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Ruben Perina: Focus on the OAS foreign ministers and the internal resistance

Former official of the Organization of American States (OAS) analyzes the regional organization’s impasse in regard to the Nicaraguan crisis.

A Permanent Council Resolution obtained 27 votes in favor

Carlos F. Chamorro

26 de enero 2022


Argentine political scientist Ruben Perina, who spent more than two decades working at the Organization of American States (OAS) for the promotion of democracy, has some insight into the organization’s current impasse regarding Nicaragua. Lacking the 24 votes needed to apply the Democratic Charter to the Ortega regime, he believes that the Nicaraguan opposition should directly lobby the member states.

“The Nicaraguan political opposition should also focus on the foreign ministers who provide the votes in the OAS,” the expert explained during an interview with Confidencial director Carlos Fernando Chamorro. The interview was broadcast via the weekly online news show Esta Semana. In the course of the conversation, Perina - who has also served on the faculties of Georgetown and George Washington Universities - added: “If there was more unity, greater resistance, including an internal uprising, the international community would be much more willing to support the opposition in different ways.”

On December 8, twenty-five countries in the OAS approved a resolution on the illegitimacy of the Nicaraguan elections, calling on the country to hold new elections. However, the report the OAS secretary general presented on January 19 merely confirmed that Ortega hasn’t responded to any of the organization’s diplomatic efforts. Why can’t the OAS implement their own resolutions?

The OAS isn’t a monolith, nor does it transcend national powers. It’s composed of 35 countries, and they’re the true proprietors of the organization. You have to look at the member countries:  if there’s a majority in favor, then the OAS can act. In the case of Nicaragua, in order to call a special session to consider the expulsion of Nicaragua, 24 votes are needed.

The secretary general hasn’t offered any alternatives. What comes next in this impasse? Does this mean the OAS has capitulated in the face of the Nicaraguan crisis?

The fact is, the votes aren’t there. I maintain contacts with some of the ambassadors, and they say that the last resolution on Nicaragua was fine, but “that’s as far as we’re going.” They don’t know what to do. If I ask them: “Why not call a special session?”, they tell me: “We don’t have the votes.”

In the end, that same question should be posed to Nicaragua’s internal opposition, and the internal democratic community. If there was greater unity, greater resistance, including even an internal uprising, the international community would be much more inclined to support the Nicaraguan opposition in different ways.

Today, Nicaragua is a police state: there are over 170 political prisoners; there’s no freedom of assembly, of mobilization; there’s no press freedom nor freedom of expression. Can diplomatic pressure be made conditional upon the reestablishment of democratic freedoms? Because Ortega is simply holding on to that police state.

It’s very hard to resist or oppose a repressive regime like that of Ortega, like that of a dictatorship. Just like it’s very difficult in Cuba. Look at what happened recently with those who protested there: they’re all in jail - there are also nearly a hundred political prisoners there.

I believe that the Nicaraguan political opposition should focus on the foreign ministers. Because in the long run, [decisions rest with] each country, the foreign ministers of each member nation. I don’t see any way out through the organization’s normal channels. I don’t believe there’s enough of a majority to call for a special session.

Could the countries promoting democratic change in Nicaragua work outside the OAS to create a working group – with Latin American countries, those from the continent, and from Europe? Could that be an alternative?

Certainly. In fact, in 2018, such a group was formed in the OAS. There was a Working Group presided over by the unfortunately now deceased Paraguayan ambassador Elisa Ruiz. She led that group, and in 2019, the General Assembly created what they call a high-level diplomatic group that attempted to negotiate a visit to Nicaragua in 2019, although Ortega refused to allow it. The group then had to meet with the opposition in El Salvador. Its report, though, was conclusive in terms of the [human rights] violations, the political prisoners, and the violations of press freedom.

One of the problems with the OAS and the Democratic Charter is that they can’t invite other branches of government or other involved participants when they’re deliberating about the crisis in a country. The only ones in representation are the nation’s ambassador.

This Working Group opened the possibility of calling on other members of Nicaraguan society: to establish a dialogue, use their prestige, initiate some form of negotiations. Unfortunately, when Ortega realized that an accord on free and inclusive elections was in the works, he decided to dismantle this effort and not participate. Those two options are still in play; at any rate, that Working Group which today Canada and Chile preside over, can continue functioning.

In the case of Venezuela, for example, the Lima Group was created with participation from Latin American and European countries. However, it had very limited results on opening a space for democratic dialogue in Venezuela.

Yes, and the two situations are very comparable in terms of the opposition’s role. The opposition in Venezuela is also divided, and hasn’t been able to exert a coordinated impact, in order to weaken the government. Now, a small window has opened in the elections that, surprisingly, accepted that defeat in Barinas [where the Venezuelan opposition won the governorship]. So, there are opportunities, but I’d also like to see what the internal democratic community can do.

