The virus changed everything …
ged everything throughout the world,
dramatically highlighting the need for a State
and why the market is no substitute.
In Nicaragua, the pandemic has revealed the risks
Ortega and Murillo are willing to expose society to
by prioritizing money over life,
as the economic crisis they are responsible for
is the main threat to their ever more insecure power.
The virus has also shown the value of people’s mobilization
as Nicaraguans have again taken independent action
to defend life in clear opposition to the government.
The COVID-19 virus has drastically changed personal, famlily, national and global plans everywhere, and those of the Ortega regime have been no exception. In recent months the government had been going to greater lengths to stabilize an economy that has been in a tailspin for two years now, recognizing this as the only way to stay in power.
Like everyone else, Nicaraguans are being bombarded in real time by international news about the virus—some reliable, some not—via the social media. The lack of transparent information from their own government and its absolute lack of leadership in promoting protective policies—in fact the repeated ordering of social gathering by their own supporter—are as mind-boggling as are the parallels with the US President’s own behavior.
Left to its own devices, a significant part of the population has therefore decided to take its own precautionary measures. While that ad hoc partial response is far better than nothing, at least for those engaged in it, it is no substitute for a government with the courage and the humanity to join the population and applying these measures full scale. As all other cases around the world have shown, doing so makes it possible to get a firmer and faster grip on both the health crisis and the economic one rather then leaving both to drag out in slow motion, doing far greater harm.
Ortega’s remaining allies are also suffering extremely serious problems because the main sources of their income have also been wracked by the effects of the pandemic: in Venezuela by plummeting oil prices and in Cuba by plummeting tourism.
March was a rough month
March was tense and intense in Nicaragua. Just as the first cases of the pandemic were identified, the main instrument of the regime’s repressive policy took a heavy hit: Washington sanctioned the entire National Police as an institution, describing it as a criminal organization and human rights violator. Three of its top commanders were also sanctioned.
Shortly after, Ortega’s great ally, Nicolás Maduro, was slapped with charges of drug trafficking and international terrorism in the US courts. In a penal allegation that encompasses more than a dozen figures from Maduro’s upper echelons, Nicaragua appears as a route for the tons of cocaine Vene¬zuela’s Los Soles cartel has been sending northward from Caracas.
Determined to nail down his reelection in the Republican convention with the key votes of delegates in Florida, where Venezuelan exiles have formed a powerful lobby, President Trump has thus aggravated even further Venezuela’s tragic humanitarian crisis.
“We won’t close our borders”
A brief chronological summary of everything Nicaragua lived through in March is in order.
At the end of February, before the coronavirus epidemic still lashing China had been upgraded to a pandemic, some countries had already decreed quarantines and were controlling their borders given worrying signs of health systems being saturated by infected patients and a death toll climbing into the thousands … In neighboring El Salvador the government was among the first to act energetically, as described in the article on that country in this issue.
Nicaragua’s first official governmental information came on February 29, when former health minister Sonia Castro announced the “measures” our government would adopt: in a word, none. Nicaragua would not close its borders to anyone, no matter where they were coming from, would not establish any migratory restrictions and would not impose any type of quarantine on anyone.
Hardly anyone paid any attention to her disconcerting announcement, perhaps because it was Castro who sent out the order in April 2018 for the public health system not to treat any wounded protester. That callousness earned her a place on the list of Nicaraguan government officials sanctioned by Washington. Others paid no attention because they were more concerned with other issues and weren’t yet even aware that a highly contagious virus was inexorably moving through the world, encountering no natural immunity as it went.
“It hurts us to breathe”
On March 1, the universally renowned Nicaraguan poet and revolutionary priest Ernesto Cardenal died at 95. As minister of culture during the revolutionary government of the 1980s he had been suspended from his priestly ministry by Pope John Paul II, a punishment only lifted by Pope Francis a year before Cardenal’s death. Disillusioned by the his party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), he left in 1994 and publicly denounced its corruption and loss of Sandinista values.
While decreeing a three-day period of mourning, the Vice President’s office also sent dozens of pro-Ortega fanatics to disrupt the poet’s funeral Mass on March 3 in Managua’s Cathedral. This mean and violent act, in which the riled mob shouted that Cardenal was a “traitor” and beat several journalists, made the international news. Three nights later, to avoid a repetition of that travesty, the poet’s ashes were buried by very close friends in a clandestine ceremony on Mancarrón, the island in Lake Nicara¬gua’s Solen-tiname Archipelago where he encouraged the unique primitive art he found residents doing there.
Cardenal left an extensive poem titled “With the door closed” that he had hoped to publish before his death. In two of its verses he invoked 15-year-old Álvaro Conrado, who died on April 20, 2018, from a sniper’s bullet to the neck while simply taking water to protestors at the National Engineering University. Recalling the boy’s last words—”it hurts to breathe”—Carde¬nal wrote: “It hurts all of us in the country to breathe / the entire country in the hands of a mad woman… / and a President governed by her …”
Cardenal spent much of his later life as a kind of Nicaraguan “ambassador” in the many countries where he was invited to read his poems. Starting in 2015, he would repeat these words: “The world needs to know what is happening in Nicaragua.” He was one of the first to alert the international community to the absolute control Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo have over the state institutions, a control so harmful that it is now a danger to the entire population’s health.
