The marathon has begun …
The electoral marathon scheduled to finish
on November 7, 2021, began with the launching of the
National Coalition against the dictatorship on February 25,
the 30th anniversary of Ortega’s 1990 electoral defeat.
How many hurdles will it face on the road to blue and white unity?
And how many obstacles will the dictatorship itself put on that road?
How many times will each side stumble during the race?
And how will this endurance test end for the population?
With a dreamed-of victory… or a catastrophic defeat?
With more than 60 political prisoners still behind bars, the entire country under official control, paramilitaries flaunting their repressive viciousness every day, and an economy on a continual downward spiral, impoverishing the majority of the populace, the electoral defeat of the dictatorship is currently absorbing most of blue and white opposition’s energies.
Its adherents are participating in the electoral marathon, either actively or passively, swinging between hope and uncertainty, between distrust and doubts.
“Banish the dictatorship from
power and from the culture”
On February 25, as formally as a Managua under police siege permitted, representatives of the Civic Alliance and the Blue and White National Unity (UNAB)—each of which already represents an array of other social, political and economic organizations, sectors and movements—announced the progress made in their goal of creating a National Coalition against the dictatorship. With its doors still open to new political and civic groups, the Coalition is now made up of the Alliance, UNAB, the Campesino Movement and three political parties—the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), the Evangelical-based Democratic Restoration Party (PRD) and the Caribbean indigenous party Yatama—as well as the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, made up of ex-contras. They sent what they called a “message of hope” to the population, expressing their commitment to accelerate the building of unity.
Their proclamation, read by Masaya leader Yubrank Suazo, says “We are committed to continue working to build a plural, inclusive and participatory National Coalition with democratic, fair and weighted representation of all, with a place for each Nicaraguan fighting the dictatorship. We are united by the blue and white flag. To rebuild Nicaragua it is essential that the dictatorship be banished from power and from our culture.” Although the proclamation makes no mention of the eventual electoral process, that challenge, so full of uncertainties, is on everyone’s agenda.
Two lanes and two runners
With that, the electoral race is on and currently involves two basic groups of runners. For the blue and white group it is an important test of resistance to attempts to divide it. It must also force Ortega to make profound electoral reforms in the lead-up to November 2021 that will ensure an acceptable social climate and sufficiently transparent rules of the game to bring the skeptical electorate out to vote. This group is counting on its runners to give their all, and trusts that the unity and organization achieved over the course of the race will help it defeat the current regime.
President Daniel Ortega and his faithful are in the other lame. Unlike their opponents, they are currently moving at a rather leisurely pace, as they don’t feel any urgency to get to the wire. They’ve been preparing to win for over 40 years, whether ruling from above or from below. Their main task during the marathon will be to destroy this new challenger, infiltrating the coalition to split it and enticing new participants to run under their conditions.
Ortega will also try to confuse spectators to stop the coalition from attracting more and more voters in its race to the wire. Using tried and true ruses from former races, he trusts he’ll walk away with the prize: a third consecutive presidential race and the continuation of his now consolidated dictatorship. There’s little left he doesn’t control.
Will 2021 be
decided in 2020?
The starting gun actually sounded on January 8 when the regime announced that the electoral law will be reformed over the course of 2020 in the Ortega-controlled National Assembly, Nicara¬gua’s legislative body, in a process directed by the Supreme Electoral Council, equally under Ortega’s thumb.
Not even the minimally “free and fair” elections demanded by the international community are currently possible in Nicaragua. Unless there are profound reforms to the electoral law and hopefully also the political parties law between now and the 2021 elections, Nicaraguan voters will have no reason to trust them. A number of those reforms will require the vote of 60% of the legislators (which Ortega alone has) in two consecutive legislatures, according to the Constitution. That means they must be voted on by the end of this year then ratified without changes in another vote next year if they are to be ready by November 2021. That makes 2020 a critical year in determining the whole process.
A collapsed system
But the changes must not stop with the laws. The electoral system as a whole requires every kind of overhaul imaginable. It is fatally contaminated from top to bottom: the relevant authorities at all levels, the ID voter cards, voter rolls, voting centers, data transmission, publication of the results…
The Carter Center’s prestigious electoral observation mission defined the 2008 municipal elections as a “proven fraud,” while the conclusions of the European Union observer mission for the November 2011 presidential elections amply demonstrated the radical deterioration of the electoral system in all its stages (see its document in that month’s issue of envío).
In the subsequent presidential election (2016), Ortega allowed neither these nor any other international or national observation mission, dismissing them all as “scoundrels.” That November, he was “reelected” yet again, this time in a voting process notable for its massive abstention, an early and passive expression of the discontent that exploded into massive repudiation in the streets less than half a year later.
