples” would do this and against whom…
It can be deduced from Ortega’s agitated words that day that not only will he never accept early elections, insisting that they be in November 2021 as regularly scheduled, but he could now, given the Evo factor, try some stunt to cancel them altogether or control the conditions to assure they are not really competitive.
“We are on the alert
for any coup attempt!”
The Evo factor also obviously had echoes in the blue and white opposition. “Bolivia fell; now it’s Nicaragua’s turn!” crowed some Nicaraguans in the diaspora. The surprise suffered by the regime and the revitalization of the blue and white opposition’s hopes fueled threats of a hardline response.
Territorial sources of the Blue and White Unity, which monitors the aggressive painting of houses with pro-government slogans, searches of homes and businesses, harassments, captures, tortures and varied other forms of repression and intimidation, charged that between the fall of the Morales regime in Bolivia and the end of November the average number of such repressive actions had increased to 18 per day.
The first to ratchet up the threats to the opposition was National Assembly president Gustavo Porras, who controls all the pro-Ortega union federations. Meeting on November 12 with the old leaders of those inoperative unions, he delivered a heated speech interrupted by applause: “We are meeting here so those wimps will know we are all united and are not going to allow them to play with our conquests! …We have convoked all the forces of the revolution to tauten them to the max, to stay mobilized and be alert to any enemy action!”
Three days later, a group of hooded paramilitaries from the self-named “Carlos Fonseca Amador Northern Front Defenders of the Peace,” wearing military uniforms and bearing assault weapons, appeared on TV reading a communique: “We are alert to any pro-coup actions to totally annihilate them. If they lift a hand, we will lower it!”
A very strange threat
That same day another much stranger threat was issued. One of the ruling couple’s sons, Juan Carlos Ortega Murillo, stood before the installations of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) accompanied by nine other people, and read out a text in which they held the business elite responsible for the national crisis and recalled a phrase by Sandino: “Freedom is won not with flowers, but with bullets.”
Two days later, the same group appeared in front of the OAS headquarters, reading a communique that repudiated that regional body and its involvement in Evo Morales’ downfall. They carried a banner that read: “Out with Almagro! Pedrón is waiting for you here!” (Luis Almagro is the OAS secretary general and Pedrón Altami¬rano was a peasant who rose high in the ranks of Sandino’s army and became famous for his threats to give “”vest cuts” to any US Marines who fell into his hands (cutting off their head and arms with a machete). Legend has it he did more than threaten.
A parish church under siege...
Before the fall of Morales, mothers and wives of political prisoners—who at that moment totaled some 136 but soon rose to more than 160—had decided to launch a campaign calling for “Christmas without political prisoners.” Not even the paranoid and threatening nervousness that invaded the regime with Evo’s fall could dissuade them.
On Thursday, November 14, 10 women—mothers, wives and sisters of political prisoners—entered a church in Masaya to begin a hunger strike demanding the release not only of their own relatives but all political prisoners. The church’s parish priest, Father Edwin Román, who always recalls with pride that he is a grand-nephew of General Sandino, opened the doors of his church to the women and assured them he would be at their side.
Immediately dozens of anti-riot police ringed the venue, as they do in response to any protest. But in a matter of hours the police siege had expanded immeasurably. No supporters could get anywhere near the church and no one could leave. They were hostages. To force their surrender, the regime ordered that the water and electricity be cut, affecting both the church and the surrounding barrio.
That same night, some blue and white supporters arrived to take them water and medicines, but were only able to hand two bottles through a window before they were detected. A short distance from the church, 16 of these young men and women—7 of them minors—were captured and accused of carrying firearms in their vehicles. All of this was filmed.
...and the Cathedral profaned
On Sunday, November 18, another 7 mothers of political prisoners, accompanied by a doctor, initiated a hunger strike in Managua’s Cathedral. The next day, a mob of more than 100 people pushed their way into the Cathedral with the idea of pulling the women out. They hit a priest who was guarding them and armed paramilitaries occupied the building.
This chain of events caused enormous national indignation and stupor as well as international repudiation. Condemnations of the Ortega regime by both governments and human rights organizations multiplied.
After months of silence, Nicara¬gua’s tragedy had become front page news again. The regime’s senseless and inhumane reactions were yet another effect of the Evo factor.
Lost in a labyrinth
A recounting of what happened in November, both before and after the convulsion in Bolivia, shows the errors a regime like Nicaragua’s current one can fall into when it determines to deny reality, refuses to seek any solution to the crisis in good faith and seems lost in the labyrinth of its own irrational decisions.
Ortega’s strategy to retake power in the 16 years after having been defeated electorally in 1990 had involved going out of his way to improve relations with private enterprise, the Catholic Church hierarchy and the US government. It had worked a charm and got him back into government in 2007 with relative economic successes and good relations with Washington, big business and the Catholic hierarchy… at least until the April 2018 uprising.
