Human rights defender and former director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Jose Miguel Vivanco, maintains that “Nicaragua is already a one-party regime.” He believes that actions such as the expulsion of the Missionaries of Charity and the coup against the opposition mayors’ offices, “will not be the last cases, (and) Ortega will continue with his plan to eliminate any type of entity that can overshadow him,” because there is no way to stop him.
Daniel Ortega “is betting on the fatigue of the international community,” says Vivanco in this interview with Esta Semana and Confidencial. He advocates for “a relaunching of the pressure against the dictatorship,” led by the president of Chile, Gabriel Boric, and other Latin American and European governments, from outside the Organization of American States (OAS).
In the last week, the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship expelled the missionaries of Mother Theresa of Calcutta from Nicaragua, after closing their charitable works, along with 850 other non-governmental organizations that have been annulled. How do you read this aggression from a human rights perspective, the right of association and even religious freedom?
We are facing a tyrant that rules Nicaragua, with his wife, as if it were a private farm, and a property where he can do and undo as he pleases. He has no significant obstacles, because he has total control of the country, and there is no way to restrict the absolute exercise of power.
What we have seen is more arbitrariness and, if these circumstances do not change, it seems to me that these will not be the last cases. He is going to continue with the plan to eliminate any type of entity that could overshadow him, that could represent an alternative. We are not even talking about any medium that may criticize the government, because the Sisters of Charity of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, are not a communication media that is criticizing the government. They were in an activity that is essentially humanitarian. And what Ortega is doing is showing the country and the world that he can do whatever he pleases, and that there is no way to stop him.
To this crime against the Missionaries of Charity is added another, which is the persecution of journalists and the staff of the newspaper La Prensa, which covered the expulsion of the nuns. There is an act of censorship. It was forbidden to take a photograph or a video when the nuns are being expelled. And there are three people in jail for this alleged crime, which is being investigated by the Police.
Ortega’s persecution is exercised in such a violent manner and has been unleashed is such an overwhelming way that it will not “spare anybody.” If a photographer took a picture that Ortega or Murillo does not like and is simply a photo that accounts for a fact, such as the expulsion of the nuns, that is punished. And that photographer can even end up in prison. It is the brutal and arbitrary exercise of power, which is typical of a dictatorial regime, which we knew in the twentieth century or the nineteenth century.
The regime ordered the police assault against the only five opposition mayors’ offices, with just four months left for other municipal elections. Will a one-party system be consolidated in Nicaragua?
Nicaragua is already a one-party system, and what Ortega is doing is consolidating a model that is based on arbitrariness and fear. What happened with the nuns, the Catholic Church, non-governmental organizations, media, have only one objective, and that is to be able to govern based on fear, where people reach a situation of total paralysis.
How do you assess the reaction of the international community to this prolonged crisis in Nicaragua? For example, the Central American governments are proposing to normalize relations with Nicaragua to elect Ortega’s candidate as Secretary General of the Central American Integration System.
I regret what I am going to say, but it seems to me that we are running the risk of entering into a sort of international fatigue. An exhaustion around the issue of Nicaragua, when the international community has so many problems on the table and hears that there is a dictatorship in Central America, which governs arbitrarily, and seeks to establish itself in power forever. Some are already in an attitude almost of resignation, and others instead, adhere to supporting resolutions of condemnation. So, it is almost a kind of routine. Ortega and Murillo are betting on that, on the weariness of the international community.
But, of course, it is absolutely unacceptable that the neighboring Central American countries allow the election of a candidate of this dictatorship to such an important regional position. But can we expect anything different from Xiomara Castro, in Honduras, who decided not to attend the Summit of the Americas because Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua were not invited? Can we expect anything different from (Nayib) Bukele, of El Salvador, who is another apprentice to be dictator? Or from Alejandro Giammattei in Guatemala?
But it seems that the one who is tilting the balance now is the Costa Rican president himself, who says that he is evaluating if he will give his consent to Ortega’s candidate to be SICA’s General Secretary.