The majority of the reforms the electoral system requires are administrative and thus don’t need legislative involvement. It would mean changing procedures the Ortega regime has employed between the 2006 and 2017 presidential elections to ensure a chain of frauds in each. Agreeing to renounce them depends on nothing more than Daniel Ortega’s political will.
National Assembly president Gustavo Porras, a frequent regime spokesperson, has said the reforms will be discussed with the six parties that have legislative seats (only 21 votes among them compared to the ruling FSLN’s 71). The blue and white opposition is preparing to force a political negotiation to make the regime accept the reforms the system requires. The indispensable ones were enumerated in the October 2019 issue of envío by electoral expert José Antonio Peraza: “If we achieve acceptable reforms to the Supreme Electoral Council, electoral observation at every level, real monitoring by the political parties at all levels, clear procedures, publication of the results in real time and, most importantly, a coalition in which we all go united, we’ll win.”
Forcing Ortega to accept these reforms—only the most essential of a far more detailed list Peraza presented—will require powerful joint national and international pressure.
Ortega isn’t remotely interested in accepting free elections because he knows he’d lose. He only accepted them in 1990 because the FSLN was sure it would win. The specter of that loss haunts the party to this day. Ortega would only accept them in a scenario in which not doing so would cost him more than the risk of allowing them. But that’s not the scenario in which the marathon has gotten underway.
“Moving the conflict
from bullets to ballots”
No one argues that Nicaragua is the same as it was before the April 2018 rebellion, or believes there is any likelihood of returning to what we were before. But what will come next is anybody’s guess.
In the first weeks following that rebellion, the blue and white population exuberantly believed the pressure of hundreds of thousands of people who spontaneously poured into the streets would force Ortega to step down, at worst taking the fortune he had accumulated with him. But after suffering such levels of bloody repression, people had to accept that getting Ortega out of office would be very different, much harder and far more protracted.
Ortega didn’t step down, and reality began to impose the idea of elections as the only way out. International pressure has also played its role in this, although not as powerfully as many Nicaraguans would have liked. The international community interested in what’s happening in Nicaragua advocated the electoral path from the outset.
On July 11, 2018, with the violent “operation clean-up” underway, the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly was read the powerful report prepared by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) after its first visit to Nicaragua. Secretary General Luis Almagro then stated that “from the beginning we proposed a fundamental tool to halt the violence: the holding of early elections in the framework of a clean and transparent electoral process. For us, it continues to be essential to move the conflict from bullets to ballots.”
Ortega never gave any sign of accepting responsibility for the violence unleashed in April. Nor did he agree to move up the elections. “The coman¬dante is staying,” became his slogan. And in September 2018, after 325 murders, he prohibited public demonstrations against him and installed a reign of terror, multiplying the roundup of political prisoners. After releasing many of them to house arrest last year, his paramilitaries and civilian followers hounded them, laid siege to their families and even recaptured some. Those taking political exile multiplied to the tens of thousands and the economy began to gasp for breath.
Sanctioning the heart
of the oil business
The wearing-down strategy hasn’t worked exclusively to the benefit of the regime and its followers. Ortega’s dynastic project has failed, his historical legacy will be bloody and he’s grappling with a discredited international reputation mitigated only by Nicara¬gua’s geopolitical irrelevance. The passage of time has also forced Ortega to move much of his family fortune outside the country while his family and loyal followers fight to hold on to power.
The regime is also running this marathon weighed down by the political and financial sanctions imposed by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The fortunes of his family and those in his close circle have suffered as a consequence: the US government has sanctioned 5 businesses vitally important to the governing family, 3 officials of Ortega’s intimate circle, 12 other trusted officials, plus his own wife and 2 of their sons.
Last April, the Banco Corporativo (Bancorp), in which the family kept the earnings from its businesses, was sanctioned, as was the operator of these businesses, Rafael Ortega Murillo, the family’s eldest son, along with two businesses through which he was laundering money from the family’s multimillion dollar oil business.
The latest sanctions, announced last December, targeted the National Oil Distribution Company (DNP), the heart of the oil business, which has produced the greatest returns over the past decade: more than UIS$400 million, according to data provided to the newspaper La Prensa by César Arévalo, a specialist in the hydrocarbons market.
On December 14, the regime nationalized the inventories of the sanctioned DNP, declaring them “of sovereign security and national interest.” They were “returned” to the State in a fast-track legislative operation conducted in total secrecy. Then on February 11, the regime created four state businesses, three of them to explore, exploit, store, distribute, transport and commercialize all types of hydrocarbons. The fourth will handle these same operations for gas. The four businesses will be exempt from any taxes—thus fostering unfair competition, according to private enterprise—and their boards will be named by Ortega.
The National Assembly approved the creation of these businesses in a matter of hours after Ortega also requested fast-track treatment for the corresponding legislation. This meant no consultations and no transparency in the introduction of new faces in such a strategic sector. This move exposed the Nicaraguan State to still more sanctions because these businesses have received the contaminated inventories and resources of both the DNP and Albanisa, sanctioned back in January 2019.
