|Central American University - UCA
Number 478 | Mayo 2021
On our way to the “worst election possible”
Daniel Ortega didn’t care a whit about appearances
as he began to play especially dirty in the high-stakes electoral game.
He didn’t even flinch when the head of the Organization of American States
bluntly stated that Nicaragua is heading toward “the worst election possible.”
Over the next eight days he pulled stunt after stunt, making “the worst” still worse.
Given that the opposition parties failed to close ranks even in the face of this,
the only possibility appears to be uniting around a single candidate.
Last October, the Organization of American States (OAS) issued a strongly worded resolution “urging” Nicaragua’s President Ortega to make seven specific reforms to the electoral system by this May to ensure at least “credible” general elections in November. The OAS and the international community in general have been banking on these elections to provide a way out of the human rights crisis into which the Ortega regime plunged Nicaragua in April 2018.
The May deadline came and went, and Ortega used the month to let it be known in no uncertain terms that he does not intend to engage in competitive elections, let alone lose. He made it abundantly clear he will stop at nothing to ensure he serves a fourth consecutive five-year term in the executive office.
In mid-May, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro pronounced Ortega’s election plans so “incredible” that Nicaragua was heading for “the worst elections possible.” A week later that assessment already seemed understated.
April 12: The government unveils
its electoral reform proposal
In April, after calculatedly dragging his feet, Ortega began to give one sign after another of his disregard for the international warnings and pressures related to the electoral process.
He took the first step on April 12 by sending his proposed Electoral Law reforms to the National Assembly, Nicaragua’s legislative body. While the reforms bore little resemblance to the OAS recommendations, Ortega was still exhibiting a modicum of interest in appearances at that point. He thus followed the protocol of inviting opposition parties to submit their criticisms and alternatives to the Assembly’s legislative commission, on which only governing party members sit. The parties were also invited to recommend candidates to replace outgoing magistrates on the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), Nicaragua’s fourth branch of government. The CSE’s “modernization and restructuring… to ensure it operates in a fully independent, transparent and accountable fashion” is the first of the seven OAS points.
As envío reported last month, the Citizens for Liberty (CxL) party and the Democratic Restoration Party (PRD), each representing a bloc of the blue and white opposition, presented the commission with extensive written observations, objections and proposals. The PRD also recommended ten people capable of independently assuming the electoral magistrate positions. The rest of the country’s 16 legal parties, all miniscule with the exception of the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), only appeared before the commission to support the official text.
May 4: Electoral Law “reformed”
and “new” electoral magistrates named
As expected, the National Assembly approved Ortega’s reforms with virtually no debate or substantive change, demonstrating that the consultation had been a mere formality to satisfy the OAS insistence on “inclusive and timely negotiations between the Government of Nicaragua and national actors representing the Nicaraguan opposition” on at least these “essential” measures.
The most problematic of the regime’s reforms was the incorporation into the Electoral Law of elements of the recently approved and highly criticized Foreign Agents Law and Sovereignty Law that disqualify parties and candidates on specious grounds. The equally recent Cyber Crimes Law, targeting the media, journalists and social networks, was added to the Code of Electoral Ethics.
Obviously on a roll, the regime appointed the seven CSE magistrates and their three alternates that same day. Six are FSLN militants and the other four were proposed by the tiny parties popularly derided as FSLN “satellites” because they always do its bidding. Even the most pessimistic observers had assumed at least one independent magistrate would be included, but May 4 was the day it became clear that Ortega was through coloring within the lines. The “new” CSE and its governing law stand as emblems of the regime’s unbridled abuse of power.
The new magistrates took office the very next day, and got down to work, formally announcing the election date, which should have been done in November 2020. They also published the electoral calendar, setting May 12 as the deadline for parties to register electoral alliances. In previous elections, the CSE allowed up to 70 days after the calendar was announced to register them. Giving only a week this time strained to the extreme the contradictions between the two opposition blocs: the National Coalition, whose political party with legal status is the PRD, and the Citizen’s Alliance, whose party equivalent is the CxL. Despite tremendous pressure on both blocs to unite in an electoral alliance behind a single presidential candidate, this has not happened over the past year and a half. What were the chances it would happen in seven more days?
The international reaction
was immediate and severe
Negative international reactions to the inadequate electoral reforms and the exclusively pro-government profile of the new CSE magistrate bench were quick to be expressed. The OAS led the charge on May 6 when its General Secretariat issued a statement recalling the seven-point 2020 resolution and concluding that the “reforms” and the election of these magistrates “clearly give the official party an absolute advantage in controlling electoral administration and justice, eliminating the necessary guarantees and minimal institutional credibility for the development of a free and fair electoral process….”
