Two hurricanes and a financial deluge were game changers
The destructive force of Hurricanes Eta and Iota
have changed the national political scenario,
providing the big business groups a justification
to pressure for a national dialogue.
The regime, buoyed by the multilateral aid
pouring in to respond to the climatic tragedy,
has begun to reveal clues about its next electoral farce.
Both the dictatorship and the blue and white opposition were clearer about the steps to take—or avoid—as long as President Trump and his ever-changing team had Washington under their thumb.
But now everything is different. Eta, the first of two powerful hurricanes that tore through northeastern Nicaragua this year, made landfall on November 3, US Election Day. Iota followed only 13 days later, while President Trump’s slow-motion defeat after only one term was still being contested. The alignment of Trump’s defeat with those unanticipated climatic catastrophes has already triggered a perceptible change in Nicaragua’s political scene.
Thousands left with nothing
Category 4 Hurricane Eta’s 150-MPH winds swirled ferociously into Nica¬ragua’s northern Caribbean Coast, 15 miles south of the capital city of Bilwi, municipality of Puerto Cabezas, and lost force as it swept through Nicara¬gua’s mountainous Mining Triangle and made its way into Honduras. There it unexpectedly hung a U, regaining strength as it swung back into the Caribbean Sea, crossed Cuba and tipped Florida, before doing a loop-de-loop back across the Florida Everglades and finally headed out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Iota, which had reached category 5, its winds had lessened to 155 MPH by the time it hit Nicaragua only 15 miles south of Eta’s entry point. Nonetheless, it is considered the most powerful to hit Nicaragua in over a century. Initially following and widening Eta’s destructive path along the border between Nicaragua and Honduras, it continued in a nearly straight line to El Salvador and out into the Pacific Ocean, dropping torrential rains over most of Nicaragua as it went. Nicaragua’s official death toll was 21, although opposition figures are 7 higher. Among them were 10 children swept away by torrents of rain and mudslides in two northern areas of the country.
Three weeks after the passage of the second hurricane, thousands of Nicaraguans still had no roof over their head and were surviving on food and water supplied by national and international agencies.
Those who have felt the brunt of this tragedy are the already historically marginalized people of the north Caribbean and other remote rural areas in Nicaragua’s hinterlands. Most of them lost their fragile homes and the few possessions they owned. In the Caribbean, Iota hit zones where the invasion of illegal settlers from the Pacific side of the country had already destroyed the forest cover that previously helped protect the population from heavy winds, according to the River Foundation.
The memory of
The regime had just made a preliminary calculation of the material losses from Hurricane Eta (US$178 million), when it had to revalue it on November 24, following Iota’s even greater destruction. Its new preliminary figure increased the sum to US$742 million, the equivalent of 6.2% of this year’s gross domestic product (GDP).
The powerful Hurricane Mitch from 1998, still vivid in the memory of two generations of Nicaraguans, sparked comparisons. The conclusion was that Mitch was worse, not only because of the huge number of deaths—over 3,000, most resulting from the cave-in of Casitas crater lake, sending an avalanche of mud down on the town of Posoltega—but also because of the precarious economic context at the time. The UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) calculated the losses due to Mitch at more than US$1.2 billion, representing a staggering 49% of that year’s GDP. The country’s population was still struggling to recover from the trauma and the economic effects of the decade-long war of the 1980s and eight years of austere structural adjustment and economic stabilization policies that followed, not to mention a hurricane that had flattened Bluefields exactly ten years earlier.
Setting aside economic and other comparisons with Mitch, Eta and Iota are leaving enormous human tragedies in their wake, particularly for the region’s already impoverished indigenous populations. But even worse, they have hit a national population already staggering under nearly three years of a deadly serious political, social, economic and human rights crisis, the worst peacetime crisis in our country’s history.
The faces of the tragedy
Catastrophic natural disasters always make the international news, but the figures that document them are cold, removed from the human experience. Although nature does its part in these disasters, a little effort can almost always lay bare prior social inequity and marginalization behind the shocking images of what is initially defined as “natural.”
The area hit with the fullest force of both hurricanes is populated mainly by Miskitu people whose communities dot the seaboard, rivers and grasslands of the northern Caribbean region. Bilwi and Waspam are the two cities in that region with a greatest number of structurally resistant buildings and also have more multiethnic populations. Most people from the communities were evacuated to those cities, often with only the clothes on their back, and crowded into the concrete buildings most likely to withstand the lashing. These people lost their houses and everything in them as well as their food stores, animals, boats, nets and year-end crops ready for harvest.
