The pieces are starting to fall into place for the election race
Nicaragua’s ruling couple knows it will be
voted out of office if the elections are free and fair.
And under the current rules, which are anything but that,
the blue and white opposition knows its only shot at winning
is by uniting around a single candidate with a massive turnout.
With only six months and counting before election day,
each side is still putting pieces into place.
We are fast approaching the crucial month of May, set in a resolution by the Organization of American States (OAS) last October as the deadline by which seven “concrete electoral reform commitments… [must] be in place.” The resolution urged the Ortega regime to address these essential measures in a manner “consistent with applicable international standards” in “inclusive and timely negotiations” with “national actors representing the Nicaraguan opposition….”
On March 22, in its 46th session, the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a statement buttressing the OAS deadline, urging the Nicaraguan government to implement electoral reforms that “guarantee free, fair, transparent, equitable and credible elections,” including national and international observation. It added that such elections “are essential for a peaceful and democratic solution to the human rights crisis in Nicaragua.” The details of that crisis, set out in an extensive document by the Council resolution, proved enough to gain the support of Mexico and Argentina, both of which had previously taken a passive position on the Nicaraguan issue.
It should be noted that the Council session on Nicaragua took place after the US government rejoined that forum, abandoned by former President Trump. In contrast, the Biden administration has announced that its participation in multilateral spaces will guide its foreign policy.
The electoral reforms
aren’t “in place”
A few months ago, a source linked to the governing party confided to the Nicaraguan digital current affairs publication Confidencial that last October, just before the OAS resolution, President Ortega and his wife, Vice President Murillo, had ordered Supreme Court justices to prepare a proposal for “technical” electoral reforms.
Former Liberal Wilfredo Navarro, now on the Sandinista legislator bench, recently announced that the reforms are “ready,” deal with “eminently technical and procedural” issues and will be “within the framework of the Memorandum of Understanding with the OAS.” That memorandum, signed by the regime and the OAS way back in February 2017, lists 14 points to “perfect” the electoral system. Whether any of these points would lead to the “substantive” reforms the opposition hopes for would depend on their interpretation.
Meanwhile, there’s still no sign of the government proposal. In March, members of the independent Electoral Reforms Group (GPRE), which has been working on an opposition proposal that enjoys broad consensus, asked those in charge of Nicaragua’s case at the OAS if its dialogue with the regime has made any headway. “Nothing relevant,” they were told.
The electoral branch’s powers
and the minimal conditions
Time is running out. Given the absence of willingness and information from the regime on electoral reforms, GPRE members Bonifacio Miranda and Gabriel Álvarez, both jurists, insist that it is essential to restructure the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), currently made up of no fewer than 16 magistrates, all under Ortega's control and with “too many powers.” Miranda cites the fact there is no legal recourse against the CSE resolutions, “So, if in November there are challenges alleging electoral fraud, they will have the only word.” Álvarez adds a second substantive reform: updating, cleaning and auditing the electoral roll, as there are currently four versions, all decided by the CSE.
Electoral expert José Antonio Peraza, also a GPRE member, lists two other conditions he considers essential to deciding whether or not the opposition should participate in the November elections: “Number one is the presence of national and international observers and the other is the presence of opposition monitors in all voting centers.”
The government is responsible for inviting international observers, through the Foreign Ministry, and must do so at least six months before the elections, i.e. in May or the first week of June at the latest. “If after June the observers have not yet arrived, we are already in trouble,” says Peraza. The European Union has said it expects to be invited.
Whether officially invited or not, national observation will be guaranteed by the experienced team of Ethics and Transparency (EyT), created as an electoral observation organization in 1996. It has already announced that it will work with national donations to avoid control by the recently approved law on foreign agents, which targets any recipient of foreign funds for its programs.
Ortega reportedly said in the October 2020 meeting with his Supreme Court justices that inviting international observers “will be decided at another time.” They were invited for the November 2011 presidential elections, but the Ortega government redefined the regulations governing their activities, considering them “accompaniers” and limiting their functions. As a result, the European Union and the OAS arrived after negotiations in which they succeeded in getting permission for their teams to observe at least something, while the Carter Center was forbidden even to come. Despite the limitations, the report published by the EU mission—which couldn’t arrive before October, only a month before the voting—revealed something of the level of the electoral system’s collapse (see its full text in the November 2011 issue of envío). In 2016 Ortega called the international observers “shameless,” and only government-friendly “accompaniers” were invited. Nor was EyT permitted to observe, though its thousands of volunteers did so informally, reporting on cell phones what they were seeing where they went to vote.
“We’re not going to whitewash a fraud”
As demonstrated by the UN Human Rights Council resolution, the international community is beginning to devote more attention to the upcoming elections. On March 15, a delegation of Nicaragua’s National Coalition participated in a virtual meeting with members of the European Parliament (MEP) who have closely followed Nicaragua’s crisis.
