|Central American University - UCA
Number 471 | Octubre 2020
Before night sets in
As the regime arms itself with legal tools
to ratchet up its repressive policy to the max
and pushes its electoral campaign at a sustained pace,
the design of a post-election Nicaragua in which Daniel Ortega
remains in power for at least another five years in a tacit alliance
with one national economic and political sector is now on the table.
Can the organized blue and white opposition reach agreements
to ensure the unity of action that could break up this play?
And will the blue and white social majority protest enough
to force them to do so before that long, dark night sets in?
September, the month of Nicaragua’s Independence celebrations, showed us a regime determined to let nothing stand in the way of it remaining in power after the still uncertain November 2021 elections. It is employing two methods to that end: repressing to intimidate and wear down, and fomenting divisions to kill hope. Knowing a massive turnout of opposition voters would defeat his reelection plans for a fourth consecutive term as President, Daniel Ortega is banking on fear and demoralization to keep them home on election day.
The first major coordinated
opposition action since 2018
During the night of September 7, hundreds of people in nearly two-thirds of the country’s 153 municipalities risked their very lives to paste leaflets bearing a sketch of Ortega’s face and the simple words HE’S GOING! on doors, walls and billboards. It was an affirmative version of the main demand—”he mut go”—chanted by the hundreds of thousands of people around the country who participated in numerous peaceful marches in April and May 2018. This carefully planned clandestine operation surprised the regime’s repressive police and paramilitaries.
The Civic Alliance claimed responsibility for the action, which was applauded by the National Blue and White Unity (UNAB) and by the entire “blue and white” population, as those who identify their opposition to the regime as patriotic, not political, are known. It was the first coordinated action of this magnitude attempted since those massive marches in 2018.
The government forces immediately began hunting down opponents. Houses were searched and their residents were besieged for days by police vehicles, while a growing number of people were captured, with some taken to court and others released after days of threats and beatings.
Meanwhile, a Tribunal of Conscience with high-profile international jurors experienced in human rights law convened in San José, Costa Rica, on September 9 to hear 18 cases of sexual violence perpetrated by the Ortega regime’s repressive forces against 11 women and 7 men during the civic insurrection of 2018. It concluded its deliberations two days later, finding that the Nicaraguan State is responsible for “crimes against humanity” due to the sexual torture it “systematically” practiced “with the participation of material and intellectual authors.” (See the “Analysis” section of this issue for extracts from their conclusions.)
These two events were a warning to the regime that the flame lit in April 2018 is still burning and the international community hasn’t lost interest in the unwarranted violence the regime unleashed then or its repressive rule since.
And lest anyone lose sight of the fact that Ortega sees his rule as rooted in military might, he himself reminded us during the ostentatious celebration of the 41st anniversary of the creation of Nicaragua’s Army and Police on September 2 and 9, respectively. In his speech both days, he made it clear that these two armed forces are “fundamental underpinnings” of his regime, insisting on their original names, when they were the arm of the revolutionary government, not of the constitutional State. Using the present tense, he said “They are the Sandinista Popular Army and the Sandinista Police.”
An atrocious machista crime
in Lisa we provides the excuse
On September 13, only two days after the Court of Conscience ruling on sexual crimes, a man in the community of Lisawe, municipality of Mulukukú, North Caribbean Autonomous Region, raped then fatally macheted a 12-year-old girl in the presence of her 9-year old sister, who then suffered the same fate.
Crying in front of the cameras of an independent TV channel, the girls’ mother—the single head of an extreme¬ly poor household—said desolately that the older daughter had already been raped on two other occasions and that she had filed charges both times. But instead of pursuing the case, the police “started investigating me, as if I was the one to blame.” The reporting of this atrocious crime shed unusual light on the defenselessness and abandonment in so many rural areas of the country, where being female means striving to survive under constant danger.
In her noontime media monologue the very next day, the “saddened” Vice President announced that in response to these events, Ortega had just “orien¬ted” the Supreme Court of Justice to reform the penal laws to define a life sentence for crimes “we categorize as hate crimes,” which she defined as “crimes against humanity.” Inexplicably unaware that only States can be accused of crimes against humanity, she also ignored the fact that the cruel murder of those two girls expresses machista violence, which will not be curbed by increasing the sentence. It requires effective prevention systems and gender-inclusive educational models such as those espoused and practiced for many years by the valiant and committed women’s organizations in Nicaragua to deal with the pandemic of machismo that has always scourged our country.
Life sentences for
“the devil’s children”
In only two more days the real objective of Ortega’s new legal initiative was revealed. The afternoon of September 15, Nicaraguan Independence Day, after regaling members of the ruling party’s Sandinista Youth organization with events of 199 years ago, when Central America liberated itself from the Spa¬nish Crown, Ortega gave what may have been his most vituperative speech against the blue and white opposition since 2018. “They have no soul,” he railed; “they have no heart; they are not Nicaraguans; they are the children of the monster, the devil’s children, and they are filled with hatred, hatred, hatred, nothing else. They are criminals, cowards; they feel untouchable be¬cause they’ve been given amnesty. But they won’t get another amnesty; the people will ask for a settling of scores!”
