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2020: In Times of Crisis, Better Days Will Come

The political challenges to clear the democratic path to end the crisis caused by the Ortega dictatorship in Nicaragua

Carlos F. Chamorro

9 de enero 2020


The release of 91 political prisoners on New Year’s Eve without any negotiation between the dictatorship and the opposition, is a victory of national and international political pressure. A result, first of all, of the courage and struggle of the mothers of political prisoners and their hunger strike in the San Miguel church in Masaya, of the unity in action of the Civic Alliance and the UNAB to free the “water carriers” and all the prisoners, together with international sanctions by the United States, the resolution of condemnation of the European Parliament, and the humanitarian efforts of Pope Francis.

Certainly, it is a partial achievement since the regime still holds more than 60 political prisoners as hostages and those who left the prison have not fully recovered their freedom and remain subjected to house arrest, as well as police and paramilitary besiegement. However, the release of the 91, as well as that of more than 300 in June last year, has unleashed a new political force composed by many of the visible faces of the civic protest, with whom their resistance from jail sealed the moral and political defeat of the dictatorship.

In the simultaneous action of internal political pressure and diplomatic pressure lies one of the keys to breaking the impasse that the regime has imposed through repression; the other, is how to keep in maximum the pressure of civic resistance, until achieving the suspension of the de facto state of siege.

Despite the terminal political crisis of the dictatorship and the growing international condemnation, everything indicates that in 2020 Ortega will maintain his ideological alignment with Cuba and Venezuela and will continue clinging to power, without facilitating a political solution. Neither external pressure alone, nor the worsening of the economic recession, will produce a political change. It is imperative, therefore, to identify the political obstacles to overcome in order to incorporate new forces, and to formulate the questions, the challenges, that will allow for a democratic path to end the dictatorship crisis.

1. The urgency of a national opposition coalition

Twenty months after the self-organized civic insurrection, the country is demanding more territorial organization, leadership, and political steering, through the announced Democratic National Coalition, which will have as its foundation block the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy and the Blue and White National Unity. An opposition coalition which must be inclusive to add new political and social forces, neutralize sectors that support the regime today and capitalize on international solidarity.

The challenge of this coalition, necessarily diverse and plural, will be to conduct a strategy of popular and national struggle under a democratic reforms program, and to fill the power vacuum left by the regime’s crisis, to change the balance of power. A change that begins by practicing democratic mechanisms for the selection of leaderships and, eventually, candidates for elections, to eradicate the disease of “caudillismo.”

On the opposite side, Ortega remains in power by the force of arms, with the backing of the Police, paramilitaries and the Army. He orders and commands, but no longer governs. By losing his ability to reestablish his old political, economic and social alliances, he can never restore his ability to govern. His strategic objective to continue in power is to prevent the consolidation of an opposition national unity at any cost. Ortega has an arsenal of incentives to promote his “electoral reform” with the collaborationist parties, but he won’t be able to divide the Blue and White opposition into two or even three electoral blocks if the leadership born in the April Rebellion remains unified.

A division of the opposition would allow Ortega to impose the weight of his political minority on a disperse electorate, and even lose an election and continue to govern “from below” by force and blackmail. Instead, a unified opposition would not only guarantee to win an election, but that the new democratic government obtains a qualified majority at the polls with an unequivocal mandate to dismantle the dictatorial structures, with support from the international community.

2. The political return of the exiles

Like the political prisoners released in June and December 2019, the exiles represent a new political force. Among the exiles in Costa Rica, mainly, are found many representative leaders of the civic protest of Masaya, Carazo, Matagalpa, Leon, Nueva Guinea and other communities, as well as civil society activists, university students, farmers, independent journalists and human rights defenders. However, as long as the police state of siege is maintained, there are no guarantees for their repatriation. In 2019, there was no safe return, only a political one in which each citizen assumed the risk of their reintegration.

While conditions are being created for a massive repatriation of tens of thousands of refugees, after the departure of Ortega and Murillo from power, the political return of exiles in 2020 demands at least three minimum guarantees: that international human rights commissions return to Nicaragua: IACHR, OHCHR, GIEI, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; the disarmament and dismantling of paramilitary groups to which the Government committed itself in May 2018 in the first National Dialogue; and the full restoration of democratic freedoms to which the Government agreed, in March 2019, with the Civic Alliance in the second National Dialogue.

