The regime’s worst hours... to date
Nicaragua is moving into the tragedy foretold:
the COVID-19 pandemic’s exponential growth curve.
The regime is accustomed to controlling everything,
but it’s discovering it can’t bend the coronavirus to its will.
Then, in the midst of this fast-worsening health crisis,
Europe finally sanctioned several government officials
and Washington targeted two more to its growing list:
the Armed Forces chief and the public finance minister.
These are the dictatorship’s worst hours so far.
For three months President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, consistently denied the pandemic, ignoring the World Health Organization’s recommendations. Contrarily it promoted the virus’ spread with massive events, and trashed the independent medical community’s stay-at-home proposals as “destabilizing plans” produced by the 2018 “coup-mongers.” As the numbers of sick and dead rose, they falsified the figures to make it seem the epidemic was under control in Nicaragua, and classified rumored COVID deaths as probable pneumonia. Then in mid-May its entire artificial construct, which much of the population already had plenty of reasons to doubt, crashed around them.
Everyone already knows it
US astrophysicist Niel DeGrasse Tyson recently provided a graphic way to understand exponential growth: Q: If the surface coverage of algae on a pond doubles daily, and after a month half the pond is covered, how much longer will it take for the entire pond to be covered with algae? A: One day.
The exponential growth of the pandemic in Nicaragua became public knowledge by mid-May. It could no longer be denied that we were in the community spread phase, with infections and deaths increasing uncontrollably, quickly swamping the capacity of the falsely lauded public health system,. As in the United States, it is an open question how many illnesses and deaths could have been prevented by prompt pro-active, science-based and determined central government leadership. Also in common with the distressingly homologous governing party spokespeople in the United States, those here dutifully continued parrot¬ing their intimidating leader, denying reality or twisting it to their regime’s political interests.
Embarked on its terrifying game with death, the ruling couple surely hoped that, with the whole planet dealing with the ravages of the coronavirus, Nicaragua would fall below the international radar. But that turns out to have been a miscalculation. Their irresponsible handling of the virus hit the international news in May. Nor had the international community forgotten the human rights crimes the regime committed two years ago or those still being committed today, albeit on a more selective scale.
As of May 30, when we put the final period on this text, Nicaragua seemed nowhere near the summit of the curve yet the government had still taken few measures. The population was protected only by those individuals decided, or could afford, to take.
Sanctions from Europe
In a virtual summit of the Nonaligned Nations on May 3, Ortega railed against the US sanctions on his family, his businesses and more than a dozen of his closest government officials, and called for them to be removed.
Only 10 hours later, the European Union (EU) announced its own sanctions on six of Ortega’s officials, four of whom are police chiefs: Police Director Francisco Díaz, whose daughter is married to one of Ortega’s sons; Deputy Director Ramón Avellán; El Chipote prison director Luis Pérez Olivas; and Justo Pastor Urbina, who is in charge of the anti-riot police. The other two sanctioned are former health minister Sonia Castro and covert actions operator Néstor Moncada Lau. All six had already been sanctioned by the United States, and three of them (Díaz, Castro and Moncada) by Canada.
Those affected are barred entry into any of the 27 EU countries, where any possessions or assets they have are now frozen. The very next day, Great Britain, now exited from the EU, followed suit.
“A very hard blow
for the Ortega family”
The ruling couple wasn’t expecting it. In fact hardly anyone was. Last October, after a long and painstaking search for political consensus, the EU countries—at that time still including Great Britain—finally approved a legal framework for applying “specific and individual” sanctions on the regime’s officials. That process then continued to drag on so long without any sanctions being applied that it ended up eclipsed by the impact of COVID-19 in Europe. If there was limited energy pushing the sanctions before, it was assumed to be forgotten now.
Although the EU’s choices seemed to have a more symbolic than practical quality given that all six were already living under the US sanctions, their ratification by Great Britain suggested greater consequences. At least that’s what former Nicaraguan foreign minister Francisco Aguirre Sacasa told La Prensa: “Maintaining access to the European financial system is important for them at a time when the North American system is totally closed,” he explained. “Being excluded from the European countries and their banking network is a very hard blow. I think the impact of the European sanctions is going to be greater for the Ortega family than the American sanctions were.”
Aguirre also noted that the British Virgin Islands, which include the Cayman Islands, are tax havens under the control of Great Britain’s treasury ministry, which will complicate financial access by the regime’s close circle or front men in those territories.
Nicaragua’s on the list
The European sanctions were further reinforced days later, when the EU included Nicaragua on its list of countries that “pose significant threats to the financial system of the Union because of failings in tackling money laundering and terrorism financing.” The Nicaraguan government’s links to Venezuela’s Los Soles cartel, alleged in an accusation formulated on March 26 by Washington against Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro and several of his top officials, seems to have been decisive in the EU decision.
But that accusation doesn’t appear to have been the only impetus. Nicaragua’s inclusion on that list as of October indicates that both the United States and Europe have been following the trail of the money from the companies involved in the Albanisa consortium, sanctioned by Washington in January 2019. The ruling family needs to launder many millions of dollars in cash, and Europe wants to be sure it doesn’t happen in its territory.
Putting Nicaragua on the list will hamper the operations of Nicaragua’s national banking system. “The main consequence will be for the Nicaraguan banks,” an economist explained to Confidencial anonymously. “In addition to the cost to the country’s reputation, it will have the practical effect of increasing the European banks’ operating costs with Nicaraguan banking. It could even put an end to the correspondent bank relations with the national banks.”
