Protests against state sponsored violence in Nicaragua. Source: Wikimedia Commons. All Rights Reserved.The repression of Daniel Ortega’s government against students and the unarmed civilian population that keep on protesting in the streets has left so far more than 300 dead, and the number of wounded and missing is rising daily. The trend has not slowed despite the establishment of the so-called National Dialogue Table, which shows that Ortega is just buying time.
In addition to the mass marches in Managua and other regions of the country, people erected barricades and put up blocks on highways and city streets. The first to entrench themselves were the inhabitants of the combative indigenous neighborhood of Monimbó in Masaya. They were also trying to contain the burning and looting spree sponsored by the regime.
The campesinos, led by Francisca Ramírez, began putting up blocks in Nueva Guinea but the blocks quickly multiplied throughout the country. The blocks are a defense mechanism against repression, but they are also an instrument of pressure before the employers’ hesitation to carry out an indefinite national strike.
Women, youth and townspeople, assisted by their neighborhood communities, stand guard at the blocks and barricades armed only with homemade mortars. The mass of citizens participating was such that, in several places, they came to surround police stations and forced the agents to flee.
On May 30, Nicaragua’s traditional Mother’s Day, simultaneous marches were held in a large number of cities. More than 300,000 Nicaraguans paraded in Managua headed by the Mothers of April Movement, which groups the relatives of the victims of the massacres.
Towards the end of the march, snipers and policemen fired into the crowd: 20 people lost their lives and hundreds were injured. The population responded with more trenches. At the beginning of June, more than 160 street blocks and hundreds of barricades went up.
The National Dialogue
The Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua (CEN) chose the participants who were to sit at the Dialogue Table before the government. They were big businessmen from the High Council of Private Initiatives (COSEP) and the American Chamber of Commerce of Nicaragua, a delegation of students and members of civil society (a representative of the peasant movement, one of the Costa Caribe autonomous region, and another one of the autonomous trade union movement).
The Dialogue’s inaugural session was held on May 16. Since then, progress has been slow because repression has not stopped and the government is refusing to address the Roadmap to Democracy which the Episcopal Conference has put forward. This document proposes early elections on March 31, 2019, a prior reform of the Electoral Law and the appointment of new electoral authorities.
As long as Ortega remains in power, all the institutions under his control will conspire against the efficacy of their [IACHR] investigations. In the case of the GIEI, it must work alongside the Public Prosecutor, an institution which is totally controlled by Ortega.
The government’s option is to impose the timetable it has been working on since 2017 with the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, who was already accused of being biased in favor of the government during the last elections. The timetable would lead to Ortega finishing his spurious term in 2021.
The President disregards this demand for his early departure as a "coup" and presents himself as the victim of an international plot to oust him. Some left-wing parties in Latin America, unable to make a distinction between Ortega’s pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric and his neoliberal practices, have joined him in this discourse. Moreover, they adopt an ethically reproachable position by justifying the massacre of more than 300 Nicaraguans.
On June 22, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) presented the final report from its visit to Nicaragua before the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS). The devastating report was rejected outright by the Ortega government, which was supported by Venezuela. Most other countries demanded an end to repression. What follows is an excerpt from the report:
"The findings of the visit show that State violence has been used with the aim of discouraging participation in demonstrations and that it has followed a common pattern characterized by: an excessive and arbitrary use of police force, including deliberate and systematic use of lethal force, the use of vigilante groups with the acquiescence and tolerance of State authorities, interfering access of the wounded to emergency medical care in retaliation to their participation in the demonstrations, a pattern of arbitrary illegal detentions of young people and teenagers who participated peacefully in protests and people passing through areas where incidents took place, the use of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment against the majority of those arrested (bordering on torture in some cases), the launching of propaganda and stigmatization campaigns, measures of direct and indirect censorship, intimidation of and threats directed to leaders of social movements, and the lack of diligence in investigating the murders and injuries reported in this context. "
The IACHR made fifteen recommendations, but the government has refused to comply with them. In fact, it has only consented to the establishment of a Special Follow-up Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI), and has accepted the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI-Nicaragua) and an invitation to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Unfortunately, we cannot be too optimistic about the results of these activities, for as long as Ortega remains in power, all the institutions under his control will conspire against the efficacy of their investigations. In the case of the GIEI, it must work alongside the Public Prosecutor, an institution which is totally controlled by Ortega.
To this day, no case has been opened against the perpetrators of government crimes - on the contrary, innocent people are being prosecuted as "scapegoats" and proceedings against social fighters keep growing.