“A great fraud is underway in Nicaragua in answer to a great opportunity for Nicaraguans to peacefully resolve the political crisis that has already gone on for three years and rather than being resolved has only worsened,” Dora María Téllez told the Europeans. She explained that even in this election year “the fraud consists of disabling the opposition's capacity to organize, mobilize and express itself…. The regime is using the time it has gained by tethering the opposition to prepare its forces.”
Téllez is a leader of what was until recently called the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), a 1995 split from the now-governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Like many other opposition parties, the MRS was deprived of its party status by the Ortega government in 2008, but maintained its cohesion and functioned as an activist social organization. It joined the National Blue and White Union (UNAB), created in late 2018, which in turn co-founded the National Coalition in early 2020. This January, the MRS changed its name to UNAMOS, an acronym that translates to “Let’s unite.”
The European parliamentarians of different political persuasions listened attentively to several Coalition leaders and promised to support the Nicaraguan people. “Our message is clear and unequivocal: we will not whitewash electoral fraud if the conditions are not met for democratic and free elections in which all the opposition has every opportunity to participate freely,” said Soraya Rodríguez, MEP from the Spanish center-right Citizens party. All parliamentarians also voiced a clear recommendation that the opposition participate in the elections as a single unified group.
The regime’ “forces”
The ruling couple’s “forces” are based on a beefed-up repressive police apparatus in charge of controlling the streets and keeping the “blue and white” opposition under siege. The term “blue and white” was adopted in 2018 to distinguish the hundreds of thousands of citizens who spontaneously took to the streets in April and May of that year to march in protest at the regime’s excessive violence against youths and elderly people who had demonstrated against its imposed social security reforms. Police and paramilitaries were then ordered to turn the violence on those massive and peaceful marches, which only further outraged and united the population. People who had never before taken a stand helped youths build and protect roadblocks in productive parts of the country and put up self-defense barricades in urban neighborhoods. Protesters, bystanders, even children and babies were killed. The activists of those months carried no party colors, only the blue and white of the national flag, and chanted virtually no other demand than that Ortega and Murillo leave.
Today’s police repression is combined with continuous mobilization of the ruling couple’s base, organized into Electoral Victory Units (UVEs). The UVEs have a free hand to act in neighborhoods and municipalities in coordination with the police and political secretaries, visiting families, organizing festive or political vents, handing out gifts... In some communities, the UVEs also receive lectures on the electoral process and talks on the ruling FSLN’s “democratic history” to familiarize the younger ones with its “heroic actions”: the guerrilla warfare of the 1970s against the Somoza dictatorship’s National Guard, the revolution of the 1980s and its governing “from below” strategy in the 1990s, a period about which Ortega has begun to speak more frequently. Doing so is a threatening reminder of what would lay ahead should anyone actually beat him at the polls.
Formerly a task for what were once called “electoral commandos,” it now falls to the UVEs to categorize how each household will likely vote in each voting center throughout the country, classifying them as safe, opposed or undecided. The UVEs must then direct their efforts to attract the latter group. In addition to these activities in the neighborhoods, tens of thousands of public employees and their families are being pressured and/or enticed by resources from state institutions to campaign on behalf of Ortega's eighth election run (so far he has been successful in four out of seven).
With the erosion the FSLN has experienced since April 2018, this frenetic activism has taken on a distinct intimidating edge toward the population that doesn’t support them, particularly those who once defined themselves as Sandinistas but “turned against them” in April 2018 and today are seen as trying to “dissimulate” because they are no longer in the “safe” group. In point of fact, the FSLN leadership has always borne greater malice toward those thousands who have left the party over the decades in opposition to what they saw as the irreparable sullying of its origins, values and principles.
Still no single opposition candidate
Although the opposition is still divided, several possible presidential candidates have been floated since the beginning of the year. Nicaraguan political culture tends to need the “saint at the head of the procession” before knowing the conditions under which the pilgrimage will head out and whether or not to join….
Eight presidential pre-candidates have been proposed so far, five of them by member organizations of the National Coalition bloc: economist Felix Maradiaga by UNAB; journalist Miguel Mora by the Evangelical-based Democratic Restoration Party (PRD); former National Resistance leader Luis Fley by the Resistance Party; peasant leader Medardo Mairena by the Campesino Movement; and tourism and intercultural citizenship expert George Henríquez by the Caribbean Coast regional indigenous party Yatama. Only one of these five—the PRD—is a political party with national legal status and thus a slot on the ballot.
Two presidential hopefuls have approached the Civic Alliance bloc: economist and Civic Alliance member Juan Sebastián Chamorro, and professor Arturo Cruz. This bloc also has one political party with legal status: Citizens for Liberty (CxL).
The only female candidate is journalist Cristiana Chamorro. She belongs to neither bloc and has reiterated that she aspires to be the candidate of what she has named the National Alliance: a reunification of both blocs.