The ruling couple’s moves over the past 19 months, and even more clearly so this November, have shown that all they have left are weapons and repression, which don’t require any give and take. Ortega has discarded all the work he did to build those relations over the years, leaving them in tatters seemingly neither pondering the consequences nor assuming the cost.
Three more sanctions
November began badly for Ortega in his already seriously deteriorated relations with the US government. On November 6, the US Treasury Depart¬ment’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced it had added three more Nicaraguan officials to the list of those sanctioned: Ramón Avellán, commissioner general and deputy director of the National Police; Lumberto Campbell, acting president of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE); and Roberto López, executive president of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS). They bring the total of top regime officials sanctioned by Washington up to 14.
Among other things, the Treasury Dept. press release attributed to Avellan the leadership of “Operation Clean Up” to dismantle “barricades erected by democratic protesters in Masaya and Monimbo,” during which attacks by the police and parapolice “under his command led to 107 deaths and hundreds injured.”
Campbell, who replaced Roberto Rivas as head of the CSE after Rivas was the first to be sanctioned, was included because “the CSE continues to be involved in undemocratic tactics to ensure that President Ortega and his allies win elections, including ordering government employees to vote for Ortega and other FSLN candidates.”
López was sanctioned for heading what the press release calls “one of the main vehicles facilitating corruption… used as a government slush fund. The INSS has been implicated in corruption scandals and money laundering schemes under López’s watch, from financing a multimillion dollar high-rise on land owned by López, to favoring contracts with government-affiliated construction firms and pharmaceutical suppliers, to making illegitimate payments to officials via shell companies. The INSS gives out loans significantly above cost, then allows borrowers to default on the loan but clears the debt by allowing them to turn over assets worth much less than the value of the loan.”
These three sanctions hit all the major points of the national crisis: the regime’s massive human rights violations and even crimes against humanity; its sequence of electoral frauds and its rampant corruption. To continue applying new sanctions against the regime’s officials under the Magnitsky Law-Nica Act, the US government renewed Executive Order 13851, signed by President Trump with his customary exaggeration on November 27, 2018, in which he declared that the “situation” in Nicaragua represents “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” and thereby declared a “national emergency” to deal with that threat.
social security system
The sanction most sensitive for the economy, which itself is in a critical situation, is the one applied to Roberto López, as it affects an institution that has been bordering on bankruptcy for the past seven years.
The INSS deficit hit the 4 billion córdoba mark this year (over US$120 million), and its future is more uncertain with every passing day. As the Treasury Deptartment’s summary describes, the money withheld from INSS contributors has been used for political purposes, private projects and corruption related to contracts, bribery and money laundering. In addition to this misuse of INSS funds, structural problems also contribute to the massive deficit, as does the closure of thousands of businesses due to the economic crisis, which means that neither their owners nor their more than 150,000 now-jobless employees are paying into the system.
“They don’t want to pay taxes!”
November 8, only two days before the unimaginable fall of the Morales government in Bolivia, was the anniversary of the death of FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca Amador. Commemorating it in an event in a public plaza with the customary strict control of those permitted to attend, Ortega lashed out against both the Catholic hierarchy and the business elite.
He said the bishops and priests were “descendants of the supreme priests who had sacrificed Christ and now live asking that Nicaragua be sacrificed.” He called them “schizophrenic” and “bleached reliquaries who are part of the conspiracy.”
But as Trumpesque as that tirade sounded, he aimed his angriest shot at private enterprise, accusing the business elite of seeking to “sow terror with their economic analyses because they don’t want to pay taxes!” He added that “they complain some of them are going bankrupt, well I say let them! They’re going bankrupt because they want to earn more than they did before they tried to destroy the country and cause enormous damage to the economy! If they say they can’t, then let them declare bankruptcy and others will come to do the work the bankrupt companies used to do!”
Then, changing his tone, he said “the doors are open to small, medium and large businesses willing to continue working with the government,” immediately following that with a third-person rejection of business¬people “who put political conditions on sitting down with us… and come with the story that we need to have a political dialogue and move up the elections or even that Daniel has to step down from the presidency.”
set political conditions”
COSEP responded several days later in a communique rejecting “each one of the disqualifying expressions and threats against the private sector” in Ortega’s speech. They pointed out that he “missed yet another opportunity to send messages of hope and reconciliation to Nicaraguans and is instead again transmitting anxiety and uncertainty.”