His confirmation of Vice President Murillo’s announcement and the string of epithets he spewed out that afternoon left no doubt that the “hate crimes” he intends to punish with life sentences will be the continuing acts of resistance against the dictatorship.
The Vice President threw more fuel on the fire the next day: “Conceited, vain, arrogant, terrorists, liars, hypocrites, cowering traitors,” she said, raising her own whipping of up of hatred to an extreme. “Now they’re pretending to be the great democrats. What are they? Assailants, thieves, criminals, terrorists, evildoers. They are serpents.” With this mounting climate of intimidation, which includes at least two more new facets, Ortega is clearly basing his electoral scenario on maximum abstention by his opponents, a social majority.
Jail and confiscation
for “foreign agents”
Next, it was learned on September 22 that the governing party bench in the National Assembly, Nicaragua’s parliament, would be discussing a bill to “regulate” foreign agents, which it defines as “any natural or juridical person, Nicaraguan or of other nationality, that receives funds, goods or any object of value inside Nicaragua directly or indirectly from foreign governments, agencies, foundations, corporate groups or associations of whatever type or nature, that work for, receive funds from or respond to bodies that directly or indirectly belong to or are controlled by foreign governments.”
These persons must “register” with the government, which will investigate their activity and proceed to prohibit their receipt of such funds. Moreover, those the government decides are foreign agents may not run for public office or hold any government job until a year after ceasing to receive foreign funds and ending their relationship with the agency providing them. The bill also includes the confiscation of real estate and bank accounts belonging to those proven to be “foreign agents.”
Over the past four decades Nicaragua has had—and continues to have—innumerable cultural, social, educational, health, capacity-building, community livelihood, research, human rights and other development projects for children, women, men and small businesses, among others, that are sustained 100% by foreign cooperation resources.
If approved, this bill of unprecedented scope and language that leaves so much open to the discretion of the dictatorship, would be a strategic blow to all civil society organizations, the entire opposition and all public liberties, not to mention the economy.
The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), a prestigious international institution specializing in analyzing the legal framework in which nongovernmental organizations operate around the world, sees the same tendency in the new Nicaraguan bill as it has analyzed in other countries such as Russia, Hungary, Ukraine and Kirghizstan. All of them have established legal restrictions on access to foreign funds by civil society organizations, with legislation that classifies those receiving international cooperation as “agents” of their donors and imposes stigmatizing and onerous re¬quisites with severe sanctions for technical non-compliance.
For the third new act of intimidation, FSLN parliamentary representatives intro¬duced a bill penalizing “cybercrimes” on September 28. Within its extensive list of articles, the bill proposes imposing two to four years of prison and fines on anyone using information and communications technology to “publish or disseminate false or misleading information that generates alarm, fear or anxiety in the population, a group or sector of the population, or a person or his or her family.”
The punishment and the fine will be increased if this information “incites hate or violence, or endangers economic stability, public order, public health or sovereign security.” The bill also establishes that the government will seek to extradite anyone outside of Nicaragua who threatens state security.
Like the two others in this trio of bills introduced in September desig¬ned to repress the regime’s opponents, its interpretative discretion knows no li¬mit.
and press censorship
In this wildly disproportionate escalation of hostility aimed at defeating the opposition by silencing, punishing and/or intimidating it, the repression with which Ortega is preparing his electoral scenario also includes an upsurge of fiscal terrorism.
On September 2, Victoria Cár¬denas, wife of Civic Alliance executive director Juan Sebastián Chamorro, announced that the government’s Ge¬neral Income Division (DGI) was char¬ging her 9.5 million córdobas (appro¬ximately US$277,000) for what it claims, with no legal evidence, is un¬paid taxes. It threatened her, her mo¬ther and her sister—partners in a real es¬tate business—with imprisonment if they did not pay up. Her public denunciation encouraged other business people to acknowledge that they, too, were victims of similar pressures.
Investigations by the Nicaraguan news daily La Prensa found that tax harassment has been widespread. The Managua mayor’s office has accused at least 200 businesses of different sizes of tax fraud.
The fiscal terrorism applied on September 11 against Channel 12, which is the only one other than Cha-nnel 10 that offers information different from what the regime repeats on its dozen channels, also has grave consequences for freedom of information and constitutes a form of press censorship.
All of Channel 12’s goods and even the personal belongings of its director, Ma¬riano Valle, were embargoed under the argument that the channel has a debt of 21 million córdobas (US$612,245) in unpaid taxes for the past 6-7 years. The embargo came soon after the company had made a costly investment in equipment and technology to improve its signal. Valle denied the debt and said he was the victim of a “new” confiscation, since the FSLN government of the 1980s also confiscated his properties.
