|Central American University - UCA
Number 463 | Febrero 2020
2020 will be a year of birth pains
This year the effort to consolidate and organize the
heterogeneous blue and white opposition movement
will have to endure the labor pains of a birth
complicated and prolonged by both state terrorism
and the country’s outmoded but deeply rooted political culture.
The health of the 21st-century agenda being pushed by the youth
who rose up in April 2018, awakening the country, remains to be seen.
Nicaragua is trying to break through the shell of its old political and social history to make way for a new one, but such a birth necessarily involves pain, anguish and even blood. This was the essential message of the Christmas Eve homily by Father Edwin Román, surrounded by a thousand lit candles. Forty days earlier, at great risk to his own health, that diabetic parish priest had opened his church in Masaya to 10 women who went on a hunger strike for the release of their children and other relatives who were political prisoners of the regime. The dictatorship’s sadistic response—barricading them inside the church with neither water nor electricity—moved the country and put Nicaragua’s ongoing crisis since April 2018 back in international headlines.
Good news from UNAB
and the Civic Alliance
Last year saw growing demands by society that the blue and white opposition work through its differences and unite in response to the unceasing economic stagnation and political quagmire Ortega seems unwilling to fix, as disagreements within the movement work only to the regime’s advantage.
On January 17 of this new year, Nicaraguans received the news so many had been hoping for: the Blue and White National Unity (UNAB) and the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, the two organizations respectively heading up mobilizations and negotiations and with the greatest national projection and international recognition, reaffirmed their unity and commitment to create a “National Coalition” to counter the dictatorship.
In a short message reproduced in its entirety in the “Briefs” section of this issue, they declared that “Nica¬ragua’s reconstruction is possible” and indicated three steps the Coalition will take to achieve it: “The first step we are taking for this reconstruction is to unite, without exclusion, to buttress this struggle.” That step is a particular challenge to the existing political parties, all of which collaborated one way or another with Ortega and his governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) before April and all of which now want to participate, one way or another, in the end of his regime. How will this commitment to non-exclusion actually play out with these sectarian political parties and their followers?
“The second fundamental step,” said the message, “is to promote the electoral reforms that will permit us a better life so we can civically and democratically access food, health, education and social security.” Without mentioning how and when the elections will take place, UNAB and the Civic Alliance accept that elections are the solution, presenting as a given that they require reforms.
“The third step,” it concludes, “is to issue a call to all Nicaraguans to join this National Coalition.” That call went out the very day after the unity was announced, urging that the National Coalition be definitively formed by February 25, the anniversary of Ortega’s electoral defeat in 1990.
A tall order
Achieving unity is a very tall order in a population as traditionally divided as Nicaragua along political, class, gender, age and ethnic lines, and in a country so poor that the struggle for power is largely a struggle for exclusionary gains by one rival and its followers over the others.
In the current case, the great majority of the population all along the ideological-political spectrum has been rendered increasingly apathetic over the past 25 years. Only a third of the population at most is loyal to the current ruling party and the couple that rules both it and the government. That loyalty is rooted in blind belief in what the FSLN once stood for and claims to still represent; the benefits those followers reap from their loyalty; a mix of intimidation and fear; and a lack of viable alternatives that represent their aspirations.
On the other side, the shortsighted self-interest, corruption and endless splits of the opposition parties, particularly the traditionally powerful Liberal current, have disenchanted many of their supporters of all generations. While these parties pulled a combined majority of up to 60% throughout the 1990s, support for the four or five still existing ones typically fails to reach even a combined 10% in recent polls.
Participation in elections has steadily dropped over the years, due only in part to disgust with the frauds perpetrated by the ruling party; and involvement in social organizations has dropped along with it. The events of April 2018 and ensuing months brought people out of their lethargy and into the streets, but particularly among the older generations their original cohesiveness as a movement was based only on shared opposition to the violent, authoritarian government that was gunning down their children.
In the younger generation, particularly among students, there are anecdotes of youths from Sandinista, Liberal and even contra families entrenched side by side behind university barricades together with feminists and environmental activists who had no problem finding common ground. The need for greater unity, not only to defeat the Ortega-Murillo government in an electoral contest, but then to be able to govern this complicated country effectively, requires that their parents also find common ground, with each other and with their children.
The “labor pains” the country is experiencing come from the need to tackle head on the underlying differences between and within the different expressions of the blue and white movement in an effort to produce the strong and healthy unity that is so needed. Some of those differences are political, others are generational or sectoral, and still others are over strategy and tactics. In a country in which respectful debate has never been a strong point and in which so much rides on being able to resolve these differences, it is not an easy or fast process.
The high cost of the
regime’s repressive policy
After the failure of the February-May 2019 negotiations, Ortega continued his undeclared state of exception, which some call a police State. Groups of armed police are still a regular presence in the city streets to avoid any expressions of opposition, while anti-government peasants continue to be killed in rural areas.
The cost is the flight of economic investors and an emotionally damaged population, a society in which defenselessness reigns with respect to all the State’s institutions and distrust permeates one’s neighborhood, workplace and, in more than a few cases, even one’s own family given the intense polarization.
