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  Number 472 | Noviembre 2020
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The OAS sets a deadline: Is this the regime’s last opportunity?

The Organization of American States General Assembly has issued a resolution regarding Nicaragua’s regime that sounds very much like an ultimatum, a last chance: by at least six months before the November 2021 elections it must guarantee the population full political liberties and an election with genuine competition and observation. The OAS set this deadline at the same time as Daniel Ortega, in line with his script, has added three more repressive laws that have earned him still more international repudiation. It is also a time when the organized blue and white opposition is deciding whether to set aside its differences and come together or split in two, which would virtually assure Ortega’s electoral win. What negotiations might we see in the next six months?

Envío team

T here have been numerous OAS General Assembly and Permanent Council meetings, reports and resolutions about Nica¬ragua’s crisis over the past two years. But this is only the second time the OAS has set a precise compliance deadline. It specifies that the concrete commitments it is urging, “in particular modernization and restructuring of the Supreme Electoral Council,” must be in place “no later than May 2021.”

The General Assembly’s first deadline came in late June 2019, when Ortega was given 75 days to renew “good faith and effective” negotiations with the Civic Alliance to find a way out of the crisis and comply with past agreements. That was bolstered by instructions for the Permanent Council to create a commission to take diplomatic initiatives at the “highest level” within the framework of applying the Democratic Charter. Ortega let the OAS know what he thought of that by refusing to renew the negotiations that had failed the previous month and even to allow the commission into the country.

Not as strong as
some would have liked

Various versions of the new draft resolution to be discussed first by the continent’s foreign ministers began circulating well before their October 20-21 virtual meeting. In Nicaragua, there were great expectations of a forceful text that would put the government’s back against the wall. Some groups urged the OAS to apply the Democratic Charter to Nicaragua, expelling it from that regional body, while others merely wanted the government declared illegitimate.

What they got was another carefully worded resolution. Although it could have gone further, it is a political defeat for the dictatorship. The text approved by the General Assembly on October 22 reads like the last opportunity the regional community is giving Ortega to hold clean elections in Nicaragua.

Little change in the vote

The document, titled “Resolution Restoring Democratic Institutions and Respect for Human Rights in Nicaragua Through Free and Fair Elections,” was co-sponsored by the delegations of Canada, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, the United States and Venezuela. (Opposition leader Juan Gaidó’s ambassador was recognized last year as Venezuela’s representative until democratic elections are held in that country, which is the same fate that could await Ortega if his government is declared illegitimate.)

Like the June 2019 resolution, this one received the favorable vote of 20 of the 34 countries present, but given elections in several countries in the interim, the line-up changed. Of the 12 that abstained, 3 were Central American (Belize, Guatemala and Honduras), two were continental (Argentina and Mexico) and 7 were small Caribbean island nations. Only two voted against: Nicaragua and St. Vincent & the Grenadines. In 2019, in contrast, 8 abstained and 4 voted against. No delegation defended the Ortega regime this time, either before the vote or during the remarks that followed, thus demonstrating its increased isolation.

The resolution’s preamble

In its prologue, the resolution refers to articles 3 to 6 of the Democratic Charter, “which name essential elements of representative democracy that States commit to promote and defend, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, access to and the exercise of power in accordance with the rule of law, the holding of periodic, free and fair elections based on secret balloting and universal suffrage as an expression of the sovereignty of the people, the pluralistic system of political parties and organizations, the separation of powers and independence of the branches of government, and which reflect that freedom of expression and of the press is an essential component of the exercise of democracy.”

The resolution expresses “grave concern that arbitrary detention has not ceased; that auxiliary police forces and armed militia of the ruling party, which have continued their abuses and illegal actions, have not been dismantled” and that there is no “safe return” for exiles.

And grasping the spurious nature of the three new bills introduced into Nicaragua’s legislative body in September, it notes “with alarm the worrisome trend of utilizing legislation to intimidate and/or threaten members of pro-democracy groups and independent media in Nicaragua, such as the introduction of the ‘foreign agents law’, another proposing life sentences for broadly defined ‘hate crimes’, and a third punishing the spread of so-called fake news on social media with up to four years in prison.”

The resolution’s
main message

In its fundamental message, the resolution “urges” the Government of Nicaragua “to fully respect the constitutional order, human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to hold free and fair national, presidential and legislative elections.” To that end it urges the government “to accept the broad and effective deployment of electoral observation missions comprising independent, accredited international observers” and requests that the OAS secretary general “support inclusive and timely negotiations between the Government of Nicaragua and national actors representing the Nicaraguan opposition on meaningful electoral reform measures consistent with applicable international standards.”