With the country teetering on the brink of an apparently inescapable economic depression, the regime is pressuring businesspeople and increasing fines and taxes to obtain funds from wherever it can. At the same time, it is trying to assure votes by multiplying handouts to the most impoverished strata, an increasing percentage of the population in the past two-and-a-half years.
Like any incumbent government, the regime has the advantage of being able to present obligatory public investments as populist largesse. Its media repeatedly report the delivery of food packages or offers of free medical consultations, for which the recipients are shown expressing gratitude for the “generosity of the comandante and the compañera” (Ortega and his wife/Vice President Rosario Murillo, respectively) even though free health care is a constitutional right and the increasing poverty is due to the economic crisis caused by the regime itself.
The government is also emphasizing low-income housing, a much needed public program given the national housing deficit that has remained unresolved over the nearly 14 years Ortega and Murillo have been in power. The majority of planned house constructions will be in Managua, which also has the largest voting population. In September, the Managua municipal mayor’s office announced that it has already turned over a thousand low-income houses this year and will triple that number next year. The houses to be built in the election year of 2021 will be financed by a US$171.6 million loan Ortega recently obtained from the Central American Bank for Economic Investment.
A highly controversial move
Over the course of this year, the government has granted “family coexistence” to 23,000 common prisoners. This decision not only endangers citizens but has no legal foundation whatever. While the majority were serving sentences for minor offenses, a number were in for serious crimes, including 514 for femicides, according to Nicaraguan women’s organizations.
The regime, which has refused to acknowledge the same public health problems currently affecting the whole planet, is mainly letting these people out to stop them dying of COVID in jail—as already happened in May and June, according to other inmates—and to ease the serious budgetary problems by saving on penitentiary food bills. Of course, it is hoped that “generously” granting them liberty will earn the regime their grateful votes and those of their families next November. It might have been a lopsided wager, ho-wever, given the resentment those thousands of released prisoners feel about their mistreatment behind bars and the insecurity felt among citizens who believe, rightly or wrongly, that the very perceptible increase in petty eco¬nomic crimes is a direct result of their release. Most of those released are surely running into serious difficulty getting a job given the already high and still rising unemployment rate.¬
The regime has not similarly benefited the more than a hundred still-incarcerated political prisoners with its “generosity.” They are under threat of COVID and other illnesses given the insalubrious conditions of the country’s prisons. This of course is adding to the general population’s deep disgust with this government.
Will they be bargaining chips?
The governing party’s legislative bench has justifiably earned the reputation of just rubber stamping executive bills, and has a large enough majority of votes (71 out of 92) to do so without any obligation to negotiate or debate with the five opposition parties’ 21 representatives. It passed the controversial interoceanic canal law in 2013 with just two days of discussion having only consulted the government’s then-business allies. Yet when this issue of envoi went to press at the end of September, neither the “foreign agent” bill nor the “hate crime” bill had been pushed through. The discretion gran¬ted to the government to decide who is guilty of any of these crimes makes it unlikely that any self-interested debate is going on within the FSLN bench itself. The slowness in passing these laws is thus a mystery, particularly since Ortega has a penchant for fast-tracking all bills he wants passed.
Are these repressive and intimidating new bills bargaining chips for the government at a negotiating table in which Ortega would have to agree to electoral reforms for 2021? Are they already the centerpiece of backroom discussions with either national or international interested parties?
Ortega’s capacity to visualize things—and people for that matter—as negotiating trade-offs is nothing new. We already saw it in 2019, when he negotiated the release—but not freedom or exoneration—of hundreds of political prisoners jailed the previous year, the vast majority of whom had committed no crime.
Engineering student John Cerna, a political prisoner sentenced to 12 years, referred to this in a letter in July: “From among the nearly hundred political prisoners, they have ‘prioritized’ some 37 of us for medical problems. They have taken us out for check-ups under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross. But in reality, it is just protocol to ensure that their ‘bargaining chips’ are alive and ‘well.’ On one occasion I spoke with the Committee head, who assured me they came because the ‘authorities’ asked them to.”
We need 1.5 million votes
What condition will Nicaragua be in come November 2021? It’s not remo¬tely certain. The only certainty today is that the international community that is backing the blue and white opposition’s demands for democracy is not wavering in its conditions: the solution to Nicaragua’s crisis must involve free, fair and internationally observed elections. But there is still a long way to go to achieve that through negotiations that will be arduous if they are to be genuine. With just over a year until election day, they have not yet even begun.
Another certainty is that the blue and white social majority isn’t being offered a clear electoral option. While Ortega is forging ahead with his own electoral scenario, the organized opposition hasn’t even finished debating whether to run against him as a single bloc.
