Nicaragua: Ortega’s Pyrrhic Victory

By Kenneth M. Coleman

Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo. / Twitter: El Nuevo Diario

The government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Vice President (and First Lady) Rosario Murillo has continued to persecute its opposition since crushing massive protests in April, which were stilled only at a cost of somewhere between 325 and 535 lives lost, 600 political prisoners, 1,500 wounded, and 40,000 Nicaraguans seeking refuge in Costa Rica.  Paolo Abrão, Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, has characterized Nicaragua as effectively a “police state,” while Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the OAS, has denounced torture by the Nicaraguan government.  Deploying massive force by the Policia Nacional and by hooded shock troops (often retired military and police), Ortega and Murillo “have won” in the sense that they have ended street protests.  In the past month, they have undertaken a systematic effort to silence the remaining voices of dissent.

  • The Catholic Church has been under duress since its effort to mediate a national dialogue collapsed in June. On December 3, Ortega launched the most recent in a series of verbal attacks on the Church, accusing it of being in league with golpistas (coup plotters).  Two days later, a young Russian woman living in Nicaragua – possibly energized by Ortega’s rhetoric – entered the Cathedral of Managua and threw acid on Monsignor Mario Guevara, while he was receiving confessions.  Guevara remains in grave condition.
  • Independent media are constantly under attack. The government has taken down 100% Noticias, an independent station, from the satellite and other distribution networks; has physically attacked and issued death threats to personnel associated with various media outlets; and, on December 14, raided the offices of prize-winning electronic medium, Confidencial, and associated television programs, Esta Noche and Esta Semana.  The Inter American Press Association and Reporters Without Borders, whose investigators in mid-August issued a condemnation of government harassment of independent media, have denounced the recent media harassment as well.
  • Earlier this month, the National Assembly summarily withdrew the legal registrations of nine non-governmental organizations, including the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) and the Institute for Development and Democracy (IPADE). The latter is led by a former Sandinista comandante who was a member of the Front’s original nine-person revolutionary directorate.

Ortega and Murillo’s escalation of pressure on opponents across the board seeks to consolidate their control and create the image of stability that they wish to create.  The business community, which coexisted with them for much of the past 11 years, sided with protesters in April and shows no obvious signs of seeking a rapprochement.  Its leaders are clearly of the view that the national dialogue must be resumed to avoid crippling economic sanctions to an economy that has already contracted four percent this year and promises to contract even more dramatically in 2019 without a change of course.

  • These developments are sure to accelerate a downward spiral in Nicaragua’s relations with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the U.S. government. Under the Magnitsky Act, Washington has already prohibited six individuals, including Murillo, from holding accounts in or doing transactions with U.S. financial institutions.  More sanctions are coming, as the U.S. House and Senate have approved, and President Trump is expected to sign soon, the Nicaraguan Conditionality Investment Act, which will require U.S. representatives to multilateral institutions to vote against most loans to Nicaragua until the Secretary of State attests that substantial measures have been made to restore democracy, allow free elections, protect freedom of speech and assembly, and address corruption.  The Nicaraguan government’s behavior thus far suggest that such actions and a corresponding attestation are an extremely unlikely, if not impossible, scenario.

December 20, 2018

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities.  The views expressed herein are his own, not of the Association of American Universities.

Cuba: Opening Pandora’s Box?

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuba constitutional reform

Reading about the constitutional reform project in Cuba. / Twitter: @SoberonGuzman

The constitutional reform process that the Cuban government is undertaking — controlled and cautious — and adjustments to one or two regressive regulations may be setting in motion political dynamics that will fuel pressure for more change.  After months of consulta popular, the constitutional drafting committee is preparing a new draft for consideration by the National Assembly during a two-day session beginning December 21.  Current plans are still for it to be subjected to a referendum vote in February 2019.

  • Skepticism about the real impact of the consulta, which reportedly resulted in hundreds of thousands of written comments, is deep, but most non-governmental observers believe that participation was so strong that the popular input had an impact. Debate about Article 68 — establishing the constitutional right of same-sex marriage — was most obvious.  Evangelical churches, with Catholic support, led the push against it, organized demonstrations, and circulated posters easily visible on Havana streets.  Local observers report that government officials were surprised by the mobilization and, fearing the article will spark abstention from the referendum or votes rejecting the whole constitution, now face the challenge of balancing the forces for and against it.
  • Debates are reportedly also taking place, including among senior officials, about the role of the Communist Party. Observers say that the party has accepted its subordination to the constitution and laws of the country, but — while it will remain the “fuerza dirigente superior de la sociedad y del Estado” — there reportedly is no consensus on its exact role and relationship with the government.  Another controversial provision deals with vague limits on the “concentration of property” versus the “concentration of wealth.”

The government’s handling of opposition to regulations announced last summer (but scheduled to take effect this month) has also left opponents — justifiably skeptical about any government signals of compromise — wondering where process and policy are headed.