Despite sidestepping the sanctions by creating the new companies, the economic blow to the ruling family has been substantial, significantly reducing its earnings. To avoid the high political cost of leaving the country without fuel, one of the four new companies, Emicom, won’t import hydrocarbons. That task will now be almost totally in the hands of the private company Puma, which imported less than 50% before the sanctions.
Nicaragua on the “gray list”
Making matters even worse, the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has just put Nicaragua back on its “gray list” of countries with serious deficiencies in their anti-money laundering measures given the movements of capital the ruling family has been engaged in since the United States began its sanctions.
Nicaraguan banks need FATF recognition if they want correspondent relations with banks in the rest of the world, and the country itself must have the FATF’s endorsement to get financing abroad. Putting Nicaragua on the “grey list” amounts to an international alert that adds to Nica-ragua’s negative economic situation. The next step would be to put Nicaragua on its “black list.”
The regime had persuaded the FATF to take Nicaragua off its list in 2015, which it celebrated as an important achievement for the economy. The fact that it’s now back on will have very negative consequences for a national financial system already affected by economic recession, a dearth of national and international private investment in the past two years and a lack of resources for the public investment plan as the Inter-American Development Bank hasn’t granted a single loan to Nicaragua in that same time period.
The FATF’s decision is due to international and national cash movements made recently by Ortega-Murillo family members, others in its inner circle and three of its sanctioned businesses (DNP, Albanisa and Bancorp), which once laundered abroad could reenter the national financial system. The FATF detected a quantity of money circulating in Nicaragua that seemed suspicious.
can’t raise its head
The family in power isn’t just bringing economic problems down on itself and its loyalists as a result of the international sanctions and the new FATF decision. Ortega’s stubborn refusal to accept any political agreement whatsoever, as it would necessarily involve risking elections with internationally-accepted transparency, has also left the national economy in general in terrible shape.
The government has had to cut the budget, public investment, various subsidies and transfers to the municipal governments. It has also increased taxes and multiplied fines. The only economic category still growing is remittances sent to their family by emigrant workers and the few who have fled the country in the past two years who aren’t suffering economic difficulties in neighboring countries.
This February Moody’s risk analysts lowered Nicaragua’s position from last year’s B2 (“stable perspective”) to B3 (“negative perspective”). The sustained economic recession Nicaragua has been experiencing since the second quarter of 2019 is now on its way to becoming a depression, putting the country at risk of being unable to service its debt.
In its February update analysis on Nicaragua, The Economist Intelligence Unit made two negative forecasts for Nicaragua’s economy: average growth for the next five years (2021-2024) will only be 1.6% and Ortega’s alliance with the business class is very unlikely to be rebuilt to any significant degree. In a view shared by the country’s own independent economists, everything this influential British publication foresees economically is attributable to the absence of any real solution to Nica¬ragua’s political conflict.
Poorer and poorer
“We are again as poor as we were in 2014, the last year there was a poverty survey in Nicaragua,” said economist Néstor Avendaño in an interview with Confidencial. All the poverty reduction that took place in the country when we were growing at an annual average rate of 5% has disappeared. Today 28-30% of the Nicaraguan population is defined as poor.”
Avendaño says the gross domestic product fell 6.5% in 2019 and predicts it will fall 2.7% this year. In a somewhat more negative forecast than The Economist, he says “the moment will come when the country reaches the derisory target of stagnation, in which it stops growing negatively and reaches 0% growth. That moment will come when there is a political solution… only afterward will a positive effect be seen and even then only gradually.”
It’s like a grim joke to recall that back in 2013, Ortega’s officials told us that by this same date nearly 3,600 ships would be navigating Nicaragua’s Grand Interoceanic Canal and that we would have already experienced nearly five years of 15% growth…
The regime is demonstrating an utter lack of seriousness, rationality and responsibility. The resulting economic recession affects us all, including those who still sympathize with Ortega. The common denominator of the current political equation is that with Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo running the government, “nothing is getting fixed.” And “nothing” refers not only to the political crisis, but also to the economy and even family and personal life. “The dictatorship,” says sociologist Silvio Prado, “has transcended the political plane to become a vital problem for the majority of Nicaraguans.”
Is Ortega negotiating
Is Ortega negotiating directly with the United States to avoid more sanctions? He has given plenty of signs of his unwillingness to do so in good faith with Nicaraguans as the OAS pressured him to do. He didn’t do it in the first dialogue chaired by the bishops in 2018 or at the negotiating table of 2019, in which he refused to allow the prelates to participate. The analysis of sociologist Óscar René Vargas, who knows him well, is that Ortega’s logic is simply “power or death.”