“A grain of justice”
The country was still reacting to the shocking scenes at Cardenal’s funeral Mass when on March 5 the US Treasury Department announced it was sanctioning three more top police officers and the entire institution to boot. The United States had previously sanctioned 15 of the regime’s high-level officials and ruling family members as well as five of the family’s most lucrative businesses, but the National Police of Nicaragua was the first state institution to be touched.
A Treasury Department press release on that date explains that the sanction applied to what it refers to as the NNP was for:
“…being responsible or complicit in, or responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, or having knowingly participated in, directly or indirectly, significant acts of violence or conduct that constitutes a serious abuse or violation of human rights against persons associated with the protests in Nicaragua which began on April 18, 2018.
“The NNP is responsible for using live ammunition against peaceful protesters and participating in death squads, as well as carrying out extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and kidnappings.
“Since the start of political unrest in 2018, the NNP and parapolice have conducted kidnappings and targeted executions of opposition political leaders. According to public statements from senior NNP officials, the parapolice, a volunteer paramilitary group that are often comprised of plain clothed NNP officers, operate at the direction of the NNP with impunity. In July 2018, the NNP and parapolice conducted ‘Operation Clean Up’ to crackdown on protesters and dismantle road barricades, which resulted in roughly 100 deaths.”
Was the sanction of the Police also a warning shot across the Army’s bow? While some analysts believe it was, others insist that the Army as an institution isn’t perceived either in the United States or in the European Union as responsible for the extremely serious human rights violations we’ve seen in Nicaragua.
The population that has seen up close the crimes and outrages the Police has committed all over the country supported and even applauded the sanction. Elizeth Cruz, whose nephew Michael Cruz was one of the first youths gunned down by police officers on April 20, says that the sanctions made her feel that “a grain of justice” had been achieved.
The same Executive Order 13851 and the same Magnitsky Act (human rights and anti-corruption law) sanctioned three police commissioners general: Juan Valle Valle, Luis Alberto Pérez Olivas and Justo Pastor Urbina. The sanctioning of the latter two was requested by Human Rights Watch, whose director, José Miguel Vivanco, called them “sinister characters.”
Valle Valle is in charge of patrolling the capital and hence the regime’s fierce police control of Managua. Pastor Urbina is the chief of the Special Ops Division (DOEP), which includes the black-uniformed anti-riot police, with their shields, helmets and weapons of war, who guarantee today’s police State. Acting virtually like an occupation army, they now block, attack or lay siege to any expression of opposition whatever. The DOEP is the unit that has grown most since the grassroots uprising of April 2018, and according to the US Treasury Dept. press release “continues to play a central role in the repression throughout the country.”
Pérez Olivas heads up the judicial Assistance Directorate, and is also the director of El Chipote prison, “known for abusive practices where human rights organizations have recorded serious abuses since April 2018,” as the press release explains. It adds that “there have been allegations of torture, rape, electrocution, lacerations with barbed wire, strangulation, and beating with steel tubes. A protestor held at El Chipote stated that masked men hung him from the ceiling and beat him with baseball bats, tubes,and guns for two days. Afterward, he said he was taken to a masked man who he recognized by voice and build as Perez Olivas, who forced him to film a confession implicating other protesters.” Pérez Olivas is also responsible for fabricating evidence of crimes to convict political prisoners in rigged court trials.
The young Marco Novoa, brutally tortured in May 2018 in a clandestine prison, who was saved from death by having US citizenship, was the first to speak publicly about the sexual humiliations he was subjected to. He recently said on the “Café con Voz” TV program that he saw Pérez Olivas with his own eyes “at the head of his subordinates” directing the clandestine prison Novoa was taken to. Novoa saw various people raped and killed and learned that there were several such jails “and also common graves.” Everyone there knew they were under Pérez Olivas’ orders.
Will they have any effect
on the repression?
The sanctions on the National Police put it in the company of a number of inotorious criminal organizations sanctioned by Washington. Among others, it joins Iran’s police institution, which suffered the same fate in 2011.
The sanction has political and financial consequences. The day after the Treasury Department issued the order, the national banks withdrew all Police funds. Without bank accounts, the more than 17,000 police officers and other employees had to receive their salaries in cash. None of them are eligible for visas to visit the United States and any previously-issued visas are now invalid.
On March 23, the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (CABEI) let the Police know it had been forced to withhold the remaining US$17.6 million of a larger loan approved for the armed institution in 2014 for a project to “expand the rural coverage of the Police to strengthen citizen security.” Back in 2019, when calls were made to the CABEI cancel the loan as the beneficiary institution is the main instrument of the dictator¬ship’s repression, it declared it was “apolitical” and said the Police was meeting the loan’s requirements. Now, it had no choice but to cut off the rest of the loan, as maintaining any financial relationship with a sanctioned individual or institution opens it to the same sanction, which would put at risk the bank’s funds in the international financial system.