The text specifically lists seven reforms to the collapsed electoral system required of the regime:
“a. modernization and restructuring of the Supreme Electoral Council to ensure it operates in a fully independent, transparent and accountable fashion;
b. a pluralistic political process leading to the effective exercise of civil and political rights, including the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, and open registration of new political parties;
c. independent technical review and updating of voting registries and independent audit of voter rolls;
d. independent, credible, and accredited international electoral observation;
e. transparent and effective voter registration and distribution of ID cards and voting center management;
f . transparent counting and consolidation of results, and real-time publishing of results; and
g. adequate procedures for lodging complaints about election conduct and results, and procedures for resolving them.”
Finally, the resolution “requests” that the OAS secretary general “report, on a regular basis, on the state of agreements and timetables for the implementation of electoral reforms, leading to free, fair, competitive, observed, and legitimate elections.”

In the Speaking Out section of this issue, Edgard Parrales, Nicaraguan ambassador to the OAS in the 1980s, offers a detailed appraisal of the resolution and the context in which it emerged.

Ortega’s first OAS
deadline is next May

The document does not make clear what will happen if any or all of the seven reforms are not in fact implemented by May. The day after the resolution’s approval, however, Carlos Trujillo, the US ambassador to the OAS, acknowledged that gap in an interview with Nicaraguan media, and closed it: “With the resolution we have listed the requisites for these elections. What is not written is the consequences of not complying with them. If legitimate elections are not held and the requisites are not complied with, the elections will not be recognized.”

Two days later, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro reiterated Trujillo’s statement in a CNN interview: “There will be an eventual declaration of illegitimacy if the conditions the resolution requests are not fulfilled.”

Does “illegitimacy”
really threaten Ortega?

On October 3, weeks before the OAS General Assembly, Almagro offered various reflections on the subject in a forum on electoral reforms and outlooks for free and fair presidential elections in Nicaragua chaired by Robert Destro, Assistant Secretary for the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

When Destro asked who Ortega might listen to with respect to pressuring him to open the country to free and fair elections, he recognized that it is not the US government: “If Ambassador Kozak and I were to write a nasty letter to President Ortega, he would use the little basketball hoop on his waste paper basket to throw it away.”

Almagro answered that “it is very difficult to say what Ortega fears… of all the leaders in the region he is perhaps the most cold-blooded.” But Almagro did define two things he believes Ortega “doesn’t like.” The first is “sanctions when they get close to him and his family” and the second is “illegitimacy,” explaining that “he wouldn’t like to become a Maduro.” And if he wants a minimum of legitimacy, Alma¬gro reasoned, “it will only come with fair elections.”

In the meeting’s conclusions, Aimel Ríos, representing the National Endowment for Democracy, insisted that “we need to send a clear message that it is at the OAS, with the OAS, that this crisis must be dealt with and resolved. Ortega may be looking for another body—some have mentioned SICA [Central American Integration System]—but it has to be the OAS, which has to be empowered to the fullest to deal with this situation.” He didn’t explain why, but a good guess is the US power in the OAS.

All these reflections came together in the OAAS resolution approved on October 22. Ortega will now try to sidestep its most crucial part, making the fewest reforms possible, while continuing to threaten his opponents and the population in general in a war of wills that will be both de facto (repression) and de jure (the trio of menacing new laws).

Tactics and strategy
behind the laws

President Ortega and First Lady/Vice President Rosario Murillo knew the OAS was going to extend them one last opportunity to give up their defiant obstructionism and take a risk by guaranteeing competitive elections.

On October 19, right before the opening of the OAS General Assembly, Ortega expressed his appreciation by calling the OAS an “agent of death.” Murillo followed suit by saying it was a “sacrilegious, demonic and satanic” institution. They then got down to the businessof assuring the basis of their defiance and security.

They gave the FSLN bench of the National Assembly the word to push through the laws submitted to it the previous month. It is noteworthy that these bills had not received Ortega’s normal “fast-track” instruction. Was he looking for a specific reaction? Testing the waters either nationally or internationally? A number of changes were made to the original bills, some for the better and others for the worse.

The particularly threatening details of all the laws can only be explained by Ortega’s determination to eliminate any possibility of a strong contender who could threaten his electoral win and intimidate to the max opposition voters as a whole, even state employees whose loyalty might be inclined to wobble in the year that remains before the elections. Ortega is also aware that if he has to resort to another fraud to win, his government will be declared illegitimate. Even if Almagro is right that he doesn’t like that idea, it is a price he appears willing to pay.

The laws are designed to ensure Ortega’s short-term tactical objective without having to resort to fraud: frighten and paralyze any who would speak out, and encourage disunity and abstention in the blue and white (non-party) ranks well before the elections happen.

