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Daniel Zovatto: “Ortega provokes a hardening of US policy”

The restoration of democracy in Nicaragua is a medium and long-term process. “We should be prepared for a marathon,” he counsels

Political expert Daniel Zovatto, regional director of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, believes that Nicaragua’s decision to withdraw approval for Hugo Rodriguez as the appointed US ambassador to the country was a “foreseeable move” on the part of the government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. They’re “speeding up the pulse” of the conflict with the United States, a decision that will, in turn, bring on “a hardening” of the Biden Administration.

In an interview with the online television news program “Esta Semana”, broadcast via YouTube and Facebook Live, Zovatto noted that the Nicaraguan crisis “has been displaced from the center to the margins of the international agenda.” He added that restoring democracy to the Central American country would be a medium and long-term process. “It’s not a 200-meter dash, we need to be prepared for a marathon,” he warned.

The Ortega-Murillo dictatorship withdrew its approval of the newly appointed US ambassador to the country, Hugo Rodriguez. They did so after Rodriguez spoke in a Senate hearing of the human rights violations in Nicaragua. What consequences might this deterioration in relations with the United States have on Nicaragua’s political crisis, given that the US is also Nicaragua’s principal trading partner? 

I believe that this decision to withdraw consent for Hugo Rodriguez, the designated US ambassador, was foreseeable. In his speech commemorating the 43rd anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution, Daniel Ortega said that he wasn’t going to move forward with any type of negotiations with the United States, because that was like wrapping a noose around your neck. And in the hearing where Hugo Rodriguez appeared before the Senate, his criticism of the grave human rights violations that take place in Nicaragua and the deterioration of democracy there was very clear. He stated very emphatically that this didn’t constitute intervention in internal affairs, that what he was doing was demanding fulfillment of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. However, Foreign Minister [Denis] Moncada claimed it constituted interference in their internal affairs. We already know how the dictatorship reacts to these things, and that – as a result – they weren’t going to grant their approval.

This speeds up the pulse of the dictatorship’s conflict with the United States, a conflict that had already been heating up in the last few weeks: [more] people included in the Engel list [“individuals who have knowingly engaged in acts that threaten democratic processes or institutions, have engaged in significant corruption, or have obstructed investigations of such acts.”]; removing Nicaragua from the US preferred sugar (import) quota; threatened sanctions against mining that could affect gold exports. I believe that we’re going to continue seeing a greater hardening of the United States with respect to the dictatorship in the coming weeks.

After [Nicaragua’s] electoral farce last November, there’s been a radicalization of the Ortega-Murillo regime: over 1100 NGOs have been eliminated, and they’ve maintained indiscriminate persecution, which has produced a new wave of massive migration towards the US and Costa Rica. This too has consequences and produces economic discontent, yet the police state remains intact. Is a political solution possible in the medium run?

Looking at the path the dictatorship has traced over the past four years, what we’ve seen is an ever-increasing hard line and greater repression. After the repression in April 2018, with more than 325 young people killed, the regime tried to seek some type of arrangement. Then last year, the OAS and its Secretary General (Luis Almagro) thought they could open some kind of negotiations with the [Nicaraguan] elections approaching; we all know now that was a fairy tale, to gain time to overcome that difficult moment that Ortega’s dictatorial regime was going through, possibly the most complex moment in the last 15 years.

When he recovered more oxygen, he went forward with more repression, more police state; he carried out a true electoral farce; there are more than 180 political prisoners, including the seven principal opposition candidates; he’s gone along closing all the civic spaces, with this closure of over 1,000 organizations of every type. At the same time, the regime snatched and took possession of the few mayors’ offices that had remained in opposition hands. With the latter actions, he’s moving to close absolutely all the spaces and is constructing his one-party regime, a kind of North Korea.

In full view of the international community, they’re constructing a regime like we’ve never seen, similar to that of North Korea, based on a family dynasty. Not even Cuba is [doing this] at this time: Fidel died, and Raul (Castro) ceded part of the power – formally at least – to (Miguel) Diaz-Canel. We don’t see this in Venezuela, where there was Hugo Chavez, and now there’s Maduro who has to negotiate with a number of figures from the Chavista ranks.

This brutal concentration of power with absolute impunity, in a period of just four years, has no precedent in our region. The most serious thing, however, is that in the face of this, Latin America continues to have a very lukewarm attitude. We can see this in the recent Summit of the Americas, where not only did they not condemn the regime of Daniel Ortega, but they criticized the position of President Biden of not inviting the dictator Ortega, among others. Hence, the situation is one of maximum complexity.