All pre-candidates except Cruz have signed a document titled “Nicaragua Unity First,” thereby assuming two commitments: to submit to a democratic process to select one of them as the only candidate, and to support whoever is selected.
This document was presented to them by the “Good Will Commission,” created in January to work for the unification of the opposition. Chaired by professor Carlos Tünnermann and radio entrepreneur Fabio Gadea, two prestigious octogenarian personalities with no political ambitions, they were joined by another revered Nicaraguan: US Major League star pitcher Dennis Martinez, now retired and living in the United States, and with close ties to the Nicaraguan diaspora. Their contributions have been an important complement.
In his Monday columns in the Nicaraguan daily newspaper La Prensa, Martinez commented that they have met with the two opposition blocs, the Civic Alliance and the National Coalition. “I have been left with the feeling,” he writes, “that they all seek the same thing: to liberate the nation in a democratic way.” He says he sees the Alliance as “well structured” and “I had the impression that there are more grassroots people involved in the Coalition.” He concluded that “they would be a good duo because they complement each other.”
What the polls say
The results of a CID-Gallup poll, conducted by telephone between January 10 and 25 with 1,200 people, many of whom surely had to overcome their fear of answering, were released in February. The FSLN achieved 25% of sympathies while 62% said they did not sympathize with any party or either of the two opposition blocs. These figures are within the same range of responses of all surveys by the same firm for the past year or so.
In early March, La Prensa reported that international experts from both the CID Gallup and Borge y Asociados polling firms were conducting macro-surveys on pre-candidate preferences. The newspaper warned that it was not known who is financing these surveys. On March 19, the results of CID Gallup’s third macro-survey of more than 3,000 people, conducted between January and February in 120 of the country’s 153 municipalities, were leaked to La Prensa. This one had been conducted in person, somehow circumventing the regime’s police control. Cristiana Chamorro was the candidate with the highest favorable opinion and the lowest unfavorable one, although her lead over the other pre-candidates was not substantial.
A social majority riddled with differences
The nearly two-thirds majority of Nicaragua’s population—which may be even higher—that didn’t express a preference is far from homogeneous in either its ideological tradition or its vision of life and of the country, nor does it have clearly defined and shared political preferences. Most are just warily waiting for November, united only by the urgent desire for things to change, both in the depressed economy and in the repressive and abusive political institutionality that leaves those who don’t support the dictatorship defenseless.
There are also generational and gender divisions, and, of course, conflicting interests among the businesspeople, student activists and otherwise uninvolved citizens who marched shoulder to shoulder in 2018. And as in everything human, there are very different emotions and experiences, existential differences that bear out Gandhi’s famous words: “violence is fear of the other’s ideals.”
After the social explosion of 2018, do the big and powerful agro-exporters view the country the same way as the peasant farmers who risked their lives to set up highway roadblocks during those first months? Do the parents who pawned everything to send their children to public universities only to see them expelled for participating in the protests see life with the same eyes as those who sent theirs to study in Europe or the United States? And after the regime killed people during the April and May mobilizations and then perpetrated massacres during the government’s Operation Clean-up in July and August, do the families with murdered children see Nicaragua’s future the same way as those whose children are still alive?
Nicaragua was a profoundly unequal country before April 2018 and continues to be, with yawning class gaps between those who have almost everything and those who unsuccessfully aspire to the basics; those who have plenty of something as essential as water, even a swimming pool, and those who walk leagues just to get questionably safe drinking water....
While none of these gaps were seen in the streets in 2018, they inevitably appeared in the ensuing effort to organize opposition to the dictatorship for the longer term, to jointly construct the complex road currently leading us to the polls.
On the plus side…
Although the end of that road is uncertain, the bottom line of its chaotic construction is much more positive than negative. Before that April, nobody could have imagined the drastic change we have lived through, one that has not been without blood and pain. For the first time a peasant farmer, Medardo Mairena, says he is a presidential pre-candidate and we must listen to him. For the first time a black Creole man from the Caribbean Coast, George Henríquez, appears in public spaces alongside experienced politicians to affirm that he is running “to highlight the racism that exists in Nicaragua.” And for the umpteenth time, both organized and unorganized women are rightfully demanding recognition of their right to decide about their own lives and about the country because they have amply demonstrated their capacity for resistance, commitment and participation.
In 2018 the dynastic project of Ortega and Murillo was defeated in the streets through the effort and determination of that majority. Its defeat at the ballot box this November is another, infinitely more complex type of effort.
Simplifying things, the regime—with the many weapons and resources at its disposal—is up against the business class, the political class and the social movements, each with its contributions and its baggage. The business class has the resources and the “memory” of its recent privileged agreement with the regime. The political class has the ballot slots and the weight of the pacts and agreements of traditional politics. And the social movements have neither resources nor direct access to the ballot, but they do have grassroots experiences, ideas and visions for building a new country not only in the institutional sphere, but also in the environmental sphere and the world of human relations.