Typically, there was no official reaction to the European sanctions, although the Vice President made the following oblique rebuttal: “We will neither sell out nor surrender to those who attempt to act as if they were the masters of the world.” Her son Juan Carlos posted a like-minded tweet, calling Europe “carrion.” As for the majority of the population, the news of the long hoped-for sanctions went unnoticed because the coronavirus now dominates the collective concerns.
Washington’s new sanctions
On May 22, by which time Nicaragua’s hospitals were giving clear signs of saturation, Washington imposed sanctions on Army chief Julio César Avilés and Finance and Public Credit Minister Iván Acosta. This was a direct hit on Ortega’s power base: the armed forces and public finances—weapons and money—are tightly interlinked.
The now well-worn Executive Order 13851, issued by President Trump on November 27, 2018, provides for the sanctioning of “any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State… to be responsible for or complicit in, or to have directly or indirectly engaged or attempted to engage in” four specified actions, three of which are “(A) serious human rights abuse in Nicaragua; (B) actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Nicaragua; [and] (C) actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, or stability of Nicaragua….”
The Treasury Department press release of May 22 states that General Avilés is “politically aligned with President Ortega” and was designated for having “refused to order the disbarment and dismantling of paramilitary or ‘parapolice’ forces during and after the political uprisings that began on April 18, 2018. The military provided weapons to the parapolice who carried out acts of violence against the Nicaraguan people, which resulted in more than 300 deaths, significant acts of violence, and human rights abuse against persons associated with the protests.”
Tracking the money
The sanction against Iván Acosta, also Ortega’s legal representative to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, marked the first time Washington has touched Ortega’s economic Cabinet.
The Treasury’s press release states that Acosta has “continued to arrange significant financial support to the Ortega regime,” which is rather perplexing as that is precisely the ministerial portfolio’s definition of his role. It goes on to say that he “personally threatened banks to not participate in a strike organized by opposition leaders in March 2019, the purpose of which was to push for the freeing of political prisoners.”
Like the European Union, the US Treasury Department is also tracking the movements of the regime’s mountains of cash, for which it needs to seek legal refuge after Washington’s earlier sanctions effectively closed the escape routes for the ruling couple’s acquired wealth, tying their financial hands and those of one of their sons, their directors and their operatives.
The Treasury Department must be aware that the dozens of businesses owned by the Army of Nicaragua are a great place to shelter all this money and leave it clean. One must assume it also suspects that the public finances acquired by the issuing of dollar bonds announced in May by Acosta’s ministry via a very unusual procedure will also be used to launder money. Might this be one of the unwritten reasons for sanctioning Acosta, who is in charge of this maneuver? Since the Treasury Department’s justification for the sanction did not include the Executive Order’s fourth specified action (“any transaction or series of transactions involving deceptive practices or corruption by, on behalf of, or otherwise related to the Government of Nicaragua or a current or former official of the Government…), one can only assume that it is still following the money and is not ready to announce such an allegation.
Manuel Orozco, a Nicaraguan researcher for the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, believes the sanctioning of both top officials has underlying economic motives and will have serious consequences for the Army, the regime and the country as a whole. “I think they indicate that Nicaragua has gone from being seen by Washington as a police State to being considered a criminal State,” he said.
General Avilés: A close member
of Ortega’s political family
Avilés’ political alignment with Ortega has sparked critical comments for years, especially after the general was ratified by Ortega as the head of the Army for a second term in 2015, and then a third in February of this year. In assuming this most recent five-year stint, Avilés openly signaled his subordination to Ortega in his acceptance speech by legitimating the official version that the 2018 protests were an attempted “coup d’état,” an absurd accusation by any realistic definition.
Critiques of the Army’s leadership have also repeatedly pointed to its unwillingness to disarm the paramilitaries. As early as May 2018, one of the main recommendations in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ preliminary report was that the State dismantle what it referred to as “armed third persons.”
That same year, retired Army chief Humberto Ortega declared “unacceptable” the presence of “three armed bodies in Nicaragua—the Police, the Army and parapolice or paramilitaries.” He called on Daniel Ortega, his brother, to order the Army to disarm them.
The use of Army weapons by those irregular groups—which are known to have often been led by retired military officers—is documented in various videos and in the analyses of the weapons used to repress the demonstrations, and allegedly came from Army inventories.
The US Southern Command’s good relations with the Army of Nicaragua have always been considered a solid protective shield for Nicaragua’s military institution. Are the sanctions against Avilés the sign that this shield is no longer bullet-proof and that the Washington-Army relationship has now been handed off from the Southern Command to the State Department? It is at least clear that by going after Avilés, Washington is hoping for an institutional reaction from the General Staff, whose members are quite aware that their own names are also on the list of sanctionable.
Only Ortega can remove Avilés from his post and he is unlikely to do it. Several analysts have suggested that Avilés should resign to save his institution and thus contribute to a transition process in the country. Is he capable of doing it? Might the Military Council induce him to do it, having seen the institutional crumbling of the Police and knowing how important it is to preserve the Army’s institutionality for future events that might not be long in coming?
How much weight will the desire to preserve the Army’s businesses and sizable capital—accumulated in the Military Social Security Institute and largely invested in the New York Stock Exchange—have in the Military Council’s decisions?
These investments were already valued at US$100 million back in 2012, and we can imagine how much they have increased over the past eight years. Any sanction that would freeze those US-based funds would be disastrous for the Army.
At the moment there’s not a hint of an answer to any of these critical questions.
