|Central American University - UCA
Number 466 | Mayo 2020
April 2018 + 2: Resisting the dictatorship and now the virus
A new crisis has joined the political
and economic ones already generated
by the regime’s brutal response to the
civil protests that began exactly two years ago.
Now the ruling couple and its fanatic followers
are refusing to deal responsibly with COVID-19.
The blue and white population must thus combine
its ongoing peaceful resistance against the dictatorship
with intelligent defense against the economic and health crises.
In an April 6 article titled “Love in the time of COVID-19: negligence in the Nicaraguan response,” the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet published information about the health situation in our country that began with this statement: “The response of the Nicaraguan government to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has been perhaps the most erratic of any country in the world to date.”
That response had not improved as of the close of envío’s Spanish-language edition on April 30. The dictatorship’s insensibility to and secretiveness regarding the health crisis has piled new and erosive uncertainties and fresh suffering on top of the burdens already generated by its criminal response to peaceful protests against its harmful and unconsulted social security measures two years ago. The shooting down of nearly two dozen young protestors in the first days of those protests resulted in marches of several hundred thousand people and the barricading of neighborhoods and highways that culminated in nearly 400 dead, thousands wounded, tens of thousands fleeing into exile and hundreds of political prisoners, many of them tortured and some of them still behind bars.
of absolute power
Driven by the arrogance of their absolute power, President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, continue repressing the rebels of April, who have now become a social majority resistance movement. Meanwhile, the ruling couple’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is one of denial and criminal negligence that even puts their own followers into harm’s way. What is the scenario they envision?
Everything they do demonstrates their determination to remain in power. Both their ongoing repression and their speeches have made clear that they are unwilling to risk that power to resolve the political crisis they provoked in April. Nor have they given any signs of willingness to alter the “erratic” way they are dealing with the pandemic.
As the weather turned characteristically hot and humid this April, the government continued to miss opportunities to implement a responsible strategy aimed at saving lives and minimizing the virus’ impact. Toward the end of March, having failed to suspend public school classes, the government organized hundreds of festive events in the lead-up to Holy Week to attract tourists, inevitably bringing people into close contact with each other. As an example of its erratic response to COVID-19, it sent brigades of health workers and political activists with no personal protective equipment into urban neighborhoods and rural communities all over the country to provide house-to-house advice on the pandemic, thus risking turning them into vectors of the virus.
“It’s not too late
to change course”
In response to these risky decisions, the Central American Business Administration Institute (INCAE), a business school/think tank linked to Harvard University and Nicaraguan big business, presented the government with a technical study of the serious impact the pandemic could have on our population of roughly 6.5 million people if the government “stays on the current course.” The study’s positive note was that it is not too late to take steps to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.
INCAE’s rector, former Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños, said “we are evaluating this situation as the crisis of this generation. It is necessary to act immediately with urgency and unity as the only way to flatten the contagion’s propagation curve.”
The INCAE study listed the measures recommended and adopted in other countries: social distancing, various levels of self-quarantine, massive testing to reveal the behavior and progression of the pandemic, sanitary and economic protection for the population at greatest risk …
INCAE proposed discussing and evaluating the application of similar measures in Nicaragua in order to decide on a “strategic reduction of productive activities and non-essential traffic for three weeks,” based on testing and resulting precise data.
By this time, several other voices—the Nicaraguan Medical Unity, the Academy of Sciences and the Multidisciplinary Scientific Committee, the latter created specifically in response to the pandemic—had already offered their own recommendations and proposals. With minor differences, they all agreed on the priority of deciding the course to be followed in a major national consensus. Some may have been influenced by the negative example of the chaos in the United States, with its absolute lack of national leadership and the dangerous lack of a unified response by the states, as they watched that country’s death rate rise by alarming exponential proportions.
A national consensus
with no “truce”
Hours after INCAE released its study, other private sector representatives (the Superior Council of Private Enterprise, the Nicaraguan American Chamber of Commerce and the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development think tank) called for a “unified effort” of all national sectors, leaving aside their differences, “including party options.”
Some media and opinion makers translated INCAE’s call and the private sector’s support for it as a proposal for a political “truce.” But social leaders and those heading the blue and white opposition’s incipient National Coalition argued that ta truce is not relevant to the health emergency. A spokesperson for the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) more specifically said “there is no truce for human rights.” Former National Assembly legislator José Pallais, who is now a spokesperson for the Civic Alliance, one of the mobilizing forces of the National Coalition, insisted that “a truce at this time is not correct; what the country needs is a national consensus on the public policies for dealing with the pandemic.”
Given the political weight of the proponents of INCAE’s initiative, it seemed the proposal would evolve into a new kind of “dialogue,” an opportunity for the government to change its erratic course regarding the pandemic. The business elite had attempted the same thing in February 2019 when it proposed a more formal “negotiation” table than the fruitless dialogue called by the Catholic bishops in May of the previous year, at the height of the national marches against the ruling couple. The private sector had been motivated back then by the fact that only a political solution would resolve the increasingly crushing economic crisis. Its effort had also borne no fruit. This time it was forced into action as the coronavirus threatens to send the already oxygen-deprived economy into intensive care.