A symbol of anti-abstention
April 2018 achieved something unprecedented: with all their differences, Nicaragua’s various sectors came together in the streets, roadblocks and barricades, the multi-sector negotiations with the government and in social media exchanges. Sons and daughters of contra families and Sandinista families got to know each other at the barricades and began to understand each other. The next step—unifying around a single candidate to fully represent this diverse majority—is now an enormous and unprecedented challenge.
So far, both published and unpublished polls are showing that Cristiana Chamorro is starting with the most solid “floor.” Likewise, the “ceiling” she could reach seems to be the highest. On January 11, when she announced her willingness to “serve Nicaragua” as a presidential candidate, the news immediately ignited hopes in sectors of all three groups—UNAB, Civic Alliance and the National Coalition—that had been worn down by police control and the daily struggle for survival, not to mention the exhausting struggle for the elusive unity.
Many people perceived that the daughter of martyred opponent of the Somoza dictatorship Pedro Joaquín Chamorro and former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro “guaranteed” a change. They felt she would be able to re-enact in 2021 her mother’s electoral defeat of the powerful FSLN government presided by Daniel Ortega in 1990. Cristiana immediately became a potent anti-abstention symbol.
Many said they would turn out to vote for her in November, encouraged that history could repeat itself. Others saw her as a factor of unity because of her father’s legacy of working tirelessly for unity among the divided opposition to Somoza, while his assassination in January 1978 sealed the Somoza regime’s fate. Still others applauded Cristiana's decision because her participation ensures a “big global media story” that would translate into closer scrutiny by the international community of Ortega’s anticipated fraudulent maneuvers. They would thus come at a much higher cost than if Ortega were to attempt them against any other candidate.
The abusive epithets the Vice President hurled for days against Cristiana, her mother's government (“mediocre,” “miserable,” “vulgar,” “unpardonable by God”), her family and her last name (“infamous,” “perverse,” “insignificant,” “murderers,” “destroyers”) only served to reveal the regime’s fear of a repeat of 1990 with her candidacy.
Will Cristiana Chamorro convince the new generation that led the feat of April 2018 but didn’t experience her mother's achievement and for whom her father is a legend almost as distant as the country’s independence heroes? Will she convince the young people whose concern for the environment inspired them to demonstrate in defense of the Indio Maíz reserve right before joining April's protests against the social security reforms? Will she, for example, appeal to Ulises Rivas, an anti-mining activist from Chontales who now heads the Nica gay and lesbian community in Costa Rica, where he had to take exile? There are so many young people with similar profiles among April’s rebellious youth. Will any of the pre-candidates floated so far appeal to them?
Three others who had thrown their hat into the ring by that time (Mora, Maradiaga and Juan Sebastián Chamorro) appealed to certain sectors by declaring themselves unequivocally “pro-life” (opposed to restoring even therapeutic abortion) and against same-sex marriage. Cristiana only said “these are important issues that must be brought to the dialogue table and to consensus. At this moment and in the first years we have to focus on the issues that unite rather than separate us. We must not make these a campaign issue.”
Brutal realism: Cohabitation
By origin and history, Cristiana is close to the business class and some of its traditional values. Was she their candidate? It would seem not. When she appeared on the scene as someone with a possibility of beating Ortega, fissures surfaced that have always existed between the big business “advisers” of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) and many of the business associations in that umbrella organization. The business elite those advisers are part of began to push the idea that the only solution is to accept Ortega as the “devil we know,” and cut some deal with him as he is the only one who can guarantee stability and profits.
The first to unveil this thesis within Nicaragua was retired Army General Humberto Ortega, who in recent years, particularly since April 2018, has been an occasional public critic of his brother’s anti-democratic rule. On February 17, La Prensa published a piece by him titled “Cohabitation or chaos,” in which this now wealthy businessman posits as “indispensable” a “National Agreement of Democratic Cohabitation” with Daniel Ortega. In neither this argument nor that of the COSEP advisers is it clear whether this plea for stability implies accepting an Ortega victory or negotiating an attractive “soft landing” if that would dissuade from creating chaos. In any event, the message evokes memories in those old enough to recall the years after 1990 in which Ortega and his close allies governed “from below,” maintaining significant quotas of power for the exclusive benefit of the party elite through top-level negotiations and mobilizing the loyal party base at the street level, paralyzing the already devastated economy.
