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: A New Family Dynasty Taking Root

By Aaron T. Bell*

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Left: Photo of Daniel Ortega celebrating his latest presidential triumph (July 20, 2012) / Fundación ONG de Nicaragua / Wikimedia / Creative Commons; Right: Anastasio Somoza DeBayle / DemonSabre / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Events in Nicaragua this summer have demonstrated that President Ortega and his family have a vision for the future that erodes a key element of political democracy – the replacement of the executive through free and fair elections – and risks establishing a dynasty of corruption and authoritarian rule.  In May 2016, President Daniel Ortega of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) announced his candidacy for a fourth presidential term – his third consecutive.  Since then the government has taken several steps to ensure that Ortega and his family remain in power in November’s elections for President and National Assembly, and beyond:

  • Voting irregularities, a lack of transparency, and accusations of fraud have marred several successive elections since Ortega’s return to power in 2007. In June of this year, Ortega announced that he would not permit international election observers to monitor this fall’s elections.
  • Weeks later, the Supreme Court stripped opposition leader Eduardo Montealgre of his position as head of the Partido Liberal Independiente (PLI) and replaced him with Pedro Reyes, considered by observers to be an Ortega ally. In July, Nicaragua’s electoral council removed 16 sitting members of the National Assembly and 12 alternates after they refused to recognize Reyes.
  • In August, Ortega announced that Rosario Murillo, his long-time partner and wife since 2005, would serve as his vice presidential candidate in the November election. Murillo has been a prominent figure in the Ortega government while serving as both first lady and chief spokeswoman.  Her political ascension is complemented by the rise to prominence in recent years of her and Ortega’s children as operators of business and media interests, including the couple’s eldest son and presidential adviser on investments, Laureano Facundo, who helped sell the stalled interoceanic canal project to Chinese businessman Wang Jing.

Nicaragua’s opposition parties have thus far been unable to mount an effective response and have shown the lack of cohesion and focus that have plagued them for decades. Montealgre announced that the coalition led by the PLI would boycott the election and called on others to do the same.  But rather than present a united front, opposition leaders are fighting amongst themselves to seize the mantle of leadership and challenge Ortega through several competing parties and coalitions.  This will be no easy task: polling conducted by M&R Consultores this summer shows that over 60 percent of voters are likely to vote for Ortega, with the leading opposition parties drawing low single digits.  Over a quarter of potential voters said they were unsure whom they would vote for.  With the opposition beset by division and lacking much legitimacy – tainted as they are by a history of corruption, self-interest, and financial support from the United States – it is unsurprising that protests and civil unrest have been largely absent.  The ouster of the PLI delegates has also stirred the FSLN’s old opponents outside the government, who have been largely quiescent in recent years but condemned the decision: the Bishops of the Episcopal Council, the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce, and the Consejo Superior de la Empresa Privada (COSEP), the largest business chamber that has enjoyed a working relationship with the Ortega government.

The FSLN’s authoritarian turn, Ortega’s long reign, and the rise to prominence of both Murillo and the couple’s children invite comparisons between Ortega and Somoza family dynasties.  It may be from COSEP and the business sector, rather than among the weak and divided political opposition, that a serious challenge to Ortega could eventually emerge. It was after all the defection of non-Somoza family interests in the private sector, combined with a popular insurrection led by a guerrilla insurgency, that did away with Nicaragua’s previous family dynasty.  But that combination only emerged following the shock of the 1972 earthquake and resulting massive corruption, the assassination of a national figure like Pedro Chamorro in 1978, and the particularly bloodthirsty turn that the Somoza regime had taken. With similarly game-changing circumstances absent at this juncture, the sort of cross-sector revolutionary movement that ultimately toppled the Somozas appears unlikely.  For the moment at least, an Ortega family will be well on its way to firmly preserving its dynastic power come November.

 September 19, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an Adjunct Professorial Lecturer in History and American Studies at American University.