The regime assimilated the consequences of the sanction in total silence. Ortega’s only reaction was to send the National Assembly for fast-track approval a decree transferring to the presidency administrative control of the Institute of Social Security and Human Development (ISSDHU), previously in Police hands. The ISSDHU contains the pension funds for the personnel of the Ministry of Government, the Police, the Penitentiary System and the Volunteer Fire¬fighters. Although Ortega now administers the institute, three police chiefs remain on its board. It remains to be seen whether this legal change will save the ISSDHU from future Washington sanctions. And while the financial repercussions are clear, only time will tell just how much the sanction will affect this armed institution’s repressive capacity.
Then came the day COVID 19
was declared a pandemic
Meanwhile, the new form of corona¬virus began moving through Europe and crossed the pond to the American continent.
On March 11, after the World Health Organization (WHO) had been warning for weeks about the need for all countries’ health systems to take “urgent and aggressive measures,” no one in either the regime or the population seemed to get the message. The WHO officially declared a “global pandemic” given the “alarming levels of propagation and gravity and the alarming levels of inaction.”
The power of the word “pandemic” finally shook Nicaragua out of its inaction. A good percentage of the population began to express concern and feel the need for government direction. But the regime reiterated what had already been said days earlier by Sonia Castro: it would take no “aggressive measure.” Claiming, just like Trump, that it didn’t want to foster alarm, it assured it was going to pursue its plans for the population to celebrate Holy Week and enjoy the summer vacations “in union and love,” thus energizing the economy through national and international tourism and higher consumption levels.
The protocol is leaked
What weighed more than the WHO’s March 11 announcement of the pandemic in at least some Nicaraguan circles was a leaked report in the daily e-bulletin Confidencial that had been prepared by Nicaragua’s Ministry of Health back in February and kept secret. The text, titled “Protocol of Preparation and Response to the Coronavirus,” probably drawn up with the help of Cuban epidemiologists, used a mathematic model to project that six months after the virus entered Nicaragua there would be 22,500 affected, 8,125 of them seriously, and 813 would die.
The document—considered genuine—showed that Sonia Castro had chosen her words on February 29 despite the regime knowing the gravity of the epidemic. In other words, it had already decided on its irresponsible strategy: keep information as controlled as possible to maximize normality and thus guarantee the greatest possible stability for the eroded economy since that is the field on which its battle to hang on to power is being waged. The main distinction between that strategy and President Trump’s in the United States is that it was more consistent.
The document was supposed to be presented to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) during its visit to the country. Once it became public, some national epidemiologists considered the figures would fall short if the health system were to become saturated due to the virus’ unusually high contagion rate, not to mention the regi’s decison not to take measures to control it. Nonetheless, PAHO endorsed the document and congratulated the government for it during its visit
“Love in times of COVID 19”
For months now, the regime has been organizing marches every Saturday to show support for the governing couple. While the ruling party’s sympathizers participate by conviction, public employees are also forced to turn up to bolster the numbers. For hours, hundreds of people walk together along a major Managua avenue under the blazing afternoon sun and fewer do so in some departmental capitals.
On March 13, even with the virus now officially a world pandemic and the leaked official docuent’s projected 22,500 cases public knowledge, Vice President Murillo called another march for the next day “ in solidarity with those in the world suffering the virus’ effects.” She called it “Love in Times of Covid-19,” a play on the García Márquez’s novel Love in times of Cholera.
It was not only larger than any other but also more festive in a macabre sort of way. Several carnival-esque carriages carrying men and women dressed as doctors and nurses accompanied the agglomeration of marchers waving FSLN flags and maintaining zero physical distance. One carriage featured a “patient” on a gurney.…
Come gather together
That very afternoon another large number of people attended the wedding celebration of the ruling couple’s grandson, Rafael Ortega Jr., at an exclusive center in the capital. Almost exactly a month earlier, the couple’s eldest daughter Camila had also married in a luxurious event in a Managua convention center. No distancing in either case.
That same weekend Murillo announced that in the coming weeks there would be “more than 2,800 religious, sports, recreational, cultural, gastronomic and touristic events in this Nicaragua that, as we say with pride, is all sweetness and lives full of love, promoting peace and good.” The government said it would promote international and national tourism to fill the beaches, with fairs of all kinds and massive musical events to celebrate the arrival of summer.
Also in those same days a cruise ship carrying European tourists arrived, and little children were sent to welcome them with hugs.
The regime compounded its irre¬sponsibity by assuring its own rank-and-file that “there is no virus in the country,” that it’s a hoax “fabricated by the United States,” that “Cuba has the vaccine,” and that “God is going to protect us.” Any similarity between these demonstrations of the danger and grief to which the regime was prepared to expose “sweet” Nicaragua and Trump announcing he wanted to see the churches “packed” on Easter Sunday and also calling the virus scare a hoax is purely coincidental… other than the shared determination to put dollars before lives.
comes from outside”
The night of Wednesday, March 18, only days after these large gatherings of both the pro-Ortega elite and the FSLN rank-and-file, the Vice President announced the country’s first corona¬virus case in one of her habitual wordy messages. He was a 40-year-old man who had been in Panama and began to experience symptoms the day after returning. Murillo remarked that he had been infected “in another country” to reinforce the idea she has since maintained regarding the few other reported cases, as if that means the virus isn’t spreading internally. The logic of that falsely reassuring argument is belied by the fact that the government hasn’t even tried to close its borders, something at least Trump did do..