But winning the elections by hook or by crook is only the immediate goal. The laws are also conceived to accomplish the strategic objective of Ortega and his cohort: to make sure they can hold on to that power for the coming years. Once the dictatorship is more institutionally “legal,” with the elections behind it, the ruling couple can turn their attention to their dream: effectively create a one-party country, even if they don’t call it that.

The “hate crimes” law

September, when the regime first announced its new laws, marked a full year since it imposed a de facto police State. Not a day went by in those 12 months without the police and par¬a¬militaries repressing even the most minimum expression of opposition, capturing and jailing individuals, hounding families, besieging homes and busting in on small private blue and white opposition meetings. Now, a year later, the laws would offer juridical violence to accompany the violence of weapons.

On September 15, Nicaraguan Independence Day, Ortega personally announced that he would establish a life sentence for those who commit “hate crimes.” He vehemently defined the perpetrators of such crimes as those who identify themselves only by the blue and white of the national flag and rose up in 2018. In fact, the majority of those hundreds of thousands who demonstrated against the govern¬ment’s violence did so peacefully. The youths shot down by police and government-organized parapolice with sniper rifles and other assault weapons defended themselves in most cases only with slingshots, rocks and deafening, but mostly non life-threatening homemade gunpowder detonators called morteros.

To become legal, this law requires a constitutional reform, which must be approved by a 60% vote—which the FSLN bench has achieved through allegedly fraudulent elections—in two consecutive legislatures. It was passed in this one on October 23 and the second vote is expected to take place right after the new legislature convenes in January 2021. It will then surely go into effect immediately.

The reform affected article 37 of the Constitution, which limited sentences to a maximum of 30 years. That had been one of the earliest laws established by the new revolutionary government right after taking power in 1979, thus abolishing the death penalty in effect during the Somoza dictatorship. Article 37 now adds a paragraph that states that “exceptionally” a life sentence will be applied “for grave crimes when they occur in cruel, degrading, humiliating and inhuman circumstances, which, by their impact, cause commotion, rejection, indignation and repugnance in the national community.” This is justified on the grounds that the State must “institute a rigorous criminal policy.”

This constitutional reform is being pushed through in haste, following the dictates and even the exact terms employed by the Vic President in her monologues. She has also boasted of having collected 2.5 million signatures in favor of life sentences. Since that exceeds the number of public employees, it has been reported that the regime’s agents went around asking for signatures in urban barrios and rural districts, taking advantage of people’s fear of reprisals if they don’t sign.

One result of the imposed speed is that the reform contradicts article 39 of the Constitution which, like much modern legislation as well as international treaties signed by Nicaragua, establishes that the Nicaraguan penitentiary system “has as a fundamental objective the transformation of inmates in order to reintegrate them into society” and specifies that “sentences also have a re-educational character.” Obviously, someone sentenced to spend the rest of his/her life in prison will be neither re-educated nor reintegrated…

The “foreign agents” law

Exactly a week after unveiling his “hate crime” bill, Ortega sent the National Assembly a bill to “regulate foreign agents.” While there is nothing special about a country having such legislation, Nicaragua’s bears a particularly strong resemblance to those of Russia, Hungary, Ukraine and Kirghizstan. In fact, it was immediately dubbed the “Putin Law” for its unmistakable similarity to the one promoted and approved by Vladimir Putin in Russia in July 2012.

It violates several labor, economic, political and social rights established in the Constitution. Originally affecting any foreign or Nicaraguan organizations and individuals that receive foreign resources of any kind, the final version exempted family remittances, foreign pensions and churches.

The “Putin Law” will target NGOs and even religious associations implementing social, educational, environmental, training, cultural and human rights projects, as well as universities and media. It will also affect anyone who works in any of these organizations, because their salaries come from abroad, as well as the beneficiaries of any project they finance.

The law specifically mentions professions that will be directly affected: consultancies, advisory services, advertising, public relations and publicity agencies, and of course journalism.

Even though all legalized NGOs must already be registered with the Ministry of Government and file periodic reports, the new law orders that they and all other natural or legal persons that receive foreign funds and resources to function must register with a new department of the same ministry so it can analyze and judge their activities and thus decide their status and future. If they are considered “foreign agents,” they will be fined and could lose their legal status, and even be imprisoned and have all their accounts and property seized. While registering is thus equivalent to incriminating themselves, they will suffer the same outcome if they fail to register on their own or to appear within five days if notified.