There’s no short-term solution to this crisis. Is there a medium-term strategy for the international community and the Nicaraguan democratic community you mention: the opposition, civil society, the business community, the Catholic Church itself?

They also need to have a short- and medium-term strategy. The ultimate goal has to be to force the regime to hold elections – that’s the only way out. But other goals would have to be thought of as well.

I believe that the secretary general will continue, as well as the Working Group. The pressure will continue, the negotiations. The objective is to call a special session, but my point is that I don’t know how they’re going to achieve that. I don’t see any clear road, and I think that my democratic friends in the OAS don’t see one either. You also have Mexico and Argentina outside that democratic coalition, that democratic alliance, that was very strong up until two or three years ago.

Mexico and Argentina tend to show a certain indulgence with Ortega’s dictatorship. Do you think that will remain unchanged in the medium term? Could anything be done to make them change?

Well, not in Argentina. I believe that in Argentina that won’t change until there are new elections in 2024. The Argentine foreign policy is very erratic, very disconcerting, for those observing it and for the opposition itself.

Now there’s tension with the Nicaraguan government over what happened recently at [Ortega’s] inauguration, with the presence of the Iranian [Mohsen Rezai, accused of being behind a deadly 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires]. That caused a lot of consternation in Argentina, a great uproar.

Could it have an impact? It’s now known that three days before the January 10th inauguration ceremony, government spokesperson Rosario Murillo announced that the Iranian – who’s wanted for terrorism - would be one of the honored guests to Ortega’s self-investiture as president. The Argentine government, the ambassador, must in some way have known this was going to occur.

I don’t know if it happened out of carelessness, by omission or commission, but the fact is it sparked a lot of criticism within Argentina itself.

Gabriel Boric, Chile’s new president-elect, announced on Friday that Antonia Urrejola would be his new Foreign Minister. She’s the former president of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. Is that a clear message regarding future Chilean foreign policy on topics of human rights and democracy? Could it have some influence on the democratic left in Latin America?

Yes. She worked in the Commission for many years and later served as its president. I’m very enthusiastic about her new appointment. It’s hopeful, in the sense that Chile will also become a bastion of defense for democracy and won’t retreat in this area, as Argentina has.

The Summit of the Americas will be held in Los Angeles in July, with US President Joe Biden presiding. What impact could that have on the crisis in the OAS and in Nicaragua?

The summit could provide a very meaningful opportunity for the foreign ministers and the presidents to debate and discuss. Nicaragua is surely going to be one of the topics of discussion, as well as the erosion of democracy. These challenges will be among the summit’s principal themes. One serious suggestion [I’d make] to the friendly ambassadors from the democratic countries: not to invite Nicaragua, or Cuba; not to invite Venezuela.

The Nicaraguan democratic community should already be working to pressure the foreign ministers on that issue.

You participated in the process of generating the Inter-American Democratic Charter over two decades ago. What’s your view of it today? Is it a problem of how it was drawn up, or of the balance of governments who would have to execute its provisions?

I read an article in Confidencial where someone said that the Charter was out of date. I don’t believe that, and if you wanted to reform the Charter, you’d be opening a Pandora’s box. What’s happening is that, again, [its application] depends on the countries.

In Latin America there’s no democratic consensus utilizing the Charter to defend democracy. There’s fragmentation: democratic countries, semi-democratic countries, dictatorships… the dynamic among all these doesn’t propitiate a consensus to activate the Charter.  

The Charter was used several times as a preventive measure. In 2005, Bolaños [then-president of Nicaragua] invoked it in the OAS due to an attack on his powers from the Nicaraguan Legislature. The same thing happened in Ecuador in 2005. It was useful as a preventive measure; it averted a larger crisis or the collapse of democracy. In 2008, in Bolivia as well.

When there’s a military coup, as in Honduras in 2009 for example, the countries act immediately. But when the coup unfolds in slow motion, and the government was originally elected, then the countries pretty much turn a blind eye and utilize the principle of non-intervention as a pretext to do nothing. It’s a truly worrisome silence.

A year ago, the Biden administration announced they’d pursue a multilateral policy of collaboration with the governments of Latin America on these topics. How do you view the results?

Many people were hoping for a lot more, but President Biden’s plate is very full right now, with the Republicans’ opposition to his policies; the topic of Russia; the Ukraine; Iran; Afghanistan, etc. In Latin America, there still doesn’t seem to be a crisis that would constitute a threat to the peace and security of the continent. When such crises occur – for example, if the Russians were really to establish military bases in Venezuela and Nicaragua - then, I think, there would be a much greater focus [on the region]. However, they’re now beginning to become concerned about Chinese penetration into Latin America, and that of the Russians as well. The Summit of the Americas will provide a good thermometer to measure how they see Latin America.

This article was orignally 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.