  • The day before a regulation tightening controls on private sector businesses was to be implemented on December 7, the government rescinded several harmful provisions. Under the original version, Cubans could hold only one business license, and private restaurants could have no more than 50 chairs, but both measures were overturned as a result of private sector complaints, according to Labor and Social Security Minister Margarita González.  In a speech to law students, President Díaz-Canel reportedly emphasized the importance of cuentapropista input as well.  There were also hints of a softening of a regulation increasing government control on artists — requiring their credentials to hold shows be validated by a government office — when the government delayed implementation and said it was subject to further elaboration.  With both regulations, officials tried to appear to be listening to the strong opposition they faced.
  • The government has left in place, however, new controls on private transportation operators, particularly the ancient private vehicles (almendrones) running on established routes where public buses are lacking. The government claimed drivers were overcharging, not paying taxes, and not maintaining their cars adequately.  The measure itself, as well as many private drivers’ work slowdown and surrender of their special transport licenses in protest, have significantly hindered Havana citizens’ ability to get around the city.  The government has announced that it is importing several hundred microbuses to cover the routes but has given no sign of compromise on the regulation.

The road to reform in Cuba is littered with unfulfilled expectations; the skepticism of common folk affected by the revised constitution and various regulations, as well as government opponents, is not unwarranted.  It is impossible that the National Assembly could give the thousands of proposed changes to the constitution draft serious consideration in a two-day session.  But some aspects of the ongoing processes, such as the government’s recognition of affected sectors’ concerns, appear likely to create new expectations of government attentiveness and even civic participation.  Non-fulfillment of those expectations may not lead to destabilizing protests in the short term, but it would be yet another negative signal about the Party’s willingness to allow the country to evolve toward the new and more stable model it has claimed interest in establishing since 2011.  The public statements of former President Raúl Castro, President Díaz-Canel, and others suggest awareness that, in the post-Castro era, legitimacy will come from economic results and improved living standards – which require broader and deeper public inputs into policymaking.  Everyone will be watching whether the recent, partial consultations were a short-term show, an experiment, or a hint of a shift in approach.

December 18, 2018

Brazil: Far-Right Foreign Policy Ahead?

By Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues*

John Bolton and Jair Bolsonaro

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton (left) and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (right). / Prensa Latina / Creative Commons

Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro appears to be moving ahead with promises to steer the country’s foreign policy in the direction of his own far-right ideology.  He has accused the Workers’ Party (PT) of former President Lula da Silva (2003-10) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-16) of pursuing a foreign policy with a partisan left-wing ideology, and now he wants to “liberate” Itamaraty, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from what he considers an inappropriate ideological bias.

  • Bolsonaro says that President Trump is his inspiration, his “model” of leadership, and he has made policy coordination with Washington a priority. After a congratulations call to Bolsonaro, Trump tweeted that he and the president-elect “agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else!  Excellent call, wished him congrats!”  Bolsonaro met last week with Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, to discuss joint efforts to achieve regime change in Cuba and Venezuela, among other topics.
  • Even before that, Bolsonaro had ramped up his already strong rhetoric against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and reversed a long-standing policy of cooperation with Cuba, taking aim first at the 8,300 Cuban doctors in Brazil’s Mais Medicos. “We can’t allow Cuban slaves in Brazil,” he said, “And we can’t keep feeding the Cuban dictatorship.”  Havana began withdrawing the doctors before Bolsonaro could expel them.
  • Bolsonaro has barely mentioned UNASUR and is downplaying relations with Argentina, Brazil’s main strategic partner in the region, while emphasizing relations with what he calls “developed nations.” In addition to the United States, he is focused on Italy, Hungary – due to leaders’ far-right political affinities – and Israel.  The evangelical political forces who backed his election are pressing him to move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, respecting “a sovereign decision of Israel.”  The Trump administration will warmly welcome the move, but Bolsonaro will face a potentially significant loss of trade among Middle Eastern and Asian partners.  The president-elect has yet to show his hand on China – Brazil’s main trading partner – and the other BRICS countries.  The Trump administration’s increasingly tough criticism of China’s activities in Latin America may temper the new government’s enthusiasm for closer ties with Beijing.

Bolsonaro has taken positions that set him at odds with the rest of the hemisphere.  He has denied the excesses of Brazil’s past dictatorship, advocated the use of torture against criminals whom he classifies as “terrorists,” used aggressive rhetoric against minorities (LGBTI, women, indigenous peoples, Afro-Brazilian Quilombolas, and migrants), and promised to reduce certain social rights.  Brazil’s diplomatic capital as a leader on environment and climate change is also at risk due to his domestic priority to promote agricultural business and the need to preserve “total” sovereignty over the Amazon Basin at the expense of protecting the rainforest.  He has cancelled Brazil’s commitment to host crucial UN climate change talks (COP25) in 2019, a deal negotiated by the government of President Temer just months ago.

Bolsonaro’s choice of his new foreign minister may be emblematic of his approach to international relations.  He met his commitment to choose a career diplomat, but his choice was Ernesto Araújo, an unknown who was recently promoted without ambassadorial experience who is a self-declared anti-globalist, anti-communist, and Trump’s enthusiastic “intellectual disciple.”  This appointment violates the tradition, observed even during the military governments, of selecting senior, skillful, and experienced ambassadors not directly linked to any ideological trend.  Further questions are raised by the military’s influence in the cabinet.  Two retired generals, Vice President Hamilton Mourão and the future head of Institutional Security Cabinet, Augusto Heleno, are expected to be the president’s right-hand men.  They and an empowered Ministry of Defense certainly will exercise huge influence in promoting a military vision of foreign policy in addressing issues such as borders policy and the Venezuela crisis, and could become a “second track” on Brazil’s foreign policy.

December 4, 2018

* Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues is Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) in Brazil, and was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2017.