Nicaragua’s Civic Rebellion: The First One Hundred Days

*“The peaceful revolution demanding an end to dictatorship is on an uncertain path, but Ortega has already lost the political battle.”

At the mark of its first 100 days, the civic rebellion which demands an end to the family dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua is living through moments of deep pain and anguish. At the same time, it clings to the hope of democratic change with justice. The end result and the steps in-between are unpredictable, mired in bitter political battle. For Ortega, sitting atop a wave of repression, his only deadline for exit is 2021, the end of his presidential term; for those who continue protesting in the streets, despite the escalation of paramilitary terror, the solution must begin tomorrow, with Ortega’s resignation.

The chance for a real change in this country, so different from what it was before April 18, has never been so real. Eleven years of institutional dictatorship, protected by a pact with the private sector, without democracy or transparency, have been upended by an eruption of pressure from below.  The self-organized (“autoconvocados)” have put the Ortega regime in check by embarking on the path of civic insurrection, albeit one that is plagued by uncertainty. For those of us who fought in the struggle against the dynastic Somoza regime, our ultimate goal was the seizure of power — the overthrow of the dictatorship and the National Guard,  achieved with the triumph of the FSLN guerrillas on July 19,1979.  Today’s peaceful revolution, however, does not propose an assault on the El Carmen Bunker [Ortega’s home]; its goal is to halt the repression — to achieve that moment when those who shoot at the people refuse to continue killing — and pave the way to political reform via negotiations that culminate in free elections within the shortest time possible.

The humanitarian cost of this cry for freedom has been monumental, almost intolerable: more than 300 dead, 2000 wounded, more than 400 political prisoners, and massive emigration. The massacre, which already has lasted more than three months, also has shortened the political timeline for Ortega’s permanence in power. Every day that passes, without justice for the victims and without punishment of the murderers, reduces his ability to govern or to maintain some degree of civic co-existence. After the bloodbath, documented by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, business interests who once favored maintaining the status quo, and the Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, backed by 21 nations on the continent, affirmed the impossibility of Ortega staying in power unit 2021. What is under debate are the terms under which early elections can be carried out, with or without Ortega in the presidency, and what will be the scope of political reforms that necessarily must precede those elections.

Paradoxically, Ortega looks stronger now than at the beginning of the protests, while the civic rebellion lives through a period of retrenchment. The caudillo launched a military offensive similar to Somoza’s “cleanup operation” during the armed insurrection of 1978.  One by one, barricades were attacked in the southeastern, western, northern, and central parts of the country;  Managua’s National Autonomous University was razed to the ground; and, finally, Masaya and the heroic indigenous neighborhood of Monimbó were occupied.  Ortega won a military battle against a non-existent army of citizens who resisted with homemade mortars and primitive weapons, and then retreated to avoid a major massacre. Ortega regained control of cities and roads, imposing a military occupation, but lost the more important battle for the hearts and minds of a people who, freed from fear, have retaken the streets and now demand that he be tried before an international tribunal for crimes against humanity. The next step in Ortega’s strategy has been a house-to-house hunt of activists and protest leaders, with mass arrests and legal proceedings against hundreds of persons accused of  “terrorism” and “coup-mongering,” which in his political calculation represents valuable leverage in the future to ensure amnesty for himself and his circle.

Known for his pragmatism, Ortega also may be preparing to enter negotiations under the most favorable conditions possible. This strategy includes a virulent attack on the bishops of the Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church in order to displace them from their role as mediators in the National Dialogue (after Ortega  himself requested them at the beginning of the crisis.) Ortega wants to replace them with the Secretary of the System of Central American Integration(SICA), and his political ally, the Guatemalan Vinicio Cerezo — without any mandate from the presidents of the region. In time, he also wants the National Dialogue to include another of his former political compadres, the Liberal Constitutionalist Party of the corrupt ex-president Arnoldo Alemán. In any case, an eventual dialogue or negotiation that limits or eliminates any role for the bishops simply would have no credibility or standing in the eyes of the Nicaraguan people.

As a result, Ortega’s permanence in power can only be prolonged by more repression, at the cost of the loss of more human lives and rapid deterioration of the economy due to the collapse of private investment, while multilateral institutions debate whether to continue disbursing loans or to join in the world-wide condemnation of a bloody dictatorship.

In reality, Ortega already had begun to “govern from below” back in 1990, when he lost the presidential election to my mother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, candidate of the National Opposition Union (UNO).  Today, however, he does so at the expense of the institutional integrity of his own regime. The strategy that promotes chaos and blackmail, with the taking of farms and the private property of businesspeople who oppose him, began when he deployed paramilitary goon squads as his praetorian guard, in counterpoint to the Nicaraguan Army, which, according to the Constitution, does not allow for the existence of armed groups operating outside the legal order. These paramilitary bands represent the greatest danger to the security and future stability of Nicaragua and the region; disarming and dismantling them, together with electoral reform, is the sine qua non of moving toward a peaceful democratic transition.

On the other side of the divide, an unusual alliance comprised of university students, business associations, the peasant movement and democratic civil society, challenges the dictatorship with mass marches, general strikes, and civil disobedience. This multi-class alliance already can boast the extraordinary achievement of having put the imperative of democratization and justice on the national and international agenda.  The plan for a dynastic dictatorship in Nicaragua is dead and buried. But to defeat Ortega’s terror-based strategy, the Civic Alliance first must become a true political coalition, capable of convening an even broader national movement to resist and lead a prolonged political battle. Its most urgent task is to demonstrate that Ortega’s departure from the presidency will not leave a power vacuum, and that institutional mechanisms exist, including respect for the current Constitution, to guarantee a peaceful and legal transition process without Ortega, since his permanence in power means only more chaos, instability and economic collapse.

A genuine, peaceful revolution can only triumph over a regime of force, if the pressure of civic rebellion is maintained at the highest level, in tandem with greater international solidarity and multilateral action, including effective political and economic sanctions, such as those under consideration by the Permanent Council of the OAS next week, leading to the total isolation of the dictatorship. Maximum international pressure, combined with maximum domestic civic pressure, never one without the other. For this reason, the reorganization of the Civic Alliance and the Coordinator of Social Movements is essential, as a single coalition with the capacity to design a transition program and strategies of struggle, and an executive political leadership.

As we reach the point of no return, in which ever-greater levels of repression threaten the very existence of the nation, the Army of Nicaragua will have to choose between its personal and partisan loyalties and its institutional and national interests.  A complex dilemma for the military’s top ranks, but crucial to rescuing Nicaragua from more pain and bloodshed.