But he has met with US officials on various occasions since April 2018, although these talks always came up against a wall: Ortega has discarded various solutions offered to him, clinging to power, trusting more in repression and wearing down his adversaries than in what Washington offered. But that was back when he was in a better position.
What might he be negotiating with the United States now, when the economic sanctions are piling up and the civic resistance is becoming more organized, and the only solution is free and fair elections that he’ll lose unless he steals them and only ends up even more delegitimized than he already is?
What will he negotiate now as he watches Washington’s careful and effective moves to economically asphyxiate the Maduro regime, with 52 of his officials and dozens of companies already sanctioned?
Will there be more sanctions?
The regime is expecting more sanctions. According to TV journalist Miguel Mora, a political prisoner for six months, Ortega is alert to sanctions that could affect his numerous TV channels.
The President is also worried about any sanctions the European Union could apply. He tried to shield himself from them on February 7 when Vice President Murillo ordered the delivery of paper and printing inputs to La Prensa after they had been illegally retained in customs for nearly 19 months, leading the newspaper to near collapse.
The regime put up another shield on February 13, the eve of Valentine’s Day—the day of love: it freed 9 more political prisoners, among them Nicaraguan-Belgian medical student Amaya Coppens, whose release European parliamentarians had been repeatedly calling for.
Contradictorily, however, it prohibited the entry into Nicaragua of a European parliamentary delegation that tried to visit in late February. The legislators ended up meeting with a broad representation of the National Coalition in El Salvador on February 24, the day before they announced the progress they had made in Managua.
The shields weren’t thick enough. Between February 18 and 20, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central America Hugo Rodríguez visited EU headquarters in Brussels and also went to Madrid, which is historically linked to Latin America. Mincing no words, Rodríguez opened his press briefing in Brussels by explaining why he was there: “to discuss the situation in Nicaragua and how the United States and our European partners can collaborate to stop the horrific abuses of the Ortega regime.” After mentioning the sanctions applied so far by both the US and Canada, he said “we will continue to use all economic and diplomatic means at our disposal to support the Nicaraguan people’s calls for a restoration of democracy, and we encourage our European partners to do the same. The United States and the international community stand with the Nicaraguan people in their quest for genuinely free and fair elections and a peaceful transition back to democracy.”
Although the EU approved a “framework” to apply sanctions to the Ortega dictatorship last October 13, it has not yet acted on it. The collaboration between Washington and Europe is important for Nicaragua and it is hoped it will transcend the Trump administration’s reelection interests.
Rodríguez’s trip to Europe provided continuity to the meeting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held with representatives of the Civic Alliance and the Blue and White Unity in San José, Costa Rica, on January 22, signaling Washington’s strong recognition that this is an opposition with which Ortega must negotiate.
This time Pompeo came in a listening mode: “I’m going to remain silent to give you the opportunity to indicate to me how we can continue supporting you.” He reportedly took note of what each person had to say.
Their support of the sanctions Washington is applying against Ortega, his businesses and his close associates was unanimous, as was the request that the pressure be maintained and the sanctions increased.
has no successor
The regime’s erosion is not only economic but also political. The unquestioning cult of personality with which the FSLN has deified Ortega for the past four decades has cost the party dearly.
Ortega and his inner circle have discarded all the alternative leaders who attempted to head the party or be its presidential candidate: Henry Ruiz, Vilma Núñez, Alejandro Martínez Cuenca, Víctor Hugo Tinoco, Herty Lewites... All were maligned, margin¬alized or expelled at some point. And since 2007, party faithful have drawn their wagons in an even tighter circle around a dynastic project through which it has become increasingly evident that Ortega’s wife and then his children aspired to the throne.
So while there could be potential candidates to replace the leader, none has the slightest chance of ever doing so. Ortega continues to make himself unsubstitutable—which is not synonymous with irreplaceable. Even though one of the most immediate achievements of the April Rebellion was to shatter the dynastic project, the family does not seem to have taken this on board.
Chino Edoc speaks out
In February Marlon Enoc Sáenz, a rank-and-file FSLN leader in Condega, Estelí, one of many who have been party militants since their teens, spoke about what many know and few dare say in public. His declarations went viral.
First at a party meeting and later in recordings he made himself, “Chino Enoc” referred to the falsity of the official polls, the difficulty of getting people out to party mobilizations, the lack of political formation among today’s Sandinista Youth members, Ortega’s illness, his advanced age and the lack of any replacement leadership in the FSLN.
Sáenz also criticized the Vice President and said he opposed her selection to the post. He implicitly also acknowledged that he was a paramilitary by stating that historical combatants like himself, marginalized by Murillo even before 2007, were called on to “defend the Comandante.” “They called on us like firefighters to put out the blaze” in April 2018, he said.
Using more spontaneous language than the controversial “Coman¬daante Cero,” Edén Pastora, had recently done in a government TV interview, Enoc echoed Pastora’s insistence that Ortega designate a successor and rejected Murillo as the suitable choice.