This law also offers Ortega
unique political benefits

The financial and social control benefits this law offers the ruling couple are obvious. But it also offers some specific political benefits. Any Nicaraguan so judged may not run for an elected post or hold any public office for at least a year after being removed from the ministry’s list. It is this aspect of the law that reveals its pre-election objective: Ortega attributes to himself the legal power to select the contenders he will face at the ballot box on November 7, 2021. And afterward, assuming he remains in power, this law will permit him to impede jobs in public service to those he chooses. For this reason, the foreign agents law adds to the lack of fairness the next elections will offer if they are actually held, independent of any electoral reforms “urged” upon him.

Yet another added benefit for Ortega is that the foreign agents law feeds the belief instilled in what remains of the FSLN rank and file through endless repetition that the blue and white opposition isn’t the spontaneous, “self-convoked” movement it has always claimed to be, but was born, raised and reproduced as a project of the Nicaraguan Right with funding from the “empire.”

Solidarity and cooperation
now treated as a threat

With its potential to send so many “foreign agents” to prison and persuade those who finance them to stop working in the country, this law is a flagrant contradiction to what we in Nicaragua have gratefully known for many years as international cooperation and solidarity. Given that the greatest beneficiaries over the years have been the FSLN and its allied social organizations, it is reasonable to assume that the excessive discretionally in the law’s language will permit exemptions for that to continue.

In 2004, the late Sally O’Neill, then regional director of Trocaire, an Irish Catholic NGO working with the countries of the South, explained to envío that “Nicaragua has been the country most favored with cooperation in all of Latin America. Together with Mozambique it has been the country most pampered, most prioritized by both bilateral and private international cooperation for many years. In 2003, 28% of Nicaragua’s gross domestic product came from these forms of cooperation.”

She calculated that Nicaragua’s organized society and its four governments between 1979, when its revolution began, and 2003 had been the beneficiaries of some US$14 billion in international cooperation. She was unable to be more precise because Nicaragua had only begun to keep a centralized record in 2000.
So many international organizations from dozens of countries continue financing activities of all kinds in Nicaragua that once the law starts to be applied, it is predictable that we will see an exponential number of “foreign agents.” Will the regime have the capacity to apply a law of such unprecedented scope? It is precisely this law’s breadth, with the attendant bureaucratic difficulties in implementing it, that reveal its real purpose: the net is cast wide but the catch will be chosen selectively, discretionally and at the regime’s pleasure in order only to ensnare those it prioritizes as enemies of Ortega’s permanence in power. Those not picked off will be made to live in fear of the next throw of the net.

The “cybercrimes” law and
the legalization of spying

On September 28, Ortega sent the National Assembly its third bill, this one against “cybercrimes.” At the same time, he issued a presidential decree on cybersecurity, legalizing cybernetic espionage.

The bill, which targets anyone who leaks government information or publishes “fake news” in the social media, was approved on October 28.

If the “Putin Law” prioritizes the creation of a favorable electoral scenario for Ortega—controlling and even possibly cutting off any possibility of financing opposition parties and nongovernment media, and even eliminating candidates not to Ortega’s liking—the “muzzle law,” as the Special Law against Cybercrimes is popularly known, shapes an electoral scenario with a high degree of censorship and espionage, and thus intimidation of both voters and candidates. The priorities will be the independent media and their reporters.

The accompanying presidential decree is the National Cybersecurity Strategy 2020-2025, the dates making clear that it is conceived to be applied in Ortega’s fourth consecutive five-year term in office. The two instruments complement each other with the decree allowing the regime control of the information flows circulating in the national mobile phone companies and the law enabling it to control and selectively sanction the media and citizens that use cell phones to post in the social networks.

To ensure “cybersecurity, the Army, Police, state telecommunications company (Telcor), Financial Analysis Unit and Prosecutor Gen¬eral’s Office (also known as the Public Ministry) will have powers to monitor the computer systems and databases of individuals, media, businesses and organizations while investigating “a cybercrime.”

These state institutions, all of which are controlled by the presidency, were the only bodies “consulted” on this bill in the National Assembly. Maximino Rodríguez, a Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) representative in the Assembly, told La Prensa that Commissioner Jaime Vanegas, the police inspector general, had stated during the consultation that “we have the technique and specialists in the laboratory and in the Judicial Auxiliary [a police dependency] to investigate and pursue social network users.” Rodríguez concluded that “they have the spy laboratory all ready.”

The judges of this law

The “Muzzle Law” establishes sentences of one to ten years in prison for those who, “using information and communication technologies, publish or disseminate false and/or distorted information that produces alarm, fear or anxiety in the population or in a group or sector, a person or that person’s family … or harms the honor, prestige or reputation of a person or that person’s family.”

