“We want to help create a coalition that represents the whole movement”
The American University’s rector from 2007
until he resigned in December 2018
to dedicate himself full time to the work of
the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy
and help find a way out of the national crisis,
discusses the Alliance’s birth and its trajectory,
its relationship with the blue and white movement,
and the obstacles to “dialoguing” with the regime
in 2018 and “negotiating” with it earlier this year.
Most importantly, he explains the context that
led it to restructure and begin a new phase,
and what it hopes to accomplish.
Ernesto Medina Sandino
Once Ortega decided to end negotiations this July, the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy entered a new phase in the struggle to find a way out of the crisis.
Our decision is to restructure the Alliance so it can help create a large opposition coalition where all of the many and widely dispersed expressions of the blue and white movement are represented. We in the Alliance want to meet and have sincere talks with the different sectors until reaching minimum shared agreements among all so we can project a strong and united front to the people and thus finally put an end to the country’s terrible crisis. We are convinced that the very survival of our country is at stake.
Our new structure
The Civic Alliance announced its restructuring, on August 16. First we e created an Executive Council with representatives from eight sectors: students, labor, peasant, Caribbean Coast, academic, civil society, private sector and political sector, while leaving open the possibility to integrate other sectors.
We also formed several work committees: 1) Inclusion, to integrate new members into the Alliance; 2) Political Affairs, to promote political alliances and electoral reforms until accomplishing free, observed, transparent and early elections; 3) International Relations, to coordinate efforts with the international community; 4) Administration; and 5) Verification and Security which already existed since the first dialogue in 2018 and will provide continuity to everything we’ve been working on related to justice and human rights with the families of victims of the repression and with national and international organizations specialized in the defense of human rights.
To better understand the importance of this restructuring and its objectives, I think it’s necessary to learn a little more about how the Alliance came about and the problems it has faced as an organization during its short existen¬ce.
The bishops called us to
join the national dialogue
At the beginning of May last year the bishops from the Episcopal Conference invited us to participate in a meeting, without telling us its purpose beforehand. Father José Idiáquez, rector of the Central American University (UCA), and I, then-rector of the UAM, went to the meeting together. There we ran into other people who had also been invited by the bishops. I knew some of the faces; I’d had some kind of relation before with others, but had never worked together with any of them.
Father Idiáquez and I were invited into a room where we met with the bishop of Matagalpa, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez. He explained to us that Ortega had asked the bishops to act as mediators and witnesses in a national dialogue to solve the crisis.
He told us there was not yet a staring a date for the dialogue, but there was agreement between the Conference and a team from the government to start organizing it. The bishops had suggested our two names as part of a university delegation and the government had suggested Telémaco Talavera, then-president of the National Council of Universities and adviser for several government matters, who was also present. After asking us if we accepted the invitation, Monsignor Álvarez asked us to start writing a “university agenda” and told us that students and other sectors would be preparing their own agendas.
Nobody wanted sectoral agendas
It was a brief meeting. When we left, Father Idiáquez and I discovered we had both found it pretty strange and confusing. We agreed it was impossible to think of a university agenda when they were killing people on the streets—by then, more than 20 had already been killed. We later learned that Monsignor Álvarez had communicated the same message to people from other sectors he had also met with there. Though we hadn’t been told explicitly, we concluded the government was proposing a dialogue with sectoral agendas to dodge the main problem, the tragedy we were experiencing.
We decided to go talk with some of the other people we had seen there, representatives of the civil society and labor union sectors, to see what they thought. And even though we still didn’t know who would be representing the business sector, we also went to talk with José Adán Aguerri, certain he’d be involved in defining who would represent them.
Aguerri was the first person we spoke with. And from that first moment he made clear that, while the business sector obviously had its own agenda, nobody thought it was appropriate to discuss sectoral agendas. We agreed that the only issue for discussion was what was happening on the streets, to find a way to pacify the country.
The students must be
be the protagonists
Even though we had never worked together, we agreed to stay in communication. We also agreed to accompany the students in their process of getting organized and selecting their delegation for the dialogue. There was consensus that the kids should have the lead role, be the spokespeople of the agenda we were proposing. Once the students were organized and had designated their delegation, we met with them. They too agreed to discard the sectoral agendas.
In the end, we all sat down together for the first time only once each sector had elected its delegation, The Alliance didn’t yet exist. That first meeting took place in the UAM [American University] . In it we discussed the agenda and agreed that our only agenda would be to state clearly for everybody what was happening and ask for justice for the dead and wounded voictims being reported. And since by then it was obvious there was a governability crisis, the other issue in our agenda was democracy.
During that meeting, we received a phone call from the Episcopal Conference to say that the government had vetoed my participation without any justification and had asked the bishops to pull me out of the group. The group refused to accept the government deciding who would be on our side in the dialogue. We made that disagreement known and requested to be received by Cardinal Brenes and the bishops who would be witnesses in the dialogue.
Two days later we had that meeting. The group presented its discontent with what it considered the govern¬ment’s improper interference in the organizing of the dialogue, placing its seriousness at risk and sparking doubts about the government’s willingness to begin in good faith. The cardinal listened to us and said he understood our position, but explained that the decision about the veto had already been discussed and accepted by the Episcopal Conference, so he couldn’t reverse that decision. He asked us to write a letter to the entire Conference presenting our arguments and requesting the decision be reconsidered.
About a week later a friend visited me in in my office by request of the Episcopal Conference. He informed me that the letter had been received and attempts had been made to get the government to withdraw the veto, but the results were not positive. Faced with this situation, I was asked for my understanding and support by not insisting on my participation so the organizing of the dialogue could continue.
This was communicated to the group and I asked them to accept the decision and move forward. While the group accepted, I was asked to accompany them as an adviser and that’s how I was able to participate in the dialogue.