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, continues condemning the regime, but, on the other hand, there’s a paralysis in the Organization of American States, a total state of impunity. Can the international community – the US, Canada, and other Latin American countries – exert some influence in this crisis of impunity that exists in Nicaragua at the margin of the OAS, in order to restore some of the fundamental freedoms?

I feel that we’re entering a delicate moment, because the atmosphere that had been created, of a lot of criticism and much pressure due to the imprisonment of the principal opposition leaders, the electoral farce, and the stealing of the elections, has been lost.

November and December of last year was perhaps the best moment for the opposition and for the democratic groups to put all their pressure on the regime. But the very thing I feared might happen, is currently happening, in a world where there are successive crises that begin to accumulate. We hadn’t yet gotten out of the pandemic crisis when the crisis in Ukraine occurred; the crisis in Ukraine hasn’t finished, and we have the issue of inflation and the rise in the cost of living that’s menacing the region’s democratic governments.

The topic of Nicaragua has once again begun to be displaced from the center of the agenda to the margins. The second danger is the schizophrenia that exists in our region. On the one side, you have organizations that condemn the regime – as a violent dictatorship, a violator of human rights. You have the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights speaking about the violations of free expression, you have all the denunciations of the human rights organizations.

But on the other, from the political point of view, there’s a very complex division within the inter-American system, where there are countries that continue tolerating and supporting Ortega, or at least not condemning him with the firmness they should. At the same time, you have international financial organizations that continue giving resources to the dictatorship. The most recent case is the World Bank, where credits [for Nicaragua] ended up being approved, despite the vote of several countries against it, including the United States.

The dishonorable role that Honduran (Dante) Mossi, president of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, has played especially concerns me, and I want to denounce this publicly. In a recent interview I saw on Channel 12, [Mossi] praised the dictatorial regime of Ortega and Murillo and called their achievements spectacular. This schizophrenia, whereby certain environments condemn them, others look the other way, and still others continue giving them resources, is what’s giving Ortega oxygen to continue violating human rights and consolidating his one-party regime in total impunity.

Can that impasse, that paralysis be broken? Can the United States, the European Union, the Latin American countries that have consistently made declarations about this have any impact? Or will Ortega’s dictatorship simply prolong itself with impunity?

Sadly, we’re at a very difficult moment. But the difficult moments are when you test your resilience. Getting out of these dictatorial regimes and recovering democracy isn’t a 200-meter dash – it’s more like a 26-mile marathon. It’s a medium- and long-term process, for which you must prepare yourself adequately, with a lot of perseverance.

A strategy must be generated that allows us to avoid having hopelessness win the day, where you end up throwing up your hands and saying: “Ok, we’ll accept it, because there’s nothing to be done.” Yes, there’s a lot that can be done, because you have to be aware that it’s a medium and long-term project and it will require a lot of sacrifice, much more than what’s actually being practiced.

The important factor is the unity of all the groups that oppose this dictatorship. Here, there’s only one enemy – the authoritarian regime of the Ortega-Murillo’s. The rest can be considered differences that must be put aside. The important thing is the unity among all the sectors: political, from civil society, the business community – having all those sectors that want to recover democracy work together proactively in the international sphere.

In fact, I believe that now a new perspective has opened: the arrival of (Gabriel) Boric in Chile; the arrival perhaps, of (Luiz Inacio) Lula in Brazil; a new president [Gustavo Petro] in Colombia. All these are presidents from the democratic left, and I believe that they could help generate a kind of consensus whereby it’s not the right that’s asking for the regime to leave, but the democratic forces of the left that are working together to look for a scenario, to find a way out. In my opinion, that way out must contain a mixture of the carrot and the stick.

The carrot would be in the area of transitional justice for the most moderate sectors among those that currently support Ortega. This has been sought in many other democratic transitions. Because you can’t go along applying sticks to everyone; you’re not going to achieve anything that way. But yes, maintain ever greater pressure on the regime’s hard-core inner circle, including – as I’ve been insisting – on the family.

We must work to identify who of the group that supports the dictatorship are willing, under the principal of transitional justice, to work to open spaces for a dialogue that would put in first place, the need to free all the political prisoners, put an end to the police state and the human rights violations. And in the medium and long term to seek a democratic solution through elections with full guarantees.

This requires very important support from the international community, including the Latin American countries. It requires a commitment on the part of the European Union, of Canada, but especially from the United States. The US has a lot of tools in the Renacer Act, to continue squeezing [the dictatorship’s] neck, and they have to do that. At the same time, it requires thinking about how to rebalance the weakness that exists inside Nicaragua, so that, through the support of the international community, they can begin to strengthen some areas for the confrontation with the authoritarian regime.

These fights are won from within the countries, but support from outside is not only a necessary condition, but an absolutely indispensable one.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times

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