Alea iacta est?
President Biden has yet to announce a position on Nicaragua,
but his mere election is causing a flurry on our political stage.
The Ortega regime’s own electoral strategy is, quite simply,
to impose its conviction that “alea iacta est”—the die is cast:
Ortega is invincible and will run the country another five years.
Meanwhile, time is running out for the political opposition.
With unity still eluding it, has its die already been cast as well?
If it can offer a united political platform and one appealing candidate,
it could attract the blue and white voter majority massively to the polls,
giving the lie to such fatalistic Latin predictions and altering our future.
Do conditions exist for this? Some offer a bit more hope than in late 2020.
Nicaragua is beginning the new year clueless about the evolution and possible mutations of the coronavirus in our country as it waits for at least one of the vaccines currently on offer. The regime, however, is welcoming 2021, emboldened by the international humanitarian aid provided for both the pandemic and the back-to-back hurricanes that devastated the northern Caribbean region in mid-November.
For its part, the blue and white social majority—that multisectoral non-party multitude motivated by love of country that spontaneously rose up against the regime and its unbridled violence in April 2018—has entered the new year unsteady on its feet. One day it is buoyed by hope and the next weighed down by uncertainties and a sense of helplessness. Within the constraints of what can only be described as a police State, the more politically active and organized opposition groups have spent these years debating the new kind of country and politics they want to see, but these broad-ranging discussions are hampered by a history of deeply rooted distrust of class, ideological, age and experiential differences. And still more opposing issues have emerged to hamstring them as they attempt to build unified structures to confront the regime on the electoral battlefield. But now the election year has actually arrived, they are awakening to the fact that 2021 could actually bring about the longed-for path of change that inspired the protests triggered in April 2018.
Joe Biden is expected to
use carrots more than sticks
Donald Trump's defeat in the November 3 elections resulted in an ugly transition period that culminated with the January 6 armed invasion of the Capitol Building by fanatic followers who had been persuaded that his defeat was a lie. Undaunted, Joe Biden and his experienced team “hit the ground running.” Immediately after the spartan inaugural ceremony midday on January 20, the new President, wisely steering clear of the debasing fray unraveling the Republican Party, began using executive orders to reverse as much of what Trump had done (or undone) as he could. Even with Washington still under the exceptional protection of tens of thousands of National Guardsmen and hastily erected razor wire-topped fences, the vibes in the capital were soon very different than during the Trump years.
Given the “cascade of crises” Biden mentioned in his inaugural speech that he will face, Daniel Ortega may be hoping it will mean less pressure on him and his own government. Having survived the extremism of Trump and his more radical team members, perhaps Ortega is counting on being sidelined to a more favorable “gray zone.” From there he could go into the elections with a good chance of winning, if only by a narrow enough margin to satisfy the international community, which has its own cascading crises and would be more willing than usual to cross Nicaragua off its list.
Experts on Washington politics agree that the consensus between Republicans and Democrats to push for a change in Nicaragua via elections is intact and that pressure will continue to be exerted. They point out that the bipartisan promoters of the NICA Act, approved during Barack Obama’s administration, still hold their congressional seats and are closely following events here. Nicaraguan lawyer Harold Rocha, an adviser to the Democratic Party for 30 years, believes “there will be changes in form and tone, but not in substance or content.” All agree that Biden will use incentives more than sanctions, which haven’t made Ortega more flexible. But what will they be? Economic incentives? Guarantees of certain impunity for him and his family?
Independent of whether Washington continues to pressure Ortega or tries to entice him, however, there is a real risk of his reelection unless Nicaragua’s business class and organized opposition set aside their prejudices, interests and differences for now and unite around a single leadership that attracts massive voter turnout, even with minimum electoral conditions.
An economic breather
The regime is beginning this electoral year in better shape than expected thanks to a massive and unanticipated financial windfall granted to the government to deal with the Covid-19 health crisis and the two powerful hurricanes that devastated the northern Caribbean region only two weeks and several miles apart in November. While the loans are accompanied by conditions set by the multilateral lending institutions, they broke the isolation that was strangling public finances, thus increasing both Ortega’s optimism and his aggressiveness.
The new international loans total almost US$ 1 billion, a quarter of which has already come into the country, according to Finance Minister Iván Acosta. On January 17, Acosta announced that the very tight budget for this election year, approved last October, will increase by up to 25%. He said the loans make it possible to alleviate the austerity imposed on the national budget, dedicating more resources to public investment in roads, health, education, security, social programs and the construction of thousands of houses, as well as cattle, fishing and coffee production. Special plans have also been announced for Managua. All this will reduce unemployment and poverty, and surely make the year's gross domestic product (GDP) positive again.
The country has suffered almost three years of budgetary belt-tightening and economic recession due to the human rights crisis triggered in 2018, which prompted multiple sanctions and financial restrictions on the regime. By this year the national economy was teetering at the edge of a full-fledged depression. This huge influx of money, ironically allowed past the lending restrictions for humanitarian reasons, will now undoubtedly pull the economy back from that abyss.
In an election year, the reactivation of the economy will be Ortega’s trump card in his bid for a fourth consecutive term. In making the announcement, Acosta placed the opening bet on this electoral high card, emphasizing that this funding “assures a lot of stability” and gives the population “certainty about what the path is.”
And what exactly is that “path”?
In fact, Ortega had already laid out his post-electoral path just a few days before the announcement of such good pre-electoral news.
The night of January 11, representatives of the Sandinista Youth gathered in the shadow of the monument to Rubén Darío, as they do every year on this date, to commemorate the birth of that great Nicaraguan poet. Ortega offered a typically long, rambling “Dariano” speech, sprinkled with attacks on imperialism, stanzas of Darío's best known poems and an unfortunate complete recital of the “Salutation of the Optimist.” At the end, as he stood up to leave, he made the only substantive comment to mark the ushering in of the electoral year.
Editing out his characteristic digressions, this is what he said: “We have to unite so that in the new stage of this Revolution we achieve the great alliance we managed to build in the first stage until 2016 [he meant to say 2018], when that great alliance collapsed, because our enemy’s objective was to collapse Nicaragua. But the people said no! Now it is a matter of working so that after this year's elections a great national agreement can be installed, a great national dialogue, so that what was approved in the Constitution can go forward again, taking into account the new circumstances. And we call on President Biden to work towards Nicaragua with a policy of respect and understanding.”
