Can the social majority turn itself into the political majority?
The regime is paying the price of its
erratic, criminal handling of the pandemic,
as the latest CID-Gallup opinion poll confirms.
Meanwhile, the international community continues
to exert pressure for credible elections as the only
political solution to the crisis the regime triggered in 2018,
but the blue and white opposition, a clear social majority,
has thus far been unable to forge the unity and cohesion
required to become an electoral majority.
CID-Gallup used three words to sum up the findings of its latest poll, presented on June 17: “Nicaraguans want change.” That same day, seeing that the government was still insisting on minimizing the danger of the coronavirus and propagating its spread with planned public events, 34 medical associations called on the population to voluntarily stay at home to reduce the virus’ “unstoppable advance.”
Despite Nicaragua’s rapidly worsening economic crisis, one out of three people polled identified the virus as the country’s “main problem.” And a full 70% believes the government is doing nothing to resolve it. From a list of 20 personalities offered by the poll, President Daniel Ortega pulled the highest percentage of unfavorable opinions, followed by his wife and Vice President, Rosario Murillo. “Unquestionably, the disillusionment with this couple and the poor evaluation of their way of governing the country comes from their attitude toward the pandemic,” said CID-Gallup general manager Luis Haug.
A comparison La Prensa published of the eight polls by this same firm since January 2018 that asked about the couple’s governing performance suggests the worst may be yet to come. In the first one, when they were riding a peak approval moment, 62% said Ortega was doing a good or very good job and 77% said the same of Murillo. In the next seven, between May 2018, when their approval plummeted to 19% and 27%, respectively, and the current one, when the figures were 31% and 27%, both have only averaged 25% with separately varying highs and lows. In other words, they have had worse moments than this poll, which was taken in May, when the official figures of COVID-19 infections were still absurdly fictitious and people had not yet seen evidence to the contrary among their own family members, neighbors and friends. If the poll had been taken only one month later, Haug’s assessment would surely have been far more evident.
More international pressure
The political consequences of the refusal to control SARS-Cov-2, the strain of the corona¬virus that produces COVID-19, have brought the dictatorship to its worst hours yet. This invisible enemy is the first the regime has come up against that it can’t intimidate or gun down.
The government has barely veered an inch from its initial “strategy,” which could be summed up as “live and let die.” Back in April, the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet called that strategy “perhaps the most erratic of any country in the world to date.” “Erratic” was a kind and diplomatic word for the government’s irresponsibility, which has given the international community new cause for concern and led it to intensify its pressure in June.
On June 17, Luis Almagro, the recently reelected secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), requested an urgent session of its Permanent Council to follow up on application of the Democratic Charter to Nicaragua. The previous day, the US Senate approved by unanimous consent Resolution S.Res.525 introduced by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) on March 20 “expressing the sense of the Senate that the United States should continue to support the people of Nicaragua in their peaceful efforts to promote the restoration of democracy and defense of human rights, and use the tools under United States law to increase political and economic pressure on the government of Daniel Ortega.” Two days later, the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council issued another statement on the gravity of Nicaragua’s situation.
“There will be more sanctions”
The texts of both the OAS secretary general and the Senate resolution allude to the regime’s inadequate handling of the pandemic. “The situation has not improved,” said Almagro. “On the contrary, it has been aggravated, among other aspects by the consequences of COVID-19.”
For their part, the US senators on both sides of the aisle approved eight actions they want the US government or the Nicaraguan Stet to take, the last of which “urges the Ortega government to implement measures consistent with public health guidance to limit the spread of corona¬virus in Nicaragua.” One can only assume the Republican senators were shielded by their arrogant self-righteousness from feeling the hypocrisy of that demand given President Trump’s own deplorable mishandling of the pandemic.
Former Nicaraguan diplomat José Luis Velásquez believes the renewed OAS attention to Nicaragua and the Senate’s bipartisan pressure are evidence that if Ortega and Murillo thought they could use the pandemic to get financing to beef up the economy and get the sanctions suspended, they were wrong. “They aren’t going to have access to fresh resources and there will be more sanctions,” he predicted.
The OAS Permanent Council’s on-line meeting on June 24 was for informative purposes. Almagro’s presentation about our country’s current situation was briefer than the call to attend the meeting itself, merely pointing out that the interruption of the constitutional order is gravely affecting the democratic order. Not for the first time, his pronouncement sounded like an ultimatum.
Various representatives of the member countries referred to Ortega’s negligence toward the pandemic and none defended it. The Nicaraguan representative did not attend.
The next step in this eternally slow bureaucratic process will be a meeting of the continent’s foreign ministers to decide if the Ortega regime must be expelled from the OAS. It is a touch choice, particularly for a poor country that already has an economic crisis hitting the poor hardest, as it would bring even more serious consequences for our economy.
The inexorable path
to the ballot box?
The OAS, Washington and Geneva are all demanding credible elections, with Almagro reiterating that the only democratic alternative is the “inexorable” path to the ballot box.
The second of the eight points in the US Senate Resolution “urges the Ortega government to respect Nicaraguans’ constitutional rights and implement the electoral reforms mentioned above in order to permit the holding of free, fair, and transparent elections.” (The very first point calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners and the end of all acts against dissenting voices.)
Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council, presided over by Michele Bachelet, called on the Ortega government to undertake the electoral reforms that will lead to elections with the aforementioned guarantees.
and a dilemma
The international community isn’t the only actor that sees the holding of elections as the alternative for change in Nicaragua. Further studies based on CID-Gallup’s poll data reveal that a majority of between 68% and 79% sees elections as “important” for achieving change in the country, demonstrating that the desire to rid the country of the governing couple through civic means expressed in April 2018 has remained steady.
That stems partly from a conviction that Nicaragua’s history of turning first to violence to achieve change has proven to be wrong-headed and unviable over time. But there is also a pragmatic thread: over two years of economic and political stalemate and the oppressive and repressive environment created by the existing police State, which controls all military power, would make any thought of a violent approach suicidal. Elections are thus the only viable option.
The dilemma the poll captures, however, is that only one in four people who see the electoral route as important believes the next elections (constitutionally set for November 2021) will in fact be free and credible. Even so, 53% of those polled say it is “very probable” they will vote in those elections, with only 36% saying they are unlikely to and 11% undecided or unwilling to say.
The only unifying features of what has come to be known as the “blue and white opposition” are its staunch opposition to the ruling couple and party, with their sectarian and repressive method of rule, and a defense of country symbolized by the only colors acceptable to all: the blue and white of the national flag. Those elements are sufficiently strong to cross generation and gender spectrums and wide-ranging political/ideological loyalties.
Only 23% would
vote for the FSLN
The poll asked the common question: “Who would you vote for if the elections were held today?” Although a year and four months is light years for most Nicaraguans, 41% chose “no one” from the list presented. In second place, 23% chose the incumbent Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), while Don’t Know/Didn’t Respond came in third with 15%. The two organizational amalgams that emerged from the April 2018 rebellion, neither of which is a registered party, followed: the Blue and White Unity with 10% and the Civic Alliance with 5%. Pulling up the rear were four political parties that still have legal status and thus a slot on the ballot, all of them of Liberal roots. While all four have collaborated with or benefitted from the FSLN in power, the once-powerful Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), which only got 3%, and the three-year-old Citizens for Liberty (CxL), with 2%, have been most vociferous in opposing the ruling party and in fact anything Sandinista. The other two—the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) and the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN)—got 1% each, for a combined tally of only 7% for the four.
The sum of all those who chose one of the six non-FSLN options is 22%, one point lower than the FSLN. This is what makes so crucial the degree of unity and cohesion the blue and white opposition can achieve to negotiate electoral reforms and exercise their vote.
Do these figures imply that the 15% who say they are still undecided or are unwilling to state their choice will determine the 2021 elections? And does it also suggest that the 41% who say they wouldn’t vote for anyone could not be convinced otherwise? How great a factor is their distrust of the electoral process itself? Might some of them change their mind if they thought their vote actually mattered?
An attractive candidate,
not a party flag
While those who reject the dictatorship and its dictating couple form a clear social majority that recognizes elections as the only path to change, a majority of them—albeit by a slim and questioning margin—wants to vote in those elections even while doubting they will be free and not yet seeing an attractive candidate. Both time and a great deal of effort are needed for that social majority to turn itself into an electoral majority.
The FSLN is the largest minority party, but its 23% support is the lowest it has ever had and is well under half of the 56% who say they don’t support any party. In the criteria of CID-Gallup’s Luis Haug, “all the parties have a negative image and what people are looking for is a candidate who gives them hope for the future, independent of their party flag.”
Ortega will encourage
Ortega knows he is likely to lose even minimally credible elections. He also knows that were the blue and white opposition to also win a qualified majority in the legislative body it would begin to dismantle everything the dictatorship has built. Should this happen, Ortega and Murillo wouldn’t be the only ones confronting a serious reversal. The stakes are also high for a good number of top officials, including in the Army and Police.
Could Ortega suspend the elections using the calamity of the pandemic as his excuse? Or might he postpone them or dust off his old idea of changing Nicaragua’s political system into a parliamentary one?
José Antonio Peraza, an expert on electoral issues, told envoi he views such possibilities as unlikely given the current international pressure on Ortega. He believes the President has no choice but to hold elections preceded by electoral reforms, making his best hope fomenting abstention. “He will do it by promoting division in the opposition ranks, whipping up bitter disputes among the registered parties and other opposition groupings, and ordering incidents in certain areas of the country to create enough fear that people won’t want to go out and vote.”
Ortega is no novice at any of these techniques, and is aided by his absolute control of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), which grants and strips parties of their legal status, thus determining which will have a slot on the ballot. Since there is no likelihood that the CSE would grant legal status to a new blue and white political formation, all the high cards are now held by the existing opposition parties, all of which are on only one side of the political spectrum and have long since degenerated into cynical and self-serving structures. What wouldn’t they say or do to get the allegiance of the blue and white opposition? And what wouldn’t they say or do to keep the CSE from conjuring up some excuse to eliminate their legal status, as it has done to so many other parties?
The origins of the
Civic Alliance land UNAB
The April rebellion drastically changed the national political scenario, but the massive demonstrations and highway roadblocks that shut down virtually the entire country did not bring about Ortega’s resignation. He has ferociously held on to power, buying time and employing armed repression to the maximum.
The two groupings that emerged—in very different ways—from the civic uprising in April and May of 2018, first the Civic Alliance and later the Blue and White National Unity (UNAB), have acted as expressions of that spontaneous massive rebellion. Both were the visible tips of larger icebergs: the Civic Alliance of sectors such as students, civil society, business, peasant farmers and the Caribbean Coast populations; and the latter by new or existing social organizations; with inevitable overlaps between the two. Both structures engaged in thousands of mobilizing and denunciatory actions, ultimately earning the support of the international community.
