Social Networks Were Key for GIEI Report on Nicaragua

To produce their report on Nicaragua, the experts analyzed more than three million tweets and more than 10,000 videos published on the networks.

To produce their report on Nicaragua, the experts analyzed more than three million tweets and more than 10,000 videos published on the networks.

Franco Valdivia Machado stretched his hand in front of a cell phone camera to show the shells found in the vicinity of Esteli’s central park. It was April 20th and the young man, who wore a mouth mask, explained how the demonstrators protesting in the center of the city were brutally repressed by the National Police and the mobs loyal to the leadership of the Sandinista Front.

It was five in the afternoon. A few hours later, at nine o’clock at night, Franco Valdivia, barely 24 years old, was dying from the impact of a bullet in his head. His video—which at the time went viral—served the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) of the IACHR (Inter-American Human Rights Commission) to clarify what happened during the demonstrations that demanded the end of the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. It is a valuable testimony that helped determine that in Nicaragua crimes against humanity were committed, after the repression unleashed by the regime against the demonstrators.

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The GIEI denounced in a 485-page report presented in Washington in late December (see the report in PDF format) that since they began to work in Nicaragua to clarify what happened between April 18th and May 30th, they did not have the support of the authorities to do their research. The Government, “systematically denied information required by the GIEI, as well as any possibility of coordination with State institutions,” said the experts.

The report from the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) of the IACHR (Inter-American Human Rights Commission).

Thus, they conclude, the GIEI “could not, throughout its mandate, develop the work of collaborating with criminal investigations, planned for in the Agreement,” in reference to the document signed by the IACHR and the Government, which establishes the commitment of the Ortega Executive to collaborate with the work of the group of experts. To that refusal of the dictatorship was added, they explained, the fact that the violence intensified during their stay in Nicaragua, “which meant a serious limitation to carry out the work entrusted to them.”

Because they did not have the support of the State to do their investigations, the experts of GIEI decided to implement an innovative work methodology. They gathered information from “open sources,” interviewing the relatives of the victims, the survivors of the repression, the exiles and witnesses who courageously approached the group to tell their experiences.

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But the most striking method was the meticulous analysis of the contents available on social networks. The GIEI approached experts in network analysis, who studied more than three million tweets and more than 10,000 videos available on networks, which were the tools used by protesters to denounce the human rights violations and the violence unleashed by the State.

It is the battle for the truth: the record of the brutality of the dictatorship, against the stigma that Ortega and Murillo wanted to impose on the demonstrators through the traditional media that the family controls.

The videos rescued by these organizations show people falling by the impact of bullets in the poorest neighborhoods of Managua. One of those videos shows the agony of Ismael Jose Perez Vilchez, 32 years old. A bullet struck him in the jaw. He, along with a group of neighbors from the barrio La Fuente, were trying to prevent the looting of a supermarket, when the Police came to shoot them. With his face shattered and his body covered with blood, Perez Vilchez gave his last death rattles. He left two daughters orphans. His mother, Maria Ramona Vilchez, says that the bullet was fired by a police officer. The crime, like all the rest, continues in impunity.

While repression intensified throughout the country, Ortega and Murillo designed a campaign to discredit the protestors through the television channels they control as well as the online newspaper “El 19 Digital” and social networks.

Ortega accused the demonstrators of trying to carry out a “coup d’état,” while Murillo, in her daily addresses, labelled the demonstrators as “miniscule,” “vandals,” “plagues,” “delinquents,” “vampires,” “terrorists,” “coup mongers,” and “diabolic.” They will not triumph! The diabolical will never be able to govern Nicaragua,” said Murillo on July 16th.

At the end of September, a Murillo exasperated, with her eyes burning in anger and affected voice, snapped at the camera: “What are you complaining about? What are you complaining about?” According to official emails leaked to Confidencial, it was Murillo who ordered the harsh repression since April 19th, when she told her most loyal operators: “we are going with everything!”

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The GIEI explained that in order to do its report “a large number of documents were examined, including videos, photographs, newspaper articles, media material and in the social networks, many of which were registered by the citizens participating in the protests. Only in audiovisual material were revised and analyzed more than 10,000 files.

The GIEI was able to gather, analyze and verify a broad set of information that allowed it to reach reasonable conclusions in order to reconstruct the facts as they occurred, the circumstances, and identify possible responsible parties.

In the site created by the GIEI to present the conclusions of its six months of work in Nicaragua, graphics related to the analysis of information available on social networks are shown. On YouTube, additionally, there is a GIEI channel where videos analyzed by the experts are published, among them one that presents young Franco Valdivia showing a projectile, hours before being killed.

After its analysis, the GIEI concluded that “the State resorted to the abusive and indiscriminate use of force to suppress peaceful demonstrations of protest. A repressive pattern, which was verified at different times and places in Nicaragua, was the use of firearms, including weapons of war, directly against the demonstrators.

“It was possible to verify that cartridges with lead bullets were used, whose calibers correspond to different types of weapons, among which are war rifles.” The experts, were also able to determine that the majority of the murders and serious injuries” are the responsibility of the National Police, whose officers acted directly and also in a coordinated manner with armed paramilitary groups.”

These facts—one reads in the report—took place in a context in which, from the highest authorities of the State “a public discourse of stigmatization of the protests was made and the political endorsement of the repression.” Therefore, the GIEI states, “numerous crimes committed in the context of the repression of demonstrations constitute crimes against humanity.”

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Nicaragua Adopts the Cuban – Venezuelan Model

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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