The law increases the sentences of those who “transfer public information classified as confidential.” It is clearly aimed at state officials and employees disturbed by the regime’s actions who have leaked information to independent journalists for some time, always anonymously. Such whistleblowers have broken the official secrecy and assisted important investigative journalism pieces, allowing the citizenry to learn about acts of corruption, squandering of public goods and arbitrary acts in state institutions.

The authorities who will decide what information they consider fake or distorted, what act is false, what news or charge causes fear or anxiety and who is frightened or harmed are the same ones who will label and sanction “foreign agents” with the full discretion granted by the “Putin Law.”

“We are resisting
by informing”

The government made its first attempt to control Internet usage as early as 2013, even though it didn’t yet have the reach in Nicaragua it does today.

In May of that year, Telcor released a draft law that was rejected by the business associations grouped under the umbrella of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise because it gave the government the right to access the confidential information of state institutions and private companies. The businesses, at that time still close allies of the government, swore to form a “wall” against such a law, and it worked.

The regime tried to censor the social networks again in March 2018, just one month before the civic insurrection. The Vice President announced that she would ask the legislative body to conduct a “great national debate” because” social media might be negatively influencing us,” but it was cancelled by the gravity of what happened in April.

Two years later, the law and its accompanying decree have a clear pre-electoral flavor and even “announce” ion its title the new five-year term Ortega plans to enjoy. His ideal scenario is a completely controlled campaign with a censored information flow free of any criticism, satire, negativity or even rallies and meetings by the opposition candidates. He would prefer a self-censoring society for his next five years running the country, but if need be could live easily with one intimidated into silence by threats.”

The blue and white sector of journa¬lism is currently more cohesive than ever before and determined to continue pro¬viding quality journalism that tells the truths the regime wants to hide. Journalists have been heard insisting that “If we’re resisting by informing, the population should inform itself to resist.”

“Rethink it, Mr. President”

The announcement of the foreign agents’ law triggered immediate concern in the US government and the European Parliament, both of which caught its main political purpose: to exterminate the opposition.

Michael Kozak, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, addressed the same meeting in which OAS Secretary General Almagro identified what Ortega “doesn’t like.” Kozak warned about the foreign agents law, seeing it as “a danger affecting democracy in Nicaragua.” And in the OAS resolution, the law is referred to with “alarm.”

On September 25, a total of 21 European parliamentarians wrote to Ortega saying they hoped he would “reconsider” and “exhorting him” not to approve the law. But the regime has given ample evidence of its refusal to rethink anything and the process of approving the law proceeded with all due speed. Spanish parliamentarian José Ramón Bauzá thus requested an urgent plenary meeting on Nicaragua. The session met with record speed, on October 8, by which time the cyber¬crimes bill had also been announced.

With the vote of 609 of the 694 Euro-parliamentarians, a resolution was passed that states: “The European Parliament… in view of continued grave abuses and violations of human rights, if the proposed ‘Law for Regulation of Foreign Agents’, the ‘Special Law of Cyber Crime’, and the ‘Law Against Hate Crimes’ are adopted, if the government of Nicaragua continues lacking willingness to launch a national dialogue for a proper electoral reform, and the repression of civil society and the democratic opposition in Nicaragua continues, requests that the Council quickly enlarge the list of individuals and entities to be sanctioned, including the President and Vice-President, taking special care not to harm the Nicaraguan people….”

As in the case of the OAS resolution two weeks later, none of the 85 who either abstained or voted against the resolution spoke to defend the Ortega-Murillo regime.

End of the EU
trade agreement?

The European Parliament began condemning human rights violations in Nicaragua in December of last year when it approved the application of sanctions against high-level regime officials with the votes of 560 legislators. It also began considering another sanction: suspension of Nicaragua’s participation in the EU Association Agreement with Central America, signed in 2012, if Ortega continues on his repressive course and fails to respect the democratic commitment included in the agreement.

The processes for applying sanctions are very slow in the EU. It involves getting all 27countries with their different interests to reach agreement. Hammering out the “legal framework” for applying sanctions dragged out and did not go into effect until May of this year when four high-level police chiefs and two civilian officials received sanctions. Removing Nicaragua from the trade agreement has been taken back up now as a real possibility. Such a measure would remove some US$ 300 million in Nicaraguan exports to Europe, which would harm the Nicaraguan people.

José Ramón Bauzá interpreted the approval of the Foreign Agents Law eight days after the EU resolution as Ortega challenging the community of European nations. “It will not go unpunished,” Bauzá said.

More sanctions
from Washington

Washington has no such problems approving sanctions against other governments. The day after the European Parliament meeting, the US Treasury Department reacted to the package of repressive laws by applying three new sanctions: two against individual regime officials—bringing the total to 24—and one against a financial institution.