Peasants and the Caribbean
Coast should be in the dialogue
In that same meeting with the cardinal we expressed our opinion about other sectors we thought should be represented in the dialogue and had not yet been invited, specifically the peasant movement and the Caribbean Coast. We suggested that Francisca Ramírez, “doña Chica,” coordinator of the anti-canal movement, be invited. The cardinal suggested we include those issues in the letter to the Episcopal Conference, which we did.
Both sectors were agreed to. In the case of the peasant movement the invitation went to its board of directors, which named its chairman, Medardo Mairena, as its delegate. In the case of the Caribbean Coast, Daisy George was named.
There was nothing to celebrate
During the following days there were bilateral meetings between delegations and a couple of meetings with the group as a whole to confirm that we were going to participate in the dialogue only with the two fundamental issues of our agenda: justice and democracy.
On May 15, a day before the agreed-upon date to inaugurate the dialogue, we met with a group of advisers from the Episcopal Conference who came to present some points about the methodology for the dialogue and the program for the inaugural act. It was insinuated within the methodology that there would be a possibility of working in sectoral groups, but our group emphatically rejected the idea, insisting that only the issues already decided upon would be included.
With respect to the program for the inaugural act, a proposal that the ceremony conclude with a reception was rejected. We said there was nothing to celebrate, much less with Ortega.
Lesther Alemán expressed the
sentiments of most of the people
Once the advisers had departed, the group agreed that, since the students’ intervention hadn’t been included in the inau¬gural program, the only alternative was to take over the microphone and have one of them express the sentiments of the youth being attacked and massacred in the streets. They delegated this task to Lesther Alemán, who that day voiced the feelings of the whole group and the immense majority of the Nicaraguan people.
Days later some diplomats who had attended the event expressed certain discontent to us about the tone of Lesther’s intervention and about having rejected joining the government delegation at the reception. In their opinion this could compromise the dialogue’s future.
I sincerely believe Ortega’s opinion about the future of the dialogue was already defined even before coming to sit in the inaugural act at the seminary. At most, what happened that day may have reaffirmed his lack of willingness for a sincere dialogue, but nothing more. On our behalf, we didn’t think we would have another opportunity to tell him what we were thinking face to face. What happened that day will probably continue to be debated for a long time and will be an issue in academic programs about negotiations and national dialogues.
For justice and democracy
Although the Alliance was formed with people who barely knew each other and had never worked together, we had no problem reaching the first basic agreements. We were clear that the common objective of the sectors represented was to stop the serious human rights violations and solve the governability crisis via a change of government with early elections. The issue of early elections became part of our agenda from early on.
The Civic Alliance as such didn’t emerge until the dialogue had already started. During one of those first days before entering the plenary session, almost all of us were in one of the seminary’s rooms and we were commenting on the need to have a more structured organization, which we all accepted. It was at that moment that Carlos Tünnermann proposed the group’s name: Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy. We were all in agreement, as the name reflected everyone’s feelings and summarized the demands of the people on the streets. That’s how the Alliance was born, in an informal gathering.
There was never an
All of Nicaragua watched the national dialogue’s plenary sessions ton television through the eye of the cameras. But what did we see from inside?
As the days passed we felt a lack of clarity in some organizational aspects. For example, we would come to the meetings without even knowing who the formal and official members of the government’s delegation were because new delegates would show up every day. Nor was it clear how agreements would be reached. It was said that it would be by consensus, and if that wasn’t reached, it would be voted upon, which in theory would never end up in a decision if there was equal representation from both sides. But we never even found out if there was parity, if the government had the same number of delegates we did. Maybe the most important problem was having started the dialogue without a clear agenda and well-defined objectives agreed upon by all parties.
We very soon realized our
objectives were different
It was more than obvious what our objectives were, and they certainly weren’t the same as the government’s. This was seen within a few days, when we realized the government had no interest in reaching serious agreements.
Seeing how the events developed, I was left with the sensation that when the bishops were called to the dialogue Ortega said or offered things that made them accept this difficult task but that in the end weren’t granted. This led them to make decisions that determined how the dialogue was conducted.
I hope someday we can talk with the bishops about what happened during those days and learn what they talked about with Ortega. I don’t believe they were so naïve as to believe Ortega would negotiate in good faith and was willing to reach fundamental agreements to bring to justice those responsible for the crimes that were drowning the country in blood, or that he would start a process to direct the country along the path of democracy. Many times I felt Ortega must have made then some type of offer and that the dialogue was the mechanism to shape what he offered them.
“This is the route to a coup...”
Re-hearing the genesis of the national dialogue’s agenda is important to understanding the complex dynamics of this process and the difficulties in putting an end to the crisis.
On May 22 the bishops announced that work would be done to define the dialogue’s agenda and gave us a guide that read: “Constitutional mechanisms that can be used to reach a solution to the crisis.” They asked both delegations to divide into working groups to develop this subject and gave a deadline for turning in proposals. The proposal we worked on had more than forty points based on the possibilities given to us by the Constitution to get out of the crisis and respond to the aspirations people were expressing on the streets, always emphasizing justice and democracy.
That day, since I was an adviser so wasn’t in any of the working groups, I went around to see what the government delegation was doing. In reality, I didn’t get the impression it was taking the bishops’ request seriously. After a couple of hours, we handed the bishops our work. The next day, when we returned to plenary a summary of what we had done the day before was on everybody’s table, processed by the bishops and their advisory team. The title was “Route to democratization.”
The first to speak at the opening of the session was Foreign Minister Moncada Colindres, who lifted the sheet of paper and said: “This here is the route to a coup to overthrow the government.” It was the first time the coup idea had ever been mentioned. At that moment we felt the doors close on the search for a way out of the crisis.
“You have a historic opportunity”
It would be very important to have the minutes of that day’s dialogue published someday to see what both delegations presented to the bishops the day before, because of the implications this had for the failure of the dialogue and maelstrom of violence that followed.