That same day the US State Department expressed its “deep concern” that the Ortega government had “rebuffed calls by its own citizens… to build confidence in the electoral process by passing meaningful reforms….” For its part, the European Union (EU) declared that the reforms “unfortunately” did not comply with the recommendations of its 2011 electoral observation mission (see envío November 2011 for the text of that report). The EU statement also mentioned Nicaragua’s non-compliance with recent observations by both the United Nations Human Rights Office and the OAS.
The United Kingdom released its own statement the following day, expressing concern that the electoral reform legislation “will deny the people of Nicaragua genuinely democratic, free and fair elections.” And on May 10, Canada joined in, expressing “extreme concern” about the way Ortega was preparing to play the electoral game.
Most of these statements listed similar specific concerns, summed up in this quote on the reform’s “multiple and serious shortcomings” by the UK: “it includes worrying provisions for excluding candidates from participation, gives the National Police inappropriate new powers to prohibit opposition party meetings and campaign events, fails to provide for timely and transparent reporting of results, and fails to provide for independent domestic or international election observation.”
May 12: The OAS Permanent
Council hears strong criticisms
The same day the OAS General Secretariat issued its warning that the new reform could not ensure credible elections, Secretary General Almagro requested that Nicaragua’s situation be discussed in the regular Permanent Council meeting scheduled for May 12. After so many OAS meetings to discuss our situation since 2018, and so many reports, resolutions and communiqués, Nicaragua’s population and even its political class took little notice of the announcement, especially as the meeting was the same day as the deadline for signing the electoral alliance that would unite the entire opposition. Would the unity decision happen or not?
As it turned out, the OAS meeting was important. In opening it, Almagro was clear and direct, and the Ortega government appeared more isolated than ever in the regional arena. Almagro opened the discussion by speaking of the “generalized impunity” in Nicaragua, and of a “bleak panorama” in which “the most serious thing is the lack of recognition of the State’s responsibilities.” He recalled the never-fulfilled memorandum of understanding signed by Ortega with the OAS in 2017 and lamented the recurrent non-compliance with what was agreed to, including the agreements of the 2019 Dialogue with the Civic Alliance, representing the blue and white opposition, in which the OAS acted as a witness.
Almagro then cited the regime’s new laws prohibiting the financing of parties and excluding candidates, affirming that “the government seems to be generating conditions that do not solve the crisis.” Regarding the electoral reform and the elected magistrates, he said they were decisions to prevent “anything that threatens an official defeat.” He wrapped up this litany with the tragic prognosis that became the headline in both national and international reports on the meeting: “Nicaragua is heading toward having the worst election possible.”
Antonia Urrejola, president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, then reiterated yet again the figures demonstrating the government’s massive human rights violations starting in April-July 2018 with the shooting to kill of young protesters, and continuing right up to today with a de facto police State that imposes intimidation, threats, raids, sieges, arrests, beatings, torture.... for anyone who dares to gather or protest in any public form.
The only “big” countries to speak were Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, the United States and Uruguay, and not surprisingly all were critical of Ortega’s actions.
Do the 24 votes exist yet?
In his speech, Almagro pointed out “the rupture of Nicaragua’s constitutional order,” a condition that could lead to the country’s expulsion from the OAS. Such a decision requires the votes of at least 24 of the 34 member States, the same number necessary to declare the November election results illegitimate. Almagro had mentioned both possibilities in October 2020 should Ortega fail to comply with the contents of that month’s resolution.
None of the regular or special OAS meetings that have analyzed Nicaragua’s crisis since April 2018 have achieved 24 votes to censure the Ortega regime in a binding manner. This time, however, it seemed as the brief session unfolded that the math might change.
Apart from the obvious votes of Nicaragua and Venezuela, the holdout votes before now have consistently been those of the Caribbean island nations that still enjoy Petrocaribe oil deals with Venezuela. This time, while the representative of St. Vincent & the Grenadines still openly supported the regime, the representative of St. Lucia said that “silence does not exempt us from responsibility,” alluding to the numerous Caribbean governments that typically hedged their bets by abstaining. He was followed by the representative of Antigua & Barbuda, speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), who also recognized the “responsibility” of this group of 15 small countries and dependencies for Nicaragua’s democratic future.
