|Central American University - UCA
Number 469 | Agosto 2020
Angels and demons
What political price will the pandemic ultimately exact
from Ortega and Murillo among their own followers?
What political consequences can we expect
from a turnover in business class leadership
after 13 years of the same reelected person?
Will Ortega negotiate electoral reforms
before learning the results of the US elections?
His speech at the annual July 19 commemoration
gave no hint of an answer to these questions.
In the weeks before this year’s July 19th anniversary of the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship, the question of how the regime would celebrate the event took up a lot of space in the media, on social networks and in many conversations. The Repliegue—the traditional reenactment of the tactical retreat by several thousand Sandinista guerrilla fighters and civilians from Managua to Masaya in June 1979 —was replaced this year by a virtual concert on July 3 to avoid spreading infection among the crowds that normally fill the 14-mile route. The novel bow to the dangers of the coronavirus did not go unnoticed.
“This is the first sign of sanity in response to the pandemic from this callous, criminal dictatorship,” observed Victor Hugo Tinoco, Ortega’s deputy foreign minister during the 1980s. “The most fanatical will see it as a sign of weakness, while others will accept it out of obedience to the presidential couple’s decision. But I think most will take it very well because they’re afraid of being exposed to yet another risk of contagion. This fear is already taking deep hold in those sectors that still support Ortega.”
The July 19th setting
After replacing the traditional Repliegue with an on-line event, the Vice President’s office repeatedly announced a virtual July 19th celebration in Managua as well; but they ultimately decided on a hybrid celebration. Noisy Sandinista caravans of bicycles, motorcycles, cars and trucks sporting the party’s red and black flag paraded in all municipalities to make their presence known. For Managua, they organized an open-air live but relatively small event with an emphasis on pageantry rather than head count.
The night of the 18th, the frame of a giant five-pointed star was laid on the pavement in the center of the small plaza flanked by the National Palace and the old earthquake-damaged Cathedral, then filled with plants in an elaborate mosaic of green tones. Both pundits and curious passersby identified the star as a Satanic pentacle. The next afternoon 1,000 Sandinista Youth members took seats tightly placed 10 deep in a perfect circle around the symbol, as is customary in rituals centered on it. They were clad in white t-shirts bearing the same pentacle—the logo for the 41st anniversary—and the ironic slogan “The people will not be stopped.” Aerial shots of the setting were replayed over and over on the government TV channel, for many years now the only outlet authorized to cover this event.
Sometime after 5 pm Ortega and Murillo arrived after another conspicuous absence from the TV cameras of over a month. The first time it happened, from mid-March to mid-April, speculation had mounted to the point that some even presumed Ortega had died. Unlike then, when no explanation was ever offered, businessman and government opponent José Dolores Blandino said in a radio interview days after the July 19 celebration that his daughter, who is married to Juan Carlos Ortega Murillo, others in the ruling couple’s inner circle and Daniel Ortega himself had been infected with COVID-19.
On July 19, for the first time. Ortega and Murillo were themselves wearing the masks they had for months refused to condone… to avoid “alarming” people. Their large custom-made maroon masks trimmed in blood red suggested alarm is no longer a concern. The couple presided over the event from a table nearly the length of the stage from whose ends the perfect circle emanated, making it an integral part of the design.
Also seated at the table with distance between them were eleven top-ranking state officials—five civilian, three military and three police. Six of the thirteen, including the First Lady, have already been sanctioned by the US government, two also by the European Union and the United Kingdom, four also by Canada, and two also by Switzerland. The National Police has also been sanctioned as an institution.
Backed by police power
Ortega’s selection of so many sanctioned officials to sit alongside him was not random. It sent a message to his base that Washington’s sanctions have had no effect on him, and that he is both strong and fully backed. The message to everyone else was that his power lies in armed force, leaving to our imagination the implication that he is unwilling to subject that power to the ballot box.
One of the police officers at the table was sanctioned Chief of Police Francisco Díaz, another in-law of the ruling couple. One of the two others was Inspector General Jaime Vanegas, a now-familiar face in the media prohibiting or criminalizing any act by the opposition
The third was General Commissioner Adolfo Marenco, officially named to head police intelligence and political investigation in 2015. According to an investigative piece by Confidencial in March based on anonymous police and security experts, Marenco had already been doing that work before, supported by 70 officers under his command. The sources described him as “the most powerful person in Nicaragua after Daniel Ortega, Rosario Murillo and Nestor Moncada Lau” (the couple’s sanctioned, reportedly unscrupulous national security adviser), and as the “left hand” of the regime’s repression strategy. These sources confirm that “no abduction or arrest takes place without Marenco’s approval,” following his work “in the shadows, piecing together information to create files.” It was no accident, then, that such a powerful but little-known face should appear that afternoon at Ortega’s side.
