“In Nicaragua, the electoral route has been closed. Latin America’s democracy is at stake”

Daniel Zovatto and Michael Shifter: more external pressure and national resistance to stop the repression and free political prisoners

13 de agosto 2021


With the cancellation of the legal status of the Citizens for Liberty party, preceded by the imprisonment of the seven main opposition presidential aspirants and more than 20 political and civic leaders, “Ortega has given the definitive blow to the electoral process in Nicaragua, the electoral path is closed and we no longer have to wait until November 7 to act” considers political scientist Daniel Zavatto, regional director of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, International IDEA. 

Despite international condemnation of the Ortega Murillo regime for human rights violations and the assault on democracy, the worsening of this political crisis occurs at a time of “democratic setbacks in Latin America”, warns Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, and this “affects the motivation of many governments to harshly sanction the Ortega regime”.

Knowledgeable about the experience of democratic transitions in the last four decades in Latin America, Zovatto and Shifter agree that international pressure alone is not enough to bring about a change in “new authoritarian regimes like Nicaragua's, which are unwilling to give up power”.

Ortega's dictatorship could sustain itself, without political legitimacy, “and its ability to sustain itself will depend less on international pressure than on the internal, national dynamics in Nicaragua,” says Shifter.

This is an excerpt of the conversation we had on the program Esta Semana.

Ortega’s definitive blow and the Renacer Act in the U.S.

Michael, how do you evaluate the impact of the Ortega regime's latest actions on the electoral process, first with the imprisonment of seven presidential aspirants and more than 20 political and civic leaders, and now the cancellation of the legal status of the Citizens for Liberty party?

Michael Shifter. I think the latter has reinforced the position here in Washington which is quite tough. Obviously, there is no chance of having credible elections on November 7, it's a terror campaign by the Ortega and Murillo dictatorship to eliminate any potential challenge to their absolute power in Nicaragua. The Secretary of State came out with a pretty tough statement, there is no clarity about this electoral process and there is a bill (Renacer), which already has support in the Senate and I think it is going to pass to the House, and I am sure it is also going to be widely supported to toughen some of the pressure measures against the Nicaraguan regime.

Daniel, is there any precedent in Latin American electoral processes of a situation like the one in Nicaragua? And, how do you evaluate the official justification for applying these laws to opponents who are accused of “treason”?

Daniel Zovatto. This decision by Ortega has been the definitive blow to the whole process, Ortega has crossed the last red line. He has challenged both the internal society, but above all the international community because the disqualification of the Citizens' Alliance for Freedom occurs precisely on the same day that the Senate approves the Renacer Law, so there is a very important challenge from Ortega that basically says the following: “this is my farm, and I do whatever I want with total impunity in this farm”. We do not have any precedent from 1978 to date similar to what we are experiencing in Nicaragua, the only thing that comes close is Venezuela, but Venezuela has never reached such conditions. Last year, he started building a parallel legality to be based on illegality, this Law 1055, wrongly called Law of Sovereignty, should be called “law of shame” because in reality, he built a legal apparatus so he could have the grounds to say I am applying the Law, to then to repress, imprison and in turn disqualify the political parties that could compete with him. 

Secretary Blinken said that these elections have no credibility for Nicaraguans and for the international community. The individual sanctions that have been applied have had no effect in weakening the regime, so what impact can the Renacer Act legislation have?

Michael Shifter.  As part of that project, there are some economic policy options on the table, the issue of Cafta, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and all the economic sanctions with the financial economic institutions, which are being studied. I am not saying that there is a clear option because we all know that the last thing Washington wants to do is to aggravate the humanitarian situation, already quite serious in Nicaragua, and impact on the people in Nicaragua who are already suffering on several sides. So, that has to be well thought out and well measured, but I think this court is open to explore that type of option, it is quite active.

The debate at the OAS, Almagro, Mexico and Argentina 

After what has happened these months, does the OAS have a different correlation of forces to invoke the rupture of the Democratic Charter by the Nicaraguan regime?

Daniel Zovatto.  If the OAS does not apply Article 20, 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter and does not suspend Nicaragua from the Organization, we almost have to agree with López Obrador that it should be closed. The OAS should at least call for an urgent meeting of foreign ministers, not of the Permanent Council of the OAS, in order to set the level of gravity of this situation at the highest level, but with this, Ortega is not going to leave power.  

We are facing a new type of authoritarianism that will not go away easily or simply, nor will it go away as it did in the first transitions to democracy in the eighties and nineties. 

We need a much stronger offensive, which in turn puts emphasis on the issues of pursuing the strong core that sustains Ortega with individual sanctions, including the family, as is being done, but with more depth, and in addition, to investigate his assets, Renacer contemplates the possibility of everything which means or has to do with acts of corruption.  

In the last vote on Nicaragua in the OAS, Mexico and Argentina abstained, will they maintain that position or can Mexico and Argentina change and tip the balance in one direction or the other in the OAS?

Daniel Zovatto. Mexico and Argentina were shameful. It is true that there was all this diplomacy, under the table, saying that they wanted to leave a space open to establish a possibility of dialogue in case Ortega decided to do so. False, Ortega is not going to leave and, therefore, we hope that in light of everything that is happening both Mexico and Argentina change their position, support a very tough sanction to the dictatorial regime of Ortega Murillo, always opening the space for dialogue, dialogue must be accompanied by a strengthening of sanctions. 

But the president of Mexico is practically proposing the abolition of the OAS, can Mexico really modify its position?