“Prophets of doom”
It was rumored that INCAE’s initiative and its echoes produced some feelers between representatives of big capital and the ruling couple but that the Vice President had conditioned any dialogue on the business elite publicly apologizing for participating in what the regime erroneously defines as an attempted “coup d’état” in May 2018. A second condition was that it persuade Washington to lift the sanctions it has applied against members of the ruling family, their businesses and most implicated supporters. So much for setting aside party options.
At the same time, the National Assembly called the country’s legislators to three extraordinary sessions, on March 31 and April 1 and 2. Everyone expected that Assembly President Gustavo Porras would announce “something” at the end, but it didn’t happen. The first session was supposedly suspended due to “technical failures” and the second to the illness of three legislative representatives. In the third, Porras delivered an aggressive speech that, while not unusual, was hugely disappointing to those hoping for some sign that the regime was rethinking its dangerous course of action on the political, economic and viral crisis fronts.
Porras, a doctor who for many years headed Fetsalud, Nicaragua’s main health workers’ union, dubbed those calling for the closing of the borders “prophets of doom.” His own prophecy was that if a quarantine was imposed people would “by nature do the opposite,” arguing that such action didn’t take “human behavior” into account. He assured that Nicaragua only had “sporadic” cases and that because the country was still in the first stage of the pandemic hand-washing was sufficient. Actually, calling the cases sporadic was a greater admission than the official government line. At that time and for weeks afterward, the government admitted to only 9 cases and 1 death; and as of April 30 to 14 cases with 4 deaths, a suspiciously low number of cases with an extremely high percentage of deaths.
Revolutionary working class hero Porras said not a word about the possibility of approving palliative economic measures for the vast majority of the population in the informal sector who are barely surviving. Days earlier, governing party representative Walmaro Gutiérrez, president of the Assembly’s Economic Commission, slammed as “staggering political opportunism” and “madness” the proposals of some Liberals to legislate aid to ease the crisis for small businesses and the more than 70% of the economically active population that works in the informal sector, most of them hand-to-mouth. He also requested that the microphone of any Liberal representative attempting to talk about the pandemic be turned off.
“An emergency will
never be declared”
That April 2, Porras also announced that since the worldwide pandemic had been declared, 16,000 Nicaraguans had returned from other countries and were “under surveillance.” The terse and confusing daily reports of the Ministry of Health (MINSA) had previously only mentioned a dozen individuals under surveillance at most. Pulmonologist Jorge Iván Miranda, a member of the Nicaraguan Pulmonology Association, remarked that “if it is as they said, and without knowing what kind of surveillance they are applying, it is scary to think of the number of people who could now be spreading the virus.”
Two weeks later, following Holy Week, MINSA caused even more concern by revealing that the number of people who had returned from abroad had now exceeded 36,000 and that they were “sheltering in place.” Avoiding the vetoed word “quarantine,” MINSA said the sheltering would last 21 days, but did not explain how this would be guaranteed, what if any tests had been done on these people and what results they had produced.
At the end of the April 2 Assembly session, regime “spokesperson Wilfredo Navarro—a former Liberal politician—announced that “Nicaragua will never declare a state of emergency.”
With that, the regime lost the first opportunity to change course, to take measures similar to those the rest of the world was learning from early successful examples. Had it done so, it might have recovered to some degree from the international isolation it had earned. It would certainly have reaped many more benefits than have resulted from its denial of reality, obstinate clinging to power and narrative of “normality” following a “failed coup.”
“A society with only
one voice isn’t healthy”
Nicaraguans thus approached the Holy Week vacation in an atmosphere of disinformation, intimidation and uncertainty.
The centralization of all information on the pandemic’s progress in the hands of the country’s rulers and officials has undermined the confidence of the majority of the population. This in turn has led to the sensation that the country is adrift, with “no captain aboard,” as one Managua resident told an international TV chain
Matagalpa’s Catholic bishop, Rolando Álvarez, announced in the virtual Palm Sunday Mass that Medical Prevention Centers would be set up with the support of some 15-30 volunteer doctors in the departmental capital and five municipalities of his diocese to provide information and guidance via telephone calls and offer direct medical attention to the population. This decentralized initiative would have been very useful even though it didn’t include testing, which the regime controls and provides no information about. It could have helped alleviate the fragile national health system. But since it challenged the regime’s secretive and disin¬forming strategy, MINSA had prohibited it within hours of the announcement and even set up its own call center instead.
“A society with only one voice isn’t healthy,” declared Li Wenliang, a young Chinese ophthalmologist who worked at Wuhan’s Central Hospital. Together with other colleagues he had gone public with the information that the coronavirus originating there was “out of control.” For revealing that truth in an authoritarian country that only permits a single voice, he was imprisoned and later died of that virus.
Unlike most other countries, Nicaragua was already suffering the “single voice” disease when the coronavirus pandemic arrived. Today, the single voice is producing a palpable and dangerous health crisis in our society.
Holy Week: A self-
Every year, even in 2019, the second year of an economic recession in Nicaragua, tourism and local vacationers have provided important oxygen to the economy during Holy Week. International tourism left US$840 million in the country in 2017, but dropped off seriously the next year due to the repression starting in April before picking up a little in 2019. But this year has been a historic exception.
While that should have surprised no one, a good part of the national population also decided to stay at home in a self-convoked quarantine despite the mounting heat and humidity so common at this time of the year. Informed about the critical international situation provoked by the pandemic and educated by the independent media and national experts about the importance of physical distancing, they rejected the false normality touted by the government.
