“After the OAS resolution, pressuring Ortega daily is our job”
Nicaragua’s permanent representative to the OAS
for over four yearrs during the contra war (1982-1986)
shared his reflections on this regional organization
and the resolution it approved on October 21,
setting a deadline for the Nicaraguan government
to retake the democratic path.
In 1979 I was a priest and a member of what was called the Group of Twelve, made up of intellectuals, profe¬ssionals, and business and religious leaders who publicly supported the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) both nationally and internationally from our respective spheres. In the final phase of the armed insurrection, when a large part of Nicaragua was already in the hands of the guerrillas, Jesuit priest Fernando Cardenal and I, the only ones from the Group in Managua at the time, had to hide. The others were in Costa Rica or out of reach of Somoza’s National Guard. I spent 40 days at a friend’s house. I was there when, on June 23, America’s ambassadors gathered for the 17th Consultation Meeting in the Organization of American States (OAS), where they condemned the Somoza regime and requested Somoza’s immediate replacement in the government. Their method was diplomatic, but the demand for his resignation was energetic. The war had weakened him and the economic situation was unsustainable. Somoza understood it was over for him, and in less than a month he left the country.
I never imagined I would become
Nicaragua’s ambassador to the OAS
When I heard that news, I never imagined that a short time later I would be the ambassador to the OAS of this Nicaragua we were beginning to build after Somoza left. In 1982, I was the revolutionary government’s social welfare minister when one day they called me to the FSLN’s International Relations Department where they said to me, “We are entering a phase of diplomatic struggle with this war. This will be the emphasis these coming years and this struggle will be in the OAS. We consider you the right person for that task. Do you accept?” I did. There are those who pursue a career as diplomats. I was instead pursued to be one …
The OAS isn’t useless
I must say that even back in my time in the OAS, it was already being said by some that the OAS is useless. I acknowledged that view in my farewell speech from the OAS in 1986, then affirmed that “It is useful.” It certainly served me well. It was a great learning experience. It taught me to combine prophetic impatience with diplomatic patience, prophetic intransigence toward injustice with the diplomatic ability to obtain results.
Many people say the OAS should disappear. This has even been proposed by some countries. But it’s a mistake, an idea that is neither productive nor efficient. The OAS is a place for exchange, a place where Latin Americans are seated together with the United States and we can tell it whatever we want, whereas in a bilateral relationship one must be cautious and prudent. The OAS is an arena where a lot of things can be said, but one needs to learn how to say them. The idea that the OAS should disappear is as baseless as the idea that the United States doesn’t have predominance in the OAS. Of course it does. It’s a reality that it’s the biggest country and contributes the most economically.
On the other hand, many people have high expectations of the OAS, forgetting that it’s an organization with a lot of internal divergence of all kinds: political, social, economic and even cultural. In the OAS, the US predominance is indisputable. And it’s logical: the OAS is based in Washington and the US pays 60% of its budget. The other 40% is divided among the other 33 members, some of which don’t even pay their fee, even when it’s a pittance given that it depends on each country’s economic weight. So, Brazil has a larger fee than the Bahamas or Nicaragua. When I was the ambassador, I once had to pay for three years overdue.
The country that can make the OAS disappear is the United States. If it were to discontinue its contribution; the OAS would be gone. During Obama’s term, the 60% annual US contribution was over US$ 48.5 million. And the US Congress discussed whether to reduce it. The US is the country that can kill the OAS, just by simply not paying. I believe it would be a mistake because we’re all interested in having the OAS exist. It’s a forum for discussion, dialogue and bringing cultures together, each with its own peculiarities. It’s a space that provides the opportunity to seek and find consensus.
Friendships count in the OAS
While I was at the OAS, Ronald Reagan, an enemy of the government I was representing, was the US President. I had to figure things out. The war over the Malvinas Islands had just begun when I arrived. Argentina had occupied them and Great Britain was going to reconquer them. The conflict reached the OAS. At the beginning the US played the role of mediator to avoid a war, but it soon abandoned that neutral stance and facilitated the arrival of British ships to the islands. Back then, Argentina backed the US in its war against Nicaragua and even had military technical advisers in Honduras to train the counterrevolutionaries.
