Its democracy at risk, Nicaragua can’t become the region’s next Venezuela

By By Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa – Nicaragua’s people have risen up in spontaneous and peaceful protests against the dynastic dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo. Ortega, who ruled Nicaragua during the 1980s, the decade of the contra war, was reelected as the Sandinista presidential candidate in 2006 in a flawed election.

Students in Managua, Nicaragua, protest President Daniel Ortega’s repressive regime. Rodrigo Arangua / Getty Images

Once in power, Ortega — who has said publicly that he favors Cuba’s single-party political model — began to systematically dismantle Nicaragua’s fragile democracy. Flouting the constitution, Ortega gained control of all the levers of power, including the country’s parliament, electoral system and judiciary.

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By having his National Assembly rubber-stamp a change to the constitution eliminating presidential terms limits, Ortega won a sham election in 2011 and again in 2016. In the most recent, this dictator named his wife, Murillo, as his vice president, delegating the government’s day-to-day management to her. In effect, she became prime minister.

While authoritarian by nature and a close ally of Venezuela, Cuba, Russia and Iran, Ortega learned one lesson from his disastrous mismanagement of the economy during the ’80s. In his current go-round, he has adhered to free-market policies and entered into an alliance with the private sector. This, combined with generous aid flowing from Venezuela — the uses of which are shrouded in mystery — Nicaragua’s economy had grown at a fast clip since 2009. It is also one of the world’s most corrupt countries. In Latin America, only Haiti and Venezuela rank below it in Transparency International’s Corruption index.

In early April, things began to unravel for Ortega and Murillo. A suspicious fire broke out at the Indio Maiz forestry reserve on the Caribbean coast. Indio Maiz is rich in precious hardwood trees and one of Central America’s most important ecological sites remaining. Despite being unable to fight the fires on its own, the government turned down an offer to help by firefighters from neighboring Costa Rica, leaving Nicaraguans dumbfounded. This was followed by the government’s decision to deal with its floundering social security system’s financial problems by raising monthly contributions by workers and employers instead of tackling the system’s bloated bureaucracy and investment policies that benefit white-elephant real-estate projects that favor government cronies.

By April 18, the people of Nicaragua had had enough. Led by university students who took to the streets of Managua to protest peacefully against the government, the police used disproportional force to repress the demonstrations. They were joined by gangs of thugs whom Nicaraguans called “shock troopers.” As clashes, the government censored what little remains of Nicaragua’s independent news media, and the toll of people killed, injured and disappeared grew.

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But so did the people’s will to resist.

Four large demonstrations of hundreds of thousands each marched against the regime in Managua. Citizens in towns throughout Nicaragua also protested. Meanwhile, university students and campesinos set up road blocks on major roads to protest the repression.

As the regime’s crackdown increased, the ranks of the opposition grew to include the private sector, civil society and a broad spectrum of citizens, including Sandinistas, liberals, conservatives, independents, rich and poor, urban and rural All of them are fed up with Ortega and Murillo. The people have lost their fear of the dictatorship, and Ortega has lost the people.

Alarmed by the depth and sustainability of the protests, Ortega agreed to a national dialogue in which the government would meet with representatives of students, campesinos, the private sector and civil society under the auspices of the Catholic Church. On May 23, however, after a week of meetings, Nicaragua’s bishops suspended the talks because of the government’s unwillingness to accept the agenda proposed by the church.

As of June 6, widespread peaceful resistance to the regime continued. According to reputable human-rights organizations, the death toll had reached 130, more than died during Venezuelan marches against Nicolas Maduro or along the Gaza-Israeli border. More than 1,000 had been seriously injured, and another 90 had disappeared, many of whom likely will be found dead.

As the result of the violence, the economy has ground to a halt. Flights into Nicaragua, a growing tourism location, are empty, as are hotels and restaurants. Commerce and construction are down, and Nicaragua’s reputation for being a secure country has been dealt a severe blow.

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The people of Nicaragua are insisting that democracy be restored — now. They are unwilling to wait until the next presidential elections scheduled for 2021. They demand an immediate end to the bloodshed and an early transition to democracy before the economy collapses. And they are hoping that the international community, and especially the United States, will bring pressure to bear on the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship to help this happen.

Nicaraguans are encouraged by the supportive language of U.S. administration officials and congressional lawmakers in both house — and of both parties. But they want the United States to not only “talk the talk,” but to “walk the walk,” too. They fear that if the United States doesn’t raise the ante in Nicaragua, the country will slide into the chaos in which Venezuela finds itself. If this happens it will be just a matter of time before Nicaraguans will be forced to join their neighbors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in fleeing to other countries, including the United States.

Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa is Nicaragua’s former foreign minister. In 2001, he signed the Interamerican Democratic Charter on behalf of the country at the OAS foreign minister’s conference in Lima, Peru.

Article originally appeared at Miami Herald. Read more here.

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In early October 2018, Daniel Ortega’s regime installed a state of siege via a Police decree prohibiting civic marches. The OAS Inter-American Commission for Human Rights warned at the time that Ortega instituted a de facto State of Emergency. He had essentially suspended constitutional rights such as the freedom of assembly and mobilization, free speech, and a free press.