Neither the Alliance nor UNAB were headed up by political parties. They have arisen at a time in which rejection of traditional politics and the existing parties predominates, as the latest CID-Gallup poll so unequivocally demonstrates. By all accounts, the Civic Alliance had a more heterogeneous composition. Over time it began acquiring a more entrepreneurial bent, while UNAB was more homogeneous, even from the beginning and remained so. Sandinistas (not to be confused with Ortega loyalists) and more centrist and right-leaning participants could be found in both groups.
The Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy. It was formed after its members were separately selected by the bishops to represent their sectors in the national dialogue the bishops and business leaders had secured with the government in May 2018. Most were well-known faces and became even better known as many of the half-dozen meetings before the dialogue ended in an impasse were televised. From the beginning this grouping had a more intellectual, elitist slant, and big business inevitably had an important presence. It was the first time in the country’s history that big-business representatives had worked together politically with the peasant, student and feminist leaders who were among the representatives of other sectors, and was a useful learning experience for all involved.
A reasonable scenario after the failure of the dialogue would have been for the members and their back-room advisory team to disband. But instead they had the foresight to pool their considerable prestige, talent and experience, acting as a collective voice both nationally and internationally for the two main demands shared by all the sectors they spoke for: justice and democracy. They incorporated both into the name they choose for their group.
One of the Alliance’s achievements in the 2018 dialogue had been to get the government to agree to allow inter-American and international human rights agencies into the country, a decision Ortega came to regret. Right up to today, those agencies have continued to denounce the regime’s abuses both that year and ever since and to advocate for Nicaraguans’ rights.
With the national economy on a downhill slope, particularly the tourism sector, in early 2019 a group of business leaders convinced Ortega to sit down with the Civic Alliance, this time at what was more formally designated a negotiation table, in hopes Ortega would take its intent more seriously. By that time the big business sector’s weight in the Alliance was evident.
Although the Alliance members had carefully analyzed the lessons from the 2018 dialogue and were thus much better prepared, virtually the only accomplishment of the 2919 negotiations was the release into house arrest more than a hundred political prisoners, many of whom were again captured and imprisoned, this time on trumped-up charges of common crimes. Those not back behind bars were forced into exile or continue to be besieged and persecuted today.
As before, Ortega had no interest in negotiating in good faith. He only released the political prisoners in an attempt to improve his image. Their formal full release later served as an excuse for pushing through a new amnesty law that really only protected the true crimes of his paramilitary minions. The government’s absolute dearth of good will led to the dubbing of this second failed attempt at a negotiated solution “Dialogue 2.0.”
The National Blue and White Unity. For its part, UNAB was born in October 2018, by which time the government’s military attacks on the roadblocks and self-protective neighborhood barricades had left well over 300 dead, and the previous mobilizations were in retreat. UNAB was made up of both social movements with a long trajectory and a lot of young people, largely students, new to political activism who rejected not only the dictatorship but also the corrupted and self-serving political class as a whole.
The National Coalition’s origins
Organizing the diverse and plural social majority, which extends well beyond those reprented by the two above groupings, into a solid and unified political project would be the most effective vaccine against all divisive ploys concocted by Ortega and Murillo. It would even help immunize the country against a new dictatorship. This June, despite the rapidly ascending pandemic curve, the issue of opposition unity was the centerpiece of the national political scene.
Four months ago, the Civic Alliance, its youth sector, UNAB, the Peasant Movement, the National Resis¬tance’s National Democratic Force (FDN) sector and three political parties—the PLC, the Evangelical-based Democratic Restoration Party (PRD and the regional indigenous party Yátama—signed on to create the National Coalition, the first step in a unitary process.
The Coalition was conceived as a space to bring together as large a mass of this social majority as possible to politically confront the dictatorship, including taking it on in the next scheduled elections. This necessarily involved reaching agreement on as many principles, platforms and specific issues as possible.
After interminable meetings and debates, many of them on line, the plan was to sign the Coalition’s agreed-upon bylaws and the procedures by which it would function on June 22. When the date was postponed three days, cracks in the Coalition started to become public. During those days the Peasant Movement resigned from the Civic Alliance—but not from the National Coalition. It was followed by José Pallais, the Alliance’s representative for the political sector, a relative newcomer to its list of sectors.
Ever since the business sector leaders got Ortega to agree to the 2019 negotiation table, the latent distrust of them began to grow in the blue and white opposition. They were seen as wanting to create the kind of backroom solution favored by Washington that US political scientists dubbed a “soft landing,” with early elections that would result in “Orteguismo sin Ortega,” an Ortega-style system of rule without his troublesome presence. (The concept dates back to 1979 when the United States attempted to pull off the same solution with the departure of Somoza, leaving the pro-US structure in place under the leadership of rightwing sectors that considered themselves the rightful heirs of power in Nicaragua.) This time around, the assumption was that the business elite would resume the role they played during the first decade of Ortega’s new stint in power as full economic partners in his corporative system, from which they benefited handily. That relationship ended abruptly that fateful April 2018 when Ortega overrode their objections to social security contribution hikes for employers. It was another part of his same unilateral social security modification—a 5% cut in the already minimal pension payments—that triggered the April 18 demonstrations of pensioners and students that were met by an unjustifiably repressive response and quickly escalated into unimaginable police and parapolice violence.