An urgent message
to the Army
In February 2019, security expert Roberto Cajina, who knows the military establishment very well, sent the Army top brass a message via the pages of envío.
He suggested it “stand up” to the Ortega-Murillo regime rather than confront it. How? “They can do this by appealing to reason and resolutely stating that the regime is putting the Nicaraguan State’s national security at grave risk and that the road to the precipice will be shorter, the fall more violent and the effects more catastrophic if the presidential couple continues to entrench itself in El Carmen” (the couple’s residential and operational seat).
“While that would be a lot,” Cajina added, “it won’t be enough. The military leadership must also propose that the government create the conditions for a genuine dialogue: stop the repression, stop illegal detentions and raids, release the political prisoners and stop the rigged trials. They should also make it clear that national dialogue must lead to early elections.” If the Military Council is taking the message under advisement, it is giving no public hint of it.
Is the solution getting closer?
The new sanctions by both the European Union and the United States have the same objective: pressure Ortega and Murillo to accept a negotiated solution to the political and social conflict they unleashed with their repressive response to the April 2018 protests and now their deadly mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic.
For the past two years, the Europeans have banked on a negotiated dialogue that would lead to authentically free elections. Euro-parliamentarian Ramón Jáuregui expressed it again on April 29 in an oped piece published in Confidencial in which he referred very specifically and unequivocally to the electoral process: the election date must be set according to the Constitution (November 2021); there must be a new electoral law; public freedoms must be restored prior to the elections and the elections must be held with international electoral observation in which the EU would participate.
The main difference between the EU and United States is that the latter appears to be in a greater rush. Washington’s sanctions, which have already affected 21 Nicaraguans linked to the regime (including Vice President Murillo herself in November 2019, but so far not by either the EU or Canada), seem aimed at hastening a solution. The sanctions on Avilés and Acosta in particular seem conceived to accelerate the crisis opening up in the regime and the country as a whole as a result of its coronavirus policy, or rather lack of one.
President Trump’s urgent need to win the state of Florida to ensure his reelection helps explain the rush. Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan votes are pivotal in Florida and Nicaragua is the weakest link in the “troika of tyranny.” Knowing how Washington always thinks, why else sanction the Army at such a critical moment for the regime, given that when the change comes it will play a decisive role in guaranteeing the country’s stability?
The political circle is closing round the dictatorship as the individual sanctions continue. The ruling couple’s attempts to blackmail the opposition into asking Washington to lift them in exchange for political concessions inside the country are in vain. The concession ship has long since sailed.
On May 28, seven US senators from both sides of the aisle asked the secretary of state and secretary of the treasury to issue individual sanctions against Nicaraguan Supreme Court justices, judges and attorneys from the Prosecutor General’s Office who have facilitated the regime’s human rights violations.
It is increasingly clear that the regime’s image, already deteriorated international over the past two years, has worsened with its handling of the pandemic. International human rights agencies including the UN Office of High Commissioner of Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Human Rights Watch have all expressed concern and issued alerts about what is happening in Nicaragua, the only country where the government has rejected any form of quarantine or social distancing since February. The countless events it has organized instead can only generously be interpreted as a perverse herd immunity strategy. As always, it is the most vulnerable who are likeliest to die, but with this virus many others will as well if they don’t get medical help before the entire health system collapses. In Nicaragua, this is reportedly already happening, and we are presumably still well short of the curve’s peak.
“Ortegas has played with the life
of his own supporters”
Dora María Téllez was health minister during the revolution and is now a leader of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), which grew out of a split mainly of professionals and intellectuals from the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1995. She wrote the following in the May 10 issue ofConfidencial: “Ortega deceived his followers by telling them they should do nothing [to protect themselves from the coronavirus] and moreover encouraged the spread of the virus. Ortega’s credibility crisis is going to become extremely grave. A split is going to appear, because he has played with the life of his own supporters. Ortega’s discourse is criminal. It is no longer simply negligence, but a deliberate action that puts the health of the entire population at risk. When Ortega, who has a voice of authority, says nothing is going to happen, there are people who believe him in all their humility. In April 2018, Ortega’s followers viewed those killed [in the repressive response to anti-government protests] as unconnected to them, and even considered them their enemy. Now, when someone within the pro-Ortega family dies, and Ortega has been telling them that nothing is going to happen, that they’ll get awesome attention in the hospitals, we’re going to see the fracturing of credibility. There’s no way this won’t happen.”
In the community
The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), which at the beginning somewhat indulged the Nicaraguan government’s positions, is now strongly questioning the official case and death counts but has received no reply to requests for more detailed information. It is also continuing to insist that “social distancing” is the best way to reduce the virus’ transmission and slow down propagation.
On May 26, PAHO finally declared that Nicaragua had entered the community spread phase, something the government has yet to do. PAHO took the opportunity to again insist that the government provide transparent information and “immediately” apply the recommended measures, again with no response from the regime.
That same day Ciro Ugarte, PAHO’s director of health emergencies, announced that the regional health organization has lists of international experts ready to come to Nicaragua to evaluate the pandemic’s evolution on the ground if the government gives its permission. As of the close of this issue, that hadn’t happened either.
Nicaragua is the pandemic’s
epicenter in Central America
Costa Rica, which has the best results anywhere in Latin America controlling the contagion and reducing the number of deaths, has repeatedly expressed concern about the disorder in neighboring Nicaragua.
