Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 449 | Diciembre 2018



Between uncertainty about the end and hope that “we’re winning”

Envío team

In April and even into May, a solution had seemed just around the corner. But the regime’s disproportionate and criminal use of force against the protests hadn’t let up a single day since then. The ever-rising toll of dead, wounded, imprisoned, tortured and forcibly disappeared protesters exponentially fed people’s anger, in turn unleashing even more repression.

By the beginning of September it had become less certain when April’s flare-up would be resolved in a credible, hopeful way. Parallel narratives about the origin of the crisis and the government’s continuing repressive response—one by the regime itself, parroted by its national and international followers, and one by the civic rebellion, corroborated by the international investigating bodies—had polarized the country into seemingly irreconcilable positions.

“You should never
have touched our kids”

In the first mass mobilization at the end of April, one woman scrawled the following words aimed at Daniel Ortega on a piece of cardboard and held it high above her head, “We let you get away with everything else; you should never have touched our kids.” The rebellion ignited by the indignation at those first deaths of young people shows no sign of burning out, as it’s further fueled by what the OHCHR report rightly described as “deep-rooted grievances.”

The government initially overreacted to the first peaceful protests with the order to “shoot to kill,” as Amnesty International’s May report charged. More appalling still, it continued with the same order for each new protest, resulting in Nicaragua’s greatest peacetime massacre. Not one of those unexpected crimes has yet been punished.

The death toll as of August 24, according to the IACHR, had risen to 322 people, and included those on the regime’s side, as the institutional violence engendered acts of both legitimate defense and violence, as its report and those of the OHCHR and CENIDH acknowledged. The IACHR, however, reiterated in late August that “the great majority of victims died as the result of state action or that of para-police forces at the service of the State.” They lost their life exercising their right to demand rights, justice and democracy; another kind of government, another kind of country. Even those who died trying to impede that right can be chalked up as the government’s responsibility for sending them out to kill or die.

“It was a US-led coup attempt”

The above is the narrative of those who oppose the regime, shared by the top regional and global human rights organizations. With the national dialogue shelved and the “clean-up” concluded, the regime wrapped up the narrative of its version of events: there was an attempted coup d’état in April; the roadblocks were never civic but rather controlled by armed people; the coup-makers used terror to impose themselves but were defeated and are being tried and judged as what they are: terrorists and traitors. In late July the government fast-tracked a new law defining even peaceful protests as terrorism, thus greasing the skids for such trials and convictions.

This narrative denies ever having used weapons to repress the right to protest; in fact, it denies that there have even been any civic protests. Instead the government claims it responded to a coup d’état attempt planned, organized and financed by the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and/or some other nefarious US agency, sometimes adding Florida’s hardline Cuban-born Republicans for good measure. The State had to respond to defend the constitutional order, so that version goes.

The idea that what occurred was an attempted coup was first floated by the government delegation in the national dialogue, inspired in part by the peaceful but massive demonstrations in late April and early May in which many protesters chanted “¡Que se vayan!” (Leave!), referring to the presidential couple. It was further inspired by Lesther Alemán, the exuberant communication major who told Ortega to his face in the inaugural session of the dialogue that “this is not a dialogue table, it’s a table to negotiate your departure, and you know it very well because it is the people who have requested it! In one month you have torn the country apart; it took Somoza years to do the same, as you know it very well! Surrender before the entire population!”

Those who have so enthusiastically taken up the golpista (coup-monger) epithet clearly haven’t studied the history of the world’s coups. If they had, they would have to admit that they’re not negotiated at dialogue tables, not attempted by unarmed protesters against governments that enjoy the loyalty of their armed forces, and not brought about through the free and transparent elections Nica¬ragua’s uprising is demanding.

As for the US government being behind the originally peaceful insurrection, those who believe it to be true have so much weight of historical precedent on their side that they’ve not even bothered to look for any evidence to back them up.. In fact, unlike the 1980s, when the FSLN’s first decade in government had the misfortune of straddling the eight years of Ronald Reagan and his anti-Communist advisory team of Vietnam War leftovers, the FSLN’s second decade was largely paired with the Obama administration, which appreciated Ortega’s attempt to curry its favor by cooperating on issues of drug trafficking, migration, terrorism/money laundering, and generally keeping Nicaragua safe for US investments and tourists rather than turning the violent and chaotic Northern Triangle into a rectangle.

But if there’s no reason or evidence to suggest that the US was behind the spontaneous social explosion that caught absolutely everyone off guard,including Washington itself, there’s every reason to expect it to play a major and inevitably self-interested role in determining the resolution of the conflict that ensued. It has more than enough resources, experience and motive to take advantage of the monumental errors the governing couple has consistently made since it all started.

