“Alicia” is a university graduate who has worked for the government for over 20 years. She currently holds a high management position in one of the government institutions. She asked to be identified with the assumed name of “Alicia”, to protect her identity and avoid reprisals.
Alicia is a witness to the increased police monitoring the Sandinista Front has ordered against the civil and military public servants at all levels. “We feel like hostages,” she declares, and describes a system of control in which employees not only fear for their jobs if they disagree with any policies of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, but also for their freedom. “[Dissenting] means risking jail, or even losing your life.”
During a conversation featured on the online television news show Esta Semana, the public employee – who wasn’t shown and whose voice was electronically disguised – spoke of the discomfort the public employees feel, especially with the persecution unleashed against the Catholic Church, and the uncertainty generated by the attacks against representatives of the international community, including the recent expulsion of the European Union ambassador.
Wednesday [September 28] marked four years since the imposition of a police state in Nicaragua. Four years without the right to assemble or to mobilize. You’ve been working in one of the government institutions for over 20 years. Are these prohibitions affecting the public employees in any way?
I’d say that it affects the public employees most, because we’ve been under watch for many years now. Not only are we ourselves watched, our social media, our families, our circle of friends are also monitored – what we say, what we do, where we go, who we’re with. That began a long time before 2018, and of course increased after 2018.
There was another series of restrictions imposed with the pandemic. We couldn’t say we’d gotten sick, or that a family member had Covid. In the beginning, we couldn’t even protect ourselves [with masks], because it looked bad for the institutions, and we could suffer reprisals. Many doctors and functionaries were fired during the pandemic.
How is this surveillance exercised? Who does it? Is it coming from the Sandinista Party, or the high government authorities?
The political structures of the Sandinista Front are present in all the government institutions. Before, they were called the CPC (Citizens’ Power Councils), and later the CLS (Committees of Sandinista Leadership). Now they’re the UVE (Electoral Victories United). There are a series of cadres who are fanatical Sandinistas, and they keep an eye on you, on everything you do. There are also some functionaries that maybe aren’t part of these structures, but they’re watching.
These people are generally in the minority. Most of the state employees aren’t part of this dynamic. There are only a few fanatical cadres, but they do a lot of harm. Clearly, they’re receiving instructions from the highest authorities.
How much support does the Ortega-Murillo presidency have within the government structures? What’s behind the marches you see, in which the state employees and government functionaries participate, with their expressions of support and gratitude for the government’s actions?
Support is obligatory because they note your name on their lists. If you’re not there, if you don’t go, you’re looked upon badly. You can suffer reprisals, you can not only lose your job, but your freedom, or even your life itself.
You feel coerced into participation, because if you don’t participate, there are consequences. The real support the regime has is minimal. I speak with other colleagues under our breaths, and we know what we feel. We don’t agree with anything that’s happening, but we can’t say anything, and that repressive wall is ever more present. You have more and more fear of speaking up, of expressing yourself even in the most intimate circles, because you don’t know who could leak some information, and the repercussions that could have. But the real support that exists is absolutely minimal.
However, there’s also a sector that openly supports the regime. Are government employees accomplices, or are they hostages, or are they simply indifferent?
There are some fanatical people that support the regime, justify the repression, justify the actions they take, but they’re a minority, a very tiny segment. The great majority of us officials and public employees aren’t in agreement. We feel like we’re hostages, because we find ourselves obligated to participate in these activities in a “volunteer” manner. We go to the activities, we take pictures so they can see us, we post them to the (social media) groups we’re supposed to post them to, or we send them to the person we’re supposed to send them to. We get our names on the list, we comply with what’s expected of us, and we leave. That tells you there’s no real commitment, that we’re hostages of this system.
You work in the upper echelons of a government institution. Can the high public functionaries travel freely outside the country?
No. It’s recently gotten worse. Now, it’s not just the high-level functionaries that have travel restrictions, but also mid-level employees and even some who work on a technical level. And it’s not just the public employees themselves who suffer these restrictions, but also their family members. I’ve heard about people who were denied their passports or their travel documents. When they tried to leave through the border posts or through the airport, they’re stopped, told to return, and in some cases, they’ve even fired them. All this is inside information, because we’re living day to day. There are some people who’ve succeeded in leaving via unmarked border crossings. Some of them don’t even resign, so as not to risk having people find out and suffering possible reprisals. They merely flee and give up their severance pay, because they believe that’s the lesser of two evils.
If this discomfort you’re describing exists, why do the majority of the public employees continue in their positions? Some even retire and are replaced. The last case of a high-level functionary breaking ties with the regime was that of the former OAS ambassador Arturo McFields; however, very few such cases are known.
Leaving an organization like the Sandinista Front is very hard. It’s better to have them fire you, because otherwise, you risk reprisals. There’s a lot of fear, because the reprisals aren’t only against you, but also aimed at the whole family.
There’s more fear than you can imagine. If it were only a matter of losing your job, that wouldn’t be the worst problem. It’s that you risk having them throw you in jail, or even losing your life. Look at what happened to the mayor in Diriamba. All those of us who could comment saw clearly that [his death] was no suicide. It was a clear message to anyone who wanted to leave, that they could face those consequences.
So, you don’t want to risk that. Arturo McFields had the courage to resign, but he was outside the country with his family. Hence, the consequences are much less. Those people who are here would have great difficulty doing something like he did.
