The negotiations between the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship and the Civic Alliance ended last Wednesday without any agreement on the two most important items on the national agenda, endorsed by hundreds of thousands of citizens during the April Rebellion: democratization and justice.
For the second time in just one year, President Daniel Ortega dug in his heels, relying on repression. He refused to accept an electoral and constitutional reform to convoke early elections to shorten his period of governing. He also stubbornly denied the petition for an independent investigation of the massacre of at least 327 persons, and that the perpetrators be brought to justice.
By torpedoing this latest attempt at a national dialogue with the goal of staying in power until after 2021, and thus guaranteeing impunity for crimes of lesser humanity, Ortega is provoking strong international condemnation that could accelerate the collapse of the economy and of his government.
When all is said and done, this could mean a new political and social dynamic, which will be nothing like the hoped for “soft landing,” and in which neither he nor anyone else will be able to control the conditions by which he exits from power.
According to the Central Bank, in 2018 the economy shrank by 3.8%. But without a political accord, economic projections for this year range from an 11 to a 20% shrinkage, with the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, a financial system on the verge of collapse, and the productive infrastructure for the agricultural cycle hanging by a thread for lack of financing.
In addition, the impact of diplomatic and economic sanctions that could go into effect in the coming months—the implementation of the already-approved NICA Act and the Executive Order of the US, new sanctions by the European Union, and the application of the OAS’ Democratic Charter—would leave the Ortega regime in a precarious situation economically with the potential for a serious social explosion.
Can Ortega, without oil subsidies from Maduro in Venezuela, stay in power for two more years in the middle of the collapse of the economy in both the public and private sectors, without resorting to another slaughter to stop social and political protest?
Can the oppressors keep killing indiscriminately while facing a civic movement that has demonstrated that it has an extraordinary reserve of political and moral resistance?
Will the Nicaraguan army remain on the sidelines, waiting as events spiral towards an extreme situation, or will it establish limits to stop the repression within the legal framework that mandates that the army disarm the paramilitaries?
These are all hypothetical questions regarding the worst possible national scenario, but we must try to answer them now to determine a course of alternative action. Because the leap into the unknown that Ortega has just taken could mean devastating human and economic costs for the country.
The demand for early elections is not only legal and constitutional, but it is also the only way to guarantee an orderly political solution, saving the country more pain and economic destruction. Since the slaughter, Ortega has not been able to govern or represent the Sandinista electorate before the nation, the private sector and the international community. He has been reduced to the role of administering and overseeing the economic and political interests of his family group, which also depends on the alliance with Cuba and Venezuela.
During his almost four decades leading the FSLN, Ortega never considered a changing of the guard or a political succession that was not controlled by his own family. After a long internal battle for power, in 2016 he agreed to put his wife Rosario Murillo in the line of succession as vice president. Since Murillo shares responsibility for the national crisis, she has already been disqualified as a candidate, which means she has the most to lose if presidential elections are moved up.
The failure of the national dialogue has been erroneously blamed on the government’s lack of “political will” to negotiate in “good faith” and to comply with agreements, as if Ortega was an ally or a statesman devoted to the public good.
The negotiators have forgotten that for a self-oriented regime, one responsible for the worst bloodbath in Nicaragua’s history, to reach agreements in a negotiation and to comply with them does not depend on “good will,” but on the balance of power. Ortega will never give up power the easy or fair way, unless he comes under maximum national and international pressure. Up until the present, he has been negotiating with a serious advantage in his favor.
First, he achieved his strategic goal of imposing a dialogue while continuing to hold political prisoners as hostages, censoring the press, and maintaining a police state that does not allow people to protest in the streets.
Despite the abysmal imbalance in negotiating conditions, the international community had hopes for this dialogue, and those expectations have given this isolated regime some breathing room. Meanwhile, in Venezuela Nicolas Maduro has managed to squelch the challenge posed by Juan Guaido through his political control of the country’s Armed Forces.
Contrary to the idea that Ortega “the pragmatist” is trying to strike some kind of deal with the United States before the Maduro regime totally collapses, the facts indicate that within the alliance between Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, Ortega, the “Messiah,” has played the role of never giving in, as long as Maduro and Castro maintain absolute power.
In any case, the international community—the US, OAS, European Union and the United Nations—showed a serious lack of political judgement regarding the latest dialogue, when they adopted a “wait-and-see” strategy. In the meantime, Ortega won some time and wiggle room without agreeing to any concrete results.
At the last minute, the Civic Alliance dealt a devastating blow to the dictatorship by suspending the dialogue rather than accepting a “bad deal,” demonstrating that the only reason for the lack of agreements is the presidential couples’ iron grip on power.
Despite the failure of negotiations with Ortega, the Civic Alliance has preserved partial agreements on the liberation of political prisoners and the restoration of restricted public freedoms, which represent the basic precondition for a dialogue in conditions of equality with the dictatorship.
Paradoxically, from this crisis, the opportunity is being born for the Civic Alliance and the Blue and White National Unity movement to modify the balance of political power, by exerting civic pressure in the streets under the leadership of freed political prisoners, and with the support of international diplomacy.
The third and final opportunity for a dialogue on justice and democratization, with or without Ortega and Murillo, will only be possible “in the hot seat,” with maximum national and international pressure.
The building of a post-Ortega democracy in Nicaragua will depend on the political results of this negotiation, and the creation of a broad opposition coalition that can obtain a majority political mandate at the polls.
This coalition needs an unequivocal mandate that grants it the legitimacy to rebuild democracy through a total reform of the constitution and to convene the international community to create a program to provide massive financial assistance. The dictatorship’s repressive structures need to be dismantled today in order to rebuild Nicaragua and assure that the country is governable tomorrow.
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