Private enterprise is now being accused of trying to impose its own interests on the Civic Alliance, because those interests would be threatened if the National Coalition’s bylaws are approved. One statute determines that the Civic Alliance would have only one vote on Coalition decision-making issues, as would UNAB (or the Peasant Movement once it pulled out of the Alliance). After enjoying such dominant influence in the Alliance, the business sector would now be just one sector among equals and its desires would not necessarily be expressed in the Alliance’s one vote.
From the logic of power
An interesting item in the new CID-Gallup poll is that 50% of those surveyed—over twice the percentage that admits to supporting Ortega—still sees the FSLN as “very strong politically.” Big Nicaraguan capital is surely among them, given its decade-long cozy role as Ortega’s nearly exclusive economically.
The break-up of that partnership has led to very tough times for big business. Driven by the logic of power, which is the only one he listens to anymore, Ortega cannot forgive the business class for having sided with the blue and white opposition the past two years. To bend them back to his will, he has economically asphyxiated them even more with taxes, audits and all manner of new institutional red tape.
To be fair, all businesses and of course workers and society as a whole have been affected by the government’s politically-based economic measures and decisions, plunging the country into a worsening recession over the past two years.
Backed up by the force of arms, Ortega and his wife can take their time, knowing that the business sector has less to play with and of course no weapons. It is a suicidal gamble in which the stakes are the country’s development and the population’s wellbeing, but holding on to power trumps all that.
Dark economic forecasts
In the first quarter of this year, it seemed the economy might pick up a bit, with a few economic indicators expected to improve. But then the coronavirus pandemic brought even greater human and economic ravages. In June, the Central Bank president had to admit that the pandemic will cause the economy to fall another 4-4.5%. Forecasts by The Economist, the British publication specializing in global economic analysis, indicate that it will drop by 6.5% and show no recovery until 2022. For its part, Fitch Ratings gave Nicaragua’s economy a negative credit rating as of June 17 after it had finally earned a positive one and a stable outlook last November.
All these falling figures are due not only to the pandemic itself, but even more importantly to the regime’s erroneous and erratic management of the health crisis. It is this dramatic economic situation and the grim outlook if the health emergency drags out to the end of the year—as the medical profession has warned—that could encourage big business to cut some deal with Ortega.
COSEP’s 14 negotiating points
On June 19, the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), Nicara¬gua’s umbrella organization of business chambers and think tanks, publicly proposed what appeared to be its agenda for negotiating with Ortega. The member business associations put forward 14 “immediate and exceptional” economic, social and health measures to respond to the pandemic and avoid the country’s economic collapse.
The proposal’s implicit assumption is that if the regime agrees to negotiate these points with business leaders, they will advocate on Ortega’s behalf with the international financial institutions so Nicaragua can obtain economic resources currently denied it from all quarters.
Are these 14 points an update of a proposal made to the government in late March by the Harvard-linked Central American Business Administration Institute (INCAE) with the backing of the entire business sector? The regime rejected that initiative, reportedly conditioning any discussion on the private sector apologizing for participating in what the government insists on calling an attempted “coup d’état” in April 2018, and on asking the US government to suspend the sanctions against Ortega & Co.
Might the new proposal have already initiated new feelers between big business and Ortega that could lead to yet another round of negotiations? And if so, how would the business sector’s possible negotiations with the regime square with the US government’s strategy of ever-increasing pressure on the ruling couple?
everyone is demanding
The COSEP proposal unveiled on June 19 includes four packages of measures. The health measures are those already expressed by international organizations and the national medical profession: massive prevention campaigns, closure of public schools and universities, prohibition of large events, providing the private sector with sufficient COVID-19 tests (currently controlled totally by the Health Ministry) and supplying health personnel with protection equipment.
In the next two packets, for “social relief and protection” and “to protect the economy and production,” COSEP agrees with the proposals of all the blue and white opposition’s social organizations.
The social proposals include reducing water and electricity rates and not cutting either service for those who can’t pay; as well as creating an emergency fund with credit lines for small businesses and a food fund for the informal sector, the poorest population, people with disabilities and the elderly. They would also modify regulations for reclassifying personal loans and credit cards, as well as conditions for getting new credits; and exonerate and grant fiscal incentives for basic market basket and essential health products to counteract the pandemic.
The business sector’s priority is the fourth packet, which contains “administrative and labor” measures. They propose changing the tax law to reverse its negative effects; making the import and export processes more effective; facilitating the paperwork at the borders, ports and airports; making work contracts more flexible; reducing the social burden on businesses and workers; granting a moratorium on social security contributions for both workers and bosses; halting current administrative and judicial processes related to taxes and payment for customs services; and stopping the audits being conducted on businesses. All this was defined as necessary to “improve their liquidity and preserve their sustaina¬bility.”
A week after the proposal was released, the Superintendence of Banks and Financing Institutions relaxed the credit conditions for debtors and the Central Bank announced monetary adjustments. COSEP promptly announced that both were insufficient, which indicates that the “arrangement” isn’t quite gelled yet.
At month’s end, Murillo announced a 3% drop in electricity rates, which both users and economic analysts considered nowhere near enough, even “a mockery,” given the 19% rate hike last year.
Games political people play
The presentation of COSEP’s proposal coincided with political moves by different actors that sparked still more suspicions in the blue and white opposition.
