The bilateral and multilateral sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and the United States Senate against Daniel Ortega’s regime, which include a sanction against the First Lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo, represent—in the opinion of the seasoned Latin American expert Richard Feinberg— “a strong, exceptional message,” so that President Ortega “enters into negotiations with the people of Nicaragua.”
Although Ortega and Murillo present themselves as a political duo of inseparable power, the academic and former official of the United States Government believes that the Trump administration “identifies Murillo as the problem,” and is calling on Ortega “to separate from her hardline, ideological policy and search for possibilities of getting out of this crisis,” through a political dialogue.
A professor of international political economy at the University of San Diego, in California, Feinberg was National Security Advisor to President Bill Clinton and also served as an official of the State Department during the Administration of Jimmy Carter. In 1978, when Somoza was besieged by the popular uprising, he came to Managua to meet with the dictator to convey Carter’s message that he should withdraw from power.
Forty years later, Feinberg finds a tragic parallelism between Somoza and Ortega, in that both attribute to external factors the cause of discontent and national rebellion, which causes repression and a lack of democracy. Feinberg hopes that Ortega will learn the lessons of the total collapse of the Somoza regime.
Author of the essay Nicaragua: Revolution and Restoration (The Brookings Institution), in which he analyzes the scenario of negotiation leading to what he calls a “soft landing” to resolve the crisis of the regime through early elections, Feinberg still considers Ortega an interlocutor in the crisis. “Precisely, because of that, they (the Trump administration) sanctioned the first lady,” he says in this interview given to the television program “Esta Semana” (This Week).
The sanction on Murillo: a message to Ortega
For almost two years, Trump had never mentioned the name of Nicaragua, now he signs an Executive Order sanctioning the country’s Vice President, the most important authority after the president. What are the implications of these sanctions against the Ortega regime?
They show several important things, first along with the Nica Act that will come out of Congress unanimously, all democrats and republicans are in favor of this act of strong bilateral and multilateral sanctions against the regime. That shows that it is not just some Cuban-Americans in Florida who are worried about what is happening here, but the entire American political class.
As for sanctions, it shows that the Administration in Washington is paying attention to Nicaragua. And why Rosario? The idea was not to start drop by drop, looking at minor officials, but go directly to the person they see as the most difficult, the one who is opposed to a political settlement, who would be the first lady. The signal for the Sandinista party is that she is a problem, not a solution, she is the past not the future. The people of the party must leave her aside and focus on Daniel, who in the past has shown himself as a more pragmatic, more flexible man, hoping that he will take into consideration that continuing with this confrontational attitude will not lead him anywhere, and that it would be better to enter into negotiations, in dialogue with the people of Nicaragua.
President Ortega has always said that Vice President Murillo represents 50% of the power and both present themselves as an inseparable political duo. Is the United States making a distinction between Ortega and Murillo?
That is how I read it, because it is very exceptional to impose sanctions on a first lady and a vice president of a country. It is a sign that they see her as the problem. And with him, there is hope that he will separate from her hardline and very ideological policy, and reach the possibility of getting out of this crisis.
The economy is decreasing rapidly. Nicaragua is very isolated. The fact that the OAS has taken such strong measures against the regime, is something very special, they are not things that happen every day. Latin American governments do not like to sanction each other, but taking those measures against a country shows that there is a strong concern, not only in Washington, but in almost every capital in Latin America.
You mentioned the law that passed the Senate, which is about to be endorsed by the Congress. What impact would this have in the dealings of the Government of Nicaragua with the World Bank, the IADB, and the International Monetary Fund?
These multilateral organizations have been extremely important in helping Nicaragua to build roads, highways, provide more electricity, in recent years. With this act and with what is happening here, because of the political uncertainty that has an impact on the economy, you cannot expect more loans from the Monetary Fund, or loans and donations from the World Bank and the IADB either. Some 500 million dollars are lost to the country because of the political situation, the lack of dialogue, for the policy of repression and not of reconciliation on the part of the Government.
Could these external pressures facilitate a change in Nicaragua, if there is no national pressure with the same force? Here we are under a state of emergency, a police state in which demonstrations and marches are prohibited: there is harassment, persecution and prisons are full with more than 500 political prisoners.
I cannot suggest how the opposition should act in Nicaragua. There were very strong marches and now there is an extremely difficult situation with this selective repression. I can feel in Managua almost a state of emergency and a generalized repression. That is obvious.
But the economy is going down and that is not because of the will of the private sector, but by how the market reacts when faced with a dramatic uncertainty. People do not buy things, businessmen do not invest, there are fewer imports, less consumption, less salaries, less employment. Everything goes down, and that is due to spontaneous market reaction. It is a mistake to think that this is a conspiracy by “coup mongers” to destroy the economy, that is to not understand how an economy works in a moment of dramatic uncertainty.
The Government rejected the sanctions through a statement, but last Thursday at a public ceremony in front of the United States Embassy itself, President Ortega remained silent. Based on your experience in foreign policy, should we read that as a preamble to some negotiation, or that more repression is being prepared?
It is still too early and it is difficult to know. It is obvious that there is an attempt to show that everything is normal here, that the economy is working well and we are entering holidays, that there is a lot of joy and that people are celebrating. Obviously, that is not the reality of the country. How will they react? We have to wait. If they follow the path of illusion, of normality, of repression, it will not lead anywhere, but to the destruction of the country.
