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.

Venezuela: Vicious Cycle Continues

By CLALS Staff

Photo Credit: Cancillería Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Photo Credit: Cancillería Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

UNASUR has shown energy and flexibility as a facilitator during the Venezuela crisis, but neither the government, nor its opponents, nor the opposition’s allies in Washington have matched it – prolonging the vicious cycle that’s been plaguing the country for years.  Speaking as UNASUR, the foreign ministers of Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador reflected the continent’s frustration when they threw up their hands this week and left Caracas after another failed attempt to get a national dialogue on track.  Their statements represented a balance between the UNASUR members that are generally perceived as tolerant of the Venezuelan government’s “Bolivarian” revolution and those perceived as opposing it.  They reiterated calls, issued officially in Suriname on 16 May, for both sides to “achieve a broad dialogue that permits Venezuelans, without interference, to reach an accord that guarantees peaceful coexistence and stability in the country.”

The government, opposition and Washington have not heeded the appeal by UNASUR and the Vatican’s nuncio to be constructive and patient.  The government’s attack on opposition and student camps in early May and subsequent arrest of more than 200 protestors highlighted the authoritarian tendencies that have given momentum to the demonstrations.  The Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD), representing important sectors of the opposition, gave the foreign ministers yet another list of demands – including a Truth Commission investigating rights violations (and not headed by the pro-government president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello) and the selection of an entirely new National Elections Council.  The MUD’s executive secretary declared that he has no interest in participating in a peña or chit-chat session, and said, “The ball is in the government’s court.”  Although U.S. Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson said during a hearing that sanctions were premature (a statement that she attributed to “confusion”), the foreign affairs committees in both house of the U.S. Congress – without objection from the Obama Administration – have passed bills authorizing an array of punitive measures against Venezuelan officials.  The legislation also authorizes an additional $15 million dollars in aid to the government’s opponents.

The less overtly political agenda that first sparked the protests in February – soaring crime rates, rocketing inflation, and shortages of basic goods and services – has been overshadowed by the shouts of opposition leaders eager to force President Maduro from office and by Maduro’s defenses from the plotting against him.  Demands that Maduro negotiate with a foreign-funded opposition that has as its clear goal his removal as constitutionally legitimate president – something no head of state in the hemisphere would accept – naturally keep his bases on edge.  Political leaders on both sides manipulate popular opinion and claim el pueblo as supporting them.  Another of each side’s real strengths is its ability to portray itself as a victim of the unfairness of the other – because their victimhood rationalizes whatever actions they wish to take.  In that regard, the U.S. sanctions against the government and subsidies to the opposition play into Maduro’s hand.  Washington’s extra $15 million is a drop in the bucket for the well-funded opposition, but the U.S. support is as clear a signal as any of its desired outcome.  With both the United States and important segments of the opposition appearing to aim for nothing short of regime change, UNASUR is wise to step aside and see if anyone decides to get serious about ending the crisis.  Should the situation on the ground deteriorate further, however, UNASUR will probably ramp up its engagement and press both sides to make concessions in exchange for regional support.