Michael Shifter. I see it as difficult. Unfortunately, the fact that there is not so much affection - to put it diplomatically - for the Secretary General (Luis Almagro) on the part of the governments of Mexico and Argentina and others, has affected their willingness to take a little bit of a clearer position with respect to Nicaragua. They see it, which is very regrettable in my opinion, as if they were lending themselves to the game of the Secretary General (Almagro) and it should not be like that, we have to go beyond principles and values, but it seems that there is an inability to do so and the situation is very complex. 

Another factor is that we must look at the situation in Latin America in general, where there are serious setbacks in terms of the balance of powers, in terms of a liberal democracy, and with rule of law in many countries, but this affects the spirit of many governments to assume a leadership to severely sanction the Ortega regime. We are not in good conditions and there is resistance from other governments, because they say: “they are going to be tough against Nicaragua, but I am not going to take this on because I am next, then it will be our turn,” so, unfortunately, that is the situation we are in. 

The Nicaraguan crisis in Central America

How do you evaluate the impact of the Nicaraguan crisis in Central America? In this crisis, Honduras and Belize abstained from voting in the OAS on Nicaragua, and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration continues to be the main source of financing for the regime.

Michael Shifter. I think there is total indifference. I don't see any willingness on the part of the region to show solidarity with the democratic forces in Nicaragua. I would add another point, because I believe that this is going to enter into Washington's calculations, which is the migratory flows from Nicaragua due to the crisis which are obviously concentrated as always in Costa Rica. But now, there are figures that they are going north and entering into the regional migratory problem, which is of great concern in Washington, and where the pressures of internal policies in view of the elections in the United States for next year enter. Then, I believe that Nicaragua fits within this framework of regional concern due to the economic pressures from Central America.

How do you evaluate the balance in Central America, and the CABEI issue? 

Daniel Zovatto. CABEI is shameful, this has to stop, it is the main financier of the authoritarian regime, how can the Central American integration system have a bank that finances a dictatorship, repressive and murderous, this has to be stopped and denounced and, on the other hand, SICA is vacant -the secretariat- due to the geographical rotation system it would be Nicaragua's turn and it would be absurd for the SICA secretariat to be in the hands of a person who responds to the Ortega regime. 

There is a mirror effect that this is sending, if Ortega consolidates his dictatorship and maintains his impunity anything can be done, that is why I think the United States made a mistake at the beginning by looking over the northern triangle without having a look at the entire Central American region, including the issue of Nicaragua, and they have to correct it and they have already begun to correct it.

The challenge in Nicaragua: opposition, businessmen, church

How do you assess the national dimension of the problem, the reaction and the challenges facing Nicaraguan civil society, the opposition, which is in jail and in exile, and, on the other side, the business sector, the Catholic Church, sectors that also demanded free elections?

Michael Shifter. I think there are very varied interests within the Nicaraguan society and there is, for a large part of the Nicaraguan civil society, an enormous rejection of the brutal measures that the Ortega regime is taking, affecting liberties, creating generalized fear, that is to say, people are very afraid to speak out. But there are institutions that have ambivalent positions. On the one hand, I have no doubt that both the private sector and the Church would like to see a change towards democracy in Nicaragua, because this is a terrible situation for the country and in the end it affects the interests of all those levels of brutality, of repression. But, on the other hand, there is no clarity about how long this dictatorship can last, therefore, there is some resistance to take public and hard positions against the regime because there are interests to be taken into account. That is my impression, and this could change and perhaps now with the signs from the Renacer Act and when the Nicaraguan issue gains more strength in Washington, this could begin to change the calculations of the private sector and the Catholic Church to assume and join a much clearer and forceful position condemning the regime of Ortega and Murillo.

Until last week, whether the participation of a sector of the opposition could give any legitimacy to the November 7 election was still being discussed, but now Ciudadanos por la Libertad has been eliminated and it is clear that these elections will be Ortega's single party, with no contender. What role can the private sector, the civil society, the Nicaraguan Catholic Church play against the regime's attempt to consolidate Ortega's reelection?

Daniel Zovatto. The electoral road is closed for the moment. These elections have already lost all legitimacy. We do not have to wait until November 7, as perhaps would have been the option if Citizens for Liberty had been able to participate. That is to say, (Ortega) has brought the date forward, from November 7 to August 7, therefore, it is a completely illegitimate election. What is going to take place on November 7 is not an election but a vote that will confirm this Ortega-Murillo formula, which is not the only party but it is a hegemonic party, because it plays with the collaborationist parties, there are five plus the regional one, as if to give it some semblance of legitimacy, that is closed. Before we had to wait until November 7, but Ortega did us the favor of saving us three months. So, I believe that we have to rethink the strategy, we have to learn from our mistakes.

First, businessmen, not all of them, but there was a sector that coexisted and collaborated with the regime because it was useful for doing business, they have to understand that this should not be repeated. The recent statement made by Cosep a few weeks ago is another call for attention. The business sector has to be very responsible for what is happening and what may happen, there is a total silence from Amcham and Cosep regarding what happened last Friday. 

The Church has also remained silent, although the Church can justify itself by saying that they play a role of quiet diplomacy, trying to maintain a dialogue, but on certain issues it has to pronounce itself forcefully. 

The opposition, in my opinion, made a mistake, which is to have disengaged the civil resistance from the electoral route and bet everything on the electoral route, and was left without the base of civil resistance. Here, what it has to do is to recover, even with all the challenges represented by the repression, part of the civil resistance and articulate it with international support. Compared experience shows that these dictatorships do not fall only through international pressure, it is necessary to build unity in the opposition, it is necessary to leave egos aside, it is necessary to build a spokesperson that can serve as an interlocution, but if the opposition is fragmented, as we have seen in the face of this electoral process, I anticipate bad results. There cannot be oppositions, in front of Ortega there has to be only one opposition, and after Ortega leaves, democracy is recovered, the differences within the opposition are recovered.

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

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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.