We shall see if President (Rodrigo) Chaves is finally inclined to reward Ortega with such an important position as that of SICA, without the necessary democratic conditions. Costa Rica is part of a triumvirate, which has just been joined by Ecuador, along with the Dominican Republic and Panama, which are governments that are defending democratic values throughout the entire region. But the truth is that it seems that the current Costa Rican president has an ambivalent attitude towards the need to protect, promote and defend democracy in Latin America.
The World Bank approved a 116 million dollar loan to the Nicaraguan government to implement health programs against Covid-19, despite the fact that the regime has not fulfilled any of the basic transparency standards in response to this humanitarian tragedy. And we saw that the United States, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and Italy voted against this loan, but there was a majority of countries that approved it.
It is very serious that the World Bank, against the vote of the United States and European nations, has moved forward with a loan of this type. They usually say that the main reason is that the loan is aimed at improving the living conditions of Nicaraguans, and that suspending a loan of this nature does not harm the dictatorship, but rather the people of Nicaragua.
But what is regrettable is that there was not a sufficiently broad debate, because nobody argues that it is not about punishing the people of Nicaragua, who are already severely punished by the crimes of the Ortega-Murilllo dictatorship, but to give resources to a regime that functions on the basis of corruption, and a lack of transparency, because here there is no accountability. For the World Bank to give a blank check, without any consideration that this system of government is a dictatorship, seems to me to be a serious mistake.
The relatives of political prisoners are demanding that the prison of El Chipote be opened to verify the health condition of their family members, who have been victims of solitary confinement and torture for more than a year. But, until today, the regime has not allowed the International Red Cross to enter; and the commission of three international independent experts, appointed by the UN General Assembly, has also been rejected. Is this impunity of the regime going to prevail?
I think so. Ortega is convinced that the decision to prevent the slightest accountability before the international community has no political cost for him.
If the international community does not restart a strong, concerted process of pressure on this dictatorship, Ortega will continue to do whatever he pleases without paying the slightest cost for his actions.
The only possible way forward is that governments, such as that of Chile, for example, whose president and foreign minister have expressed a strong solidarity towards the democrats in Nicaragua, can design a process where other democracies, both regional and from other parts of the world, organize themselves outside the OAS, with the aim of putting pressure on this dictatorship.
You are talking about a possible renewal of the democratic demands by President Gabriel Boric, recognizing that the OAS is paralyzed; also, of president-elect Petro, in Colombia, who has made very direct statements about this. But there are other governments in Latin America, called progressives, such as those of Mexico and Argentina, which point completely in another direction. So, how can we renew the demand for human rights and democracy?
I think that is unrealistic to expect anything from the Mexican government. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has shown that his solidarity or appreciation is greater towards dictatorships than towards the victims of dictatorships or towards citizens. To expect something from Argentina is unlikely.
I think it is realistic to expect that the Chilean government can design a coalition where hopefully Petro, the new president of Colombia once he assumes power, and other countries; but also Europeans, the United States and Canada. This does not have to be a broad coalition of governments. It can be six, seven governments deeply committed to the Nicaraguan cause, and that are willing, for example, to send a high-level envoy to negotiate, not only for the political prisoners, but also with the purpose of achieving a timeline, in the short-term, that will allow the return to democracy in Nicaragua.
You lived through the change of (Augusto) Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, in your country, and also of the other dictatorships of the 20th century in South America. What would you say to the Nicaraguans who today are in this state of resistance and also beginning to have a sort of despair in the difficulties they face to regain freedom, and even more, to get to the truth and justice?
What you are suffering is something we experienced in other periods in Latin America. These are tough periods, discouraging, of great anguish due to the levels of repression, of violations of rights, due to the lack of protection. There is no protection. You are totally open to the arbitrary exercise of power; and what we have to do is not to lose hope, not to lose faith. To continue searching for ways to unite all those who may be in opposition to this brutal and savage regime of Ortega and Murillo and try to survive with peaceful mechanisms of protest or rejection of the regime, reporting and documenting the abuses.
It is a complex, difficult task. But what history shows us is that these regimes don’t last forever and that circumstances (of change) occur, to the extent that there is a civil society that tries to defend its spaces, and a supportive international community. I hope that soon Nicaragua will find a path that will allow it to reach an institutional normality.