A careful reading of the multiple diatribes Ortega spewed out against the business elite that day demonstrated that he is willing to attract big business back to his side, but only on his terms. He needs them because he knows that an understanding with them will bring an economic improvement that he could present as a political achievement to somewhat alleviate his deteriorated image. But his insults clearly demonstrated that he knows they are also in civic resistance, firm in their conviction that their “political conditions” are indispensable to beginning to reverse the economic recession, although Ortega just as firmly rejects them.
“Economic analyses that sow terror”
The kind of terror-sowing economic analyses Ortega ranted about abounded in November. One by the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES) projects that 31.9% of the population will be living in poverty next year and that the number of jobless workers will reach 237,000 as a result of the events of April 2018. Some suggest a much higher figure.
For its part, the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean predicted that the fall in the gross domestic product would end up at -5% for this year, giving Nicaragua the second biggest economic contraction in Latin America after Venezuela and making us the only country in Central America with negative growth.
The few figures the government publishes—only the least sensitive ones—are no more encouraging. The Central Bank reported that foreign direct investment fell 70% with respect to the same period of 2018, not even reaching US$130 million. And the Treasury Ministry reported on difficulties affecting the disbursement and execution of the limited donations, as donors are pressuring for an end to the repression.
In 2007, the year Ortega returned to the presidency, 21 governments were providing donations to Nicaragua. Today, that number is down to 5.
The IMF report: There’s no “recovery”
The most “terroristic” of the economic analyses was the one published on November 20 in Washington by the technical mission of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that had come to Nicaragua for its annual visit on October 27 and spent two weeks evaluating the state of the economy.
Although the IMF recognizes the government’s good macroeconomic management of the crisis in “very difficult circumstances,” its conclusions contradict the “recovery” the regime optimistically announced recently. The report forecasts an economic contraction of -5.7% this year, worse than the -5% it had first predicted. It also anticipates a greater drop next year than the -0.8% it originally calculated; it is now saying -1.2%. And for 2021 it projects zero growth, meaning four consecutive years of economic recession and now depression.
The regime, still reeling from the fall of the Morales regime 10 days earlier and its unfolding consequences, was seriously displeased with the IMF report. Economist Carlos G. Muñiz, a FUNIDES board member, commented that the week’s delay in releasing the report “suggests there was a difficult negotiation regarding its content.” Other sources said the government’s economic team made huge efforts to ensure that the communique accompanying the report would be positive, or at least not have such a negative tone, and that a joint, consensual communique be read in a press conference in Nicaragua or, better yet, only released in January 2020, after the year-end festivities.
The Fund was having none of it. “They can’t hide figures from the IMF like they’re doing with the country,” said Róger Arteaga, former director of the General Tax Division. “The Fund is confirming the widespread suspicion that the economic situation isn’t as good as the government says.”
Fissures in the regime?
Back in 2005, former Managua mayor Herty Lewites decided to challenge Ortega in internal party primaries for the 2006 presidential elections. Ortega responded by eliminating the primeries, violating the FSLN’s bylaws, and expelling Lewites from the party. While Lewites then ran as the candidate of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), which had split from the FSLN a decade earlier and was proving a serious threat to Ortega’s victory, he died only months before the elections. Ortega ended up winning the presidency, but only by a hair, on his third try after losing in 1990. With his recovery of the reins of government in January 2007, Ortega and his wife consolidated their absolute control over the party and, eventually, the government,
On November 12, Edén Pastora—a mercurial figure who was a leading Sandinista guerrilla fighter, known as “Comandante Cero,” in the 1970s; a counterrevolutionary leader in the 1980s; and has been linked since the April 2018 uprising to the recruitment of paramilitaries—added to the earthquake produced by the Evo factor. His contribution came in the form of publicly unprecedented and taboo declarations in an interview with a journalist on an official TV channel.
With carefully calculated words, Pastora recommended that Ortega “scientifically organize the San-dinista party” with barrio, municipal and departmental assemblies. “We need the party that existed in the 1980s…. I would recommend that… the great National Congress should tell us who our next candidate, our maximum leader, will be when God sends our comandante whatever fatality, a cerebral hemorrhage, a grave illness within 10 or 12-years, a sure death….” In his advocacy of a “scientific” party, he was implicitly recognizing that currently the FSLN’s only structure is that of the family in power and thus also implicitly discarding the dynastic inevitability of Rosario Mu¬ri¬llo as Ortega’s successor in go¬vern¬ment or as party leader, despite the preponderant role Ortega has given his wife and now Vice President in both.
“We obey Daniel now because we love him more than because of party discipline, and that worries me,” said Pastora. “We are prepared to give our life for what Daniel teaches us, dictates to us. We must be prepared to give our life for what the party says, what the party orders.”