A more precise and clearer version is provided in an article published only days earlier by US professor of international political economy Richard Feinberg, a former State Department official who has followed Nicaragua closely for years. His text, “The uses of sanctions in foreign policy: Nicaragua’s elections 2021,” in the Wilson Center's Latin American Program, underscores that “if the opposition, currently fractured along generational and party lines, can unite behind a single attractive candidate, victory might just be within reach. In that eventuality, Feinberg warns, Ortega will fear to step down and face the possibility of jail for himself, his family and close associates and the expropriation of their ill-gotten financial gains.” His point is that “should Ortega demand a golden parachute, the international community and Nicaraguans will have to decide just how far to bend principles of accountability to guarantee a smooth transition of power.”
On March 1, Humberto Belli, the rightwing minister of education in Violeta Chamorro’s administration, also took up the subject in a La Prensa piece he titled “Brutal Realism.” In it he offered the reader three scenarios: fall like Venezuela into a generalized situation of “hardship and isolation”; return to war; or a “modus vivendi of coexistence.” Belli’s considered opinion is that “coexistence” is the lesser of the evils.
“The candidate of the hour”
The following day Arturo Cruz put himself forward as a pre-candidate, implying with no subtlety that he would be the architect of coexistence with Ortega and would prevent chaos. “I am the candidate of the hour,” he proclaimed in a televised interview a day later. “And at this moment what Nicaraguans want is peace of mind.”
Cruz, a 58-year-old historian, was ambassador to the US for the first two years of Ortega's third term as President (2007-2008). One of the country’s few nuanced, academic-sounding defenders of the Ortega regime, he coined the term “responsible populism” to describe its model until the April 2018 rebellion. He defended the regime’s increasingly authoritarian control with the contradictory argument that “we run the risk of losing possible governability by ‘forcing’ the desired institutionality.” Also to his discredit, Cruz supported Ortega’s alleged interoceanic canal project through Nicaragua. He is unknown to the majority of the population beyond the limited circles of urban educated elite.
“It’s not about just wiping
the slate clean and starting fresh”
Before Arturo Cruz put his candidacy forward with such pompous fanfare, the strategy of the business class as a whole appeared to be working to build a unitary platform with Cristiana Chamorro as the presidential candidate, ensuring massive voter turnout and the defeat of Ortega and Murillo.
The unification of the opposition around her candidacy and a massive turnout of voters in November would create “a new political moment,” giving the international community that favors democracy in Nicaragua a powerful argument for preventing or declaring illegitimate any attempts at fraud.
Did the entire business sector shift to backing Cruz? Mario Arana, a business sector representative in the Civic Alliance, said the following after listening to him: “Something serious happened in Nicaragua that we must face. It’s not about a simple clean slate. We will have to find mechanisms of coexistence, not by the imposition of some over others, but as a product of an honest process of recognizing mistakes and correcting them.”
Had concern about the consequences of an Ortega defeat deepened the fissure between the business associations and COSEP’s big capital “advisers” who feared that Ortega would govern “from below”? With Cruz's candidacy, was this sector opting for cohabitation with “brutal realism”? And, prioritizing its own interests, did it opt for the possibility of reaching a new corporate agreement with the regime over its defeat?
Does the business elite still believe that economic reactivation is possible in a country bereft of citizens' rights and with such an internationally discredited government? Does it believe Ortega still has the conditions to “govern from below” after the civic rebellion of April 2018? Has it not understood that the base, mystique and strength the FSLN still had in the 1990s have vanished with the passing of the years and the weight of its crimes?
Orteguismo without Ortega
Was Cruz’s move tactical or strategic? Combined with the warning by Gen. Ortega and the big business spokespeople, it certainly did seem to shift things for the world of big business. But since not everybody thinks like big businesspeople do, it also raised all manner of suspicions. On March 16, Fabio Gadea of the Good Will Commission voiced other points of view about Cruz’s maneuver in an opinion piece in La Prensa, which was also read out in its entirety on his own popular conservative station, Radio Corporación.
Gadea publicly expressed several of the doubts already making the rounds privately: “A brilliant academic, a man of great intelligence, he is not going to participate in such an adventure [the presidency] without having the “string tightly rolled around his spinning top.’ The ‘spinning top’ Cruz was prepared to play with is to head up an ‘Orteguismo without Ortega.’” Gadea even titled his piece with that same phrase, which alludes to late 1978, when the insurgent FSLN accused Nicaragua’s rightwing parties of conspiring with the US government to replace the teetering Somoza dictatorship with a “Somocismo without Somoza.” In this new iteration, according to Gadea, Cruz would be “the ideal candidate for the Ortega-Murillo government to continue functioning the same way with only slight changes.”
Cruz responded in an open letter to Gadea, stating that he is convinced “there will be a union of the opposition forces.” But for that to happen, he argued, “distrust and that scorpion in the shirt that has done so much damage to us as a society must be put aside. The only ‘coiled top’ we must refer to is the one this authoritarian regime is so afraid of, which is the Nicaraguan people voting massively on November 7.”