The dictatorship no longer offers a future to the country or even its own followers. Increasing numbers in its rank and file are fed up and worried about the lack of horizons. Could all this angst result in an implosion at the center of power? The answer is a complex and unpredictable calculus of party loyalties, personal debts, intimidation and threats, vs. self-respect and religious or moral convictions, with one’s own personal future a somewhat independent but critical variable.
The blue and white opposition and the governing party’s defrauded sympathizers, which together make up a social majority according to all polls, share the conviction that this mess isn’t going to get sorted as long as the governing couple remains in power. Power so extremely centralized in only two individuals, a total absence of debate even at the pinnacle of that power, and advice from the Cuban gerontocracy have left the regime rigid and unresponsive, unable to adapt. Exhibiting a dearth of political alternatives for dealing with its social rejection, the government’s response is always the same: repression, intimidation, control…
The self-convoked opposition
“The old way is over… A new way of doing politics is possible in Nicaragua” says the Coalition’s founding message. It’s not a poetic affirmation. A new way must be born to ensure a better future.
The regime takes no responsibility for its authoritarian, exclusionary behavior prior to April, or for its violent response to the small and perfectly legitimate street protests against the social security reforms that ultimately brought hundreds of thousands of people out in to the streets in April and May 2018. It repeatedly attempts to smear that civic explosion as an attempted coup bought and paid for by the US government and executed by rightwing Nicaraguan political parties and has also blamed its nemesis, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). But no political party or social movement headed up that rebellion that started and has continued to grow to the surprise of them all. The reality is that it was certifiably spontaneous, and thus a political and cultural happening whose uniqueness we still don’t fully understand. If there was any organized presence in those first days of exaggerated government violence against the protestors, it was the representatives of the country’s handful of human rights organizations, who make it their business to be anywhere human rights need to be defended.
There was no leadership by or even presence of known political figures and no party flags or other emblems in the marches. The only colors were the rivers of blue and white national flags. The social network calls that brought out increasing numbers of people each day were made by youths who then played no major organizing role. Those in Masaya, León, Jinotepe, Bluefields and elsewhere who responded daily to register their long-simmering protest against Ortega and Murillo were moved to do so by events such as the death of 15-year-old Álvaro Conrado, shot in the neck on April 20 for simply taking water to students holed up on the engineering university campus. Known before then only by his high school teachers and classmates, he became a national symbol of the government’s gratuitous brutality.
In those days the decision to take to the streets was a personal one. For more than a month thousands upon thousands filled the streets in huge marches all over the country in the naive belief they could get Ortega to change or resign or move the elections forward or even leave the country... In any truly self-respecting democratic country, a repeated vote of no confidence by such large numbers people in the streets would have signaled the end of the installed government.
Not only were the existing parties not the authors of this uprising, but the crisis of representation they had brought upon themselves had been going on for so long they couldn’t even assume a legitimate leadership role after the fact. It echoes an Old “Wizard of Id” comic strip in which the king, from his balcony, sees a tumult of people demonstrating in the streets and orders his subaltern to “go find out what they’re rebelling about so I can lead it.”
The fact that the movement was unled and multi-sectoral had its advantages: being headless meant it couldn’t be beheaded, and the lack of any organized territorial structure facilitated rather than impeded the massiveness. If there was any leadership coordination, it was in the cyber world. None of the mobilization of those months would have been imaginable before the advent of the social media.
At the same time, however, the movement’s spontaneous nature and unorganized horizontality went on too long, weakening the relative correlation of forces and wasting precious time to better confront the regime in other terrains. For its part, the regime wasted no time buttressing its hold on power. The international community’s hesitance to pressure the ruling couple harder has been largely due to its concern about the vacuum of power that could result.
How the Civic
Alliance was born
The two organizations that have now joined forces to “reconstruct” Nicara¬gua and are announcing they will do it with “a new way of doing politics” emerged on different waves in the sea of self-convoked protestors the April rebellion produced.
The Civic Alliance for Democracy and Justice came into being that May to engage the government in dialogue, pressured into existence by the Church and the business elite in light of the uprising’s surprising size and continuation. Its members were named by the bishops, themselves accepted by the government to mediate and witness the talks. “The government was proposing a dialogue with sectoral agendas to dodge the main problem, the tragedy we were experiencing,” explained Ernesto Medina, a university sector representative, in an envío article last September (https://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/5686). He explains how the invited representatives rejected the sectoral approach, recognizing it was more important to throw their collective weight behind the one demand common to all sectors: for democracy (free, clean and transparent elections) and justice (reparations for the victims of the government violence and punishment of its perpetrators). While the various sectoral demands were critical to those affected by them, they could wait until a new government more responsive to them replaced the current one. Even the issue that had triggered the first protests—the social security reforms—had become secondary compared to the regime’s violent response and the desire that Ortega step down.
Ortega never engaged in a good-faith negotiation, either then or the following year. Nor did he renounce repression of the protestors. The 2018 dialogue simply bought him time to better organize his repressive apparatus. His representatives in the talks refused to accept any arguments or demands by the civic rebellion, arguing then and now that it was a coup attempt, which is an absurd idea on the face of it.
