After the April Rebellion: There is a way out

What is the “normality” of a totalitarian dictatorship? The regime's internal fissures and public servants, civilian and military

26 de abril 2022


Four years after the outbreak of the April Rebellion in 2018, the objective that the bishops of the Episcopal Conference set during the National Dialogue as “the democratization of Nicaragua” has still not been achieved. 

In the streets and on the barricades, the self-convened people demanded free elections and the departure of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo from power, and even the big businessmen who co-governed with Ortega between 2009 and 2018, demanded “early elections”, with a “renewed Supreme Electoral Council” in a public letter at the end of May 2018. 

Between April 18 and May 30, 2018, the civic insurrection, without any support from the international community, radically changed the balance of domestic political power in the country. A new majority, blue and white, unleashed a formidable torrent of social forces that united in rejection of the brutality of state repression, while the claim of the victims and the Report of the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights implanted in the national agenda the demand for truth and justice without impunity. In the massive civic marches, in the takeover of university campuses, in the barricades in the cities and in the roadblocks, in the former Sandinista political strongholds, in the business stoppages, and in the National Dialogue, the country united to demand democratic change and the end of the dictatorship.

In those 50 days, the civic insurrection snatched one of the main pillars of social support from the regime: the political control of the students in the public universities. This provoked, by de facto means, the rupture of its economic alliance with the big businessmen, which gave political legitimacy to a dictatorship without democracy or transparency. These were two severe blows that weakened the support of the authoritarian social consensus, however, despite being left in a political minority and losing control of the streets, Ortega kept the control of the one-party state intact and strengthened his power over the Police and the Army, unleashing a new bloodbath in the second repressive wave of June and July 2018.

In the following 50 days, Ortega buried the expectation of a negotiation to settle the terms of the democratic transition, according to the proposal of the National Dialogue transmitted to him by the bishops, and closed the political space with the deployment of his police and paramilitary forces. The fatal “operation clean-up” left hundreds of people dead or as political prisoners and thousands wounded,  forcing tens of thousands into exile, until July 19, when Ortega proclaimed himself the victor and justified the massacre, alleging that the self-convened movement had tried to stage a “coup d'état”. Ironically, by attributing an alleged conspiratorial plan to seize control of the State to a movement that arose spontaneously, without organization or strategy, the dictatorship rather made evident that the main shortcoming of the blue and white movement was its lack of strategic political leadership.

Ortega tightened his grip on power, imposing a police state, but lost the political battle. Four years later, after canceling the electoral option in November 2021, the dictator gives orders and commands but failed to reestablish the alliances with which he governed until April 2018, while the self-convened movement, with its leadership disbanded, continues to resist in prison, in civil society, and in exile, without accepting the “normality” of the dictatorship. 

The key question is whether the regime will succeed in consolidating its totalitarian dictatorship, despite the national repudiation and its growing international isolation, or whether the civic resistance has the capacity to relaunch the banners of the April Rebellion, now in even more adverse conditions.

The possible answers to this dilemma, already marked by uncertainty, demand a national conversation on the “spirit of April” and the lessons of the civic insurrection. 

1- The “normality” of a totalitarian dictatorship 

The first conclusion that emerges from the repressive escalation of the regime against the April Rebellion is that what we have experienced until today is only a rehearsal of terror, in which we have not yet seen the worst. We are facing a personalist regime bent on imposing a totalitarian dictatorship, which has never responded to the incentives of political dialogue or diplomatic “appeasement”, but only to extreme political pressure. 

The presidential couple, which according to the GIEI should be investigated for their responsibility in State violence, typified as crimes against humanity, has already burned all its ships in a leap into the void, with further political radicalization. The worst possible scenario, therefore, has not yet occurred. Ortega and Murillo dynamited their bridges by liquidating the 2021 elections, eliminating political competition, and sealed their self-isolation before the international community, by embracing an alliance with Putin's Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea.

Since the failure of the November elections, their only goal has been radicalization: torture, spurious trials, and sentencing of political prisoners in jail; the elimination of more than 168 civil society NGOs; the confiscation of universities and media;  the expulsion of three ambassadors and the representative of the International Red Cross, and the assault on the OAS headquarters in Managua, confirm a new authoritarian drift leading to a tunnel with no way out.

Consequently, with Ortega and Murillo there is no return to normality, but rather a police state status quo, without democratic freedoms, in which they try to impose a family dynasty, at the cost of the growing deterioration of the economy and the social fabric of the country, which will continue to expel thousands of migrants every day.

The option of resignation or submission, “to wait and see” would imply contemplating the national collapse in slow motion, illusively hoping that the economic bubble in the private sector would remain inoculated from the dictatorial drift and international condemnation. On the contrary, the decision to put limits and brakes on tyranny in order to gradually recover freedoms entails risks that must be weighed, but above all, it requires the unity in action of all the living forces of the country and the international community. This is the only way to accumulate better political conditions to press for change and to achieve, in the medium term, the suspension of the police state and the departure of Ortega and Murillo from power, in order to initiate the democratic transition.

