Nicaragua’s “Opposition Needs to Form a United Front”

Daniel Zovatto underlines Latin America’s general condemnation of Ortega. “Monsignor Alvarez is the Nicaraguan Nelson Mandela.”

Daniel Zovatto underlines Latin America’s general condemnation of Ortega. “Monsignor Alvarez is the Nicaraguan Nelson Mandela.”

28 de febrero 2023


The Ortega-Murillo regime’s unilateral measure stripping 317 Nicaraguan citizens of their nationality is an event “of unprecedented cruelty” in Latin America, because of the number of people affected, affirms political scientist Daniel Zovatto.

Zovatto, IDEA International’s Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, notes that the release of the 222 political prisoners means that the opposition leadership is now largely outside of Nicaragua. “This has a positive but a very challenging aspect. They’re in better condition than they were when they were prisoners to achieve a monolithic unity of the opposition,” in order to put pressure on the Ortega regime and work for a democratic way out of the crisis in Nicaragua.

In an interview with the Confidencial news site and the online television news show Esta Semana, Zovatto underlined the example of Monsignor Rolando Alvarez and his resistance in prison, “as a kind of Nicaraguan Nelson Mandela.” He stressed the wave of Latin American governments that have condemned the Ortega regime or expressed solidarity with the victims in Nicaragua, and said he hopes that Brazilian President Lula da Silva will soon pronounce on the issue.

In view of the “unprecedented level of repression” that the Ortega-Murillo regime has imposed on Nicaragua, Zovatto called on the international community to exert pressure, not only on Ortega and Murillo, but also against “all those who serve as support for the dictatorship: the front men, those in the ministries and the Nicaraguan army, to make it known that they’ll be paying a cost for this. No more impunity, not for the dictators, not for those who support the dictators,” he warned.

It’s been two weeks since the 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners were released and banished to the United States, plus stripped of their nationality. It’s also been two weeks since the punishment levied on Monsignor Rolando Alvarez, who refused banishment and was sentenced to 26 years in prison. What impact has this had for the Ortega dictatorship in terms of the international community’s reaction? What’s the political result?

We’re looking at an event unprecedented in its cruelty, for the quantity of victims – we’re speaking of 317 people (222 on February 9th and 95 since) who’ve been stripped of their nationality, in contradiction to every international convention. The Nicaraguan government is also part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which prohibits taking anyone’s nationality away. It’s an event unprecedented in the region, that unfortunately up until now hasn’t received the level of reaction I would have expected from the Latin American countries, [although] some leaders acted rapidly and conclusively. The great question is the silence from Brazil.

If [you’re asking] if this has given the regime of Daniel Ortega some oxygen, I’d say in no way, because the measure is insufficient to be able to revive a dictatorship the size of the one Ortega and Murillo lead. The liberation of the political prisoners has been immediately accompanied by new punishments. A measure that could have represented a starting point to reestablish a dialogue and negotiation process with the objective of seeking a negotiated electoral and democratic way out of the very grave crisis in Nicaragua, can’t be considered as something that’s helping supply the regime with new oxygen.

In the case of Father Rolando Alvarez, the Bishop’s refusal, his saying, “I’m not leaving, I’m staying here,” took the regime by surprise. This is going to become a true headache for them, a sort of Nicaraguan [Nelson] Mandela, that they’re going to have to resolve in a very intelligent way. The dictatorship reacted very emotionally to the priest’s refusal; they rushed to react, and I believe this is affecting them.

The release of the political prisoners generated an explosion of jubilation in Nicaragua, because among them you find the opposition’s national leadership. What challenges face this opposing leadership?  Can they be an effective opposition? Is it possible to construct a democratic alternative from exile, in a country that’s a police state?

Having all the opposition outside of Nicaragua obviously has a positive but also a very challenging aspect. They’re in better condition than they were when they were prisoners, to achieve what I’ve been advocating, which is the monolithic unity of the opposition.

This opens a very significant opportunity for the most important figures of the opposition, the principal leadership, to understand once and for all that they must unite. There’s just one enemy here – Ortega-Murillo. Differences, as important as they may seem, should not be an obstacle to constructing a united front, with one sole voice, one sole platform, one unique program that would comprise the united opposition and be the representative for interacting with the international community, the international organizations, with Latin America, and clearly to face the dictatorial regime. Democracies are recovered from within. The international community and everything they do from outside is very important, but that’s not where the fight is settled. It must be seen as a process, and I believe that here lies first challenge, and the first step is to achieve the unity and articulation of all the opposition.

The silence of Brazilian president Lula and some Central American countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama that wouldn’t even join 17 other countries in signing an Organization of American States’ declaration condemning Ortega’s decree of “statelessness” [against banished and exiled political opponents] and also demanding the liberation of the remaining political prisoners. What’s lacking, before all the Latin American countries could truly form a common front to isolate the Ortega dictatorship?

The recent declaration adopted this week in the Permanent Council of the OAS reveals the level of deterioration that the democratic consensus that existed in the region at the beginning of the 2000s has deteriorated. The division and fragmentation that exists at a Latin American level, the lack of commitments. It’s only a declaration, not even at the level of a resolution, yet it only received the backing of 17 countries, just half the members of the Permanent Council.

The very notable absences of signatures from Central America countries like El Salvador is understandable: Bukele is gradually building his own authoritarian regime. The government of Xiomara Castro in Honduras continues playing with a very complicated foreign policy, in terms of the defense of democracy. There’s the case of Panama that – to me – was a surprise, because Panama is part of the Alliance for Democracy and Development, together with Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. I can’t fully understand Panama’s silence. There’s also the silence of Brazil.