The explanation for this seeming shift may be the UK’s May 6 criticism of Ortega’s electoral reform. It was delivered specifically in the name of the Commonwealth of 54 former British colonies, 13 of which now are also both CARICOM and OAS members. Will they now shed their “silence” and embrace this newly expressed sense of responsibility? If so, it will be strategic, easily guaranteeing the 24 votes needed for the OAS to apply the Democratic Charter to Ortega or delegitimize the November 7 elections.
Six days in May to achieve
an impossible alliance
Meanwhile, back in Nicaragua, the deadline had arrived for the two Nicaraguan opposition blocs and their respective parties to hammer out what they had failed to achieve in a year—enough unity to commit to an electoral alliance and thus offer a single alternative to Ortega on the ballot.
Thanks to Ortega’s unilateral changes to the Constitution in 2014, the Nicaraguan electoral system no longer establishes a minimum percentage of votes to win the presidency, and thus eliminates the second-round run-off election many other countries with multi-party systems have. Since the winner is the candidate that gets at least one vote more than the next highest runner-up, Ortega has guaranteed himself an unbeatable advantage as long as at least two other parties run, and the more the merrier.
This has obviously put enormous pressure on the two political parties representing sizable opposition blocs—the CxL for the Citizens’ Alliance and the PRD for the National Coalition—to set aside their competitive instincts and unite around a single candidate and shared program.
With the “blue and white” population—those who share a determined opposition to Ortega but are not necessarily identified with any party—consistently polling at between 60% and 70% of the electorate, a single opposition candidate and a massive voter turnout could defeat Ortega or at least force him to attempt a fraud too big to hide. If, on the other hand, that social majority disperses its votes among several candidates or simply stays home out of frustration and despair, Ortega could be reelected without any need for fraud. His committed base ranges between 20% and 30% in all polls, but even when he was in the opposition between 1990 and 2006, he pulled between 38% and 42% in multi-party presidential elections.
The “categorical rejection” of Ortega’s electoral counter-reform shared by both the two opposition blocs and dozens of in-country and exiled blue and white groups and sectors led the population, worn down by Ortega’s repressive, controlling system, to hope that the CxL and the PRD would unite in an electoral alliance. It was a hope fed more by voluntarism than by evidence. Both parties arrived at the fatal May 12 deadline still too burdened by previous misunderstandings, mistrust and even possibly, in the CxL’s case, a different game plan.
Two blocs, two ways of operating
The latest CID Gallup survey shows the CxL with no more than 30%, while for some unexplained reason the Evangelical-based PRD was not even listed on the survey. Be that as it may, these were the only genuine opposition “vehicles” with a legal slot on the ballot and the possibility of uniting two very diverse groups of people organized in parties, social movements and sectors with different trajectories, convictions, prejudices and demographics. In a certain sense, the CxL-led Citizens’ Alliance and the National Coalition, whose party vehicle was the PRD, represent different ways of seeing and being in the world.
Nicaragua is also geographically fragmented, with deep economic and cultural inequalities exacerbated by gender and racial gaps. It is still a very rural society, with the countryside and cities only recently unified to some extent by the widespread use of digital technology. Unresolved and sometimes not even named fractures inform the tensions, differences and ideological biases that differentiate the two blocs.
The Citizens’ Alliance-CxL brings together rural and mid-level professional sectors, but its power base is Nicaragua’s economic and political elites who, although they are brand Liberals (in the classic European-Latin American sense of the term), they cling to many conservative views. Hence, they are highly regarded by the Catholic hierarchy. A common denominator of this group is an anti-Sandinista prejudice so deeply rooted it resists recognizing the difference between original Sandinista values and their abandonment by Ortega’s loyalists. This opposition platform is quite homogeneous around what it calls its “moral principles and values,” whether by tradition, conviction or double standards.
The participants in the National Coalition make up a much more heterogeneous and colorful group. They include the rural anti-Canal Campesino Movement, the Caribbean indigenous party Yatama, sectors of the fragmented Nicaraguan Resistance (formerly known as the Contra), and Liberals who years ago split from former President Alemán's Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) but didn’t end up in the CxL. The Blue and White National Unity (UNAB), the Coalition’s driving force, groups together middle sectors; the democratic Left and other very diverse social movements opposed to Ortega for many years; and also a broad swath of younger generations with democratic, pluralist, feminist and ecological proposals and demands who were in the front lines of the April rebellion.