The independent media quickly learned that this first recognized case was an active Nicaraguan Army officer. Based on the dates of his trip, national epidemiologists believe he could have contracted the virus in this country.
But recognition of the first confirmed case did not lead the government to rectify its behavior. The very next day a “multi-threat simulation” was programmed for the public schools to teach students how to deal with an earthquake followed by a tsunami and what to do if there is a volcanic eruption. It was an extension of an oft-repeated topic in the Vice President’s daily noontime talks, a valuable public service. But the simulation was not quickly amended to teach students how to prevent and respond to the spread of the pandemic. Worse yet, thousands of public employees all over the country gathered together for hours to participate in the simulation.
The second reported
case was much dicier
On March 20, two days after reporting the first case, Murillo announced a second one: a man who had traveled to Colombia and supposedly contracted the virus there. Again she reinforced the idea that the virus doesn’t exist in Nicaragua; it just lurks outside its borders… How many people were lulled into believing they would be safe if they didn’t travel? But what about all those foreign tourists the government was at the same time enticing to either come to or move around in the country with promises of packed Easter Week activities?
Murillo also specified that the second victim had hypertension, diabetes and HIV, and that “this condition of immunodeficiency puts him at greater risk.” The next evening the man’s housekeeper was tested for possible contagion. As she was given no information about the results she left the hospital and promptly reported on Facebook a piece of information Murillo had left out: her boss was the owner of an exclusive beauty salon frequented by the presidential circle and had reportedly styled the hair of some who attended the wedding only days earlier.
“To the street!”
Still bent on promoting physical approximation rather than distancing, the Vice President next announced that on March 21 and 22 more than 400,000 governing party activists would start making house to house visits all over the country “to educate ourselves together, to love each other together and to take care of ourselves together.” Health professionals promptly denounced the idea as a new way to spread the virus.
Dark as it may sound, this idea may have been a way for a regime determined to control everything at all times to learn firsthand how the virus is spreading, or to test acceptance of its message about “normality” and “no cause for alarm” spread by its media and spokespeople. One of the latter enthusiastically raised the rallying cry, “No one at home; to the street, to the street!”
An invisible enemy vs.
an irresponsible dictatorship
It was in this opaque and risk-filled way that Nicaragua entered the new uncertain and global times that human civilization is experiencing as the result of miniscule viruses, which have inhabited the Earth for millions of years but have been known by us for hardly more than a century. These minimal infectious agents need to be housed in animals—us, for example—to reproduce and demonstrate that they too exist. As they have done once or twice in the past, they are also demonstrating to us—all over the planet at the same time—that they can change everything.
The dictatorship’s irresponsibility, its prioritizing of normality in abnormal times to avoid the final collapse of the economy has put Nicaragua at extreme risk. While other countries, some faster than others, are taking preventive, mitigating or at least slowing measures to try to “flatten the curve,” the Ortega-Murillo regime has propagated the virus. Taking protective measures in Nicaragua is ridiculed and in some cases prohibited. Where other countries are closing schools and urging people to stay home, Nicaragua’s public schools are still open and people are urged into the streets, the more the better.
“If they aren’t going
to take care of us...”
For all these reasons, following hot on the heels of Murillo’s announcement of the first confirmed case, people began to grasp that an invisible and grave danger was lying in wait. Within a week over half the population, having lacked any confidence in government insti¬tutions for a long time and now feeling completely defenseless, began to act on its own behalf. All over the country supermarkets and pharmacies quickly filled with customers and their shelves emptied.
Social organizations, private enterprise, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the blue and white opposition’s incipient National Coalition, parish priests and bishops, and the independent traditional a media all began to disseminate information and advice. On the social media, Nicara¬gua’s highly experienced epidemiologists provided the population with scientific explanations about the extreme seriousness of this virus. They particularly emphasized the exceptional nature and pervasiveness of its propagation and the best ways to combat it: frequent hand washing and physical distancing.
With surprising alacrity, the population began assimilating the information and processing the risk they were being exposed to. Soon individuals, families, businesses and NGOs decided that “If they aren’t going to take care of us, we’ll do it ourselves.”
The Catholic Church cancelled Holy Week processions. Evangelical churches cancelled their services. Without any official quarantine order, 40% of businesses and 60% of NGOs decided to work from home. Private universities and schools suspended classes even though the regime initially forbade them to do so. As the regime continued calling massive meetings one after another, the public began to suspend any involving more than 10 persons. And as the regime insisted there would be no quarantine for anyone, people began to stay in their homes. Traffic in Managua reduced significantly and the streets of the municipalities began to empty… In some supermarkets workers cleaned the handles of shopping carts with alcohol for customers and enforced the recommended 6-foot separation between people at the check-out counters.
Trust has been lost
One factor that has helped mobilize collective fear is the distrust of any information provided by the regime, which is inevitably centralized in the Vice President who communicates it in her classic “affectionate” soft voice, then impersonally orders some health official to implement it.
Most other governments in the world very quickly began providing information responsibly and transparently. They don’t just report on prevention measures, but also provide exact figures of infected cases, serious cases, deaths… Meanwhile, scientists and infectious disease experts appear on news programs reporting the latest discoveries and rectifications of earlier assumptions, conscious that public knowledge has never been more crucial.