Those who have known Pastora all this time listened attentively to his words and took them seriously because only someone as reckless as he would be capable of saying all this in such critical moments. But, given that he is neither stupid nor suicidal, they also knew he wouldn’t do it gratui¬tously and was speaking for those who think the same. Pastora’s intervention reinforced the perception that fissures, fractures and even splits have been opening in the power apparatus due to the national crisis and the regime’s erosion.
Only days later, Juan Carlos Ortega Murillo made his lengthy political debut. He followed his threats against business leaders one day and the OAS the next with “counselling” to the Catholic church on the third, presenting himself as the leader of a new political structure called the May 4 Movement. Those who know about the cracks in the governing party viewed it as a move to counteract the “Pastora Plan” with the well-known dynastic family succession project, but this time with a new, less familiar and younger face.
They crossed all the red lines
Ortega’s hostile speeches, the threats by paramilitaries and the declarations by union leaders and Pastora added new tensions inside the country. But the reaction to them both internally and internationally was nothing compared to the concern produced by other events in those same days:
• The anti-riot police siege of the San Miguel parish church in Masaya where the 10 women were continuing their hunger strike with access to neither water nor medications;
•the detention of the young people who took water to the fasting women;
•the profanation of the Cathedral in Managua on November 18 by armed paramilitaries and mobs, who praised Evo Morales and shouted “The church belongs to everyone!”;
•the police encirclement of 20 other Catholic parish churches in Masaya, Managua, Matagalpa, Carazo, Estelí, Chinandega and Rivas to prevent them from becoming safe spaces for other women disposed to join the hunger strike for a Christmas without political prisoners: and
•the attempt on November 21 by a mob of violent fanatics to bust into another parish church in Masaya where a Mass was being held in solidarity with the hunger-striking mothers.
In a country as traditionally religious as Nicaragua, this chain of events, this authentic anti-Catholic “religious persecution” outraged many and revealed to the world the abnormality people are living with here, as well as the persistent “no holds barred” atti¬tude that has characterized the re¬gi¬me’s decisions since April.
Having been called “repugnant wolves who distill hatred” by the Vice President, the bishops published a communique on November 19 stating that the hunger strike by the mothers deserved respect: “It is a cry of powerlessness, of insecurity, of sadness, of indignation, the result of many months of suffering.” In this text bristling with urgency, the bishops asked God to give Nicaragua the “gift” of a “national conscience.”
Hunger strikes usually merit respect in any part of the world, as do churches, religious authorities and water as a “basic and universal” human right. Pope Francis considered the latter important enough to highlight it in italics in his encyclical Laudato Si, “since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.” Yet this November, perhaps under the effects of the Evo factor, the regime decided to cross all those red lines. Did it do so without measuring the consequences?
A “band of water bearers”
With the San Miguel church under police siege, the hunger strikers without water and Father Román also without the insulin he needs to control his diabetes, the anti-riot police and the regime’s fanatical followers—the only ones allowed anywhere near the church—continually taunted the mothers with shouts of “you’re going to die in there!” and “you’ll come out of there putrefied!” The OAS called the siege a “flagrant infringement of the rights of individuals to peacefully express themselves in favor of the release of their family members” and insisted on “immediate freedom” for the 16 young people jailed for taking them water.
The youths had been affectionately baptized in the social networks as “the band of water bearers” as a sarcastic refutation of the police accusation that the 16 were “terrorists” after having first planted Molotov cocktails, revolvers, ammunition and a shotgun in their vehicles. Following a first, highly irregular hearing, their trial has been reprogrammed for January 30.
Internationally condemned as
Referring to the water bearers’ courageous gesture, Erika Guevara Rosas, Amnesty International’s director for the Americas, called it “inconceivable that an act of humanity is responded to with repression.” She called for the young people’s immediate release.
For its part, the European Union called the actions taken against the Catholic Church “a serious setback to the political process that conveys a negative signal about the willingness of the government to work towards a peaceful and democratic way out of the crisis.” It reaffirmed its commitment “to continue to use all its instruments to support justice and democracy in Nicaragua…. Those who undermine democracy and the rule of law in Nicaragua shall be held accountable.”
In an October event called “Nicaragua, for Freedom,” the EU’s Socialist and Democratic Group had exchanged views on the dialogue between the government and the Civic Alliance and how the EU could provide assistance to this process. But now it is calling for sanctions against the Ortega government.
“The Ortega regime’s siege of a place of worship is unacceptable, as are the arrests of more than a dozen individuals who were attempting to aid the hunger strikers,” said a November 21 State Department press statement. “Arrests and fabricated charges against Nicaraguans seeking to aid hunger strikers demonstrate yet again that the Nicaraguan National Police are not the protectors of the Nicaraguan people. They are their repressors, backing Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian rule.”
Throughout November, numerous student, expressing the national indignation, demonstrated on the campuses of the Central American University (UCA) and the American University (UAM), both of them private, and the state-run Agrarian University. At the UCA, the students shouted “The church must be respected!”