This isn’t like the eighties

On August 7, after repeatedly presenting differing figures, the Ortega regime settled on a definitive number of deaths and a new slogan, repeated in pro-government counter-marches: “It was 198. They killed them! They must pay for their crimes!” In the government version, all deaths were caused by the “terrorists,” none by the regime’s gunmen.

The goal of this official narrative was to re-coalesce the governing party’s base and the international solidarity “Left,” both of which were showing signs of raveling around the edges. Given the obvious nostalgia for a revolutionary party and a time that no longer exists, the idea was to recall the narrative of the eighties, when a genuinely revolutionary government was the victim of armed aggression that received hundreds of millions in US financing, as well as heavy-handed CIA strategizing and managing.

This narrative hasn’t actually experienced any serious rethinking in five months, except for President Ortega’s either intentional or unintentional changes of “detail” in international interviews along the way, particularly regarding the allegiance and identity of the paramilitary groups. There has been no government recognition that it might have handled things differently, even if only to avoid the political censuring that may yet lead to its downfall. To the contrary, Ortega has consistently dug his hole even deeper, becoming increasingly belligerent, obstinate, irrational and vindictive, almost like someone who knows he’s going down, but is determined to go down fighting.

But that’s totally in character. For more than a decade the governing couple has swept away any obstacles to its dynastic project of perpetuating the Ortega-Murillo family in power, convinced in vanguard tradition that they are the best thing for Nicaragua, whether Nicaraguans like it or not. Now they resist accepting that such a carefully crafted and executed plan, with each step granting them more and more power until they virtually have nothing further to gain and everything to lose, could so unexpectedly be crumbling before their eyes. Having so systematically nipped any opposition in the bud through careful application of intimidation and repression on the one hand, and massive doses of populist clientelism and revolutionary rhetoric on the other, they may genuinely have had no clue of the underlying discontent. And if they didn’t, it’s only because they failed to apply lessons learned: Ortega and Murillo also had no clue 28 years ago that they were about to lose the 1990 elections. Not bothering to listen to the people is an occupational hazard of autocrats.

The UN doesn’t buy
the coup accusation

The OHCHR report presented on August 29, covering the events of the first four months of the crisis (April 18 to August 18), took issue with the regime’s narrative: “Rather than recognizing responsibility for any wrongdoing during the crisis, the Government has placed the blame on social and opposition leaders, human rights defenders and media outlets for what they have termed ‘coup-related violence’; as well as for the negative impact of the political crisis on the country’s economy. Moreover, the Government has attributed the responsibility for all violent actions to those who participated in the protests, including concerning the 197 deaths it had recognized as of 25 July. It has not acknowledged any disproportionate use of force or illegal action by police agents.”

In presenting the report in Managua on August 29, Guillermo Fernández Maldonado, who coordinated the OHCHR mission in Nicaragua, said: “The narrative of a coup d’état was what was proposed to us from the first meeting we had in the Foreign Ministry. We said that if that was the vision, they should give us access to the information and the places that ratify it, and if we effectively found facts that sustained that vision we would go public with it.

“They have not, however, responded to any of our requests for information, nor have they permitted us to go outside of Managua or to any of the places we proposed. The information to which we had access does not support that vision. There is no indication of a coup d’état. To the contrary, from the human rights perspective, what we have found are governmental actions in response to a civic protest that are contrary to international human rights law.”

The UN Security Council agreed to receive the OHCHR report, a major step that moved the massive human rights violations committed by the Ortega-Murillo regime beyond the regional sphere of the OAS, to be discussed in the world’s maximum institution. It ushered in a new moment of hope in the midst of so many uncertainties.

If during the early street protests most of those killed and wounded in this extremely unequal confrontation were demonstrators, the clean-up stage caused the greatest bloodshed on both sides. The following is an excerpt of the August OHCHR Report on that period: “As the crisis unfolded, the level of violence against protesters by the police and armed civilians further increased, and so did the level of resistance of some individuals participating in roadblocks and occupations. There is ample data on the use of violent means by some protesters, including stones, homemade mortars and weapons, and firearms (mostly rifles). However, OHCHR found no evidence that these violent acts were coordinated or responded to a pre-existing plan.”

The regime hardened its response
to the human rights agencies…

The Ortega-Murillo regime has now realized, if perchance it didn’t at the beginning, that human rights has been the most effective instrument to put Nicaragua on the international radar. If at first it saw no choice but to invite the agencies in, the only possibility of maintaining its narrative was to erect a wall against anybody attempting to seek evidence and to vilify those who dare hold it responsible for the massive human rights violations it has wantonly committed.