With no political solution…
It may not seem like it to the uninitiated listener, but the message was very clear. While also designed to demotivate the general population and motivate his base, it was especially aimed at the business class, his allies until April 2018.
In Ortega-speak, his message to the latter was this: he is staying in what will be a “new stage” [five more years], and in the “new circumstances” [once reelected and legitimized] there will be a great dialogue with the businesspeople so that “what was approved in the Constitution [the corporative model of dialogue and consensus he maintained with them] will be rebooted, following which he and the business elite will call on Biden to change Washington's policy towards Nicaragua. Left implicit was that any agreement requested by some businesspeople and even trade unions sympathetic to the regime regarding the government’s harsh tax reform will be postponed until after the elections.
Several businesspeople were quick to rebuff the bait Ortega dangled that night as a postscript to his poetry recitation. Marcos Pierson, president of the Chamber of Industries, publicly suggested that Ortega “might in fact not stay as President,” while Mario Arana, outgoing president of the American-Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce, echoed the position reiterated periodically by the business associations: “Without a political solution this dialogue will be of little value because the country will go over the cliff anyway.”
...the crisis will continue
Without going so far as to speak of a “cliff,” the annual country report on Nicaragua by The Economist Intelligence Unit, dated January 26-27, 2021, is not as optimistic as Acosta implied or as the loans led Ortega to believe. The British publication only expects a “modest upturn” this year, “considering the scale of last year's collapse.” It highlights that “Nicaragua's major foreign policy challenge will be navigating its ties with the US in a way that is compatible with the survival of the Ortega regime. The government will remain committed to the Dominican RepublicCentral America Free Trade Agreement (DRCAFTA), to which the US—Nicaragua's main trade and investment partner—is a signatory.” But it warns that “diplomatic tensions will continue until Nicaragua's long-running political conflict is resolved.”
In its political analysis section on the recent period, The Intelligence Unit noted that the latest opinion polls show only about a quarter of the population supporting the government, making it politically vulnerable.
According to the publication, if Ortega does not guarantee legitimate elections, which are central to his relations with Washington, there will be both political instability and economic consequences, citing capital flight in Nicaragua's fragile banking system. It also predicts a high risk of fractures within the regime if economic or political conditions worsen radically.
A blockaded country?
On January 25 the already fragile national banking system was surprised to learn of a reform to the Law for the Protection of the Rights of Consumers and Users introduced into the National Assembly, Nicaragua’s legislative body, by the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) bench. This reform appears to be aimed at pressuring the nation’s banks to reestablish financial relations with the Ortega regime’s 27 officials, 8 companies and 1 state institution (Police) sanctioned by the US Treasury Department between 2017 and 2020.
In an extensive letter to the legislators written three days later, the Association of Private Banks of Nicaragua explained that if this reform is approved, it will violate the constitutional right of free enterprise “and promote practices that incite money laundering.” Moreover, the banks that did so would lose their correspondent status with international banks, ending their ability to receive remittances or pay foreign credits, affecting the country's exports and imports, and making it impossible to use international credit cards in the country.
By approving the law, the regime would effectively be decreeing a self-blockade against the country, as it would be cut out of the global financial system. And of course, the capital flight would be massive.
What possible explanation can there be for such unimaginable legislation? Can they have not known the consequences of such a reform? Are they proposing it to indicate how far they are willing to go? Are they testing their limits? Or, emboldened by the resources received, and focused on “winning” the elections, are they simply not measuring the risk they are running?
Fractures in the FSLN
The US, Canadian and European sanctions have had severe consequences, particularly for the personal economy of the individuals targeted and for the ruling party’s economic activities. For this and other reasons, fractures are appearing both in its 25% support base of potential voters, and at various points up the ladder of the party structures.
After returning to government, the FSLN became les a party of militants than a bureaucracy of officials. It consolidated more power, but at the cost of bureaucratization, ending up with militants who lack initiative, depend on the resources guaranteed to them and have been developing attitudes like those posted in the social networks by this FSLN grassroots leader:
The FSLN’s worst enemy is not in the opposition. It’s inside. The worst enemy is the ‘Sandinista’ who came to have a post and mistreats the other comrades. It is the one who got his militancy card and does nothing to earn it. It is the one who is always looking for ways to make a profit. It is the human resources person who hires a friend with no capacity rather than a fellow worker from the neighborhood who sweats to maintain this government. They are the intermediate cadres who twist the comandante’s orientations, who didn’t give food packages to those who needed it but to those who didn’t. They are those who are great revolutionaries on Facebook and in their neighborhoods but NEVER go to the militants’ assemblies. They are the ones who think the grass roots are simple masses that can be manipulated. The opposition, the OAS and the empire have never been able to defeat the FSLN. Let’s not allow them to destroy us from within.
Also, the 25% who tell pollsters they sympathize with, support or would vote for the FSLN includes part of the 150,000 public employees in state institutions who have a militant card “but are only Sandinistas from 8 to 4,” as one regime spokesman lamented. As he went on to explain, this is “because they live under the fear of being fired if they make any criticism, so they don't do it. And they attend assemblies and party activities only because they fear losing the salary with which they support their family.¬”
Losing is not an option for him
Ortega knows all this. And he’s unwilling to lose in the November 7 elections. The 1990 electoral defeat, which he never anticipated, is one of his most recurrent ghosts.
The pact with then-President Arnoldo Alemán in 1999-2000 and the successive electoral frauds or farces (in the municipal elections of 2008 and 2012, and the presidential ones of 2011 and 2016) showed that he has followed to the letter the advice given him by the late FSLN founder and National Directorate member Tomás Borge after retaking power in 2007: “We can pay any price. The only thing we cannot do is lose power. No matter what they say, let's do what we have to do.”
For the first time after the national rejection Ortega experienced with the civic rebellion of April 2018, he is obliged by both the calendar and the Constitution to submit to popular scrutiny at the polls. After the repudiation of those massive marches that caught him so unprepared in 2018, he has recovered his sense of security following nearly three years of multifaceted repression and intimidation.