The resistance also made itself felt in the blue and white flags on graduating students’ shoulders and on the stages of promotions in private and religious high schools all over the country. At the Calasanz High School, graduating students sang the popular song “Nicaragua Nicaragüita,” which is almost a second national anthem, changing the last words from “but now that you’re free/ Nicaragüita, I love you so much more” to “now that you will be free, I will love you so much more.”
After nine days of siege
The hunger-striking mothers in Ma¬nagua’s Cathedral spent their first night there defended from the para-militaries by the priests. But the following afternoon they and Dr. José Luis Borgen, a urologist and president of the Nicaraguan Medical Unit who was accompanying them, were removed by the Nicaraguan Red Cross. After a negotiation with the government that was never made public, the Cathedral was returned to Managua’s church authorities. But hours later, Dr. Borgen was kidnapped on the street by hooded men who held him for 48 hours. “He was very lucky,” they said upon releasing him in another part of Managua, “because there are disappeared people who never reappear.”
The afternoon of November 22, after nine days of encirclement, exhaustion and terror in the San Miguel church, during the last two of which Father Román had been unable to get up, the women called for negotiations to allow two ambulances to come to the church and take them all, including a journalist, a lawyer and another woman who had been trapped in the church when the police surrounded it, to a Managua hospital. The regime, by now besieged by international pressures, agreed. Father Román was the last to leave the hospital, five days later.
The special OAS
All these repressive events and the generally tense climate generated by the Evo factor accelerated the presentation of the report by the high-level commission the OAS General Assembly had mandated several months earlier to learn about Nicaragua’s situation in situ in relation to the possible application of the OAS Democratic Charter to Nicaragua. It was part of a process OAS general secretary Luis Almagro opened a year ago, which could culminate with the Ortega government’s expulsion from the OAS.
The 13-page report, read on November 25 to an extraordinary session of the OAS Permanent Council by the representative from Jamaica, one of the five countries on the commission, explains that the government of Nicaragua refused to meet with the commission and even warned all airlines flying to Nicaragua not to allow any of its five members aboard. It also notes that the commission endeavored to discuss Nicaragua’s situation with our country’s OAS representatives, but those diplomats refused any kind of dialogue.
Barred from any contact with the official party, the commission met with representatives of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center; electoral experts; members of the Civic Alliance and the Blue and White Unity; representatives of the Peasant Movement; mothers of victims and of political prisoners; the organization of doctors exiled in Costa Rica; various media and the bishop of Estelí, Juan Abelardo Mata.
The country’s democratic functioning is impossible”
The commission’s findings are categorically summed up in one paragraph: “The Government of Nicaragua has shown an ongoing pattern of efforts designed to curtail the rights of its citizens, including: ongoing harassment and intimidation; restrictions of political rights, freedom of the press, freedom of expression, the right to personal liberty and human treatment.”
The first of its eight conclusions is that “Nicaragua is experiencing a critical human rights situation that urgently demands the attention of the Inter-American community and the world at large.” It further concludes that “the control and subordination mechanisms that the Government of Nicaragua has been developing with respect to other branches of government… make the democratic functioning of the country impossible, thus making it a co-opted State that is incompatible with the rule of law.”
In light of the “refusal of the Government of Nicaragua to engage with the Commission, to return to the dialogue table, and to take any action that would restore human rights and democracy in Nicaragua,” which have rendered the Commission’s diplomatic efforts unsuccessful, it recommends that within the framework of article 20 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter the Permanent Council: i. Endorse the above conclusions; ii. Declare there is an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in Nicaragua; and iii. Immediately convene a special General Assembly session to review the matter.
The report was approved by the majority of the 34 countries that make up the OAS and 10 of them explicitly backed the “immediate” calling of the General Assembly. To no one’s surprise, the Nicaraguan representative qualified the report as “non-existent.” No vote was called to give an idea of any change in the support for an “immediate” convoking of the region’s foreign ministers, a step that would advance the high-level diplomatic efforts to resolve the national crisis.
The slowness of OAS diplomacy, which means more pain and suffering in Nicaragua, has been explained by the continuing inability to secure the 24 votes needed for such a drastic sanction as applying the Democratic Charter to Ortega. And that inability in turn is explained by the Venezuelan oil deal benefiting the small island nations of the Caribbean, which are unwilling to jeopardize it by casting a vote against Venezuela’s close ally.
The security challenge
and the paramilitaries
The Permanent Council heard an array of presentations on Nicaragua that day. The mother of a young man who had been shot to death, the wife of a political prisoner, a student leader who belongs to the Civic Alliance, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights rapporteur for Nicaragua, human rights activist Bianca Jagger and the lawyer on the board of the Mothers of April Association, whose own brother was killed, all spoke.
