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The Nicaraguan Civic Insurrection and the US policy: An opportunity to change?

Sanctions may weaken the regime, but if they do not restore democratic freedoms, they will not strengthen the pro-democracy movement.

Thanks to the Institute of the Americas  for inviting me to this forum on U.S. Policies toward Authoritarian States in the Americas. I am honored to be in this panel with Jorge Castañeda, Mark Schneider, ambassador Jeff Davidov and Richard Feinberg.

I am a journalist, not an academic or a policymaker. I am a reporter who is used to asking questions, rather than having to answer the questions posed by this panel. 

So, my remarks are based on my experience covering the Nicaraguan crisis, and the relationship between the U.S. and the Ortega regime over the past four years.

Let me start with a brief personal comment. My newsroom, CONFIDENCIAL, was assaulted and occupied by the police for the second time in May 2021, during the beginning of a new wave of repression that culminated with the electoral crackdown and detention of 40 citizens, including 7 aspiring opposition presidential candidates, and dozens of political and civic leaders.

I am in exile in Costa Rica to avoid imminent detention, to preserve my freedom, and keep doing journalism, while political prisoners are forced to be silent. I face an arrest order in Nicaragua based on an accusation of so-called money laundering — for the crime of doing investigative journalism. 

In this same spurious political trial, my sister Cristiana, an aspiring presidential candidate, and my brother Pedro Joaquin were condemned to prison sentences of 8 and 9 years. 

Other political and civic leaders, including presidential hopefuls Juan Sebastián Chamorro and Felix Maradiaga, are facing penalties of 13 years in prison for the invented crimes of conspiracy against national sovereignty. 

Four female political prisoners —Dora María Téllez, Tamara Dávila, Ana Margarita Vijil, and Suyen Barahona — have been held in solitary confinement for 11 months, under a system of torture and isolation that already killed retired General Hugo Torres, who died in police custody last February.

So there is a need to act with extreme urgency to resolve the Nicaraguan crisis, both for humanitarian and political reasons. It also requires a mid-term strategy on a national and international level, because in the short term there doesn’t appear to be a way out, while opposition leadership is in prison or exile.

The civic insurrection: The solution is in Managua

I have always been a strong believer that we must look for the solution to the Nicaraguan political crisis in Managua, not in Washington or Brussels.  The challenge, therefore, is how to maintain maximum political pressure in Nicaragua.

At the same time, a strategy of civic resistance is not enough to defeat a repressive, dictatorial regime with total control over the state and repression, without international actions to isolate and to weaken the regime, and without strong international allies to strengthen the pro-democracy movement.

This requires a kind of simultaneity, between maximum domestic pressure and international pressure — a synchronization of external and internal political pressure. So far, that coordination of efforts has been totally absent in the case of Nicaragua.

Between April 18 and May 30, 2018, the civic insurrection, without any support from the international community, radically changed the balance of domestic political power in Nicaragua. 

A new political majority — known as the blue and white — unleashed a formidable torrent of social forces that were united in their rejection of the brutality of state repression and the demand for free elections.

Between May and June 2018, when domestic political pressure against the Ortega Murillo regime had momentum and was in its moment of greatest strength, international pressure in the United States, the OAS, and the European Union was weak, almost non-existent. 

This is the moment in which Staffer Caleb McCarry, acting as a US representative for the Senate and the State Department, met in Managua with President Daniel Ortega and vice-president Rosario Murillo, with former Ambassador Laura Dogu, to explore the possibility of a democratic transition through electoral reforms and early elections.

Ortega never gave a clear answer about his intentions, but the US envoy was optimistic that there was going to be a political negotiation.

Instead, the opposite happened. Over the next 50 days, Ortega buried the expectation of negotiated electoral reforms and closed remaining political space with the deployment of police and paramilitary forces, killing the hopes of a democratic transition that were proposed at the National Dialogue. 

The deadly “operation clean-up” killed hundreds of people, wounded thousands, and landed others in jail as political prisoners. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans fled into exile, mostly in Costa Rica, the United States, and Spain.

During this short-term failure the international community had little influence on the authoritarian regime, and the deficit of effective pressure was rather related with the lack of strategic leadership of the civic insurrection. Certainly, there was some degree of coordination and dialogue between the different groups of university students, grass root organizations, the peasant movement, and the private sector, but there was no strategic leadership to decide how to keep the foot on the accelerator to put maximum pressure on the regime in its moments of greatest political weakness, to oust Ortega and Murillo from power.

The failure of the international community

Since September 2018, after the civic protesters were massacred by police and paramilitary forces with the complicity of the Army, we have lived under a de-facto police state in Nicaragua. 

No state of emergency was declared, but freedom of reunion, freedom of mobilization, and freedom of the press and of expression have been suppressed. 

Still, there was a second opportunity for political change in March 2019, during the second National Dialogue between the Government and the Alianza Cívica, when Ortega pledged in the presence of international witnesses from the OAS, Luis Angel Rosadilla,  and the Vatican Nuncio, Waldemar Sommertag, to suspend the police state. 

Three months later, not only did he not comply, but he reinforced the police state with a series of new repressive laws, eventually capturing all political leaders of the opposition, including four who have signed the agreement at the National Dialogue. This established a pattern of international impunity. 