Even though the government offered the Managua and Masaya barrios free food and public transportation to the Pacific beaches during Holy Week, these normally chock-a-block recreation centers remained virtually empty. Likewise, a good part of the festive events organized by the government for those same days—”Miss Summer” contests, gastronomic competitions, musical shows, dances and the like, were far less attended than the Institute of Tourism anticipated, although they did produce irresponsible concentrations of people and thus likely contagions.
…and civil disobedience
Evangelical churches held their services on the social media to avoid large gatherings of people, while the Catholic bishops did the same with the Masses and suspended the very popular Easter religious processions, following the guidelines of Pope Francis. The only exceptions were in the northwest departments of León and Chinandega where there were various deeply traditional reenactments of the Stations of the Cross, some of them massive.
“There have always been disobedient priests in the Church,” lamented Father Carlos Avilés, vicar of the Archdiocese of Managua, referring to the clerics who allowed this to happen, favoring the “normality” the government wants to project.
In early April a “mobility report” produced by Google to learn how the Central American population was responding to #Quédate en casa (Stay at Home) showed that 45% of people in Nicaragua were doing so. By that time quarantine was already obligatory in the other Central American countries but the Nicaraguan government wasn’t even contemplating it. This 45% was purely voluntary.
Thus began a current of civil disobedience in rejection of the regime’s propaganda, which only increased the government’s lack of legitimacy.
Wisdom may have won out during Holy Week, but afterward the self-confinement relaxed. Those who don’t believe the government are the social majority, but many of these people can’t stay at home indefinitely. They have to risk possible contamination to literally earn their daily bread.
PAHO finally speaks out
During a virtual press conference on April 7, Holy Tuesday, Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), responded to a question from a Nicaraguan journalist with a strong critique of the govern¬ment’s risky indolence toward the pandemic. Previously PAHO had appeared to be “looking the other way,” an attitude justly criticized inside Nicaragua.
Nicaraguan molecular biologist Jorge Huete told envío that “she only spoke up once the international community did. The Lancet’s warning about what was happening in Nicaragua came out only two days previously. And by then, we in Nicaragua’s Academy of Sciences had also shared a message with the world Academy of Sciences explaining what was happening here. PAHO and the World Health Organization took all this information very much into account.”
Worried about what
they see in Nicaragua
“PAHO has been concerned about Nicaragua’s response to COVID-19,” said Etienne in her press conference. “We have concerns about social distancing, the convening of mass gatherings,… about the testing, contact tracing and reporting of cases. We also have concerns about what we see as inadequate infection prevention and control. At various times and at various levels of PAHO, both formally and informally, we have raised those concerns with the national authorities of Nicaragua.” By way of diplomatically indicating their response, she added: “But let me say that Nicaragua is a sovereign country.”
Carissa Etienne is from Dominica, one of the Caribbean island nations in the Organization of American States (OAS) that have always either absented themselves or voted against any criticism of Ortega’s role in Nicaragua’s human rights crisis since April 2018. As director of PAHO, she never said a word about MINSA ordering public hospitals not to treat wounded protestors in April 2018. In an interview with Confidencial, former PAHO Risk Management and Communication officer Oswaldo León said that silence could only be interpreted as complicity with the Ortega-Murillo government. León was fired from that post on June 26, 2018, after wrapping himself in Nicar¬agua’s flag at an important event at PAHO’s Washington headquarters and demanding that Etienne speak out about the human rights violations here.
Two weeks after Etienne’s declarations, Ciro Ugarte, PAHO’s Health Emergencies director, said during his own virtual press conference that Nicaragua had limited interaction with PAHO, specifically with respect to COVID-19. Although Etienne said PAHO had provided diagnostic kits, personal protection equipment and technical advice to Nicaragua and stood willing to continue supporting the government’s health efforts, Ugarte said PAHO now only received information from the government on its own confirmed cases, a diplomatically indirect suggestion that they might not be all that trustworthy. That interpretation was confirmed on April 24, when deputy PAHO director Jarbas Barbosa said in an extraordinary OAS session that the situation of the pandemic in Nicaragua is “indeterminate due to a lack of information.”
What scenario are
they gambling on?
Why is the regime causing PAHO such “concern” by ignoring all its prevention measures, which no Managua government official has even minimally acknowledged receiving? Why has it provided no reliable and determinate data? Why risk provoking tens of thousands of people getting infected, which would obviously swamp Nicaragua’s feeble health structures and thus result in many otherwise preventable deaths?
A protocol established by MINSA and delivered to PAHO last month—which the public only knows about because someone from MINSA leaked the extensive document to Confidencial—projected 813 deaths over six months. Jorge Huete considers this a very conservative figure. Other projections are more dramatic. Researchers for a study by Imperial College London’s Faculty of Medicine published on March 26 estimated that if social distancing and other mitigation measures are not applied, 91% of Nicaragua’s population (which they calculate at just over 6.01 million) will contract the virus, 145,502 will become seriously ill and of the 32,232 critical cases 24,304 will die. Is this scenario what the regime intends?
If it is, they will cover it up with massively reiterated messages to the followers they still have and to the least informed. These messages are not unlike those President Trump has at various moments tried to fob off on his own trusting followers: the coronavirus is no more serious than your normal flu; the virus is here to stay so we just have to get on with normal life; the health system is prepared and is “the best in the world” because it’s free; the vaccines the government provides annually will protect you against the corona¬virus; the “coup-mongering” Right wants a lot of deaths as a way to destabilize the government... This last one is puzzlingly contradictory because, if it were true, the government should be doing everything possible to protect people rather than actually leaving that role, as it has done, to the blue and white movement.