Easy-going river and ocean-front communities like Wawa Bar, Lamlaya and Haulover, where “we never went hungry because there was always fish and cassava,” are now tragic expanses where nothing is left standing. The more outlying communities along the banks of Central America’s longest river, known outside the coast as the Río Coco and inside as the Miskitus’ sacred Wanki River, were already living in poverty. When the heavy rains and ocean surge caused the banks of the lower river to overflow, the people were left in asituation of hunger, uncertainty and even greater misery.
The tragedy also has the face of Mayangnas, another of the four indigenous peoples of the Caribbean Coast. Some of their communities are further inland, some inside the valuable Bosa¬wás Biosphere Reserve, one of Central America’s lungs. No one warned those communities Eta was coming and then when Iota hit they had to seek refuge from its violence on their own. The Ulwa community of Karawala, just below the northern Caribbean region’s southern boundary, was also affected, although to a somewhat lesser degree.
Another of the tragedy’s faces is that of mestizo peasants, some of them recent arrivals from the Pacific side of the country, while others have been residing in the Caribbean region for generations. In the mestizo communities in the mining municipalities of Siuna, Rosita and Bonanza and those of various municipalities in the departments of Jinotega, Matagalpa, Estelí and Nueva Segovia, as well as the southwestern departments of Carazo and Rivas, many families lost everything when their homes and crops were swept away by overflowing rivers due to Iota, just as happened with Mitch. In some places it rained more in under 24 hours than it normally does in two months during the rainy season.
A report by the River foundation notes that the greatest direct impact of both hurricanes was felt by 20 Miskitu and Mayangna territories inhabited by 147,000 people in 294 communities. Without having yet done any on-site evaluation, it also indicated that 15 natural reserves of the Caribbean and part of the Bosawás reserve, an extension of some 3,475 square miles, were affected.
“The bitterest part
“The bitterest part always comes afterward,” said one Miskitu man who lost everything; after having withstood the initial fear caused by listening to the wind’s fury for hours as it rips zinc roofing off of houses and fells trees.
The government’s official estimate of how many people it evacuated ahead of Iota exceeded 160,000. They were taken to shelters that lacked any conditions for so many. In the case of Eta, families living along the coast had mainly evacuated the communities on their own.
Many came back after Eta and began to rebuild what they could with any scraps of lumber and zinc they could scavenge. Less than two weeks later everything they had managed to erect was flattened again by Iota, which they all said was much worse. Those who came back the second time “broke down in tears” at the desolation. Nothing was left. Three weeks after this second tragedy, nearly 4,000 people still had nothing, no place to return to.
The destruction of their basic food crops as also hard to hndle: Iota razed the country’s northern zone, which is where the majority of the year’s final bean crop is grown, normally contributing 35% of all the beans Nicaragua produces. And it was impossible to reach areas where the crop wasn’t lost due to the thousands of miles of rural roads left impassable.
The losses of various vegetable crops were also major. The fear of famine, of a food emergency is latent in the disaster zones, and across the country the price of beans and other basic foods has already begun to rise.
decree was issued
Unlike other Central American Presidents, Daniel Ortega did not decree a state of emergency when Eta hit nor when Iota was announced. With a budget in near bankruptcy after almost three years of serious economic recession and now at the threshold of a genuine depression, potentially worse than the one we suffered during the war years of the 1980s, he could not declare it due to the financial obligations involved in doing so. Nor did he want to declare it, determined as he has been for over two years to maintain the image of “normality” in the country.
Ortega didn’t appear live or even in photos in any of the communities where thousands of defenseless citizens were preparing for the hurricanes to hit. Nor was his voice heard uttering any brief message of encouragement either before or after the devastation.
His insensitivity and need for total control reached their peak expression when he prohibited citizens from collecting donations for the victims of Eta under their own initiative. He surrounded places where volunteers were beginning to receive food, clothing and other donations with menacing police patrols, ashappened in the Managua offices of the Medical Unit, the diocesan offices in Siuna and in other parts of the country. The multiplication of disasters resulting from the second hurricane, however, was too much for the regime, leaving it no choice but to turn a blind eye to the work of independent volunteers. The collections, both in money and in kind, poured in to parishes and secular organizations all over the country and hasn’t stopped yet.