Also backed by military power
Seated on Daniel Ortega’s immediate left was General Julio César Avilés, in the first year of his third five-year term as Army commander-in-chief thanks to the reform Ortega forced on the Military Code. He was accompanied by the two generals who are his eventual successors: Chief of Staff Bayardo Rodrí¬guez and Inspector General Marvin Corrales.
On July 15, Avilés appeared in public for the first time after having been sanctioned by the US government two months earlier “for being politically aligned” with Ortega and “for refusing to order the disbarment and dismantling of paramilitary or parapolice forces” that helped put down the April uprising and to whom the Army had provided weapons, according to the text of the sanction. In his appearance that day Avilés didn’t say a word about it. Wearing an olive-green mask and gloves, he only read a brief message recognizing the military medical force’s efforts against what he characterized as the “terrible” pandemic, noting that “it is wreaking havoc around the world and here in our homeland.”
The following day, Avilés—this time flanked by Rodríguez and Corrales with three other generals behind them to present an image of cohesion—gave an off-the-cuff press briefing in which he finally mentioned the sanction he had received, describing it as “foreign meddling.” He directed most of his plaintive, sometimes angry words to those in the opposition demanding that sanctions cover the whole military institution, as the US had already done to the National Police. Avilés said the Army is “an institution under attack and maligned every day, with the goal of undermining its credibility.” He rhetorically asked, “Who is doing this?” Then answered in the same breath: “those who do absolutely nothing.” He characterized them as “blabbermouths, moochers and hirelings,” railing contemptuously, “We say to all our comrades: don’t believe them! And to our people: don’t be fooled by them!”
That same day the Military Council, made up of some 40 officers, released a press statement expressing the “unanimous and united opinion of all members of the Nicaraguan Army” offering their “full support” to Avilés, rejecting the sanctions as “acts of foreign interference.”
While the Army’s hands are still much cleaner than those of the Police, its messages in the days leading up to July 19 and Ortega’s choice of figures on the dais with him combined to make it clear to both Washington and the civic resistance that he has the weapons firmly on his side and he’ll never hesitate to use them.
Until recent years, Ortega was always accompanied at the massive, boisterous, extravagant July 19th commemorations by ambassadors, business leaders and even bishops and other clergy. This year none of them even received an invitation.
For years now, we have reminded readers of the strategy for taking back government offered to Ortega by one of his political comrades after losing the 1990 elections. Borrowing a biblical image, he advised that Ortega “neutralize” the “three angels guarding the door to paradise”: the Catholic hierarchy, the US government and Nicaraguan big business, the three powers that raised their “unsheathed swords” against his government in the 1980s.
Early setbacks with
the first “angel”
Neutralizing the Catholic hierarchy hit a first snag with the arrival in May 2009 of Silvio Báez, appointed auxiliary bishop of Managua by Pope Bene¬dict XVI.
Having spent 30 years outside of Nicaragua, Báez brought fresh ideas as well as solid social and theological thinking, which enabled him to quickly contribute constructive criticism of the authoritarianism Ortega was already imposing. Over time this began to shift the balance of power within the Episcopal Conference.
In May 2014, the pastoral letter the bishops presented to Ortega and Murillo (full text in the June 2014 issue of envío) was a clear sign the bishops were distancing themselves from the ruling couple’s increasingly blatant abuse of power. That letter never received a response.
With the death in June 2018 of Cardinal Obando—a key figure in neutralizing the Catholic hierarchy—and the events following the April uprising that same year, separation turned into divorce. The hierarchy’s position in the first dialogue with the “blue and white” opposition and the commitments by the majority of bishops, priests and nuns in daily defense of the population protesting the regime’s brutality demonstrated that the Catholic “angel” would keep “its sword at the ready.”
The pope says
“It won’t be long”
The regime thought it could recover ground by getting rid of the high priest with “the sharpest sword,” Bishop Báez. It threatened andpersecuted him relentlessly until Pope Francis consented to Báez’s reluctant departure from Nicaragua in April 2019 to protect his life.
The bishops, priests and nuns staying in the country never abandoned their critical posture. And Báez maintained a presence in Nicaragua both through his activism on social media and because independent media still keep his messages alive every day. Báez gave the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa an interview as recently as July 5 that has been commented on extensively. “We should not be surprised by how this dictatorship has dealt with the pandemic,” he said. “They have done it in their usual style: Politicizing everything in their favor. Putting ideological fanaticism before science. Arrogance. Irrationality. Irresponsibility. Secrecy and lies. I see Ortega desperate to survive. Little by little he has lost legitimacy, moral authority and respect.”
Keeping in mind Vice President Murillo’s frequent praise of Pope Fran¬cis’ messages, Báez deliberately decided to share something he had spoken about with the pope three days earlier: “I asked him if my return to Nicaragua depended on Daniel Ortega’s fall, and the Holy Father told me: ‘He should be quite weakened, at least.’ He believes it won’t be long now,” implying that ‘it’ referred to the fall... These words must have greatly irritated those in power.