Although the central contradiction in Nicaragua today, as in much of the world, is between dictatorship—or at best authoritarianism—and democracy, the CxL has been trying for months to establish an ideological face-off between what it defines as Right and Left, Liberal and Sandinista, even though many Sandinistas have long since separated from the FSLN and don’t see the Ortega family project as remotely leftist. Similarly, not all Liberals who split with the corrupt PLC years ago feel at home with the CxL’s sectarian attempt to pit its “principles and values” against those of the country’s democratic Left. The CxL has used this interpretative framework to repeatedly exclude UNAMOS, née Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). It also alienates the diverse, open-minded millennials of both Liberal and Sandinista parents who have been moving from Nicaragua’s traditional values to more non-polarizing ways of understanding human relations. This shift, particularly but not only among urban, better-educated young people, is also leading them away from traditional religiosity in both its Catholic and Evangelical versions.
Are “principles and values”
an excuse or a real issue?
The CxL is not alone in its emphasis on traditional moral and religious values. Its views are echoed by the PLC and the Conservative Party, which together with the CxL are what remain of the once-powerful two-party system of Liberals and Conservatives that historically ran not only Nicaragua but all of Latin America. Some analysts consider this emphasis just a political excuse to exclude the Coalition, and especially UNAB. But George Henríquez, a presidential hopeful put forward by Yatama, argues that it is not an excuse, double standard or manipulation. He believes this traditional way of being in today’s world is genuine and, as such, is a real obstacle to unity.
Henríquez has some hefty credentials to back up his views. He has a master's degree in gender, ethnicity and intercultural citizenship and, at 35, is in the same millennial age bracket as many others in UNAB whom CxL excludes. Moreover, as a Black Creole from Bluefields, he must have suffered his share of narrow-minded prejudice in the world of national politics.
Moral and religious differences, said Henríquez in an interview with the EFE news agency, “have sometimes been greater than the interest in avoiding Ortega’s reelection, which illustrates a lot of discrimination and classism in the political class that has been in power for the past 40 years, a class that has not deconstructed its behavioral patterns in those 4 decades.”
Henríquez doesn’t believe Nicaragua can change as long as it has “people who think that way about feminists, people of sexual diversity or non-Catholics because such discrimination is negative for the development of any country.” As he concludes, “Costa Rica and the European countries accept these differences and nothing happens.” Significantly, he did not mention the United States, currently polarized by a political-cultural war of values that is threatening the future of its own democratic institutions.
Along the same lines as Henríquez, Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro wrote in Mexico’s newspaper La Jornada about his concerns over how this “moralistic” current is affecting opposition unity and extending beyond just the political class: “If the sectarianism of the political, business and ecclesiastical elites prevails, the division of the opposition will be inevitable and Ortega can remain in power for a few more years with the FSLN’s fraud machinery.... If on the other hand the leaders of these three sectors—CxL, big business and the bishops—assume the risk of supporting the opposition’s unity in action to get the dictatorship out, the only fear they will have to surmount is that of the lesser evil: the uncertainty of democratic change.”
The emergency in which Ortega’s perverse electoral moves placed the country in May did not help the bishops and business elite overcome their fears and abandon their sectarianism. The warnings of Henríquez, Chamorro and so many others went unheeded.
PRD’s five proposals
In the last two days before the May 12 deadline, the PRD and the National Coalition presented the CxL with five proposals. The CxL rejected the first three—to go together on the CxL’s ballot slot, deciding this alliance’s legal representation by common agreement; to consensually establish a mechanism to elect a single presidential candidate; and to split the legislative candidacies half and half between the two groups. The fourth and fifth proposals, both of which the CxL accepted, were to appoint a joint team to formulate a government plan and to create other joint teams at all levels.
While the PRD-Coalition only got agreement on two out of five, they at least took a shot. Neither the CxL nor the Citizens’ Alliance it leads presented any concrete alternatives; they only accepted or rejected those presented to them. As the negotiation was public, chaotic comments long on subjectivity and short on arguments in favor of one or the other or against both filled the social networks. Thus it was that 11th-hour haste, inexperience and ill will contributed to a further festering of the differences.
Just before the deadline, ten CxL and PLC mayors and two deputy mayors of municipalities in northern Nicaragua, where the bloody civil war took place in the 1980s, sent out a message to the nation that was widely disseminated by the independent media. Among other things they said: “Today we speak as one voice on behalf of the humble people, who are the ones suffering.… Many of our leaders still have not listened to the petitions coming from the base. Those who, even though wounded and tired, continue in resistance against the dictatorship and still trust you.… In our territories we are UNITED.… It pains us that some opposition leaders continue stressing the differences that separate us instead of listening to the cry of the majority of the people from all corners of our country asking for UNITY.… We know we cannot achieve freedom without enough electoral guarantees, much less without unity.… It’s time for all of us to unite to overthrow the dictatorship with a winning ticket that represents all the opposition…. Without UNITY we cannot expose nor call the people out to vote.”
