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