The country also longs for the cessation of the forced exiled lived in Rome by Managua’s auxiliary bishop, Silvio Jose Baez, one of the most respected religious leaders of the Catholic Church, and at the same time the Nicaraguan citizen who generates the greatest credibility and consensus among the population. It would be a great gesture of solidarity by Pope Francis to facilitate that Bishop Baez could return to his homeland and to his church, when he is most needed, and thus contribute to restitute the right of all Nicaraguans to live in peace, without repression, and to put an end to exile.

3. The crossroads of big business

The rupture of the alliance with big business and its’ organizations with the regime, meant for Ortega the loss of his main base of extra-party-political support. The authoritarian corporativist model that promoted private investment in detriment of democracy and transparency, collapsed when the institutional dictatorship became one of the bloodiest dictatorships in April 2018.

Although there was no critical review, balance or in depth-analysis, on the political implications of those nine years of economic co-government, the business sector cut its ties with the regime and through the chambers of Cosep, AmCham and Funides, supported the efforts of the Civic Alliance to seek a political solution to the national crisis, in the national dialogues of May 2018 and March 2019.

In 2020, companies will face their third consecutive year of economic recession, with the social cost of thousands of families in poverty, unemployment, migration and informality, while the tyrant continues to expose the country to increasingly severe international sanctions with unpredictable impacts.

Economic reprisals against small, medium and large entrepreneurs show that Ortega is willing to fulfill his threat of pushing the country to the precipice of a “gallo pinto” (rice and beans) survival economy. The required question is: what will be the response of the leadership of big business to the worsening of the dictatorship crisis? Do they continue betting on external solutions, or are they willing to take the risk that the private sector will become a democratic, non-partisan actor, to pressure the regime to negotiate a political reform, with or without Ortega-Murillo, that leads to an electoral reform?

The most belligerent sector of the civic protest demands the support of the private sector to a national strike, as a pressure measure of last resort. In reality, there is a wide range of possible actions to exert more civic pressure from the business sector. In a market economy dominated by the private sector like in Nicaragua, any decision by the business leadership to put a strict limit to the dictatorship will have a direct impact, not in the dictatorial couple, but on the high economic bureaucracy of the Government, in the high command of the Army, in the magistrates of the powers of the State, and in the Sandinista businessmen. The crossroads of the private sector is to be silent and submit, or take risks to contribute to political change, understanding that after April 2018, the traditional way of doing politics by the economic elites has also expired.

With the emergence of a new political majority it is no longer possible, as before, to choose presidential candidates or political parties by finger to map the destiny of the country. The alternative of supporting a national coalition would imply supporting a program of reforms and transparent methods of leadership selection, the results of which cannot be predetermined, but are subjected to the democratic rule of uncertainty. That is the essence of the new democratic order that struggles to be born, while the old order of the dictatorship, and the dictates of the strong man and backroom deals, still resists to die.

4. External pressure: sanctions, verification and reconstruction

Twenty months after the April rebellion, the most resounding achievement of the civic protest is to have strategically defeated the dictatorship which tried to steer the political crisis towards a military conflict. Ortega failed in all the international forums with his narrative of an alleged coup d’état, to justify repression and the massacre, and he could neither impose the military option against the opposition. Despite the pain and helplessness caused by the repression, killing and prison; despite the desperation born out of persecution, exile and the police state of siege; the opposition has never conceived the military route as an option and remains firm that the only way out to dismantle the dictatorship is political and democratic. A solution passes through a negotiation —with or without Ortega-Murillo—, whose premises are the release of prisoners, the suspension of the police state and the restoration of democratic freedoms, to agree on political reforms, including electoral reform, which would allow early, free and competitive elections.

International pressure and sanctions by the United States, OAS, and European Union focused on the double crisis of democracy and human rights caused by the dictatorship, play an essential role in isolating and weakening the economic capacity of the regime to repress. Additionally, they should focus on the verification of unfulfilled agreements —disarmament of paramilitaries, return of the IACHR, and restoration of democratic freedoms—, as well as ensuring that the new agreements still pending to be negotiated on political and electoral reform are fulfilled, and set the bases for an extraordinary international assistance, which will be necessary for reconstruction.