One of them was headed up by the CxL, which had already refused to join the National Coalition back in February when the three other parties did, citing the presence of very active anti-Ortega Sandinistas in both the Civic Alliance and UNAB, to whom the CxL imputed negative intentions.
Before describing the most recent move by Citizens for Liberty, it’s useful to look at this nominally young party’s checkered and much older origins. Its members trace their roots back to former President Arnoldo Alemán’s Constitutionalist Liberal Party and in some cases possibly even as far back as Somoza’s Nationalist Liberal Party. The 2005 split from the PLC was originally led by banker-politician Eduardo Montealegre, whose new party, the National Liberal Alliance (ALN), came in second in the following year’s general elections and nearly upset the FSLN’s narrow victory. After losing control of that party due to personal juridical harassment by the regime, Montealegre resuscitated the 60-year-old PLI, which was languishing at the time. The PLI Alliance he forged with other parties and groupings—including the Sandi-nista Renovation Movement (MRS), which had split from the FSLN in 1995 and lost its own legal status due to trumped-up technicalities just before the 2008 municipal elections—came in second in the allegedly fraudulent 2011 elections. Five months before the 2016 elections, the CSE replaced Montealegre as head of the PLI, leading to the dissolution of the alliance.
At that point Montealegre turned over his still considerable following to his long-time assistant Kitty Mon¬terrey, who created the CxL, which was granted legal status with surprisingly little trouble in 2017. That was when it began to exhibit hostility not just to Ortega and his regime, but also to all things Sandinista. It even excluded more modern-thinking Liberals who had been working in a social movement called the Broad Front for Democracy, in which the MRS was very active.
Despite its sectarian attitude, the CxL spent months last year working on a proposal for electoral reforms in a multisectoral blue and white setting, again with the active participation of the MRS and other anti-Ortega Sandi¬nistas. In December the presentation of that proposal achieved the broadest and most unanimous consensus the movement had enjoyed up to that point, with the CxL’s contributions highly valued by the rest of the participants.
That was where things stood on June 2, when Kitty Monterrey announced she was leaving the table that was still debating the issues to be signed on June 22, particularly the electoral reforms. She alleged “particular agendas” she disagreed with, without specifying what they were. She went even further that day, inviting everyone to regroup around a new “unitary” proposal to be headed by the CxL.
“It’s not a traditional
The Peasant Movement pulled out of the Civic Alliance three weeks later, arguing that the peasant farmers’ perspective hadn’t been taken into account. José Pallais, the Liberal politician who left the Alliance in those same days, cited the delay by a sector of the Alliance in signing the Coalition’s bylaws, accusing that sector of discussing the party ballot slot it should run on in the elections. While he didn’t mention it, the slot under discussion was the CxL’s.
“There is no reason to be discussing the question of the ballot slot right now,” he told Confidencial, “when we don’t even know if Ortega is going to accept elections, or what their quality will be. That issue needs to be defined at the proper time. The first big decision the Coalition needs to make is to all fight together to recover our rights and guarantees. This isn’t a traditional electoral alliance, and it can’t be because we aren’t in a democracy. It is a case of unity to deal with the dictatorship.”
The issue of the ballot slot
Pallais’ argument sounds very rational, but the fact is that both the CxL and the PLC have for months been offering the Coalition their ballot slots as vehicles on which to mount a huge alliance that can electorally challenge Ortega. In their various incarnations both parties have taken their disagreements with the regime to the electoral terrain on three different occasions.
Now they have a new competitor vying for the support of the blue and white opposition: the Evangelical PRD, which was granted legal status a year before the CxL is also offering its slot.
So far, those will be the only three options if the electoral reform negotiations don’t permit the blue and white opposition—probably in the form of the National Coalition—to have its own slot on the ballot to express the pluralism of the April uprising.
The struggle for its own slot, under its own name and with its own banner, is not just symbolic but is also not likely to succeed. In fact, any of the “viable” slots could lose their legal status on fabricated technicalities just as so many other parties have.
The quid pro quo game the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE )plays with parties at Ortega’s bidding has been one of the strategic maneuvers in the chain of allegedly fraudulent elections Ortega has won since 2008 and that keeps him in power between elections. The current internal dispute over who legally “owns” the PLC and what slot it will have on the ballot will be decided by the CSE, as has happened in past internal leadership disputes in parties. Ever since Ortega gained control of the electoral authority they have always been decided based on what Ortega wants from the deal and which of the party’s leadership contenders is willing to give it to him.
for the 2021 elections
The blue and white opposition’s decision to run against Ortega in the 2021 elections and its ability to do so successfully doesn’t depend on whether it gets its own place on the ballot, but rather its ability to construct piece by piece a coherent, credible and attractive project. It further depends on having the intelligence and skill to use the strength of that project to pressure Ortega both domestically and internationally.
It is that unity of purpose that Ortega will seek to undermine, perhaps with the support of the business sectors and the political sector headed by the CxL.
José Antonio Peraza envisages three possibilities for the blue and white opposition in 2021: “The ideal scenario is that the entire opposition united behind a single solid offer and an attractive candidate on any of the slots available. Ortega couldn’t win against that. The worse scenario is one in which the opposition, caught up in bitter disputes, runs divided with three more or less similar offers. In that case Ortega would win cleanly, because there is no minimum vote required to win on the first round so his historical base of 25% would be enough.” The latter is particularly likely given that Ortega’s base is disciplined in getting out the vote, while a good part of the opposition would likely end up disillusioned and simply stay home.