Another example of insensitivity mixed with partisan discrimination was the ignoring of various municipalities in Jinotega, Nueva Segovia, Matagalpa and the Caribbean by the institutional disaster prevention teams simply because they were governed by Liberal mayors, making it very hard for them to deal with the emergency. This sectarianism is nothing new. Back in 2013 the central government began punishing opposition municipal governments by illegally cutting the budget transfers to them.
into Central America
Ortega wasn’t seen until November 16, hours before Iota was to make landfall. He participated in an on-line meeting of three Central American Presidents, other regional authorities and officials from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), promoted by Honduras’ President Juan Orlando Hernández during a trip to Guatemala and Nicaragua. Ortega found what he had long been hoping for: the tragedy gave him the opportunity to break his extended international isolation by shielding himself in the regional context.
In the meeting with the CABEI, the three Presidents delivered long rhetorical speeches in which they underscored their respective countries’ needs, of course without acknowledging their own authorities’ responsibilities for these adversities.
Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei cried out for the United Nations to declare Central America and the Caribbean “the region most vulnerable to climate change on the Planet Earth” and asked the CABEI for resources. Days later his country’s population raged at the budget approved for 2021, which included no resources for responding to the social urgencies.
Hernández, fingered for running a narco-State in collaboration with his brother Tony, a former Honduran congressman convicted of drug trafficking last year in a US district court in New York (see www.envio.org.ni/articulo/5730), pushed for a “regional agenda” to be financed by the CABEI. “It’s now or never and this is our Bank,” he said as he asked for funds.
Ortega asked the CABEI to present an emergency plan to the international community so it would “pour resources” into the region, alleging that Nicaragua and the rest of the region are already putting a lot of resources into the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime. Drug trafficking, he said, “is the central element” of the regional problems because “it is installed, crosses and moves beyond the pandemics of COVID-19, natural disasters and migration.”
The CABEI announced in the meeting that it would make US$2.5 billion available to the Central American countries for what it called the Resilient Reconstruction Program.
“It’s a problem of security”
Ortega appeared again on November 20, still not in any of the communities washed away, but in another virtual meeting, this one of a higher level, also to ask for money. This one was promoted by the CABEI, and included the presidents of both the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), who listened to the requests by the Presidents and regional authorities.
Ortega again raised the issue of drug trafficking. Since the new IDB president , Mauricio Claver-Carone, is a Trump man and a severe critic of Ortega, the latter also directed a message straight to the incoming Biden administration, insisting on “the urgency” of “considering financial assistance to Central America as a problem of security, given that the region is a drug-trafficking transit route… and that the more affected the stability of these countries and the more disorganized the society, the more space opens up to drug trafficking and organized crime to strengthen their intent to sustain and intensify a transit corridor to the United States of North America, where their huge market is.”
For some years now, as world awareness of climate change and its toll grew, particularly after the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Mitch, experts identified Central America as indeed the planet’s most vulnerable continental area due to its geography as a narrow corridor of land between two gigantic masses of water: the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Climate change is raising the temperatures of the seas, which can provoke ever more frequent and powerful hurricanes. Eta and Iota are likely just the beginning.
Based on this evidence, Nicaragua’s Vice President Murillo added her own rhetoric to the plea for resources. “These disasters keep coming our way, and we small countries have done nothing to deserve it,” she said after the November 16 meeting, as Iota was bearing down on the coast. “That is why our Nicaragua is also speaking out for Climate Justice! Compensation for our countries in this extremely vulnerable situation without deserving it. More financing for the recovery, restoration and adaptation plans in this region so hard hit without deserving it, because we have never done anything to destroy Nature…. It cannot be that we continue receiving catastrophes, that we continue seeing the destruction of our natural resources, and that nothing is done by the centers of power that have ‘developed’ the world….”
It was with these same arguments that Ortega refused to support the international consensus that enabled the final agreement of the Paris Climate Summit in 2015. In fact, we were the only country present at that meeting that did not do so.