May 12: The alliance that didn’t happen
For the week leading up to the May 12 deadline for submitting alliances, a good part of Nicaragua was glued to the independent media and social networks eager for news of a signature that would herald the difficult alliance. But the signature never appeared. There will be no unified electoral option.
Instead, in the afternoon of May 12, the CxL showed up at the CSE on its own to register an alliance it had made weeks earlier with a small Caribbean party. Hours later, the FSLN registered its own alliance with eight of its satellite parties. And with that a cloud of discouragement fell over the blue and white social majority, which despite the obvious distance between the two blocs had put great faith in the “miracle” of unity.
“CxL and PRD are the main culprits”
Upon learning of the six-day deadline imposed by the regime, Dennis Martinez, a retired US Major League baseball star pitcher who is a member of the Good Will Commission created in March, decided to play the role of “facilitator witness, a bridge between the PRD and CxL,” as he described it. Given the prestige and affection that has accompanied him during and ever since his brilliant professional career, his announcement created great expectations and was accepted almost unanimously.
Not until May 16 did he write the chronicle of this failure: “In total, I was in three meetings and charged with optimism. The first was mostly protocol... In the second I saw a lot of tension, a more flexible PRD and an extremely intransigent CxL, with a ‘this or nothing’ posture... I began to grasp that everything was shaping up to be a media show, wanting to extend the people’s agony to then look for culprits for the failure. The CxL was increasingly putting up a wall and the PRD was feeding its inconsistent actions: first saying one thing and then another... There was no will on either side... I think both parties were clear that unity wasn’t going to happen... Both acted against Nicaraguans, ignoring the Mothers of April, the political prisoners, the persecuted, the exiles... It is evident that both the CxL and the PRD are the main culprits.”
An insider casts the
net of blame a bit wider
“What happened on May 12 shouldn’t surprise us,” Ernesto Medina, an educator and former university rector, told envoi. Medina was an original member of the Civic Alliance brought together after the April rebellion to negotiate with the regime, first in May 2018 and again the next year. Medina left his university job to work full time with the Civic Alliance, and once the negotiations with the government failed, he focused increasingly on forging the National Coalition together with UNAB, which also brought in several other organizations and political parties. The CxL did not join.
After opposing the Civic Alliance’s withdrawal from the Coalition, Medina has been a dedicated part of the uphill effort to at least unite the opposition behind a single platform and single candidate against Ortega. As Nicaragua moved into this electoral year, the role of parties with legal status, none of which had played any role in the April 2018 insurrection or the creation of those grassroots opposition blocs, suddenly loomed very important.
For Medina, the pivotal disagreement occurred back in October 2020, when the business sector in the Civic Alliance officially exited the National Coalition. “They said they had no space to develop in the Coalition, which they said had no capacity to influence the search for a solution for the country,” he recalls. “When asked if they were switching to the CxL, they angrily denied it repeatedly, but within a month of leaving the Coalition they were already formalizing the alliance with the CxL. Since then, the Civic Alliance began losing the public projection and political capital it had more than earned since May 2018 by leading the National Dialogue [as the negotiations with the regime were called] and those who left, handed all the prominence over to the CxL and its president, Kitty Monterrey. And they ended up as silent, little fish in the CxL’s pond.”
After strengthening itself with the business class, the CxL managed to attract a few young people from the Nicaraguan University Alliance who participated in the April 2018 uprising. At the beginning of this year, now flanked by these two sectors, which give it undeserved blue and white credentials, Monterrey sought to establish the idea that the Citizens’ Alliance, as it is now called, was “the only opposition bloc that will confront Ortega.” Not only did she not consider UNAB and the National Coalition as allies, she made it clear she would not even talk to them because “they do not exist.” Even in May, when Ortega pushed through the Electoral Law “reform” and his hand-picked CSE magistrates, she said only “a miracle” could unite the two opposition blocs.
In Medina’s opinion, the withdrawal of most of the Civic Alliance from the Coalition encouraged the CxL’s exclusionary trend even more, and weakened the Coalition. “But,” says Medina, “it didn’t engage in a thoroughgoing introspection about its many internal problems to rectify what needed to be rectified. Since my sympathies have been on the Coalition’s side, I must also point out that the PRD never rose to the occasion. It was never the Coalition’s leader; UNAB was. And in this latest stage, the Coalition’s unresolved internal problems left several member organizations feeling deceived and manipulated by the PRD.”