Nicaragua’s medical association agrees with these fears. In one of its numerous uncompromising declarations, this one signed by 700 doctors and other health professionals, it argues that the government’s “unprecedented and unbelievable” treatment of the health crisis is turning Nicaragua “into a potential focal point of dissemination of the infection for the rest of Central America.” Jorge Huete, microbiologist and vice rector of the Central American University, shares this opinion, warning of the danger of Nicaragua becoming the “pandemic’s regional epicenter.”
Psychologist Vilma Castillo anticipates pushback about the government’ tragic indolence: “Once all the Central American countries have managed to control the number of infections and decide to open their borders again, we Nicas will be treated as undesirables because no county will want to risk letting in people from a country that is still being considered—and rightly so—a source of contagion.”
These are some of the dictatorship’s worst hours. The political circle is tightening and the economic one is being felt increasingly. The national budget has a major deficit that’s not being covered.
For various reasons—the Nica-Magnitsky Act, the sanctions and Nicaragua’s shortcomings in accounting for the use of funds—the country is blocked from accessing unrestricted loans by the international financial institutions. The Nica Act specifies that they can be granted only for health emergencies but even then with strict accountability. Given the government’s defiant mismanagement of this undeniable health emergency, it is creating its own problems in accessing resources.
In May, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration allowed the regime to divert US$11.7 million of an already approved highway construction loan to deal with the corona-virus. Because the United States does not have a seat on this regional bank, it is not obligated to US conditions. At the end of the month, Ortega requested another $50 million loan for the same purpose.
El Salvador, Panama and Costa Rica received millions in loans from the International Monetary Fund’s “rapid financing” instrument, which has many fewer conditions than a conventional IMF loan. The amount in each case was proportional to its contribution to the institution. The equivalent to which Nicaragua would be entitled is US$351 million. The government requested it, but has obtained nothing.
In late March, a proposal by the INCAE Business School in Nicaragua, which also functions as a think tank for the region’s big business, proposed a “great national alliance” to hammer out a joint strategy to more effectively address the dilemma between controlling the coronavirus and maintaining economic activity. The proposal assured the government that the dialogue would not involve any political negotiation, even on electoral issues. The suggestion of setting aside political differences caused dismay in the blue and white opposition movement, which has been pushing hard for the release of political prisoners given the health risk in prisons. “There’s no truce for human rights,” argued one human rights organization. But the regime, unyielding in its exclusivist ruling style and closed vision of what this pandemic is all about, rejected the proposal. Might this explain the IMF’s lack of response to Nicaragua’s loan request?
In early May, the government pursued the issue with the IMF, arguing that it had declared a “state of national alert,” which in fact it has failed to do even by the close of this edition. It also claimed it had applied prevention measures against the pandemic and economic mitigation measures for the poorest social sectors; also untrue. The IMF still did not respond.
Around that same time, USAID donated US$750,000 for the health crisis, specifying it would be given not to the government but to international organizations that work on health in the country. To the same end, the European Union donated a far more generous 35 million euros (US$39.7 million), which could be used by civic organizations.
No recovery in sight
for the economy
The economy was already on the downward slope before the pandemic, but now it’s slipping faster. In fact, the country is in something approximating a national shrike—but not for the reason the government has so feared for the past two years. Close to half the population is in voluntary and/or forced lockdown—the lucky ones are those who can do their jobs at home—and the economy is operating at only 75% of its capacity. Businesses will only be obliged to pay employees whose jobs normally require being on-site if the government decrees a lockdown, although some are doing so voluntarily.
Experts say a drastic reduction of transmission and halting the exponential curve was achieved in countries that enforced lockdown for a relatively short period of time, at the cost of a 20% fall in economic activity. The hope is that beginning to restart on economic activity, which also involves more freedom of movement for the population, will allow for economic recovery without again losing control of the transmission curve and therefore burdening the country’s heath system more than it can bear.
This year it was predicted the economy would begin making a timid recovery from the two-year fall caused by the human rights crisis the government unleashed in April 2018. But those forecasts are now being seriously reworked. Independent economist Néstor Avendaño sees a bleak horizon ahead. He calculates that all economic indicators will close in the red this year: the gross domestic product will fall by 5.4%, exports by 7%, tax collection by 10%, remittances from Nicaraguans living abroad by 20%, agricultural production by 4% and livestock by 8%. The only increases will be in unemployment, which will affect 32.1%, and of course poverty, “because all the progress made in poverty reduction between 20’14 and 2017 has already disappeared.” Inflation was also expected to drop this year, but the prices of basic market basket items have already begun a steep but hopefully temporary rise as more and more people stock up for an expected period of sheltering in place.
The economy is the priority
Since his reappearance on April 15 after unexplainedly going MIA for 34 days, Daniel Ortega and his wife have spoken to the nation on television only three times. They have done so from a spacious flower-laden meeting room in their compound in El Carmen, where they are applying the strict lockdown they refuse to decree for the nation. In his addresses, Ortega has made it clear that lockdown is not an option in Nicaragua, implicitly admitting that economic recovery is the priority.
On May 1, the commemoration of International Workers’ Day, he openly rejected the “stay-at-home campaign” and mocked those promoting it in Nicaragua (health professionals most consistently and forcefully). He warned that if he were to decree a lockdown, doctors wouldn’t leave home to treat the sick and firefighters wouldn’t venture out to extinguish blazes. It was a pathetic insight into his misunderstanding of both “essential jobs” and the commitment those very people have to their services, risking their own lives in the process every day.
of an official lockdown
Two weeks later, the uncontrolled community spread had reached such proportions that it could no longer be hidden. Stories flooded the social networks and circulated among neighbors of people dying and being taken off by police-accompanied ambulances for immediate burials that relatives were forbidden to attend, sometimes even at night. In the absence of any official information beyond a list available on Internet of the total number of cases, recoveries and deaths, which no one believes, the law of social physics determined that the vacuum had no choice but to fill with rumors.