On that occasion, the government was immersed in the interoceanic canal project. Centro Humboldt representative Víctor Campos told envío at the time that “Nicaragua’s position of calling for climate justice abroad that it wasn’t complying with domestically hardly seemed legitimate. Its environmental behavior at home is utterly deplorable, at odds with best practices and promoting projects such as the interoceanic canal that put our country’s environmental integrity at risk.”
Have we really done
nothing to destroy nature?
No one can disagree with Murillo’s argument or with its scientific basis. The contribution of greenhouse gases produced by Nicaragua represents barely 0.0002% of the world total, indicating its infinitesimal responsibility for the environmental disaster produced by the CO2 emissions that have altered the climate. It is very hard to find anyone anymore who doesn’t recognize that it is produced primarily by the developed countries and tragically, most of the few who still deny it also sit at the head of the companies producing it.
But no less true than Murillo’s argument about our insignificant contribution to climate change is the fact that the regime’s budget for a responsible environmental policy and disaster prevention, both of which heavily depend on preserving our forests, is equally insignificant.
After the 2018 civic rebellion, the budget increased hugely for repression while that earmarked for the Disaster Response and Prevention System (Sinapred) shrank. Between 2018 and 2020 the National Police budget grew 111% and the Army’s by 85%, while Sinapred’s was cut 58%.
Apart from its neglect of the institution in charge of responding to and mitigating disasters, is it really true that Nicaragua has done nothing to destroy Nature?
Isn’t the productive model prevailing in our country both extractivist and predatory? Isn’t Nature harmed by a model based on mono-cropping primary products for export, on the relentless advance of the agricultural frontier, destroying forests to make way for extensive cattle ranching, and on ever-increasing mining concessions?
Has this “revolutionary” regime done anything at all to modify this model? Hasn’t it not only intensified it, gaining huge benefits from the extraction of lumber, even from nature reserves that should be untouchable?
The Centro Humboldt estimates that in the Ortega government’s second five-year term (2011-2016), more than 3,861 square miles of forests were lost, largely clear-cut then dedicated to cattle ranching and agriculture in soil not apt for such crops. That deforestation was headed up by Alba-Forestal, a company run by the governing party’s business group.
A not remotely
Wasn’t the already poor Caribbean Coast population, now battered mercilessly by this November’s twin hurricanes, impoverished even more by those policies and by armed mestizo settlers from the Pacific side of the country who, in a “colonization” operation” with the government’s backing, invaded indigenous land to drive communities off it, destroying forests as they went?
Does mining not destroy the environment? This year gold again became Nicaragua’s top export product. The regime has permitted, in fact promoted, the extraction of gold from the Indio Maz Reserve, as documented in these pages by Amaru Ruiz, director of the Fundación del Río, which was confiscated by the regime last year for being critical.
Given Nicaragua’s extreme vulnerability to climate change, it is also grievous that the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) has seen no increase in its own scant budget to ensure measures aimed at mitigating and adapting to the now-irreversible climate change.
The government may have no discernible commitment to the environment, but it apparently knows how to sweettalk those who do. Shortly before being hit by Eta and Iota, Nicaragua received US$ 155 million from the Green Climate Fund, set up by the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2010 to “support the efforts of developing countries in responding to the challenge of climate change.” It is scandalous that the government should be rewarded for all the damage to Nature it has been com¬plicit in.
A deluge on the heels
of a severe drought
The regime has experienced international condemnation and political isolation due to the crimes against humanity committed against protestors in 2018 and the repressive grip it has maintained ever since. The more palpable price it has paid in these nearly three years has been a severe deprivation of resources from the international financing institutions and bilateral cooperation agencies. Moreover, 23 top-level officials and family members of the presidential couple have been financially sanctioned to date for both corruption and human rights violations. After this prolonged dry spell, Ortega expressed “hope” at the end of the meeting with the World Bank and two regional banks. “We will finally have greater international accompaniment,” he said, relieved.
The US legislation known as the NICA Act, which was approved in December 2018 and obliges the US representative on all multilateral lending institutions to vote against any financing for Nicaragua from these banks, was renewed again this year. But it has provided one exception: resources required as humanitarian aid. Now, this unexpected tragedy has opened the way for an injection of fresh resources for the Ortega government, despite having done nothing to alleviate the distrust and condemnation.