The environment became very tense after the Foreign Minister’s words. Although as an adviser I didn’t have a voice, Sandra Ramos [leader of the María Elena Cuadra Movement of Working and Unemplooyed Women] requested the floor and said to me: “You speak.”
ddressing those who led the government’s delegation I said: “Today, you have a historic opportunity. What is proposed here for discussion is what the FSLN promised Nicaragua in its historic 1969 program and has not fulfilled. It’s what the Junta of National Reconstruction Government, which came into power in 1979, presented to transform Nicaragua after overthrowing Somoza but didn’t become a reality. Forget those who are on the other end of your phone line and take on this historic responsibility yourselves.”
Surely who was on the other end of their cell phone, giving them orders were Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.
Yes, it was very naive to think the regime’s representatives would take that agenda seriously. But knowing the tragedy we were living through and the fervor of the people marching in the streets carrying the blue and white flag demanding change, we thought we had a historic opportunity to achieve it at that moment.
Obviously, from that point on the dialogue had failed, even though there were several more sessions. Not a single issue on that agenda was ever discussed again. The issue of the roadblocks took up all the discussions from that day on. The rest is now history.
The bishops formed commissions
within a virtually dead dialogue
Though the dialogue was virtually dead with that negative response to the proposed agenda, the bishops, surely in an attempt to save it, decided to form commissions between the government and the Alliance. With the best of intentions, they proposed three: the electoral commission, the justice commission and the verification and security commission. They also proposed a work agenda for each commission, based on the agenda that had unleashed the crisis. They sent experts to accompany each commission.
The government sent high-level officials to all three commissions, most of whom hadn’t been in any of the previous sessions. For example, it sent several Supreme Court justices to the justice commission.
The Alliance’s delegations were made up of those participating in the dialogue, including students in all of them. We didn’t think we’d get caught up in legal discussions, but would deal with the fundamental problems the country was facing, which at that moment were ethical and moral. We didn’t go to debate legal technicalities with the justices from the judicial branch, but to talk about the deplorable state of the justice system in Nicaragua, product of the judicial branch’s total dependence on the executive branch and the subordination of all its decisions to political concerns and not to the rule of law.
We wanted to discuss the violation of even minimal norms of due process by instrumentalizing justice, turning it into a mechanism to punish those who dare to think differently and protest against the government’s abuses. In the electoral commission the government also sent magistrates and other officials from the electoral branch of government. Although our ultimate objective was to reach agreements on legal reforms that would give the electoral system credibility and restore people’s trust, we wanted to start by putting on the table the collapse and lack of credibility the electoral system had reached due to its politicization and manipulation by the governing party.
We could feel the
Neither of those two commissions met more than twice and they never reached a single agreement. The only one that survived and that we kept with the restructuring is that of verification and security.
Since “Operation clean-up” had already started to dismantle the roadblocks with bullets, we wanted to guarantee security for those participating in the roadblocks. This commission traveled several times to Carazo and other departments to try to avoid more tragedies. But that also failed and we all know what happened in the end. Finally, on June 25 the national dialogue ended.
I’m going back over this to illustrate all the weaknesses there were from the beginning. At one point during this process we met among ourselves to analyze the role we were playing as the Alliance and to talk about the demands we felt people were making of us. Although we were aware that their expectations exceeded our capacities and possibilities, we failed to communicate and explain our limitations. The people saw us as one of the few organized groups that existed at the moment, one facing the government in the dialogue, and they gave the Alliance a role for which it had not been designed.
We weren’t ready to
take on a political role
Totally concentrated on the dialogue, we never thought of the Alliance as a political organization, or at least not in the traditional sense of political organizations in Nicaragua.
We had been called to dialogue, and during those months, new groups were constantly emerging demanding that the Alliance come to them, include them, listen to them and to a degree legitimize them. We asked ourselves how to interact and work with them, but we had no preconceived answers.
We had to find answers along the way and naturally, we couldn’t respond to everything. Nor were the answers always what the people expected from us. The amount of demands placed on the Alliance was enormous and continuous. We were concerned about our limitations in responding adequately to so many expectations. Our communication weaknesses caused tension and complaints that in some cases were difficult to overcome.
At that time we didn’t think we were ready to play a political role and we didn’t plan on becoming an organization that would lead a confrontation that was already clearly political. Even before the dialogue ended it was obvious that we entering a stage in which the confrontation would be between two visions. That of the Ortega government, determined to remain in power no matter what, and the still diffuse vision of the movement that began in April, which had no identifiable leadership or any clear program beyond the demand that Ortega and Murillo step down and leave us a free space of power to begin working on reconstructing the country.
We were facing an enemy
that will stop at nothing
While we were still immersed in the dialogue, we discussed several times whether the Alliance should play a different role from that of interlocutor in the dialogue. At some point, we also discussed the need to do a more in-depth analysis of the situation’s evolution and the correlation of forces.
Up to then the movement had been spontaneous and voluntarist, but we were already seeing that the problem wouldn’t be solved with four or five huge marches in Managua and the rest of the country. Moreover others were telling us this wasn’t going to be solved easily just because we believed we had reached the point of no return and a solution to the crisis would therefore appear. Despite all of that, we were unable to make much headway with a serious analysis of the blue and white movement’s strength vs. the strength of what we were facing.
There were signs that a more solid and structured organization was needed, one with a more realistic analysis and a successful perspective in the face of the bloody repression Ortega had unleashed. By August 2018 when “Ope¬ration clean-up” ended, we had all become convinced we were up against an enemy that would stop at nothing and were entering a totally new and more complex situation.
A slump when the dialogue ended
The Alliance as such experienced a slump when the national dialogue ended. We had been called to dialogue and it had failed in the sense that nothing was achieved to put an end to the crisis, lay the groundwork for true justice or start a solid democratization process.
However, everyone recognizes there had been some important results, such as having achieved the presence in Nicaragua of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and later its Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (Meseni) and Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI). Their reports have been crucial to letting the world know about the grave human rights violations committed in Nicaragua.
Ortega’s meeting with
the top business leaders
After several months had passed with no initiative from Ortega and with the economic crisis advancing, the top leadership of the private sector met with Ortega in February of this year and they agreed to set up real negotiations. After the failure of last year’s dialogue and with the lessons learned from it, it was clear the solution to the crisis required serious political negotiations.