Most heads of State have felt the obligation to appear in charge, even when overwhelmed by the tidal wave that has crashed on their shores. They hold frequent press briefings, showing their face to their people. But not Nicaragua’s ruling couple. The last time they have even been glimpsed were in the videos of their grandson’s wedding in mid-March. Not once have they appeared on camera to reassure the population that the government is working on solutions, taking measures, or even that it cares… The regime’s model over many years has reached an extreme in the pandemic: “an absent President and an omnipresent Vice President,” as journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro often describes it. But even Murillo’s noontime messages are by phone. Ortega’s absence in particular has not gone unnoticed among a population deprived of information and short on confidence; speculative rumors about the state of his health have become as contagious as the virus itself.
Trying to control
Transparent information is a key element to confronting this or any other epidemic, as the Nicaraguan government was told by Taiwan’s diplomatic representation in Managua on March 12. But the regime paid no attention to the counsel of one of the countries that has provided it significant loans and donations.
For over a decade, Nicaragua’s institutions have not been updating their information and as a result, on those rare occasions that official information is provided on issues of public interest, it isn’t credible. In line with this sustained official logic, anything referring to the pandemic must be screened or preferably sheathed in secrecy. The little that comes out the other side is opaque and controlled.
Aggravating the current situation even more, only the Ministry of Health (MINSA) has the tests to determine if an individual is infected with the virus. That facilitates the regime centralizing the most basic information and controlling what if anything is made public. “It is handled at the level of a state secret,” say medical sources who are threatened with losing their job in the public system if they reveal what is really happening in the hospitals and health centers. If they speak at all, it is on absolute assurances of anonymity. Again inevitably, this means that real news is mixed with rumors, speculation and exaggerations motivated by fear and sensationalism.
The private sector has insisted that the government authorize private hospitals and laboratories to acquire the reagents to diagnose the virus, but the government is resisting, even though it would mean more people could be tested more quickly. Apparently, maintaining absolute control of the information is more important to the government than streamlining the testing to produce a credible picture of how the situation is unfolding.
THE LACK OF OFFICIAL INFORMATION IN FIGURES
A study on official public information by the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation in Nicaragua, released on March 10, revealed how absent it is. The study reviewed the available information of 65 state institutions and found that only 57 even have a web page, of which only 26 have a link to the Office of Information Access, established in the Public Information Access Law (Law 621) approved 14 years ago. The researchers made 59 on-line requests for information to those that do have the link, and only received 3 responses. The study also verified a prevalence of propaganda in favor of the governing party in the institutional web pages. Only three pages provide even the basic information the law demands: the National Assembly, the Central Bank and the Ministry of Labor. It further verified that although Nicaragua has one of the best laws on public access to information, the lack of compliance means it isn’t worth the paper it is written on.
There’s no capable system
Nicaragua’s health system has been extremely deficient since well before the pandemic. And since April 2018, its limitations only increased following the firing of at least 400 health professionals, including doctors, nurses and even many specialists as revenge for their support of anti-government protests or for simply treating protesters in violation of orders.
The medical associations have asked the government to rehire those fired for political reasons to reinforce a system that will inevitably be overwhelmed in the near future, but such calls have fallen on deaf ears.
The Nicaraguan State annually invests an average of US$190 per capita in the public health system. In Costa Rica the investment is US$1,400. Although no official information is available, some medical sources have said that there are at most 150 ventilators in the entire country to save the life of those who suffer complications in the serious phase of this illness, which consists typically of pneumonia due to pulmonary fibrosis.
prevalence of pneumonia
From Ireland, Nicaraguan epidemiologist Álvaro Ramírez told La Prensa on March 29 that “no official has been able to say how many artificial respirators they have. They only say ‘we’re prepared.’ Moreover, the key to clinical management of infected patients is x-rays, because they are what will determine the patient’s pneumonia level. How many x-ray machines do we have ready and functioning? No one has said.”
The regime could cover up the number of coronavirus deaths given the frequency of pneumonia cases in Nicaragua. According to MINSA’s monthly epidemiological bulletin—one of the very few data sources MINSA makes public—pneumonia has been the primary cause of hospitalization in the past three years, with 32,632 cases admitted in 2019, an increase of 4,749 over 2018. The bulletin—itself also now suspended for obvious reasons—shows that between the start of 2020, while the corona¬virus was still a distant problem, and March 7, a total of 17,421 pneumonia cases had already been hospitalized, 53 of them resulting in death.
In the current conditions, the public health system isn’t and won’t be prepared to deal with the “surge” generated by the pandemic. Its exponential growth will almost certainly cause an unstoppably steep curve resulting at least in part from the regime’s culpable denial of reality.
Why such total irresponsibility?
Why are Ortega and Murillo acting like this? Why such “total irresponsibility that it has produced an international scandal,” as the Human Rights Watch director put it?
One theory is that, like typical authoritarian regimes, they are banking on being able to turn the crisis to their advantage, believing they can control it and come out “victorious” and legitimated.
