Nicaragua: Can Ortega Circumvent the Talks?

By Fulton Armstrong

Presidente de El Salvador participa en Cumbre SICA-Nicaragua.

President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega / https://www.flickr.com/photos/fotospresidencia_sv/30962278823 / Flickr / Creative Commons

While the Nicaraguan government continues to stonewall in negotiations with its broad-based opposition, it is taking a series of unilateral actions that seem intended to preempt the talks – and leave the opposition behind. President Daniel Ortega and his team have flatly rejected key opposition demands, including early elections to replace him (instead of waiting for general elections in 2021) and the immediate, unconditional release of hundreds of political prisoners. They have, however, issued declarations pledging several actions on their own terms.

  • Last week, the Foreign Minister said the government “is complying, and will continue to comply, with all of [its] commitments toward understanding and peace.” Calling itself the “Government of Reconciliation and National Unity,” Managua has issued a “work program” that includes the “definitive release” by June 18 of 100-plus more political prisoners and several hundred others under house arrest. It pledged to work toward a “culture of peace” and “cooperate” with the OAS on reforms of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to prepare for the 2021 elections. It promised legislation that supposedly will help victims of government violence during the April 2018 protests, although apparently with conditions that offend opposition leaders.

The opposition Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, which left the negotiating table last week, continues to enjoy widespread support, but press reports suggest mobilization fatigue is undermining its effectiveness and unity. Sympathetic media judged a hastily called national strike last week – protesting government intransigence in the talks – as effective, but they hinted at reduced enthusiasm. The Superior Council of Private Business (COSEP), a leading opposition force, recently released its assessment that the economy is “in a free fall,” with plummeting domestic and foreign investment. COSEP analysts note that the loss of 100,000 private-sector jobs and a similar number of informal-sector jobs is taking a heavy toll on society. The Catholic Church, which remains consistently critical of the Ortega government, has had a lower political profile since Pope Francis reassigned Managua Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Báez, its most outspoken critic of the government, to a Vatican job.

  • The opposition has also been stung by criticism from OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who’s led diplomatic pressure on Ortega to loosen up. In April, Almagro accused both sides in the negotiations of “lying” but listed untruths he attributed specifically to the opposition, claiming that “lying is the most antidemocratic practice.” Although the OAS last week approved a resolution, drafted by Canada with Almagro’s support, calling for Ortega to take concrete steps on human rights and election preparations, some 14 small opposition groups the day after accused the Secretary General of a “double standard” – allegedly being lenient toward Ortega but tough of Venezuelan President Maduro.

Government repression and intransigence in the negotiations are the primary causes of the crisis, but the opposition is, once again, showing a lack of focus and discipline. Ortega’s unilateral moves on political prisoners and electoral reform, after the opposition left the negotiation, suggest an effort to render the opposition and negotiation process irrelevant. By making the release of political prisoners its top priority in recent rounds of talks, opponents have given Ortega an area in which concrete and relatively cost-free steps can give the government momentum. Last week’s strike may have done more to show opponents’ weakness than strength inside Nicaragua, and Almagro’s swipe at “liars” – while possibly a reflection of his own personality and personal beliefs – cannot be helping outside. Some of the “liars” that have irritated him may indeed be mere troublemakers or government shills, but any dilution of international interest will be a victory for the government. The Trump Administration, which has pledged regime change in Nicaragua as well as Venezuela and Cuba, has been relatively quiet. Diplomats at the OAS are working hard to muster the four additional votes to reach the 24 necessary to invoke the Democratic Charter against Nicaragua, but Ortega seems to think he can end-run a negotiated settlement and undermine his opponents at home and abroad.

May 29, 2019

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

Honduras: Hernández Stealing the Election Too?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Two men sitting in chairs looking at each other.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. / Embassy of Honduras / Creative Commons

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and the military have declared a “state of emergency” – tantamount to martial law – to ensure that the President wins a second term, but irregularities in the vote-counting and the harsh suppression of the opposition probably will poison political discourse and hinder democratic progress for years to come.  The government declared the emergency, which will run for 10 days, on Friday night after days of growing tensions over mysterious actions by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) – heavily stacked in favor of Hernández – that erased opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla’s five-point lead earlier in the week and moved toward formalizing the incumbent’s victory by 1.5 percentage points.  Senior government officials themselves have characterized the action as a “suspension of constitutional guarantees.”  Hondurans are now living under a dusk-to-dawn curfew; radio and TV stations have been warned against publicizing opposition claims of fraud; and street confrontations are growing.  Media confirm several deaths, but opposition leaders say that more than a dozen demonstrators have been killed.  Opposition videos showing military and police violence, including chasing individual protestors and shooting them, have been removed from Facebook and other venues, although still photos of the victims can be found.

  •  The TSE has agreed to hand-count about a thousand ballot boxes with “irregularities” in three of 18 departments, representing about 6 percent of the votes, but the opposition claims that several thousand more boxes have been compromised and need to be reviewed.

International reaction has been mixed and generally muted.  The EU’s observers have held firm on demanding a full vote count and expressing, diplomatically, skepticism about TSE’s handling of it.  Observers for the “Grupo de Lima,” which has been active on the Venezuela issue, issued a “position” paper on election day (November 26) urging calm and patience with the vote count, but it has released no apparent updates since then.  OAS observers have taken a similar low-key position.

