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  Number 465 | Abril 2020
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“We’re getting better organized to engage the dictatorship”

This former legislative representative for various Liberal parties, now a member of the Broad Front for Democracy (FAD) and territorial organizing adviser of the r Civic Alliance, describes what they are finding in Nicaragua’s heartland, and the progress they were making before COVID-19 in organizing the blue and white opposition in the municipalities and departments.

Eliseo Núñez Morales

The National Coalition, presented to the Nicaraguan public on February 25, was convened by the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy and the National Blue and White Unity (UNAB), but we didn’t wait for that date to begin organizing what has come to be called the blue and white opposition throughout the country. [The term blue and white comes from the fact that people came out into the street in 2018 united only by their opposition to the current government’s actions, and by their love of country. No party colors were seen in those massive marches, just the blue and white of the national flag.]

We envision the National Coalition as having various entry points, something like a baseball or football stadium: you can enter through the Alliance; UNAB; the Campesino Movement; the political parties.… On February 25, the Campesino Movement and four political parties—the indigenous Coast party, Yatama; the Evangelical Democratic Restoration Party (PRD); the party of the former Resistance, Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN); and the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC)—signed together with the Alliance and UNAB, each of which also represents other organizations and sectors, to unite in the Coalition.

The blue and white movement
is very broad based

In early January, although the Alliance had been a member of UNAB since the latter’s formation, we decided to divide up our organizational work because we had seen that people participating in blue and white expressions had several political tendencies and all should have a place in the organized blue and white platforms.

Even though the people in both groups were self-organized, more people in the Alliance come from the population sector that votes Liberal while UNAB has more groups from civil society and dissident Sandinistas. The blue and white movement is also very broad based geographically, with the UNAB sector more urban and socially activist while the Alliance has more of a rural base, with people who come from a politically Liberal tradition—not to be confused with “small-l” liberal thinking, but, rather a conservative worldview. They tend to be linked to one or another of the Liberal parties, but not necessarily to their leaders.

Since January, we in the Alliance have been traveling all over the country and have been well received by the general public. This is also because our current work was seeded by prior efforts at organizing sectors by the Alliance’s Inclusion Commission.

The UNAB and the Alliance
have different approaches

Another difference between the Alliance and UNAB is that the Alliance decided to organize people territorially while UNAB is an umbrella for existing organizations. The Alliance decided to organize people by territories because while Nicaraguans are very much given to creating organizations, the new organization is very easily divided and another created because of competition over leadership. Everybody wants to be a chief.

UNAB has already experienced this obstacle and ended up not knowing if some of the groups are real or not. In the Alliance, we decided to tie our organizing to people’s territory and link organized people to it so no one can grab that “shell,” like those little crabs do, and take it somewhere else. Instead aspiring leaders will hopefully feel required to negotiate within their territory.

Another advantage of organizing people by territories where political parties were once strong is that they still maintain a structure there—perhaps poor but itt’s there—and when people enter the Coalition and there’s already organization there in the territory, it will help them adapt to the new dynamic of the Alliance and UNAB.

We’re seeking legitimacy
through elected boards

The first organizational step in our plan is what we call “exploration, conquest and conviction.” What this means is that, on arriving in a territory, we from the central team meet with small groups to “explore” the situation there. We began this work on January 6 and by the third week of January we had already made 45 exploratory visits.

When we started these visits, the first problem we recognized had to be solved wasn’t organizational but rather one of legitimacy. And this can only be resolved by votes; there’s no other way.

So, as the central team, we decided that at the end of the exploration stage we would leave a designated “work team” in place in each department. These small groups would be tasked with convening a provisional departmental assembly of at least 100 participants—very few for a department—of whom 40% must be from that department’s different municipalities. At these assemblies a nine-member directive board would be elected—as individuals, not as slates.

That board would replace the work team, becoming an organizational authority not a political one; its role would be to organize all the municipalities in its department. They would designate a work team in each municipality that, like the departmental team before them, is tasked with organizing an assembly.