The IMF loan
signaled the change
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) paved the way for the rest of the multilateral institutions. It announced a US$ 183.2 million loan, $93.2 million of which is to deal with the pandemic and the hurricane emergency and the other $90 million to buttress the international reserves and offset the balance of payments deficit.
On November 13, a few days before the IMF made this decision, Acting US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Michael Kozak tweeted the following: “Will IMF’s executive board decide next week to send more than $90 million to a Nicaraguan regime that shoots civilians in the streets?
“We support the people of Nicaragua, but financing Ortega’s regime directly, rather than through trusted NGOs and IOs, puts Nicaraguans at risk.”
The IMF got the message, but Trump was on his way out. And that drawn-out departure has already changed the nature of international relations with Nicaragua in Ortega’s favor, and will continue doing so in the coming months. The support the IMF has just given the Ortega regime is the first sign of that change.
The IMF has its own logic
There are also institutional reasons for the IMF’s decision. It has invested a lot in Nicaragua over the years to stabilize its economy and it knows that if it doesn’t provide resources after this tragedy, an economic debacle with even greater social destabilization will follow.
But this doesn’t mean the IMF has suddenly become a socially conscious charity. Conditions have also been imposed on the government’s access to the funds. First it had to make transparent the expenses it has incurred on the pandemic so far. Second, it may not administer half of the loan, but must leave it in the hands of the UN Office for Project Services and its World Food Program, a very unusual move given the dynamic the IMF follows with other countries.
Despite everything, the fact that the IMF board didn’t heed Kozak’s strong-arming is itself a sign of change that presumably goes beyond the US influence in the Fund itself. Its loans are voted on by the 24 representatives elected to its board by individual member countries and groups of countries, whose votes are weighted by the amount of their respective annual budget quotas.
In the 1980s, the US had enough clout to veto loans to revolutionary Nicaragua with the aid of only a few sizable allies. Today the negative vote by the US representative for anything other than humanitarian aid couldn’t replicate that previous veto power for the other $90 million. This has several possible explanations. One is the 6% drop in the US quota between the 1980s and now, while another is the greater number of countries currently represented, and the greater collective weight of developing countries. But it may also reflect a short- and possibly even longer-term shift in US international influence and respect as a result of Trump’s disastrous foreign policy failures.
Joe Biden’s on his way in
It remains to be seen what effect the switch from Trump’s erratic and strident bullying to Biden’s consistent but moderated firmness will have on the US role on the international stage. With specific respect to Nicaragua, Biden is well aware of who Ortega is and what he has done, and undone. Again, time will reveal the approach he will take and its effect, but we can find clues to the former in a December 14, 2018, article in Americas Quarterly titled “The Western Hemisphere needs our leadership.” In it Biden tars Maduro’s Venezuela and Ortega’s Nicaragua with the same brush, but is nearly as harsh about the Trump admini-stration’s faulty efforts.
“Instead of respecting the will of their people,” he writes, “the governments of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua have confronted peaceful protesters with force, even armed vigilantes. They have limited the freedoms of expression and assembly necessary for political dialogue and arrested their political opponents…
“Yet, even sensible efforts by this [Trump] administration to exert pressure on Maduro and Ortega have been undermined by politicization, faulty execution and clunky sloganeering. Stronger diplomatic efforts and intensified sanctions on Venezuela have been clouded by saber-rattling and misguided efforts to engage with coup plotters. Similar responses to the civil unrest and state repression earlier this year in Nicaragua produced little in the way of results as that country settles into an intolerable ‘new normal.’ This administration has demonstrated its willingness to capitalize politically on crises, but actions like its continued deportation of Venezuelans and the attempted revocation of ‘temporary protected status’ for Nicaraguans demonstrate little concern for the Venezuelan or Nicaraguan people.”
US$600 million on the way
After the IMF announcement, some US$600 million could come into Nicaragua from the US$1.2 billion fund created for Central America by the IDB and the World Bank. All this money, which will arrive in disbursements over a certain period, is in the form of loans that will increase the country’s long-term debt but in the short term will inject movement into the stagnated economy.
It’s a lot of money considering three years of recession and accumulated budget deficit. But it’s little compared to the US$1.2 billion just in donations that flooded into the country after the disaster caused by Hurricane Mitch.
