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Manuel Orozco: US eyes Nicaraguan mining and free trade zones

“The national crisis and increasingly strained relations with the US government will spark new migration: 250,000 Nicaraguans will leave this year.”

Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. Photo: Government

Carlos F. Chamorro

27 de julio 2022


The deteriorating relations between the US government, Nicaragua’s chief trading partner, and the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship is sparking a new wave of migration among Nicaraguans who “see no future for the country, nor any current political solution to the national crisis.” These are the conclusions of political scientist Manuel Orozco, a researcher with Inter-American Dialogue.

In an interview with Confidencial, the political expert warned that although the suspension of Nicaragua’s sugar export quota “won’t have a great economic impact”, it’s an indication that the United States could adopt other “surgical” measures aimed at sectors such as mining and the factories in the free trade zones.

On July 19, Daniel Ortega categorically rejected the idea of a possible dialogue with the United States. How does Washington interpret this rejection, when just three months ago, Ortega was reportedly seeking to approach the Biden Administration?

He really couldn’t have been clearer with his reference to this being like putting a noose around your neck. It basically reflects a weakness of the regime, which has no other way of linking into the international community.

The things they wanted to discuss and the advantages they sought with the international community are things they can’t have. They wanted an amnesty for their policy of impunity, including an elimination of the [international] sanctions that have been leveled on over 60 people.

The regime has the tools of repression in their hands: a monopoly of force, the criminalization of democracy, and their economic populism. None of these three elements are backed by consensus or by a spirit of cooperation and negotiation. So, these repressive tools have a short lifespan – eventually, they’re going to wear out, and there won’t be any way to sustain them.

The new wave of migration  

When Ortega says there’ll be no dialogue with the United States, many people in Nicaragua read this as meaning there’s no political way out, no future. Does this have any impact on the wave of migration the country is seeing?

Of course it does. If you look at the polls that have been taken, there’s a very strong statistical correlation between those who express intentions of emigrating and their view of the political situation in the country. It’s not only an economic issue.

The majority of Nicaraguans say they see no future in this country. So, yes, the message “no dialogue” means to them that there are no options for [a decent] life here. This year, at least 250,000 Nicaraguans will leave or have left the country: nearly 100,000 are in the U.S. alone, and more than 40,000 have gone to Costa Rica, plus another 10,000 who’ve emigrated to Spain. We’re now at the half-year mark, and the tendency is brutal. They’re governing over a country of ghosts.

The US says it’s willing to talk with Ortega, but that the regime has to change its behavior. However, if Ortega has centralized all power in order to impose a totalitarian regime – What could make him modify that direction? Why would Ortega change?

Nicaragua is governed by two presidents: Rosario Murillo and Daniel Ortega. There’s not necessarily a consensus between them as to what way to lead the country. The way to succeed at getting them to sit down at the [negotiating] table is through clear indications that their control of power is going to have a direct, short-term effect on the economic and social life of their children, who are their heirs. They want to construct a dynasty that won’t last long, less than that of the Somoza’s, and that will have an effect on the future of these people.

In second place, there’s now greater surgical precision on how to pressure the middle circle around Rosario Murillo – the police, the prison system, the justice system – precisely in order to show that there’s no more tolerance for this type of activities. That will have the effect of greater pressure to sit down and negotiate.

The United States just suspended Nicaragua’s quota of sugar exports at preferential prices. This amounts to a loss of some 7 million dollars for 2023. Is this message aimed at Ortega, or at the large business owners?

It’s a message to both of them. It’s an indication that the United States wields great economic power over Nicaragua, and that in this way they can tighten the screws, little by little, in order to make clear the importance of political changes in the country.

The sugar quota really has little economic impact. The economic impacts on the regime’s profitability are going to come later, in aspects related to mining – which benefits the regime more directly – and even on some companies in the Free Trade Zone, that are under the control of the Sandinista-allied unions. So, this is a very clear signal that Cafta isn’t to be played with.

A civic role for private business?