Electoral expert José Antonio Peraza uses round numbers to show graphically how many votes the opposition would need to ensure that Ortega “goes.” “Doing everything he’s doing now,” says Peraza, “Ortega could pull up to 700,000 votes. The blue and white opposition needs to slightly more than double that—at least 1.5 million votes—to win both the presidency and the qualified majority of 60 representatives in the legislative body, because only by doing that can we make the required changes.”
Peraza also warns that if the opposition divides into two or more options, as is currently threatened, Ortega could win with no more than his assured voter bloc and thus le¬gi¬timize himself for five more years in government.
As Nicaragua’s reformed Consti¬tution no longer requires a minimum percentage to win on the first round and thus even eliminated mention of a second round, Ortega theoretically only needs one more vote than any of the other candidates opposing him. From Ortega’s perspective, then, the more candidates the merrier.
The project now on the table
In an interview with Channel 10 in mid-September, Peraza confirmed growing evidence that a sector of large financial and business capital organized in the Civic Alliance has managed to convince the Alliance’s organized youth sector to join it in pulling out of the National Coalition, created in February by the Civic Alliance and UNAB, the two main representatives of the blue and white organized opposition, and joined by the Campesino Movement and three political parties. These two sectors of the Civic Alliance would instead operate under the flag of Citizens for Liberty (CxL), the most recent in¬carnation of Nicaragua’s fractured Liberal party tradition. Since CxL has legal status, it also has a coveted slot on the ballot.
CxL was born in 2017 and had suspiciously little trouble getting legal recognition from the Ortega-controlled Supreme Electoral Council. It offers an anti-feminist, anti-Sandinista center-right option, shunning even the most anti-Ortega Sandinistas such as the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), as well as more modern-thinking Liberals who have worked in anti-Ortega movements alongside it. CxL has become increasingly vocal in its anti-independent Sandinista secta¬rianism, a sentiment Ortega shares.
If those sectors go through with this split, blue and white voters will be faced with a choice between this project and the National Coalition’s inclusionary one. It is predictable that the opposition’s division into two poles would increase the voter abstention Ortega is counting on and has already been fostering through the intimi¬dating effects of the new bills and police and paramilitary repression. That would make the CxL and its business allies a strategic piece in his plan to continue in power.
In the “Speaking Out” section of this issue, Ernesto Medina, a distinguished member of the Civic Alliance since its creation, discusses the urgency of a unitary opposition movement and the negative consequences of a split in the Civic Alliance and departure from the National Coalition.
The elections in COSEP
In this context of so many uncertainties, including within the national business community itself, elections were held in the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) on September 8 to choose a new president. Expectations about who would win were a new feature after 13 years of consistently reelecting José Adán Aguerri, a political operative of the Pellas Group, Nicaragua’s largest and most powerful business group. Aguerri was responsible for managing the corporative co-government scheme with Ortega for a decade until the crisis of April 2018 abruptly ended that mutually profitable collaboration.
Under pressure from important COSEP sectors, Aguerri decided not to run for yet another term. But the business chambers and think tanks under the COSEP umbrella don’t appear to have made a substantial change in the correlation of forces between COSEP and the Ortega regime. By a vote of 14 to 8, agro-exporter Michael Healy, Aguerri’s vice president during his last three years, was elected to replace him. Healy’s running mate was big cattle rancher Álvaro Vargas. Both men belong to the Civic Alliance business sector that is now leaning toward breaking with the National Coalition and casting its lot with CxL.
In his first post-victory declarations, Healy spoke of the need to come to an “agreement” with Ortega. That caused such consternation in the blue and white movement that he tried to walk it back. Claiming he had been “misinterpreted,” he insisted in new declarations on the need to hold elections with guaranteed civil liberties and no more political prisoners. He also joined both the bulk of the national population and the international community in describing the “foreign agents” bill, which would even affect private enterprise, as “totalitarian and confiscatory,” warning that it could “create enormous chaos.”
Will COSEP offer us
just more of the same?
Would this political scenario have changed any had victory gone to the competing ticket of Mario Hanon, president of the Association of Agrochemical Formulators and Distributors, and his running mate Carmen Hilleprandt, president of the Chamber of Commerce? A clue to at least Hilleprandt’s thinking can be found in her “Speaking Out” article in the August issue of envoi.
The Hanon-Hilleprandt ticket appeared to represent more modern thinking in the business sector. Before the voting, Hanon proposed a public debate with Healy, but he refused.
The eight chambers that voted for Hanon-Hilleprandt include those with the greatest number of members, which represent 70% of the nation’s gross domestic product, i.e. its small and medium businesses. The ones that carried the day included the chambers created during Aguerri’s reign, which always assured his reelection and admit they benefited most from the corporative model with Ortega that Aguerri shepherded for a decade.