The goal of the state of siege was to wipe out the independent civic protest and to suppress and divide the opposition. Further, they aimed to impose a false normality through repression. With this, they hoped to coopt the large business leaders and reestablish the regime’s political and economic alliances.

Nevertheless, looking at the facts, Ortega instead deepened his national and international isolation. In addition, for two consecutive years he aggravated the economic recession and the social crisis. This continued until the negligent management of the Coronavirus health crisis brought him an unexpected political invoice. The mismanaged public health crisis wore down the credibility of his leadership, even among the members of his own party.

The regime now announces the imposition of new punitive laws. There’s a push to allow the use of life sentences for certain crimes. There’s a new law to regulate supposed “foreign agents”, and a “cybercrimes” law, better known as the “Gag law”. With these, the regime is recognizing the failure of the police state. The repression never succeeded in squashing the civic protests. Even without massive demonstrations, the spirit of the resistance remains intact.  Despite the National Coalition’s stumbles and the lack of a united national front, today the resistance is greater and better organized. It now has a presence in all of the country’s municipalities.

In the next two weeks, the regime’s parliamentary steamroller will assure the approval of that combo of punitive laws. These impose severe jail sentences for any and all opposition, a majority who represent over three-fourths of the electorate.

However, in reality, the regime has never needed legal pretexts to repress and imprison. Almost two years ago, the police assaulted the offices of Confidencial and Esta Semana and executed a de facto confiscationThis was done without the backing of any judicial orders. Yet, despite the television censorship, they never silenced us. We continue our truth-based journalism. Meanwhile the independent press – persecuted, harassed and sometimes exiled – now enjoys much more credibility and influence than the official machinery.

The latest Cid-Gallup polls confirm that the majority of the population no longer believes the government’s lies about COVID-19. The express burials and the Ministry of Health statistics on pneumonia fatalities and COVID-19 tests speak for themselves. These facts refute the daily monologues of Vice President Rosario Murillo.  Because of that deception, every day political support for Ortega and the FSLN shrinks still more. His backing among the public employees, both civilian and military, continues eroding.

In reality, the “Gag Law” is aimed at threatening the honest and professional public servants. It is meant to keep them from leaking information to the press and the public regarding acts of political corruption.  Such acts are occurrences that the regime wishes to hide.

The “Cybercrimes Law” also threatens users of social media with jail time. However, the dictatorship will continue losing the battle for the truth in social media. They can’t control the massive exercise of free speech and the use of new information technologies now at the service of citizens.

These punitive laws aren’t a symptom of strength, but rather of the political and moral defeat of a minority regime. Why, then, does Ortega need to impose them against wind and tides?  There are at least three hypotheses to explain this imperious political necessity.  All are based on the regime’s urgency to adapt the Cuban and Venezuelan “model” of repressive authoritarianism to Nicaragua.

First, they intend to make full use of the Constitution and laws as one pillar of their repressive strategy. However, they don’t want these as guardians of rights, but as a means to criminalize democratic liberties and civic protest. Clearly, it’s not a carbon copy, but this strategy definitively reflects the Cuban and Venezuelan “model”. The regime is adapting that model to fit a dynastic family dictatorship with the aim of liquidating the democratic project in Nicaragua.

Expedited by the “Law” he’s mandating, Ortega will now be able to eliminate organizations of civil society. He will also control any eventual adversaries and political competitors, by criminalizing them as “foreign agents”. The Venezuelan experience demonstrates that despite high international political costs, the Cuban “model” can prove effective in giving the regime stability. Through this model, pure and harsh repression can be draped in a “legal” mantle. For Ortega, this translates into an incentive to accumulate political hostages and gain time.

Secondly, the regime intends to take over the agenda of justice and present itself as a punisher of “hate crimes”. The latter would now carry a sentence of life in prison. This, in the end, is merely a defensive act. It responds to the need to assure the Sandinista bases that they’re not the ones under the gaze of justice.

Those accused of true “hate crimes”, crimes against humanity, crimes with no statute of limitations, are in the regime’s inner circle. The finger points to members of the Ortega-Murillo regime who are most directly tied to the repression. However, as in the April killings and the failed official narrative of an attempted “Coup d’Etat”, Ortega will point the finger elsewhere. He’ll try to convince his followers that his own hate crimes can be attributed to the victims.

Thirdly, although the Nicaraguan Constitution proclaims political pluralism, this combo of punitive laws assures there’ll be no competitive elections. With these laws, Ortega has ratified his stance for the November 2021 elections. Given this, it’s illusory to expect some electoral opening from a regime that’s willing to play All or Nothing. Though they risk further international sanctions and a declaration of illegitimacy, they’ll be celebrating the elections with no competition and without transparency.

Will we arrive at the opening of the 2021 electoral campaign without a political reform?  The answer to this interrogative doesn’t depend on Ortega, but on the political opposition.  Ortega has already decided to radicalize his authoritarian model. Meanwhile, the opposition continues to be paralyzed. They’re discussing which electoral box is the safest, in imaginary elections in which they haven’t even been invited to participate.

Meanwhile, the national debate must center itself on determining the most effective strategy. The opposition must work on joining forces, weakening the regime, and altering the balance of power. They must thus force a political reform on the regime, one that results from national and international pressure. First, the reform, with or without Ortega, and later free elections.


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