Another factor is the stubborn denial of reality Ortega and his circle have habitually been practicing ever since April 2018 CNN’s Andrés Oppenheimer interviewed Ortega on July 1, 2018, near the end of the massacre euphemistically known as Operation Clean-up. “There is a bloodbath in this country,” Oppenheimer told him. “How do you respond to those who say your government is responsible?” Ortega’s answer was that “here they have invented a quantity of dead.” Will he now say that “they” will invent a quantity of infected…? Ortega was even chosen by CNN in Spanish to appear as he emblematic poster boy in a trailer about its coverage of changes in Latin America, referring to the persistence of “abuse of power” and the failure of the “powerful” to accept responsibility for its results.
Normality and the economy
Leaving aside for a moment the tragic scope the ruling couple’s messianic conviction could acquire, the virus has suddenly changed two interrelated objectives the regime has tried to maintain after the human rights crisis it provoked in April 2018: normality and economic recovery.
As of September 2018, once the rampant killing ended and public demonstrations were prohibited, Ortega sought to instill the idea, both nationally and internationally, that everything is again “normal” in Nicaragua. Now, this invisible infectious agent has demonstrated to the world that normality is impossible, not only here but everywhere. Never have we lived in a world so interconnected not only by technology but also by similar hopes, anxieties, fears and grief. And also by a virus.
In recent months, after nearly two years of continual recession, Nicara¬gua’s declining economy began showing signs of improvement the regime trusted: exports and remittances from our emigrants in other countries were both up. Now, however, the entire world, or at least the West, faces a pandemic-caused recession that many believe could reach the proportions of 1929 or at least of 2008, and is taking Nicaragua’s economy into a slow-motion collapse.
A number of the 187 free trade zone assembly plants that provide jobs to some 125,000 people, a majority of them women, are now closing or at least suspending operations because they aren’t receiving inputs and the sharp drop in consumption in the US, their key market, has drastically reduced the demand for what they produce, which in 60% of these companies is apparel. The first evidence of what was to come was a shortage of thread and other raw materials from China and a drop in clothing orders for the spring and summer season in the United States.
By February 2020, two companies had closed, affecting at least 1,500 workers. Once the pandemic had spread to the United States, two larger plants closed their doors at least temporarily, affecting another 9,300 workers. Then on March 29, the Japanese company Yazaki, the country’s largest free trade operation, which manufactures automotive harnesses in five plants in León and Chinandega, suspended its operations, sending 10,000 workers home, where they will receive 50% of their salary as long as the emergency lasts. Both Yazaki and another smaller trouser-making plant say they will consider reopening after Easter Week, and will use the down time to redistribute the workers in an effort to help prevent the spread of the virus.
The international prices for Nica¬ragua’s main export products are also going to fall due to the world recession. And it goes virtually without saying that family remittances, above all from the United States, Costa Rica and Spain, will also fall drastically.
Will there be any state help for the 79% of the population that already lives hand to mouth in the informal economy? And given that Nicaragua has no unemployment insurance beyond the severance pay legally required from the company they work for, what will happen to workers who end up laid off in the formal economy?
“Look,” commented the owner of a horse-drawn haulage cart in Mana¬gua indicating the street around him, virtually devoid of activity, “This is a roadblock virus; it has succeeded in imposing the indefinite work stoppage they didn’t want…”
Ideologizing the issue
muddies the waters evenmore
If the economic consequences the pandemic will have in Nicaragua are incalculable and undesired, so are the virus’ political effects. The regime’s spokespersons, whose job description is to fanaticize its shrinking base, are desperately seeking to interpret what is happening in political terms, polarizing society even more, if that is possible. One of these ideologues wrote recently that “the puchos [their disparaging nickname for the blue and white opposition] can’t disguise their desire for the coronavirus to give them a leg up in their efforts to destabilize the economy.”
He denies the presence of the virus in the country and, in what passes for preventive information, warns that when it does enter, “there will be a predisposition in public opinion to blame the government for everything that is happening.” He also considers that creating what he calls “alarmism,” which he attributes to the blue and white for recommending physical distancing, is worse than hiding information—an implicit admission that the regime is doing just that.
Another propaganda line for the party’s rank-and-file is that this virus only affects “rich white people,” ignoring the fact that thousands of people of all hundreds of thousands of people of all social classes, races and skin hues falling to the pandemic around the world. This is the most insidious fiction concocted by the regime for its true believers because while COVID-19 demonstrably does not discriminate by class or race, health and related services and the economic possibilities of riding out all the demands of physical distancing indisputably do.
Although susceptibility to the virus is clearly not about race, Asian thinkers have offered some interesting comments on what they see as cultural differences in how the virus has been approached by both governments and populaces in well-publicized Eastern and Western countries. One of them, the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han, says this pandemic has been controlled more efficiently in Eastern countries with a Confucian tradition, an assumed and accepted authoritarian, collective and obedient culture, which is so different from the predominant culture of the Western countries with their Christian tradition and both humanistic and individualistic values that jealously defend personal privacy and rights.
The fear of losing power
The tragic irony of Nicaragua’s regime, which is so authoritarian that it morphed into a bloody dictatorship, is that it is not acting in an authoritarian or even authoritative manner now, of all times. Unlike President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, it is not adopting the drastic measures that are called for. Our economy has become so fragile and the government has been so caught off guard by what is happening that after so much time centralizing power, with no debate or attempt at national consensus, it only knows how to do one thing: fear losing that power.