The regime will never recover the consent of this “angel.” The verbal and physical attacks; the sieges against priests and the profanation of Catholic churches, so frequent since April 2018; the violent acts that took place on the afternoon of this July 19 in the Matagalpa Cathedral and on that same night against the Managua Cathedral are the regime’s responses, channeled through their fanatics, to the rupture in a relationship that can no longer be repaired.
The factor that moved
the second “angel”
The break in relations with the “angel” of the North is the one that holds the greatest political and economic implications for Ortega. The United States is a global power, our main business partner and wielder of decisive influence over the country’s life for more than a century.
A certain distancing began in late 2008, with newly elected Barack Obama not yet in the White House. Following the proven fraud in our municipal elections that year, Washington cut off the resources provided to Nicaragua under the Millennium Challenge Account. But mindful of his comrade’s advice, Ortega did what he could to keep the Obama administration at least neutral, if not friendly. His government cooperated with US agencies on drug-trafficking control and prevented the flow of migrants through Nicaragua on their way to the United States. It also facilitated foreign investment, attracting myriad US companies.
After Nicaragua’s similarly tainted 2011 presidential elections, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced “tough scrutiny” of Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank loan requests by Nicaragua. That scrutiny—a precursor of what would years later manifest as the NICA Act—never came about and the “angel” of the North sheathed its sword, glad for the stability and relative security it saw in Nicaragua compared to the violence afflicting Central Ame-rica’s “Northern Triangle” countries: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
In mid-2016, with Obama in his final year in office, tensions heightened. “The factor that burst onto the scene,” Victor Hugo Tinoco told envío, “was that Ortega decided out of nowhere to break with the model that had ended the civil war and been the heart of the Esquipulas accords; he imposed an electoral process with a bare minimum of guarantees.” That year, a bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans presented the NICA Act to Congress.
From tensions to sanctions
In November 2016 Ortega was reelected with his wife as his running mate in a contest lacking observers, real competitors and even many voters; abstention hovered around 70% of the electorate. Washington, now with Trump in the Oval Office, began its response by approving the NICA Act in December 2017 and around that time sanctioning Roberto Rivas, president of the Supreme Electoral Council, Nicaragua’s corrupted fourth branch of government. In 2018, with the human rights crisis that began in April and worsened over the year, tensions gave way to sanctions. Washington has continuously used them to “tell” the regime it must change course.
The regime’s international isolation is now much more widespread and dramatic. “This is an exceedingly tarnished regime, lacking all legitimacy and seen as a toxic government,” said Human Rights Watch director José Miguel Vivanco, commenting on the absence of any foreign dignitaries at the July 19th event this year. “Its leaders are treated as pariahs, and the way this is communicated is through sanctions.” On July 19 itself, official television repeated over and over again the greetings sent to Ortega by the Presidents of Abkhazia and Ossetia, Venezuela and Iran...
The newly sanctioned
Only hours before climbing onto the stage of the July 19 event, Ortega and Murillo were informed that Washington had sanctioned two more in the presidential pair’s inner circle: Juan Carlos Ortega Murillo, yet another of their own children, and José Mojica, one of the Ortega family’s best-known and most-trusted front men. The US Treasury Depart¬ment’s Office of Foreign Assets Control had done it on July 17, an even more symbolic date in Nicaragua—celebrated as the “Day of Joy” when Somoza actually fled to Miami.
Juan Carlos and his advertising company Difuso were sanctioned for transactions linked to acts of corruption and misappropriation of public assets.
José Mojica is accused of the same crimes, specifying that “he acts as a personal representative of the Ortegas, creates shell companies to launder money, and conceals their ownership and illicit profits... and created a money-laundering scheme to siphon money from businesses he runs on behalf of the President’s son, Rafael Ortega Murillo,” himself sanctioned last December.
Three of Ortega’s sons have now been sanctioned, along with his wife and 20 other trusted Ortega officials. Laws affecting Ortega’s Nicaragua approved by both Republicans and Democrats will be hard to change as long as our country’s “path” is not to Washington’s liking. All signs point to this second “angel” wielding its “sword” ever more determinedly until it gets its way.
Very good relations at
first with the third “angel”
Private enterprise is the “angel” Ortega managed to neutralize more skillfully, for a longer time and with bounteous benefits for both sides.
At the first private meeting Ortega held with leaders of the business elite in 2007, right after taking office, there was so much chemistry between the two powers that Ortega congratulated the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) as “the highest functioning CPC [Council of Citizens’ Power],” comparing that corporate leadership body to nothing less than the incipient network of grassroots para-state organizations his wife had created to act as the governing party’s “conveyor belts” for their social-political policy around the country.