Does the FSLN have a future after April? Does Sandinismo? It is a topic of debate in the current context. Some see them as two separate questions, while for others they amount to the same. Whatever the answers, Ortega’s FSLN will definitely get a percentage of the votes in any free and fair elections, but there are wildly differing views on what that percentage will be.
Sandinismo was “usurped”
by Ortega’s project
Most of those like Chino Enoc, known today as “historical” Sandinistas, are loyal to Daniel Ortega. That unquestioning belief in him has earned them yet another label: Ortegistas. Others who are still party militants but did not participate in the repression or feel comfortable with it, may otherwise also fit the Orteguista label.
Then there are those, also a very sizable number, who have left the party at some point over the past three decades but still proudly call themselves Sandinistas, arguing that they embody the party’s once lofty values and principles. Many are no longer active in any political party, but those who are tend to belong to or sympathize with the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), which split from the FSLN in 1995 under the leadership of Sergio Ramírez and Dora María Téllez. Deprived of its legal status on a fabricated technicality in 2008, the MRS has nonetheless maintained its cohesion, throwing its weight behind other parties in elections in an effort to oust Ortega. The MRS, which is largely made up of professionals and intellectuals, has been active in UNAB and now in the National Coalition.
Is there room for Sandinistas
in the National Coalition?
Shouldn’t the blue and white movement reach out to historical Sandinistas in an effort to win over their hearts and minds? The National Coalition defines itself as non-exclusionary, open to all. That’s an important first step, but not the only one that could be taken.
Fernando Brenes from Monimbó, Masaya’s combative indigenous barrio, is Chino Enoc’s opposite number. Also a historical combatant, first a guerrilla fighter in the 1970s and then a captain in the Sandinista Army, now retired, he is currently one of those Sandinistas who identifies as non-Orteguista. On his return from 19 months in exile, Brenes said that “Ortega knows very well the FSLN doesn’t have national consensus and a debacle has been building up within historical Sandinismo ever since it was usurped by Orteguismo.” The Sandinismo represented by people like him merits recognition in the marathon being run to unseat Ortega.
The National Coalition should also reach out to younger FSLN militants who are disappointed by the course the party has taken. “I didn’t participate in the protests. We were with the government,” says Lesther Ruiz from Carazo, who was released from prison on February 13 after nine months enduring the particularly rotten treatment reserved for political prisoners. “When the anti-riot police detained me I showed them my party militancy card but they just said ‘you can get this shit anywhere these days.’ I was a militant and they didn’t respect that. Treating us like that changed my opinion. I hadn’t been doing anything there.” Surely there’s room in the anti-dictatorial marathon for so many others like him.
The cost of resistance
Which of the two competitors will end the electoral marathon more spent?
The blue and white have the initial advantage of being the social majority and are confident of turning that into an electoral majority. But they’re burdened by the wear and tear of more than a year of a police State and repression, with everything that implies in terms of the stress and fear stalking people in the streets, their homes… and even their own minds. They are also nowhere near as united as Ortega’s followers, which may be a minority, but can be counted on to run a highly disciplined race.
The majority has resisted and continues to resist, often clandestinely or taking refuge in the social networks. Many have had to escape into exile. For the many tens of thousands thrown into unemployment by the economic crisis the dictatorship has caused, the daily struggle to make ends meet has necessarily overshadowed political concerns. The common denominator for the majority of the population today is their personal future. The crisis has lasted longer than anyone first imagined, making it hard for most people to see light at the end of this tunnel. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less eager than they were in April 2018 to see the ruling couple out of power.
Paradoxically, the dragging out of the crisis and the resounding failure of the negotiation promoted by big capital and the Church in 2019 have given the blue and white team time to organize better and to better understand the urgency of reaching agreements on some basic points that can guarantee tighter unity.
Unity is never easy, and certainly not in such a historically polarized country as this one. It is logical that amid so much repression and after a decade of institutional dictatorship, the transition of the massive independent and spontaneous movement of April 2018 into a unitary national coalition that can take on the dictatorship has been neither quick nor simple. It took many months before the imperatives of a solid unity and shared vision of the nation’s future even penetrated most people’s thinking. A population whose country has long been based on strong class, ideological, political, gender, generational and cultural divisions does not have the tools to easily discard its traditional way of being.
The complexity of unity
Much of what the Civic Alliance and UNAB have achieved was unthinkable before 2018. Both structures now have international recognition and their national recognition is continuing to grow, but they have also had to deal with the backwardness of Nicaraguan political culture, marked by caudillismo, inexperience with debate and constructive argumentation, the temptation to resort to violence, magical thinking and, above all, exclusionary sectarianism. On top of this, the country had only a very brief and incipient experience of living in democracy between the half-century Somoza dictatorship and what we have now.