“I see a third scenario,” continued Peraza, “in which the opposition runs on two tickets, in which one offers a leadership that is more attractive for the majority of the population, which would identify it as capable of beating Ortega. He would also be defeated in that case.”
Will 2021 end like 1990?
Does the CxL aspire to be that “most attractive” slot to appeal to the social majority?
Its political move of abandoning the discussion table was supported in a June 8 editorial in La Prensa titled “Regrouping in the opposition ranks.” For that rightwing news daily, the idea of different opposition “re¬groupings” is no problem; it would make the still uncertain 2021 elections similar to those of 1990, when the majority of the population knew enough to identify the UNO, the coalition of 14 parties that put up Violeta Chamorro as their candidate, as the option that could defeat Ortega among numerous other parties and alliances.
La Prensa intimated that the CxL was the regrouping that could be identified as a winner. A week later, that party was only selected by 2% of those polled.
More than a few analysts have compared the 2021 electoral setting with 1990, but it is a real stretch because today’s situation is totally different. Quite apart from the fact that we haven’t just come through a decade-long civil war financed and strategized by the US government, today’s electoral situation is much more like 2006, when the split between the PLC Liberals and the ALN Liberals gave the victory to Ortega, who only pulled 38% of the vote, but it was enough.
The most important lesson we can draw from the experience of 1990 is what happens when vastly different forces unite with the sole purpose of beating the FSLN. Because they had no greater points of unity, the coalition fragmented almost immediately after taking office, leaving President Cha¬morro with no effective political or legislative supporters and with more enemies than friends among her erstwhile backers. As a result, she became vulnerable to and ironically dependent on the very party she had defeated at the polls, putting Ortega in the catbird seat of his post-defeat dreams: to govern from below. Hopefully that lesson has been learned by those in the National Coalition and they will be able to achieve the political and programmatic unity needed to hold together.
The CxL’s role
Is the CxL not sowing division? It is offering itself as the preference of the business leaders, who have tried to impose their points of view and their interests on the Civic Alliance to coopt it. And while it’s at it, the CxL is also trying to destroy the National Coalition initiative.
Two weeks after leaving the discussion table, Kitty Monterrey said with distain that “if the Coalition disintegrates, it will be its members’ responsibility, not ours, because we don’t even want to be members; much less do we oxygenate ourselves with either its success or failure.”
The business elites’
The crisis we’ve seen in the blue and white opposition in June, which surely won’t be easily resolved, can’t only be explained by the interests of the private sector or the competitive self-interests of the political parties. There is also a contradiction between the traditional political and economic elites and the new diverse and plural Nicaragua that is struggling to be born and carve out a place for itself.
The plurality we saw on the streets after April 2018, the energy that moved such diverse rural and urban multitudes across the country with rebellions of such dissimilar origins was an indication that society was beginning to change. This diversity, which should be expressed in the National Coalition, is perhaps still too new for the conservative thinking of the country’s traditional economic and political elites.
Those elites have a vision that is both ecclesiastical and, even more importantly, managerial. It is the belief that what’s good for Nicaragua is synonymous with what’s good for the economy… or, more specifically, good for business. It’s the belief, as the head of General Motors once famously said, that “What’s good for General Motors is good for the United States.”
Ortega was a good manager
In the elitist vision that has dominated the two centuries of independence Nicaragua will celebrate next year, what matters in politics is that it generate good economic management. For the first 11 years after Ortega returned to power, he fit the bill, very probably to the business elites’ initial surprise. They saw the authoritarian, anti-democratic corporative model in which they were partners during that time as very positive. It served their interests and fit their managerial ideal.
From their perspective, Ortega’s management is now a total failure and has made the country unviable. Anything pluralist and diverse, however, worries them just about as much; it’s a risk that doesn’t ensure stability. This view was thus shaken, for example, by rural leader Medardo Mairena coming in first with 13% on a list of seven names CID-Gallup presented for the question “Who do you think has the best chance of winning the election and being President of Nicaragua?
Mairena is the national coordinator of the Council for the Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty, a movement of small farmers that sprang up in 2013 to oppose Daniel Ortega’s proposed interoceanic canal across Nicaragua. With the never-announced and never-mourned death of the canal project, that powerful movement has grown broader and is now generally known as the Peasant Movement
Mairena himself became something of a national hero when he was captured by the police in July 2018, reportedly tortured and sentenced to over 200 years in prison. Strong national and international pressure helped secure his release in June the following year when Ortega pushed through his blanket amnesty law. The movement joined the Civic Alliance in 2018 and Mairena participated in the short-lived National Dialogue. They complained at the outset that the Alliance wasn’t taking peasant farmers’ demands into account, but recognized that its two demands for justice and democracy were overarching so continued to participate, pending eventual discussions of sectoral demands.
Mairena was followed in the poll by well-known journalist Carlos Fer¬nando Chamorro, son of assassinated newspaper director Pedro Joaquín Chamorro and former Nicaraguan President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who pulled 11%; and political scientist and activist Félix Maradiaga, executive director of the Institute of Strategic Studies and Pubic Policies, with 10%. A very telling 54% didn’t know, wouldn’t say or didn’t plan to vote.