Following the election results, all eight pro-Hanon-Hilleprandt chambers refused their seats on the new COSEP board. Lucy Valenti, president of the Tourism Chamber, explained to La Prensa that “with the bylaws we currently have, the board decides nothing, and staying on it would only have allowed it to publish a photo and say that our chambers were okay with it.”
Valenti also lamented the machismo expressed in the treatment received by herself, Hilleprandt and Ximena González, president of the Na¬tional Development Institute (INDE). All three had actively promoted the renovation of COSEP and played a fundamental role in preventing Aguerri’s reelection aspirations. Valenti said they “were ferociously attacked and defamed in a cowardly and malicious manner” by some business sectors that “don’t forgive women who dare to voice our opinion and exercise our leadership.”
While something was accom¬plished, the first post-electoral signs indicate that Aguerri still holds a lot of power, now as one of COSEP’s influen¬tial unelected “advisers,” all of whom speak for Nicaragua’s big finance capital.
A tumultuous identity crisis
for the business class
The business class as a whole broke with the co-government scheme in April 2018, when they opposed Ortega’s proposed social security reforms for increasing employers’ contributions and he unilaterally announced them anyway on April 18. When that sparked student-supported retiree protests that same evening against the reform’s cut in pensions, pro-government thugs attacked them, injuring several. Some business spokespeople openly sided with the population as both the demos¬trations and the government’s lethal response became massive.
The business sector was thus inevitably included in the sectoral repre¬sentation (together with aca¬de¬mia, students, civil society, organized peasant farmers and the Caribbean Coast populations) hastily pulled to-gether by the Catholic bishops who had been asked to chair negotiations with the government that May.
When that dialogue hit an impasse and collapsed, this heterogeneous group didn’t dis¬band. Calling itself the Civic Alliance, it prepared for negotiations the follo¬wing year—popularly dubbed Dialogue 2.0 when they too failed. It also worked within UNAB, formed in October 2018 not of sectors but of new and existing social organizations and movements, to coalesce the blue and white opposition based on more than just shared patriotism and opposition to the regime. In February of this year UNAB and the Civic Alliance announced the formation of the Natio¬nal Coalition.
The business representatives remained in the Civic Alliance all those months, working with parts of the population they had never had contact with before. But suspicions about the real interests of the business representatives were being voiced repeatedly at the base by then, as Ernesto Medina admitted in his “Speaking Out” article in our September 2019 issue.
Building unity in a polarized, repressed country isn’t easy
COSEP’s “advisers” apparently had not wanted to oppose Ortega in April 2018, when he demonstrated that his institutionalized dictatorship was also a criminal one.Up to that point, COSEP, under Aguerri’s command, had worked with the government with no ma¬jor problems. Not until May, by which time several dozen student demonstrators and others had been shot to death by police and paramilitaries, were their voices heard for the first—and last—time. Carlos Pellas, patriarch of his business group, Roberto Zamora of the LaFise financial group and Ramiro Ortiz of the Banpro financial group all made separate declarations “asking” Orte¬ga to end the violence and hold early elections.
They said nothing the rest of that year; not when the national dialogue failed, not when the regime’s bloody “Operation Clean-up” ended the life of hundreds more protestors, not when public gatherings and protests were outlawed and not even when Nicaragua had entered the tunnel of a de facto police State, with black-clad riot police and heavily armed paramilitaries controlling the streets. The next year, when the regime ridiculed them in the second round of negotiations with the Civic Alliance, which some of them had pro¬moted, they still didn’t speak out.
Nothing suggests they have changed their accommodating strategy, their negative perceptions of the political leaders who emerged in April 2018 or their distrust of those leaders’ demands for genuine transformations in the country’s politics.
They instead naturally favor a political arrangement with the regime to guarantee their businesses and profits. For those same reasons, intrinsic to who they are, they seem ready to back CxL’s political-electoral project, justifying it as in the interest of national stability.
In 2013, Carlos Pellas, who was a COSEP adviser back then as well, said with no hesitation that “we are living in an open country. Everyone here is free to move about, the press enjoys freedom of opinion, and it is from this point of view that I consider we are living in an open country.” It was the same year pensioners occupied the Social Security Institute, supported that time as well by young people who brought them food, medicines and music. When the government’s thugs came to beat them up and steal their belongings, including cars, the police stood back and watched, doing nothing, before moving in to roughly remove the elderly.
Seven years later, will the threat or actual implementation of the life sentence penalty for those the gover¬nment decides have committed hate crimes, or the law giving it discre¬tio¬nary power to regulate those it decides are foreign agents have any effect on his “point of view”? Any chance it will make him and the other COSEP advi¬sers back off of their project for a “soft landing”?
What is the “soft
Under CxL’s wing, the COSEP advisers and likeminded sectors of the business class would presumably see the oft-mentioned “soft landing” offered to Ortega and his retinue: elections with limited guarantees that would permit a non-chaotic (“soft”) transition and let Ortega remain in the country and even possibly win the elections; should he lose them, he would get to conserve important quotas of economic and political power.