He has two tools to bolster that self-assuredness. One of them, which he has had for years and continually honed, is an electoral system under his total control. The other is a well-organized repressive apparatus, constantly increased with thousands of new police officers which, after the months of unbridled police and parapolice violence in 2018, has worn down the population by continued unconstitutional surveillance, harassment, detentions, trumped-up trials and jail sentences.
The OAS “ultimatum”
Ortega will have to concede some elements of both tools if he wants to gain legitimacy at the polls in November, although he hasn’t demonstrated any willingness to do so thus far.
Although Biden will surely discard the idea of the “troika of tyranny,” the Trump era epithet for the Cuba-Venezuela-Nicaragua axis, he is expected to employ a multilateralist approach in dealing with those countries that exemplifies the rest of his foreign policy. In the case of Nicaragua this will mean following the path already laid out by the Organization of American States (OAS), the hemisphere’s multilateral body.
In October of last year, it issued a resolution giving Ortega a deadline of May 2021 at the latest to negotiate changes to the electoral system with the opposition, proposing seven reforms:
1. Modernization and restructuring of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) to ensure it functions in a fully independent, transparent and accountable manner.
2. Open registration of new political parties.
3. Updating and an independent audit of the electoral roll.
4. Independent international electoral observation.
5. Transparency in the electoral roll, delivery of ballots and management of voting centers.
6. Transparent counting and consolidation of the results and their publication in real time.
7. Adequate procedures to resolve complaints about the process and its results.
The electoral roll?
By the first week of February, no moves had been made in this direction. Nor was there any sign that any will happen. Ortega lives buying time. And, of course, as time passes, some of the reforms the OAS “urged” him to make are becoming impossible, especially the audit of the electoral roll, which is not only a technical issue but also a political one as control of it has allowed an infinite number of tricks that guarantee altered results.
The CSE, the fourth branch of government, currently has four lists at its disposal: what it refers to as 1) the “total roll”; 2) the “active roll,” with all those who have supposedly voted in the last two presidential elections; 3) the “passive roll,” which contains all those who supposedly have not voted in those two elections; and 4) one that supposedly contains people who have died or have left the country and supposedly been purged from both the active and inactive lists.
Everything is “supposed” because there have never been independent audits or veridiction of any of the lists.
How much pragmatism
must be accepted?
Electoral expert José Antonio Peraza told envío that “in no serious country could an election be held under these conditions, but we can’t resolve them in six months. We’re going to have to gather all the electoral rolls into one, which will have 5 million registered voters, knowing there are 1.2 million people on it who have died or are out of the country. We have no choice because there is no interest in the government to solve the problem. There’s no point saying we’re not going to vote without a new voter list. It’s no good, because we have to get out of the dictatorship as soon as possible.”
This is only one among many examples of the “pragmatism” the blue and white majority will have to deal with when deciding which reforms to demand and which shortcomings to accept at the end of the day. Among the seven reforms proposed by the OAS, international electoral observation appears as the non-negotiable priority, which should also include the participation of national electoral observers.
The power of weapons
The other tool Ortega has at his disposal is military might and the social-political erosion caused by the mere presence of black-clad heavily-armed police in the streets. Less than ten months before the elections, a de facto police State prevails in Nicaragua, imposed in September 2018 when all protests were officially, but unconstitutionally banned.
In the February-March 2019 “dialogue 2.0” with the Civic Alliance, the government signed a commitment to restore civil and political rights canceled by the police State, but it never did so. Moreover, while it did release dozens—but not all—of the political prisoners, their records were not expunged and they were hounded in their homes, prevented from working or forced into exile. Quite a few have even been recaptured and prosecuted, falsely accused of common crimes, typically drug trafficking and illegal possession of weapons. Today there are again more than a hundred political prisoners suffering in prisons with inhumane conditions.
In report after report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has denounced “the persistence of the police State in Nicaragua,” documenting attacks and aggressions, sieges and arbitrary detentions.
Some 80 known opponents and previously jailed political prisoners are virtually under “house arrest.” Police patrols surround their homes and prevent them from going out or receiving visitors. The head of Amnesty International for the Americas, Erika Guevara-Rosas, declared on International Human Rights Day that 2020 closed in Nicaragua with “a very negative balance,” describing the year as a “bleak period.”
Going after “foreign agents”
Presidential duo Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo not only have unexpected financial resources but also new legislation for their “electoral campaign.” Between October and December, they pushed through a combo of four typically dictatorial laws to lead the blue and white population along the path of fear and abstention to self-defeat.
The first law approved by the Ortega bench, which needs no other votes so didn’t bother with consultation or debate, was the “foreign agents” law (October 15, 2020). The definition of a foreign agent is very broad and the sanction for individuals or organizations thus defined is very stiff: confiscation of all assets and fines of up to half a million dollars.
In recent months, a tacit rule that foreigners legally residing in Nicaragua be de facto treated as “foreign agents” also seems to be taking hold. Some residency cards are not being renewed and others are having to renew them every three months rather than five years. Some foreign residents are being summoned to interviews with migration officials and police, in which they are warned that if they participate in politics—which includes comments on social networks—they could be expelled from the country.
Going after “cybercrimes”
Following quick on the heels of the foreign agents law, the Ortega bench approved the law against “cybercrimes” (October 27, 2020), in which the definition of a cybercrime is similarly extensive and the sanction is up to eight years in prison.
The law also increases the prison sentences for those who “transfer public information classified as reserved.” It is a clear reference to state employees dissatisfied with the regime's management who anonymously leak important public information to independent journalists, thus breaking official secrecy. These “deep throats,” the mainstay of investigative journalism the world over, allow citizens to learn about acts of corruption, squandering of public goods, arbitrariness in state institutions and human rights violations in social, legal and institutional matters. Some of these sources in Nicaragua have been doing it a long time, protected by the journalistic ethics of different reporters and their media.
As if that weren’t enough, this law was complemented on January 29, 2021, by a regulation on political espionage that violates the right to privacy. TELCOR, the state telecommunications institution, now requires private international companies that provide mobile phone services in Nicaragua to keep the flow of calls and circulation of messages for one year, with date and duration. They are further obliged to turn them over if requested.