With these limitations, Medina added, and “without both groups [CxL and PRD] ever having sat down to talk seriously in the last six months, which showed incompetence, lack of vision and immaturity, they were increasingly distanced by differences, reticence, suspicions and interests of all kinds.”
Several analysts said FSLN operatives skilled in underhanded maneuvers who had infiltrated into both groups worked particularly hard during those days to ensure there would be no alliance, obviously the regime’s preference. “The whole time they were transferring false information to one or the other so that the unity wouldn’t happen,” said one observer. With both platforms infiltrated, Mutual distrust had been reigning for some time and the fatal May 12 deadline only worsened it, translating into a full-fledged rupture. As of May 28, it is still unknown whether the rupture will be definitive or the prelude to the breakup of the Coalition as well, with some of its members moving to the CxL Alliance.
Hasty decisions were made as events quickly unfolded, including the National Coalition’s expulsion of Yatama, which has real historical weight that cannot be ignored. The ostensible reason was that Yatama’s decades-long leader Brooklyn Rivera, a National Assembly representative, voted in favor of reelecting Ortega loyalist Lumberto Campbell, also from the Caribbean Coast, as a CSE magistrate “because he’s my friend.” The expulsion left the Caribbean region without opposition representation and left the Coalition without a presidential pre-candidate as grounded as George Henríquez, a high cost for such an erroneous and erratic decision. “This denigrating action by the National Coalition against our peoples,” said Yatama’s official response statement, “demonstrates the intolerance, discrimination and contempt towards the indigenous peoples of the Nicaraguan Moskitia.”
May 17: The CSE disqualifies he PRD
The organized opposition thus set out in May on the road to the worst possible elections with the failure to unite, the social majority frustrated by that failure and the dictatorship launching the same cry with which it had begun the slaughter in April 2018: We’re giving it our all!
After its inability to achieve the desired electoral alliance with the CxL, the PRD formally registered its political alliance with the organizations and movements that make up the National Coalition, committing itself to serve as a vehicle for them to run candidates in the elections. Wasting no time, eight male and two female pastors from different Evangelical denominations, all sympathetic to the dictatorship, showed up at the CSE building on Monday, May 17, announcing that they had come “representing 2,000 churches” to challenge the PRD, led by Evangelical pastor Saturnino Cerrato. They said they felt “betrayed” by his having allied the PRD with organizations that promote anti-values.
Even though the law establishes that only parties may challenge parties, the CSE’s new magistrates heard the pastors’ complaints less than 24 hours later and promptly stripped the PRD of its legal status. In its resolution, the CSE cited the party’s alliance with “persons who promote anti-values that do not correspond to Evangelical principles: provoking death from the womb, homosexuality and lesbianism.”
The CSE decision violates first the secularity of the Nicaraguan State, established in 1893 and still enshrined in Article 14 of the current Constitution. It even contradicts this government’s own institutionality, specifically the Office of Ombudsperson for Sexual Diversity created in December 2009 within the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office to watch over the rights of the half million Nicaraguans who have diverse sexual orientations.
Nonetheless, riding the wave of defending the “moral” values George Henríquez referred to and promoting the “sectarianism” Carlos Fernando Chamorro alluded to, the CSE (read: Ortega) removed from circulation one of the two parties granted legal status in 2017, a year after destroying the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), the only truly competitive political contender still standing at that time. With the PLI out of the race and over 70% of voters abstaining, Ortega won the 2016 presidential election easily. He gave the CxL, heir to the PLI, and the PRD legal status the following year because he needed to legitimize the municipal elections held that same year.
The guillotine was not only applied to the PRD on May 18; it also beheaded the Conservative Party, the oldest remaining party in the country, albeit today a mere shadow of its former self. In its case, the CSE’s official reason was that the party had decided not to participate in these elections. Was that the real reason or did the regime know that it had offered its ballot slot to some of the Coalition’s movements deprived of the PRD’s slot?
If Ortega’s formula for the electoral farce underway was abstention + division, why eliminate two ballot slots? The move countered both halves of his supposed strategy: with two opposition parties no longer on the ballot to divide the vote, many voters disillusioned by the failure to unite might be persuaded to come out for the single survivor.
Did Ortega perceive that the Coalition-PRD had more draw than the Citizens’ Alliance-CxL and therefore decide to remove any possible vehicle for it? Or does Ortega know there are people in the Coalition willing to fight in the streets to denounce a fraud, while the CxL would be more willing to accept defeat in exchange for some negotiated benefits, as was the case in 2006 with the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance, another party the CxL inherited political genes from? Could being the runner-up beneficiary even have been understood as the condition of its survival?