By early April the door the private sector tried to open for a dialogue with the government on a joint strategy and national consensus had proven unopen¬able. Once again the dictatorship’s guiding logic of power had imposed itself.
Its next lost opportunity arose on April 15, when after an unexplained absence for over a month, President Ortega reappeared and spoke to the nation.
While in these uncertain and stressful times, heads of State all over the world have felt called upon to communicate with their citizens, some for better and some for worse, Ortega was neither seen nor heard for 34 days. And Murillo was only heard, not seen, as she has delivered her daily noon messages for two years now by phone on a national radio and TV hook-up, with the latter showing stock photos of her face. As the days went on, rumors grew apace. It has been known for years, but never publicly referred to, that Ortega is suffering what is presumed to be some immune deficiency illness. Was it finally winning the battle? Did he have COVID 19? As the speculation continued unchecked—he was in the hospital, he was intubated, he was surely dead—people listened to his wife’s untiringly pseudo-religious messages each noon for some announcement or clue that never came.
Ortega’s unexplained absence dragged out so long it became international news. Not only was the govern¬ment’s response to the pandemic the most “erratic” in the world, but the ruling couple was not speaking to its people, not giving them any guidance or reassurance, presenting no plan that would give them minimum certainty or at least some hope. The result of this vacuum was a huge build-up of expectations when his public appearance on a national media hook-up was finally announced for the afternoon of April 15.
The virus is “advancing
slowly” in Nicaragua
The cameras opened on Ortega and Murillo in one of the rooms of their home seated at the head of u-shaped tables whose center space was lavishly filled with tubs of flowering plants. Ten of their top officials sat in rapt attention along the side tables.
Ortega addressed two main issues in his 30-minute address: the world arms race and the pandemic. With respect to the first, referring primarily to the United States, he lamented that “atomic bombs” are taking resources away from health, particularly in the underdeveloped world. Regarding the virus he said that between March 11 and the day of his address—the very 34 days of his absence—MINSA reported 12,347 deaths in Nicaragua, only 1 of which was from COVID-19, attributing that highly questionable statistic to Nicar¬agua’s free public health care system and particularly its “community health” model. He also praised the brigade members making house-to-house calls advising people on protective measures and leaving a folder on the subject. He assured his Cabinet members and the audience that this was why the virus was “advancing slowly” here. He justified the continuing work of rural producers to provide food to the population, given the economic crisis the pandemic is producing elsewhere, and said they were doing so with discipline, following MINSA’s norms. “If the country doesn’t work, it dies,” he insisted.
Ortega assured that Nicaragua has many “highly specialized doctors” and praised the public hospitals’ readiness to confront the pandemic: “Virtually 90% of the hospitals in the state sphere have all the basic resources needed to attend—logically to the extent of their capacity with respect to the beds they have.” But right there is the rub. According to the National Health Map on MINSA’s web page, there are 12 hospital beds, 10 doctors, 8 nurses and 9 nurses’ aides for every 10,000 inhabitants. More alarming yet, according to the MINSA document written up for PAHO and leaked to Confidencial, titled “Preparedness and Response Protocol for the Risk of the Introduction of the Coronavirus,” each hospital will dedicate 2 doctors, 2 nurses, 1 nurses’ aide, 1 ambulance driver and 1 morgue official to the pandemic. There is no reliable information about the number of ventilators in the country’s 19 public hospitals.
Ortega closed his presentation returning to the “millions and millions being spent on atomic bombs” so transnational corporations can dominate the world. Turning the criticisms of his regime back around, he called the pandemic “a sign from God” that the world “needs to change course in favor of peace.”
Another missed opportunity
As ordinary self-congratulatory speeches go, it wasn’t his worst except for the hypocrisy and untruths. But for the majority of the population that both needed and expected much more under the circumstances, it fell flat.
Ortega could have declared an emergency in Nicaragua that day, at the very least just to become eligible for some of those international resources. He could have announced that classes were being suspended in public schools and universities rather than forcing reluctant teachers into classrooms that are only half full because parents have had to choose their children’s life over their education. He could have announced the closure of the international airport and the country’s borders as at least a formal sign of precaution against possible contagions, particularly since his wife insists that all cases so far are “imported.”. And he could have expressed solidarity with so many families already in economic crisis given the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, mainly in tourism, due to the violence of 2018 and offered some measure to palliate it. In a more ideal world, he could have announced that he was moving some of the disproportionate resources for the police to beef up the public health system. He could even have reached out to the opposition as a gesture on behalf of the peace he touted simply by encouraging open discussion on his approach rather than letting Murillo’s para-state groups around the country interpret his policy fanatically, ordering teachers in some schools not to wear masks for example.
Among the many hypotheses about the regime’s irresponsible response to the pandemic is that it wants to provoke a humanitarian crisis to blackmail the United States into lifting the sanctions it has imposed on 16 government officials, including members of the ruling couple’s own family, and 4 of its family businesses for their grave human rights violations and corruption.