With the exception of the business sector, the majority of the Alliance’s representatives were inexperienced negotiators who brought to the table the emotions of the street, presenting hopeless demands given the highly unequal correlation of forces.
For their part, the business elites, as surprised as Ortega by the sheer size and determination of the rebellion, held back for some reason, which also influenced how things developed. Was it because they found themselves in the awkward position of participating in a multi-sectoral delegation of students, academics, civil society representatives, peasants and Caribbean Coast representatives short on trust of big business given the corporative government it had so profitably participated in for the previous 11 years? With hindsight some now believe that a more energetic posture by the business leaders at the start of the crisis might have improved the strength of the blue and white opposition.
Despite the bad faith on the government’s side and excess optimism on the Civic Alliance’s, the latter’s insistence on getting the government to permit the presence of international human rights organizations in Nicaragua as a condition for initiating then continuing the dialogue turned out to be its great achievement. It was pivotal to everything that happened afterward, as the reports that came out of those on-site visits documented the grave human rights crisis perpetrated by the regime, including multiple crimes against humanity. This in turn put Nicaragua in the international community’s sights, making Ortega and his accomplices eligible for trials in international courts of justice. Ortega’s decision to let them in must be the one he regrets most.
The “second” Civic Alliance
In February of last year, when the fall of Maduro in Venezuela seemed imminent with Juan Guaidó’s political star on the rise, Ortega felt forced to accept a new round of negotiations. It was again proposed by representatives of big Nicaraguan capital, this time backed by the papal nuncio and the Organization of American States (OAS).
The Civic Alliance, which had not dissolved after the first round, was again the counterpart on the other side of the table. But it was a very different and wiser structure than the one hastily cobbled together the previous May. Its members had not been idle since the first negotiations, having studied video footage of the earlier round and discussed their errors. While all the original sectors were still part of the alliance, most of their representatives were in a team of off-camera advisers: the front line was almost exclusively more experienced older elites, business leaders in the main.
But it soon became clear that Maduro’s regime wasn’t going to fall and Ortega merely signed a couple of agreements he never complied with. While he did release a good number of the political prisoners, including protest leaders and other well-known figures, it was only to house arrest, where they suffered constant vigilance and harassment. Rubbing salt into the already deep wounds, the National Assembly, Ortega’s wholly-owned legislative body, passed an amnesty law that protected the true criminals of the previous months: his own police and paramilitaries. Moreover, the fabricated criminal records of the political prisoners have never been expunged, making it impossible for them to return to school or get a job.
“When we got out of jail,” says Nahiroby Olivas, one of the student leaders released at that time, “we thought people were still in the streets, that we could go back to calling for those major marches... but there had been nothing and they began to persecute us, to keep us all under siege. To be honest, I was afraid. I had to leave my home, where my 13-year-old little sister was. I felt guilty getting her phone calls telling me the police were going to enter and not being able to do anything about it…”
Dialogue 2.0 ended in May like its predecessor, with no other results. The state terrorism has continued, more hidden now than at first, thus giving the appearance of normalcy to the unknowing eye, but it is dragging the country to the precipice.
How the Blue and
White Unity was born
Back in May 2018, following the failure of the first dialogue, the government ordered its infamous “Operation Clean-up,” sending the police and para¬militaries to dismantle the 200+ roadblocks the blue and white opposition had built on highways to strengthen its negotiating hand and the urban street barricades erected as a defense against the police and paramilitaries in their own barrios. Operation Clean-up left a trail of crimes and bloodshed from one end of the country to the other, bringing the total death toll to nearly 400, with thousands of others wounded.
With the protests thus liquidated, Ortega initiated a new phase to “normalize” the country. The repression was more selective but there was massive social control through the intimidating tactic of a highly visible police presence everywhere. The prisons by then were filled with hundreds of political prisoners, in most cases convicted as terrorists in farcical trials. It was the beginning of a de facto state of exception that still exists today, in which any expression of protest, including standing on a street corner with a blue and white national flag invited arrest.
On October 4 of that year, 41 political movements and civil organizations, some of them newly forged, created what they called the National Blue and White Unity (UNAB), like the movement itself named for the only colors that united them all. One of its first members was the Civic Alliance.
UNAB was created to “strengthen our planning, coordination, organizational and operational capacities for denunciatory and protest actions.” It announced that the unity “will materialize in each territory of our geography, in the countryside and the city, and is open to a diversity of actors.”
Little of this was actually possible with the repression in which the most minimal constitutional rights of expression and gathering had already been prohibited. Almost all communication was by cell phone. The first—and last—protest UNAB called ended up with 164 people detained by the police before the march could even get underway. The hunting down of people who had been videoed in earlier protests provoked more detentions, flight into exile by thousands more, and widespread social anxiety, even among those not directly affected.
A “strategic separation”
no one understood
It was no secret that prior to this January 17, when UNAB and the Civic Alliance announced their joint decision to form the National Coalition, a number of disagreements existed between and within them.
Not surprisingly, the regime accentuated the conflicts, employing hundreds of trolls to plant fake news and rumors on the social media. Aided and abetted only in part by these provocations, organizations and individuals using the blue and white networks got sidetracked by engaging in often ill-founded “analyses” and disqualifications of each other.
