Ortega operative Bayardo Arce announced on Tuesday that the Ortega-Murillo government hopes to “sit down” with “the big business sector” in January. According to him, the talks would center on reviewing the tax reforms approved in March 2019. Arce further announced that in May they’d be promoting an electoral reform “with the political forces”. It wasn’t clear what “forces” he was referring to.
Arce reemerged on December 22nd, after a prolonged public absence. He appeared in an interview on “Canal VosTV,” a private station owned by the Pellas Business Group, Nicaragua’s largest conglomerate.
Formerly a Comandante in the Sandinista Revolution, Arce is currently the economic advisor to the Presidency. He’s the only leader from the 1979 Revolution currently serving in the Ortega government. In past years, he moderated talks between the private sector and the regime.
Such talks ended at the onset of the April 2018 citizen protests. At that time, private business leaders split from the government over the killings and repression they were carrying out. Arce even admitted in an April 2018 interview with Univision that Ortega “had made a mistake”. The error he referred to at that time was Ortega’s unilateral announcement of reforms to Social Security. This was the original spark that set off the protest movement.
Current Nicaraguan laws include the “Law for Tax Concertation” approved in March 2019. Among other provisions, it establishes anticipatory monthly tax payments for business owners and an aliquot. The latter quota has increased from 1% to 2 and 3%, according to the size of the business. The Superior Council of Private Enterprise (Cosep) has termed these conditions “confiscatory”. Arce, however, didn’t specify whether the “business sectors” he alluded to would include Cosep, the main organization representing large business.
“In January, we’ll look for a way to sit down with the business sectors interested in economic reactivation and job creation. The goal would be to review the economic policies and continue moving the country forward,” Arce stated. He admitted that the measures were “harsh, highly demanding”. Nonetheless, he alleged that they hadn’t expected the “dastardly actions of the bloc that opposes the country.” He referred here to the sanctions the US and the EU have imposed on the regime’s high functionaries and political operators.
Arce insisted that Nicaragua’s current economic problems are not the government’s fault. He mentioned the lack of direct foreign investment, the closure of the hotel sector, the trade and real estate paralysis, These, Arce stated, are all a consequence of “acts to promote a coup in 2018”, not of the tax reforms.
Ortega’s electoral reform
Arce’s appearance took place barely 48 hours after the passage of Ortega’s new law to eliminate electoral competition. The “Law for the Defense of the People’s Right to Independence, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination for Peace” was passed on December 21. With this law, Ortega has inhibited any meaningful political competition in the elections scheduled for 2021.
Arce defended Ortega’s political maneuver, although the actual drafting and passage of the law was done by other political figures. Central to its passage was Edwin Castro, FSLN majority leader in the legislature, and Gustavo Porras, National Assembly president. Also implicated was Walmaro Gutierrez, head of the Assembly’s Commission for the Economy and the Budget. Both Gutierrez and Porras have been sanctioned by the US Treasury.
Arce assured that there’d be electoral reform in May 2021. The date coincides with the deadline the Organization of American States has given the regime to effect reform. Arce affirmed, though, that the date wasn’t chosen to comply with the OAS demand. Instead, he claimed, it was part of the “official deadlines” for realizing reform.
Arce offered no details about the contents of the changes, nor if they’d involve any changes to the Supreme Electoral Council.
Early in November, sources linked to the Sandinista party told Confidencial that Ortega had created a working group for electoral reform. He charged the group with designing a bill that focused strictly on electoral reforms of a “technical nature”.
At the time, the Confidencial source stated: “Comandante Ortega and Compañera Rosario have already requested that a reform bill be elaborated and readied for internal discussion.” Those drafting the bill, the source added, were to center it on technical aspects of the law. For example, on the voter roles, the composition of the polling stations, and the role of the party observers. The working group was asked not to contemplate any deep reform of the electoral system nor its Magistrates.
Opposition “excludes themselves”, Arce alleges
With eleven months remaining, the regime hasn’t yet given any sign of willingness to guarantee free elections. Meanwhile, citizens and outside organizations continue demanding elections that are free, transparent and competitive. They request that this be confirmed via national and international independent observation. Contrary to these goals, Ortega has spearheaded a new law establishing political inhibition.
The law, approved on December 21, blocks an enormous range of people from candidacy. Those precluded from participating in elections include anyone who: “heads or finances a coup”. It also inhibits those who “alter the constitutional order”, “foment or encourage terrorist acts”, or “incite foreign interference”. The law further prohibits the candidacy of those who: “ask for military intervention”; “organize with financing from foreign powers to execute acts of terrorism and destabilization”; or “propose or arrange economic, commercial or financial blockades against the country”. In all cases, the regime is the judge of who meets these criteria.
Nonetheless, Arce insisted, it’s the opposition leaders who are “excluding themselves” from political participation. According to Arce, those who support the sanctions “have a vocation for betrayal”. In fact, the sanctions were imposed by the US and the EU for grave human rights violations, corruption and the dismantling of democracy.
“In any case, he who has a traitorous vocation, who goes around asking outsiders to harm the country, excludes themself. He who engages in constructive opposition, who criticizes what must be critiqued, who has a proposal for an alternative society has no reason to be concerned about this law,” Arce declared. He denied that the law would put the opposition at any disadvantage in the elections.
Throughout the interview, Arce used his platform to complain about the sanctions imposed by the US and EU. These currently include 27 public functionaries and nine State institutions and joint ventures.
Arce called these “dastardly, perverse acts”, and defended those who’ve been sanctioned. He alleged that they were denied the principle of presumed innocence and the “universal right to defense”.
Covid vaccine will be free
Arce also made reference to the acquisition of Covid-19 vaccines on the part of the government. He stated they’d aim to vaccinate 80% of the population. To acquire the vaccine, they’re looking at offers from a number of multilateral financial institutions. These include the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Arce further explained that the government “isn’t in condition to offer economic relief.” He attributed this to the country’s economic crisis and third year of recession. “This is because the US government has blockaded us in the multilateral organizations.”
“There’s been a policy of blockade. Many here rejoiced when they gave to other countries but didn’t give to Nicaragua. We were patient with the multilateral organizations. It’s important that the people know that these are rights we have as a country. We’re members of the World Bank and the IDB. We belong to the CABEI, and the IMF. We’ve always paid our quotas, and that gives us the right to financing. But they’ve been blocking this in different ways,” Arce complained.
That lack of resources, Arce claimed, forced the government to implement a “herd immunity” model to deal with the pandemic. He justified the fact that many people were seen at home. According to him, this was because “the hospitals were sources of contagion.”
He didn’t mention that the loss of human lives was aggravated by government negligence. According to projections based on the country’s excess mortality, the pandemic caused over 8,400 deaths. Meanwhile, Nicaragua’s Ministry of Health only recognizes 163 deaths from Covid-19. Arce mentioned that, at the moment, “We fear there could be a new lockdown” of countries. This could come as a result of the new surge in Covid-19 cases in some countries. Last week also brought reports of more transmissible strains of the disease detected in Europe and South Africa.
These fears, he affirmed, come when Nicaragua was the country best positioned in terms of “export production”. However, he asserted that for next year: “There’ll be a lot of public works and public investment. These will generate employment and dynamize the economy.” This, Arce admitted, was thanks to the funds the country received to mitigate the impact of Hurricanes Eta and Iota.