The “COSEP model” is born
In 2009, the worst year of the global recession, Ortega feared economic collapse. To deal with the crisis, he turned his initial cozying up to the business elite into collusion on a clearly neoliberal project in which both parties would handsomely profit from Venezuelan oil aid, which was already abundant and on the rise. Thus the “COSEP model” was created that year, sold internationally as a formula for development and stability, which it was, albeit much more for some than for others.
Ortega incorporated this economic co-government, which he baptized as a “dialogue and consensus model,” into the Constitution in 2014. At that same time, he used his ill-gotten qualified majority in the country’s legislative body to push through another constitutional reform, this one allowing his indefinite reelection. COSEP offered no objection.
A key figure in the corporatist model’s operations over nearly a decade was a political operative of the powerful Pellas Group, José Adán Aguerri, who has held the post of COSEP president since September 2007.
Over those 13 years, Aguerri was reelected 10 consecutive times, after reforming COSEP’s bylaws, first following Ortega’s example by securing his own indefinite reelection and then extending the term of president to three years.
Carmen Hilleprandt, current president of the Chamber of Commerce and Services, describes in detail the functioning of the COSEP model in the “Speaking Out” section of this issue, calling it antidemocratic and unsustainable. Accompanied by other businesswomen and men, she has been a voice for change in the COSEP presidency and for democratizing the business umbrella organization as a whole.
“The model was
a two-way game”
Ximena González, president of the Nicaraguan Development Institute (INDE)—the think tank that founded COSEP, since then its social branch, and now the main promoter of its democratization—summarized the negative core of the COSEP model in a recent radio interview.
“The president of COSEP has been Ortega’s man in private enterprise,” said González. “And this ensured that COSEP would be permeated by the Ortega government’s vices. The corporatist model didn’t fit all business¬people equally, only those the COSEP president supported. The government didn’t shape healthy behavior in COSEP, and COSEP didn’t shape it in government. This was a two-way game. COSEP adopted the government’s centralist model, as well as the shady model of doing things under the table, with no accountability.”
“It was Hitler’s and
Once the floodgates of criticism were opened by INDE’s new initiative within business sectors, more voices spoke out.
Economist Róger Arteaga told La Prensa: “I asked three or four COSEP chamber presidents why they would allow dictatorship in COSEP’s presidency. They told me Ortega only wanted to talk to José Adán, via Bayardo Arce [former FSLN National Directorate member and now Ortega’s chief economic adviser]. Members of the chambers were intimidated so no candidates wanted to run against him; and since Ortega wouldn’t want to talk to any of them, they would lose all the benefits they were receiving from co-governing with Ortega.”
The businesspeople who most benefited from the model sold it nationally and internationally as something original and innovative. Banker Ramiro Ortiz called it “a miracle.”
Erwin Krüger, COSEP’s president in 2005-2006, told Confidencial: “They unveiled it as a great discovery, when in reality it was a long-buried, unwanted model that limited civil rights. It was the model used by the government of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy in the 1930s and 1940s.”
“There’s already been
a change in COSEP”
Although the model fell apart with the events of April 2018, the ongoing presence of José Adán Aguerri as COSEP’s president and his center-stage role in the Civic Alliance have not just hindered the business sector’s review of the damages and costs the country’s corporatist model left in its wake. They have also contributed to tarnishing businesspeople and a good part of the opposition. As a key operator for both Ortega and the groups of big capital, Aguerri efficiently served the latter’s interests while effectively making sectors of the blue and white opposition dependent on them.
Elections for a new generation of leadership in COSEP are set for early September. Carmen Hilleprandt believes INDE’s campaign for term limits, public airing of comments critical of COSEP’s management and the emergence in this context of two candidates to replace Aguerri have already brought “winds of change.” She says some members of her own chamber suggested she run as well, but she decided against it. “I’m happy,” she said, “that I helped make this change happen. I don’t need to be president of COSEP to shepherd through changes in COSEP.”
What will change
with this third “angel”?
Aguerri, much criticized by various sectors of society even before April 2018 and much more so since then, has said, “I’m not leaving COSE; we’ll always be in COSEP; COSEP is my brand.”
What’s the concrete meaning of this brand he won’t abandon? How much will the regime’s relationship with the third “angel” change when it is headed by someone else?
Will Ortega be able to neutralize COSEP again following the leadership change, with the law of political inertia imposed by Nicaragua’s big capital groups continuing to dominate that relationship? They have pushed consistently for what they call a “soft landing” for the country, without ever defining clearly what it means for the fate of the governing couple after the extremely hard takeoff in April 2018 that created the unnecessary economic, political and human crisis we’ve been living through ever since.