The IACHR’s most important recommendation, the dismantling of para-police groups has been unaccomplished, and Ortega has even expanded their impact by deploying a lethal irregular army which operates in complicity with the police.
The role of the United States
Until quite recently, the US government maintained a close relationship with the Ortega government. The Nicaraguan president was seen to deliver "peace and stability" in the region. However, the relationship has changed now.
Washington has started to express its "concern" over what is happening in the country and, above all, about the consequences of the current crisis. The US is thus pushing for a "soft" exit which would not weaken its position in the region. It is not worried about human and civil rights or corruption, but about its own interests.
On June 9, Caleb McCarry, an expert on transition-related conditions who used to work under George W. Bush’s administration, visited Nicaragua as an envoy of the powerful president of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker.
Since June 11, the government has increased repression through the launching of a so-called "cleansing operation". It consists of combination of regular police forces, riot police and hooded, heavily armed civilians. On June 16, these combined forces set fire to a house with a whole family inside, which resulted in 4 adults and 2 children, one two-year old and one three-month old, dead.
Additionally, before the meeting of the Permanent Council of the OAS, Ambassador Carlos Trujillo, permanent representative of the United States before that organization, made a 24-hour visit to Nicaragua and met with the Nicaragua Episcopal Conference (CEN), with members of the Dialogue and with Daniel Ortega. It has been leaked that the United States is trying to pressure Ortega to call for early elections in exchange for immunity (i.e. impunity) for him and his family.
Repression intensifies and is extended
Since June 11, the government has increased repression through the launching of a so-called "cleansing operation". It consists of combination of regular police forces, riot police and hooded, heavily armed civilians.
In addition to firing indiscriminately and destroying the barricades, they conduct house searches and arrest young people who have been listed by the so-called Councils of Citizen Power (CPC) - pro-government groups which are part of the official structures developed by the government.
On June 16, these combined forces set fire to a house with a whole family inside, which resulted in 4 adults and 2 children, one two-year old and one three-month old, dead.
The survivors reported that the fire was caused by these groups linked to the government, because the owner of the house, which was also a mattress factory, would not give permission for a sniper to take up position on the third floor. A security camera of a neighbouring business recorded images of the policemen and pro-government hitmen involved in the event.
These groups have also dismantled street blocks and barricades by gunning down their defenders, causing many deaths and injuries. De facto, a curfew and suspended constitutional guarantees prevail today in the cities. The hooded groups appear anywhere, at any time to raid premises, arrest people and terrorize citizens.
The balance of power and the people’s fight
The November 2016 elections were clearly fraudulent. Voter turnout was less than 40%. The government’s lack of legitimacy was confirmed by a survey conducted by the CID Gallup consultancy between May 5 and 15, 2018, showing that 63% of the population think Ortega should leave power, and 67% think the same about his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.
Nicaraguans are determined to throw the couple out and are paying a high cost for it in terms of lives and sacrifices. The impact of the crisis on the economy is devastating. A large number of businesses have closed down and more than 200.000 jobs have been lost so far.
In the midst of the repressive build-up, several civic organizations have launched the proposal of carrying out civil disobedience, particularly in the case of major taxpayers. The business community, however, hesitates. On June 14, the business chambers finally called a successful 24-hour national strike. People are now pressing for an indefinite strike combined with civil disobedience and street fighting to force the Ortega couple to resign.
But the popular explosion against repression finds the people in Nicaragua disjointed and disorganized. The social fabric has been torn apart by neoliberal policies and Ortega’s open or underhanded persecution. Political parties have been weakened and discredited. The challenge now is how to restore the damaged social fabric.
The Dialogue delegation has grouped itself under the name of Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy. A Coordination of Social Movements has also been formed, bringing together self-convened students, territorial expressions of the April 19 Movement, the people mobilized in manning blocks and barricades, women movements, peasant movements, human rights organizations, indigenous peoples and African descendant communities, environmentalists, movements defending sexual diversity and the media, among others.
The Coordination has outlined that any road to democratization should start with the immediate exit from power of the presidential couple and the establishment of a transition government responsible for fixing the necessary steps to elect a Constituent Assembly and a new government as soon as possible.
The die is cast. There is no going back: "Ortega lost the people and the people lost their fear" – as the so often repeated slogan has it. However, there is still a long way to go before the tormented Nicaraguan people can see this conflict resolved in their favor.
This article is published in the framework of our editorial alliance with Revista Nueva Sociedad. See the original here.