On Thursday, May 13, a rumor that the regime was finally going to declare a lockdown spread like a prairie fire. Two weeks? A month? It was even said—and few had any compelling reason to doubt it—that the Army would be sent into the streets to enforce it.
The next day the US Embassy issued a communique informing its citizens living in Nicaragua that “While the Nicaraguan government has not officially announced border restrictions, (…) restrictions on movement could occur with no advance warning. The Embassy advises U.S. citizens still in Nicaragua to prepare now to shelter in place. U.S. citizens remaining in Nicaragua must ensure they have an adequate supply of food, water, and medicine to shelter for at least two weeks.”
Was the Embassy assuming the rumors were true, or was it attempting to help make them true, even if only unofficially, for the weeks in which the contagion curve was expected to peak? Over the weekend, people all over the country raced to supermarkets, pharmacies and neighborhood house-front shops, buying up as much as they could afford to tide them over for those two weeks.… Suddenly almost everyone was wearing a mask.
By Monday, the fear of/hope for of a lockdown had dissipated. All that remained was a scarcity of products and increased prices for what was still available.
The Embassy’s message seemed to particularly irritate Vice President Murillo, who is in charge of managing (or not) the pandemic. The next day, unable to take her anger out on the Embassy, she went after the private health professionals who have questioned the official pandemic figures and continued to call for a lockdown. After again lauding the public health system, which to this government’s deserved credit is free, she didn’t try to dispute their arguments but opted to simply discredit them for being part of the for-profit health system, which happens to be the only part of the health sector where doctors dare criticize the government’s treatment of the pandemic without fear of dismissal.
For lack of new and better adjectives to insult those who took issue with the way she is doing things, she referred to them as “extraterrestrials” who “live in another galaxy, they live in a mental bubble, in other spaces, and there they invent and fabricate their lies, and from there, without contact, without being grounded, without contact with the suffering, with the people’s needs, they issue their lying messages, their fake news, their campaigns of panic, without embarrassment or shame….” While pitting the private sector against the public one in her listeners’ minds is nothing new, it is particularly duplicitous to suggest that she is more in contact with people’s suffering and needs from the comfort of El Carmen than doctors who see the effects of her “trust in God” policy every day.
Back on April 15, in a “reappearance” speech that left his disappearance unexplained, Ortega minimized the effects of the pandemic on the life and health of Nicaraguans, and prioritized the economy: “In the middle of this pandemic work has not ceased because if people stop working here the country dies, and if the country dies, the people die, are extinguished.”
On Monday, May 18, the anniversary of the birth of national hero and FSLN namesake Augusto César Sandino, Ortega inevitably spoke to the nation again, just a day after the panic-buying weekend in anticipation of a lockdown. He made no reference to the weekend’s chaos or to a lockdown. In fact his only reference to health was to inexplicably read off the annual death figures from pneumonia since 2015, mumbling offhandedly that a few COVID deaths might be mixed in. The main focus of his brief and more than usually incoherent presentation was the economic effects of Costa Rica having closed its border with both Nicaragua and Panama to commercial cargo trucks after some drivers had tested positive for COVID-19.
Ortega’s strange presentation was not accompanied by the usual coterie of some 10 Cabinet members seated along the side tables. This time there were only two: the president of the legislative body, Ortega’s loyal spokesperson Gustavo Porras, and the health minister, whose presence was particularly superfluous given the lack of emphasis on the health crisis.
The event was followed by a brief interview in the same room with the Vice President in which she also had nothing relevant to say. Displaying a clear anti-science bias, she presented the government as attentive to everything being said about COVID-19, but that nobody seems to know anything so there are “many opinions on one side and the other.” Was this a weak attempt to justify the government’s do-nothing policy and her standard counsel of solidarity and trust in God?
Ortega’s drawn face and more-than-normal fluster and Murillo’s tense demeanor didn’t go unnoticed. They were generally attributed to the undeniable health catastrophe and the couple’s inability to dominate it. Manuel Orozco was quoted from Washington by two national media saying that “there are medical indications that the President is now mentally incapable of governing.”
“A unique strategy”
On May 25, in response to the growing criticism of the way it has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic, the government released a “white paper,” justifying its approach. The 75-page document, accurately titled “A unique strategy,” was presented to national and international organizations by Paul Oquist, Ortega’s longtime political policies adviser and possibly the document’s designer.
It primarily consists of general statistics and other data about the national health system as a whole. As for the COVID-19 cases, it used the same implausible figures the regime announced on May 19: 63 infections and 17 deaths. As in earlier official figures (14 cases with 4 deaths as of April 31), the death rate (28.6% for April 31 and 27% for May 19) was significantly higher than the 1-1.5% elsewhere in the world. Could this be true, which would reflect abysmally on the health system, or did they forget to alter the number of deaths correspondingly when lowering number of infections?
Again blaming all criticism of its strategy on “coup-mongers,” the text claims that Nicaragua is struggling “vigorously” against COVID-19 without “shutting down our economy,” given what it describes as the “astronomical cost of closures.” While “lockdown” is admittedly a complex and thorny issue everywhere, the White Paper deceptively defines Nicaragua as the “same example” as Sweden simply because both “represent alternatives to total ‘lockdown’ in a developing country and a developed country.” It quotes Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Emergencies Program, as saying that “if we are to reach a new normal, in many ways Sweden represents a future model.” By implication, Nicaragua is on the same cutting edge.