Toward a 1980s-style
In its most recent edition, The Economist—a British periodical specializing in global economic analysis—warned that “the pandemic threatens to push Nicaragua into its deepest economic depression since the 1980s.” The prediction brings back chilling memories of those years, when the small agriculture-based economy, still recovering from the 1972 earthquake followed by Somoza’s aerial bombing of cities during the year-long insurrection, collapsed under the weight of nine years of the US economic embargo and financing of a civil war centered mainly in the agricultural export production areas. The Reagan-Bush plan for revolutionary Nicaragua, supported by both of the other two “angels,” countenanced no thought of a soft landing back then.
The Economist’s prognosis for Nicaragua over the rest of this yar has progressively worsened. The figures presented in this issue were even worse than those in its immediately preceding one, now forecasting an 8.2% fall in the gross domestic product. It still sticks to its prediction that Ortega will win next year’s elections due to “the disunity within opposition ranks and the absence among them of a strong leader” as well as the improbability “that the FSLN will compete freely and fairly.”
The pandemic has created
a “temporary shock”
The economic panorama is sobering not only in Nicaragua but around the world. The global consensus is that economic recovery in all countries is directly linked to how their governments have managed the pandemic.
Nonetheless, Nicaragua’s recently sanctioned treasury minister, Iván Acosta, tried to inject Nicaraguans with some optimism, even though they have chafed under the dictatorship’s terrible handling of the pandemic. “The most important thing,” said Acosta, “is that citizens trust that the government is working with a focus on emerging rapidly from the pandemic, which is having a significant impact on the economy, but is a temporary shock.” The delusional behavior of the Trump and Ortega administrations is becoming more eerily parallel by the day.
Did Acosta really think that with these words he could neutralize the political cost Ortega will face from his irresponsible handling of this health crisis? The regime had hoped for enough economic recovery this year to make it to the 2021 elections in a position that would allow him to win by fair means... or at least by better ones than in the past. That is no longer possible. The pandemic has caused a devastating shock in Nicaragua that is far from temporary.
Return of the
All businesspeople committed to change in Nicaragua also speak of “trust,” not in what the government does, but in what it doesn’t do: negotiate in good faith a political way out of the crisis it provoked in 2018. They all reiterate that the economy won’t start looking up while there is no confidence in the possibilities for democracy and the rule of law, by which they mainly mean in the marketplace.
On July 21, in an attempt to generate international confidence, La¬ureano Ortega Murillo—another of the ruling couple’s sanctioned sons, who still holds the public office of presidential investment adviser—enumerated the advantages Nicaragua offers foreign investors: legal security, ease and speed of setting up a business, social stability... Although none of this exists right now, the biggest lie of his presentation was the return of the Grand Canal project. “We’re moving forward,” he said. “Its study and design phase is ongoing. It will be the most important investment project in history, generating tremendous benefits, both socially and environmentally.”
Will any investors show interest? Everyone in Nicaragua knows that not one shovel has been used to dig so much as a trench and that the Chinese businessman who was going to amass US$ 50 billion went bankrupt years ago. The only thing that remains is Law 840 which granted him the concession. It was never revoked and thus still threatens the traditional small farmers who own land along the canal route.
Too few resources
and too many deaths
Today, official rhetoric rings hollow, desperate. In the first quarter of 2020, even before the pandemic hit, the regime was unable to sign for a single international loan. And the second quarter ended no better. The budget is teetering. According to an Inter-American Dialogue survey from July, Ortega’s support is under 20%; in some responses, it doesn’t even reach 15%. In that poll, 80% of respondents name the pandemic as the country’s main problem. Ortega’s falling support among his own solid base has to do with the fact that the pandemic has killed dozens of important names among an unknown total of Ortega loyal supporters. Although it is not reported, it’s even possible that the number of his followers felled by COVID-19 is a greater percentage of the death toll than non-supporters given all the months in which the government sent them out into street demonstrations, house-to-house proselytizing visits, crowded recreational events and even to teach classes, all without a mask. Like in the United States, the majority of non-fanatics heeded the warnings of independent health experts.
Ortega’s historically low approval ratings also have to do with the end of many former subsidies and freebies. “The government is short of resources to promote the populism that guaranteed its support in the past.” concluded Manuel Orozco, director of the Inter-American Dialogue.
“We have faced the
Ever since the government was forced in mid-March to acknowledge the firs death from COID-19 “imported” by a returning Nicaraguan who it turns out was the governing family’s own hairdresser, the goal of Murillo’s daily noon messages and the Health Ministry’s weekly reports has been to cover up the havoc the virus is causing. She employs repetitive patriotic-religious rhetoric to accomplish the task and the Health Ministry simply does it with manipulated, unreliable information.
On July 19, after several songs traditional to the celebrations, Ortega took off his mask to speak. He went on for over an hour, and the part having to do with the pandemic followed a script similar to his appearance in early May, when he mumbled acknowledgement of the pandemic’s presence in Nicaragua but then inexplicably provided only annual figures of deaths from pneumonia between 2015 and now.