Tensions were high in the days prior to the unity announcement. On January 4 elections were held for the new 12-member Political Council of UNAB (see the Nicaragua Briefs section of this edition for more details) and then two days later the Alliance and UNAB announced that they were “separating” to better define their identities. “It is a strategic separation to continue working in unity,” the two representatives explained. But rather than being a reassuring message, it caused huge confusion and consternation.
It was a “communication error”
In an appearance on the TV news program “Esta Semana” a week later, Azahálea Solís for the Alliance and Violeta Granera for UNAB apologized for what they called a “communication error.” They explained that it isn’t a “separation” but a “redefinition of roles” in the effort to build the grand opposition coalition. Granera pointed out that the Alliance’s representation of “sectors,” particularly of student and other civil society organizations, means that some organizations belong to both UNAB and the Alliance, which have different decision-making mechanisms. They are now trying to build a structure, she said, in which “the decisions we make in the framework of a national coalition will be binding for both.”
In order to form the coalition, she explained, both arenas had to make very clear who they represented since dual membership, which was originally no big deal, is now problematic for democratic decision-making. The issue is just one of the labor pains of a birth that can’t possibly be simple in such an adverse context and in a country with such an anti-democratic political culture.
A clash of agendas
In addition to the structural aspect, the “redefinition” issue also hints at an inevitable underlying clash between the millennial youth’s 21st-century agenda and that of the economic and political elites whose hearts and minds remain in the 20th century and even earlier. The two agendas are unevenly represented in the Civic Alliance, which has some young representatives, and UNAB, where they predominate.
All agree on the need to get Ortega out of power and dismantle the dictatorship, but no one is clear on the strategy to accomplish that mammoth task or on the leadership required to mobilize the population. That discussion alone is a tough one, with a lot riding on the ultimate decisions. But there are also new agendas in today’s world. Responding to the profound social uprising that is continuing to shake his own country, a Chilean priest mused that “in one women’s march I was struck by how many diverse themes were represented: not only those of the women, but also the indigenous issue, the ecological one, the question of the elderly—their health and their pensions. All the issues that involve a sense of injustice and suffering have burst into the open.”
In Nicaragua as well as in the rest of the world, today’s youths are increasingly sensitive to these new issues, which they see as integral to the “new way of doing politics” they are striving for. In the old class-based view of the world, the parameters of the debate and the objectives of the struggle were defined by the agenda of the economic and political elites on the one side and of workers and peasants on the other. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the mainstreaming of feminist and indigenous issues and the increasing globalizing of their exchanges expanded the reach of their arguments and the justice of their demand for their rights. This younger generation has come of age hearing their discourse, which is as natural to most of them as cybernetics and the life-and-death nature of the climate change imperatives, while the older generations require a conscious leap to embrace the multicolored issues of this new world.
“The proliferation of organizations [in UNAB] hasn’t been positive,” commented electoral expert José Antonio Peraza. “The majority of them are made up of very young people who are gaining experience but discussing many issues that are important but not priorities.” His concern is warranted, as unity of purpose and priorities will in large measure determine the future of the country for years to come, but the older generations bear much of the responsibility for why these “important but not priority” issues are only now surfacing and creating a clash of agendas.
The debate about what issues are priorities and which should be subordinated until they can be given their due is not a new one. In the traditional male-dominated world it has been resolved in all but a few cases by fiat, particularly when unity was seen by leaders as crucial to survival, and the simultaneous struggle for what were seen as “minority” issues was feared as divisive. Will this clash of world views lead to a new path that successfully juggles the need for unity with respect and support for diversity, in the process shielding itself from those who would manipulate the diversity to undercut unity?
It’s not the UNO
Coalition of 1990
The emergence of the Civic Alliance was an unquestionable achievement of the April rebellion, even though it was not spontaneous but the fruit of the coming together of the bishops and business elites, both of them major traditional powers in the country. When the latter broke with the regime over its unilateral social security policy, which led to the protests that ultimately detonated the uprising, both they and the bishops championed the protestors, albeit for different motives. Suddenly the business leaders found themselves talking for the first time on relatively equal footing with sectors always excluded from politics: students and youths in general, feminists, environmentalists, peasants and people from the Caribbean Coast, with their different ethnic origins and historical experiences.
Although both negotiation moments incorporated all these social sectors, an institutional, managerial vision of politics always predominated in the Alliance, visible in the form the talks took, as form always reveals something of the essence. It was also clear in the name the structure took: Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, the two common denominators shared by all sectors represented in the Alliance. The youthful actors who before April 2018 had little or no participation in politics or even in civil society movements suddenly found themselves deep into unknown terrain. A majority of them and also of those who weren’t so young came with a blank page and/or a different agenda, such as feminism or the environment. “For me, as well as many others,” said one young person, “politics was what one did in the National Assembly and I didn’t think of myself as a political being.”
These different world views have now been thrown together into the thick of things both in the Civic Alliance and perhaps even more so in UNAB, where politicians with their “old school” way of operating now recognize a role for themselves in building the National Coalition.