What we’re seeking through these assemblies is legitimacy. The person who brings the most people to the assembly is the one who, by mathematical logic, will win the most votes to be on the municipal board if they choose to run. Although the best person doesn’t necessarily emerge by this method; generally speaking, the one who brings the most people is the one with the most organizational skills. If that person turns out to be no good, this will be dealt with in the ongoing corrections.

Furthermore, by insisting that 40% of those who attended the departmental assembly be from the municipalities, we are also ensuring that four of the nine members of the departmental board come from its municipalities. With this regulation, no one will be tempted to stack the assembly with its own people without mixing in people from the municipalities.

We progressed in organizing
the country before COVID-19

By the last week of January, we had work teams ready to organize assemblies in 11 of the country’s 17 departments and in 5 of Managua’s 7 districts. The first ones were held on February 10. From them emerged departmental boards that were elected not designated, as was traditional in the past. They then began the work of convening municipal assemblies from which boards will also be elected and will thus have legitimacy and more political clout.

Up to March 20, when we decided the only responsible decision was to suspend activities due to the coronavirus pandemic and the regime’s irresponsibility in dealing with it, we had held six departmental assemblies so already have six provisional departmental boards. In the other departments, where we don’t have boards yet, we have 11 designated work teams, which means we already have all the country’s departments covered in one way or another.

We were also making progress in the municipalities. In the departments of Matagalpa and Madriz we already had work teams in all the municipalities, and in the other departments we have work teams in 50% of their municipalities. The pandemic will necessarily slow down the work as it isn’t easy to hold virtual assemblies. We had an assembly planned in Carazo and wanted to make it virtual, but not everybody has the Internet data capacity for a virtual assembly lasting several hours. We promised recharges but only 93 had phones with cameras and everyone had to have one in order to register votes. In Nicaragua there are many limitations to virtual work; moreover, there’s no substitute for human contact anywhere.

While the minimum attendance at these first departmental assemblies is 100, we insist on more at the municipal assemblies. In departmental capitals and municipalities with more than 100,000 inhabitants, the directive boards are elected at assemblies that must have at least 150 participants. The boards elected in these municipal assemblies are not provisional; they will operate for a more extended term than the departmental ones and will have political and not only organizational functions.

On Friday March 20, municipal assemblies were held and boards elected in two small municipalities: Totogalpa and Terrabona. Let’s see how much time we’ll lose by acting responsibly with the pandemic.

Rewarding the most organized

The organizational model we designed isn’t pyramidal in structure; it’s based on assemblies, which reward the most organized. For example, in the municipality of San José de Bocay, where its assembly needed a minimum of 150 people, 300 came. They all thus became part of the electoral roll and give San José de Bocay the right to 300 departmental assembly seats in Jinotega. And if Jinotega City, the departmental capital, can’t fill more than its statutory 150 seats, San José de Bocay will have more influence than it in electing the non-provisional departmental board.

We settled on this design because, with such large assemblies and uninominal elections, the groups that aren’t represented in all the municipalities will be forced to negotiate with other groups. This prevents groups from closing ranks and only negotiating with the boards. As we don’t have any numerical electoral reference of support for the blue and white option we’re offering the public, we’re working with algorithms, and if a municipality puts in more assembly members, it means it has more votes for this option.

The demographics
of the assemblies

There are always more women than men in the meetings, which is usual in difficult times. Women are more determined, and they talk and express their opinions… and get elected. The presidents in Boaco and in Río San Juan are both women. In Matagalpa the president is a man, but women are in other posts, including treasurer.

We have come across self-organized people of all ages in both the Alliance and UNAB. They tend not to belong to a party, but there are political differences among some young people arising from their family’s political tradition while there are others with no tradition who are venturing into organized politics for the first time. We need everyone here, and discussing ideas is necessary. For debate to flourish, it’s important for us to first come out from under the dictatorship.

In these times, when Nicaraguans are experiencing frustration and only the most insistent of us are working to organize the blue and white opposition, we continue to stress that we have to learn from those who organized to achieve big changes despite the disadvantages. We must understand that the world’s great changes have been made by organized minorities who manage to get the majorities to take the path they are opening.

Youths with no experience
or qualitative weight

As I saud,in the course of our work we’ve come across many self-organized young people with mo political affiliation. We had a pleasant surprise in Río San Juan because most of those who came to the exploration meeting to form the work team were university students and they themselves recognized that their main weakness was that, being young, they had no experience. We made them see their need for networking support in order to grow.