The only electoral way out left
is a unifying opposition candidate
Voter commitment is a sine qua non to achieving a turnout massive enough to defeat Ortega or at the very least make the fraud harder to hide. Even before the parties’ failed attempts to achieve unity, there was already talk of weaving unity around a single opposition candidate with enough appeal to draw the population to the polls on November 7.
In all surveys, journalist Cristiana Chamorro was the presidential hopeful who consistently polled highest of any of those who have so far thrown their hat in the ring. She certainly has the most powerful symbolic credentials: her father was martyred national political and journalistic hero Pedro Joaquín Chamorro and her mother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, was Nicaragua’s first female President, having unseated Daniel Ortega in the 1990 elections.
Cristiana began her continuous rise in the polls starting in February, when she made “YES to Nicaragua” her slogan. She also said from the outset that she would “never” contribute to the division of the vote, reaffirming on several occasions that she would only compete with the other pre-candidates if tom the end here was a single opposition alliance or candidate.
The disenfranchising of the PRD and the PC left the CxL as the only blue and white opposition vehicle. Four pre-candidates are already signed up on its ballot slot, but should the CxL open its doors to Cristiana, it would be almost a given that she would be the unifying candidate with the greatest capacity to encourage a massive turnout against Ortega. “Giving it our all” in this scenario thus dictated that the regime eliminate her as an electoral risk.
“The Yankee ambassador should stay out!”
On the night of May 19, the 126th anniversary of General Sandino’s birth, Ortega spoke to a small group of police officers and young party fanatics gathered around the pentacle rimmed with lighted candles, now a customary feature of his outdoor evening events in the old Plaza of the Revolution.
In his typical rambling style, Ortega offered figures demonstrating supposed economic progress, related historical tidbits of Sandino’s heroic deeds, and commented on the conflict in Colombia, among other topics. As he is wont to do, he saved for the end what he most wanted to talk about: the 2016 US electoral win by Donald Trump. “His election had been assured thanks to Russia,” he said, adding that “they see that as bad. And they’re right. Who likes someone coming into your house and taking over what you should be doing? Ah, but they like to meddle in everyone else’s home and decide for them.”
With an energy not seen for a long time, he then shouted: “The Yankee ambassador is going around selling his candidates here as if he were Nicaraguan! But he’s not Nicaraguan! If he wants to peddle candidates, he should go do it in the United States! The Yankee ambassador should stay out of this, as he’s going around nominating candidates, pressuring political parties to accept the candidate the Yankee wants! And this goes not just for the Yankee ambassador but for other ambassadors who spend their time holding meetings in their embassies with political groups! Ah, if that were done to them back in their countries, in Europe…!!”
Ortega doesn’t often resort to gendered language, but he didn’t have to. Everyone listening knew he wasn’t just riled up about the foreign diplomats promoting opposition candidates in general. It was all about the threat of the candidate everyone was talking about: Cristiana Chamorro.
May 20: “Ortega is scared to death”
Twelve hours after Ortega’s angry rant, the National Police showed up at Cristiana Chamorro’s house summoning her to appear at the Ministry of Government in half an hour. “Clear indications of money laundering” had allegedly been found in the 2015-2019 financial statements of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, run by Cristiana until she closed it in February 2020 rather than submit to the law “for the regulation of foreign agents.” The law’s regulations, approved the previous month, have kept all national nongovernmental organizations in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic torture ever since, to wear them down, prevent them from receiving international project funding and ultimately destroy them.
Also summoned were the Foundation’s accountant and funder. Her lawyer was prevented from entering with her. She was left waiting alone for an hour in an office without being attended to, after which she was interrogated for two hours, then ordered to appear 24 hours later at the Prosecutor General’s Office with a bunch of specific accounting information. Recognizing it was impossible, she asked for an extension, but her request was denied. On her way out, she stated that they were preparing “macabre and terrible actions,” not against her but against “all Nicaraguans who want democracy and a change in the next elections.” She appeared at the Prosecutor General’s Office the following day, stating on her way out that “Daniel Ortega is afraid of the people; that man is scared to death because together we are going to defeat him.”
At the same time as police officers were at her house issuing the summons the previous day, police patrol cars surrounded an office block housing the digital bulletin Confidencial and the nightly TV news programs “Esta Noche” and “Esta Semana,” directed by her brother Carlos Fernando Chamorro. A group of riot police forced their way in, looting everything, including cameras, computers and documentation. They captured a cameraman who was there, holding him for seven hours during which they threatened him and interrogated him about Chamorro’s activities.