Nicaragua’s big capital has wanted this path since April 2018, but even saying so was impossible while massive civic protests in the streets were demanding early elections and the even earlier departure of the governing couple. They banked on this being the outcome of the dialogue 2.0 in 2019, encouraged by the Guaidó phenomenon that emerged in Venezuela. But that didn’t pan out either.
They seem to be returning to this same idea in the 2021 elections, after the pandemic and three years of recession have put Nicaragua in a dramatic economic situation.Do they fear a repeat of the economically destabilizing disruption Ortega unleashed on the Chamorro government he lost to in 1990? He demonstrated then that he didn’t take kindly to losing and showed everyone his capacity to “govern from below.” It is reasonable to assume they believe it would be more stabilizing to have him inside the government than out, especially with Ortega’s demonstrated control of the police, and the limited capacity for effective leadership shown thus far by the blue and white organized opposition.
In his late September blog, independent economist Néstor Avendaño described the unfolding economic drama with careful realism: “In an optimistic scenario, once two or three effective vaccines are available to everyone, a task experts say could take up to three years, post-pandemic economic growth in Nicaragua would take many more years to meet the mo¬dern definition of “economic recovery.” Annual average per-capita gross domestic income will have dropped in 2020 from the US$2,182 it hit in 2017 to the US$1,761 of 2013. Nicaragua’s economy will have fallen back eight years, shifting from an economic recession to a depression by the end of 2020.”
Are we heading for
a corporative model 2.O?
Many months and many predictable and unpredictable events remain before we can begin to see what shape Nicaragua will be in by election time next year. But it’s not hard to imagine a scenario of very limited electoral system reforms if the organized opposition is divided when they come up for negotiation. Ortega will also likely go up against two major voting blocs, and a few token opposition parties he’ll throw in both to make the race look pluralist and to divide the opposition vote even more.
Will this assure victory for Ortega and Murillo, who barring the unforeseen will surely be the governing party’s ticket yet again? Or might Ortega pull the Somoza dictatorship’s cosmetic stunt of putting in other figures? And if so, whom?
With a divided opposition, an agreement between big capital and Ortega is predictable whether the governing party wins or loses. What would they negotiate, given that Ortega always keeps his partners in a subordinated position? If Ortega wins, it would be a 2.0 version of the original corporative “dialogue and consensus” model on economic issues that functioned with few tweaks until April 2018. Now, however, it will be in a post-depression economic scenario domi¬nated by the “hysteresis” effect Avendaño foresees, which means simply that the economic aftereffects of such a prolonged and severe economic down¬turn will last well after a turnaround in the economic activity, resulting in years of low investments and job creation, and high poverty.
Should CxL win, the 2.0 version would surely involve rolling back the tax burden on the business class currently in effect with the government’s tax reform. The size of the State would also be cut, increasing unemployment, and some of its destroyed institutionality would be restored.But nothing essential would change. The pact between CxL and big business would be hammered out in the name of national stability and peace. Ortega, naturally, would cut away at the new government “from below,” in part to make it fail and in part to get a greater share of power, as he did during the 1990s.
Fourteen months before Nicaragua’s cloud-ridden elections, more questions remain open than answered, and new ones continue to be added.The first new one is whether any opposition candidates or leaders will be discretionally sentenced to life imprisonment for “hate crimes” or disqualified from running because they have been defined, with equal discretionary latitude, as “foreign agents”? Or will these extreme laws just be used as intimidating tools or bargaining chips by the dictatorship?
How will the business sector that is taking on the CxL as its political partner reach an agreement with Ortega that is palatable to the blue and white majority whose votes CxL wants to attract? There are those who doubt that the business pole will be at all appealing to those voters, no matter how they package their plans, but no one doubts it would encourage absten¬tion.
How will the blue and white po¬pu¬lation react to the forecasts of long years of depression if they don’t at least have the consolation of having freed them¬selves from another five years of the dictatorship?
And how would the international community react to this business-CxL project? If it was perceived that the elections were run according to minimally acceptable standards and adequate observation, it is probable that Nicaragua would fall below the radar. It would reasonably be assumed that the crisis starting in April 2018 has been resolved; that Nicaraguans’ votes had “spoken.” In the midst of the geo¬po¬litical conflicts raging all over the planet, aggravated by the economic and human damage of the prolonged pandemic worldwide, the international community’s priority is to reduce conflicts anywhere and any way it can.
What the international community is hoping
If the division of the organized opposition and the base interests of certain national actors keep Ortega in government another five years, it will be the responsibility of Nicaraguans themselves.