In the essay you published in The Brookings Institution, you talked about the conditions for negotiating a “soft landing,” a concept that has different interpretations. Would President Ortega continue to be an interlocutor in those negotiations, after these sanctions?
Precisely for that reason I believe that they put the sanctions on the first lady, saying to him: “please, leave her aside, you who are the president, the authority in the country, the leader of the party, who undoubtedly are the strongest in the country, you must enter into negotiations to solve this problem as soon as possible, before there is more damage to the economy and society.” That is the message, we will see if he receives it and how he reacts.
The “soft landing”: is it possible with Ortega?
What does a “soft landing” means, from your perspective?
“Soft” in the sense that we do not continue with these bloody struggles, which are destroying society and the economy, as it would be to return to the 80s here, it would be a tragedy. Nobody should want that. So, a “soft landing” is that various parts of the country agree that it is not good for anyone for this prolonged struggle to continue. It must end through dialogue and reconciliation. For what? Several institutions in this country no longer work well, everybody knows that, then you have to rebuilb those electoral and judicial institutions, with people that are more honest, who give security to all the people and with that enter again to elections that are really free and democratic. I believe that because of the lack of trust that exists in this country, it will need a certain international audit to legitimize, for everyone, the elections in Nicaragua.
But, how can it be a soft landing, if there are more than 300 who have been killed and no policemen or paramilitary has been investigated, accused or processed and more than 500 people imprisoned for having gone out to protest and demand the resignation of the President and Vice President?
It is assumed that an agreement among the various parties here in Nicaragua will solve several of these problems, surely freeing these political prisoners, no doubt. What to do about justice? That is one thing for Nicaraguans to reach a solution, it is not for me to dictate how Nicaraguans should deal with that.
In you essay, you say that for the United States President Ortega is no longer a factor of stability neither for Nicaragua nor for the region. Why?
Because until 2016 Ortega governed with stability in the country. The economy grew, there was tranquility, in general elections showed that he had some popular support, perhaps not as much as he showed in the elections, because they were not totally free and clean, but he had a certain authority.
But in the last elections in 2016, there was a great abstention and there were not even the opposition parties competing.
Starting in 2016, from there on doubts began to surge, if he is a man of stability or instability, and in the last two years it has been evident. He, who showed himself agile and flexible in the past as a politician (we must recognize that in his life he has had moments of knowing how to handle politics), apparently he lost these capacities in the last two years. It could be because of her influence, or because of other problems he has, we do not know. But the hope is that he still has the intelligence and the flexibility to get out of this impasse, in which he has gotten himself into.
The “hard authoritarianism”
In 2011, when the unconstitutional re-election of Ortega took place, you wrote an article describing his system as “a soft authoritarianism.” Is that term still valid?
Today no, it is already an autocratic regime, not totalitarian, of course not. Here there is a private sector, there are independent media outlets, etc., it is not totalitarian, it is a mistake to say that we are already in Cuba.
But what you are describing is under persecution: the media, non-governmental organizations, including the private sector has been subjected to land seizures by armed groups.
There are some worrying signs, but still those sectors are here, still 80% of the economy is in private hands. But yes, a regime that kills many people, that persecutes others, that has police everywhere, that is no longer soft, that is already hard.
US Ambassador Kevin Sullivan, recently arrived in the country, has had three appearances in private meetings: with Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, with the Church; with human rights defenders; and with the high command of the Army. This meeting of the United States Ambassador with the Army, how should it be read?
Ambassador Sullivan is a friend of mine for many, many years, he is a very professional man, very well respected within United States diplomacy and throughout Latin America, so I am glad that he is here. The signal that he has shown in his first days is very clear: that the United States wants to support human rights, democracy. He met with the Army, but not with the National Police that has been much more involved in the repression of the last months. It is a very clear signal that repression is not the way to solve political problems in Nicaragua.
The lessons of Somoza’s collapse
In 1978, when you were a young civil servant of the Carter Administration…
Yes, super young…
You were sent to deliver a message face to face to the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle so that he retired from power. We know that Somoza did not accept, is there any parallelism between that Somoza crisis and the one that Ortega faces today? Is there anything to learn from Somoza’s crisis?
There is much to learn. That history, please, should not be repeated, this tragedy of what happened in Nicaragua and all the destruction, all the dead and all the damages to the economy in the fight against Somoza. Somoza did not realize the balance of forces, he always said: “the opposition is nothing, here everything is normal.”
What did Somoza respond to you when you conveyed Carter’s message?
“You are super young, you do not know anything, you do not know what my family has done for the United States, we have been loyal to the United States.” I answered that the United States does not have permanent allies, we have interests and our interest at this moment is stability and if possible a democracy in Nicaragua and you cannot be part of the future of Nicaragua. Unfortunately, he said: “No, the opposition is nothing, I will stay here, I am the strong man.” We must hope that this tragedy will not repeated now in Nicaragua.
What can Ortega learn from this crisis? Because he claims that he is being subject to an interventionist action, interference by the United States, although a year ago he had the best relations with the United States.
I am shocked by how the words of Ortega now are almost the same as the words of Somoza at that time: “There is no problem here.” Then it was: “It’s the communists and Cubans who are doing the problems here, it is not the Nicaraguan people.” We hope that Ortega does not believe in these words of his regime, we hope that he has a more realistic view that the problems do not come from abroad, the problems come from the widespread discontent of the Nicaraguan people.