“We will continue reporting the truth; they will not silence us,” texted Carlos Fernando immediately. As she left the Prosecutor General’s Office, Cristiana texted, “Mr. Dictator, write it down: you will be defeated by the people.”
How the CxL responds to this challenge
will answer a lot of open questions
The regime’s four-day rampage—decapitating two parties, preparing the disqualification of Cristiana Chamorro’s candidacy with an absurd accusation and confiscating her brother’s award-winning media operations for the third time since 2018—set off the international community’s alarm bells. Having been back-burnered by so many other critical hot spots in the world, our country was back in the global news.
The regime’s tactless challenge also put the CxL and big capital in an existential dilemma. One choice is to open its doors to all the movements and sectors left without an electoral vehicle as well as to the presidential pre-candidates originally vying to run on the PRD ticket, including Cristiana Chamorro. This would involve changing its candidate selection methods so all can participate without prejudice. The CxL would thus end up acquiring a pluralist voter base that would demand it truly challenge Ortega. Doing all that would encourage the massive turnout of the blue and white population, but would risk Ortega stripping it of its legal status as well, leaving it unable to run.
If Ortega were to remove the CxL from the game, he would definitively close off the electoral route and find himself in an extremely fragile position. How would the international community react? Would they condemn the elections as totally lacking legitimacy, possibly even before November 7? Losing legitimacy would very possibly result in Nicaragua’s expulsion from the OAS, making it an economic and political pariah benefitting no one.
The CxL’s alternative is to keep its doors closed, revealing that its plan was never to defeat Ortega, but to facilitate a “soft landing” for him, positioning itself as the second force after accepting the elections, thereby validating them.
Between those two extremes is the suggestion of Noel Vidaurre, one of the presidential pre-candidates registered under the CxL banner, to only open them to those who are anti-abortion. That variant would highlight the fact that not one but two de facto powers are behind the CxL’s intransigence: the business elite that fears Ortega governing from below and aspires to resume their corporative “dialogue and consensus” rule with him, and the Catholic hierarchy and fundamentalist Evangelical denominations, with their anti-abortion priority.
Either variant of the second alternative would entail breaking up what remains of the Coalition by allying with only some of its member organizations (the Campesino Movement, perhaps?). That in turn would make Ortega’s victory the minimally legitimate event both big capital and Ortega have a stake in, paving the way for reopening the model that benefited them all so much in the decade before it all exploded in April 2018.
The CxL’s decision has a deadline. According to the electoral calendar, all presidential tickets and national and departmental legislative candidate slates must be registered with the CSE between July 28 and August 2.
Is this all just negotiation maneuvering?
Some see Ortega’s ramping up of lawless behavior as a prelude to possible negotiations. Unless there is some deal with the United States, they argue, there would likely be even more instability in its backyard if Ortega wins but is denied legitimacy. Is that why he is starting to show his power and willingness to raise the stakes ever higher, or what “governing from below” would be like this time around?
And if that is indeed his strategy, what does he hope to win in a negotiation? The lifting of the sanctions on his family and loyal clique? The annulling of the NICA and RENACER acts? A return to some fictitious status quo ante? And what would he agree to in return?
“My generation has no future”
What guarantee of economic improvement and political stability could (or would) Ortega offer after winning these “worst elections possible”? Would elections “legitimized” with the CxL’s help blur the dictatorial abuses leading up to them, allowing the international community to forget about Nicaragua again, and get back to the more mammoth issues facing the world?
Would unemployment be reduced? Tens of thousands of Nicaraguan exiles are already living in Costa Rica having fled the political violence, so it is no longer easy to find refuge or work in that neighboring country.
The already-existing economic deterioration, lack of opportunities in a country dominated by a dictatorship emboldened by a triumph and the exhaustion of options to the south will prompt more Nicaraguans to look for a way out to the north. The United States is already the origin of 61% of the family remittances that sustain our economy.
In a Nicaragua dominated by the Ortega-Murillo family, the power of drug trafficking and migration will expand the boundaries of the Northern Triangle, already a political quagmire for the Biden administration. Even before the elections, some Nicaraguans are seeing the handwriting on the wall and silently joining the Central American migration hemorrhage. A brief May 17 news cable reported the detention in southern Honduras of 182 Nicaraguans on their way to the United States.
While they are relatively few compared to the thousands leaving Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, the numbers are growing, particularly among young people. As Nahiroby Olivas, one of the youngest of April’s youth, warns from his forced exile: “As long as Ortega is in power there’s no future for my generation.”