The position of the international community that has influenced the Nicaraguan crisis—particularly but not only the US government—may be seen with greater clarity in the coming months, when several decisive events occur. These key moments will show whether they will facilitate the divisive project, which would favor Ortega consolidating himself as a winning option, or help the blue and white opposition survive the divisive threat and achieve a more solid unity. At least in the case of the US government, history shows that a CxL-big business alliance carries a lot more appeal than a large, less stable and more progressive mass mo-vement struggling to find a new, truly democratic and inclusionary form of leadership, a task particularly challenging for a country with no experience of such a political approach. History also shows that Washington is loath to let other nations work out their own problems if there is any chance that doing so will threaten its own in¬te¬rests.
On September 15, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a press release condemning the Ortega government’s attack on the free press. Conveniently skirting any mention of US support for the 43-year Somoza family dynasty, he compared Ortega to Somoza by saying “Ortega has become the dictator he fought against so long ago.” Pompeo added that “as Daniel Ortega lashes out at critics, imprisons pro-democracy activists, and tramples human rights, he has lost legitimacy with the Nicaraguan people and the international community.”
In October, the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) will meet and again take up Nicaragua’s case. Was Pompeo’s statement a veiled announcement that the OAS might declare the Nicaraguan government illegitimate? That only requires 18 votes. Previous resolutions criticizing the Ortega government have easily gotten that number, while getting the needed two-thirds vote of the 35 member States to apply the OAS Democratic Charter to Nicaragua has so far been im¬possible.
An ultimatum to Ortega?
Is it a mere coincidence that 10 days later, CxL ally Alfredo César released a draft resolution he wants the OAS to present to Ortega in its General Assembly? The document peremp¬to¬rily emphasizes that Ortega initiate negotiations with the opposition regarding electoral reforms to guarantee free, fair and transparent elections observed by the international community and thus end the crisis in a civic manner.
The ultimatum demands 10 essential reforms to Nicaragua’s collapsed electoral system as well as the disarming of the paramilitaries. It warns that if these conditions are not met, the elections will be declared illegitimate and the OAS will not recognize them.
On September 22, three days before César released that proposal, the National Coalition sent the OAS the pro¬posed electoral reforms drawn up by the Pro-Electoral Reforms Group and signed by all the organizations in the Coalition. The reforms are the result of 15 years of work by the Promoter Group to determine how best to trans¬form the deteriorated electoral system, damaged even more by the 2000 pact between Ortega and then-President Arnoldo Alemán of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), and the ensuing electoral frauds star¬ting in 2008.
Last year, once it had its base document, the Promoter Group had invited all interested sectors to discuss it. As one might imagine, the government and its allies had no interest in the reforms, but opposition sectors of various stripes offered their perspectives. By December, the opposition had already reached greater unanimous consensus on those reforms than on any other issue.
The Alliance, UNAB and ultimately the National Coalition as a whole worked actively in that broad multi-sectoral discussion group, negotiating important additions to it this year. One of them, which the once powerful PLC, a Coalition member, originally rejected, would de-politicize all the positions in the official voting structures, from the departmental level all the way down to the individual voting tables around the country. As the party that ran second in all elections after 2006, the PLC has had the privilege of having one of the three seats on all those struc¬tu¬res, and even a percentage of their presidencies. It has now renounced that privilege and agreed to the reform that would fill all those positions with people randomly chosen from the list of re¬gistered voters rather than named by political parties.
Two other contributions approved were suggested by the new forces that emerged in the April 2018 rebellion. One is to make it easier for new parties to run in elections. The other is to guarantee autonomy for the electoral alliances between political parties and both social and political movements so the members of such alliances can “decide the name, initials, flag, emblem, and legal representation and request an independent slot on the ballot.” Having its own slot that would draw together the entire blue and white opposition has been an insistent priority of UNAB and other groups born or reborn that April. Among other reasons, it would eliminate the need to be dependent on a ballot slot of the existing parties and get caught up in their competition to represent the blue and white vote.
CxL and COSEP
didn’t sign the reforms
In line with its plan to put together another option, Citizens for Liberty did not sign the electoral reforms proposal sent to the OAS. Nor did COSEP or the heads of US-Nicaraguan companies in the American Chamber of Commerce in Nicaragua (Amcham). This is another strong sign that the project of dividing the organized opposition into two blocs is on the table, and suggests it has the blessings of the US government. The proposal was, however, signed by the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES), a private enterprise think tank that has occupied one of the business sec¬tor’s seats in the Civic Alliance from the outset.
Although CxL didn’t join the National Coalition this February, when three other invited parties did, it parti¬ci¬¬pated for months in the multisectoral group discussions of the Promoter Group’s groundbreaking effort. On June 2 of this year, CxL president Kitty Monterrey suddenly and surprisingly announced that her people were pulling out of the discussions, alleging “particular agendas” she objected to. She chose not to specify what they were, but it was later learned that they were the very advances mentioned above, consensually agreed to and included in the pro¬posal sent to the OAS.