Going after “hate”
with a life sentence
The third law of the legislative combo was approved in two stages (November 10, 2020, and January 12, 2021) because it required a constitutional reform, which takes two legislatures, and then reforms to the Penal Code and to Law 779 on violence against women. When all was said and done, life imprisonment was established in the country for “hate crimes,” overturning the maximum sentence for any crime of 30 years set by the revolutionary government when it abolished the death penalty soon after taking power in 1979.
The intentionally imprecise definition of “hate” punishable by life imprisonment makes it clear that this provision, like the two above, will be applied at the ruling couple’s discretion against their critics.
Ortega himself implied as much last September 15, when he referred to the protagonists of the April 2018 protests: “Quite rightly” he said, “the death penalty should be applied to these criminals, but we are part of an international agreement in which we are committed not to apply it in Nicaragua, but we are not committed not to apply life imprisonment!”
For constitutional lawyer Gabriel Alvarez, “These three laws are giving a legal basis to actions that were already happening in violation of constitutional rights. Although they are very dangerous laws and very harmful in law, the worst thing is the state apparatus that is going to apply them.”
Going after candidates
Ortega didn’t seem satisfied with the so-called "repressive trident" so before year’s end he added another. Electoral candidates will now be prosecuted together with foreign agents, cyber criminals and haters.
In an extraordinary legislative session convened on December 21, the ruling party legislators concluded the annual legislature by fast-tracking approval of a law by which Ortega guarantees himself an electoral scenario without effective competition. Pompously titled “Law for the defense of the rights of the people to independence, sovereignty and self-determination for peace,” the law allows the regime to inhibit those who “promote international sanctions and social protests” from running for any public office, labeling them “coup mongers” and “terrorists” and qualifying their activities as “treason against the homeland.”
In announcing the law, Ortega again regretted being unable to go further: “We cannot expel them from the country, because they were born here.”
Will they only function as threats?
Will these laws, all now in force and threatening virtually the country’s entire population, actually be enforced or are they only to intimidate and frighten? Thousands of people in Nicaragua have been working for decades in nongovernmental organizations that have often received foreign funding to fill gaps left or abandoned by the State. Will they be closed or confiscated or fined as foreign agents? Moreover, the use of social networks to post information, comments and memes is massive in the country, as it is in the rest of the world. How many people will be imprisoned for committing such loosely defined “cybercrimes”? And then there are the hundreds of people who hope to run for legislative or presidential office in the November elections. How many from the opposition will be prohibited simply for having opposed the government?
The predominating assumption is that these laws are intended less for application than for prevention, to instill fear, demobilize, demotivate, discourage, demoralize and engender despair. Above all, the regime’s hope is that the laws will encourage voter abstention among the opposition, convincing people everything is lost even before November and reducing the need for fraud or visible repression on election day itself.
Ortega’s formula is
abstention and disunity
With his party rank and file eroded since April 2018 by the repression he unleashed with the order “let's go all out!” and this past year by the pandemic thanks to the regime’s dismal management of the health crisis, Ortega's recipe for winning only has two ingredients: opposition abstention + disunity.
In addition to the four laws encouraging abstention, he is also stirring up even more disunity than already exists with the very real divisive debate on whether to participate or abstain in such uncertain elections and unfavorable conditions.
With both ingredients exacerbated, Ortega and Murillo would win because the Constitution, reformed in 2014, no longer requires any minimum percentage of votes for victory in a first round. Even with their limited 25% popularity rating, the Ortega-Murillo ticket would be certain to triumph if there is low opposition voter turnout or the opposition cannot agree on a single ticket and at least two parties run.
It’s a classic political no-brainer. If there is only one blue and white opposition candidate and people decide to go out en masse to vote in the early hours of Sunday, November 7, we will already know the real result. And if in that scenario, Ortega and Murillo are pronounced the winners, everyone will also know they committed fraud, there will be a reaction and the election will be declared illegitimate. But if the streets are empty that morning, we will already know the result of that scenario as well: five more years of nightmare.
The subjective conditions
are still intact but…
Despite this continued wearyingly repressive atmosphere through which the regime sustains its power, the indignation of the majority of the population, ignited into a popular uprising by the government violence of 2018, has not been snuffed out. If anything, it smolders deeper.
That indignation, the awakening realization that a change was urgent and the civic resistance in all corners of the country for almost three years now are subjective “conditions” that allow us to think “the die may not be not cast” in Ortega's favor.
He knows it, which is why he has cloaked his repressive escalation with legalities since September 2020 in yet another step to increase the probability that the elections of Sunday, November 7 will chronicle a victory foretold for him.
...there are no electoral conditions
The opinions heard over the past few months regarding whether or not the conditions exist for participating in the elections are certainly reasonable. There are no objective conditions to guarantee credible elections and it is doubtful that the necessary reforms will be implemented.
Not all of the conditions diplomatically insisted upon in European Union reports and more recently in OAS meetings and resolutions will exist either in time or perhaps at all. Even those not requiring profound electoral reforms will be missing as long as the police State remains in place, canceling the rights of assembly, mobilization and expression, and hindering the organization of blue and white groups.
There is no sign there will be any plausible change in this. The Supreme Electoral Council has not even officially called for the elections, even though the law orders it to do so a year before the legal date. Moreover, the budget for the electoral branch was cut for this year, as was the budget for the preparation of new voter-ID cards, an indispensable document. And, not surprisingly, there is no sign of any campaign to register new voters.
A lot of FSLN activism
While there is no visible movement to create fair electoral conditions, the FSLN is actively doing and saying a lot to hype up its rank and file for the elections and discourage the opposition from deciding to go out and vote. Electoral Victory Units (UVEs) of FSLN followers and fanatics led by Vice President Murillo have already been organized in each department and will surely be set up next in each municipality.
A 70-page document signed by Murillo on January 23, addressed to political secretaries, ministers, state and municipal personnel and even ambassadors, orders them to organize frequent cultural activities of all kinds and hold continuous meetings. The UVEs are ordered to make “ongoing visits” to religious and other local personalities, universities, markets, institutions and the homes of beneficiaries of government social programs to keep the electoral campaign active between now and November. This has already been done on the Caribbean Coast in the context of some of the aid for those affected by hurricanes Eta and Iota, as human rights defender Lottie Cunningham relates in this issue’s Speaking Out section.