The private sector is being subject to permanent extortion – economic and also political. There are even some [political] prisoners from the private sector. Can this sector act as some kind of counterweight, or play some kind of civic role in the face of the Ortega regime?

They’ve tried to maintain some kind of civic role in Nicaragua through denouncing this extortion. Big business interests led the Nicaraguan opposition to sit down to negotiate with the regime of Daniel Ortega in 2019. In the current moment, their role has been to maintain a tie, a dialogue between different business sectors, but also with other Nicaraguan civic groups. The Nicaraguan civic groups are aware that it doesn’t pay to demonize these company leaders, but that there’s also a price to pay for not tolerating any further extortion.

The civic groups are aware that the large capitalists are being substantially affected, and that fact is going to end up pushing them into the position of being unwilling to sit down and accept any type of arrangement with the Sandinistas.

However, the only thing that’s known right now is that there’s total silence on the part of the private sector, of large capital, of the trade associations, despite this situation of extortion that’s a daily fact of life, and the existence of some private business leaders who are political prisoners.

It’s a silence similar to the silence of Nicaraguans as the result of the culture of fear that prevails in the country. The company owners are also protesting the extortion, but they know that if they do so publicly, they’ll be put in jail.

I believe that, yes, there’s a great lack of communication, that some business leaders don’t want to have this communication (…) In part, they feel frustrated, because they saw that the National Coalition was a disaster, but also because they need more motivation. The motivation must come from within. It’s very important that the large business sector assume a much more leading civic role, or at least a visible one within certain sectors. They’re not going to go out on the street to protest, but they need to let it be known that their hearts are with Nicaragua.

After the sugar cuts – mining and the free trade zone?

Given the deterioration in relations between the dictatorship and the United States government, the latter seems to be saying clearly, “I can’t continue giving Nicaragua preferential economic treatment”, as in the case of sugar. What’s coming after the suspension of the sugar quota?

I think several things are coming: one has to do with mining, and others with the free trade zones. Many companies of the free trade zones are US companies that are now receiving messages from their government that it’s not productive to maintain a relationship in a country that’s operating with impunity.

In the case of Cafta, some surgical elements are coming: for example taking into account how Nicaragua is violating the Cafta labor agreements; how the country’s mining concessions are violating Cafta’s environmental agreements and indigenous rights. They’ll also be looking at other important sectors that have participated in exporting to the United States, such as coffee and beef.

The democracy movement in exile

Today, the dictatorship is exercising its greatest quota of political power and control in the country, with the least level of historic political support ever. What alternatives do the opposition in exile have to change the balance of political forces and impact this situation?

The Nicaraguan civic movement is clear that they must develop different but simultaneous campaigns to strengthen the self-esteem of Nicaraguans, beginning with the way in which family remittances are being sent, as well as the fight against censorship and disinformation.

Nicaraguans don’t know the scope of the corruption that exists in Nicaragua; they don’t know the details of how the family of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo have been stealing from the country. The civic movement is being consolidated, communication strategies are being created among Nicaraguans, and that’s also going to have an effect on the balance of power that exists in the country. Dissidence continues growing inside the regime, and some are wiling now to withdraw support for Rosario Murillo. That’s the core of the issue.

Nonetheless, the police state remains intact. How, from exile, can the opposition recover spaces for freedom inside the country? Is there any hope of finding a way of liberating the prisoners and of ending the police state?

The greatest weight towards a change in the correlation of forces lies in the role of the international community. The position of several countries leans towards increasing pressure on the regime.

In the short run, there are no perspectives for a reduction in the police state, nor for the liberation of the political prisoners, because the regime is willing to maintain this situation of impunity for the next 18 months. That means they’re putting all their economic and political efforts towards this end.

The campaign that was realized recently to demonstrate the deterioration of the political prisoners had an effect on permitting the recent visits, but the torture they’re enduring, the inhumane and unjust treatment, the fact of keeping these people in jail, continues to be a point of international criticism that will continue growing.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times


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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.