Was sandwiching his presentation of the government’s treatment of the coronavirus epidemic between references to first-world spending on war and the arms race Ortega’s way to disclaim responsibility for what is surely coming? Or was it an attempt to explain why Nicaragua is not receiving intentional assistance while other needy countries are?
And could the reference to a “sign from God” have been a message to the Trump government to change its own course, drop the sanctions and reopen the dialogue the State Department has held off and on with Managua in favor of a “soft landing”? That dialogue was first interrupted not by the pandemic but by Trump’s priority focus on his reelection, which he well knows requires winning Florida. And that in turn requires winning the vote of the generations of immigrants from what Trump’s brief national security adviser, John Bolton, called the “troika of tyranny”: Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
If that was indeed a subtext message, the response from the North was almost immediate. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent a message to Nicaragua on April 18, marking the day “the Nicaraguan people rose up peacefully to call for freedom and democracy, demanding change from the corrupt and repressive rule of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. Unfortunately, the people’s calls for freedom and democracy were met with bullets. At least 325 innocent people have been killed, many by Ortega/Murillo regime snipers.”
Pompeo went on to criticize the regime’s refusal “to even acknowledge the danger of this deadly pandemic” and urged that “responsible COVID-19 containment measures be instituted without delay.” It takes particular cheek to issue such a statement in the name of a government whose own President explores the anti-virus benefits of in-gesting/injecting disinfectants. Pompeo ended by calling on President Ortega and Vice President Murillo to immediately initiate “a democratic transition – including the restoration of human rights guarantees and free and fair elections – to provide for a healthy, prosperous, and free Nicaragua.”
On that same important date, the US Treasury Department discarded the possibility of eliminating the sanctions it has applied to government officials and institutions cited for human rights violations. The treasury secretary clarified that they do not impede the acquisition of medical inputs or receipt of humanitarian assistance.
In an extraordinary OAS virtual session on April 24 to publicize the region’s situation regarding the pandemic, Nicaragua’s representative, Luis Alvarado, called for the “voices of the Nicaraguan people” to be heard, which he claimed were demanding an end to the “unilateral illegal policies called sanctions.” Clearly they are chafing.
Ortega’s public reappearance didn’t go beyond being “proof of life” for his base, which had become very anxious about his prolonged disappearance, particularly since it had been learned that the one reported virus death was the family hair stylist. For the rest, particularly the blue and white social majority now represented by the National Coalition, it further revealed the ruling couple’s incapacity to put the country first even at such a critical moment.
Days later, the organizations in the National Coalition demanded the couple’s resignation, proposing a transition government and early elections. All three are fair but rhetorical demands born more of the desperation oppressing the country than any favorable shift in the correlation of forces. Since April 2018, Ortega and Murillo have repeatedly proved their unwillingness to accept any serious political negotiation with their Nicaraguan adversaries.
Calculating the possibility of direct negotiations with Washington, they have constantly played for time. Trusting in Nicaragua’s relatively limited geopolitical importance, they have worked to wear down and divide the opposition, constantly watching for more favorable moments to further consolidate their own power and up the ante of any negotiation.
This is the context that explains the regime’s irresponsibly indolent approach to the pandemic. Surely counting on the country’s low population density—El Salvador, which has a larger population, is not much more than twice the size of Nicaragua’s largest lake—it opted to try to calm the population and keep the country operating as normally as possible. It’s pretty much the same strategy employed by the Republican governors of the less-populated and poorer hinterland states in the US that have refused to lock down or been quick to start opening back up.
The economic crisis began in 2018 with the loss of tourism following the government’s months of rampant violence and the loss of loans and foreign investment for the same reason. And it has proceeded apace because improving it depends on a political solution the governing couple is unwilling to contemplate. Now, the world economic crisis due to the pandemic is starting to have a major impact on Nicaragua’s trade, its free trade zone export companies and the crucial inflow of remittances from its emigrated workers. But the regime’s only response is to hunker down, pump up its “community health model” and be alert to any favorable opening…
On April 24, Vice President Murillo reported that MINSA brigade workers had already visited 3.751 million houses in three cycles of house-to-house visits. “They have prayed with the families, educationally preparing them and preventing the coronavirus…. They are person-to-person and family-to-family exchanges in households, communities, neighborhoods, rural districts and villages of our free Nicaragua…. We pray, we ask God and we verify that we are applying the protection measures that guarantee health in the family, the home and the community.”
Dr. Jorge Huete, who evaluates the government’s erratic actions regarding the virus in the “Speaking Out” section of this issue, also analyzes the risk of trusting in the government’s community health model or making it appear reliable. He notes that this model has already demonstrated its inefficiency in controlling dengue, an infectious disease spread by mosquitos that has been endemic in the country since the early 1980s. Unlike the corona¬virus, dengue indeed could be eradicated by the massive deployment of health brigades.
Economy and health:
“The worst is yet to come”
Ortega’s reappearance speech on April 15 made it clear that he and Murillo will prioritize the economy over health.
After two consecutive years of economic recession, the expectation was that this year would see the beginnings of a turnaround, as there had already been signs of improvement. All economists and international institutions calculated that there would be at least limited growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), although they varied in how much.
Today, all the calculations done before the coronavirus have been consigned to the trash bin of broken dreams. What is now forecasted is the total collapse of the economy in what is already Latin America’s poorest economy and one of those most dependent on the international economy, particularly that of the United States.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) now predicts a 6% drop in the GDP this year and zero growth next year. National economists believe it could be even more severe because “the worst is yet to come” both economically and regarding the health situation if the pandemic continues to propagate without control.