The political situation then had little in common with today’s. When Mitch hit, Nicaragua was only eight years out of a decade-long war that had followed an armed insurrection, all of which had left an enormous toll of material, human and economic destruction in its wake. The new disaster immediately united the then far more numerous and spirited NGOs and social organizations into what they called the Civil Coordinator for Emergency and Reconstruction. With international backing, it and similar structures created in the other affected Central American countries were invited to participate in a Donors’ Conference in Stockholm, Sweden, in May 1999, to discuss the allocation and use of the reconstruction funds with the region’s governments. In record time, the Civic Coordinator formulated a comprehensive outline not just for rebuilding the destroyed personal and public infrastructure but for using the opportunity and extraordinary funding to transform the country’s approach to its underlying poverty, environmental protection, economic model and more. Although begrudgingly, then-President Arnoldo Alemán, a Liberal Party strongman type already suspected of massive corruption, traveled to Sweden in an entourage that included representatives of opposition political parties—including the FSLN—and of the Civil Coordinator. While it goes without saying that Nicaragua was not transformed, the experience strengthened its civil society for years to come.
Fast-forwarding to today, Eta and Iota found the dictatorship at war with both the political and social opposition, which are suffering repression, surveillance and criminalization, while foreign funders are unclear and worried about the country’s new foreign agents regulation law and its future effects on recipients of funding of any kind.
Milking the tragedy
Hurricane Mitch devastated both Nicaragua and Honduras in the last three days of October 1998, but more international assistance flooded into Nicaragua, given the echoes that still resonated in the world due to all the sympathy the revolution had earned.
Thirty-two years later, the situation has changed in both Honduras and Nicaragua, as well as in the rest of the world. The human and economic disasters caused virtually everywhere by the coronavirus pandemic trump hurricanes when defining priorities. The well-known institutionalized corruption that is sinking Honduras is enough to cause deep distrust of its government. While corruption is not absent from concerns about Nicaragua, it is the flagrant human rights violations now part of life here since April 2018 that have led to the setting of conditions on the government.
Ortega, however, sees a window of opportunity in this unexpected humanitarian tragedy and the equally unanticipated dose of financial oxygen. He’s hoping the international community might forget about the preexisting political tragedy under the circumstances. Who could refuse help to a country in tatters even if much of the damage has been caused by a bad government? Who could think about more economic sanctions at a grieving time like this, even if they would only be applied to individuals or the personal businesses of the ruling elite?
Ortega is also thinking of capitalizing on the tragedy by offering the incoming Biden-Harris administration “stability.” It’s an argument that has worked for him before and could be convincing for Washington, and for the international community as a whole in such a complex world as we have today, with continual instability in so many parts of the world. It’s particularly appealing since the fragmented opposition isn’t seen internationally as a power alternative, and thus as any insurance of stability.
The stability Ortega ensures, at least in the short run, even given the repression it relies on, could convince some that it may be best not to change horses mid-stream.
thousands in donations
The regime had already kicked off its electoral campaign by handing out donations and gifts, including zinc roofing and bags of foodstuffs, even before the two Greek-named hurricanes hit.
Requiring that all post-Eta donations collected by spontaneous church groups and civil society organizations be turned into Sinapred would have a certain logic in a country with a government whose institutions actually function so that the aid would be distributed in an organized way and public policies would be executed honestly. In Nicaragua, this order had a clearly proselytizing purpose.
After Hurricane Eta hit, Ortega received some US$700,000 in donations in kind and in money from the United States, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Food Program, the CABEI and others. They increased even more after Iota.
In the name of the
The international humanitarian agencies distributing emergency aid need a state infrastructure to reach the affected zones and no social organization has the government’s capacity to capitalize on tragedies like this. Not even the Catholic Church, with its extensive network in the territories, can match the State, which is characterized by its strict social control and can milk its advantage to the max. Even though the resources are conditioned and must be supervised, the government will ensure the recipients believe the assistance is coming from the self-dubbed “good government.”
But despite all its advantages, it isn’t having an easy time of it. Its vote-buying electoral campaign was already designed and was much more austere than what the tragedies caused by the hurricanes now require. This is especially true in the devastated Caribbean region, that “other” Nicaragua that has now begun to make urgent demands on the government with a different kind of strength than the rest of the country. It is also doing it with the logic of those who lost everything. There is nothing they don’t need.
Is a dialogue in sight?