This time he both bored and overwhelmed those tuned in by reading from a notebook the list of illnesses causing death in the country from March 11 to June 30. He wound up by thanking God because during that same time the number of births was double that of deaths, hardly consolation to those who have lost loved ones.
He further bored and overwhelmed by reading from yet another notebook a list of medical equipment the government obtained to fight a roster of ailments. Presumably not by accident, he didn’t mention its reported purchase of 40 intensive care beds, 70 ventilators, hundreds of oximeters and medications in July in expectation of the pandemic’s worsening. Conclusion: they do recognize its seriousness, just not publicly. Wouldn’t want to alarm people.
Ortega also pointed to the increase in the health budget during his time as President. Without having uttered a single word of condolence even for all the Sandinista leaders and activists who have died from the virus, much less the thousands of others, he concluded by saying “this [equipment and budget] is what has enabled us to successfully confront this pandemic, following the guidelines handed down by health authorities.” It sounded like a leaf straight from the Trump playbook: self-lauding for doing too little too late and zero empathy about the result.
“We can’t control
The regime hasn’t in fact followed guidelines from either the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), or any of Nicaragua’s own experienced epidemiologists. All of them have continuously emphasized the importance of hand-washing, masks and social distancing, avoiding mass gatherings. “We can’t control the pandemic until they stop public activities where hundreds of people gather,” insists infectious disease specialist and public health expert Carmen Torres, “and while there is no perception of risk.”
These activities have not stopped. To the contrary it has fed the perception that there is no risk. The massive events and caravans of militant activists organized in all municipalities to celebrate July 19th will probably be serious sources of new infections.
The re-opening of all public schools on July 21 despite confirming that infections dropped by up to 25% during the month they were closed, will also lead to new infections. Yet again Nicaragua is paralleling the United States, where masks and social distancing have also been converted from health measures into political-ideological indicators of fanatic faith in leaders who tolerate nothing less.
Statistics from the Citizens’ Observatory, which receives information directly from doctors and local organizations, refute the regime’s claimed success against the virus. As of July 19, when the Health Ministry reported 2,682 infections and 91 deaths, the Observatory’s weekly report for close to that same date showed 8,508 infections and 2,397 deaths, including 40 doctors. It also reports that Nicaragua has the highest rates of infection and related deaths in Central America. Molecular biologist Jorge Huete, vice rector of Managua’s Central American University, added this alarming fact: “Nicaragua has the highest lethality rate [from COVID-19] per million inhabitants in Latin America: higher than Brazil’s, the most affected country in the region.”
The Citizens’ Observatory provides more trustworthy numbers than the Health Ministry (MINSA), but these, too, are impossible to fully verify, in part because MINSA monopolizes the limited supply of test kits and doesn’t permit any hospitals or clinics outside of its system to conduct tests, so it also controls the results. In addition, many people avoid hospitals out of a variety of fears, preferring to take their chances at home with loved ones. Adding the speed of burial of possible coronavirus cases without a confirmed cause of death, even the most well-intentioned figures are dicey, particularly in outlying areas. In many cases, all the informants can do is make educated assumptions based on observed or reported symp¬tom¬ology.
Getting closer to
more exact numbers
Given the lack of reliable official statistics and the Observatory’s difficulties determining the exact number of infections and deaths, public health specialist Carlos Hernández came up with a new idea. Hernández, a member of the Multidisciplinary Scientific Committee created at the beginning of the pandemic by professionals in various disciplines, explained to Confidencial that the way to shed the most light on the true figures is to compare the number of current deaths with previous years.
Using Ortega’s own figures and time period from his July 19th speech, Hernández compared the number of deaths from heart attack, diabetes, hypertension and pneumonia, the four causes known to be listed most frequently on official death certificates to minimized the number of COVID-19 deaths, with figures for the same period and same illnesses in previous years. He found that 4,429 more people died of those causes in this roughly three-month period than in the same period the last three years.
“All these excess deaths,” says Hernández, “would have to be catalogued as suspicious, and likely attributable to COVID-19.” All four illnesses, especially pneumonia, even if not used as an intentional cover-up, are commonly triggered when someone is infected with COVID-19, particularly in patients in which one or more of them is already an underlying condition. It is definitely the virus that kills the person.
In the case of pneumonia, the number of deaths increased up to 14 times on average as a daily cause of death in the country, going from the ninth most common cause of death in the three previous years to the first in 2020. Even according to MINSA data envío published in April, 17,421 pneumonia cases had been hospitalized between the start of 2020 and March 7, of which only 53 had resulted in death. Her¬nández’s approach, then, does get us closer to the reality of the pandemic in the country.