The democratic transition in the post-Ortega Nicaragua begins with reforms that allow holding free elections to dislodge the Ortega-Murillo regime from power, but also allowing a new democratic government to govern in peace. Such will require dismantling the structures of the dictatorship. Beginning with the disarmament of the paramilitaries and the creation of a new National Police, as well as reforms to the Prosecutor’s Office, the Supreme Court of Justice, the Army, and the Comptroller’s Office.

The scope of the reforms that are required to peacefully dismantle the legacy of Ortega’s dictatorial structures, will urgently require an international assistance process, in which the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization of American States participate, not only to support the electoral reform, but to ensure stability in the transition and during reconstruction.

To undertake these and other changes, under a constitutional reform, the new democratic government will require the support of a Truth Commission and a supranational investigation entity, to lay the foundations of stability with justice without impunity, in the face of corruption and crimes against humanity.

Consequently, the international community must include on its agenda not only electoral reforms that lead to the replacement of the dictatorship in power, but also a medium-term commitment to post-Ortega national reconstruction, to dismantle dictatorial structures.

5. The dignification of public servants and the FSLN crisis

Alongside the monopoly of force and control of public finances, another of the pillars of the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship has been the political control it exerts over more than 120,000 civilian and military public employees, subjected to the State-Party-Family system. Public servants are controlled by the FSLN party that has replaced the Civil Service Law and Administrative Career with party obedience.

However, during the civic insurrection of April 2018, hundreds of doctors, health workers, teachers, university professors, policemen and State technicians, were fired because they refused to comply with political orders of the repressive machinery. Recent testimony of released political prisoners and their families confirm the presence of minions and torturers in prisons, as well as fanatical policemen in the cult of Ortega’s personality, and paramilitaries embedded in State institutions; but they also reveal the existence of police officers and guards who limit themselves to complying with orders without repression, and of public employees who, with caution and discretion, provide a valuable contribution to civic resistance.

If the electorate that blindly supports Ortega and the FSLN, whether by ideological conviction, political tradition, or economic interests, is estimated at 20%, among the civilian and military public employees, the percentage of FSLN militancy is possibly similar or slightly higher. But the vast majority of public servants, as well as citizens, are not necessarily supporters of Ortega and the FSLN, although they also do not profess another affiliation or political affinity; their primary link is with a State in which labor stability does not depend on meritocracy, but on political and family contacts.

Forced to demonstrate at roundabouts and participate in political marches under list control, most public employees maintain their job positions to guarantee family economic support and some even consider themselves hostages of the dictatorship. Contrary to the party control, there are forms of civic resistance that range from solidarity with their relatives, who are victims of repression, to denouncing public corruption and human rights violations, which are leaked to the press by public servants. The formation of a national opposition coalition must lead to a national proposal and strategy for the dignification of civilian and military public servants, to begin political change, from outside and inside the State, with the separation of the State-Party-Family.

In the political agony of the regime, the Sandinista Front is also sinking with the ruling family, just as the Nationalist Liberal Party was shipwrecked with Anastasio Somoza Debayle when he was overthrown by the revolution in 1979. The FSLN’s political future now depends on the ability of its civilian and military cadres, if they are detached from repression and corruption, to face the massacre that others perpetrated in the name of Sandinismo and contribute to the establishment of truth and justice.

If the FSLN intends to play a role in the democratic transition that will inevitably open in Nicaragua, without dictatorship, it should see itself in the mirror of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) of Bolivia, which will participate in the next presidential elections on May 3, while the former president Evo Morales, in exile, is disqualified to be a candidate. Before it is too late, the FSLN should break the political control of the Ortega-Murillo family, which at this stage of the crisis is unlikely in a regime that never had or has a succession plan.

In 2020 hard times are coming, of crisis and uncertainty around the outcome of the crisis, but, inevitably, there will be better days, times of hope for a suffering people that, having lost fear, began to practice the political change that is now irreversible.


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Carlos F. Chamorro

Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.