As a result, we Nicaraguans have the worst of both worlds: an authoritarian government that claims to be the “people’s presidency” and has the power to impose a lockdown that could save untold numbers of lives but has chosen to actively do the very opposite. It is literally encouraging the exponential propagation of the virus in a country whose health care system is inadequate in the best of times. The only thing it is still doing that is in keeping with its authoritarianism is preventing the citizenry from getting truthful information that would allow it to make informed life and death decisions. As the English language edition of envío closed on April 11, with only eight confirmed cases and one death reported, there were early signs that ignorance was beginning to win out: more people on buses and on the streets and fewer people wearing masks than two weeks earlier.
They are asking for international help
All this ideologized propaganda by the regime’s spokespersons can’t hide the information coming in from outside on international TV channels, Internet, Skype, WhatsApp and so many other social media. A majority of the population therefore knows that Ortega’s political allies—Cuba, Venezuela, Russia—might be painting a rosier picture than reality merits, but even those countries have decreed drastic measures that will negatively affect their economies. And they aren’t doing it without good reason.
How far is the ruling couple prepared to risk the population to save the economy? Or perhaps to obtain international aid? In fact, in mid-March the regime asked for US$70 million from the International Monetary Fund, which provides loans, not humanitarian aid. In this same period, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) announced US$1 million in non-reimbursable financial aid for each country in the region, including Nicaragua, and is mentioning other forms of support to deal with the humanitarian crisis.
Ortega is also asking for loans from the Inter-American Development Bank. And together with Russia, Cuba, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, China and North Korea, he signed a letter asking the United Nations secretary general to intercede with the US and the European governments to lift the sanctions they have imposed on those countries. The letter claims they all are “acting responsibly” with respect to the epidemic, which in Nicaragua’s case could not be more untrue. Could Ortega really be looking to up the ante by deliberately provoking a humanitarian crisis in the hope of foreign aid flooding into the country in a way we haven’t seen since the tragedy of Hurricane Mitch?
The Nicaraguan State has not in fact been affected by sanctions to the same decree as the other signers of the letter, which have naval or trade blockades of various types. The sanctions Nicaragua has received from the United States and partially from Canada only affect the finances of individuals and businesses related to the family in power and certain of its government officials. Even the Nica Act, which weighs so heavily on Nicaragua, has a clause exempting humanitarian aid from the obligatory US negative vote on loan requests to international financial institutions.
All humanitarian aid must be channeled to the countries that need it in this world crisis, Nicaragua included. But in our country’s case, conditions need to be imposed. The Blue and White National Commission made that very clear in a letter to the CABEI, requesting three conditions for the Ortega government: transparency, accountability and information.
“It must be assured,” the Coalition wrote to the bank, “that the funds are used with absolute transparency, supervision and truthful and up-to-date public information about the amounts, uses and destinations of the aid, to avoid it being detoured to finance the repressive activities or highly politicized social programs…. The information must be updated to all press media and web sites of public access.” They also said the accountability “must be certified by a supervisory entity of the bank, which must report monthly.”
Those most affected
Contrary to the government’s line that this is a rich, white man’s virus, the reality is that those most affected are the poor, and statistically speaking, the poor do not tend to be white. Supporting everyone, both individuals and countries, is of maximum urgency today and for some time to come. This support is even more imperative for those who work in the informal econ¬omy and live hand to mouth, and they are the majority in Latin American countries. That is what countries such as Costa Rica and El Salvador are doing with varying modalities.
All these measures challenge those best situated in the economy. On his Facebook page, Ricardo Meléndez, former president of the Chamber of Construction in Nicaragua, writes that “One measure to minimize the impact of the coronavirus on the population is total closure, as other countries ae doing. Can Nicaragua withstand being closed down for 2-4 weeks? What would happen to the 79% of the population that works in the informal sector and lives from what they sell or earn that same day? For a total shutdown that would permit lives to be saved, Nicaragua needs an international rescue plan to help those families that do not have the resources to withstand a closure and to assure that the economy doesn’t collapse.” Melén¬dez takes it for granted that the regime will not renounce anything and will only extend its hand to be “rescued”…
The ideologized pro-government propaganda repeats in videos, messages, memes and various other forms that the “coup-mongers” did their best to destroy the economy in 2018 and now want to finish it off through the call to “stay indoors.”. One message in enormous letters says: “Quarantine: a class privilege.” Accompanying it is an image of a couple selling soft drinks from a cart. While that messages is not a fiction, does it have any other purpose than to demonize those calling for people to stay home and drive the wedge even deeper into the divided population, precisely when what we need is unity of purpose?
Die of the virus
or die of hunger?
In our continent, the only governments that have joined Nicaragua’s in calling the quarantine a “class privilege” and resisted obliging people to “shelter in place” are Mexico and Brazil. Both the Venezuelan and Cuban governments are enforcing lockdown.
In the United States several Republican state governments have sided with Trump in refusing to make that call despite mounting infections in their states. Despite their different public styles, another shared quality between Trump and Ortega is their megalomaniacal skill at creating true believers willing to walk off a cliff if they were asked to. It must be admitted that Trump at least imposed an international travel ban, although endangering hordes of returning citizens by doing so in his typically hasty and unplanned manner..