The unexpected pressure from the massive street protests, the national dialogue and the Episcopal Conference seems to have initially caught the regime unprepared to defend its violent response with the blatant obstinacy it is now displaying. In a decision Ortega now surely rues, he agreed to invite international human rights institutions, starting with the IACHR, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to scrutinize the events. If he thought he would earn any points for allowing them entry he was seriously mistaken. The reports by all three plus the international media’s slow-growing coverage have opened the world’s eyes to what’s happening in Nicaragua

Ortega belatedly realized his error. The IACHR’s Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI), the four professionals of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) and the OHCHR team Ortega was forced to invite into the country in late June, have not been permitted to do their work.

The only group able to move around freely and gather evidence was the high-level IACHR mission, which was in the country in May and wrote a forceful report that alerted the OAS. Ortega never expected a report like it, which was why he has discredited it both in the OAS and in his international interviews. “He lies, lies everyday” said Ortega about IACHR executive secretary Paulo Abrão during one of his interviews.

…and put up a wall against them

No other “international eyes and ears” have been recognized. In fact, they’ve been brushed aside by all authorities. The regime has tolerated declarations from the IACHR’s MESENI team and the GIEI experts in press conferences and allowed them to stay in the country so far, but it has stymied their work.

After the IACHR’s initial mission was relatively free to move around the country and meet with different groups and individuals, the later-arriving agencies came up against a wall of non-cooperation. Any request by MESENI to visit prisons, attend trials of persons accused of “terrorism” or travel outside of Managua to any “hotspots” to interview victims of repression has to be submitted to the Foreign Ministry, which then simply fails to respond. The forensic, judicial and police files to which the GIEI requested access for the cases it is supposed to investigate have never been handed over. Most recently Ortega applied self-destructive sledgehammer diplomacy toward the prestigious OHCHR.

Nothing is normal,
least of all the economy

Five months after the April insurrection, the official narrative has become “enriched” with the claim that “everything is now normal” or, in its only slightly less false version, “is normalizing.” The forcible dismantling of roadblocks and street barricades has returned the circulation of traffic, albeit at lower than normal levels given the occasional searches of vehicles by special forces police, but that’s about the only thing in the country that can be defined as anywhere near normal.

Besides the apprehension and the hundreds of homes still mourning for their dead are all those still caring for wounded family members. Hundreds more are desperate for relatives who have been captured, imprisoned and tried as terrorists and the thousands who have fled or are fleeing to Costa Rica to save their lives.

But the economy is where the abnormality is most evident. The president of the Central Bank of Nicaragua (BCN) announced in July and August that the situation would normalize and the economic losses from April and May would balance out, but no improvement was seen. All of the country’s banks published long lists of people in arrears in the daily newspapers, and have restricted credit. They got caught between the capital flight of clients who still had plentiful bank accounts and didn’t want to jeopardize them, and those in arrears who can’t pay their debts because they have lost their job.

By September, national and foreign investments had paralyzed and a large part of foreign government donations were frozen. Between that and the earlier collapse of Venezuela’s oil cooperation, the country’s international reserves have been dwindling fast. A rapid recovery of the severely reduced tourism will be extremely difficult given the country’s negative image: coming to Nicaragua is risky. Construction, commerce and service businesses are affected more and more every day. Consumption has decreased by 70%, and as a result tax collection—which gets more from the regressive 15% value added tax than from income tax, because it has way too many exonerations and the rest is hard to collect—has fallen abruptly.

The abnormality was reflected in the streets. A large number of previously well-attended evening activities in cities and rural areas were no longer open. Many families even stopped sending their children to school given the lack of safety. Thousands of university students didn’t go back to finish their school year; many because they had to leave the country and others because they declared themselves in “academic rebellion” with the slogan “Without autonomy, streets are full and classrooms empty.” Still others feared arriving to their classrooms and falling prey to the government’s youth hunt. Then there were those whose families could no longer pay their tuition because of the economic crisis.

Retake the streets and make
people feel “it’s all over”

Admittedly, fewer people were being killed once the clean-up operations had ended, but police officers and hooded civilian para-police continued hunting down and capturing local protest leaders and anyone else they consider suspicious. Continuous illegal detentions, which keep swelling the number of political prisoners, make it hard for even passive people to feel the country is back to normal.

The governing couple has sought to portray its vision of “normality” with a lot of unconvincing razzmatazz: promoting sports competitions, food and crafts fairs and musical events in different municipalities. The news on government TV channels is also full of “normality.” Photo and video shots try to show large numbers of happy people participating in one thing or another, but they often fall flat.