The dispute did not end in a standoff. Gadea’s enormous influence with traditional Liberal supporters, former anti-Sandinista resistance sectors and the rural population in general virtually disqualified Cruz as a potable candidate.
The “dignified exit”
Gadea’s frank but colorful writing had an even greater impact, encouraging other voices to speak out about the obstacles to the indispensable and urgent unification of the political opposition longed for by the blue and white majority and recommended by those in the international community that support a change in Nicaragua. As a result, his message motivated, even forced rapprochements and dialogues between unequal and diverse people.
In that sea of reactions, Cristiana Chamorro also spoke out, building bridges between the National Coalition and the Civic Alliance, suggesting meetings to better understand each other's conditions, although she did not remain neutral. She endorsed CxL, saying it had a “key slot.” “I am sure that together we are going to beat Ortega,” she said.
She also referred to her experience in her mother’s government, in which her late husband Antonio Lacayo was minister of the presidency. “We learned what it is to be statesmen... I was part of that team, in which we were able to rebuild Nicaragua and give the adversary a dignified exit, as we would do again now.”
Due to its ambiguity, this last phrase provoked rejection and many questions about the scope of its meaning. How different is it from “democratic cohabitation”? The fact is that the concessions negotiated in 1990 by Chamorro’s team with the outgoing Ortega government, above all recognizing it didn’t have the power to oust Gen. Ortega from his position as head of the Army before the end of his term, infuriated the US government and provoked the far-right parties to leave the UNO Coalition.
“Dignity doesn’t mean impunity,” was her response the following day in a tweet. “We cannot act like Ortega, because if we do we become like him. I am sure we will achieve unity and victory in favor of truth and justice.” Later, in an interview for the digital publication Divergentes, she declared her support for the transitional justice model.
In a country with a history of more than 50 amnesty laws, a tendency to “wipe the slate clean” and “forgive and forget,” and the blood of April 2018 still so fresh in people’s minds, even the thought of a “dignified” exit for Ortega left a bad taste with important sectors of the blue and white majority.
The unity of the 1990 elections
The November 7, 2021, elections have continually been compared with those of February 25, 1990, looking for similarities and differences. José Pallais, a former Liberal lawmaker and foreign minister who was also Violeta Chamorro’s campaign chief in the neighboring departments of León and Chinandega and is currently a leader of the National Coalition, spoke to the Internet program “Café con Voz” about the opposition to the FSLN in 1990.
“Very few people were organized in [the opposition] parties at that time,” he recalled, “and none of the 14 parties of the UNO [National Opposition Union] had structures to defend the vote. But when people saw us all united, they came forward and in less than four months we were able to form a large, voluntary, disciplined electoral group. The discussion of ‘who has more members’ is a false issue. What we must have is the capacity to mobilize people. And we can achieve it through the example of unity.”
Pallais also discussed the most important difference he sees between what happened in 1990 and what’s happening today: “We were united by the conviction that there was no future with Ortega, that the country was in such a situation of deterioration that there was nothing left but to win in order to change things. Nobody thought then, as some do now, that they would gain more with Ortega remaining in power. It wasn’t because politicians were purer or more ethical at that time, but because Ortega had put an end to all private businesses, impoverished everyone and confiscated everything. No one had any interests to protect. Everyone saw that only by getting out from under Ortega was there a chance for the country to start producing again. Today, despite three years of recession, there are some who unfortunately think it’s risky to cut free of Ortega. They think that Ortega governing ‘from below’ could do them a lot of harm. And that’s leading some to think it’s better for Ortega to stay in office so he doesn’t do any damage. Only a minority thinks this way, but it’s a minority with influence. And all Nicaraguans of good will have to know how to identify where it is and remove and overcome it.”
This “minority with influence” has been identified. It is the one that added Arturo Cruz's name to the lineup.
The Civic Alliance’s pre-candidate Juan Sebastián Chamorro rightly noted that a major stumbling block in the opposition unification talks was the issue of who would make it onto the list of National Assembly candidates.
Of the 90 directly-elected legislative representatives, 70 are elected on a proportional basis by voters in the country's 15 departments and 2 autonomous regions, while 20 are chosen by all voters as national representatives. In addition, each representative has an alternate. Moreover, Nicaragua has 10 representatives and their respective alternates in the useless and costly Central American Parliament. Naturally, if the two opposition platforms are unified, there will only be room for half the number of coveted candidate slots.
Juan Sebastián Chamorro used a magnificent example to explain the disunity this caused: “When we were kids, we used to play musical chairs at the piñata parties. We would dance to the music and run to sit down when it stopped, leaving one kid out. Something like that is happening to us now. There are too many contenders for Assembly chairs and not enough chairs for all of them. That's the essence of the problem that’s preventing conversations. Each bloc wants to get a greater or at least equal number of chairs to what it would get if it ran alone.”