2- A civic insurrection without political leadership?

The April Rebellion was an unprecedented protest movement in national history, an extraordinary civic insurrection, due to the diversity and breadth of the forces that participated; however, it lacked political leadership to execute the actions and strategies to displace Ortega and Murillo from power at the decisive moment. Certainly, there was coordination and dialogue between the different forces of the self-convened movements, the university students, the peasant movement, and the business unions, but there was no strategic leadership to decide when and how to keep the foot on the accelerator to put maximum pressure on the regime in its moments of greatest political weakness.

In the mobilizations in April 2018, nobody asked for a leader or a presidential candidate to displace Ortega from power, what was urgently needed was a Struggle Committee or a National Salvation Committee to lead the civic insurrection.

In June 2021, when the opposition was trying to choose a single presidential candidate by consensus, although, without guarantees for free elections, there was again a lack of political leadership to avoid the divorce between the electoral gamble and the civic resistance. 

How to reorganize that civic-political leadership today, after the massive raid of June and July 2021 when the opposition leadership is in jail, represents the biggest challenge for the opposition in the territories and in exile. The rejection of the electoral farce of November 7, joined by public employees, was the first bell of protest, but the effectiveness of the opposition will depend on its capacity to permanently connect with the demands of the population affected by the deterioration of their living conditions, impoverishment, and the theft caused by public corruption.

3- The link between national protest and international pressure

Between May and June 2018, when domestic political pressure against the Ortega Murillo regime was greatest, international pressure in the United States, the OAS, and the European Union was weaker, or almost non-existent. 

Four years later, the situation is completely reversed: international condemnation and external pressure is growing, while resistance is crushed by the police state. More than 50 countries have declared the illegitimacy of the November 7 elections and more than 60 senior officials of the regime, and some institutions and companies such as the Police, the Public Ministry, the Supreme Electoral Council, Telcor, BanCorp, DNP Petronic, have been subjected to severe international sanctions. However, external pressure does not have a direct impact on restoring democratic freedoms. In March 2019, at the second National Dialogue, Ortega pledged before international witnesses from the OAS and the Vatican to suspend the police state. But not only did he not comply, but he also reinforced it with repressive laws and the capture of electoral hostages, establishing a pattern of international impunity. 

The evident lack of synchrony between external pressure and national pressure also shows that the international community cannot compensate for the weakness of the opposition, under attack by the dictatorship. External pressure is necessary to encourage the strengthening of the pro-democracy movement, but it cannot replace it, and even less can it pretend to micromanage the opposition with a short-term vision, putting at risk its own legitimacy and credibility. 

The international community is also destined to play an even more important and strategic role in the democratic reconstruction after the fall of Ortega and Murillo. In post-Ortega Nicaragua, the democratic transition cannot be based on another amnesty, but on justice without impunity. Dismantling the dictatorship implies a total reform of the Prosecutor's Office, the Police, the Judiciary, and the Comptroller's Office, and at the same time dismantling and prosecuting the mafias that are embedded in the State with an International Commission against Corruption and Impunity, which will only be possible with extraordinary assistance from the international community through the UN.

4- The internal fissures of the regime: Public servants, civilian and military

The persistence of the dictatorship after the April massacre has brought the relevance for Ortega to maintain control of the State and the Government party, the Police, the Army, the paramilitary, and an extortive tax policy, to the forefront, in order to finance his budget. Ortega has allocated substantial resources to feed a corrupt leadership that is at the head of all these institutions with economic perks. However, it is increasingly evident that the exercise of a centralized family power with high levels of corruption is generating more tensions and fissures among public servants, both civilian and military.

The political surveillance that Ortega and Murillo exercise over Army and Police generals, ministers and magistrates, deputies, mayors, and political secretaries, reveals a state of absolute distrust in a system that is united, not by ideology, but by the fear of purge and repression, and of losing the economic perks.

The public servants who are also hostages of Ortega and Murillo, represent an indispensable social force in any national solution, which has been recognized by the opposition. The internal dissidence within the FSLN, the unrest among public employees, civilians, and the military, and the internal costs of corruption generated by the Ortega Murillo family, are generating exhaustion of the dictatorial project.

With Daniel Ortega, the only way out for his supporters is the promise of a dynastic dictatorship like that of Somoza Debayle in July 1979. On the other hand, the road map for a democratic solution is long and complex, including the unconditional release of political prisoners, the return of international human rights commissions, the management of the UN Commission of International Experts, the suspension of the police state, and the holding of new elections, without Ortega and without Murillo.

Meanwhile, renouncing any action of civic resistance represents Ortega's main ally to continue prolonging his failed dictatorship.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff

Archivado como:

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.


Publicidad F