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Humberto Belli: “If We Don’t Stop Ortega, What Comes Next Will Be Worse.”

“They’re not going to intimidate the church with those attacks,” Belli affirms. He advocates a greater level of organization for the opposition’s civic

During the eighties, former Minister of Education Humberto Belli was one of the most vocal critics of Nicaragua’s revolutionary government for its repression against the Catholic Church. Now, he’s disconcerted by the wave of attacks against the Catholic bishops and houses of worship, attacks he feels have been spearheaded by the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.

“They’re not going to intimidate the church with those attacks,” affirms Belli. “If they’re rational, they should take a step back”, in the face of the international and national repudiation. However, he also warns that within the Sandinista ranks, there’s “an extraordinary dose of hate” fomented by Ortega and Murillo. As a result, even if the government would like to put the brakes on, it will be difficult to keep many of their followers from continuing to attack the Church.

In that vein, we began our conversation on the internet television news program Esta Semana.  During the interview, Belli spoke broadly about the civic resistance against the Ortega regime and the dilemmas that the country faces. He offered his insights on achieving political reform and an electoral way out even though Ortega isn’t willing to cede power.

The bishops have denounced a new wave of attacks against the Catholic Church. What is the regime’s aim in pursuing this violence, and what effect might it be having in society? Are Ortega and Murillo winning or losing?

Humberto Belli: To me, it’s disconcerting that they’re doing this, because from the most objective point of view, this campaign against the Church implies a high political cost for the government. They’re doing something stupid, because they’re wounding the Catholic sentiments, the Christian sensibilities of a population that takes this type of aggression very much to heart.

I can’t see that they’re achieving anything. They’re not going to intimidate the church with these attacks, what they’re going to do is to piss people off, and unify the church and the faithful more solidly against the government.

I don’t know who’s advising them, but from the point of view of the political costs and benefits, they’re pulling the rug out from under themselves.

What comes next? More tension? More attacks against the Church? Or do you feel that the regime may just step back in the face of the national and international outcry that this has generated?

If they’re rational, they should take a step back. One problem I’ve noted among the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and in certain encounters with the mobs, is that there’s an extraordinary amount of hate among their rank and file, and there are a lot of fanatics. One time, when they arrested me in one of the demonstrations, a pick-up truck passed us. When they saw us in a police car, a man began to hurl insults at us. His look of hatred left a deep impression on me. Rosario Murillo and Ortega foment hate, consciously or unconsciously, by stereotyping the opposition.

Hence there are a lot of Sandinistas who are out running loose. Many Ortega followers can even act on their own, knowing, at the same time, that they’re going to remain unpunished and that they’re doing something that goes along in spirit with the Comandante’s guidelines. So even if the government wanted to put the brakes on it, many of their followers might continue attacking the Church.

The opposition and the civic resistance

The latest polls have confirmed that historically the regime at its point of greatest political weakness, aggravated by their negligent management of the public health crisis. However, we also perceive a kind of impasse in the civic struggle. Some attribute this to the police state, others feel it’s part of a political crisis in the opposition, which has become mired in internal struggle. How can such an impasse be broken?

Yes, I believe there is an impasse. I suspect there’s a lot of energy focused on negotiating some kind of unity and preparing for the electoral challenge. However, I feel that the opposition greatly needs to organize itself around activism for peaceful resistance. That is, an opposition that plans civic blows here and there, that has a complete plan, a strategy, where a whole lot of different forces can participate at the same time.

I’m not seeing this, and it’s a great lack. If we’re going to promote peaceful resistance, a kind of Chief of Staff is needed, that can coordinate all these actions and plan how to destabilize the regime, how to wage campaigns of tax boycotts, how to hold demonstrations here, there, and drive them crazy.

But, yes, there’s an impasse. It seems like they’re concerned with some other things, but not with the struggle in the street, a Gandhian type of struggle, a struggle aimed at weakening the regime by leveling civic blows of a different nature at them.

The non-violent struggle also implies moments of tension, of social destabilization. What incentives can the youth who’ve been repressed, the professionals, the business owners have to support another wave of civic protest at a time when the regime is at its weakest point but still maintains control of the repressive apparatus?

One of the incentives is that if we don’t do anything, what comes next will be worse: this country will continue entering into a depression; a new escalation of crime; a massive emigration; the capital will leave; there’ll be no investment. It’s also our survival as a nation, our peace as citizens who want to live in a joyful, peaceful Nicaragua, to raise our children and our grandchildren. All of that is at stake.

If Ortega continues on, and we don’t stop him, he’s going to end by breaking the country apart, like Chavez and Maduro destroyed Venezuela. The panorama with Ortega is bleak, and that should give us the incentive to struggle with all our strength, because it’s the only way to save Nicaragua.  Otherwise, the country is going to go on sinking still more.