He urged everyone to abandon the musical chairs dance, concluding that “we must share the certainty that unity will guarantee us more National Assembly seats overall.” In fact, defeating Ortega means winning not only the presidency but also hopefully the legislative branch by obtaining a qualified majority in the National Assembly. This is the only way to gradually reverse the dictatorial institutionality Ortega built up in these 15 years.
“Let’s talk about an
option and hope we’re it”
The “chairs” aren’t the only obstacle to unity, although they are certainly one of the problems with the political changes caused by the April rebellion. Another is the exponential growth of government opponents throughout the country that are independent of the political parties.
Still another that is complicating the unification of the opposition platforms is the baggage of multiple differences and interests of each sector. Nonetheless, they are all becoming increasingly convinced that unification is the only way of defeating Ortega and initiating the difficult and long political and economic transition process. Albeit with their different pros and cons, everyone recognizes a unified opposition is better shielded against the ruling couple’s dictatorial whims.
In the case of the CxL, whose ballot slot is almost certain to be occupied by a unified opposition, its leader, Kitty Monterrey, was uncharacteristically conciliatory and non-exclusionary in an interview with Confidencial on March 21: “Let’s not talk about two big blocs, let’s talk about a [ballot] option. That choice has to be made, and we hope it will be us.” Regarding the decision over whether or not to run in the elections based on the electoral reforms and conditions, she was also in favor of unity: “We aren’t going to make decisions alone. The time has come to make a decision for the country and we Nicaraguans all have to make it.”
And Washington …?
What José Pallais didn’t mention when evoking the dynamic in 1990 was that at that time our country was still caught in a bloody civil war that had drained the economy, in which neither side had been able to defeat the other and both were being financed by powerful international enemies in the longstanding Cold War. By 1990, the USSR was falling apart and could no longer support the revolution. And the United States, emboldened by the fall of the Berlin Wall, saw no point in continuing to finance the counterrevolutionary side. It did nothing to contribute to the regional peace negotiations the Nicaraguan government had been involved in for two years, but it did openly support and even illegally finance the UNO campaign, whose presidential candidate was Violeta Chamorro.
These are different times. Today, the Biden administration is very busy responding to the enormous international and national challenges inherited from the Trump years, including the human and economic disasters caused by the coronavirus pandemic. How much time and energy does it have to devote to the multifaceted debate about how to deal with insignificant Nicaragua?
These are the concluding paragraphs of the Wilson Center text in which Richard Feinberg mentions the need for a “golden parachute” for Ortega and offers this advice to Washington:
“US policymakers can also look beyond the 2021 election to urge Nicaraguans to negotiate a post-election modus vivendi among themselves. No future government will succeed without some cooperation from the opposition. Should Ortega remain in power, he will need private business to invest. Should the opposition triumph, it will need the well-organized Sandinistas to accept some consensual rules of the game. This new social compact might also lessen fears that winners would crush losers.
“These are the tough trade-offs that make diplomacy a demanding profession. Accepting its limited leverage, the U.S. government can ease sanctions—re-opening development finance windows, lifting visa and economic penalties on cooperative individuals and their families—for sub-optimal outcomes. The US government can accept arrangements where Nicaraguans it dislikes nevertheless remain part of the country’s political landscape. Predictably there will be politicians on Capitol Hill ready to accuse the Biden administration of being ‘soft on socialism.’ But my hunch is that most Nicaraguans, schooled as they are in their own political history, will be more than happy to live with imperfect solutions.”
A mixed message from
the Southern Command?
On March 16 the Senate Armed Services Committee heard the annual posture statement on hemispheric security by the commanders of the Northern and Southern Commands. Reading the SouthCom’s statement was Admiral Craig S. Faller, who opened by identifying “with now more than ever a sense of urgency” China and transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) as “two of the most significant threats.” He also hammered on Venezuela, aided by China, Russia and Iran. Asked by the committee chairman if the avalanche of people seeking to enter the United States in recent months suggests a failure of the US security policy toward Central America’s Northern Triangle, Faller praised the local “partners” (military) in the three countries (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras). He blamed the migrant flood on violence and corruption by the TCOs, pandemic-induced economic decline and the two powerful hurricanes that ripped through Central America last November. He virtually spared the governments of those countries any criticism for the violence and corruption driving the migrant wave and encouraged a continuation of the security assistance provided to them by the Obama government as a solution to the problem. Curiously, Nicaragua was absent from the verbal presentation, and thus also from the discussion.
Inexplicably, however, that verbal presentation bore virtually no resemblance to a written version of the same date found on the Committee’s own web page bearing the warning: FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY UNTIL RELEASED BY THE SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE. Since it was on the web page, it had presumably been released, not only to the public but also to the Committee members. Contrary to the version read at the hearing, this one singled out not only Venezuela but also Cuba and Nicaragua, defining them all equally as “malign regional state actors …that perpetuate corruption and challenge freedom and democracy by opening the door to ESAs [external state actors] and TCOs at the expense of their own people.”