This was a major failure of the US and the international community. It did not have any means of pressure to force Ortega to comply with the agreements of the National Dialogue. 

Finally, Ortega eliminated the right to elect and be elected by canceling the 2021 elections when he imprisoned the seven opposition presidential pre-candidates and proclaimed himself re-elected president in an electoral farce.

Four years after the civic rebellion, the situation is completely reversed: international condemnation and external pressure is growing, while domestic resistance is crushed by the police state. 

More than 50 countries have declared the November 7 elections illegitimate, and more than 60 senior officials of the regime, and some institutions and companies such as the Police, the Public Ministry, the Supreme Electoral Council, have been subjected to international sanctions by the US Treasury, UK, Canada, and the European Union.

But external pressure alone cannot restore democratic freedoms in Nicaragua. The condemnation by the OAS and the European Union, and individual sanctions against the dictatorship’s high officers, are necessary but not sufficient for the restoration of democracy. 

A dictatorship like the Ortega-Murillo Regime can survive sanctions and remain in power longer, but it cannot survive one month — or one week — without the backing of the police State. 

So, the major challenge for both the international community and the Nicaragua pro-democracy movement is how to establish a conditionality between external pressure and the restoration of domestic freedoms.

Five key points for policy

In conclusion, the effectiveness of US policy and the OAS facing an authoritarian Government should be analyzed in relation to five factors: 

One:  The impact of these policies on the domestic situation. This implies the restoration of political freedoms, the suspension of the police state, and the liberation of all political prisoners. 

International sanctions may weaken the regime, but if they do not restore democratic freedoms, they will not strengthen the pro-democracy movement. 

Two, the need for simultaneity between foreign and domestic pressure. Under the lack of synchrony between external and national pressure, the international community cannot compensate for the weakness of the opposition, which is under attack by the dictatorship.

External pressure is necessary to encourage the strengthening of the pro-democracy movement, but it cannot replace it. And it can’t pretend to micromanage the opposition with a short-term vision, putting at risk its own legitimacy and credibility. 

Three, the capacity to build international and regional alliances to isolate the regime. There has been a more multilateral approach with the Biden administration, in comparison with the Trump government, and we have seen a higher involvement of Canada, the European Union, and the UK.

But there is still a missing link in Central America and Latin America with the absence of countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and Argentina. Their absence has had a negative impact on the OAS’ political capacity to deal with the Nicaraguan crisis.

Four, there are at least two important pillars of power for the Ortega’s regime that are untouched. On the one hand, the Central American Integration Bank, which is the most important source of public finance for Ortega; On the other, the business branch of the Nicaraguan Army, the Instituto de Prevision Social Militar, which handles the pension system for army officers. 

The malaise among public employees, civilians and the military, and the internal costs of corruption provoked by the Ortega-Murillo family are increasingly notorious in Nicaragua, but there are no signs that these fissures will transform into cracks and divisions of power unless there is a higher level of national and international political pressure against the pillars of the regime.

Five, there is also a need for a specific policy for Nicaragua that differentiates our country from both the rest of Central America, as well as from Cuba and Venezuela.

The US has a special envoy for Central America, which is focused on the northern triangle, and excludes Nicaragua, although there is an increasing migration crisis with 250,000 Nicaraguan migrants leaving the country in the past four years, mostly to Costa Rica and —more recently — to the US. 

The impunity with which a failed totalitarian dictatorship operates in Nicaragua is also having a political regional impact on the rest of Central America; neighboring governments with authoritarian tendencies in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras see themselves in the mirror of Ortega.

On the other hand, while Nicaragua shares the same dictatorial practices with Cuba, and Venezuela, and they are strong allies with Russia and China, there is a major difference with these countries that requires a specific policy towards Nicaragua and it is the economy, which continues to be led by the private business sector. 

The persecution of business leaders implies economic extortion and political repression, but does not yet contemplate a policy of economic nationalization. So, although the political crisis has generated recession, investment stoppage, and more impoverishment of the population, the economy has achieved a slight recovery due to the dynamism of the foreign sector and exports, and the impact of the increase in family remittances on consumption.

Ortega’s alliance with the private sector, which has allowed him to govern the country from 2009 to 2018, plus the support of the Venezuelan economic cooperation, without transparency and democracy, was broken during the 2018 massacres and remains so until today. 

Among the political prisoner’s that have been condemned, there are four prominent businessmen, among them, Jose Adán Aguerri, Michael Healy, and Luis Rivas, so the leadership of the private sector is paralyzed by the threat of repression.

While the catholic church exercises a strong moral leadership, the private business sector represents the muscle of the national economy, which can shorten or lengthen the crisis of the dictatorship.

The current “wait and see” policy implies contemplating the national collapse in slow motion, while there is a debate in the US about Nicaragua´s eventual suspension in CAFTA, with an indiscriminate impact on employment the economy 

On the contrary, the decision to put limits and brakes on tyranny to gradually recover freedoms, entails enormous risks, but above all, it requires the unity in action of all the forces of the country, and in particular, the incentives of the international community to strengthen the civic role of the private sector and Nicaraguan civil society. 

Remarks at the Forum: U.S. Policies toward Authoritarian States in the Americas. Fresh thinking amidst changing Geopolitics. Institute of the Americas. University of California at San Diego. May 12, 2022

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