  • Although the Trump Administration may conceivably be working behind the scenes, neither the White House nor State Department has done publicly more than urge calm. Vice President Pence, who previously praised Hernández “for his leadership in addressing security and governance challenges,” has remained silent.  The U.S. chargé d’affaires has said Honduras is in “a new, unprecedented phase in the electoral process” but limited herself to calling for calm and a full vote count.

The audacity of this apparent election fraud and crackdown on Hernández’s opponents dwarfs the many other charges of corruption brought against the Hernández government, including some validated by the OAS Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).  Although different in form from the coup in 2009, these events also threaten to undermine the nation’s political stability, economic wellbeing, and institutions necessary to building democracy.  The U.S. reaction suggests that Washington will acquiesce in the ongoing abuses and Hernández’s second term despite the obvious irregularities and rights violations.  The United States – convinced as in the past that political leaders who are “our SOBs” can make good partners – has often countenanced dubious elections.  Moreover, both the Obama and Trump Administrations were persuaded that Hernández has been their faithful, effective ally in combating the drug trade, despite evidence of official involvement in it, and the temptation to turn a blind eye to less-than-democratic political outcomes must be strong.

  •  The OAS, the “Lima Group,” and other intraregional groupings do not appear poised to weigh in despite their good intentions. Neither do Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador appear likely to condemn a neighbor for engaging in practices that are ongoing or fresh in their own near pasts.  The Inter-American Democratic Charter, a historic document laying out hemispheric values, is of little value in the absence of the political will and ability to enforce it.  Now is a crunch time both for the OAS and for those governments that advocate some teeth to the charter.  At this point, they appear likely to cave – to the detriment of democracy in Latin America.

 December 4, 2017

Venezuela: Stalemate in a War of Attrition?

By Michael McCarthy*

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Members of Venezuela’s opposition march against President Maduro at a demonstration in April 2017. / A. Davey / Flickr / Creative Commons

The pace of provocation and counter-provocation in Venezuela has reached a new high, and there does not seem to be a stabilizing force that can induce a de-escalation.  It’s unclear if the country’s power struggle is experiencing a new cycle in its multi-year confrontation, or if two months of protests mark the start of a downward spiral that will plunge the country into even deeper crisis.  Neither the government nor opposition appears near the point of exhaustion that would make efforts at a meaningful negotiated settlement fruitful.  An examination of their agendas, moreover, paints a picture of an intractable conflict.

  • President Nicolás Maduro is in raw survival mode – perhaps driven by fear of disgrace as the man who lost the Chávez legacy entrusted to him – and is forcing a rewrite of the Constitution as he lurches toward outright dictatorship. He deeply resents that the opposition never acknowledged the legitimacy of his election, and he was shaken when jeered and egged at a public rally recently.  He has condoned violence by his party’s vigilantes and the Guardia Nacional, but almost certainly grasps its political cost, including within the government and military.  Faced with the certain prospect of persecution by an opposition-dominated government, he probably sees no incentive to negotiate his denouement.
  • The opposition remains heterogeneous and is united almost exclusively in the fervent belief that Maduro – through evil and incompetence – is destroying the country. Government repression and their own self-inflicted wounds have precluded development of a sophisticated strategic planning capacity.  Although opponents’ preferred option is to remove Maduro at the ballot box, some also apparently believe that ratcheting up the violence will force the military – reluctant to intervene – to lean on Maduro to depart.
  • The senior ranks of the military, compromised by corruption and narco-trafficking during the Chávez-Maduro era, show no signs of wavering, but discontent among field-grade officers at the Regional Commands – who will have to serve under a successor government – may become palpable during the military promotion season that formally concludes July 5. As the Guardia Nacional soils its reputation, the military wants to stay off the streets as long as possible.  There’s no evidence of sympathy with the opposition; their primary concern is avoiding being part of the bloodshed.  How the military would orchestrate a post-Maduro era is unknowable.
  • The country’s economic and financial crises have devastated oil production, making it impossible for Maduro to pump his way out of the crisis and increasing his reliance on foreign capital. Indebting itself further at an extremely high cost, the government bought some time by selling $2.8 billion in bonds to Goldman Sachs – through a counterparty – for $865 million in cash.
  • The sectores populares are highly agitated but lack leadership. The working class has largely fallen into poverty, now estimated at 80 percent nationally, and neighborhoods previously home to chavismo’s base have shown tolerance for the opposition and outright disdain for the ruling coalition, including knocking down statues of Hugo Chávez.

Neither the government nor opposition has yet shown concern that its resources and energy are nearing exhaustion – and the military, so far, is not prepared to tell one or the other to give up the struggle.  As long as both sides think that they can break the other, moreover, the prospects for either regime collapse or a mediated settlement seem unlikely, and it is hard to imagine the emergence of a stabilizing force that can mitigate conflict.  External forces may try to facilitate a resolution but are unlikely to succeed.  Brazil’s corruption scandals have removed it as a player; UNASUR’s failures have rendered it irrelevant; and Maduro preempted any final OAS censuring by announcing withdrawal from the organization (though his foreign minister will attend its General Assembly this month).  Washington continues to rely on sanctions – most recently freezing the assets of eight members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court – but seems reluctant to get more deeply involved, and given the turmoil that characterizes the Trump administration, it may in any event be incapable of doing so.  Absent the emergence of a viable formula within Venezuela to overcome the costly stalemate, the war of attrition between regime and opposition will likely continue without meaningful involvement of external actors.

June 5, 2017

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He is International Associate for Venebarómetro polling and publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.