Who would Ortega’s counterpart be in this new attempt? After the bloody wave of repression that put an end to the roadblocks, and with the country virtually occupied by police and para-police forces, no organization had the strength to sit down with Ortega and force him to make concessions.
By then, the ebb of the blue and white movement was evident. The repression had been and still was brutal. There were hundreds of prisoners and thousands of people in exile and no mobilization on the streets due to the repressive wave. Surely Ortega pushed to negotiate with groups that would easily yield to his pretensions, as he had repeatedly done in the past. Although the details of the conversations with the business sector’s leaders aren’t known, some of those present very likely pointed out that Ortega-style negotiations, with meek interlocutors that wouldn’t deal in depth with the fundamental problems of the crisis would do nothing more than delay a true way out and would probably only worsen the contradictions.
In the end, the decision was made that the Civic Alliance be the interlocutor with the government in these negotiations: either the Alliance or no negotiations. The participants at the negotiation table were also decided.in that meeting with Ortega: there would be a group of negotiators with their respective alternates and a group of advisers in “the next room.”
I was invited to participate as an alternate. I was out of the country at the time and was told about the meeting with Ortega and big business, but wasn’t given any details. Even though I wasn’t clear about the possible background for this decision and had questions about our capacity to face a negotiation of this type, I knew my place was there given the seriousness of the crisis, the commitment we had acquired with the families of the victims and the hundreds of political prisoners… and for dignity.
What happened in that meeting?
My reading of what happened in that meeting of big money with Ortega, where the negotiation table was decided, is that Ortega demonstrated his political astuteness, seeing the opportunity for a way out without having to pay the high price that had been hanging over his head since April 2018.
I firmly believe the businessmen were desperate to find a way out of the crisis, which was affecting their interests and for which there wasn’t even a glimpse of a prompt solution. Ortega, whose economic interests were also being affected, surely thought he had everything under control and that the worst phase of the crisis threatening his power had been surmounted. He saw the opportunity of a way out that could count on the backing of big money and would be aimed at dismantling the threats of sanctions from the international community without having to make any fundamental concessions.
Surely he also included his contempt for the Civic Alliance in his calculations, convinced that it wouldn’t have the strength or the capacity to twist his arm in the negotiations. Certainly he thought it would be easy to reach agreements that would deflate a situation that was still tense even after so much repression, agreements he knew ahead of time he wouldn’t comply with in the end.
I suspect those top business leaders, who also weren’t thinking of a comprehensive solution to the crisis, believed Ortega and also thought something positive could come from the table relatively quickly.
Did it make sense to agree
upon constitutional rights?
Several happenings reinforce my reading of Ortega’s thinking. First, the roadmap agreed to set a period of 30 days to reach agreements. When that deadline arrived and no agreement had been reached, an extension of a few more days was agreed to, which was also unreal.
Second, in the methodology approved at the table it had been agreed that the discussions would not go point by point until an agreement was reached on each one before moving on to the next, but instead if consensus wasn’t reached on one point, other issues could be discussed instead until possible agreements were found. That was how the only two agreements were reached: the release of the political prisoners within a 90-day period and the restoration of constitutional rights and guarantees.
Both sparked a lot of discussion among us and strong criticism from different sectors of the blue and white movement. On the first issue, it was argued that 90 days was too long. And on the second, the feeling was that we shouldn’t have to negotiate an agreement on rights already guaranteed in the Constitution. Freedom of expression, association and mobilization, and university autonomy are all cons¬titutional rights. In a normal country it doesn’t make any sense to include them in a negotiated agreement. But in the end, we saw it as the only way to get onto the table what was then and still is a huge problem in our country: those rights are not respected.
Frustrated and facing a crossroad
With the final deadline upon us with no clear possibility of achieving a more positive result that day, those of us in “the next room” were overwhelmed with frustration. We were convinced the negotiation was ending without having achieved a thing, because we saw no will in the government to comply with these two issues even if it agreed to them.
But the witnesses and advisers accompanying us, some of whom had participated in the difficult Colombian peace process, told us we needed a strong dose of pragmatism at a crossroad like the one we had reached. They pointed out that the only alternatives were to suspend the negotiations without accomplishing anything or accept agreements that, even though they weren’t totally satisfactory, showed progress and would allow us to keep the space open for negotiating the other key points that were still pending. After heavy discussions with our negotiating team, we accepted the signing of the proposed writings and a press conference to announce to announce them.
So, that is how by the end of that seemingly never-ending afternoon we were presented with two documents with the proposed wording for each agreement: the release of political prisoners within a 90-day period and the restoration of guarantees and rights already in the Constitution but being violated by the government. Finally, we concluded that by requiring compliance in the agreements it would create the conditions to start bringing tranquility back to the people.
With nothing fulfilled our only
pressure was to leave the table
We all know what happened afterwards: the agreements weren’t fulfilled. Many prisoners were let out of prison, but not a single one was freed, nor did anyone get their judicial file expunged. They were sent to house arrest where they continued to be harassed, and some have been impriso¬ned again, accused now of common crimes. Moreover, more than a hundred prisoners are still in jail. And not a single constitutional right has been restored.
The signing of the agreements brought criticisms, some of them vicious, against the Alliance’s decision. We were accused of a lack of vision, of playing along with the regime, of not having different sectors in the struggle participate in our decisions over such transcendental issues.
With this criticism as a backdrop and facing an ever more evident lack of willingness by the government to comply with the signed agreements, the only kind of pressure left to us was to suspend the negotiations and leave the table, demanding a clear show of willingness to comply with the two existing agreements and progress on the issues still pending. It was the only way to protest and have the people see that what was happening at the table was a mockery.