My first diplomatic task was within that context. When news reached the OAS that hundreds of Gurkhas, Nepalese mercenaries who were experts in cutting off heads, were part of the British contingent being sent to retake the Malvinas, I thought to myself, “Here’s my chance!” During the Permanent Council’s debate, I told Argentina’s representative that he could count on Nicaragua’s support during this conflict. And I added that to fight against the famous Gurkhas, Nicaraguans offered the courageous indigenous people of Monimbó! I told them we could send a contingent of Monimbó people to counter the Gurkhas. That man was hugely grateful for my support, so eloquent… Naturally, there never was the need to do anything.
Afterwards, in a private conversation with him, he explained that the US military mission in Argentina was operating out of the fourth floor of the Argentine Armed Forces building. I warned him that if the US was Great Britain’s ally, as it seemed, it was a delicate situation to have them there because the US military, using sophisticated technology, could know Argentina’s military strategy and pass that information on to the British. A few days later he told me they had decided to pull Argentina’s military advisers out of Honduras and had cancelled military assistance to the contras. Then he asked me for help because the Argentine foreign minister wanted to travel to Cuba. We facilitated his trip through Managua. We now are very good friends. And during the four-and-a-half years I was in the OAS Argentina’s vote was always unconditionally in favor of Nicaragua. Friendships count in the OAS. That’s how I began my work there.
My strategy was to
The problem that holds up things in the OAS is that this organization is composed of 34 dissimilar countries—back in my times, there were 33, because Canada still wasn’t a member, just an observer. The US is there with its control; there are the English-speaking Caribbean countries and there are the Latin American countries with their divergences, which increase or decrease depending on who’s in government. A current example is Mexico, a country that had always been progressive in international politics and under the López Obrador presidency no longer is.
During its revolutionary years, Nicaragua enjoyed the virtually unconditional support of all countries. Except the US, of course. Some were more open about it, while others were more discreet because they didn’t want to earn “Big Brother’s” wrath. In that situation, my strategy couldn’t be to gain votes in favor, because there were countries that didn’t want to confront the US. Instead I dedicated my efforts to promoting abstentions, and the more, the better because a majority abstention would annul any resolution against Nicaragua. During the years I was in the OAS, none of the attempts by the US and its allies to obtain a resolution against Nicaragua was successful.
When a new ambassador from Paraguay arrived to the OAS representing dictator Stroessner, a US ally against Nicaragua, I listened to his introductory speech full of Thomist, Aristotelian terminology and said to myself, “I know that language…” It was used during my formation to become a priest. Here was my opportunity. So, I went over to him, congratulated him for his appointment and asked if he’d ever gone to a seminary. He said, “Yes.” I told him I was a priest, that I had studied in Rome and had classmates from Paraguay. I mentioned the names of some of them and he told me he knew them very well. That’s how we started a friendship, and in the OAS, I repeat, friendships count.
Since then, whenever a resolution was presented by the US against Nicaragua, I would ask him for his vote against it. He would always say he couldn’t because he didn’t have instructions. So I would say: “Perfect! If you don’t have any, then you abstain!” That’s how I would get abstentions. I got them the same way from Chile’s ambassador, Pinochet’s niece, who had been minister of education and of justice, with whom I developed a great friendship in the OAS.
There are always internal sessions in the OAS to “prepare conditions” for what would happen in the public sessions, to try to avoid strong public discussions. Generally, votes or abstentions weren’t obtained during the public sessions, but outside, during personal exchanges; sometimes even while playing tennis with some of the ambassadors or some of the diplomatic missions’ advisers. I would work on those friendships to avoid votes against Nicaragua and to block resolutions presented against it. My aim was always to guarantee a majority of abstentions.
Nicaragua’s position in
the OAS is irrelevant today
Another time, after the Contadora Group involving Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela, had been formed to seek a solution to the war in Nicaragua, I remember that Costa Rica presented a draft resolution that was very detrimental to us. I started advocating for an alternative proposal and the Contadora Group backed me in that strategy. But our foreign affairs minister in Managua instructed me to present a more aggressive draft that was confrontational toward Costa Rica. Both Alejandro Bendaña, then the Ministry’s director of multilateral organizations, and Deputy Foreign Minister Víctor Hugo Tinoco also insisted that we use confrontational language. I knew this was the wrong way to go and we would lose face, and those from the Contadora Group agreed with me. But I couldn’t communicate with Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto at the time. The four from Contadora and I asked for a recess to try to gain time in hopes of getting in touch with him. We finally spoke with D’Escoto and he agreed with me. We presented a resolution not as Nicaragua but as the Contadora Group, which at that time had great prestige and influence. In the end, the vote favored Nicaragua. The US abstained, Costa Rica voted against it and all the rest of the votes were in favor of the conciliatory resolution we presented.