Any sacrifice is worth it, including risking a business, a massive campaign to refuse to pay taxes – that should be studied very well. The problem with these measures is that they require a lot of participation. If only ten or twenty entities stop paying taxes, they’ll be massacred; but if it’s massive, it’s impossible for the government to repress them all.

The electoral way out that Ortega won’t cede to

If the political way out is non-violent and involves the electoral path, then it must depend on reforms to the electoral system. How can such an electoral reform be achieved if Ortega doesn’t want to cede any power?  Can it be achieved coldly, as the result of international pressure? Or should it be the result of that resistance that you’ve mentioned?   What comes first: a box on the ballot, an electoral reform, or the civic resistance?

I believe they must go hand in hand. The priority at this time must be to concentrate all the pressure on obligating Ortega to hold free elections, a topic about which I’ve been very skeptical.

I believe that the moment for greater civic resistance may perhaps occur when all the electoral doors are totally closed. Right now, I understand that the opposition is totally obsessed and absorbed with unity, which is a very complex theme. It’s very difficult to reconcile so many small groups with different interests and thoughts; there’s so much subjectivity. How much weight should I carry?  How much weight should the other have? And they have to achieve some unity, or at least form an opposition front that may not bring together all of the opposition, but maybe unites the most vigorous part, so as to arouse hope in the population. I believe that this is the primary strategic task, to create such a front as soon as possible.

We must prepare for both scenarios: the scenario of clean elections, which is the least probable; or the scenario of fraudulent elections. In the latter, you have the option either of not participating – which I see as a great danger – or to participate. Some people consider participation as a way of legitimizing the election, but it could be effective if it’s massive and if it can be monitored by poll-watchers, with 30,000 well-trained people, 12,000 designated poll watchers and another 20,000 others in support. Such a group could monitor what occurs in every polling place. That would put the government in a tight squeeze.

But elections are still more than a year away. Meanwhile, we’re living in a police state. So, returning to the previous topic: Can the civic resistance generate pressure to lift the police state and from there demand political reform?

It’s possible, because the government’s going to find itself in a dilemma. If they call for elections with the idea of stealing a victory, but they do call for elections, and there’s a fairly cohesive opposition force that participates, this opposition force is going to have to hold public meetings, marches in different places. So if the government then comes down on them and doesn’t allow it, well then, before the international community and the entire world, they’re flagrantly violating the elements of a free election. That will put the government in a bind as well. That line-up of events must be taken advantage of.

Let’s return to the topic of the Catholic Church’s moral leadership. Without a doubt, it’s the most credible institution in the country. How do you see the role of that moral leadership in the process of restoring democracy in the country?

They’ve always been a voice that’s heard widely. It’s a shame for Nicaragua that we’re without the help of Monsignor Silvio Baez, who has a great following among the population. At least, we have other bishops who are very active.  The positions that they’ve taken on certain political themes are going to be of tremendous importance. For example, if the Episcopal Conference were to pronounce against participating [in the election] or in favor of abstention, that would carry an enormous weight. If they do the opposite, the same.

They’re going to have to play the game with a lot of sound judgement, with a lot of care, because you can’t deny that they carry a lot of weight. Any opposition front that is established is going to want to have the Catholic Church’s blessing.

How do you view a post-Ortega future? We can assume that getting out of this dictatorship will surely involve a painful birthing process, and will confront huge challenges for reconstruction. How do you see the topic of justice and impunity, for example, in the reconstruction of Nicaragua?

It’s extremely complex for a number of reasons. The ideal and the just thing is that the crimes against humanity be punished; that what has been stolen be returned; that there be justice for the victims. That’s what people are clamoring for, that’s what justice demands, that’s our instinct.

So, then, if that demand is out there on the table and we’re going to exercise it, then Ortega is going to cling even more desperately to his position. I believe Monsignor Silvio Baez said it: they’re not going to commit political suicide. They’re not going to expose themselves to being persecuted and to losing their fortune in some elections where they could lose power. The only possibility for him to open himself up to a clean electoral process and lose power is if he had some guarantee that he’s going to conserve his security and at least the greater part of his capital. That guarantee could only be given by renouncing the search for justice. So then, we have that great dilemma – between a certain level of pragmatism and certain values.

Which way is the scale tipping?

I believe that it’s inclining towards not offering a golden parachute, because any politician that proposes this gets burned. That’s another problem. From the pragmatic and even intelligent point of view, it could be a necessary measure. There are those who say it’s preferable not to pursue the criminals if that will bring peace to Nicaragua, instead of continuing locked in a situation of more deaths and more pain and of indefinite suffering. Both things will have to be weighed carefully.  It’s an issue that’s extremely complex.

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