It’s not just the international community that can’t discern a power alternative in the blue and white opposition. The Nicaraguan business class can’t either. The changes in the national scenario with Trump’s electoral defeat and the battering from the two hurricanes followed by the international financing that gave Ortega a fresh breath of air very quickly, moved some business groups to promote a “dialogue” with the regime.
On November 28, Conservative Party politician Alejandro Bolaños Davis, sponsored by one of the national financial groups, was the first to promote a “forum for co-existence” that brought together a hundred business¬people, politicians and economists, as well as various social, generational, ethnic and local sectors that made “recommendations” for a way out of the crisis Ortega has not wanted to resolve by any means other than repression in nearly three years.
The initiative appears to be aimed at organizing a rapprochement/understanding with the dictatorship. To what end? Surely not an impossible “dialogue and consensus model” like the one that lasted a decade, favoring the strongest business groups and Ortega himself, but rather a “positive and correct dialogue to achieve a change in which all of us come out ahead,” as Bolaños Davis phrased it.
It needs to be noted that, unlike every other meeting held by opposition groups, the site of this sizable and visible event was not besieged by mobs of fanatic governing party thugs and police patrol cars or surrounded by threatening heavily armed anti-riot police. Bolaños Davis was followed several days later by Mario Arana, the current president of the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Civic Alliance that broke with the blue and white National Coalition, who called for a “national agreement.”
And in those same days, the pastoral vicar of Managua, Monsignor Miguel Mántica, offered the “personal opinion” that “if there were truly an opening for a new dialogue, the Church could play the role of mediator with an impartial function.”. The cardinal archbishop of Managua, Leopoldo Brenes, hastened to note that there was nothing concrete, but recalled how important dialogue was to Pope Francis.
A change of scenario
on the Ortega-Murillo side…
What will happen? Another dialogue to concede the famous “soft landing” to Ortega? Or perhaps to hammer out electoral reforms and reach consensus on them?
Ortega’s amply demonstrated strategy is “power or death.” He and his have already reached a point of no return, in which the only direction is forward, clinging to their plans to stay in Nicaragua and in power, “legitimizing” that with elections won by hook or by crook. The hurricanes seem to have fortuitously changed that scenario to a brighter one for them, pulling them out of an otherwise interminable international isolation and refilling the coffers.
…and on the side of the
blue and white opposition
On the opposition side, Eta and Iota, with their aftermath of severe human and economic drama, have changed the scenario for the worse, increasing the erosion of an already worn-down society after nearly three years of greater repression than it has known since the final years of the Somoza dictatorship. Nor is this the organized opposition’s finest hour. The Civic Alliance’s definitive split from the National Coalition in October with an argument the majority found incomprehensible left most of the blue and white opposition dispirited. That was followed in November by the predictable and all but terminal crisis of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC).
The PLC’s crisis began in July, when former President Arnoldo Ale¬mán, the party’s longtime strong-man, imposed Miguel Rosales as its new president in the party convention. While this was by no means out of character, the prior president, María Haydée Osuna, took issue with it since she believed she should have been reelected. In a surprise move, she asked the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) to resolve the dispute over who the legitimate party leader was, her or Rosales. While that task is within the CSE’s purview in cases of irresolvable intra-party conflicts, there are enough precedents for everyone to know that Ortega’s indisputable control of the CSE made this move tantamount to putting the PLC’s future in his hands.
The CSE’s ruling in favor of Osuna in September surprised no one. The surprise came on November 26, when Ortega assured Osuna, also one of the PLC’s 14 representatives to Nicara¬gua’s National Assembly, that she could also count on the FSLN’s 71 votes in favor of her motion to depose Alemán’s wife Maria Fernanda Flores from her legislative seat. Osuna’s motion followed a November 9 announcement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “designating” Alemán, his wife and their children for major acts of corruption committed while he was President (1997-2001). Unlike the Treasury Department’s sanctions, which impose paralyzing financial constraints on the recipient, the State Depart¬ment’s “designation” is limited to denying the person a US entry visa. In his Speaking Out article in this issue, former Liberal legislator Eliseo Núñez Morales interprets Pompeo’s move as aimed at forcing greater clarity because he considered the PLC’s ongoing internal dispute “a cancer that is undermining the opposition’s unity.”