This was the first signal that her own project had begun to jell, as became clearer later that same day when she invited all opponents of Ortega to group together under her new “unitary” proposal, to be led by CxL. Did she oppose the depoliticizing of the electoral posts because she expects to replace the PLC as the “second force” and wants those posts for her own reasons? It was also learned that the Civic Alliance itself had been on the brink of not signing the reforms proposal.
“This isn’t a leftist country”
Monterrey, whose party is itself only three years old, opposes any flexibility in the requisites to create new parties and form alliances, which she views as a vehicle to help “groups of Sandinista origins organize and become visible.” She argues that they should be excluded as they have no weight and—far worse in her mind—are leftist. “As far as I know,” she insists, “this country isn’t leftist.”
CxL is the latest incarnation of the 2005 split within the then-powerful PLC, and its rival in the dispute to win the loyalty of Nicaragua’s sizable but largely alienated Liberal base. Corruption, opportunism and the nefarious pact with the FSLN starting in the late 1990s led to that original split and have since reduced the PLC to a shadow of its former self. By renouncing its Ortega-granted privileges as the country’s “second force,” the PLC has definitely improved its image.
While many older Liberal families are fiercely anti-Sandinista, a lot of their children, like those of Sandinista families, find this ideological polarization both outmoded and destructive. In his Speaking Out article, Ernesto Medina discusses the risks of this struggle against the dictatorship degenerating into an ideological one.
It’s a patriotic struggle
The MRS, one of the organizations Mon¬terrey dismisses, is a 1995 split from the FSLN, mainly of urban professionals and intellectuals. One of its leaders, Víctor Hugo Tinoco, had joined the FSLN in 1973, while a university student in León. After fighting in the insurrection against So¬moza, he became vice foreign minister during the revolutionary government in the 1980s. He was expelled in 2005 together with former Managua mayor Herty Lewites when the latter dared to challenge Ortega as the FSLN’s presidential candidate for 2006. When the MRS invited the highly popular Lewites to run on its ticket, nearly ruining Ortega’s chance of victory that year, Ortega retaliated by stripping the MRS of its party status. Both the MRS and Tinoco have worked tirelessly to see the ruling couple defeated, including by joining the 2011 electoral alliance of the Independent Liberal Party, the CxL’s immediate prede¬ce¬ssor.
Tinoco offered the following reflection on the CxL’s refusal to participate in the National Coalition or sign the electoral reforms proposal. “If you have a patriotic will,” he says, “you seek agreement. A decision by the CxL not to join the National Coalition strikes me as the worst error that Mr. Eduardo Montealegre and Ms. Kitty Monterrey, the real leaders of that political force, could make. As people who know their way around politics, they know unity is indispensable. If it runs separately, ignoring the patriotic demand for unity, CxL would be committing its worst error.”
The patriotic will of so many
Patriotic will continues to exist all over the country. All those hundreds of people demonstrated it by risking their lives to paste those leaflets saying, “HE’S GOING!”
Tania González demonstrated it when she was literally dragged off to jail by police after fighting with them as they tried to remove the little plastic blue and white national flags she was selling in her hardware store in San Carlos. “They’re taking me away for selling flags!” she yelled proudly from the police car, brandishing the few flags she had saved from the illegal seizure.
Ex-political prisoner Lenín Sala¬blanca, a 39-year-old street vendor in the department of Chontales, demons¬trates political will on a daily basis. In envío’s monthly analysis of March 2019, we reproduced a message this son of a Sandinista Army officer, who had voted for Ortega in 2006, tossed through the bars of his prison cell, where he had been sent for carrying a national flag. In it he said with a touch of tragic poetry that Nicaragua had in nine months become a country of “desterrados, encerrados, aterrados y enterrados.”
Desterrados (uprooted), because more than 60,000 had been forced into exile. Encerrados (locked up), because more than 700 were still imprisoned “for denouncing injustice, exercising their free expression and not remaining silent.” Aterrados (terrorized), because thousands “live in fear of being captu¬red or fired just for thinking differently than the government.” And enterrados (buried), because hundreds were the “victims of oppressive vultures for demonstrating the force of love and the capacity to make decisions to help their brothers and sisters.” Salablanca said nothing about being “defeated.”
Like so many other political prisoners who were finally let out of jail but not absolved, he has been under constant siege and threat, detained again and beaten, but he has not remained silent. With great dignity and spirit of peaceful resistance he has continued to speak out against the injustice of the police harassing him.
“If anyone said it was easy…”
Lenin Salablanca represents mi¬llions. In the Independence celebrations, after his last jailing, he was asked to give a message for Nicaragua. This was it: “We mustn’t lose hope, faith and love. If anyone said this was easy, they were tricking you.” It could not have been a more exact and perfect message for this critical moment we’re facing today… before night sets in.