Dr. Jorge Miranda told La Prensa on April 27 that “they hide cases to suit themselves, such as those of infected health workers, consider all indeterminate test results negative and aren’t doing enough tests…. It’s all about putting the rulers’ reputations, stability and the economy above Nicaraguans’ health at a high human cost they will end up paying. A public health problem the size of COVID-19 will sooner or later reveal the ineptitude of the authorities in a horrible Dantean way due to the sickly health system in which deaths caused directly and unavoidably by the virus will be added to those resulting from the lack of timely and decent treatment. The hospital system will collapse and so will the morgues, funeral parlors and cemeteries.”
The crisis has already
In these two years of economic crisis resulting from the human rights one, two sources of income kept the economy afloat and never dried up. The first was remittances, the money sent home by the thousands of Nicaraguans who have emigrated in search of a better life over the years, and more recently by the thousands more who fled into exile.
Now, the global economic crisis has due to the pandemic has contracted production, investment, trade and employment across the planet. Immigrant workers are by definition those most vulnerable to layoffs, with either a limited or non-existent social safety net. Many Nicaraguans are among the millions of unemployed in the United States, Costa Rica and Spain, the main sources of remittances—56% from the US alone. Those who are not unemployed are no longer able to save anything to send home. The World Bank estimates a nearly 20% reduction in remittances in Latin America and the Caribbean. Nicaragua will surely experience a similar drop.
…and the free trade zones
The other source of revenue not affected by the crisis of the past two years was the free trade zones—labor-intensive manufacturing centers that import raw materials or components and re-export assembled products, mainly to the US market. With the continuing recovery of the US economy following the 2008-9 crisis, the volume of orders was even growing, guaranteeing tens of thousands of jobs and social security coverage for Nicaraguan workers.
Now, however, the demand for the clothes that are the main items produced in our duty-free zones has plummeted. At the end of March, when other maquilas (assembly plants) were already beginning to close, Dean García, executive director of the ANITEC textile and garment plant, declared: “We don’t yet have the calculations; we’ll have them in May when we come back and begin to quantify what percentage of lost orders we will be unable to recover. The stores ended up with a large amount of stock because in the United States people aren’t buying clothes; they’re only buying food and medicines.
The crisis isn’t just affecting apparel companies; it’s general in the free trade sector. Yazaki, a Japanese company that says it has 250,000 employees in 45 countries and defines itself as one of the world’s largest privately-owned automotive suppliers, is Nicaragua’s biggest maquila operation, employing 120,000 workers in five automotive harness plants. It first suspended operations between March 29 and Holy Week, sending its workers home on half pay, then extended that decision for another two weeks. These workers are the lucky ones; many plants, particularly the smaller ones, are just closing, laying of their workers with no promises for the future.
On top of all this, international prices for virtually all of Nicaragua’s traditional exports (sugar, coffee, beef and shellfish) are dropping due to the contracted world demand and there is little chance that foreign investment and tourism will return any time soon. Moreover, what chance is there of international aid, given the government’s failure to tackle the health crisis with any seriousness or concern for the nation?
COVID-19 could become the
work stoppage the regime fears
In the recent months of the country’s unending political crisis, the regime has pulled out all stops to avoid a prolonged national work stoppage because it would sink the economy. But now the virus is threatening to do precisely that. It’s a whole other dilemma for the regime, because viruses aren’t intimidated by police repression, which is the only thing the regime is good at any more.
The country has moved into a semi-work stoppage that is expected to become more extended once the virus figures can no longer be hidden and the worst is no longer yet to come. So far it is the more educated and better-heeled sectors of the country, those who both understand the stakes and have the means to protect themselves, who are self-quarantining and working from home. Those of lesser means, who depend on what they earn every day, have no choices. And in the worst condition are those with no source of income for one reason or another in a country whose extremely limited safety net is now either full of holes or tends to be extended along party lines. Increasing numbers of people don’t have enough to eat each day. It is a situation increasingly reminiscent of the early 1990s, following a 10-year war that itself followed a hard-fought insurrection during which the Somoza government destroyed a great deal of urban infrastructure and took tens of thousands of lives.
The only thing that will buoy the national economy somewhat, at least in the short run, is the extraordinary fall in oil prices, which could compensate to some degree for the drop in our export prices.
Defense of the economy
or the logic of power?
Is this somber economic panorama behind the regime’s behavior in an effort to keep an increasingly leaky economy afloat?
Is this why it has opted for what is called “herd immunity,” risking the collapse of the health system due to massive contagion? Dr. Huete also appraises the merit of such a strategy in his article, although he is not convinced that this is what is driving the government.
Will the ruling couple find that the small contagion figures it has been presenting are credible, or is it even possible that they’re true so far for demographic reasons? Nicaraguan biologist and anthropologist Jorge Jenkins, PAHO’s representative in Venezuela, lists some causes that could explain fewer cases in Nicaragua. First of all, only 15% of the country’s population is over 65, which is the most vulnerable age range. Furthermore, Nicara¬gua’s population density is only some 50 inhabitants per square kilometer, which is the lowest in Central America after Belize. Adding to that, 40% of Nicaragua’s population is still rural, where many live dispersed in small communities. Even the majority of the urban population lives in horizontal spaces ,which permits more distancing between dwellings, even if not necessarily between people in a given household since several generations often have to live together for economic reasons.