The pressure on the population from this intense governing party activism is accompanied by statements reinforcing the alea iacta est idea. For example, National Assembly president Gustavo Porras reiterated in December what he had already stated in September: “We aren’t going to dispute power in 2021, we’re going to defend power! We are preparing to defend the power of the revolution!” Then there is Ortega's economic adviser Bayardo Arce, the only original member of the FSLN's defunct nine-member National Directorate who is still with him today. With disdain he assured that the government will make “a few” electoral reforms, but not because the OAS orders it, and will only talk to the business elite after the elections…
In view of these very bad objective conditions, the blue and white majority’s winning formula is the exact reverse of Ortega's pre-electoral plan for it: massive participation + solid unity. In other words, NO to abstention and YES to a single presidential ticket against Ortega and Murillo.
Will unity exist?
With the winds the new year always brings in Nicaragua, some things began to move in the political scenario to achieve this formula. On January 13, the Civic Alliance and the Citizens for Liberty (CxL) party appeared before the media announcing they were initiating “joint work to build a broad and inclusive opposition alliance that unites citizens, organizations and sectors around a government proposal with a national vision.” The announcement came as no surprise, as the coziness between the two had been an open secret ever since the Civic Alliance left the National Coalition last year.
While covering the subsequent press conference, Alvaro Navarro, director of the digital publication “Artículo 66,” asked CxL president Kitty Monterrey if this alliance would include the Blue and White Unity (UNAB), made up of dozens of organizations and sectors, and the National Coalition, formed in February 2020 by UNAB, the Civic Alliance, the Campesino Movement, the Evangelical Democratic Restoration Party and the indigenous Caribbean Coast party Yatama. Monterrey answered that UNAB and the National Coalition “do not exist.”
Another narrow pact?
Monterrey’s contemptuous tone contradicted the proclamation they had read earlier and erased the slight hope of unity that the CxL and the Civic Alliance, financially backed by the business class, wanted to awaken among the population that day. The very unique concept of “broad and inclusive unity” her answer demonstrated that day was lost on no one.
While the blue and white population, UNAB and the Coalition are urging everyone to unite, CxL, the Alliance and the business leaders seem to be saying “follow us.” As this position so clearly promotes division and not any resounding defeat of the repressive Ortega regime, the objective of this alliance may simply be to remain as the “second force” and facilitate the famous “soft landing” for Ortega in exchange for rebuilding the corporate model and obtaining some legislative, municipal and state posts. Another pact, in other words.
Pluralism is just a mirage
Running in the electoral race requires a “vehicle,” a slot on the ballot held by a legally recognized political party that allows candidates to run.
One of the reasons for saying that “"there are no conditions” to go to the elections is precisely this: the vehicles are few and they aren’t independent of Ortega.
Nicaragua's once pluralist party system has been destroyed by Ortega's decision to adapt it to his model, which is not, of a single party as in Cuba, but of a hegemonic party in Mexico’s PRI style, which ends up being a “perfect dictatorship.”
There are currently 18 “legal” parties in the country, but apart from the FSLN and the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), its partner in the 2000 pact that among other things forged this bipartisanship, the rest is nothing more than a pluralist mirage shaped over the years by Ortega, with or without PLC leader Arnoldo Alemán’s complicity.
Election after election, the FSLN has been building the “United Nicaragua Triumphs Alliance” with eight of the legal parties that only have a few more members than letters in their acronym (five of them national and three in the “autonomous” Caribbean regions). Four others, also little more than acronyms, are allowed to participate as satellites because they don’t represent any competition. Of the remaining four, two are regional Caribbean parties and two were granted legal status only in 2017.
On top of all those, a further two “parties” in name only—lost their legal status for not participating in an election and two others that actually had an electoral record lost theirs at Ortega’s direct orders because he saw them as real competition or wanted to retaliate against them. These last two are the Christian Democratic Union (UDC) and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). The latter emerged from an important split in the FSLN in 1995 following unsuccessful efforts to democratize the revolutionary party and adapt it to post-Cold War realities.
April 2018 changed everything
The civic rebellion of April 2018 had neither leadership nor party allegiances. In all those massive demonstrations throughout the country, the only colors were the blue and white of the nation’s flag. April awakened a real pluralism, in people’s consciousness and in the streets.
The vast majority of those who participated in the marches and in the blockades that paralyzed the country were of Liberal, Sandinista, Conservative or Social Christian origin, whether by militancy, sympathy or family tradition, but had no organic link with any party. The crowds were not responding to any party mobilizing but rather a shared determination to let the government that was shooting down young protesters know it was not wanted. Hundreds of thousands of people of all ages, sporting blue and white flags, shirts, headbands and even face paint marched for miles in cities and towns all over the country chanting “Que se vayan!” (Get out!) with an energy that suggested the conviction that the power of their words would be enough to make the regime realize its reign was over and step down.
That April created a new national political scenario. Everyone recognizes it, including the international community that still has a stake in what happens in Nicaragua. Even the regime itself has had to recognize as much, even though its public discourse is to define this public awakening as a “failed coup attempt financed by the US and led by Nicaragua’s rightwing parties.” It has provided exactly as much evidence for that claim as Donald Trump has for his insistence that last November’s elections were stolen by fraud and he is still the legitimate US President. Just as Trump blames anyone and everyone but himself for his loss, the Ortega regime blames the blue and white opposition for all kinds of crimes and the collapse of the economy. And also, as in Trump’s case, there is an unbridgeable gulf between the regime’s true believers and those who know better.
A PLC “purged” of Alemán’s rule
For months, the forces born of the April rebellion—today mainly grouped in UNAB—bet on demanding the regime grant it legal status and hence a ballot slot in which to run candidates. But an increasingly adverse correlation of forces largely due to the disunity of the opposition as a whole and changes within the different groups meant this gamble ultimately failed to pay off. The outlook initially improved when UNAB and the Civic Alliance enthusiastically founded the National Coalition nearly a year ago, but the center did not hold in that effort either, as the Civic Alliance left the Coalition in late 2020 to cast its lot, at first only implicitly, with the CxL. A minority of the Alliance leadership argued against breaking the unity for months, on the grounds that it would assure Ortega’s electoral victory, but they were outvoted.