Manuel Orozco, from the Inter-American Dialogue referred to the need to “accelerate the political change to reduce the use of violence.” Stopping that violence, he said, “requires international accompaniment,” intimating that the reason is the presence of paramilitaries, although he did not mention them by name.
As Roberto Orozco, a Nicaraguan expert on security and organized crime, told envío, the as yet unpunished violence of the paramilitaries is a problem not only for any electoral process but also for the country’s very future. “We’re clear that the main problem we’re going to inherit from this government will be the security problem. Forget unemployment and the economic problems. The most serious thing this government is going to bequeath us is an extremely complex problem of citizen security, which is going to affect the stability and tranquility of households given the number of armed para¬mili¬taries that will remain here. Regrettably, it will be a problem we can only resolve with a hard hand.”
Sharing Manuel Orozco’s view, he said “it corresponds to the Army to act and to a new government to call on the international community to guarantee pacification and security in Nicaragua: the UN’s blue helmets? A Central American pacification force? The Southern Command? Resolving the security problem we’re going to have will provoke political tensions and require a government capable of assuming the political costs of applying a hard hand.”
Until there are reliable elections…
Manuel Orozco also updated the OAS Permanent Council on Nicaragua’s general situation, noting that there is currently “no counterweight to the governing party,” leaving it with “the monopoly to legislate without opposition and also the monopoly of force.” He warned that if the conflict continues, the damages to the economy will become “irreparable.” Stressing that 70% of the population “has no faith in an electoral process in the current conditions,” he said electoral reforms “must be negotiated with the Civic Alliance and the Blue and White Unity,” and the election date must be “consensually agreed to.”
Roberto Courtney, Nicaragua’s expert on electoral processes through his long experience as director of the national electoral observation organization Ethics & Transparency, presented the four points all opposition forces have agreed on with respect to the minimum guarantees a future electoral process requires to generate confidence in the population: 1) a reform of the election arbitration (the election of independent electoral magistrates), 2) the depoliticizing of the electoral structures, especially the people staffing the voting tables (eliminating the selection of personnel based on party candidates), 3) a “quality international and national electoral observation” that can guarantee the transparency of the entire process, and 4) a voter roll that gives “the right to vote to all Nicaraguans.”
All these points, he underscored, are indispensable to recovering confidence in the electoral process as a whole. And they must be implemented within the framework of the Memorandum of Understanding on electoral reforms signed by the OAS and Ortega in February 2017, which is still in abeyance.
Courtney concluded his brief presentation with these words: “If Ortega retains a sufficient parliamentary representation, we would have the recipe for a failed State in the center of Central America. He will try to maintain that representation because a crushing parliamentary defeat could make his date with justice a reality.”
The demand for a great
Blue and White coalition
Another key issue Courtney mentioned, although admitting it does not yet enjoy consensus with the entire opposition, is the formation of new political parties.
This issue is just as crucial to the next elections as the demand that they be held in a climate of civic freedoms that are absent today. The mobilizations that began in April 2018 were spontaneous, not led by any of the few still existing and largely discredited parties, and the blue and white movement has stayed that way. There is, however, a generalized demand for a new option on the ballot, a new alliance, a great blue and white coalition that attracts all those who identify with this self-convoked movement, so they will feel represented no matter what party may join them.
Nothing else today is as important as a unity that brings together all the colors of the national political spectrum in a great independent coalition that competes with the dictatorship at the polls and defeats it.
Two Liberal parties oppose
a blue and white coalition
So far, the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and Citizens for Liberty (CxL), both of which already have legal status and a ballot slot, have insistently and publicly resisted the creation of any new party. Both advocate “unity,” but only by offering their own structures under their leadership, flag and colors.
The PLC has been around since 1968. In the 1990 elections, as a member of the 14-party UNO coalition that successfully ran Violeta Chamorro as its presidential candidate then promptly fractured into its feuding component parts, the PLC’s party boss Arnoldo Alemán was elected mayor of Managua, a post he parleyed into winning the country’s presidency in 1996. Decimated by corruption, political splits, and Alemán’s conviction after leaving the presidency for money laundering and related crimes, the party is a shadow of its former self. But its willingness to play by the FSLN’s rules, and particularly the pact Ortega negotiated in the late 1990s with President Alemán to effectively whittle the multi-party country down to a two-party system, have allowed the PLC to remain the “second force.” In exchange it “wins” seats in the municipal and legislative elections—respectively 11 and 14 in the most recent elections—well in excess of its poll ratings.