The government never agreed to
review the political prisoner lists
The day we made the decision to leave the table until the release of all political prisoners was effectively fulfilled was May 16, the day they killed Eddy Montes in La Modelo prison. The 90-day deadline was about to expire and there was fear that not all prisoners would be released. We repeatedly insisted at the table that the lists be reviewed to make sure all were being released but the government never accepted that; it just said that everything was signed, those to be released from prison were the ones on the “list reconciled” with the International Red Cross and there was nothing more to be discussed. That’s where we were when Eddy Montes was killed and we decided to stop playing the government’s game and leave the negotiations. This was also a demand coming from the majority of the population.
We expressed our position on several occasions that even if the negotiations were suspended, a space still existed to discuss implementation and fulfillment of the signed agreements with the government delegation. But it never accepted this dialogue space; instead it would show up at INCAE—where the negotiations had been taking place—and hold press conferences in to accuse the Alliance of not coming and of boycotting the negotiations.
Does Ortega really
want to solve this?
The decision to leave the table has had many consequences. Some sectors of the international community have echoed the government’s argument that we “abandoned” the negotiations. Others saw our leaving as a sign of the Alliance’s weakness, a way of covering up our incapacity to solve the crisis. We have a different reading.
I believe that leaving the table at that moment was morally correct. A man was killed and the government wasn’t even making even a show of investigating who had killed him and under what circumstances. It was impossible to continue discussing anything with this government.
The problem isn’t the Alliance’s alleged weakness. It’s the counterpart’s total lack of willingness. Does Ortega really want to solve this? Better said, does he want to solve it peacefully and through negotiations? That is definitely the way we want to solve it, and leaving the table was a way to tell him that if he wants to solve this, it should be through negotiations, but serious ones.
What can we offer in such
an asymmetric negotiation?
The question the international community is asking, that they’ve repeatedly asked me, is whether or not negotiating with Ortega makes sense, because a negotiation between two parties consists of each side making concessions until they reach a point that satisfies them both. The specific question they ask is what we have to offer, to concede.
My answer is that we’re very clear this is a completely asymmetric negotiation. It’s between one side that has the monopoly of brute force and uses it to repress indiscriminately, and another seeking a peaceful solution and rejecting the use of violence while also firmly rejecting the violation of the citizenry’s human rights and demanding a change in the political situation to lead the country toward democracy and human and sustainable development. These principles are our counterpart to violence and our strength in the negotiation.
Our conviction is that we can only end this crisis with the participation of all of this majority that’s demanding a change. No agreement made by the government will be via¬ble without us; it won’t bring peace to the country or put an end to the crisis. We’re convinced Ortega will be unable to end the crisis and truly return to normality only by negotiating with groups aligned with him or that lend themselves to a negotiation based on personal benefit.
The situation will only blow up again...
Ortega needs to listen to the international community and return to the negotiating table with the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy. The pressing question is whether he understands this, and it seems he doesn’t because however much we would like to find just a little rationality in what we’re living through, their decisions don’t seem to show any. They ought to have a minimum of sensitivity to the national tragedy, so many people’s pain, or at the very least the country’s economy, which is at the edge of the precipice. It should make them reflect, but so far nothing in their way of thinking suggests even the possibility of that.
For that reason, the question we’re constantly asking in the Alliance is what the alternative is, how we can put an end to this. Ortega believes the solution to the crisis is to apply more and more repression, until people grow weary, adjust to it and get used to it. But that would be a pyrrhic factory. And how long would it last? A year? Two? Sooner or later it will all erupt again.
Ortega won’t negotiate
without internal pressure
The Nicaraguan people don’t accept being humiliated and subjected by force. It’s dramatic to live in this country when you think differently than the powers that be, when you can’t go where you want or do what you want. The harassment, the bullying, the omnipresent police control and the senseless violence of both the police and the paramilitary forces are unacceptable.
I find it humiliating to go into the streets and see police everywhere, all day long every day. It’s the new normal for Ortega and his people because they aren’t the ones under siege, but how long will people continue putting up with this? There are only two choices: either this all blows up again—with the risk of it ending in a real and enormous explosion that can only end badly for everyone—or we negotiate seriously.
That continues to be the Alliance’s position: the struggle has to be peaceful and the solution must be negotiated. But Ortega won’t negotiate seriously if he doesn’t feel pressure. The international community has already shown it has some mechanisms, but they don’t seem to be making Ortega accept a serious negotiation with serious agreements that will finally turn the crisis around. He will continue banking on repression unless he’s forced to return to the table by internal pressure.
Grasping the complexity of
this struggle has cost us dear
This is the context in which the Civic Alliance has decided to start restructuring and redefining our mission and vision to strengthen our role as an interlocutor in the political negotiation and take on a clearer role as a political actor in this stage of the struggle.
The Alliance’s new strategic objective is to help form a great opposition coalition in which all expressions of the blue and white movement are represented to contribute to the struggle to build a new Nicaragua.
We’re now convinced that without a correct balance of national and international pressure there will be no peaceful solution to the crisis. The domestic pressure is necessarily based on strengthening the organization of the extremely broad-based blue and white movement, which up to now has been a voluntarist movement that very romantically thought demonstrations, protests and demands would be enough to make Ortega understand the depth of our discontent, our rejection of his rule, and would lead him to give up power. It has cost us very dear to recognize that Ortega isn’t listening to the people’s clamor and to understand that this struggle is now a more complex one.
Two different visions of Nicaragua
The struggle is actually between two different visions of Nicaragua.
On one side is a Nicaragua living under a dictatorship with a family-run party that controls everything, and has the monopoly of force and only wants to palliate the most aberrant symptoms of poverty with paternalistic charity and a “revolutionary” rhetoric that has nothing to do with today’s reality.
And on the other is a Nicaragua that wants democracy and freedom with inclusive and sustainable economic development, dignified work for all, respect for human rights and an eye toward the future rather than the past.
The Alliance’s main task in this stage is to organize and structure a political platform that mobilizes people to defend their rights, struggle against the corruption and lies that characterize this regime and begin to build the Nicaragua we’ve always dreamed of.