In an April 30 discussion of Sweden’s model in the World Economic Forum COVID Action Platform, participants heard about many more aspects of Sweden’s approach that are absent in Nicaragua: Sweden has “ramped up its intensive care capacity, has a strong public health policy around physical distancing and key protections in place for those in long-term care facilities.” In addition to those measures and a series of strategic controls short of lockdown, Dr. Ryan defines the following as “key” to Sweden’s model: “What it has done differently is it is very much relying on its relationship with its citizenry. It really has trusted its own communities to implement that physical distance.” While recognizing that the verdict is still out on the longer-term success of this model, Ryan believes “that trust, combined with strategic controls and clear communication, could provide a template for other countries…”
None of those three features—strategic controls, trust and clear communication—are part of Nicaragua’s unique approach, although one would never know it from reading the White Book. It doesn’t admit to the government’s promotion of mass events even after the virus was known to be in the country; the fact that it still hasn’t closed its borders or schools and that health brigade workers going house-to-house were told not to wear masks to avoid alarming people. And of course it doesn’t admit that the government repeatedly lies to the population about the true danger.
What does the government mean by the statement that “Nicaragua is going to seek a balance between public health and a healthy economy”? No economic support is being provided to the most affected population, according to the text because “40% of the population lives in the countryside and 80% of the workers in urban areas belong to the informal sector and earns its livelihood daily.” Moreover, it complains that “we are defending the economic recovery of an economy weakened by the attempted coup d’état of April 2018, which continues to be under attack from fake news campaigns and disinformation, as well as by illegal coercive measures” (read US sanctions on individuals and institutions).
“Long live Nicaragua
free of COVID-19”
The ABCs of epidemiology teach that the economy has to take a back seat to health during any pandemic. Reality showed very quickly that, contrary to the White Book’s vision, Nicaraguans have neither reliable public health nor a healthy economy.
In their first signed pronouncement, 500 health professionals counseled the government on containment and mitigation measures including “necessary quarantines” that should be employed together with measures to cushion any negative economic impact on the poorest. These were the very professionals the regime, evidently incapable of accepting any criticism or seeking consensus, dismissed as “extraterrestrials… who live in a mental bubble.”
Meanwhile, in keeping with the government’s unique strategy, the Institute of Tourism had announced 442 more crowd-drawing events for May, similar to those it sponsored in April: zumbathons, carnivals, food fairs, an “ugly king” pageant (the previous month it was “Miss Summer”), and festivities for San Pascual Bailón or the day of the Cross… The printed posters promoting these activities all carried the motto: “Long live Nicaragua free of Covid-19.” To end the month it organized 83 mass activities all over the country to celebrate Mother’s Day, which falls on May 30 in Nicaragua.
The tallies of a
This unique strategy has in fact been deadly. From early on, the country’s many excellent, experienced epidemiologists and health professionals have used every medium at their disposal to repeatedly educate the population and call on the government to be sensible. Yet in May more and more people were arriving every day at both public and private hospitals, which quickly began to show signs of its structural fragility.
Back on May 6, the Ministry of Health (MINSA) reported only 16 positive cases and 5 deaths (which would mean a 33% death rate, the highest on the planet). At the same time the Citizen’s Observatory—a vital and exemplary volunteer civic network of doctors, epidemiologists, communicators and students that receives information from around the country—had already tallied reliable reports of 1,033 cases and 188 deaths (a slightly less alarming but still very high death rate of 8% ).
The gap between the two sets of figures is immense. The Observatory also mentioned that 122 health professionals had displayed symptoms associated with COVID-19, at least in part due to a lack of personal protective equipment.
On May 12, after a week of silence, MINSA issued another communique—reportedly written by the Vice President’s office—reporting 25 cases and 8 deaths (a 32% death rate). Within a few more days all figures disappeared and the much lauded public health system started showing signs of saturation, as epidemiologist Leonel Argüello explains in detail in the Speaking Out section of this issue.
Then on May 19, after the frenzied weekend in which the lockdown was rumored to be imminent, MINSA had to recognize a significant increase in cases, under significant pressure to recover some credibility given that international agencies were warning that the official figures were unreliable. It reported that positive cases had leaped in a single week from 25 to 254, a 1,000% increase, and the number of deaths from 8 to 17 (now a 6.7% death rate). While those figures were more appropriately dramatic, they still fell short of reality.
The price of trusting lies
The ruling couple’s irresponsibility has gone on too long. And they are beginning to pay the price.
Many of their followers, and not only their most fanatic ones, including government officials at all levels, believed all the lies: the virus wouldn’t come to Nicaragua; the heat would stop it; only rich white men are susceptible; Cuba’s interferon or Trump’s hydroxy-chloroquine would cure it; Nicaragua’s health system is very well prepared… A number of those who made fun of people who started wearing masks or enjoyed “La cumbia del virus importado que a ellos los tiene paniqueados” (The imported virus cumbia that has them panicked), a mocking song played incessantly on official stations, are now dead.
The virus began knocking
on upper-echelon doors
On May 22, journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro tweeted that “The spread of the pandemic is knocking on the doors of the very government that scoffed at the preventive measures. Infected patients in the hospital include FSLN legislators, government ministers and economic officials, and party and union cadres.”
With the exponential curve still climbing, those of the nomenclature who are infected are seeking treatment from the extraterrestrials in the expensive private hospitals, not the much-lauded public ones. People with lower incomes who go to the public hospitals have learned they are far from prepared, while the dwindling confidence in the public system and the regime’s lack of empathy toward the death toll is increasing the number of those who prefer to die at home, with their family.