Could such arguments have convinced the ruling couple it can get away with offering such improbably low figures? Do Ortega and Murillo actually believe them themselves? Do they believe that the Nicaragua on whom their God shines, as they consistently insist, will produce a miracle?
Or is this simply the perverse logic of power, which renders them unable to back down to the private sector, accept any level of collaboration with anyone or negotiate anything, even at the cost of a humanitarian tragedy, turning Nicaragua into an infectious focal point in the region, which already has the other governments concerned? Are they looking to exploit the social calamity of a high death rate to justify the declaration of a state of exception, which would involve even greater social and political control and even the cancelling of the elections? The call for elections must be made a year ahead of time and the deadline for that has already been set: November 2, 2020.
“Not a single voice in
defense of this government”
If the regime is grappling with a severe financial problem and needs resources, isn’t it counterintuitive to limit its approach to the pandemic to a small-scale “community health model,” dismissing international recommendations based on ongoing scientific discoveries related to this brand-new phenomenon and thus alienating institutions such as PAHO and WHO? Why is it keeping public schools open and traffic potentially moving across borders and in airports had other countries not already blocked it, opposing the use of masks, and only promoting people “washing their hands”? Could it be because its leaders know that even a good health strategy would be unlikely to result in aid because of their refusal to negotiate a solution to the human rights crisis they unleashed two years ago, leaving them accused of crimes against humanity?
While Ortega raged about first world spending on the arms race, he studiously omitted the billions of dollars made available by the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and above all the IMF in an exceptional fund to help the poorest countries deal with the health emergency. He was surely hoping to convince his audience that Nicaragua is forced to fight the coronavirus alone because of a priority international interest in “atom bombs.”
The regime’s minimizing of the pandemic, refusing to order concrete mitigation measures or at the very least provide reliable data so the population can employ its own informed measures, is further influencing Nicaragua’s ineligibility for these funds.
International distrust of the Ortega regime has been growing steadily since April 2018 due to the disproportionate repression unleashed against the civic protests and its refusal to make any serious attempt to find a democratic solution to the demands expressed in the massive protests. The regime hasn’t let up with its repression a single day since then, even faced with the ominous COVID-19 threat. The sanctions on more than a dozen regime officials matter more than their current negligence toward the pandemic.
Both the international community and the multilateral financing institutions know this. Former foreign minister Francisco Aguirre Sacasa claims that Nicaragua’s government has so isolated itself that not a single voice has been raised in its defense in the three banks that have put together the exceptional pandemic fund: “And that will continue until it modifies its posture and seeks some sort of rapprochement with the country’s responsible opposition.”
Daniel Ortega’s only “plan”
The absence of economic and social measures to respond to the pandemic in Nicaragua is mentioned in reports prepared by the World Bank and the IDB. Both institutions will approve funds for countries requesting it on the basis of very specific health and fiscal measures. But as economist Luis Murillo said, “Ortega’s only plan is to have no plan”…other than continued repression.
The IMF, which has the most resources available, left the door open to Nicaragua when in its last visit its mission praised the government’s macroeconomic management during these two years of recession. Encouraged by this, and with the complicit mediation of former Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo, now secretary general of the Central American Integration System (SICA), Ortega requested funds from the IMF that have not yet been approved, unlike similar requests from El Salvador, Honduras and Panama.
The regime has also requested US$13 million from the Central American Bank of Economic Integration for “prevention and containment” of the pandemic, of which Ortega had only received $1 million as a cash donation and 26,000 rapid tests to detect the coronavirus, as of April 30. MINSA has yet to report how the tests will be used.
From Taiwan, one of the countries particularly successful in controlling the coronavirus, the Nicaraguan government received a donation of equipment to reinforce the technical capacities of the health personnel applying coronavirus detection tests. Several sources from the MINSA laboratory have leaked that this equipment is being kept “in storage.”
“All tests are negative,
infinite thanks to God”
Unlike the information provided by the other Central American countries and periodically documented by SICA, the number of tests conducted in Nicaragua is kept under lock and key, like a state secret.
In MINSA’s minimalist reports all we learn about the progress of the pandemic are gems such as: “The merited tests were done, all of which gave negative results, infinite thanks to God.” As of April 30, they also reiterated that “all cases are imported and there is no local community transmission.”
Between tears and hope
This was Nicaragua’s situation by the second anniversary of the April “insurrection of consciousness.” It was commemorated with a concert by several hundred exiled Nicas, with self-imposed “sheltered in place” celebrations in a number of homes, on-line hugs accompanied by tears, memories and hopes sent through cyberspace, together with thousands of messages of resistance on the social networks…
This was one of the latter, from Monimbó priest Augusto Gutiérrez, tortured by paramilitaries and now in exile: “Two years after the civic revolution for liberty, justice and democracy, I can’t help but cry but I feel full of hope because I see ever closer the victory of life over the death represented by the criminal couple. Long live free Nicaragua!”
The spirit of April remains alive today, its vitality expressed in a social majority with a new sense of citizen awareness. It is also revealed in unprecedented and difficult efforts at unity being organized in the territories. Today more people than ever in this country are determined to work to build a better country, something we never imagined could be achieved before that historic April 18.