Coming into the electoral year, only three “vehicles” are available. The one with the longest trajectory and greatest sympathies in rural areas is the PLC, although it has long since lost credibility due to the opportunistic and corrupt control of the party by former President Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002). He was the one who made the pact with then-opposition leader Ortega in 2000 creating the institutional path that allowed the FSLN’s perpetual leader to return to government and stay there. Twenty years after that pact, a dispute that pitted two PLC directive boards against each other has led to a "cleansing" of Alemánism in the ranks of that once-dominant rightwing Liberal party.
The board headed by María Haydée Osuna turned to Ortega and his obedient officials in both the electoral and legislative branches to respectively get legal recognition of her group and unseat Alemán's legislators, one of whom was his wife.
What are Ortega’s plans for the PLC?
That move, consummated this January, means that Ortega has abandoned his old partner, favoring the anti-Alemán faction. It is the result of several months trying to appropriate the PLC's electoral base, especially in rural areas, to help pull off a fraud in the November elections. It remains to be seen if the regime will succeed. The already clear achievement of the new FSLN-PLC pact shunt of pro-Alemán leaders, who had been dangling their ballot slot before the National Coalition, is that the PLC is no longer a viable electoral vehicle for the blue and white majority.
The other two vehicles have little trajectory as Ortega only granted them legal status in 2017. The Evangelical PRD has yet to participate in any election, while the CxL is a third-generation mutation of a 2005 split in the PLC whose history is explained below. The CxL has one election under its belt: the municipal government elections of 2017.
Nicaragua is a rightwing country”
For months all three of these legal vehicles have been offering to head an alliance to challenge Ortega at the polls—the PLC and PRD from within the National Coalition, and CxL from outside. Given its financial backing from the business class, the CxL appears stronger.
Several months ago, envío identified the alliance between the CxL and what remains of the Civic Alliance, created in 2018, which is essentially the project of a sector of the business class and a sector of national finance capital. This is the same business sector that originally hammered out the corporative model with Ortega that both benefited the business elite and guaranteed the regime’s increasing authoritarianism.
While the CxL-Civic Alliance platform could arguably be defined as “center-Right,” CxL president Monterrey describes both it and her party as “rightwing,” trusting the appeal of that label to the Nicaraguan majority. She argues that “as far as I know Nicaragua is a rightwing country, not a leftwing one.” By extension, she declares that the opposition alliance “leadership” should be in rightwing hands.
Contentedly embracing this ideological label, the business elite managed to attract a sector of April’s university youth to the CxL with their financial backing—among them the emblematic Lesther Alemán, who made international news headlines when he demanded Ortega’s resignation on the first day of the 2018 national dialogue. This allows the CxL to present itself to the population with new faces representing the “spirit of Abril.”
Reviewing the rocky
road to the CxL’s creation
It’s necessary to replay a few episodes of recent history to understand Monterrey’s insistent rejection of the “Left” and her presentation of herself as “the decent opposition,” offering her party as the safest electoral vehicle.
In June 2016, Daniel Ortega cancelled the legality of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) at that time led by banker-politician Eduardo Montealegre, who had previously led a 2005 split from the PLC, founded the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) and run as the latter’s presidential candidate the following year, beating the PLC out for second place, but permitting Ortega to win with 38% due to the divided opposition. Running for Managua mayor as an ALN-PLC Alliance candidate, his victory was stolen in a colossal fraud Ortega and his followers organized in which 30% of Managua’s ballots weren’t even counted. As the first in a string of alleged frauds, it was the only one too unsophisticated to prevent the escape of a damning paper trail.
When the CSE ordered the removal of Montealegre as head of the ALN, he and his significant number of followers resuscitated the leaderless and moribund PLI, which in an alliance with the MRS—deprived of its own legal status just before the 2008 municipal elections—gave Ortega a run for his money in the 2011 presidential elections then continued opposing the FSLN from the legislative seats they had won that year. It was Ortega’s unwillingness to countenance competition by an authentic “left and right pluralism” threatening his parliamentary control that led him to ordain the cancellation of the PLI’s legal status only months before the 2016 presidential elections.
This is where Kitty Monterrey, Monteale¬gre’s political assistant through those difficult 11 years, comes into full focus. With the PLI’s plug pulled, Montealegre threw in the political towel and she picked it up. She dedicated herself to founding the CxL with Montealegre’s most anti-Sandinista Liberal followers. In May 2017, less than a year later, the CxL obtained legal status from the Ortega-controlled electoral branch, along with the PRD, leaving the MRS still out in the cold.
That same year, electoral expert José Antonio Peraza commented that the timing and speed with which the two parties were given their legal status “seriously questions their opposition authenticity.” He suggested that their legalization” could be explained by the Ortega government’s need to give some legitimacy to the 2017 municipal election, in which the CxL participated.
Why did Ortega need legitimacy in those municipal elections, the most recent held in the country? Because the 2016 general elections had drawn the attention of the international community, especially Washington, eroding his “legitimacy of origin.” First he had outlawed the PLI Alliance’s ballot slot then indefensibly expelled its legislative representatives months before the end of their term. And then he compounded international questioning by violating two previous constitutional restraints to run for a third consecutive term, this time with his wife as his running mate. That ticket pulled more than 70% of the vote in elections without any real competition or national or international observers. The only option many opposition voters felt was left to them was to engage in massive well-organized voter abstention, estimated as up to 70%, although the CSE, tellingly, has never published the figures.
Despite these realities, no one refused to acknowledge his electoral triumph until the massacre of April 2018, when the world began to understand his “illegitimacy of exercise.”
Is there always fire
where there’s smoke?
In November 2019, the CxL ran in the Caribbean regional elections, taking a lot of flak from the blue and white opposition as the country had already become the de facto police State it is today. Contributing to “normalizing” those elections helped Ortega improve his frayed legitimacy. Kitty Monterrey justified her party’s participation on the grounds that a party that does not run in an election automatically loses its legality, yet another way Ortega controls political parties.