Today Nicaragua’s position in the OAS is irrelevant. The revolution doesn’t exist. What we have today is a couple’s dictatorship. The FSLN no longer exists as a party. What passes as the “party” is a bunch of kids who do what they’re told, with no capacity to debate or criticize. Everyone from the highest government official to the doorman in the least of the ministries does whatever Daniel and Rosario order. Paramilitaries and mobs also obey them.
The dictatorship doesn’t have quality diplomacy either. There have always been both career diplomats and political diplomats who are the government’s trustworthy people given a diplomatic post. During the revolution there were both kinds, but there was a balance. Today there are only political diplomats, government mouthpieces who are in that position through partisan merits. It’s noticeable that they have no autonomy; their work has no impact or influence. It’s spiritless, inauthentic diplomacy with no creativity, because the only thing our leaders are interested in now is obedience.
The OAS resolution was hard
to get with us so divided
Since the 2018 crisis, the Nicaraguan people have had the support of a sizable group of important countries, with active diplomacy led by Canada. Does that mean the OAS is no longer Washington’s voice in the case of Nicaragua? I would say yes and no because there are other countries on the frontline, like Canada, that have taken on a belligerent role. And Canada is not the US. Then there are Colombia and Chile. The United States has influence and some degree of control for sure, but it’s never total. And there’s maneuvering room for other countries to make their weight felt and create more balance regarding the Nicaraguan situation.
I believe the resolution achieved in the OAS on October 22 opened a new stage of our situation. It was hard to obtain because we still have a fragmented opposition, both inside Nicaragua and among exiled Nicaraguans in the US and Costa Rica. Groups in exile have presented different proposals and sometimes they’ve expressed themselves aggressively against national opposition organizations, which doesn’t help a bit.
The idea of forming a government in exile, a transition government, was being brewed up in exile. However, who is going to appoint it? Who will be in it? And who is going to recognize it? They’re interesting ideas, but they’re not opportune because they aren’t viable or even feasible.
Ortega is illegitimate
by origin and by practice
A resolution to apply the Democratic Charter against Ortega, to exclude his active participation in the OAS, was also floated by some in the opposition. Then another idea came up: a resolution to declare Ortega illegitimate.
I’ve always said Ortega is illegitimate by origin and by practice. He’s illegitimate by origin since the 2006 elections, when, due to his control of the electoral branch, 8% of the votes were never counted, which allowed him to avoid going to a second round, which he would have lost. Ever since then there has always been fraud. But back then nobody declared him illegitimate. There were observers in those elections, but not one said there was fraud. We can’t argue it now, because the observers didn’t say it at the time. The same happened in 2011. There were observers, but only those from the European Union even said the elections were “lacking neutrality and transparency.” Nobody said there was fraud. They didn’t declare the results illegitimate.
Nobody has recognized Ortega’s illegitimacy by origin. And it’s only after April 2018, with all those killed, arrested, tortured, disappeared, raped and exiled, and with the expelling of human rights organizations from the country, that it became clear that this government is illegitimate by practice.
Just by arresting someone for merely opposing the government, around 14 constitutional rights are violated: they make arrests during hours that aren’t permitted; they do so without a judicial warrant; they commit forced entry; they beat not only the arrested person but also others present, almost always family members; they torture prisoners; and they commit irregularities during trials with the accusations, the evidence, the witnesses and the sentences imposed.
Ortega’s illegitimacy by practice is very clear in his reelection, his violations of the Constitution and of the independence of the judicial and other branches of government, and in the way he exercises power in general. Now, with this resolution, the US ambassador to the OAS, Carlos Trujillo, has made it clear and even OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro himself have said that if Ortega doesn’t comply with everything he’s requested to do in this resolution by May 2021, he will be declared illegitimate, because by then all possibilities for him to change would be exhausted.