Behind this decision is the recognition and conviction that the struggle is now eminently political. Although the Alliance is continuing to prepare for the eventuality of negotiating again, we believe that even if a negotiation leads to results that can get us out of the crisis, Nicaragua’s real problem runs much deeper, because the crisis is leaving the country extremely polarized with raw hatred between one side and the other and with a destroyed economy that will require many years of hard work to recover.
The crisis unmasked
the country we had
The crisis revealed the true face of our country. We weren’t doing well just because we had a 5% economic growth. The economy was growing, but that was only reflected in the bank accounts of Ortega family members and the corrupt group surrounding him, while the people remained as poor as always.
We were the safest country in Central America, admired by the region. But we discovered tragically that this was because criminal groups were part of the power apparatus and, at a mere signal from their chiefs, they donned balaclavas, loaded their AK 47s and with no compunction whatever went out in to the streets to sow terror and death.
We were told endlessly that we were living in a new stage of the socialist revolution, when in reality the economic policy was following the International Monetary Fund’s manual to the letter, even more than the neoliberal governments Ortega so constantly reviles.
The economy still depends on the same traditional products Nicaragua has exported for two centuries; the only jobs created were those with survival wages in the free trade zone sweatshops and the ever-expanding informal market, where employees have no rights or security.
One of the country’s main income sources are the remittances sent by the hundreds of thousands of compatriots forced to seek in other countries what they can’t find here. Nicaragua exports people, skilled workers, its best talent.
The constant rhetoric aimed at making us believe we were living in a paradise was and still is opposed by the stark reality of an impoverished, backward country that in lieu of offering real structural changes to pull people out of poverty and darkness offers them fanciful projects like the interoceanic canal, which only fostered corruption and false illusions, while turning over sovereignty to the darkest forces of the savage capitalism Ortega also excoriates.
Until we understand that what we had up until April is the very Nicaragua that needs to be transformed, we aren’t going to be able to pull together the strength needed to oblige Ortega to grasp that his time has passed, that we gave him a new opportunity to fulfill his promises of work and peace a decade ago and he failed again, submerging the country in a new sea of blood and tears thanks to his ambition and arrogance. He must accept that he has to step aside so we can begin to build a Nicaragua of hope.
We’ve come to understand
that we need unity in diversity
To undertake such an effort we need to be realistic. And the reality we have today, as I see it, is a very diverse and divided movement in which many still believe this is just a question of will, not of organizing and being ready to run risks.
Others think they can make things the way they’d like them to be by criticizing and disqualifying those who are trying to do something, but are incapable of moving a finger to set the example and demonstrate how things should be done through deeds. Such attitudes only foster division and mistrust.
How do we move beyond these divisions? We believe everyone has the right to think how to shake off the ennui and organize in a way that responds to their way of being, to their interests. We must understand that our unity has to recognize and respect this diversity. Just laying this out has been a huge step, but creating unity in diversity isn’t so easy. Every day we talk and listen to different people and see how difficult it is given so much diversity to shape a strong and coherent movement that can act as a counterweight to a regime that still enjoys many resources and has shown it has no scruples.
Democratic sentiment needs to
be accompanied by effectiveness
We’ve also realized that the only way to have a strong and well-structured movement is by having a minimum program we all agree on, are committed to and willing to work to implement.
In the current stage it’s necessary to strengthen the Alliance’s internal structure and functioning. That’s not easy either. A great virtue of that huge movement born in April is that feeling of wanting to participate, to be heard, to stop the emergence of any new caudillo that wants to take over.
But this virtue makes it extremely hard to forge unity because it requires a great deal of discussion time to hammer out any decision we can all agree on. That’s fine in principle, but it’s led us to postpone the toughest decisions and we either leave them undiscussed because we’ll never all agree on them or they end up watered down enough to suit everyone’s taste.
This profoundly democratic sentiment of the blue and white movement needs to be accompanied by effectiveness. There has to be agility in the decisions and an analysis and planning process that shows us if what we’re proposing to do is the right thing. And there has to be a subsequent process that tells us if what we did had an impact or not.
Ortega’s alliance with big business
brought both indifference and warnings
We’re clear that the unity we need mustn’t exclude anyone. Many of the messages we receive from the population via the social media are filled with criticism of the presence and actions of business representatives in the Alliance.
I think this issue must be addressed frankly and always with the spirit of adding, not taking away. My viewpoint is that we all know their responsibility during the “happy” years of their alliance with the dictatorship and we know this privileged relationship served the business class well in pushing a legislative agenda in line with its own interests, favoring a “good business climate” for investment and maximum profits.
In exchange, Ortega had a free hand to push his project to concentrate power by dismantling the country’s democratic structures and institutionality. This alliance unquestionably contributed to the economic growth of recent years and to the superficial changes we observed, especially in the main cities and tourist zones.
Although many voices warned of the dangers of this situation, the truth is that the majority of us viewed it with indifference, and as long as we weren’t directly affected things went well enough. There’s no doubt that the most perverse effect of all this was the inversion of society’s scale of values: democratic principles lost value with respect to supposed economic wellbeing, tranquility and being left in peace.
Experts who visited the country in those years and some specialized studies that had a lot of impact at the time warned of the danger, even for the business climate, of dismantling the democratic institutionality. There couldn’t be sustainable growth, much less structural transformation, it was said, in a setting with such abuse of power, perversion of justice and corruption, all under the wing of power.
The business elite broke
with Ortega in April 2018
Sooner or later that ideal world would collapse, they warned, and that’s exactly what happened starting on April 18, 2018. The unilateral reform of the Social Security Institute was what triggered the break-up of the alliance between the private sector and the government.
That rupture was depened by the business elite’s quick decision to side with the sectors demanding justice and democracy as the only way to end the crisis. It’s hard to be sure that the break-up will be definitive and irreversible, but they have remained firmly on the side of the democratic sectors and played a positive role in these months of struggle so far, despite the pressures and the enormous economic deterioration the country is suffering.
What unfolds in the future will depend above all on the force of the movement that’s coming into being and on all of us understanding that we need the participation and contribution of all sectors and recognizing the weight the business sector has in this country.