Questions have lingered since 2017 whether the CxL was granted legal status in exchange for scuttling the MRS, which Ortega hates with a special passion. Whether or not this is true, Monterrey has never missed an opportunity since her party obtained its legal status to distance it from what she calls “the extreme leftist socialist ideology” of her former MRS allies. Independent of its motivation, it’s an easily refutable charge, and an ironic one at that, since Ortega never tires of labeling the MRS a rightwing social democratic party. She further claims that while the CxL proposed a “civic solution” to defeat Ortega, the MRS wanted a “to return to the destruction of the 80s.” She also said allying with the MRS had brought the PLI “enormous problems” with private enterprise and the Catholic Church. After April 2018, Monterrey has spoken of distrusting “people who want to renew or rescue Sandinismo.”
It’s not about Right vs. Left
It has been no easy task to build effective unity in the widely pluralist spectrum of the organized blue and white opposition, particularly among the older generations who lived through the past five decades. That traditional society born in the shadow of the Cold War has experienced wrenching and confusing changes: the horrendous final decade of the rightwing Somoza dictatorship, followed by the attempted social transformations and harsh war years of the leftwing Sandinista revolution, then the decade and a half of cruel neoliberal economics with incipient but corrupt democratic trappings, and now another decade and a half of an increasingly dictatorial regime that defines itself as leftist. In each period, there were those who benefited, those who profited and those who suffered. While some still view Nicaragua’s existential contradiction as between Right and Left, a significant part of the younger generations now see it as a choice between democracy and authoritarianism.
The business leaders and politicians who still think in ideological categories or manipulate them for their own interests must rise to the challenge of understanding the real contradiction and recognizing the urgent need for the blue and white groupings with their minimum consensus to address it, leaving debates that deviate from that immediate objective for later.
The MRS lost its battle to distinguish
Sandinismo from Orteguismo
To remove simplistic detractions from this equation, the MRS decided during its ninth national convention, held January 10 to 17, to remove “Sandinista” from its name and the symbol of Sandino's hat from its orange flag. This active member of UNAB and hence of the National Coalition, which is a pluralist platform for both left and right, is now known as the Democratic Renovation Union, which has somehow been scrunched into the acronym UNAMOS (Spanish for “let’s unite”).
Unease with the “Sandinista” designation grew in the MRS after the civic insurrection in April 2018 as members felt that word’s association with the repressive governing FSLN Nonetheless, it took a great deal of debate and foot-dragging before two-thirds of the convention delegates voted to shed the word and symbol they had proudly maintained when they split from the FSLN 25 years ago.
After Ortega retook power in 2007, the MRS was the first to argue that his government was becoming an “incipient dictatorship,” but while that definition is now generalized among the opposition, the repudiation is still framed more in Left-Right terms. Several MRS leaders have now accepted that they spent years trying, unsuccessfully, to get people to differentiate “Danielismo” or “Orteguismo” from “Sandinismo.” The sullying, perhaps forever, of Sandino’s memory as a national hero and the clean hope the FSLN acronym once represented for so many good Nicaraguans has to be added to the balance sheet of destruction Ortega and Murillo have wrought.
The MRS considers the name change a contribution at a time when everyone has something to contribute. Those who have applauded it include human rights expert Uriel Pineda, who commented that “the foundations of a new Left are being forged in Nicaragua” with what he calls “the decision to abdicate revolutionary nostalgia.”
Economist José Luis Medal says “the MRS name change can contribute, and in fact is contributing, to the construction of democracy.” He points out that the MRS option was originally, and continues to be, that of social democracy, compatible with the market economy and democracy.
A procession just
waiting for its saint
Things being as they are, what must the blue and white political opposition do to respond to the hopes of its like-minded social majority? Quite obviously, it must unite.
And what is the first thing needed to achieve the unity of all? Secure the electoral reforms? Guarantee a safe ballot box? Secure the release of political prisoners? Present a transition program? Present a government program? Present a presidential candidate? Which is most urgent? All these questions are floating in the pre-electoral air.
One answer was provided by Nelson Lorío, whose 14-month-old son was shot in the head by paramilitaries on June 23, 2018, as Lorío carried him in his arms: “My hope is that a leader will emerge in the opposition. People are just waiting for this procession to have a saint to vote for. We’re going to show that we can topple Ortega just with a pen to mark our vote.”
The multitude of opposing voices, the range of interests and aspirations in all groups, the self-convened beginning of the rebellion and the confusion and tensions that all this has been provoking, have been leading to the need, the urgency, to find a “saint” to put at the head of the “procession.” It’s formulated this way because of Nicaragua's deep-rooted religious-Christian-Catholic tradition, as pointed out on several occasions by the acute analyst of Nicaraguan political culture Emilio Álvarez Montalván.
“I’m confident of beating Ortega”
More than half a dozen “saints” surfaced to lead the procession in early January. Economist Juan Sebastián Chamorro has wanted to run for President for months, seemingly on the CxL ticket. Journalist Miguel Mora wants to be the Evangelical PRD’s candidate. Economist-politician Félix Maradiaga wants to be the UNAB candidate. And businessman Milton Arcia announced that he would head the ticket for the anti-Alemán PLC. In presenting himself, Arcia thanked Ortega for helping them “clean up” that party. Meanwhile, Yatama leader George Henríquez announced he also wants the candidacy, although as a regional party Yatama doesn’t have a slot on the presidential ballot; and peasant leader Medardo Mairena and electoral expert José Antonio Peraza have neither denied nor clearly affirmed their aspirations.
In this context of multiple candidates jockeying for position, the name of journalist Cristiana Chamorro appeared on the national scene, shortly after being mentioned as a presidential possibility in an analysis by the British publication The Economist at the end of 2020. She is the daughter of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro—the newspaper director/national political hero assassinated on January 10, 1978, on dictator Somoza’s orders—and his widow Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who defeated Ortega in the 1990 presidential election.
Very soon, Cristiana's name took off with the popular sectors. Her determination and certainty—“I’m confident that together we can repeat what we did in 1990. I am sure that together we can beat Ortega”—instilled hope of an electoral triumph in many people.
In the February 2 issue of La Prensa, under the headline “Yes to Nicaragua,” Cristiana Chamorro wrote: “Today we must achieve the consensus of all social, political and economic forces, along with the large majority of the population that is not organized, to unite the country and defeat Ortega…. In my case, I do it as the daughter of a woman, Violeta B. de Chamorro, who bravely and unhesitatingly said ‘Yes’ to Nicaragua, when she was most needed to achieve the unity of the opposition. It’s a step I’m taking thinking of thousands of mothers who only want a better future for their children. I say ‘Yes’ to Nicaragua keeping in mind the most vulnerable sectors that urgently need decent work and the many victims of violence, the “Mothers of April,” who suffer the impunity of the justice system, in the same way my family suffered it after my father was killed.”