Some compare UNAB with the UNO coalition cobbled together in 1989 by US political operatives. President Reagan was fond of bragging that it was made up of “14 parties ranging from Conservatives to Communists, all of whom oppose Ortega.” While it successfully ran Violeta Chamorro as its presidential candidate, thus causing Ortega’s surprise defeat, in-fighting led it to promptly shatter into its component parts, leaving President Cha¬morro isolated and with little legislative backing.
This simplistic comparison fails to appreciate the difference in both actors and processes. One can read between this project’s still disorderly lines that it’s not an expedient electoral coalition. In fact it is unprecedented in the country’s political history. It is built on a core of unifying ideals, held largely by this new generation of youth. We can only hope its strong focus on democratic discussions will allow it to forge an ever more solid unity with mutual respect for those different agendas that can endure over time and withstand the inevitable attempts to splinter it.
The unifying values
of today’s youth
The National Coalition’s founding proclamation begins with the words “Nicaragua’s reconstruction began in April 2018.”
No one can deny that this reconstruction began with the youth. The April rebellion was preceded by young people’s protests against the gov¬ernment’s indolence in dealing with a forest fire in the Caribbean Coast’s Indio Maíz Reserve earlier that month. “I was in the protests over Indio Maíz” recalled one. “For me, that protest meant I was doing something; and then I stayed in it.”
It resumed when the government announced it would control the social networks, the ecosystem inhabited by the youth for years. “I got involved in all this on April 17, when we went to the National Assembly to protest against the law that was going to censor the networks,” said another youth.
The April rebellion’s final spark was the social security reforms announced the very next day, when both the demonstrators and people plugged into the social media at home witnessed the police and pipe-wielding thugs wearing Sandinista Youth T-shirts beat young and old protestors alike. “The violence toward the elderly was the last straw for him,” said the cousin of a 21-year-old student who participated in the barricades and was killed that June.
Rhe protests that started that April always included young feminist activists and representatives of Nica¬ragua’s sexual diversity. “I didn’t know anything about feminism,” said one young man who suddenly found himself defending a barricade with a young feminist activist. “It even scared me...”
An emblematic case that synthesizes the path of many youths is that of Ulises Josué Rivas, an activist in the national movement against industrial mining in his home department of Chontales. Like so many others, he too was indignant at the beating the elderly received for opposing the social security reform that would have cut their meager pension by 5%, so he participated in all the protest marches and supported the roadblock at Santo Domingo, Chontales.
The death threats he received from the paramilitaries forced him to flee to Costa Rica, where his continued to defend his rights and those of many other young people rejected by the refugee shelters. He founded an association there to defend the community of gay and lesbian Nicaraguans. When he returned to his country to see his dying father he was detained at the border, captured, tortured and imprisoned and is currently being accused of common crimes to keep him in prison. He is only one of many political prisoners, both those released and those still incarcerated, who have a similar “record.” Can anyone in good conscience tell him that his struggle is not a priority?
“We don’t want a continuation of command and obey politics”
This generation of youths between 15 and 30, considered for years by the adult population to be apathetic, apolitical and indifferent to Ortega’s institutional destruction, shook Nicaraguan society out of the lethargy that had taken hold of it.
It was moved by “empathic indignation” at seeing elderly protesters beaten in Managua and León and then seeing university and high school students and other barrio youths gunned down by government forces and sympathizers. As a message scrawled on a piece of cardboard in one of the many marches of April and May put it, “they messed with the wrong generation!”
No one, least of all the government, expected such determination from these youths. Nor did anyone expect such a repressive response after that April 18 protest, when “something new” began to form, something still in the process of being born. With increasing numbers of people moved to take to the streets in the face of such unimagined danger, a new identity began to take shape, with all the ups and downs provoked by the repression and emotional exhaustion that has ensued. That new identity is now part of the social majority in resistance.
Ivania Álvarez, a young woman from Tipitapa elected to UNAB’s new Political Council by the territorial sector said this about the identity of the youths heading up the Blue and White Unity and what they want: “This isn’t about right or left. We don’t ask about one’s ideology here. We want this regime out, but we also want another way of doing politics, to shake off the authoritarianism, the way things have always been, in which only one or two people do the deciding. We don’t want a continuation of command and obey politics.” Evidencing that this isn’t just a new generation of exclusionism, she closed by saying, “We need young faces, but also the experience of those who aren’t young.”
“Our struggle is
civic and peaceful”
A conscious decision to engage in a civic struggle and unarmed resistance has been a constant feature from the very beginning of the April rebellion. Those who identify with the blue and white movement invariably use the adjectives “civic and peaceful” when speaking of the struggle. Given the endless political violence that characterizes Nicaragua’s history, this has been a stunning new turn.
But it begs the question of how the country can get peacefully and civically out from under the power of a dictatorship that denies reality, thinks nothing of engaging in violent armed repression and would love nothing more than an armed confrontation to put the lie to the April insurrection’s self-definition and thus snuff out the rebellion.
The electoral path
is a hornet’s nest
The international community quickly made clear its interest in a solution not based on the generalized demand that Ortega immediately resign or leave the country, among other reasons because the lack of a correlation of forces that could oblige him to do so also means there would be a dangerous vacuum of power if he were to step down. The population in rebellion had no choice but to recognize that truth.