Liberals and Sandinistas
are both necessary
Although everyone in the blue and white opposition certainly wants to see Ortega and Murillo leave, not all want to transform the country, creating greater equity, inclusion and social justice.
Transforming it means taking into account the interests of Nicaragua’s rural poor and the blood shed in the 1980s in their always marginalized parts of the country. And given that the majority of the population in rural areas has Liberal roots, no unitary national proposal will get very far if it ignores Liberalism.
It is also necessary to shake off the tendency of many to tar all Sandinistas with the Ortega-Murillo brush, which represents another obstacle to the complex unity the country needs. Many Sandi¬nistas have actively opposed Ortega in diverse arenas because he has sullied the principles and values they hold dear. It should be recognized that these Sandinistas contributed to the April rebellion as part of the Broad Front for Democracy and that many of the young people who gave their lives confronting Ortega came from Sandi¬nista families. In sum, Sandinistas are as necessary to the unity being built as Liberals.
As the wise sports commentator and political pundit Edgar Tijerino recently pointed out in an interview with La Prensa, “In July 1979 everyone was a Sandinista; there were more Sandi¬nistas than inhabitants. And now, Sandinismo is something evil, something Satanic, and that is a brutal failure.”
This failure is one of the most harmful and tragic legacies of Ortega and Murillo. Turning one’s back on the valuable contribution of Sandinista thinking and the efforts of so many Sandinistas on behalf of national unity plays perfectly into the ruling couple’s project to polarize the county even more. No unitary proposal for the country will get very far if it ignores Sandinismo.
June 25: The formal signing
Finally, on June 25, with the hotel under siege by dozens of police offices, representatives of all the organizations that created the National Coalition in February, at last including the Civic Alliance, met and signed the Coalition bylaws, adding a “transitory article” establishing that pending “disagreements and doubts” could continue to be discussed after the signing and that fundamental problems will be approved by consensus. This augurs endless debates and potential paralysis, essentially turning into de facto veto power.
The article in the Coalition’s bylaws that caused these problems for the Civic Alliance was number 7, which states that decision-making will try to be through consensus, and two sessions will be dedicated to try to reach it. If consensus is not reached in those two sessions, the decision will be decided with three-quarters of the votes during the third session. Each participating organization in the Coalition gets one vote. The Alliance, where the business sector has greatest influence, proposed that all the Coalition’s decisions be made by unanimous consensus, which would mean whichever organization votes against will impose its veto.
The Alliance’s signing on as a member of the Coalition on June 25 was achieved at the last moment when it was able to introduce a provisional article establishing that consensus will be necessary on seven specific fundamental points. Whether or not this “provisional” article will be accepted permanently is still a matter of debate.
Pallais warned of the consensus trap just before the signing: “It is very important to avoid the veto. When you oblige everything to be decided by consensus, you are giving one of the organizations that right to veto. The veto is a tool that sets back the functioning of a collegial system for diverse and multiple organizations.”
Does the formal signing on June 25, peppered with patriotic fervor, mean the end of the divisions or is it just a truce? It is extremely likely that it will be the latter because the question of veto power is far from the only question that still requires clarification. In such a closed setting, even including the sandstorm from the Sahara that darkened the skies, a breath of hope is always encouraging.
Doctors take a
The national medical profession guaranteed us just such a breath of hope when they issued a joint statement on the pandemic back in March and have continued doing so ever since, risking their own professional futures.
In response to the government’s inaction, Nicaragua’s independent doctors from both private and public hospitals and other settings issued their first “declaration to the nation” on March 30. Since then their growing presence has helped us feel a little safer and better able to sift through the irresponsible information from government spokespeople. Not unlike the United States, where President Trump and his fanatic followers have turned the pandemic into a political-economic issue as opposed to a public health one, Nicaraguans have been told they must work and have even been encouraged to attend public events. Until very recently, the government’s own employees, including public health workers, were told not to wear masks, to avoid “alarming” the population.
An enormous vacuum has been filled by the communiques from doctors not under the regimes’ thumb, first signed by 500 and more recently by 700, and by their statements and interviews on nongovernmental media sharing scientific information. The Vice President tries to justify the government’s inaction on the grounds that “opinions are constantly changing and you hear them from one side and the other,” concluding that our only choice is to trust in God. The doctors, who recognize that these changes are the result of constant investigative findings on a totally new phenomenon, try to keep us updated on the latest and most useful advice. They are also contributing to the Citizen’s Observatory, providing firsthand information on cases of infection and deaths in both hospitals and health centers, as well as cases they advise on free of charge by telephone to the growing number of people who decide to face the illness at home because they no longer trust the public hospitals and/or don’t want to die alone.
“There will be
The governing couple is making the doctors pay dear for their commitment, firing a number of those who have publicly criticized its handling of the pandemic. Between June 4 and June 8, public hospitals around the country dismissed 14 specialists with decades of experience. The ensuing scandal didn’t put an end to the firings, but they are now being done one at a time to avoid such bad publicity. Epidemiologist Leonel Argüello reported that by June 30, the number had risen to 32. Given the particularly urgent need for doctors right now, the government’s vindictive action only serves to further weaken the already overwhelmed and inadequate public hospitals and give the government a rose reputation.
The first doctor fired for having a critical posture regarding the pandemic was infectious disease specialist Carlos Quant, one of only three infectologists for adults in Nicaragua and the first doctor to start caring for HIV patients here. In March, days after the regime had to admit to the first “imported” infected person in the country, Quant wrote an article for the independent daily bulletin Confidencial titled “We are at an opportune moment to avoid a catastrophe.” He pointed out that Nicaragua has one of the most fragile health systems in the region with a bed capacity way below international standards.