Baseball players rebel
The official order that “nothing is happening in Nicaragua” and “everything is normal” was also being recklessly followed in sports. The virus thus also knocked on the doors of the country’s most popular sport, baseball, like almost everything else also dominated by the regime’s political operatives. After weeks of national champion playoffs in virtually empty stadiums, players on teams from all over the country began to go missing with COVID symptoms, even under threat of losing their salaries and contracts if they didn’t return. Finally, on May 20, the players rebelled announcing: “We’re not going to play; life is more important.”
This consensus forced the pro-Ortega National Commission to suspend the championship, but only for two weeks. The death the very next day from COVID-19 of Carlos Aranda, the coach of Masaya’s San Fernando team, confirmed the players’ decision not to return to the field.
With the rise in the number of deaths, an increasingly similar script began to be followed by mid-month: a hospital advises the family of the patient’s death; the body is released in a black bag inside a sealed coffin that is hurriedly buried by MINSA officials, even at night, without ceremony and without the family present.
The doctors in both public and private hospitals are warned not to write that patients died of the virus. The majority of the deceased leave left behind a signed death certificate listing the cause of death as “atypical pneumonia,” the regime’s most frequent way of camouflaging the real figure of COVID-19 deaths. Another more recently listed cause is “pulmonary thrombosis.”
Why sealed caskets…
The WHO and PAHO protocol for handling the body of those who die from COVID-19 stipulates that there should be no physical contact and a quick burial, but does not specify that relatives should not be allowed to view it to say good bye before it is put in the coffin.
In Nicaragua, where it is not officially accepted that COVID is the cause of most deaths, such a severe application of the protocol puts the lie to that pretense: why would it be necessary for a person who died of pneumonia?
Particularly in such a traditionally religious country as this, the procedure has triggered strong rejection by the population. One woman who has lost several family members to COVID summed up that grief-filled experience with classic peasant stoicism: “I couldn’t say goodbye to them, hold a wake for them as I should have, take them to a church for a funeral Mass or even take them with mariachis to be buried …” Adding to this pain, the government has lost so much credibility that many people question whether the body in the coffin is actually their loved one.
What people have dubbed “express burials” have been video-filmed showing MINSA functionaries, “dressed as astronauts,” as people describe it, taking the coffin to the cemetery in a vehicle guarded by the intimidating presence of parapolice. The social media and independent formal media have transmitted many videos of these burials, which are considered disrespectful, inhuman and even cruel.
…and why at night?
The carpentry shops cranking out coffins all day long, the rows of holes being dug in the cemeteries all over the country, but particularly in Chinandega, Masaya and Managua, the nocturnal burials… all of it has touched the most sensitive fibers of the population.
Nicaraguans’ extreme familiarity with death by poverty, wars and disasters has bequeathed them a now customary saying steeped in realism: “We belong to death.” But even with the resignation underlying that expression, it is extremely insensitive to treat people this way in their final hour.
“Why bury them at night?” shouted a man who lives near a district cemetery on the outskirts of Managua to the MINSA burial team. “Why?” Nicaragua is admittedly a poor, tropically hot country with few morgue facilities and a wildly contagious virus that might explain the speed, lack of ceremony, and even possibly keeping family members at a distance, but that is no excuse for such coldness and lack of communication.
The regime is quite right in claiming to have a unique strategy. It lacks any concept of trust in and honest communication with its population. Its communication queen has said not a word to explain its treatment of the pandemic’s victims, presumably because its supporters aren’t the ones asking. It explains nothing, advises nothing and, worse yet, consistently lies—even to those same loyal followers—about issues as deadly serious as the coronavirus.
Not only grief,
but also indignation
One of the tragedies the coronavirus adds to those it fatally affects is having to die alone.
“It is inhuman to die alone,” writes Xavier Gómez-Batiste, scientific director of the program for Comprehensive Attention to Persons with Advanced Illnesses of Spain’s La Caixa Foundation. “Although contagion must be avoided, the devastating effect of dying alone must also be avoided. This is a complicated ethical-clinical decision, but we think the presence of family members, with protection measures, should be permitted.”
In Nicaragua, the hurried, depersonalized, at times dehumanized approach to people dying of the virus and their loved ones in the public hospitals, and in some private ones, is causing not only profound grief but also major indignation. It may be especially strong among the ruling couple’s own followers, who put their faith in the lies they were told and willingly attended the massive events and political marches the government promoted. And then of course there are the government employees who were forced to participate under threat of losing their job.
In strict quarantine
Nicaragua has broken records manipulating infection and death figures. So have Venezuela and Cuba, China and Russia. It has been a common denominator of all authoritarian governments to underplay the threat of the pandemic and then cover up all the ravages caused by what they had shrugged off. Both Bolsonaro in Brazil on the right and López Obrador in Mexico on the left have acted erratically and irresponsibly. And then of course there is Trump in the United States.
The Nicaraguan government has not only ruled out lockdown for all but the numerous ruling family members, but has also refused to decree, or even consider, a state of emergency. The publication of the White Paper, with its calculated disinformation, makes more evident the regime’s posture of denial. No other country has written such a paper to justify its actions regarding the pandemic. Why has this government done so when everyone knows it is full of lies? Is there some unimaginable political calculation? Does it think it can fool the population, or even more unlikely the international lenders, despite the increasing evidence to the contrary? Is it to bolster its own self-denial?