The “path” would have to be electoral. While the blue and white movement and the international community then pushed for early elections, Ortega insisted he would finish his term and elections would be held in November 2021, as legally stipulated. Already in late 2018, T-shirts and caps were appearing with the words “Daniel 2021” and the song “The comandante is staying” was being widely publicized in government circles.
The unavoidable electoral path out of the crisis has necessarily stirred up a hornet’s nest of new issues within the blue and white movement. Among others it means selecting candidates, choosing some leaders over others, hammering out agreements, renouncing aspirations—and ambitions—and being humble… But Nicaragua has always been a country with “more chiefs than Indians,” a well-honed culture of following messianic caudillos with a propensity for short-term thinking and magic solutions, and minimal experience of debate and exchange of opinions, even in the family and school, or of the search for consensus required by democracy and the road that leads to it.
The fraud machine
If the subjectivities of Nicaraguan voters—who traditionally seek strong leaders—and those elected—who offer themselves as such—complicate the electoral horizon, the objective conditions for minimally decent elections with basic conditions of transparency and justice have yet to be created. The electoral system’s top authorities, the electoral legislation and the existing standards for applying that legislation do not guarantee the kind of elections that could resolve the territorial economic and social conflict in which Ortega has mired the country.
In 2006, Ortega walked away with the presidency in the first round, having allegedly assured that 8% of the ballots that might have threatened his victory would never be counted, thus avoiding a second round it was generally agreed he would lose. He was abetted in that move by Liberal politician Eduardo Montealegre, his main rival candidate, who accepted Ortega’s victory on election night to avoid the victory of rival Liberal candidate José Rizo. The entire electoral apparatus has remained under the FSLN’s absolute control ever since, converted into a machine that cranks out one fraud after another.
The Constitution Ortega reformed to his liking in 2014 puts no limits on terms in office and no longer requires even the minimum of 35% of first-round votes to win the presidency agreed to by Ortega and then-President Arnoldo Alemán in their pact in the late nineties.
The only thing legislative president Gustavo Porras, one of those already sanctioned by the US government, has said so far in relation to the electoral reforms we can expect Ortega to permit is that they are on the parliamentary agenda and will be discussed “with the political parties.” He not only omitted any mention of UNAB or the Civic Alliance, but also of participation by the OAS as agreed to in the memorandum it signed with the government in early 2017.
Complexities of the electoral
path as a way out of the crisis
The violent repression in 2018 indicated that the only way to get Ortega out of power was through elections rather than street protests, so a great deal of effort has gone into defining the indispensable electoral reforms needed for the population to recover minimum confidence in the voting exercise.
In the last presidential elections, the widespread distrust of the system led to an abstention that exceeded 70% of eligible voters according to unofficial recounts done by volunteers of the national electoral observation organi¬zationEthics & Transparency and other civic organizations associated with it. Such massive abstention was unmistakable evidence of the electoral system’s collapse. It was with such minimal participation that Ortega began his fourth presidential term, rendering his claims of having won a very high percentage of the votes irrelevant.
In the November 2019 issue of envío, José Antonio Peraza—a member of the Electoral Reform Promotion Group, a civil society movement that began working in 2002, when the electoral system was already showing anti-democratic signs due to the Ortega-Alemán pact—detailed for envío the long list of reforms required for credible, legitimate elections. He singled out the most essential and indispensable reforms and the most attainable ones in several categories of reforms, recognizing that in the current conditions not all can be achieved, and the achievable ones are not necessarily the most crucial (https://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/5714).
Several weeks later, on December 12, the Civic Alliance, UNAB and the Electoral Reform Promotion Group announced an important consensus reached about the reforms to guarantee elections that would generate a minimum of voter confidence: at least two new magistrates in the Supreme Electoral Council, Nicaragua’s fourth branch of government; a change in the composition of the people heading up the voting centers; national and international electoral observers at all levels; political party monitors at all levels; and publication of the results in real time.
Is this really the way?
Given all that is riding on finding a genuine way out of the crisis, all the different actors who have a major stake in that outcome, and the complicated and fragile correlation of their forces, the debate over various electoral aspects is inevitably a tough and divisive one that continues despite the consensus achieved. Granting that the most crucial reforms may not be possible, the issue is whether or not it makes sense to participate in elections without them.
For example, there are strong differences regarding whether Ortega should be allowed to run for a fourth consecutive term, and even whether there should be elections if he is still in power. Some think he will make no meaningful changes and that the elections will be held with today’s paralyzing de facto state of exception still in place, questioning whether participating in such elections wouldn’t simply legitimize Ortega with no possibility of change.
Another polemic is over the strategic importance Peraza mentioned of fighting for approval of a new blue and white party or alliance with its own name, flag and colors and its own slot on the ballot. Some consider it a deal breaker while others believe the blue and white unification will solidify as the elections approach and all will participate as the National Coalition on whatever party’s ballot slot it runs on.
What are the Coalition’s chances
of getting its own ballot slot?