In the Speaking Out section of this issue, pedagogical expert Josefina Vigil analyzes the urgency of reforming the country’s antiquated educational system and the difficulties of doing so. She summed up one such difficulty in the following way: “Many foreigners who know so many brilliant Nicaraguans ask us why we can’t come to an agreement and do something relevant for the country. The answer is that it is hard for us to set aside our personal ideas to assume those of others that are better.”
Communication expert Mildred Largaespada also gives an insight into the Nicaraguan temperament in an ongoing study of Nicaragua’s social networks. One of the findings she reports in her blog is that “there are extremes in both the blue and white and the pro-Ortega communities, which share the same ideas: solving the conflict through violence, hatred of the ‘other,’ anti-democratic ideas...”
Considering the gross human rights violations and all this cultural baggage, it has been a gigantic enterprise for the Alliance and UNAB to achieve what they announced on February 25.
The challenge of
The Ortega-Murillo regime and certain political groups on the other side have wanted to present the current dilemma as an ideological struggle between Right and Left. But the Alliance and UNAB understand that it is a struggle between democracy and dictatorship that necessarily includes the broadest spectrum of Nicaraguan society.
Some opposing groups—or groups that claim opposition while consciously or unconsciously following government-disseminated propaganda—rail that the coalition should exclude “leftists,” anyone who still uses the name “Sandinista,” people who were officials in the revolutionary government of the eighties, or anybody who made alliances with Ortega at some point in the past (all of which applies to the MRS).
The group that is most insistent on this point is the Citizens for Liberty ( (CxL) party. Although it is a member of the Civic Alliance, the CxL did not sign the National Coalition proclamation on February 25 because it opposes the presence of the MRS in that coalition. In addition, a recently-created center-right group headed by the old Conservatives Noel Vidaurre and Alfredo César, has also made anti-leftism its banner of struggle.
“There are no
saints without a past”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, leftist groups with equally strong emotional baggage reject any participation from those who benefited from the Ortega dictatorship before April, claiming that they are trying to muscle in and run things. They are specifically referring to the big business sector and people who belong or belonged to former President Arnoldo Alemán’s PLC given that its pact with Ortega 20 years ago allowed the FSLN to return to power.
The Campesino Movement is a counterweight to reservations about the PLC, arguing that Liberalism has always been in the majority in rural
zones, independent of the leader or the party initials that dominate at any given moment.
Freddy Navas, a rural leader who spent eight months as a political prisoner following the protests of 2018, formulated a “law” demonstrating the pluralism needed in these times: There is no saint without a past or preacher without a future.”
On another corner of this plural stage are the youths who shook the country awake with their courage and determination in April 2018. Independent of their family political allegiances, they have little use for Left/Right pigeonholing and find the ideological dispute alien. Not without their own emotional baggage they disqualify, what they see as a fight among “dinosaurs” who defend what the young people disparagingly call “adultism,” which, like any other “ism,” can become dogma, in which adults dismiss young people as having no opinions of real merit due to their lack of experienced.
“He can only be beaten
by differences united”
The social networks have been the preferred platform for excluding, disqualifying, and anathematizing. But some educate. Pedro Molina, Nicaragua’s internationally acclaimed cartoonist, struggles on a daily basis against the exclusionary tendencies on the networks. As he is wont to say, “The important thing isn’t what that person was, but what we are at this moment, what we have decided to be and what we can do. And that goes for everybody.”
And Fabián Medina, one of Nica¬ragua’s best journalists, insists in one form or another every week on the need for the broadest and most inclusive opposition unity possible. His mantra is that “Daniel Ortega can only be beaten by differences united, not by equals separated.”
The greatest consensus
achieved to date
The most important strategic consensus reached so far in the niche of unity against the dictatorship is the Pro Electoral Reforms Bloc, an unprecedented unitary initiative. The list of its proponents includes the Civic Alliance, UNAB, the Electoral Reform Promotion Group (a movement created in 2002), the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), and four political parties that still have their legal status: the PLC, Yatama, CxL and PRD, only the first two of which currently have representatives in the National Assembly.
Over the course of February, the Bloc sent the regime three communiques reporting on the consensus reached on very concrete proposals to reform the electoral system. Without saying it in so many words, the Bloc is presenting itself as the interlocutor with which Ortega must negotiate the reforms required to ensure a credible electoral event. There is “full agreement” within the bloc that the OAS must also participate in the discussion and implementation of the reforms.
And the OAS …?
OAS involvement is necessary, but Gonzalo Koncke, Secretary General Almagro’s cabinet chief, says Ortega has not requested any technical support agreement from the OAS for the electoral reforms he announced would be implemented this year. For his part, Félix Maradiaga, a member of UNAB’s Political Council, reported that the OAS has assured them it will not agree to reforms done bilaterally with Ortega.