The CxL, a fourth-generation split from the PLC, is made up of Liberal dissidents who had followed banker-politician Eduardo Montealegre in two previous political groupings before taking over the moribund Independent Liberal Party (PLI) and giving Ortega a run for his money in the 2011 presidential elections. As it threatened to do so again in 2016, Ortega saw to it that the PLI was stripped of its legal status in June of that year. With that it reconstituted itself as a movement, surprisingly acquiring legal status as a new party called CxL from the Ortega-controlled Supreme Electoral Council the following year, which raised suspicions of a political sell-out. It was just in time to run in the municipal elections in November of that same year, in which it won 5 of the 153 mayoral posts. Mont¬ealegre withdrew from public politics, leaving the CxL presidency in the hands of his long-time adviser and representative, Kitty Monterrey.
Members of both these parties have suffered repression by the Ortega dictatorship; they have been captured, harassed, jailed and some even killed. Both have members in exile. Yet in Mach 2019, even after the April 2018 rebellion and the regime’s massacre, both the PLC and the CxL participated in highly questioned and allegedly fraudulent elections in what is legally called the autonomous Caribbean regions, earning the CxL—which has made the greater effort to project itself as honest and democratic—the censure of the blue and white opposition.
These two parties haven’t added up to a 10% approval rating in polls for years, even when combined with the remnants of several other parties. With that level of rejection and their consistent demonstration of strictly self-interested politicking, it takes a special brand of chutzpah for them to demand that people who have been through what Nicaraguans have in the past year and a half build unity around them.
Unity isn’t built on
exclusion or opportunism
These two parties can hardly be said to represent Nicaragua’s entire Liberal tradition.
In the PLC’s case, the still-active presence of Arnoldo Alemán at its head and the reasonable suspicions sparked by his sleazy history with Ortega and his other ignoble interests are off-putting, as is the CxL’s exclusionary positions toward UNAB. But that poses a serious dilemma for the blue and white opposition, as Ortega is hardly likely to permit the movement to create a new party, and equally unlikely to authorize an independent grand coalition. That has led some to view the CxL as the better party with legal status for the blue and white opposition to ally with in its electoral battle with the FSLN.
After hearing a speech to this effect in the American-Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce, Kitty Monterrey announced that her party was bringing on board several people, among them former education minister Humberto Belli and retired diplomat Bosco Matamoros, as advisers “to guide us in the search for that great unity we require to oust Sandinismo.” But her party’s anti-Sandinista agenda apparently makes it deaf to the prevailing thinking of the blue and white opposition, particularly its younger members, who are the majority and have seen enough of polarization, exclusion and hatred. Many are from Sandinista families, and while they want to see the Ortega-dominated FSLN out of power, they are just as put off by Monterrey’s blanket rejection of “Sandinismo” as Alemán’s opportunist history with Ortega.
CxL’s illogical and fanciful
hostility to all things Sandinista
Interviewed by Carlos Fernando Cha¬morro, Monterrey reiterated that she was “making available” her party’s box on the ballot to the entire opposition as a legal vehicle for participating in the elections. “We are going to continue being allies of the Civic Alliance,” she explained, “with the hope we can form this great unity through that alliance.” She then contradicted her own claim to unity by reconfirming that the CxL wants to ally with the Civic Alliance, but would not agree to be in an opposition coalition with the Blue and White Unity (UNAB). She seemed not to recognize that the Civic Alliance and the sectors its members represent are themselves members of UNAB.
This disparagement of UNAB is unconscionable as precisely its leaders were te ones who showed their faces in all the protests and acts of resistance during these many months of a de facto state of siege in the country. Just as one example, the “band of water bearers” are in UNAB. Some of its brightest members have been part of important national and international efforts to find a civic solution to the national crisis. She further displayed her exclusionary anti-Sandinismo and either her ignorance of UNAB or, worse yet, a possible desire to drive a wedge between UNAB and the larger movement by accusing the MRS of controlling UNAB.
in an interview on “Trinchera de la Noticia,” Yaritza Rostrán, a student leader who spent seven months in prison after surviving the merciless attack on July 13, 2018, against the students entrenched in the National Autonomous University, and today a member of UNAB’s political council, set Monterrey straight.
“This business of the MRS’ control of the Blue and White Unity is quite fanciful,” she said. “It is a member of UNAB and has very capable people developing work…. They have had a leadership post in UNAB given their operational capacity, but that doesn’t mean they control the Unity. UNAB is a platform of 92 organizations. Huge civic assemblies were held when we elected the political council. There are records of how decisions were made and who voted, by name, for their respective organizations. So it’s illogical to think that a single organization is going to have enough power to manipulate the rest.”
A platform in which all can fit
Liberal politician Eliseo Núñez Morales also questioned Monterrey’s exclusionary vision as he has had prior experience with it, when Ortega snatched away the PLI’s legal status and Montealegre and Monterrey created the CxL. He described it in a January 2018 article for envío, only a few months before the April uprising.