Parallels between the
United States and Nicaragua
In this disastrous moment in which the pandemic is the main actor, many thinkers around the world have recalled that tragedies of this magnitude “accelerate history.” We’re already seeing a case of this in the United States where a policeman, without a shadow of justification, was filmed kneeling on the neck of an Afro-American man named George Floyd, cutting off his airway until well after he was dead, sparking a virtually unimagined response. Tens of thousands of protestors all over the country and even abroad took to the streets day after day, determined not only to see justice done for Floyd’s death and put a stop to police violence, but to change the country’s historical systemic racism once and for all. In so doing they have risked their life by ignoring social distancing, most of them because they sense the moment is upon them to accelerate history.
While the issues were different, the parallels with April 2018 in Nicaragua are inescapable. There like here police violence brought people into the streets. There like here the country’s arrogant and authoritarian ruler showed no compassion for the protestor’s cause and made no attempt to address it; rather they both exacerbated it. There like here there was some looting and burning of buildings, some hotheads and some provocateurs, but the vast majority of protestors were peaceful. There like here the national government ordered out additional military or paramilitary forces who hid their insignia and their face. There like here, the police violence, rather than quelling the demonstrations, only increased their determination day after day until hundreds of thousands of people were in the streets calling not just for justice, but for systemic change. Most eerily, Floyd’s dying plea “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry on placards, while the same thing happened in Nicaragua with the words “It hurts to breathe” uttered as he was dying by 15-year-old Alvaro Conrado, shot in the neck by a government sniper while simply taking water to protestors.
Is an implosion coming?
Is history in fact being accelerated again in Nicaragua? It could be. More than a few analysts have suggested that the correlation of forces left by the massacre ordered by Ortega and implemented by his police and parapolice in 2018 has been shifting in recent months. They point out that unlike any other adversary or internal conflict Ortega and Murillo have ever faced, hey can’t control the pandemic, with so many impacts on all of society and on the economy. In fact, their arrogant conviction that they can do so has boomeranged.
These analysts believe the end of the dictatorship won’t be the result of a new social explosion, but rather an implosion inside the regime. The University of California Santa Barbara’s web page US Science Line provides this summary definition of how an implosion works: “In short, implosions are caused by having a greater pressure on the outside of an object than on the inside.” At this time, the pressures on the outside—the rapidly ascending curve of the virus and Washington’s new sanctions against the Army chief and the handler of the ruling family’s ill-gotten gains—are not only greater than the internal pressures but that inside pressure is being subjectively weakened by the deception about party members’ health security and fears of where sanctions could hit next. After enjoying the harvest of 12 years of increasingly absolute power, the fruit is tasting bitter.
The virus’ uncontrolled expansion in May, with its rising death rate, could increase the implosive pressure to the point of collapse. Independent epidemiologists—those who work for MINSA don’t dare say anything—are warning that the rising contagion and death rate could last until August. Nicaragua is now experiencing the same moments of great uncertainty that came earlier in many other countries.
On May 26 MINSA acknowledged 759 infections and 35 deaths (a death rate that suddenly plummeted to 0.46%). The next day the Citizens’ Observatory, which has earned far greater credibility than the government health authorities, reported 3,725 contagions and 805 deaths, which are much closer to the palpable reality on the street. This number of deaths already exceeds the total reported in all other Central American countries combined.
In that final report for May, the Observatory counted 340 health workers with COVID symptoms, 210 of them medical personnel and 53 nursing personnel. It also reported 28 deaths of health personnel (7 doctors, 8 nurses and the rest linked to hospital services).
The Observatory has also been verifying that the figure for those dying at home is continuing to rise. “That is alerting us to various situations that could be occurring: a saturation of the health system, distrust of the system and its treatment, fear of turning to the health units for fear of contagion, fear of political reprisals, or in the case of the private system its high cost.”
While the Observatory’s figures are unquestionably more reliable than MINSA’s, there is no way to know how accurate they are either. With respect to the mortality figures, the immediate burial of the deceased without an autopsy makes it impossible to scientifically prove cause of death. It can only be based on symptomology. And as for figures of infection, no country has an accurate count because no country has come anywhere close to testing all its residents, Nicaragua possibly least of any.
A challenge to
Nicaragua is now on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe given the collapse of the health system so early in the explosive stage of the pandemic. It is a level of irresponsibility that borders on criminality. In fact some are already calling it yet another crime against humanity by this government.
Does the Army bear any specific responsibility? Days before the announced sanction against General Avilés, his institution had initiated a public opinion campaign distancing itself from the Vice President’s management of the pandemic. Avilés and other top brass appeared in photos standing the required 6 feet apart, and in some cases wearing the verboten mask. They also promoted videos publicizing precautionary measures the population should take. Rather late and certainly insufficient, but the main value of these efforts is that they penetrated a new audience, breaking Murillo’s monopoly on messaging to the governing party’s base.
The health emergency and social disaster we are facing, makes the way the pandemic is developing a challenge to national security. It thus corresponds to the military to deploy all its forces and experience to deal with it, reinforcing the national health system and ensuring the population’s life and health.
Doing so would require participating in the management of the pandemic with more rationality than has been applied so far, hopefully avoiding even greater promotion of the contagion and putting a halt to what is called “culpable genocide.”
These are hard times for Nicaragua and possibly even worse times for the regime. In April 2018 the dictatorship trembled before the massive civic explosion that filled the country’s streets. Two years later, the pandemic is filling the cemeteries. Will that be what tolls the bells of the regime’s implosion?