“Nothing is like it used to be”
One of the ways the heirs of the April rebellion have been able to buttress their resilience to the adverse conditions has been the unifying efforts of the Civic Alliance for Democracy and Justice and the Blue and White National Unity (UNAB). Despite their different natures—the former is an umbrella for other organizations and the latter for social, economic and geographical sectors—both contain fertile organizing seeds for change in which the self-convoked opposition has been able to or could find arenas such as the National Coalition, although for many reasons it is anything but easy.
Two years down the road we can see at least two results of the rebellion: nothing is any longer like it used to be; and its effects haven’t yet been fully taken advantage of by any organization for change. Although it is painful to recall, April 18 has been a paradox for everyone. As Nicaraguan sociologist Silvio Prado wrote in his book Nicaragua, el cambio azul y blanco (Nicaragua, the blue and white change), “The dictatorship will never accept it. The political parties and civil society of before still don’t understand it. And the self-convoked themselves only sometimes seem to grasp it. It took the anti-dictatorial forces a while to see for themselves in the mirror of self-evident truth what [Italian philosopher and politician Gianni] Vattimo pointed out: ‘It is when we reach agreement that we find truth…and the path to liberation.’”
Repression this April
The dictatorship didn’t fail to contribute its quota of repression to April’s commemorations. Ortega has not forgotten that hundreds of thousands of people repudiated him in massive April and May marches. His police, para¬militaries and fanatic followers made the reprisals felt all over the country.
On April 15 and 18, UNAB recorded 39 government opponents captured and/or harassed at their homes or businesses by anti-riot cops. One of those was the president of the Civic Alliance in the south Caribbean department of Río San Juan. Even more seriously, peasant leader Félix Lacayo from the same department was murdered on April 18.
But the repression reached its most vicious expression on the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. It began around midnight of April 19 when a group of youths in the community of Esquipulas tried to hang a national flag from a light post while shouting slogans and firing off gunpowder charges with homemade apparatuses known as “mortars.” The police arrested them, later justifying its action in a communique stating that they were “totally inebriated” and had been denounced by a neighbor. The statement also said the youths had attacked the police with rocks
But that wasn’t the full story. Bullets and tear gas canisters were fired in Esquipulas by the police, wounding several. And hours later, in the dawn of April 20, anti-riot police reinforcements arrived on the island and arrested more people in a community that had never seen anything like it before. Accompanied by dogs and local snitches, the police searched the houses of suspected blue and white supporters with abusive force. Dozens of youths fled up the island’s extinct volcano to avoid capture.
“Some 200 anti-riot cops came and they left a military contingent in the community park,” said released political prisoner Max Cruz, a youth who had been wounded by police fire in a 2018 mobilization and was later thrown in prison. While there he learned of the suicide of his brother, who couldn’t handle the months of tension of hiding from the police. Those detained in Ometepe this time will be tried in Managua on seven counts without the right to choose a defense lawyer.
On this second anniversary of April, the repressive response the dictatorship had ordered nationally to put down the civic protests in 2018 was repeated in the community of Equipulas. While it was in miniature—it is a small community, after all—the reaction had all the same elements: live ammunitions, tear gas, prison, trumped-up charges, corrupted trials, convictions...
The spirit of April was also seen anew in Ometepe: a self-inspired popular uprising that peacefully challenged the dictatorship’s arsenal of military might. That resistance isn’t forgotten and has repeatedly popped up wherever, whenever and however it can in these two years as a reminder to the government that nothing is normal and the resentment for all of its abuses still burns deep in the body politic.
“How far will this deep human river that rose up for Nicaragua go?” asks Guadalupe Wallace Salinas, an ageless drop in that river, in her recent text, “Los rostros de la resistencia.” (The faces of the resistance). “At some moment it seemed to have erased ideological, age, social class, geographical, educational and occupational borders.”
Like many, she has no answer: “I still don’t know. I only know that many dialogues were opened within families and the community, a lot of realization about what needs changing in Nicaraguan society’s political behavior and about the affronts they are no longer willing to permit power to commit. There are multiple scenarios and nothing ensures the happy ending many imagine. Nonetheless, what happened in Nicaragua—at least forcefully until the failed 2019 negotiations—was unprecedented, distinct, vibrant, hopeful, pluralistic...”
Everything that was opened in April 2018 remains open, including the wounds and the indignation. It is all still alive and painful. We keep on going but don’t know how this effort by so many will end. Because today, burdened by two years of political uncertainty and economic penury for the majority, we are now at a crossroads nobody in the world expected. It is a crisis that makes our future as individuals and as a planet ever more uncertain, a crisis the dictatorship has responded to with criminal negligence.
The pandemic is a portal
We may be far from the immense and densely populated India, but we nonetheless embrace the following reflection by its brilliant writer Arundati Roy, author of The God of small things, in which she relates a situation in her country even more grave than our own and still succeeds in transmitting hope.
In a piece published in The Financial Times she asks: “What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world. Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could.
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
For millions of us, many more than the half a million who participated in Mana¬gua’s largest march, April 2018 was also a portal we walked through, passing from one “world” to the next, totally different and full of hope. Two years later, the pandemic is opening another portal, without our knowing if it will lead to a more rapid exit from this triple crisis.
But we have to walk through it, resisting the dictatorship, surviving the economic crisis and defending ourselves against the virus with all the solidarity and wisdom we can muster.