With that, Ortega dealt a fatal blow to Alemán, his wife and the group loyal to them, and promoted a new pact with a different sector of the PLC. It was an audacious maneuver against his once-powerful partner in a pact that has held ever since they first began to negotiate it shortly after Alemán took office. Ortega has increasingly gotten the better of him with each passing year.
Paving the way for
the new electoral farce
That still somewhat murky political maneuver heralds the kind of elections the regime is preparing, calculating that the international community isn’t going to require much from a country so battered by two hurricanes.
On November 30, with the unanimous vote of its leadership, the National Coalition decided to “suspend and leave without effect the participation and membership” of the PLC in that opposition platform “until such time as it enjoys authorities with democratic legitimacy and gives evident proof of the rupture of their ties with the dictator and of their willingness to contribute to the democratization of Nicaragua.” It is not known whether following this crisis in their party, PLC militants and leaders will decide as individuals or perhaps as a bloc to join the Coalition, the Civic Alliance or the Blue and White National Unity, or will stay with the leadership anointed by Ortega, or even possibly with Rosales as a rump party lacking the most important ingredient: the right to be on the electoral ballot.
Ortega thus achieved two objectives for next November’s elections. The first is that the PLC’s slot has been invalidated as an electoral vehicle for the blue and white opposition. The second is that the members of the Ortega-supported PLC group will inherit at least one of the three leadership posts in the electoral structures all the way from the Department Electoral Council down to each voting table. This is one of the key points in the electoral law that the blue and white opposition has tried so hard to reform, by proposing that all these posts be depoliticized.
As the law stands, they are assigned to political parties proportional to the percentage of votes they won in the previous election. The huge majority of them invariably goes to the ruling FSLN and most of the rest to the first runner-up party, which has been the PLC since 2016. This scheme, with its enormous skew, is a self-fulfilling mechanism for an incumbent party such as the FSLN to remain in power, and for the “second force” to accede to it out of self-interest.
A “reform” Ortega
will likelly offer
Liberal politician Eliseo Núñez, now a member of the Civic Alliance, explained to envío another “technical reform” he expects Ortega to propose. “The voting tables are going to disappear as the basic voting unit,” he predicted. Ever since the first post-Somoza elections in 1984, these tables, each of which is assigned a maximum of 400 voters, have been the basic unit, with a three-person staff and a monitor from each party on the ballot to oversee the process. There would be several tables in some voting centers, such as an urban school, for example. Núñez believes the center itself will now become the basic voting unit, which means there will be many fewer party monitors and electoral officials dealing with a lot more voters. Núñez says this proposal has been floating around for years, “and the FSLN keeps flirting with it.”
Why might it adopt this reform now? “Because,” he says, “in the 2016 elections, the FSLN assigned so many of its own people or its allies to the voting tables, as electoral police, party monitors, coordinators and other officials, that the morning of election day they were the only ones there given the massive abstention we promoted that year. They had no one left to form lines to make it look like there were a lot of voters or to go out and knock on doors and physically take people to vote. Now, by reducing the units from nearly 15,000 tables to some 4,000 centers it frees up a lot of people to be in the street to persuade people to vote and to commit the atrocities they usually do in the elections.”
For some time now, we have been concluding our monthly analysis of the national scenario with many unanswered questions born of the emergency caused by this dictatorship. In this already uncertain year, ending with the planetary pandemic still unchecked, a new government about to occupy the White House, two devastating hurricanes in our country and an unexpected injection of economic resources, those lingering questions now have even more unanticipated nuances to consider. There are also several new questions that are hard to respond to with optimism.
Eliseo Núñez offers his own answers to some of them in the Speaking Out article in this edition. From his role as a territorial organizer for the Civic Alliance, his vision is realistic, but with an optimism nourished by the resistance he has seen around the country from up close.
From exile, the famous Nicaraguan singer-songwriter brothers Carlos and Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy offer their own vision in a new song, also realistic, but sadder and more pessimistic, about the “homesickness” felt today by the thousands of Nicaraguans living as exiles and the thousands more who have lost their homes to the hurricanes. “Amid the roar of the storm / a child looks toward the nothingness / in front of his gray eyes all that remains / is the naked platform where his house once stood …” says its first verse.
As 2020 comes to an end in Nicaragua, we are teetering on uncertainty, trusting that today’s pains are in fact “labor pains” as Núñez says, but also staring into the void like that Caribbean child.