For the first time the judicial branch was hit. The Public Ministry is the institution ostensibly responsible for the legal defense of the citizenry. The document sanctioning its head, Prosecutor General Ana Julia Guido, states that she perverted her mission of heading an institution that is strategic to the defense of human rights. She was specifically sanctioned for organizing “a group of prosecutors who worked with the designated National Police to fabricate cases against political prisoners and their families.”

Some 2,000 people in Nicaragua have spent between weeks and years in prison suffering abuses and even torture as a result of the “cases” fabricated in her institution. As of the end of October, 113 political prisoners remain incarcerated.

Assuming Guido remains at her post despite the sanction, her future work will surely involve inventing cases that fall afoul of the three new laws.

The sanction
against Paul Oquist

The other individual sanctioned is Paul Oquist, Ortega’s private secretary for public policies.

Oquist came to work with the FSLN government during the revolutionary 1980s and renounced his US citizenship to become a nationalized Nicaraguan. During those years he was considered the government’s main public administration cadre.

Since 2007, he has become the éminence grise in the new Ortega government, designing and drafting its new national and human development plans then peddling them around the world. Although they weren’t implemented as written, the way these plans looked on paper and the language employed conformed fully to the demands of the multilateral and bilateral cooperation agencies, even thoroughly satisfying the United Nations.

As the author of innumerable state documents sent to embassies all over the world—one of the most recent explaining Nicaragua’s “singular” strategy to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, emulating the “Swedish model,” he claimed—Oquist traveled frequently, giving interviews to international media in which he smoothly offered an attractive and convincing discourse aimed at those who didn’t know much about the country’s reality.

He has now been sanctioned precisely for representing “the Government of Nicaragua internationally in a variety of roles” and playing “a lead role in spreading disinformation to cover up the regime’s crimes and misdeeds of horrific human rights abuses. In numerous interviews with international English-language media and in meetings with foreign representatives, Oquist has spread the Ortega regime’s false narratives and propaganda. Additionally, Oquist has pled the Ortega’s’ case internationally with an unrelenting flow of lies to conceal or justify the regime’s abuses.”

US Ambassador Carlos Trujillo said after the October 21 approval of the OAS resolution on Nicaragua that US sanctions will continue to be applied to more regime officials, reiterating that they make it nearly impossible for the recipients to leave the country or open an account in any foreign or Nicaraguan bank, and include confiscating their resources abroad “These people,” he said, “are marked for the rest of their life.” Oquist’s international propaganda junkets are apparently over.

The sanction against Caruna

The same day as the sanctions against Guido and Oquist, the regime’s in-house economy was also hit again, this time the target was the National Rural Savings and Credit Cooperative (Caruna). Previous sanctions had already included Albanisa, the Nicaraguan-Venezuelan oil profits investment consortium, in January 2019; the Corporative Bank (BanCorp) in April 2019; and the National Petroleum Distributing Co, (Petronic) in December 2019. By going after Caruna, the US is breaking off another piece of the regime’s financial apparatus through which the Venezuelan aid money, privatized by the ruling family, has moved.

Caruna’s history reveals another of the FSLN’s metamorphoses in its second period running the government. It was founded as a credit and savings cooperative in 1993 to help develop the “people’s economy” the FSLN had pledged to promote after the end of the revolution in 1990. But instead it found itself part of the structural network of important rural organizations created in the 1980s that the FSLN was leaving to their fate: the Rural Workers’ Association (ATC), the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), the National Federation of Cooperatives (Fenacoop)… With the stringent neo¬liberal rural policies and anti-Sandinista lending practices that characterized the 1990s, they all began to shrink to their minimal expression and the FSLN leadership did nothing to stop it.

Caruna went in
the other direction

In that adverse context, Caruna worked hard to benefit all these other sectors as a second-tier lending coop until 2007, when Ortega decided that Caruna would open another section to administer the voluminous social funds provided by Venezuelan oil cooperation, privatized by the governing family rather than have it flow through the monitored national budget. Albanisa and its quickly growing consortium of businesses were born with the help of another part of the Venezuelan oil income.

With that mammoth new role and overnight exponential increase in resources, Caruna’s original mission began to blur as its new functions were increasingly prioritized. At the same time, the cooperative movement’s intermediate-level leaders were being pushed out if they couldn’t be coopted. As in so many other sectors, a model of much more absolute top-down control than the FSLN had even employed in the eighties was imposed in Caruna.

With the perversion of its original institutional mission, Caruna became Albanisa’s financial arm until 2015, when the newly created BanCorp took over that role, at least until it was sanctioned by Washington. Now it is Caruna’s turn “for having materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, Banco Corporativo, S.A. (Bancorp) whose property and interests in property are now blocked.” This transfer of Venezuelan cooperation money from one institution to another has involved around US$ 2.5 billion.