The businesspeople’s situation within the Alliance hasn’t been free of difficult moments and very strong discussions and demands. When the government began to invade the farms and lands of some businesspeople in the Alliance, we asked them to tell us frankly us if the pressures were affecting their commitment to and participation in the Alliance, which we said would be understandable. It was one of the frankest discussions we’ve had with them and all of them ratified their commitment and have remained with us.
Furthermore, the reason the negotiating table didn’t produce the kind of deal big capital and Ortega may have hoped for is because the private sector has maintained a consistent position within the Alliance about the central proposal: the only way the crisis will be resolved is through elections with full guarantees and not setting aside the issue of justice. I believe that so far the private sector is still firm on that position.
Where do we want to see
the business leaders?
I think the question we should all be asking ourselves on this issue is where we want to see the business leaders: on our side or on the opposite side seeking a deal with Ortega that would make things much harder for the blue and white movement? No one is naïve. We’re all clear that they have their own interests, but so does every sector involved in this struggle.
We need to talk with each sector in the Alliance about its vision of the country we must build in order to work on common points and assure ourselves that we’re really willing to do something new and definitively break with the past. That discussion with the business sector is essential and supremely important to the country’s future. If they think they’re going to make the same deals in the new Nicaragua that they’ve always made, and in the same way they made them before April, I don’t think that would fit in with the plans of most of us in the Alliance. Nor do I believe there should be any thought of the kind of expropriations and economic experiments that have already proved to be ineffective.
We haven’t yet had this discussion with them with the seriousness and profundity required. We don’t know how far they’re willing to go; how much they’re willing to give. And it’s important because we have to be clear that in the Nicaragua that will come after the crisis, everyone will have to make sacrifices, and those with more will have to contribute more.
Is the business sector willing
to give its fair share in the future?
Are they willing? I don’t know. These are things that have to be discussed when designing minimum agreements about the Nicaragua we want, a discussion in which not only the business sector but all sectors should participate.
We’re where we are today, with Ortega having failed to convince anyone that the country has returned to normality, because in both the Alliance and all the other sectors participating in this struggle the idea has prevailed that we have a commitment that goes beyond the sectoral interests represented. And obviously one of the strongest sectors is business.
They are a real force in the country and will be in the future, when their role will be even more important than now. We’re clear that we must start defining this role now, because if Nicaragua is going to end the current inequity and change the economic model we’ve had, they will have a lot to say and a lot to change.
Complexity and maturity
in the student sector
Like the business sector, all the other sectors that are part of the Alliance are engaged in a reflection and analysis process to learn more about our strengths and weaknesses and define how we can each help consolidate the Alliance and the entire democratic movement.
Given its weight and importance in this struggle, the student sector has a special responsibility in this process and must have the support of all other sectors. Like all the others, it is also dealing with understandable problems.
The student organizations in the Alliance were orphaned when the government so brutally recovered the universities at the epicenter of the struggles. The leaders in the Alliance can’t even step on campus and were forced to stop studying. Their student files disappeared and in many cases their student bases have been broken up.
Can the student movement function outside of the universities? That’s what we’ve been talking with them about, as the issue is one of the huge challenges we have to deal with.
The student movement is perhaps one of the sectors of the blue and white movement with the most complex situation right now. We’ve said we understand its problems and that they’re the ones who have to resolve them. So far they’ve shown a high degree of maturity, which has allowed them to make progress, but we can’t expect automatic answers and solutions.
The democratic disposition all student organizations have shown so far is very important. They have rejected even the most minimum temptation of centralism, authoritarianism and caudillista leadership, which should fill us with hope.
They recently held a forum with more than 400 young participants, in which they showed signs of their capacity to attract people, organize the event and commit to unity. We have to continue supporting them in these efforts.
We must struggle with other
sectors under many banners
How do I see the struggle in this new stage? The first huge and unpostponable task is to achieve unity. There have been disagreements with organizations in the Blue and White Unity. But I think this is now being overcome and we’re all convinced it’s time to join forces.
The other major task is to strengthen the organization and develop new forms of struggle to keep the pressure on Ortega and his regime until he realizes that the only way out of this crisis is through dialogue and negotiation, putting Nicaragua’s interest before any other.
I think we have to begin designing other strategies of struggle, taking up the problems suffered by other people, such as retirees whose pensions have been cut and are receiving very poor attention in the hospitals, or coffee growers who are demanding an audit of the taxes levied on them, which they believe are being misused. Then there are the unemployed, who know they won’t get their jobs back with Ortega, and public employees, who must insist on respect for their dignity. We have to be able to organize with other sectors under many different banners.
We need to improve
our international work
There’s been a touch of arrogance among those of us in the Alliance. Having international recognition as players in the search for a solution to the crisis made us feel we were above others.
We’ve had a lot to improve in our international work as well. We want to move beyond the Organization of America States and the international human rights organizations and organize our relations better with the Nicaraguan diaspora in the United States, Spain and Sweden, which we consider to be the key countries where the diaspora is much more organized and has done important lobbying with political parties.
The tasks and challenge
of representing diversity
Our new structure has an organization in charge of including new groups in the Alliance. Minimum criteria have been defined, but the most important thing is to grow without affecting sister organizations, prioritizing sectors that aren’t organized yet but have shown a clear commitment to the struggle.
It’s complicated to exclude based on lack of represen¬tativity or legitimacy and I think it would be sad if legitimacy only came from having been imprisoned. We have to earn legitimacy by example and through the struggle. But as inclusion will be by sector, we expect the sectors themselves to democratically elect their own representatives. We aren’t going to decide; we want them to do that.
We’re also going to the territories to talk to local organizations and learn more about who is showing their face in the municipalities. It’s turning out to be a very difficult task given the harassment and ongoing siege. The great challenge is to ensure that the coalition we’re creating represents all the diversity and complexity of our beloved Nicaragua.
And the leadership?