Comparisons with Trump aside, the country closest to us in geography and culture is Mexico. But if in Nicaragua some 4 million individuals and families live off of what they earn that same day, the number in Mexico is 30 million. In a feature article in the Spanish newspaper El País, a journalist interviewed a number of informal workers who are not staying home. One described with graphic clarity the dilemma he is facing by walking the streets, exposing himself to the virus: “Of course I’m scared, but I can use medicine to resist the coronavirus; I can’t do the same with hunger. We either die of the coronavirus or we die of hunger. You have to choose one.” He doesn’t even have the luxury of choice because with fewer people on the streets he has fewer customers.
In late March, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who at first hugged and kissed people, inviting them to go out into the street and visit restaurants, began to rectify his message, finally calling on people to respect physical distancing. He beat Trump to it by days. At the close of this issue the only other holdout in Latin America was Brazil’s President Bolsonaro, who is paying a high price in political isolation and criticism from his country’s governors.
It is time for unity
It is such a critical time, both for the world and for each country, that all must “join forces.” Nicaragua’s medical professionals are united, doing virtual campaigns and bringing together epidemiologists, pediatricians, experts in infectious diseases and other specialists into a Multidisciplinary Scientific Committee. They are calling on the government to “coordinate immediately with all the nation’s sectors, including civil society, private enterprise, churches and NGOs, to draft and put into effect a ‘rapid reaction plan.’” The Nicaraguan Medical Unit is informing, warning, advising and demanding the same: nationwide coordinated action.
The Liberal Citizens for Liberty (CxL) party is proposing a “multi¬sectoral national table” to hammer out concrete actions, with government and society working together; while in the National Assembly, Nicaragua’s legislative branch, the Constitutionalist Liberal Party is proposing an emergency law.
Every sector of the opposition has unanimously recommended social isolation to prevent the pandemic’s curve from climbing to an unmanageable peak. In one of their messages, the Catholic bishops recommended that their faithful “not listen to the voice of the devil” during Holy Week, leaving it implicit that they were referring to the voice of the regime, which has relentlessly continued to promote all kinds of religious activities that will be organized this year by the municipal governments. The constitutional separation of Church and State is the least that is wrong with that plan.
The hatred and polarization the government is provoking, which makes normality impossible even in the best of times, is impèding “the need for a response to an epidemic as dangerous as this one,” warned epidemiologist Álvaro Ramírez. “There needs to be a national emergency committee.”
H further warns that “the Sandi¬nistas who are going out into the streets are going to transmit the virus to each other, their families and neighbors and everywhere. This country will never forgive the cost this will have in human lives.”
The National Coalition isn’t
just proposing; it’s acting
The National Coalition, the umbrella group of the blue and white opposition, is working to get everyone to stay at home. It is disseminating scientific information and has written to the directors of WHO and PAHO to inform them of the government’s actions contrary to the recommendations of both institutions. It is also requesting that they ask the government to act responsibly. It also wrote to the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, requesting the same of him. “A health crisis in Nicaragua would inevitably have strong regional repercussions and an impact of incalculable proportions given the conditions of extreme poverty in which our population is living.”
The National Coalition also formed a National Emergency Committee, made up of experts in health, finances, economy and law, to inform the population outside of Managua and respond to its demands.
The Civic Alliance and the Blue and White National Unity—the key movers within the National Coalition—have laid out to the government the urgency of releasing the 70 political prisoners still in jail in overcrowded conditions, many of them sick or in precarious health. They define it as a gesture of humanity and of unity in the emergency.
At a crossroads
The personal dilemma of the Mexican street vendor—die of the virus or die of hunger—is one that virtually all governments have to grapple with, especially in poor countries.
Any emergency offers those governing the possibility of exercising greater control over the citizenry and distracting society from the problems the government wants to sidestep responsibility for. It also gives them the possibility of acting responsibly, stepping up to the plate and showing their capacity for statesmanship, their capacity and conscience to unify society with objectives of the common good.
As of the close of this issue in Spanish, March 31, the coronavirus had advanced to the United States and Nicaragua’s dictatorship was facing—still extremely poorly—the unanticipated challenge of this horrifying health emergency. So far it has responded by risking the life of the entire population.
It has chosen to continue its repressive social control, while failing to distract society with its massive festive events. And rather than uniting and achieving consensus on containment, care, precaution and prevention, it has divided and polarized society even more with its propaganda blaming everything on “the coup-mongers.” The tragic paradox is that, just like Trump’s equally polarizing discourse denying the reality of the coronavirus, those most likely to suffer the worst outcome of that message are their own true believers.
Here we are, two
years after April 2018
Given all this, even without rectification “above,” a majority of the society “below” has decided to take matters into its own hands and take care of itself and each other. These people are organizing, seeking out reliable alternative information and staying at home. As we approach the second anniversary of the April rebellion, the “roadblock virus” has arrived to renew the blue and white population’s capacity for independent action and to demonstrate that they are the social majority. Let us hope that the dilemma facing the poorest can be alleviated and that we can all act in time to stop massive contagion.