Specifically with respect to Nicaragua, he noted that the crisis that began in April 2018 “still persists” and Ortega’s policies “have accentuated calls for him to resign.” He pointed to Managua’s close ties with Moscow and the forms of humanitarian assistance Russia provides Nicaragua as a “strategy to win over the Ortega government and counter the regional objectives of the United States.”
What Faller wrote about Nicaragua is nothing new, having previously been expressed by Congress members and State Department officials. But Nicaraguan military and security expert Roberto Cajina, only familiar with the written version, told envío he was surprised to read such a clear statement from “a high-ranking military officer… because in the United States there’s a principle that has usually prevailed: ‘the military speak to military issues and the politicians to politics.’” Cajina says this change could reflect a coherence of thought between the State Department and the Defense Department, which would indicate they are acting with one voice. He warns that the written statement is a political message, not a rhetorical one, addressed to the State Department and Congress, which decide Washington's foreign policy. Could this explain why there are two versions, one public and one that perhaps never should have been?
Cajina interprets Faller's written statement on Nicaragua as a serious warning to the Ortega-Murillo regime, which expected Biden to treat them better than Trump and even remove the sanctions imposed by Washington on the family and high officials, companies and institutions since 2018. It is common knowledge that the Southern Command prevented the Nicaraguan Army from being sanctioned more severely by the US in July 2020, assuring that the sanction only affected Army Chief Julio César Avilés.
The RENACER ACT:
Strengthening the NICA ACT
Any mixed message about Nicaragua was cleared up by US Senator Bob Menéndez (D-N.J) on March 25, nine days after Faller's appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Menéndez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was joined by one other Republican and four Democratic senators in introducing a bill to the Senate titled “Reinforcing Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform Act of 2021’’ or the ‘‘RENACER Act.’’ The acronym conveniently means to be reborn in Spanish.
The bill reinforces all aspects of the Nica Act, passed with unusually strong bipartisan support in December 2018 following numerous revisions since it was first introduced in the House two years earlier. RENACER calls for specific pressures on those who obstruct “free and democratic” elections in Nicaragua and covers international lending and human rights violations, requiring reports on human rights violations by security forces in rural and indigenous communities. The initiative calls on the Biden administration to pay special attention to the Nicaraguan crisis, including it in Washington's concerns about the crises in Central America's Northern Triangle countries.
“The RENACER Act makes clear that the United States will not tolerate the rise of another dictator in our hemisphere,” said Sen. Menéndez. The bill, which is expected to receive unanimous Senate approval very soon, was introduced the day following a hearing on the state of democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean held by Menéndez’s committee in honor of the 20th anniversary of the InterAmerican Democratic Charter.
In the hearing, analyst Ryan C. Berg of the American Enterprise Institute recommended sanctioning the Nicaraguan Army for its participation in human rights violations. He mentioned the “quite lucrative” investment fund the Army has in the New York Stock Exchange, indicating that it could be affected in some way. He also suggested “reviewing” Nicaragua’s participation in DR-CAFTA, the free trade agreement between Central America, the Dominican Republic and the United States, presumably from, a punitive perspective.
Berg also explained the “chaotic” consequences for the Nicaraguan economy should the recent controversial reform to Nicaragua’s Consumer Defense Law, now popularly dubbed the law in “defense of those sanctioned,” be applied. The reform establishes that national banks must provide banking services or open accounts to relatives of Nicaraguans sanctioned by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). But if they do so, disobeying international norms, they could lose their correspondent relationship with the world banking system, thus affecting their ability to manage credit cards and receive remittances from abroad.
OFAC has sanctioned 27 senior Nicaraguan government officials and Ortega’s wife and three children so far. Senator Ben Cardin and Republican Senator Roger Wicker proposed a reform to the Global Magnitsky Act to extend sanctions to next of kin to prevent their use to evade the punitive effects of sanctions. As of the end of March, the reformed law that threatens the banking system has still not been applied. Ortega maintains it as a sword of Damocles hanging over bankers as the electoral process progresses, threatening them, for example, not to finance opposition political organizations or candidates.
What we’re still missing
Moving inexorably, but still with many uncertainties, toward the November elections on which so much rides, we are still hoping to celebrate much more constructive ability from the opposition, while at the same time expecting and fearing much more repressive irrationality from the regime.
Those of us who dream of a different Nicaragua recall Monsignor Romero’s dreams for a different El Salvador in those uncertain years of dictatorship and daily human rights violations in which he lived. In Lent 1979 he cried out for unity and demanded that “no one should play with the votes or with the dignity and freedom of the people.” And he encouraged the people to hope, to “overcome all the miseries and pains that surround us and, even if it is always walking in tribulation, not conforming and with a very high mind, let us create a great transfiguration in our society.”