The prevailing view is that the government will find reasons not to grant the National Coalition legal status as an electoral force with its own slot on the ballot. It is also a given that the other, largely discredited parties would not relish the competition.
At the end of last year, before the announcement of the National Coali¬tion’s formation, dissonant voices could already be heard in the Civic Alliance’s business sector. Stretched thin by the economic decline, they are getting impatient and let it be known they want elections with or without reforms. They also argue that there are already five existing parties with which the blue and white opposition could negotiate its participation. While they claim they would be happy with elections that satisfy the United States, Washington has said in various statements and documents during the conflict that it would not recognize any electoral process that is not transparent, competitive and with international observers. If it sticks to that position, which it has defined as necessary to guarantee stability in Nicaragua, it means profound reforms to the electoral system before any voting takes place.
Does this dissident sector of the business class have a different idea, one that would give Washington the comfort of still dealing with old, known allies, as in Honduras, rather than having to cope with an untested wild card like the National Coalition? Would it be all that hard to persuade the US that a few minimal changes would ensure everything remains the same? And if it succeeded, what would be the likely scenario that follows?
The tanking economy
Can the country make it all the way to elections in November 2021 with an economy that’s already looking at the bottom of the barrel? With the Christmas and New Year festivities over, the economy is starting the year stagnant after a brief and minimal revival thanks to the injection of remittances and year-end bonuses.
The regime is facing an increasing dearth of resources for public spending, forcing it to again make important budget cuts. The only line that increased was for the Police, the repression’s omnipresent protagonist. In exchange it is squeezing the population with rising fuel charges and electricity rates and unjustified fines for supposed traffic violations.
The crisis also hit the coffers of the country’s municipal governments, hit since 2018 with serious cuts to their already small budgets for local public works.
On January 10, the very first day of the new legislative session, reforms were announced to no fewer than 33 laws, most of them economic, with the sole purpose of guaranteeing the regime’s survival.
Independent economist Néstor Avendaño describes how the economy took a major dive in 2018 and again in 2019, and is now is now flattening out to a horizontal line. That two-year plunge, he says, “was equivalent to a nine-year fall. Once the political problems are resolved, he claims it could easily take 13 to 15 years to recover economically.”
Succinctly summing up the crisis, he says “ There is no confidence among the country’s economic agents. Consumers are saving rather than spending, businesses are saving rather than investing, and the government is saving and freezing spending.” Moreover, foreign investors ae staying away in droves.
Sanction on the ruling
family’s oil business
The economy of the ruling family isn’t going so well either. It received the hardest blow so far on December 12, when the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned Rafael Ortega Murillo, the ruling couple’s eldest son, via Executive Order 13851 issued on November 27, 2018. OFAC designated “two companies he owns or controls [Inversiones Zanzibar and Servicio de Protección y Vigilancia, a.k.a. “El Goliat”] and uses to finance and launder money for the Ortega regime.” It also designated Distribuidora Nicara¬güense de Petroleo S.A. (DNP), owned or controlled by both him and his mother, Vice President Rosario Murillo, who was first sanctioned in November 2018.
Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin described Rafael Ortega as “the key money manager behind the Ortega family’s illicit financial schemes. Treasury is targeting Rafael and the companies he owns and uses to launder money to prop up the Ortega regime at the expense of the Nicaraguan people.”
The ruling family appropriated DNP in 2009, privatizing it and making it the centerpiece of the conglomerate of family businesses. According to experts, DNP earned US$42.6 million annually for the past decade, particularly while Venezuela was still supplying oil to Nicaragua with with a highly favorable repayment schedule.
Zanzíbar is a shell company Rafael Ortega created to save oil business earnings from sanctions when OFAC sanctioned the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA last year, by extension affecting Albanisa, its joint-venture consortium of businesses in Nicaragua. The US message in sanctioning Zanzíbar, a previously unknown company of short duration, was clear: You can run but you can’t hide.
Two days after the announcement of the sanctions, the DNP inventories, including the 60 gas stations it administered around the country, were nationalized and declared “of national sovereignty and international interest.” They were thus returned to the State in an urgent, secret operation whose consequences for both the State and society remain to be learned. It is not the first time the ruling family has appropriated society’s income to build highly profitable private businesses, milking them for profits, then quickly “selling” them back to the State once they were sanctioned.
The Army tried to
“keep its face clean”
The sanctions haven’t ended. Will the Army, its financial holdings and/or its command officers be next?
On December 13, only one day after sanctions were applied to Nicaragua’s oil business, Mauricio Claver-Carone, President Trump’s special adviser for Latin America, unveiled the program “Growth in the Americas” (América Crece), an economic initiative for countries of the continent, excluding Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
In a telephone press conference, a reporter for Diario las Américas asked Claver-Carone if sanctions are being contemplated against the Army of Nicaragua, which she said has been mentioned in connection with human rights violations. He responded with the harshest words so far from a US official about Nicaragua’s military situation: “More intense and even more important measures are going to come. Again, what we want in Nicaragua is a clean, fair electoral process, and obviously that the grave human rights violations we have been seeing finally end. Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo will continue feeling that pressure. The circle will continue tightening around them. In the past, the Armed Forces have tried to keep their face clean, to say they are independent of the repression groups there have been. Here I would emphasize to them that we are incrementally seeing more complicity by the Armed Forces of Nicaragua and we are obviously looking for them to play a civilized role, based on the Constitution, to protect the population of Nicaragua, and not be a repressive arm of Daniel Ortega, which we are increasingly seeing happen.”