They understood this and promptly called their parents, aunts, uncles, older siblings and cousins to attend the departmental assembly. It was a very interesting experience because they resolved it themselves; they made the mix and a little over a hundred people came to the assembly, among them adults and young people, and the board they elected had an adult as president and eight young men and women, all of them students under 25 years of age.

When we asked these young people who would support them, we were referring to another step in our organizational design, which is to give “qualitative weight” to the emerging boards. What this means is that we also talk to professionals, farmers, opinion leaders, people from each department who have influence. We try to bring them together in groups and visit some of them personally.

We ask them to support the elected board members in order to give a new qualitative dimension to the organization so that, for example, the town’s best-known teacher, who wasn’t at the assembly, could work with it in some way; or the cattle rancher, who didn’t want to go to the assembly for some reason, could contribute something; or the priest or evangelical pastor, who didn’t go because of their ministry, could have some way of joining in. This way of giving qualitative weight to the boards has worked well for us.

Problems with
harassment and infiltrators?

For the most part, we haven’t had problems with harassment before or after all these meetings and assemblies because we decided to only publicize them afterwards. The harassment has usually come later, when they learned where we were meeting and surrounded us asking for IDs. When they harass us it’s for mistakes we made in the use of communications.

We used “sponsors” to control possible FSLN infiltration of the assemblies. The sponsor is responsible for all those s/he brings to the assembly. This doesn’t eliminate infiltrators, but it does reduce them a lot because the filters are increasingly tight. We don’t limit the number of sponsors. For example, 32 of the 252 people at the Matagalpa assembly were sponsors.

So far, the place we’ve had the most problems organizing is in Managua, where most of the government officials are concentrated, and even among them we haven’t had problems of receptivity or rejection but of fear, because they feel they’re being watched by certain neighbors or in their workplace.

Traveling all over the country, we also found very few places where there were problems between UNAB and the Alliance. The most important thing we’ve found is that between us we clearly make up 80% or more of the population. The FSLN is now virtually reduced to those public officials mentioned above.

The 2021 elections are a watershed

When explaining to new contacts the importance we place on being organized, I’ve seen that most people are adamant about wanting free and transparent national elections in 2021, although this doesn’t mean we’ve already made a decision about whether we’ll participate in those elections. On these trips I’ve confirmed that people feel they are a deadline, a watershed. I think people have decided that 2021 is all they can bear of Ortega, that they can only hold on until then. This feeling is generalized and isn’t because they necessarily believe in the elections but because that’s as much as they’re going to take.

That’s why I think we need to find a way to take advantage of that date, but not in the sense of deciding whether or not we’re going to the elections. The first question we have to ask ourselves is: If Ortega steals the elections, are we capable of taking that fraudulent result away from him?

If we say we are, we go to the elections even without bothering about the few electoral reforms he will allow, because we’re not expecting to win them as free and fair but to prise the results from him. And if we say we’re not capable of doing that, we’ll have to prepare ourselves for a long road of resistance in order to defeat him after 2021. They are two different strategies that depend on whether we do or don’t feel capable of wresting the fraudulent result from Ortega.

I think we can do it. This isn’t going to be resolved with votes alone; it will be with mobilization, just like on April 18, 2018. When the people took to the streets that day, the government retreated. We’ll be able to take power from him if we can get the people out onto the streets again. I think we’re heading towards another grassroots uprising, but I know it won’t come from political repression, which is now normalized. I think the spark that’ll ignite it will come from outrage about ordinary acts of injustice against ordinary people…

A reflection on the April 2018 uprising

In April 2018, everybody—including many of us—believed it was possible to get rid of Ortega because we saw everyone going out onto the streets. One of the most interesting things about that April was seeing that although the movement was totally spontaneous, everyone was ready to “throw fuel onto the fire.”