I’m optimistic that in the coming days, Brazil will finally pronounce on this topic. President Lula is investing a large chunk of time proposing a peace plan to resolve the grave crisis of the war in Ukraine; given his leadership, he should also dedicate himself with special attention to the powerful threat he faced January 8th within Brazil’s democracy itself. We’re not speaking about ideology here, of defending the right, or the governments on the left. What Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo are doing is practically without precedent in the region’s modern history. This is an act of barbarism, it’s building a North Korea in the region. This dictatorship has no limits.

Ortega is acting in complete impunity, not only for himself and his wife, but also for the circle of 300 or 400 high functionaries: the heads of police, the ministers, the deputies, the operational cadres, those directly involved in the repression. It’s a repressive apparatus that is also jointly responsible for acts of corruption, and they’re acting with impunity. There’s no limit, there’s no national or even international law to counterbalance them, and what’s left of the political space for reaction is divided, is weak. Meanwhile, the world is focused on the crisis in Ukraine.

I’m not going to get tired of saying it – the level of oppression is unprecedented, the level of control with no internal limits that the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship exercises is really unprecedented. They’re not only enjoying great impunity within Nicaragua, but also outside Nicaragua. Latin America should be taking note and making Nicaragua a topic of priority. One of the problems is that the global context isn’t helping. Ukraine is absorbing all the attention.

Also, the tensions between the United States and Russia, and the growing tensions of the United States with China, are clearly eclipsing this theme.  The successive crises in Latin America make it very difficult to situate and maintain the topic of Nicaragua’s crisis as a priority. It’s a topic that comes up, is there for a few days, and then immediately goes away. The challenge – I repeat – puts an enormous responsibility on the opposition to seek unity and activate a plan that keeps the spotlight on Nicaragua in the international arena. Meanwhile, internally, they should gradually be setting up alliances to seek a process that will bring an end to this dictatorship.

This can’t only be resolved by putting pressure on Ortega and Murillo. The same harsh policies that are applied to combatting terrorism and narcotrafficking must be applied here. Families, everyone, must all be aware that they must help find a way out, or they’ll be paying a very high price. Sooner or later, that price will have to be paid, including by all those who served as support for the dictatorship. The front men, those who are in the ministries; the Army is fundamental. This is a typical case where the Army is maintaining a dictatorship – not by leading a coup d’etat, but by helping preserve it and supporting the repression, so that the dictatorship remains.

The Pension Funds and the bank resources that the Army maintains outside of Nicaragua should be traced. A strategy must be designed to identify who these people are, follow up with them, and make them understand that continuing to support the dictatorship will bring a price to pay sooner or later. This includes the position of the governments of Latin America, of Europe, of the United States and Canada towards international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and especially the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (CABEI), that continues financing the regime’s projects.

The executive president of CABEI, Dante Mossi, has agreed to participate in a debate on the role of CABEI, on March 16 with Manuel Orozco from Inter-American Dialogue and Ryan Berg of CSIS. Is this a possible opening for reassessing the bank’s role?

This demonstrates that sooner or later pressure has an effect, when all those directly or indirectly responsible for helping the dictatorship are identified. Up until a short while ago, the Central American Bank completely ignored us. After the article that Ryan Berg wrote, after the stance taken by Manuel Orozco, after what I’ve been writing, [Mossi] finally reacted, saying he accepted the debate.

If you review Dante Mossi’s past Twitter feed, and then look at the last two or three days, when all this exploded, Mossi says that CABEI is a bank made up of 15 donor countries, whose governments are the bank’s owners. These countries appoint one representative and one alternate representative each to the Board of Governors. That Board names the directors, and the directors are the ones to elect the president – in this case, him. Secondly, he says that all the loans the bank makes are approved by the Directive Board. In other words, even before the debate he’s transferring the responsibility, saying: “Don’t blame me,” because we ended up calling him ‘the dictators’ banker.’  Instead, he insists: ‘blame the Directive Board, who are the ones that approved each one of these loans.

After the report published by Urnas Abiertas  [“Open Ballot Boxes”] regarding the lack of transparency of many of these loans, one of his tweets in the last few days points out that, “All of the loans are subject to internal and external audits. All of this is available on the website.”  He’s opening his parachute.  But this is exactly part of what we have to do – no more impunity, no to the dictators, and those who back the dictators.

It’s of fundamental importance that we break the line of impunity that protects these dictators, make them aware that they’ll have to pay and they’ll be paying a very high price – not only the Ortega and Murillo but their families, their partners, their front men, those who finance them, their ministers, and we must also include here in a very important way the armed forces.

The armed forces must be conscious of the responsibility they have and the harm they could suffer financially, plus the harm to the institution itself. This is a central theme. What [Colombian] President Gustavo Petro expressed to the International Penal Court seemed to me very good, because there are crimes here that in April will mark five years since they were committed – more than 325 killed, for which there’s been absolute impunity.

These crimes against humanity cannot remain unpunished, as has been pointed out so well in the cases in Ukraine. This also needs to be pointed out in the case of Nicaragua. The level of pressure against the hard core and those who support the dictators must be increased. Excuse me for insisting so much on this, the urgent priority and strategic importance of the opposition which is now outside [the country], that is free, to unite quickly and establish a strategic road map for putting all that pressure on the regime.

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

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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.