When Ortega eliminated the PLI, the newly created CxL excluded a number of other Liberals, including Núnñez. Ity also shunned the MRS, which had been part of the PLI Alliance. A “mix of spontaneity and need,” Núñez wrote, led those dispersed Liberals to create the United Liberal Force (FUL) “after discussing whether it made more sense to continue based on individual efforts or all come together and see what we could do that way. As FUL, we also became prt of a more plural effort, the Broad Front for Democracy (FAD),” an arena in which new leaderships and bases of different political currents had begun to converge starting in 2016. This unitary effort would act as what he described as a “Lego” platform that would welcome everyone who opposed Ortega. It included Liberals who had belonged to the PLC and PLI, Conservatives, former members of the Nicaraguan Resistance and the Citizens’ Action Party, people from civil society and individual discontents who had never affiliated with any party. Although deprived of its party status by Ortega back in 2008, the MRS had retained a strong organizational cohesion, unlike other parties suffering the same fate, and was the FAD’s only collective member. But the director of the FAD, which is now part of UNAB, was Violeta Granera who comes from a Liberal tradition.
“It’s not about
Right against Left”
“If the MRS weren’t in the FAD,” Núñez recognized, “Ortega could quickly portray the opposition struggle as a face-off between Right and Left, with those opposing his regime painted as the Right and Ortega as the Left defending the poor. But with the MRS on board within the FAD, the struggle is between democracy and dictatorship. Liberals and Sandinistas are on one side and Ortega and his authori¬tarian¬ism are on the other. The MRS gives us our democratic identity and we appreciate that a lot.”
What vision will prevail, the exclusionary one of Kitty Monterrey and her CxL or the inclusionary one of the FAD, which mirrors the blue and white opposition’s general vision? And even more importantly, will there be an opportunity to test that question? Will there be elections in 2021? And if so, in what conditions?
They are valid questions with uncertain answers given the stress generated by a regime that attacks like a wounded animal in response to the international isolation and national repudiation it has brought upon itself.
And now... The cacique Nicarao?
There are so many new uncertainties as 2019 draws to a close. On Friday, November 29, the end of a month full of tremors at the country’s political game table thanks both to the regime’s errors and to the revitalization of the blue and white movement, the Ortega-controlled National Assembly board activated the process of a partial reform of the Constitution. This involved designating a commission, also dominated by Ortega loyalists, to discuss an extemporaneous proposal by Ortega to introduce into the Consti¬tution’s preamble the names of four “national heroes”: the indigenous caciques Diriangén and Nicarao, the pro-independence priest Tomás Ruiz, and Sandino’s wife, Blanca Aráuz.
Any reform to the Constitution, no matter how inconsequential, requires the approval of two legislatures. One vote will come at the end of this year and the next in 2020, which the dictatorship’s legislators and other spokespeople are now calling the “pre-electoral year.”
The seriousness of the national crisis, above all at this particular juncture given the Evo factor, gives good cause for suspicion about this surprising proposal and its triviality. Isn’t Ortega likely to take advantage of this process to add other constitutional reforms of greater consequence for the country, giving him new political and/or electoral advantages? For example, constitutionally restricting the political rights of a sector of the population qualified in a certain way? Or constitutionally annulling the possibility of forming a great blue and white coalition that could successfully challenge him at the polls?
It was precisely through constitutional reforms imposed by Ortega and approved by his parliamentary majority, itself obtained by electoral fraud, that established indefinite reelection, eliminated the second electoral round and lowered to a minimum the percentage of votes needed to be elected President…
Morality vs. weapons
Does Daniel Ortega want to subject himself to the first rule of democracy, which is to accept the possibility of defeat? The answer is a no-brainer. He has never shown any sign of valuing it. Being forced by the mass of international observers to do so in 1990 went against every fiber of his body. Hence the chain of frauds he has organized since 2008, and possibly even 2006, when some believe he wouldn’t even have gotten the minimum vote spread had 8% of the votes not somehow gone missing. He is even more fearful of accepting it now, after April 2018 and after the “incredibly dark and unfortunately true” Evo factor.
But Nicaragua’s future doesn’t depend only on Ortega, who knows much better than the blue and white opposition the internal fissures in the circle of power, knows better than the economists the unstoppable nosedive of the economy, knows how the indignation and resistance of the blue and white opposition is growing among the population that rejects him, and has had to turn to mobs to increase the terror.
In Nicaragua, a country in which even water has become a “weapon” feared by power, the words of Tamara Zamora, the mother of Amaya Coppens, one of the young women in the band of water bearers, are increasingly true: “They have the weapons, but we have the morality.” The future also depends on that morality shared by so many, many people.