“We’ll be guided by
On July 20, Ciro Ugarte, PAHO’s director of emergencies, announced at a press conference that PAHO would be guided from that date on by “unofficial sources” in Nicaragua. Week after week, PAHO had been urging the government to provide transparent data disaggregated by sex, age, place and number of tests done, which would make it possible to track how the pandemic was evolving in the country. There was no response.
PAHO’s offer to send Nicaragua a team of experts “to strengthen the country’s capacity to deal with the pandemic” was also ignored. Ugarte reiterated this offer in the press conference, saying they were waiting for authorization from the government... which may well never be given.
A still clouded horizon
One demand of the civic uprising that began in April 2018 was for elections to be moved up. Like the others, it was ignored.
As the uprising turned into what calls itself the “blue and white” civic resistance, that social majority understands that the way out with the greatest national and international backing is elections on their regularly scheduled time period of November 2021. But even if they are held then, this majority has no confidence that they will resolve anything if they are run by the same authorities with the same procedures as the elections since 2008. They will merely prolong the national agony, social breakdown and economic collapse.
To participate or
not to participate?
The opposition coalition has reached its greatest consensus to date around the reforms to the electoral system considered indispensable. But these reforms must necessarily be negotiated with Ortega, who in his July 19th speech made no reference whatever to elections.
Despite this silence, Ortega had “opened up” the electoral process five days earlier, when he ordered the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) to publish an administrative resolution reforming the electoral law to extend the period for new political parties to obtain the legal status that, among other things, will allow them a slot on the ballot. They now have until five rather than twelve months before the election date to submit all the complicated legal requirements. Albeit still implicit, it was the first concrete suggestion that elections actually might be held, a point widely doubted before then.
The resolution was immediately seen by most as a divisive lure. The presumed strategy is that by facilitating the registration of new parties, it encourages competitiveness rather than unity among the wide-ranging opposition groupings whose chief point in common is still little more than wanting the ruling couple and its party out of power.
In admittedly difficult circumstances given the repressive climate the past two years, in which even gathering is dangerous, little progress has been made hammering out a new and shared vision of nation and who is welcome in it. That, combined with the fact that electoral parties have the legal right to some government campaign financing encourages more rather than fewer groupings to seek the coveted legal status. The most eloquent example of what this can produce is the 1996 elections, when greed trumped reason and over 40 parties sprang up like mushrooms overnight to run some two dozen presidential candidates either alone or in alliance with others. The presidential ballot that year looked like a tablecloth runner.
In an ideal world, the National Coalition, the largest umbrella expression of the blue and white opposition achieved so far, would pull together that entire social majority, meet the requirements for legal status and would be granted it, then would reach out to any of the half-dozen existing, largely discredited parties that combined no longer pull more than 10% of any poll. Most of those parties would see it in their interest to join the electoral race under the National Coalition’s banner. Such a united opposition would dissipate the clouds of electoral distrust, generating massive voter turnout and would win by such an indisputable margin that fraud would be ineffective in closing the gap. The results would be endorsed by national and international observers, and acknowledged by the FSLN as it did in 1990, only this time recognizing in an epiphany the damage it has done to the country by putting power above people. The country would start down the path of reconciliation and social development in which all would be welcome, including the unfairly-maligned Sandinistas, who have a great deal to offer the country.
Poof! Wake up, the dream is over. Nicaragua, unfortunately, is very far from an ideal world. Even Ortega’s intentions regarding the 2021 elections are still riddled with question marks. And so, necessarily, is the solidity of the blue and white unity in deciding whether or not to run in them. If the minimum of healthy conditions is deemed to exist, they still have a lot more to weigh. Should they run in an alliance with an existing party or accept the challenge of trying to get their own slot on the ballot? While it is not inappropriately cynical to see this electoral reform as a divisive tactic, it is also true that this opposition has always manifested hope of forming a new party, a new pluralist alliance to run its own candidates, and this extension would make that easier. Should it succeed against all odds, having its own ballot slot would eliminate one current complication: being courted by and dependent on the existing parties. Without exception, all of these parties are locked into the traditional corrupted way of doing politics, and for the traditional corrupted reasons. Having a “blue and white” ballot slot would not be an insignificant change in the opposition’s internal correlation of forces.
The CSE’s resolution
isn’t even legal
Meanwhile, however, the CSE’s resolution sets a disturbing legal precedent. Reforming laws is the responsibility of the legislative branch, not the prerogative of the electoral branch by administrative fiat.
The text of the resolution uses the coronavirus to justify the extension: “The pandemic affecting humanity has restricted some organizational and social activities, including those that affect the certification of legal status.” Will the pandemic become a pretext for new resolutions from here on out so Ortega can decide on a whim not only the course of the upcoming elections but other issues as well?