What will the economy be
like in the electoral year?

Despite all the sanctions, which have affected the regime’s own economy, and the fact that the national economy will end 2020 with three consecutive years of recession, the regime has enough international reserves to engage in pre-electoral clientelism and even produce some economic improvement over the course of an uncertain electoral year.

In its most recent evaluation of Nicaragua’s economy, Standard and Poor (S&P), the most important US agency that calculates investment risk, predicts a scenario for 2021 of macroeconomic stability and slight economic growth (0.5%) in a context of political instability. It believes the government has enough external resources to maintain an adequate level of international reserves, while warning that the macroeconomic stability could founder if there is a flight of bank deposits due to predictable political instability.

Even the anemic economic growth it forecasts will depend on the behavior of family remittances sent home by emigrants, traditional exports (beef, dairy, gold, coffee and sugar) and the possible reactivation of free trade zone exports if the US economy improves.

Alongside this “good news,” S&P’s assessment is that Nicaragua’s ailing economy will persist for years given the “free fall” of foreign and national investment and the drastic reduction of credit to small, medium and even large businesses by the banks and micro-financing institutions, resulting in a prolonged convalescence for bank financing and investment.

Bolivia’s lessons

The last chance the OAS is giving Ortega to use fair elections to resolve the crisis he himself created in April 2018 with the massacre he unleashed came just three days after the October 19 repeat of last year’s elections in Bolivia. Evo Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) won them with the ticket of Luis Arce and David Choque¬huanca.

The various factors that explain the MAS victory include the abysmal and elitist post-Evo transition government, which earned little popularity; Bolivia’s historical anti-indigenous racism exacerbated during that transition period and the “nostalgia” a majority of Bolivians felt for the MAS government’s 13 good economic years. The division of the opposition to the MAS also played an important role in a landscape of bitterly confrontational rival political parties and movements. Their infighting put off a good part of the middle classes and convinced the largely indigenous population to stick with the MAS.

In Nicaragua, Ortega interpreted the MAS win as good news, so he celebrated it in an event that same evening, in which he ranted against the OAS. But he actually missed the point. What the OAS is asking of Ortega is the same thing it asked of Bolivia, which the MAS accepted so it would be recognized as legitimate if it won this time in observed elections held, supervised and run by an impartial electoral body under insertional standards. For Nicaragua’s organized blue and white opposition, the most important lesson of what happened in Bolivia should have been that the opposition must run united, in a single cohesive bloc.

The Alliance argues
it is dividing to “unite”

Some in the Nicaraguan opposition to Ortega apparently didn’t grasp this lesson… or did they? On October 26, only days after the OAS resolution, the core Civic Alliance leaders voted 21 to 6 to definitively break with the National Coalition,created in February mainly by ithe Alliance and the National Blue and White Unity (UNAB), the two main expressions of the opposition that grew out of the April 2018 uprising . Ortega couldn’t have asked for better news.

This rupture was no surprise, preceded as it was by weeks of rumors, indecisiveness and pressure from different quarters to reconsider… Former university rector Ernesto Medina, a founding member of the Civic Alliance, extensively questioned this step in his Speaking Out article in last month’s issue of envío. He and his colleague Father José Idiáquez, rector of the Central American University in Managua, joined the four others who voted against leaving the Coalition. They were outvoted particulrly by all 5 from the business sector and all 5 from the youth sector.

In an unnecessarily long and contradictory document, the Alliance explained its decision by arguing that fracturing the existing unitary platform will allow a new one to emerge.

The International community

The international community that is supporting the Nicaraguan people’s struggle was largely confused and discouraged by seeing this split right after the OAS had given the regime a deadline. How will the OAS interpret it?

And what might the United States make of it? Will it worry about the split opposition, which could mean Ortega wins again? In contemplating that question, it must be remembered that Washington was quite willing to ignore a series of highly irregular elections and coexisted perfectly well with the regime prior to April 1018 because Ortega worked with it on drug and immigration issues and welcomed US investors. It also gave the US none of the security concerns of three Northern Triangle countries

Since the US government is known for putting its own narrow interests first, even at the cost of others’, and seldom bets on only one horse, it wouldn’t be strange to find that it prefers an alliance of big business and the Citizens for Liberty (CxL) party, both of which speak its language, rather than a loose amalgam of largely inexperienced opposition groups and individuals whose main common cause is nationalism, even if doing so ends up splitting the opposition vote and giving the race to Ortega.