Ortega doesn’t trust the Army
In his speech to the ALBA Political Council on November 14 lamenting the fall of Evo Morales, Ortega said that “the Army and Police are determinant in such situations.” While he was referring to Evo’s situation, he was surely also thinking of his own.
Security expert Roberto Orozco told envío that the Army “knows perfectly well about the institutional collapse of the Police and for pragmatic reasons has not wanted to follow in its footsteps. It is the only institution that has preserved its institution¬ality.”
Orozco believes that sooner or later the Army will be tapped to disarm the paramilitaries and if it doesn’t do it, a new government will have to call on an international armed force for the job. He also thinks that when negotiating its future, “the ace the Army has up its sleeve is that it is complying with the Sovereign Security Law, which obliges it to pass intelligence information to the President, who used the Police for the operational part of the repressive strategy.”
Orozco says Daniel Ortega doesn’t trust the Army and has shown this in his speeches. But Orozco stresses that Nicaragua’s Army “has revolutionary origins” and would not lend itself to any “coup-mongering adventure.” He has observed that Ortega has more confidence in the Police, which has become his Praetorian Guard, and points out that the Army now has 14,000 officials on the payroll while the Police has 16,000, not to mention the unknown number of para-militaries.
Ortega got the Army’s institutional loyalty, he says, by maintaining the businesses it already had before the FSLN returned to government. He adds that “an important reason for distrusting the Army is that it has never broken its relations with the US Southern Command.”
More and more questions
with uncertain answers
2020 will be another uncertain and very trying year for a society that has been in resistance during such a protracted crisis.
The birth of this National Coalition is not proving to be easy. It will take a lot of patience and forbearance to bring together all the different opposition interests and ideas as a solid force. And it will be even more difficult to change the correlation of forces because the dictatorship is willing to annihilate anything new that stands in its way.
New questions are opening up at this start of a new year. Will the existing political parties join the National Coalition? In particular will Citizens for Liberty (CxL), which is now functioning in former political leader Eduardo Montealegre’s shadow, join? It has openly expressed distaste for UNAB because of the presence of the Sandinista Renovation Movement, a 25-year-old split from the FSLN.
And what about Arnoldo Alemán’s Constitutionalist Liberal Party, from which Montealegre split so bitterly 15 years ago over his old party’s corruption and caudillista traditions? Or the Peasant Movement, which represents a good part of the rural population with a longstanding Liberal tradition and deep-seated anti-Sandinista feelings left over from the war of the eighties? Like many others it makes little distinction between those who identify with traditional Sandinista values and stalwart Daniel Ortega loyalists. All these rivalries are problematic enough in themselves but are also easy tinder for the regime’s skilled divisive maneuvers. And should an agreement be hammered out with one or more of the rival registered political parties, on whose slot will the Coalition run in the elections, and what governance will it retain?
The Coalition insists it’s not just an electoral phenomenon. But will a unity-building process, however broad, be enough to reactivate the streets? Without freedom of expression and mobilization, can there be an electoral campaign that generates enough confidence to get people to massively turn out to vote?
What would motivate Ortega to guarantee the necessary liberties for authentic elections if losing could see him end up in court charged with crimes against humanity? Would coordinated US and European Union sanctions be enough to force the regime to back off?
Finally, if the business class continues pushing for any old elections at any old price, even under a state of exception, would it split the Coalition? And if it actually stays together, will it be based on a decision to participate or to abstain en masse as an expression of maximum pressure on Ortega?
These are only some of the many questions that will be answered one way or the other over the next year or so before the scheduled elections are upon us.
A little light at the
end of the tunnel
Forging unity in diversity can only be achieved by forswearing the traditional way of doing politics in this country, in which the political and economic powers impose and those at the bottom swallow the imposition until there is an explosion, historically an armed one. Such unity can only be forged by learning how to listen to each other, put oneself in other people’s shoes and respect their experience. It is an arduous and exceedingly slow learning process requiring more patience and maturity than circumstances easily permit right now. It also requires pragmatic give and take, which is in turn hard for the younger generations, so convinced of their righteous views and new way of thinking in this fast-changing, and dangerous globalized world.
If that doesn’t happen; if the political parties put their own short-term interests before the nation’s long-term health, as they have traditionally done; if the business elites forget the lessons they have learned in this year and a half of siding with the people rather than political power, and if the youth lose patience with this complicated, uncharted process, politicians, business elites and the population at large will be infinitely the worse for it.
“The darkness cannot prevail,” says parish priest Edwin Román from Masaya, perhaps the most castigated area of the country. “Many say they see no light at the end of this tunnel, but in the middle of this darkness I see a little.”
That small amount of light is powered by the persistence of the memory and consequences of April’s pain and by the awakening of consciousness, courage and longing for freedom. And it is accompanying this regrettably painful birth. We can only hope that that memory and awakening prevail.