Is Nicaragua’s Commander Ortega Here to Stay?
Ortega will not accept early elections or international referees nor investigation of the killings; not while he does not have motives to do so.
A few days ago, a creative person posted on Tweeter a picture of the Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in a brief public event. The man looked sick, with his face sucked, half smile almost rictus, and body leaning. The twitterer accompanied the photo with a brilliant footnote: “El Coma-andante” (The Coma-wanderer).
Two things caught my attention. I’ll explain the first: Ortega has been inevitably compared, in recent years, to the dictator Anastasio Somoza, whom the Sandinistas overthrew in 1979. A few months before his downfall, Somoza made a trip to Washington for medical examinations and in the streets of Managua rumors circulated about his health similar to the ones that now run about Ortega through social networks. The writer Garcia Marquez recorded the phrase of the dictator Somoza that the photo brought to my memory: “to those who speculate about my health, don’t by mistaken, others have it worse.”
The second attempt at negotiations between the Ortega Government and the Civic Alliance has failed in Nicaragua. Ortega refused to hold early elections and to investigate the crimes committed by his security forces. The counterpart decided to withdraw from the table. Actually, it had no other choice.
The Civic Alliance is a false construct. In includes, but not only, representatives of students, and social and civic organizations. The sectors that since the beginning of the protests, a year ago, have put up a struggle, taken to the streets, put the dead and the political prisoners. They are the exiles, those who have lost their jobs or their lands, who still suffer, daily, the harassment of policemen and paramilitaries around their homes.
But, at the same side of the table, also sit down representatives of the chambers of private enterprise that, unlike the previous ones, have on their agenda an orderly and, above all, tranquil solution to the crisis, which allows them to return to a stable economy and business.
There is nothing wrong with that (and I underline: with that), but inevitably their interests, and their conditions, are different in nature from those of students and civil society organizations.
Ortega is a political fox, as evidenced by his decades conspiring to exercise power. He still preserves, mostly outside Nicaragua, the aura of a revolutionary strong man who resisted Yankee imperialism in the 1980’s, when Ronald Reagan armed and financed a counterrevolutionary army to end Sandinismo.
The commander kidnapped the Sandinista flags and discourse. But, also controls the army, the bureaucratic apparatus, the Police, the electoral council and the three branches of government. Little remains now, in its exercise of power, of the revolution that inspired revolutionary movements throughout Latin America. Nothing is more distant from the new man than this old man, rooted in a corrupt and repressive power, of a neoliberal economic system assisted by Venezuela and accomplice of voracious and corrupt big businessmen, who during the last decade dictated economic policies and became richer in one of the poorest countries in the continent.
A negotiation between an Alliance of this nature, and a Government centered in an old fox, had already failed before it began.
Basic courses on negotiation teach the conditions for sitting at a table: know who need more an agreement (that is, the position of power) and participate with a clear notion of what the ceiling is (the maximum that one aspires to achieve and that one is willing to give up) and the floor to reach such an agreement.
The commander accepted to release political prisoners, more than 300 according to human rights organizations, and also to respect the right to protest. As a sign of good faith, he ordered the release [to house arrest] of some prisoners, which does not represent any cost. There is not among them a political leader capable of becoming the flag of the opposition or of summoning the masses upon his release from prison. The prisoners were conceived as exchange currency of the regime. Ortega imprisoned them to turn them into a concession.
The street is something else. It has been the main challenge to his power, to his territorial control. The protesters paralyzed the country and destabilized his government between April and June of last year. The economic loses were great. The street made the opposition believe that they were making their own unarmed revolution. Ortega was never as weak as he was then and while he can will prevent that from happening again. Last week, barely 24 hours after his commitment, gunmen fired at the first protest in Managua.
But, what are they negotiating?
Ortega will not accept early elections or international referees nor an investigation of the killings that a commission of independent experts named by the OAS describes as crimes against humanity. He will not do so until he has motives to do so: that is, while he finds other ways out than to negotiate his surrender.
He has no political opposition, dismantled thanks to the corruption of the liberal parties, the cooptation of the electoral body, repression and the lack of new leadership. The true opposition is in the social forces: the peasant and student movements, today subdued by the repression and almost all hidden, killed, imprisoned or in exile. Disorganized, weakened, unarmed and without the street, their moral strength is enough to seat Ortega to negotiate, but insufficient to make him give up. They do not have that much waist and their ceiling and floor are the same: Ortega’s departure. In the purest pragmatic exercise: what happens if Ortega does not accept this condition? Why should he accept it?
The only member of the Alliance with real power is the private sector. With them, Ortega negotiates. Affected by the economic crisis, the big entrepreneurs asked for these negotiations. Unlike a year ago, now, with 400 dead and tens of thousands of exiles, they cannot return to the golden days prior to April 18, 2018, to the model they so much presumed: with the political and social in the hands of the commander, but the economy decided by businessmen. So they walked a decade together.
Businessmen that have never been democratic today sit at the negotiating table with a democratic discourse.
They want peace and order for their business, with Ortega or without Ortega. With democracy or without it. They know that the project is no longer sustainable, but are not willing to push for the end. They have delayed it during a whole year: they invent excuses not to go to a general strike, they feed negotiating tables, they play with god and with the devil.
Politically, they are waiting for an alternative to Ortega. But they still don’t see it. Their advantageous position is in the economy: Ortega, without Venezuelan support and with the loses of the crisis, is running out of funds. This, and international condemnation, are today the greatest fractures of the regime.
Students and civil society organizations are in the worst of conditions: they have no position of power other than their credibility, their massive mobilization with the risks involved and their proven willingness to reach the consequences that are needed. Their paradoxical drama is that they cannot make this transition with the businessmen, but neither without them. They know that the new Nicaragua will not be without the end of the repression, Ortega’s departure and the call for free and early elections. But Daniel Ortega has other plans.
I return to the picture of “El Coma-andante:” the second thing that struck me is that, around Ortega, two plainclothes bodyguards watch. Their faces alert. On their heads they wear a red cap with the following phrase: DANIEL 2021. Others, perhaps Daniel thinks, are in worst health than he.
This article was published for the first time in El Pais and El Faro, in El Salvador.