A clue that such an idea might appeal to the Washington was expressed by Roberto Destro in a possible slip of the tongue in his introductory remarks in the State Department forum mentioned above. This official of a notoriously two-party political system asked: “What will it take for Nicaragua to hold free, fair and transparent elections in 2021 with equal, multi-party participation?” In the numerous times he repeated the litany of hoped-for adjectives defining Nicaragua’s elections, he never repeated the term “multi-party” nor is it mentioned in other US statements on Nicaragua’s elections.

Was this a wrong step?

Was this a misstep or are those behind (or perhaps in front of) it perfectly clear about what they are up to in pushing for the split that the Civic Alliance calls “re-forging unity” or more pompously “the qualitative leap with the unified opposition, with credibility and legitimacy so it can become the alternative Nicaragua needs against the dictatorship”?

And who’s encouraging Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) leaders to also break with the National Coalition, as they are now mimicking those heading the Civic Alliance in complaining that they ae being “mistreated” in the Coalition.

There will be more questions, more answers and perhaps even more clarity about all this in the coming weeks. For the moment, we can only ask ourselves the same question we did a month ago: is it possible that a sector of big capital represented in the Civic Alliance is allying with the CxL to break up the inclusionary blue and white opposition and realign it around traditional conservative thinking, even at the cost of abstention due to confusion and repola¬rization, thus ensuring Ortega’s con¬ti¬¬nuan¬ce in power? And if so, to what end?

Who will come out
ahead after the split?

Most of both the organized and individual blue and white opposition had the political sense to see Ortega as the real winner of the Alliance’s break with the Coalition. These are people who have been in permanent resistance of varying intensities for over two-and-a-half years, many of them suffering prison, exile, unemployment, a police siege and unending anxiety. When the Civic Alliance’s leaders sounded out its base in both Managua and the other departments, it discovered strong opposition to the split, but they did it anyway. It has since had negative repercussions inside the Civic Alliance, which is organized around sectoral representation.

On October 28, members of the local-level directive boards, liaisons and work teams of its geographical sector announced that they would take over leadership of that structure together with members of the organized citizenry in the departments and those in the Alliance who voted against withdrawing from the National Coalition. They will be led by Ernesto Medina (Managua), Armando Herrera (Madriz) and Diego Reyes (León). “We decided to reestablish the Civic Alliance to remain united with the Nicaraguan people in the country¬side, in rural communities, districts and municipalities and in decision-making arenas of the National Coalition,” read their manifesto. María Eugenia Alonso, a doctor from León who also voted against withdrawal, stated: “The Civic Alliance belongs to the Nicaraguan people, to those who suffered at the barricades and roadblocks, those who marched tirelessly in every corner of Nicaragua, their fallen, the victims, the political prisoners and ex-prisoners, those who have fled to save their lives, all those Nicaraguans of good will who demand unity and even more unity.”

Ernesto Medina had already nailed his colors to the National Coalition’s mast, insisting that “the priority of those of us who believe in the need for change and see unity as the only way to achieve it, is to do everything possible to strengthen the National Coalition. We must ask it to close this chapter, to concentrate on what is most important: solving the problems that are creating this image that it is ineffective, not making progress. We must review the incorporation of other sectors that are on hold and want to be part of the Coalition; and start to show people that they do have motivating proposals that generate enthusiasm so we can move forward.”

We’ll have
questions until May

We have other questions as we enter November that will also likely remain unanswered for many months.

The toughest has to do with noncompliance with the OAS resolution. Ambassador Trujjilo and Secretary General Almagro have both said that the elections,if held without meeting the conditions, will not be recognized internationally, thus staining the regime with what Almagro says Ortega dislikes: illegitimacy. The question, then, is whether Almagro is right or not. Might Ortega, Murillo and their circle be willing to pay that price, with the accompanying international distancing and further endangering of the economy, in order to remain in power? After all, they have watched Cuba survive that way for 60 years and Maduro tenaciously hang on as well.

On the other hand, Ortega might decide to take his chances with credible elections given the divided opposition. In that case, we would surely start fairly soon to see feverish activity by the relevant state institutions to accomplish everything required to reform the collapsed electoral system by May. As much as the regime likes to function in secrecy, we might get glimpses of the course these reforms will take.

In the State Department forum, Robert Destro said Nicaragua’s electoral law would have to be almost totally reformed: “from A to Z.” While this means a lot of work, electoral experts believe it’s feasible by the May deadline.

Seven months
of negotiations?

There is no clear answer to any of these questions or to the many others that will continue to come up. But if this really is Ortega’s last opportunity, if it really is an ultimatum, the coming months will see negotiations both above and under the table. The “negotiators” must ready themselves to play their highest cards, just in case.

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