Political conflicts like the one affecting Nicaragua pass through several defined stages: rupture of the status quo; intensification of the violence and the conflict; general fatigue from the former; and the final break, culminating in a change of regime. There are few instances of dictatorships, military regimes and other autocracies holding on to power for more than 40 years. In this case, a political change for Nicaragua is inevitable, but the key question is the timeline.
Our political situation requires a complete renewal of the democratic institutions, including the legislature, the judicial branch, the Supreme Electoral Council, the Central Bank, the autonomous entities and the Police and Army. Such a restoration involves free and fair democratic election of new authorities, as well as the selection and nomination of carefully scrutinized public functionaries within a Constitutional framework.
Meanwhile, there are at least three factors that define the pace of such broad-based political change: the level of cohesion within each of the opposing factions; the pressure each can exert; and the resilience and unity of each side in response to this pressure.
Applying a calculus of political risk, the protagonists determine how much to invest in accelerating or prolonging the situation, depending on where they’re situated strategically as subjects of change. However, the inevitability of the end is a given, because the regime has lost its legitimacy.
The unity of the central figures
Neither Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, nor the groups at the dialogue table, currently possess enough internal cohesion to generate a common language, a shared agenda and a commitment to risk in order to confront the other.
On the one hand, Ortega and Murillo have become increasingly isolated within the Sandinista movement, closing themselves into a very small circle of family power. As Oscar Rene Vargas stated, historic Sandinista thought isn’t on Ortega’s side, and those that do continue to support him don’t feel the same about Rosario Murillo. In addition, the shock forces that Ortega uses are displaying changes and fissures in their structure. The loyalty of the other groups charged with the state repression – the Police and the Army – is only partial, based on a reading of Ortega’s value to these two institutions as a factor for short-term national stability.
Finally, the group most loyal to Ortega – the magistrates, deputies and mayors – have been delegitimized by the public outcry, so that they don’t represent a great source of unity within the regime. These great weaknesses in the regime’s political capital don’t show any signs of improving.
Within the opposition, the lack of a common language and agenda regarding the expectations for outcomes from their demands is also evident. There are a variety of participants involved including business executives grouped in the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) and in the American Chamber of Commerce; the Catholic Church; the university students; farmers; civil society; and intellectuals. These diverse groups share the wish to remove Daniel Ortega, but don’t necessarily agree on the methods and the timing. The private sector has assumed a more moderate stance, seeking the regime’s end in a gradual, tiered fashion, while the students, civil society and rural leaders want an immediate change. As a group, they haven’t yet succeeded in coming to agreement with one spokesperson, one agenda and a language that reflects the desired outcome of their unity.
Another key factor is the variety and effectiveness of the pressure tactics available to each side. For Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, the repressive methods have constituted their only means of exerting pressure in favor of the status quo. Their former well-used tactics – delaying, sowing division, political blackmail, and the abuse of the law itself – don’t have the same force they did two months ago.
The opposition understands that Ortega is happy to let time go by, in order to divide his opponents and utilize the law to control them. However, the current political context no longer allows him to exercise the same pressure with these methods, and as a result the repressive apparatus is the only thing he has at hand. At his hands, the paramilitary forces continue wreaking havoc and death, while Ortega has had the police retreat to use as a “back-up” for the time when the paramilitaries are neutralized.
Meanwhile, the opposition can call upon greater means of pressure. At this moment, the protests in the streets and the roadblocks are the most visible and, in many cases, the most practical methods. This pressure is impacting the government in a way that has weakened its legal and institutional actions.
In fact, the gradual unification of voices in support for democratization, the agreement that compliance with the 15 recommendations proposed by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights is a precondition for continuing the dialogue, and the consensus around the agenda for democratization proposed by the Episcopal Conference are all means of pressuring the government with concrete proposals. The opposition also holds other cards for pressuring the state, such as the use of other economic weapons, including a national strike. The international community is applying pressure and announcing that they will solicit sanctions and wait for results from the negotiations.