The rejection of Ortega was shown to be massive when the possibility opened to demonstrate it. We saw that everyone was ready to see how they could help get rid of him, and he responded according to the playbook. This was explained by Felix Maradiaga at a meeting we had in the Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policies the morning of April 23, before that afternoon’s first mass march. He told us: “We must hurry up because these mass movements peak in two months and fizzle out in three or four, so if we get to the third month and we haven’t dislodged him, we won’t do it.” And that’s exactly what happened. We didn’t manage to dislodge him at the peak of the mobilization. He had already started the clean-up operation in the third month and the people demobilized out of fear. Even though everybody was ready to help remove him, we lost that first moment because we weren’t organized and didn’t have the leadership.

Light at the end of the tunnel

The elections, in themselves, are the short-term goal people need in order to push forward and go out. What we need is for people to go back out onto the streets knowing the sun will rise tomorrow without Ortega throwing them in jail. People today don’t have a problem with risking their lives by going out onto the streets, but with the following day: because if we don’t remove him then they’ll come to take revenge.

We overcome fear when we can see light at the end of the tunnel. In 2018, after the massacre of the clean-up operation, we no longer saw any light and people began to demobilize. Even under the worst electoral conditions, people feel that 2021 means it’s worth taking the risk because we’re now determined to get rid of him… People are already talking in these terms but the main problem with all this is that just as we know it, so does he.

Organizing for the 2021 elections?

The organization we’re building today is for going to the elections should we decide to or for not going if that’s what we decide. Both options are valid. If we do go it’s with one strategy and if we don’t it’s with another, but we need to be organized for both options.

Personally, I would rather have changes to the structures administering the elections than reforms to the electoral law. The problem we have isn’t with the law, but with the administration of the electoral process, because just as the administrators we have now are shameless scoundrels, the process they are administering is crooked and shameless as well. I would prefer not to reform the law at all and have good administrators in the Supreme Electoral Council and in the Departmental and Municipal Councils.

If we do manage to change the authorities, we’ll need about 300,000 organized people in order to take a fraudulent electoral victory away from Ortega. There’s a popular market saying that goes: “Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves.” This also applies to developing enough prepared electoral workers.

If we manage to get a massive movement of people wanting to go out to vote, they will care about their vote and from these large numbers we would be able to choose the best people to take care of these votes. The ability to take care of the vote, by which I mean being monitors, is going to depend a lot on how much we motivate people to vote in the first place, because if we can’t guarantee a huge turnout, we won’t be able to get people to take care of the vote either.

We need to choose the best people

We need a lot of people as monitors, but we aren’t going to choose professional party faithful, as the FSLN’s opposition parties have always done, because the FSLN already knows who they are and could either buy off or intimidate them. We must choose the best people. There are approximately 4,700 polling centers, let’s say 5,000, and 15,000 polling tables, so we need a monitor and a substitute for each table: 30,000 people. If the PLC decides to fully enter the Coalition, we’ll need another monitor and substitute at each polling booth: bringing the total up to 60,000. And as the PLC has the legal right to either the first or second member of the three-person polling table staff [the FSLN gets the table president], that means two of our people in each: 10,000 more people. That’s now 70,000. We also need 3-4 logistical people for each voting center: 20,000 more. So, we minimally need at least 90,000 well-organized people, and adding in a margin of error, 120,000.

Where are we going to get 120,000 people? Just from those participating in the assemblies, we’re trying to obtain 15,000 throughout the country, each one of which will represent and can call upon 15-20 people to form what’s known as the “electoral flock.” This will mean having 300,000 organized, capable people on election day cognizant of what they are going to do. All these people will be available to the Coalition’s blue and white option.

Will the PLC and the
CxL join the Coalition?

There are those who wonder if the two Liberal parties, the PLC and Citizens for Liberty (CxL), will fully join the Coalition. I think they will because, despite what’s said about them, there are people in both parties who really are in opposition.

For example, we’ve met with significant reactions on just one day in Chontales, a traditionally Liberal department. Most of the people who came to the exploratory meeting in the municipality of El Ayote weren’t party members, but of those who were, most belong to the CxL, a party that still has reservations about joining the Coalition. These people told us: “They’ve promised us that we’re going to go in together, that the party isn’t going alone, but if they don’t comply, we’ll leave the party and go with you.” That same afternoon, we went to an unscheduled meeting in another municipality, La Libertad. We stopped by to greet a PLC Municipal Council member and he invited the other PLC councilors. In the meeting they told us: “All of us here are from the PLC and if it doesn’t unite, we’ll go into the Coalition, so you can count on us.” This shows considerable perception: if the PLC and the CxL don’t both go into the Coalition; they’ll be on their own.