In the last few months, the independent media has published a lot of denunciations of corruption in the government: in the General Department of Revenue, in the Customs Office, in the Police, in the Public Registry, in the mayors’ offices. Who’s behind this corruption?
Unfortunately, it’s already a systemic cancer. It’s in all the government organs, because if the head is ill, all the organs are also sick. Yes, the corruption comes from above: charging the population unjust taxes is encouraged; there are arbitrary actions, excessive bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the cost of living is ever higher, and there are a series of situations that are making the economic situation ever harder.
That situation is permeating everything. It’s created a breeding ground for corruption, and this has been general everywhere, from the highest levels to the lowest. People – I’m referring to the general population – complain that they add on excessive obstacles just to be able to charge bribes, to be able to ask for something in exchange for obtaining a public service that should be easily available.
Nonetheless, many people feel sheltered by the fact that they’re politically protected, and they take advantage of that to profit economically. Not all of us employees, though. It’s not everyone, but yes there are a large number of cadres who are taking advantage of their positions to enrich themselves unfairly.
How does the police surveillance of public employees function during election periods, for example during the voting last November 7th?
They tell us that when we go to our voting center, we’re just going to vote. That we should send photos to show we’re present at the voting center, and that we’re exercising our right to vote.
There are some members of the UVEs who go to the extreme of asking us to send photos when we’re inside the voting booth, but those are extremely fanatical cases. The least they do is ask you to prove you went out to vote.
Also, if you go to work the day after elections without your finger stained [upon voting in Nicaragua, people’s index fingers are inked], they look at you badly, not to speak of the rumors that have circulated about people marking up their ballots, or that they have some way of finding out what was on the ballot you deposited.
There are control mechanisms that they’ve established. They make out lists, and if you haven’t gone out to vote by a certain hour, they call you. They text you, saying “Hey, go! Look, do this!” They‘re keeping tabs all day long, to guarantee that you went to your polling place and voted. In the elections last November, there were cases of people who suffered the consequences of not having voted, people who were fired.
In Jalapa and other places, some Sandinista militants protested the fact that the candidates for these upcoming municipal elections were selected merely via party nod. These protesters are now in jail. What impact does this have among Sandinistas and among the public employees?
The impact is worse for those within the Sandinista ranks who dissent. A structure of military origin like the Sandinista Front sees this as treason, and treason is punished by jail or death. That’s why I told you in the beginning that we public employees face the worst consequences, because they – I’m referring to Ortega-Murillo and their structures – feel betrayed, and they make you pay dearly.
Therefore, obviously when Sandinista militants rebel against the injustices, the things that aren’t right, they assume serious consequences. These are imposed to make examples of them, so it won’t occur to the rest of us to do anything like what they’ve done. That’s what’s happened with people like Chino Enoc.
What do they say in the public sector about the campaign of persecution the regime has launched against the Catholic Church – imprisoning the priests, prohibiting the processions? Are there people who support Daniel Ortega’s discourse?
Of course not. Most of the public employees are Catholics or at least Christians. We believe in God, and of course there’s no support for these things. You can make a slight comment under your breath with a colleague, someone you’ve maybe known and worked with since you began in the government. When these things happen, we lament them, and we wish they’d change. We wish things weren’t that way.
It pains us, because it wounds our faith, it wounds our religious identity. We know they’re committing grave injustices, and that there’ll be consequences. But we can’t do anything. There are even some people who have considered beginning little by little to stop attending their churches, because they believe that even that could bring consequences.
We’re in a situation of maximum coopting of our freedoms, of our consciences. At some moment, that could generate a reaction, and that’s exactly what they [the regime] fear. Such a reaction from within would be harder to control, like in 2018. The sectors that arose with the greatest force against the regime came from the former Sandinista ranks, and that’s why they’ve attacked them with the greatest force.
How do you see the country’s future under Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, who essentially elected themselves last November for a new five-year period?
Uncertain. At this moment, they believe they have it all, because they think that the entire world is busy with other things. But there could come a time when the people here grow tired, there’s a reaction, and the international community supports any reaction that happens here. Or, simply, the international community itself grows tired of all the outrages that these people are committing against those who represent them, their ambassadors, and there’s further economic deterioration in the country.
Maybe right now it’s not felt so much, but it’s enough to explain the flight of so many state functionaries to other countries like the United States and Costa Rica. They’re leaving precisely because they see a shadowy panorama.
How does the public sector view the democratic opposition in Nicaragua, whose leaders are today imprisoned, exiled or under active persecution?
Before all the candidates were jailed, there was some hope, because there were some candidates who took a conciliatory position, a position with intelligent proposals, and who had great capacity. But as they went on imprisoning them, those expectations went up in smoke.
However, today we don’t see any clear leadership on the part of the opposition, with clear proposals that could bring together the different sectors. In addition, the public employees are concerned about the gratuitous attacks on us coming from some sectors, just for being public employees, when maybe you’ve committed no crime, you haven’t stolen anything, you haven’t killed anyone, you haven’t done anything wrong. So, suddenly, you’re worried that you could face consequences when a change comes, and not only could they dismiss you from your job, but they could also put you in jail.
The more divided the opposition is, and the less they outline positive proposals to bring together those of us who work in government today, and even the Sandinistas themselves, the harder it’s going to be to weaken and get rid of the regime.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times.