The methods employed by both sides haven’t yet been enough to bring about the regime’s submission on the one hand, or to slow the opposition on the other. However, the repression strengthens the common front and increases the resistance. The roadblocks and the protests, for their part, have been effective in weakening the territorial control of the state, as well as the political nexus between Ortega and the mayors that coordinate the paramilitary activities. They’ve also represented a kind of voiced vote. Although they haven’t accelerated the change of government, they’ve served to back the regime further into the corner.
Daniel Ortega has a long history of withstanding pressure in critical situations. His resilience is long-standing, especially with the controlling interventions that Rosario Murillo has imposed. However, this position now depends on the duration of the repressive methods at hand and of the ability of the opposition force to exert further pressure on the regime.
The repressive apparatus has gone from intimidation, blows and death to the use of murderous paramilitary forces, leaving the police and the army on the defensive end, as a last resort. However, it’s not clear whether the actions of the paramilitary forces are under the complete control of the dictatorial family, and although it creates more chaos in the country, this situation weakens Ortega.
In the same way, the opposition, no longer led exclusively by the organized youth, is demonstrating greater intensity as the government ignores their demands and resists ceding to them. The strikes, roadblocks and demonstrations continue to show strength and to spread. This is the sign of a resilience that hasn’t decayed. If the killings continue, the opposition will grow and strengthen beyond their immediate power to bring people out.
The political stalemate
In this way, it can be observed that neither of the two sides have the resources to strike a decisive blow in the short term. This situation doesn’t imply a dead issue, but a prolonged conflict. Although neither of the two sides can defeat the other in this moment, with Ortega’s refusal to negotiate the demands put forth by the Catholic Church, the country has entered the second stage of the conflict, a stage where each side measures its forces. Faced with Ortega’s refusal and the continuation of the regime’s violent repression, the opposition is tipping the balance of power in its favor through its massive response.
In this second stage, if the situation continues, other groups will add their weight on the side of exerting further pressure on Ortega and Murillo. Among them are the large business owners and sectors of the historic circle of the Sandinista Front, including some of Ortega’s allies. This will not only strengthen the opposition but also give it still more instruments for pressure that will weaken Ortega and send the country into the third stage of eroding Ortega’s power.
The great question continues to be how much the COSEP and the large private business sector (these are no longer one unified group) is willing to invest in promoting a short-term transition for Nicaragua. Much of the weight of political change in Nicaragua rests on large business, specifically on the fourteen business figures that are most influential in the economy of this country. COSEP isn’t only a political mover and shaker – the economic weight of its members affects at least a fourth of the country’s gross national product. They also know that they can no longer work with Ortega under the current terms.
One fear within the corporate sector is the question of who will substitute for the current government under the constitutional framework. The country has a lot of talent and work groups capable of comprising a transition government to maintaining a constitutional succession while setting the foundations for a national election. The formation of a transition team consists in taking into account the basic elements of governability in order to turn power over to a legitimately elected representative.
There are five priorities in guaranteeing a stable and secure transition. The team and leadership must: 1) maintain a public policy that favors economic stability; 2) take on the budget and propose a short-term fiscal reform; 3) determine the risks and lessen the insecurity; 4) verify violations; and 5) bring the corrupt to justice. The country has the leadership to direct such a transition. It has economists with world experience, experts in development and social policy, as well as in venture capitalism and private sector investment.
There’s no reason to believe that the failed Ortega regime can offer any stability and governance via repression.
The inevitability of change
If the spontaneous demonstrations continue ever more generalized and larger, the risk-averse are going to change and incline towards giving their support, including possibly adding their weight to a national strike as a means to pressure the government. The central question is whether the spontaneous demonstrations can continue gathering force in terms of reach and density for several weeks more. The current situation indicates that this is very probable.
Political change in Nicaragua is inevitable. Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo have lost national and international legitimacy and the challenge now is how to achieve the transition to a new regime. The timing has sped up more than expected, and the third stage, of erosion, is coming ever closer for the regime. The regime’s calculations that the forces resisting it lack prolonged resilience is mistaken, and the tactics normally utilized by the leadership of Ortega and Murillo have already run dry.