Locking the notion of “normality” required retaking the streets. By mid-August, the population’s continuing capacity for mobilization, shown in the capital and elsewhere in the country, had made a mockery of the police intimidation all along their chosen route. The marchers had not only also continually braved the police, but also the counter-marches of FSLN sympathizers and mandatory public employees, called on the same day and sometimes oriented to cross paths with the protestors. The people dodged the harassers and parallel marches by taking different, unplanned routes. Not for the first time, the regime also sent infiltrators into the insistently peaceful but obviously smaller marches to provoke violence for which the regime would then hold the protesters legally responsible.

Another tactic from past years was also dusted off to demonstrate the government’s recovered monopoly of the streets. All day every day, continuing into year’s end, handfuls of government workers and Sandinista Youth with red and black FSLN flags now occupy the traffic circles and major street corners of the capital, some in the morning and others in the afternoon. While the idea of these lay-about flag wavers was presumably to superimpose an image of “calm normality” so the population feels “it’s all over,” it’s also an attempt to press home the idea that “the comandante is staying.” The main idea that has gotten pressed home, however, is that the government is playing a not very grown-up version of King of the Mountain, while the nation’s economy threatens collapse.

In yet another example of warped messaging, the pro-government forces also engage in walks “for peace” or caravans of state vehicles proclaiming “death to Somocismo”—apparently a reminder that it was the FSLN that had brought down a US-supported dictatorship, so could hardly be a dictatorship itself. In effect, however, it was still more creepy evidence that Ortega and his supporters are living in a parallel universe with a time warp.

When will this all end...
and how?

The pressing question heard everywhere is how and when all this will end. It is palpable to most that the conflict hasn’t been and won’t be resolved by imposing or repressing. For one thing, the economy has put severe limits on Ortega’s political pretensions to “stay.” For another, the majority of the population is still determined to see Ortega and Murillo leave and to achieve a change. The government has done nothing in the past months to make itself more desirable.

The brutal policy of terror has had its effects, including on the initial impetus of the civic protests. And the slow-motion collapse of the already fragile economy has not only left thousands of people jobless so far, but has also dragged the country to the threshold of a severe financial crisis.

Are we winning?

One of the slogans that most caught the population’s attention was the one with which political analyst and interviewer Jaime Arellano passionately opened his program on the 100% Noticias channel every morning: “We’re winning.”

Ortega’s strategic defeat is based on his illegitimacy, a black mark that has accompanied him most visibly since his 2016 reelection, when he appropriated (not won) the government for the third consecutive time with no genuine opponents, no presence of either national or international observers and virtually no voters… i.e. a higher abstention rate than the country has ever seen. The insurrection of an important part of the Nicaraguan people against his regime is strategically winning by hanging in and insisting on maintaining the civic and peaceful nature of the struggle, albeit at a very high price.

It’s that price, paid in blood and pain, that finally opened the eyes of the international community to what’s happening in Nicaragua. And that community is now acting on what it has seen, isolating and unmasking Ortega.

A valiant youth and
a more united nation

Two other gains can be credited to the civic rebellion, both of them also strategic as they promise a better future for Nicaragua. One is the awakening of the youth, whose valor and determination helped awaken many others. The other is that the gravity of the crisis has brought various social sectors, interests and generations together in an embryonic national unity aimed at tackling the dictatorship together.

In April, rebellion became a virtue for a good part of the youth, who courageously challenged the “hegemonic thinking” the regime has tried so insistently to impose. Since much of that rebellious youth has Sandinista roots, the rebellion has drawn a much clearer division between Sandinismo and the inflexible line of thinking behind Danielismo or Orteguismo, as that thinking is variously called. That division is a more significant asset than it might seem at first glance as the transmutation of the FSLN was central to Ortega’s dynastic project to edge out the historical militants with their values, their memory and their trajectory, and remake the party with youths displaying blind, uncritical and unconditional loyalty to the Ortega-Murillo personality cult.

This crisis has demonstrated that the country has a solid fount of potential national leadership made up of young and not so young men and women who come from both business and social sectors as opposed to the traditional political class. We have both a seasoned and a nascent but quickly maturing human capital that is proving to be up to the present tasks and also the challenges of the extremely complex future we can already foresee amid so much uncertainty and so many hopes.

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In the lead-up to the insurrection the country was in a “betting mode”

April 2018: An insurrection of the nation’s consciousness

A regime shooting at a civic revolution

Resisting the strategy of terror

After 100 days of insurrection, the world now knows what’s happening

Between uncertainty about the end and hope that “we’re winning”

Blue and white resistance v. the state of exception

Pressing questions at the end of this year of rebellion

Year-end postscript
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