At the last minute, some groups of Nicaraguans outside the country started to draw up a first draft resolution requesting he be declared illegitimate. It turned out to be weak so they enriched it, but then, because they didn’t know the procedures to be followed, they made the mistake of making it public before sending it to the diplomatic missions in the OAS to ask for their support. Moreover, several missions warned that declaring him illegitimate wasn’t yet possible. In the end, diplomats promoted the resolution we know, the one approved.
The resolution is
a win for Nicaragua
I consider it a good resolution because it clearly gives support to the Nicaraguan people’s struggle. In the resolution’s recitals, Ortega is reminded of all the commitments he has not complied with that remain pending: the release of all political prisoners, the return of human rights organizations, the return of those exiled, an end to the repression in all of its modalities, electoral reforms and more. It also gives the government a deadline to comply with all those commitments.
Certainly, the resolution’s language is very careful. It says “we press for,” not “we demand” or “require.” For me this language was overly diplomatic. The proposal presented and the resolution approved are practically identical. I was hoping maybe during the debates they would strengthen the language a bit and present concrete reform proposals, but that didn’t happen. It passed just as it was, maybe because the meeting was virtual. It’s not the same as when everyone is seeing and listening to each other, giving the debate a livelier and richer dynamic. Also, we need to understand that the OAS was on the edge of a cliff. The Caribbean countries didn’t want to back it. We no longer can count on Mexico or Argentina, even though we were able to keep the vote of Bolivia, as a country that was part of the group promoting the resolution. Since I’ve been there, I know that only those inside the OAS know what can be done and what can’t.
I would have preferred not only stronger language but also that the deadline be January or February instead of May. But even with all the soft terminology, I feel the resolution is a win for Nicaragua. The proposed electoral reforms are necessary and positive. With this resolution we have the possibility of doing a good job and can pressure Ortega every day to comply.
We need to keep Almagro
on track and to unify
That’s what we have, and who we have to deal with is Luis Almagro, an enigma. He’s like an Egyptian Sphinx. I don’t know him personally, but I have analyzed his moves, which I consider oscillating, pendulous, with ups and downs. Sometimes he seems very energetic and sometimes he doesn’t react. I perceive him as a person subject to his own interests and his socialist ideology. He was President José Mujica’s foreign minister and during the 1980s, before he was a diplomat, he was in Nicaragua with a group that came to support the revolution. He has some love for that memory… but this is no longer the revolution. What both we in Nicaragua and the countries that promoted the resolution need to do is keep him on track, keep up the pressure and keep an eye on him.
We’re the ones who have to take advantage of this resolution. But we need to unite. It isn’t possible to have ideological unity, nor is it possible to have unity around particular interests. However, we all agree on many important things. We all want human rights. We all want respect and supremacy for the Constitution. We all want the judicial branch to be independent and adhere to justice. We all want an Army and Police that are truly nonpartisan and serve their purpose. A Police guaranteeing the population’s safety and an Army guaranteeing national security. If we all agree with this, we should be able to unite to get out of this dictatorship. And later, within the context of democratic debate, we can all defend our own points of view and interests.
A lot to be taught and learned
It’s urgent that we get out of this dictatorship to start a democratization process but we all need to know it’s not going to be easy. The process will be slow and difficult. We need to educate people about democratic coexistence and respect for what is public. Most people don’t know about this. We have an uneducated country on the subject of civic responsibility. We have to start from preschool. I remember one day I stopped a taxi and Virgilio Godoy, who had been Vice President under Violeta Chamorro’s presidency, was standing on the sidewalk beside me. When I got into the taxi, the driver asked me, “Is that Godoy?” When I replied that he was, he said to me, “He’s an idiot.” I asked him why. “Because he was Vice President, he was in power and didn’t take advantage of it.” That’s a generalized mentality. People think whoever makes it into the government isn’t there to serve but to take advantage of it.
I remember another day I was going to the airport to pick up a Nicaraguan friend who lived in California. On the way back he was eating a banana and threw the peels out on the road. I asked him why he had done that. “We’re in Nicaragua!” he replied happily. “In the country of pigs, then?!” I said. If he does that on the roads of California, he could be fined a thousand dollars. Lack of civic responsibility.