Elections expert Roberto Courtney believes it will. He sees the reform as “tailor-made by the government, a baited hook dangled before the opposition. And it’s a precedent to make the electoral law less solid than it once was because the CSE can read clear articles and interpret them differently, changing them on the pretext of pandemic contingencies.”
Waiting for November 2020
A weightier reason for extending the time to legalize new parties is that Ortega himself needs to buy time to negotiate the electoral reforms, waiting to see who wins this November in the US and how the first months of the new term roll out.
Ortega has never negotiated seriously with Nicaraguans who oppose him and there’s no reason to suspect he will start now, particularly since he has convinced himself and his followers that they have no legitimate grievances, but are merely coup-mongers orchestrated and paid for by the United States. He denied any legitimacy on the part of the Nicaraguan Resistance (the Contra) for many years for the same reason. As he was fond of saying back then, he would only negotiate with the puppet-master, not the puppets.
“Sanctions will continue”
If, as some figured, Ortega hoped to get the international community to see the extension for registering a party as a first sign of flexibility and openness toward the elections and thereby halt the sanctions, the “angel” of the North quickly set hm straight. Ten days after the CSE resolution was announced, Jon Piechowski, the US assistant undersecretary for Latin America, said plainly in a virtual press conference with Nicaraguan journalists that the US will not allow elections with harassment and detention of opposition figures, with political prisoners and without heeding the opposition’s proposals. “We want serious electoral reform.... There is much that needs to change so Nicaraguans can participate in free elections.”
Piechowski added that the extension in the electoral authority’s resolution must “be accompanied by the end of repression and by concrete reforms in terms of elections.” He also assured that the sanctions will continue to make sure this happens. “The United States will use the economic and diplomatic tools at our disposal to reestablish democracy in Nicaragua. Until we see Ortega and Murillo implement necessary actions and reforms, sanctions will remain in place.”
Businessman Michael Healy, presi¬dent of the Nicaraguan Agricultural and Livestock Producers Union (UPANIC) and one of the two candidates vying to lead COSEP, applauded the pressure announced by Piechowski with such a classic display of sledgehammer diplomacy. “The message is clear,” said Healy, reiterating it in case it wasn’t. “He is saying that government institutions must decide if they are on the side of democracy or the regime.”
He added that he trusted this warning would help institution officials decide to speed up a way out of the political crisis. By putting himself so unhesi¬tatingly on the side of the US pressure, as most Nicaraguan politicians have always done, he made the choice for voters in COSEP’s own elections equally clear. The current COSEP president has never been heard uttering a positive word about the US sanctions.
Demons and all
Ortega’s July 19th speech contained nothing relevant. He did, however, draw attention to a cryptic warning by repeating it twice: “Watch out for those Yankee ambassadors!”
He said it evoking Sandino’s assassination, executed on Somoza’s orders and with the complicity of the US ambassador at the time. Such a message fires up his base because even the least fanatical of them are aware that the US role in Nicaragua has been the very essence of imperial and has done far more bad than good for the country.
After finishing his speech, Ortega put his mask back on and left for home. What must he have felt after such a short, somber July 19th celebration, without the masses to applaud him, so completely different from the events of past years?
He no longer has anything to say to the country, nothing to offer to escape the economic crisis or the crisis of political stagnation, or this virus that has come to drag him down even further.... He has no strategy left beyond clinging to power with the force of arms and continuing to buy time, hoping to be able to somehow placate the international community.
In the loneliness of his confines he, like any other human, was surely confronted with his darkest side, those shadows that lurk in the recesses of any conscience, all the neurotic and dangerous components of anyone’s personality, and the “bad leaven” we all carry inside, as Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío would say.
Or, to the contrary, does he sometimes, in those silent moments, replay the script, wondering what would have happened had he acted it out differently? Since he was known to be away when the order was handed down to “shoot to kill” those protesting students in those last days of April 2018, what would have happened if he had returned, apologized for the bloodshed, caused a few symbolic heads to roll, opened a genuine dialogue about the social security reforms involving all those who have a right to have their views considered: government, bosses, workers and pensioners? And even if there was no longer enough trust for the population to take him at his word initially and the demonstrations had still escalated, what if anything would have turned out better had he recognized that their sentiments were legitimate rather than assuming they were mere paid pawns of the US government?
There are too many imponderables to get very far with that hypothetical set of pivotal alternative moments, but one thing is a safe bet: he would not have escalated the situation into a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the “angel” to the North is now implacably intent on unseating him and his wife sooner or later. Moreover, it has the edge in the game of buying time. By not dealing with his own citizenry like a true revolutionary leader, he has so weakened himself that Washington has the upper hand.
And that should be more worrying than it appears to be to the different segments of the blue and white opposition. Students of US foreign policy history have seen time and again that, rhetoric aside, independence, grass¬roots development and genuine democratic processes are not on Washington’s list of foreign policy interests, not only in Latin America but anywhere