With “good will”
Spurred by the urgency of the electoral calendar, radio entrepreneur Fabio Gadea and academic Carlos Tünnermann, two respected octogenarians from opposing sides of the political spectrum, joined forces on January 26. They offered to head a “good will commission” with the clear purpose of finally achieving the union of all opposition efforts, starting with a unifying leadership.
In the 1980s, Gadea worked for the counterrevolution and Tünnermann was a minister in the revolutionary government. With no personal aspirations, both are now putting themselves forward for the unifying effort. They are not lone voices crying in the wilderness; they are responding to a huge popular desire with a novel solution that can hopefully cut through the ideological barriers, egotisms, inexperience, frustrations and confusions. Moreover, they have a good team of advisers, communicators and technical experts.
They have already received the backing of all the disunited groups for the task of meeting with everyone, particularly those who have already stepped forward as presidential hopefuls. The idea is to use surveys, meetings and debates to select someone who everybody will support and can assume the leadership to promote a single and solid united platform to run against Ortega.
Finding that ticket is urgent
The good will commission “is putting the horse back before the cart.” Ever since 2018, the multiple representatives of the blue and white opposition have spun their wheels debating visions and positions. While it is a healthy and important new democratic experience in Nicaragua, time has flown by with insufficient focus on pragmatic necessities. In the difficult circumstances in which these elections are being prepared thanks to both the regime’s repression and the opposition’s disunity, the national population and even the international community are insistently pushing for one ticket that can then hammer out a government program. Having a single identifiable leadership would both reassure the population’s heartfelt need for unity and provide the international community with only one valid interlocutor to talk to.
The Commission is convinced that defining that one ticket, that partnership, with the full consensus of all the others, would encourage people to go out and vote. Their proposal was to choose the presidential and vice-presidential candidates by a consensual mechanism, sidestepping further divisive competition. They also proposed reaching agreement on procedures to select the 90 candidates and their alternates for national and departmental National Assembly representatives and their alternates.
A like-minded project in the US
In the United States, more than 400,000 people from the Nicaraguan diaspora have organized into what they call the “Nica-USA Connection.” Nicaraguan sports hero Dennis Martinez, a now-retired Major League pitching star who lives in the US, is the Connection’s honorary president. He wants to apply his prestige, popularity and well-known “good will” to the same end as the new commission: to achieve a unique platform with consensual candidates who attract people and pull votes.
Martínez has been calling for unity for months, with a brief weekly text published in La Prensa, Nicaragua’s daily newspaper. His willingness to help find a way out of the crisis has been persistent and growing since April 2018. “When I played, the people supported me and were behind each of my victories. The least I can do now is give my voice to my country, which wants a change and is tired of living without freedom.”
“A complicated and decisive season for Nicaragua’s present and future is coming,” wrote Martínez. “A World Series cannot be won without preparation, nor can a country be changed overnight and by improvising… The people of Nicaragua must not lose their perspective this year. There are many potholes in the road we are travelling on: the pandemic, the repression, the political prisoners, the economic crisis, the insecurity… The youth rose up in 2018 demanding a change in the system…The rival is not fair and wants to avoid people organizing at all costs, but that doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel. We must be prepared for everything. If we blink, we could lose our World Series… This year, when they shout ‘play ball,’ we must all be united.”
The Nica-USA Connection is made up of 11 organizations of Nicaraguans who advocate democracy in their native country. Freedom Coalition, chaired by Rosalia Miller, is one. “We live in Washington,” she says, “and we have developed very strong ties with the OAS, the State Department, the White House, Congress and other institutions that want us to keep them informed of what is happening in Nicaragua. Some of our members have testified in Congress and at the OAS. All 11 organizations are working on this on a daily basis.”
Dennis Martínez pitching
for absentee voter rights
Nicaraguans in the United States and other countries—some 700,000 in total—are demanding the right to vote abroad. That right that already exists in almost all Latin American countries, but has proved impossible to obtain in Nicaragua, this year included as Ortega knows that a good majority would vote against him.
“We deserve that right because of what we contribute to the country,” argues Dennis Martinez. Nicaragua receives US$1.7 billion in remittances from the United States annually, a high percentage of the national GDP.
March and May deadliness
In order to achieve the enormous challenge of getting the blue and white opposition to agree on the presidential ticket and all the legislative candidates, the good will commission set a deadline of the end of March. For its part, the OAS has set May as the deadline for Ortega to negotiate acceptable electoral reforms.
Both deadlines are coming up fast and are interconnected. If Ortega promotes an electoral farce by refusing to make substantive reforms by May or commits fraud in November, his government will be declared illegitimate. “For the first time since he returned to government, he is facing the possibility of being illegitimate in origin, of not being recognized internationally. Having a flawed process may end up burying the dictatorship,” noted Roberto Courtney, director of Ethics and Transparency, a Nicaraguan organization specialized in electoral observation. And if it is declared illegitimate, the next step could be to organize a government in exile claiming international recognition, which would be presided over by those who ran against the Ortega-Murillo ticket.
November may be a new moment
The October 2020 issue of envío contains a Speaking Out article by Ernesto Medina, another possible but unannounced presidential candidate, titled “It’s time to be clear: Without unity we won’t defeat Ortega.” It was written shortly before he resigned as a leader of the Civic Alliance because he opposed it leaving the National Coalition to join the CxL, which he viewed as ideologically excluding and therefore divisive. Medina insisted that “…the elections will be a very important moment. And I say we participate, even under the most difficult conditions. If we manage to keep the organization in the territories alive, keep people’s anger alive, and convince people to go vote, a massive fraud will be hard to cover up…. I believe it’s a mistake to start saying we’re not going to participate, that if Ortega denies us the conditions, we won’t go. Who thinks Ortega is going to give us ideal conditions? However, knowing that most of the people are angry and want a change, elections will be the moment to show it. What we have to do is demonstrate that Ortega committed a blatant fraud again.”
If that happens, the die will yet to be cast.