I remember still another day: I was going to the university to teach and while waiting in my car for the traffic light to turn green, I saw a girl, about 13 years old, who sells at the intersection. She was swinging back and forth on a traffic sign, trying to bend it over or break it. I said, “Girl, don’t do that.” And she answered, “Is it yours, old man?” I said, “Yes, because I pay taxes.” Right then the light changed and I had to pull out. She, as if showing me she couldn’t care less, began swinging on the sign even harder than before. Lack of civic responsibility. There’s no respect for public space, for public things, for public service. There’s so much that needs to be taught and learned when all this changes.
It’s about sharing
sovereignty, not losing it
Ortega has no support in the OAS and won’t have any when May rolls around and the deadline is up. He has allies in some OAS member countries, but not even the countries that abstained defended him. They didn’t want to harm him, but neither did they want to oppose the resolution. Ortega knows very well that he’s at a disadvantage, because even those countries that have a certain affinity with him know he’s a dictator and a satrap, so they don’t want to overtly support him.
Before the vote for the resolution and even after it, his representatives alluded to sovereignty. But sovereignty belongs to the people, not the ruler. The people, as client, gave their sovereignty over to Ortega to administer it for them as a society. And he has taken it from them by subjugating them, suppressing them. If your government is despotic and violates the laws, it is violating the people’s sovereignty. Ortega doesn’t defend sovereignty; he defends only his interests and his power.
The concept of absolute sovereignty has been obsolete since the existence of multilateralism, which emerged after World War II, when countries met to create international organizations to deal with political, economic, labor, educational, health, food, women’s, children’s and other issues. Under this scheme, which is now seventy years old, when each country agrees to be a member of those organizations, it signs agreements that must be respected and its sovereignty stops being absolute.
In multilateralism, the universal principle of international right is “Pacta sunt servanda” (“agreements must be kept”), so if you make a pact, you have to comply; the agreement binds you. Ever since multilateralism, the principle of absolute sovereignty disappeared and national sovereignty was conditioned to these international commitments. There’s a reflection I like: It’s not about losing sovereignty, but about sharing sovereignty. It’s about entering a new dimension, not losing but sharing.
What happens if Ortega
is declared illegitimate?
Ortega has to comply. The regime firmly opposed the Nicaraguan issue being discussed in this General Assembly, but it accomplished nothing. After the resolution Ortega has been silent, not saying whether he will observe it or not. Between now and May everything is pending. If by May he hasn’t complied, the OAS will react. If he is declared illegitimate, countries have the right to recognize another government as Nicaragua’s legitimate one. A government junta in exile could also be created, backed by several countries.
A multinational military group could even be created to come and help the people of Nicaragua, like NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Even though it wasn’t a member State of that organization, according to the principle of the universal value of human rights, NATO intervened to stop the massacre the State of Serbia was perpetrating against the other States that had separated from the Yugoslavian Federation. Naturally, a military intervention of that sort in Nicaragua would be the last option to be considered.
Daniel Ortega doesn’t care about his illegitimacy. His logic is power or death. Ambassador Trujillo also said to national media after the resolution was approved that the US was working with Nicaraguan government officials who know they could be sanctioned if they continue backing Ortega. Could the US be talking to sectors of the Army? With sectors of the Police? If Ortega loses his control over the Army and Police, he’s defeated. So, maybe a multinational military organization won’t be necessary because this could be resolved with the Army.
Unite, pressure and be optimistic
Daniel has a lot to think about from now on. He has to show signs of complying between now and May and the opposition has to pressure and denounce it if he doesn’t. It needs to create a climate that will make it more and more difficult not to comply. During the next months we have continuous work to do. We need to help people understand the need to build a united front to pressure so that what was signed is achieved, and so there are guarantees for the elections that give us all confidence our vote will be respected.
Today we are at the starting point of a new process. I’m optimistic, yes. I have always been optimistic. Despite human beings being imperfect and frequently full of vices, we are redeemable. We are always capable of reacting and doing things correctly. That has been the story of humanity. Despite all the bad habits and tricks used by a part of humanity we have advanced. It’s been a long, slow and painful road, but we’ve come to universally enshrine the dignity of humans, the validity of human rights, the equality of human beings. I believe we will be capable, in Nicaragua, of twisting these two people’s arms. They may reach an extreme point and have to yield. And once they are gone, a new stage will begin for the difficult democratization of the country. It’s possible. I believe we are capable.