Some think we need a leadership with face and name. We’ve discussed the issue, but given the way this movement arose and has been structured, it’s horizontality, it has been allergic to hierarchies and leaders.
In the tensest moment of the struggle even the mention of coordinating anything was almost synonymous with betrayal of the movement’s very essence. Considering the legitimate fear of incubating new caudillos, the idea of finding new forms of organization that allow it to be more efficient in decision-making and take advantage of the enormous potential our diversity gives us is only very slowly gaining acceptance.
There has been some progress in forming an Executive Council in the Alliance. Naming Carlos Tünnermann as general coordinator and Juan Sebastián Chamorro of FUNIDES as executive director are steps in this direction.
Are we ready to take
charge of the transition?
During the stage of the huge demonstrations of 2018, friends abroad told me they were seeing something like a “tropical Arab Spring”: mammoth mobilization with a lot of fervor, enthusiasm and determination… but they reminded me that those mobilizations ended badly, nearly all of them put down by the military...
The fear of many people in the international community was that something similar would happen here, that the Army would intervene or that Ortega would in fact go, but leaving a vacuum that would be filled by chaos, leading them to wonder what would happen then.
We have to recognize that in 2018 we never thought seriously about that. There was so much grief and rage triggered by the massacres and the cynicism of Ortega and Murillo that we were only demanding they leave… and we’d deal with the aftermath later.
Today, after everything we’ve lived through, we need to ask ourselves the same questions: if Ortega and Murillo suddenly leave, are we ready? What will happen then? What I perceived talking to the representatives of several countries is that there’s still fear in the international community that Ortega’s departure would create a vacuum that could cause tremendous instability.
I think that’s why they’ve preferred to take things calmly and cautiously, which we don’t like. But we have to admit that we’re also to blame for this slowness because we haven’t shown them convincingly that we’re ready to take charge of the transition.
From instinct and good intentions
to realism and objective clarity
Am I pessimistic, optimistic or realistic? I think we need to objectively analyze where we are today, our strength, the dictatorship’s strength and how far the international community can go with its actions, so we can be clear about the possible scenarios and analyze how we can act in each one of them.
We can’t continue being guided only by instinct, our good intentions and the frequently repeated demonstrations of Nicaraguans’ willingness to sacrifice themselves. Despite everything, I believe we’re now better prepared for the transition because we’re clearer about the complexity of the task. I think there’s greater clarity about our need to achieve minimal agreements in order to move forward, including on how to coexist with those who think differently than us.
The toughest questions
One of the most difficult questions we have to ask ourselves is precisely how we’re going to live with people who’ve supported Ortega and are going to continue supporting him. A lot of progress has been made in recognizing that they can’t simply be ignored. Various initiatives are currently underway to find ways of dealing with this, some at a local level, and we need to include such issues in our agenda.
Another unavoidable issue is the problem the para¬militaries represent for the future, as we’re all quite clear ¬that unless that’s resolved Nicaragua won’t be at all viable. Our verification and security commission has studied possible existing mechanisms to deal with this problem. Obviously, given the magnitude of the tragedy we’re living through, some people will have to be brought to justice, genuine justice, but there are many who didn’t participate in the massacres who have the right to think differently and not be the object of reprisals and exclusions.
If we exclude them, we’ll only recreate the feeling of being second-class citizens that we ourselves are currently experiencing. I wouldn’t like us to repeat that logic with them, turning anyone who thinks differently, whether Sandinista or not, into second-class citizens.
Justice is a fundamental step to deal with in order to surmount this crisis. We have insisted again and again on the need to know what happened, who gave the orders and what orders were given. It is crucial that we know the truth.
Deep down, we all know what happened, but we need independent research to confirm it for us. I can’t imagine building a different Nicaragua rooted in a lie, with that doubt, attempting to move forward as if nothing happened.
We don’t even know the
size of our own strength
I’d like end with this message: despite the fact that we’re not organized and still have a great deal to do, we don’t even know the size of our own strength.
The fact that Ortega hasn’t dared to resolve this crisis by seeking partners he can impose his will on, as he’s always done in the past, and the fact that the private sector hasn’t sat down to “cut deals” with him indicate that the blue and white movement has enormous power and strength that we must nurture, defining our proposal for the country so people can identify with it.
Our agenda is conditioned by our urgent need to pull ourselves out of this crisis. Underlying that is the need to create the conditions to stop what we’ve experienced and are still experiencing from ever being repeated, in the knowledge that the root of the crisis is an irresponsible, corrupt and murderous government.
After this government’s departure there will still be unjust social conditions, polarization and a great deal of hatred that will have to be dispelled. Will Nicaraguans be able to reach sufficient consensus to make the profound changes needed in the country’s social structure to ensure a more just country? That remains to be seen and debated, especially with the private sector to learn what it’s thinking.
What I am sure of
Those of us who have gotten involved in this haven’t done so out of resentment toward Daniel Ortega or for our own interests. We’ve done it because this crisis has revealed that the country that existed before April 18 was made up only of lies and promises and that most of us were almost resigned to continuing to accept it.
But the message of the April rebellion was: “Enough! No more lies and deceit!” The crisis that was unleashed gave us the opportunity to transform our country, and that transformation will have to be holistic.
It remains to be seen whether we’re up to it; we’re going to have to demonstrate that. All the previous sacrifices will have been in vain unless a different Nicaragua, a more just, peaceful, tolerant country with more solidarity comes out of this.
We mustn’t lose faith. If we all do what we have to do, we can achieve it. I don’t know yet how this will all turn out, but of one thing I am certain: we will never go back to April 17, 2018. Nicaragua will never be the same. But how it will be different, whether or not it will be the country we want, and how soon is lrgely up to us.
Ernesto Medina has a PhD in xhemistry from the Georg August University of Göttingen in Germany. His many interests include education policies and the role of science and technology in developing countries. After teaching organic chemistry and biochemistry at the National University of Nicaragua (UNAN) in León, he was elected its rector in 1994 and served until 2006, when he became rector of UAM.