Before the April 2018 uprising it was planned for the reforms to come out of a three-year bilateral “memorandum of understanding” signed on February 28, 2017, between the OAS General Secretariat and the regime to “strengthen the electoral institutionality and the political party system.” Ortega had agreed to this under pressure after receiving a never-released report from the OAS in October 2016 about the deficiencies of Nicaragua’s electoral system.
The only part of the memorandum Ortega ever complied with was to permit an OAS mission to “accompany” Nicaragua’s November 2017 municipal elections, which the OAS endorsed but unofficial national observes defined as fraudulent. When the April 2018 civic insurrection occurred over a year after the memorandum was signed, all prior commitments were consigned to oblivion.
With the memorandum’s February 2020 expiration date now behind us, Ortega has neither moved to renew it nor bothered to announce its demise. For the moment at least, the OAS is out of the marathon…
“We won’t go into elections
without fair conditions”
In addition to the chronic lack of legal conditions and procedures to permit a fair electoral race in Nicaragua, there’s not even a minimal climate that would encourage fairness. The police State imposed by the regime has forbidden any protest of any size in the streets since last September. Its agents also stalk anyplace where opponents might meet and follow, photograph, note down the license plates of and even have been known to shoot at people who try to meet up…
It is not only a police State, but also a parapolice State. The armed and unpunished paramilitaries ubiquitous in 2018 are still active, if less visible. And the danger they represent has been bolstered by the 5,573 common criminals the regime released from prison on four different occasions in 2019, thus increasing the possibility of criminal acts, whether committed individually or in complicity with the paramilitaries. Some analysts say this huge number of released prisoners with criminal records has increased the crime rate around the country.
What kind of electoral campaign can be run in such a setting? Not even the most profound electoral reforms will be enough if the dictatorship doesn’t return and enforce the popula¬tion’s constitutional rights to mobilize, gather, organize and campaign.
“We won’t go to the elections without fair conditions,” say members of the Alliance and UNAB, letting it be understood that the National Coalition isn’t just about hammering out the reforms needed to go to the elections. It’s also about deciding as a mass of people whether or not to participate.
And the Army?
The Army of Nicaragua could make a major contribution to guaranteeing the electoral process by disarming the paramilitaries, but has shown no willingness to assume that task although the Constitution obliges it to do so by establishing that there can only be two armed forces: the Army and the Police.
On February 21, General Julio César Avilés, ratified by Ortega for an unprecedented third five-year term as the head of the Army, swore to “comply with the Constitution.” In his long speech, in which he provided extensive information about his institution’s administration of a variety of topics, he made no reference to the political crisis. Last September, in contrast, on the anniversary of the Army’s founding, he endorsed Ortega’s version of a “coup d’état,” earning him strong criticism in the independent media.
In search of a better image
The Army has been in the sights of various national sectors that are calling on the US to sanction some of its members for their complicity in the human rights crisis that has bloodied the country. The institution has also been cited for its commission or omission in the selective killing of 30 government opponents in the country’s northern rural area (22 of them in Jinotega) documented by the Nicaraguan Human Rights Nunca+ Collective. This group of exiled Nicaraguan human rights lawyers, now working out of Costa Rica, presented the figure in a report to the IACHR last September. The Army’s response was unusually aggressive toward the collective.
The Army’s Ecological Battalion has also been fingered for its failure to intervene in the ongoing merciless plundering of precious wood in the Bosawás Reserve and frequent attacks by settlers on the Mayangna and Miskitu communities in the Caribbean region, the original and now titled owners of the land. When a group of 80 armed mestizo settlers attacked the community of Alal at the edge of the reserve’s nucleus in the Mayangnas’ Sauni As territory on January 29, 2020, killing four residents, gravely wounding two more and torching 16 houses, the pastoral house, the health center and the school, the Army didn’t even provide information about this criminal act, much less go after its perpetrators.
For its part, the police published contradictory communiques. The day after the attack it mentioned two homicides, but the following day it had “verified” on the ground that there were no deaths. Then on February 1 it had to recognize having found four bodies. Only on February 2 did it refer to a band of men attacking the community. Days later, the police presented the only suspected member of the band. The reports by the attacked community itself, and its photos of dead members are the only thing that forced the police to acknowledge what had happened. One of the wounded lost mobility on the left side of his body and the family denounced the deficient treatment received in the Managua hospital to which he was transferred. The attack was the most serious in a systematic process by settlers to push the indigenous communities off their own land, and apparently enjoys the complicity of the regime’s armed and civil institutions.