That implicitly challenged the official discourse, which has insisted on how well prepared we were to face the pandemic. Quant warned that “it’s only a matter of time before we start registering the first local or community cases of COVID-19 in the country, and while we can’t stop the epidemic’s development, we can slow down its curve to avoid a brutal impact on the health system, which is already saturated with the population’s routine health care.”
Pediatric oncologist Fulgencio Báez, director of La Mascota Children’s Hospital, wrote about one of his colleagues in his profile: “Dr. Enrique Ocampo was fired from the hospital without the most minimum explanation. Dr. Ocampo accompanied me in the development of the hemato-oncology department since the early 1990s. His sin, I think, was having signed the doctors’ declaration. We have reached levels of repression and vindictiveness even against one’s thoughts. Years of study, of dedication and sacrifices made are no longer respected. Nor do they care about the effect on health care for children with cancer and the doctors’ work overload with the vacancy left by Dr. Ocampo when he was fired. So much indignation and outrage is in my heart, so much sadness at the injustices and effects on the children. There will be no forgiveness from God.”
On June 12, after hearing of the firing of these doctors, a hundred writers and intellectuals around the world (among them Mario Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie and Marcela Serrano) sent an open letter to Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. These phrases are from the letter: “We condemn the dismissals of doctors… all front-line professionals, with ample experience and years of service in your public hospitals… The Nicaraguan people should not continue getting sick and dying because of the infection of a virus that, following appropriate measures, can be prevented… While throughout the world doctors have been recognized for their heroic work and the risks they have taken in their courageous treatment of those sick with COVID-19, in Nicaragua your government has put your health care personnel at risk by not providing adequate protective equipment and even rejecting donations of that equipment… The fact that, instead of thanks, they receive unjustified letters of dismissal obliges us to raise our voice in solidarity with them and the people of Nicaragua… politicizing medicine and science is a crime. Scientific knowledge should prevail over politics.”
According to Wikipedia’s up-to-date figures from official sources, Nicaragua reported 2,182 cases as of July 7, with 1,750 recoveries and 83 deaths. In the very few official reports it releases, the Health Ministry does not even mention the number of either COVID-19 cases or fatalities among Nicaraguan health personnel. As of June 24, the Citizen’s Observatory reports that the number of infections and deaths among health sector workers (652 and 87, respectively) is the highest in Central America and perhaps in Latin America. The deaths included 38 doctors, 22 nurses, 11 administrators and 5 lab workers. The Observatory’s overall figures from that same date, its latest report, were 6,775 cases and 1,878 deaths, over three times as many cases and twenty times as many deaths as the official figures from a week later.
Government plan gets bad reviews from doctors
On June 22, the regime presented its anti-pandemic plan for June to December 2020 to the diplomatic corps. The plan does not include mass testing to identify and track the source of infection in specific areas. Nor is there any reference to some level of quarantine. Independent epidemiologists consider the plan technically poor and not responsive to the current uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus. Epidemiologist Alejandro Lagos said: “The infection curve will continue until the last healthy person gets infected and those with a good immune system will survive.” Fired contagious disease specialist Carlos Quant added that “What we will see are peaks that will go down sometimes and a sustained plateau for an unknown length of time until all cases susceptible to getting sick run out. This will be in hopes of reaching herd immunity.”
Worst record in
Each week in June, the government kept claiming fewer and fewer cases and minimizing the number of deaths, while increasing the supposed number of recoveries, using an implausible statistical strategy. Its naïve goal was to get to the annual July 19 commemoration of the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship having convinced Nicaraguans and the rest of the world that the pandemic is under control here. Apparently it was disabused of that hope, however. Just as this issue in English was about to head to the printers , it was reported that the Epidemiologist has instead decided to hold a “virtual” cele¬bration of July 19. Has it finally decided not expose its own followers to more unnecessary danger or did the vision of a sparsely attended event call its bluff?
No one believes the government’s pandemic figures, belied week after week by the far more credible figures of the Citizens’ Observatory and by what the population is seeing, hearing and personally experiencing in their own families and neighborhoods.
In the CID-Gallup poll, 65% of those surveyed said they personally knew people who had been infected by COVID-19, and 32% of those said they knew “many.” These percentages caught the attention of the pollsters because they are the highest in the entire region. In Costa Rica, which has the lowest figures, only 6% said they know “someone.” Like the number of health worker deaths due to COVID-19, the over number of Nicaraguan deaths from the virus reported by the Observatory is also the highest in Central America.
What will tomorrow bring?
The CID-Gallup poll showed that a pessimistic view of the future has been growing among Nicaraguans. An unprecedented 70% now feels the country is on the wrong course.
According to the polling firm, this particular question is used internationally to evaluate the citizenry’s confidence in its rulers and its own near future.
What will tomorrow bring? If the temptation to exclude one side or another of the blue and white opposition and the personal ambitions or sectoral interests prevail, Ortega will win, no matter how clean or observed the elections to change the country’s path are.
And if that happens, Nicaragua could move into another cycle of violence, snuffing out the “flame of April,” that “unanimous energy that pierced the armor of the docile subjects and shattered the logic of resignation into a thousand pieces,” as Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli described it in her poem “El relevo.”