All over the country we heard the exact same thing they told us in these two municipalities in Chontales. When we held the first exploratory meetings, the local heads of the PLC and the CxL always came and always told us they want to be taken into consideration in case their parties don’t enter the Coalition. They’re just waiting to see what their parties will do. We didn’t find strong loyalty to leadership anywhere, because it doesn’t exist in those two parties.

An antidote to fake news

The lies, accusations and fake news spread by the social networks engender confusion among the population. In our work we’ve verified that organization is the best antidote for clarification. In Boaco we met with a small group of eight people in the exploratory stage to initiate organizing with them. We touched on every issue that’s come out on the networks and had to answer question after question for three straight hours. We left there with the bad feeling of not knowing if we had convinced them.

We held the Boaco assembly nervously but of the two who asked the most about what the networks were saying, one became president and the other, a cattle rancher, came to support the assembly with people and money… and that’s how Boaco was organized. There it is, organized. We proved for ourselves that giving explanations about everything they see on the networks works, and if what they say is true, accept it and apologize.

Enough of traditional caudillo leaders…

One of the things we spoke about with the people was the need to correct the tendency we have in Nicaragua of electing a strongman leader, a caudillo, rather than leadership. This implies an institutional concept: one person can be in the leadership today and another tomorrow, but if the leadership is institutional, the organization will keep working the same way. It takes a lot to achieve this but we’re going to do it just like we’ve achieved other things that were just as deeply rooted. If we had told a father not to hit his child 25 years ago, he would have looked at us as if we were crazy. If we had told someone not to smoke 30 years ago, they would have thought us idiots, and yet today almost no one beats children and fewer and fewer people smoke. Electing strongmen is also a habit we must change.

Daniel Ortega had the opportunity to make Arturo Cruz’s theory reality: there must be one last caudillo to end caudillo politics. He could have been Nicaragua’s last caudillo, but he didn’t want to be. It isn’t in his nature; he can’t do it. Ortega doesn’t understand that power means leaving a legacy to the country and for that legacy to bear his name. He’s had three consecutive terms in office and what will he leave as a legacy?

I had the opportunity to tell him this in November 2006, when Eduardo Montealegre and I went to recognize that he had won the presidency. That night I told him: “Now that you are going to be President, I hope you understand that you have the chance to make the changes this country needs.” He asked me what I meant. “I mean that you’re going to have the chance to build an institutional and democratic model that will go on after you because, just as you are the strongest opposition any government could have, you are also the one capable of dismantling the system we have and structuring an institutional system that will bear your name and live on after you.” He answered me evasively: “That’s why I want to put in place a parliamentary model.” When he said that, I realized he understood nothing and isn’t capable of understanding.

Venezuelan journalist and writer Moisés Naim, described by the British magazine Prospect as one of the world’s leading thinkers, says that protests become inefficient when they lack two things: organization and leaders. He says the protests that have triumphed are those that have managed to organize themselves and democratically appoint their leaders. In April 2018 we didn’t have organization or leaders but today we have more organization and, although we still don’t have democratically elected leaders, we do have leadership: not a leader, but leadership.

…we need institutional leadership

At the end of this initial assembly process, we hope to have amassed at least 2,000 people in departmental assemblies; elected 207 provisional directive boards with organizational authority, have at least one well-organized person in each of the 153 municipalities; and prepared a platform so that in the second stage, which will last six months, we can hold assemblies in all the municipalities and in Managua’s 7 districts, as well as 15 departmental assemblies and 2 assemblies in the two Caribbean autonomous regions: a process that will mobilize approximately 14,400 organized people. A leadership.

We are already on the way and we feel very optimistic due to the tremendous reception we have found throughout the country. We in both the Alliance and the Blue and White Unity are more than 80% of the national population and we believe we are growing and becoming increasingly better organized to engage the dictatorship.

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