Such behavior notwithstanding, the Army is determined to improve its image. It has reactivated the meetings it held years ago—a legacy of the administration of General Omar Halle¬slevens—with farmers and ranchers in the north and some Liberal mayors of what was known as the “Contra Corridor” in that area to guarantee them security against crime
It is also helping to improve its relations with other armies of the region. At a January 20-23 meeting held in Managua with the military intelligence chiefs of Mexico, Central Amer¬ica and the US Southern Command, the Army of Nicaragua got them to express public acknowledgement of Nicaragua’s military leadership in security policies and actions.
of February 21
In this context, the expensive formality of the event held on February 21 to honor the Army and its chief—who will have been in that post 15 years if he completes this term—included Ortega ordering a national TV hook-up for hours as a way of reminding the citizenry that all the weapons are on his side. It’s not as though Nicaraguans need reminding; that very fact makes Ortega’s accusation that the massive street protests of April and May 2018 were a coup attempt ludicrous.
For his part, General Avilés’ exceedingly long enumeration of his successes in the fight against drug trafficking and the detention of illegals—“Nicaragua continues to be the safest”—was a message to the United States that it must not “touch” the military officers, because they are what guarantees the country’s stability.
These were various implicit and explicit messages that night. But General Avilés didn’t mention the economic crisis or advocate dialogue as a solution to the political one, as the institution has done on previous occasions. Nor did he make any mention of the upcoming electoral process. He did, however, clearly distance himself from the insults, accusations and disqualifications against the blue and white opposition in an extensive proclamation written by the Vice President and published shortly before the military activity, epithets she continues launching in her daily midday address to the nation.
“Like the immense majority of our people,” said Avilés that night, “the members of the Army of Nicaragua carry the hope that together we will be able to contribute to the free, dignified and prosperous Nicaragua we deserve. We all belong to this great house, Nicaragua. We are all brothers. For that reason, we must know how to tolerate, to set aside hatred, which only brings harm, and understand that it is best to live together in harmony and peace.”
“The deluge has come”
This pseudo-poetic fragment of the vitriol the general was trying to disassociate himself from is taken from the Vice President’s noon message on February 24, the day before the formal announcement creating the National Commission.
“We will never forget. We will never erase the images of the depravation of the Soul! Pure narcissism and perversion. The torment was declared. The Furies were heard. All the devils came out of their hiding places in a rusted satanic riot, obtuse, grotesque, real but unreal, evil, rehearsed, fabricated, with their cargo of Fakes, of falsehoods, in the obscure, pitch black corridors of extravagance and madness. The deluge came and the Heavens thundered without Angels. The dementia made its particular procession. And we saw them and we saw them and see them in Memory, ridiculous devils, demonic eyes, black, colorless, with lances, caldrons and tantrums, trained to assault and kill, in the name of an unknown God.”
An electoral process
in peace and harmony?
What has peace meant during the last two years? Only silencing and eliminating… Will the electoral process be one of peace and harmony? What role will the Army play to ensure there is peace before, during and after voting? And what role will it play if the results go against Ortega?
“I’m certain the Army will respect the Constitution and the results of the elections, even if they don’t favor Ortega,” security expert Roberto Cajina told La Prensa, “because the country’s stability and its own survival as an institution are at stake. They must already be analyzing the political cost of whatever action they decide to take.”
Bait for division
The starting gun has only just sounded and it will be many months before we learn the results of this marathon. Ortega has the luxury of delaying the electoral reforms to the maximum, modifying them at the last minute according to his needs and desires, depending on how much national or international pressure he is feeling. He will wait to see what divisions develop in the National Coalition and will surely do everything he can to promote them.
Shortly before the announcement by the National Coalition on February 25, the digital publication “Artículo 66” quoted a “source close to the regime” as saying that at some unspecified time “Ortega will release three electoral reform points with which he will try to sell the image of plurality and flexibility, but which will just be bait, a trap to disperse the vote against him.”
The three points are: 1) issuing legal status to numerous new political parties or movements; 2) accepting the registration of legislative candidates by popular petition so they can compete if they can present 5,000 signatures without being linked to any party; and 3) providing state financing to political parties before the elections rather than according to how many votes they obtained, as is currently the case.
With respect to this bait, José Antonio Peraza told envío, “Ortega is surely going to do two things: divide the opposition by creating more political candidates, and foster abstention through fear and disparaging the opposition. All options are open to him. Division and abstention must be avoided at all cost. With unity and organizing in the opposition, with more or less acceptable conditions, and with people who know what needs to be done in the electoral terrain, there’s no way we can lose. We’re in turbulent waters and only patriotism and wisdom will get us across this sea of troubles.”
Will we make it to the elections?
If Ortega sees that his bait isn’t working and encounters solid unity in the Coalition’s lane, there’s nothing to stop him from cancelling the elections and abruptly ending the marathon. He can do it.
He won’t compete if he sees he’s going to lose, and he knows he’ll lose if he competes fairly. Ortega is fully aware that he was defeated in April and May 2018, when hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans clearly demonstrated as much by marching through the streets all over the country. Now, another far more complex marathon has started to remind him of that lesson.