The Path to Change and Democracy for Nicaragua
Real change begins, after Ortega leaves power, with dismantling the structures of the dictatorship and putting an end to impunity.
1. Can Ortega make it to 2021 with the economic-social crisis?
“We are winning,” chant the people in the streets, and in effect, you can feel in the air the strategic defeat of President Ortega as Supreme Leader of the repression. His failure lies in that after having perpetrated the worse bloodbath in national history in times of peace, the only thing he can offer the country is the threat to remain in power as a feared and bloodthirsty dictator. But the possibility of reaching 2021 (scheduled elections) represents an increasingly less viable scenario for Ortega, not only because despite the repression the civic protest remains alive, like a flame that grows and never goes out, but because the political crisis that erupted on April 18th has already become an economic crisis that in turn is incubating a social crisis, which also has political consequences.
The violence unleashed by the regime to quell the civic rebellion opened an irreparable wound and buried the minimum basis of trust that sustains economic and social coexistence. With confidence destroyed by the massacre and aggravated by the persecution of the civil protest and impunity for the crimes of the regime, its effects on the economy have been devastating. The economic slowdown that occurred in the last five months, confirms that the main private engines of the economy are shutting down. In a country that lacks extraordinary natural resources, in an environment of international isolation and economic sanctions through multilateral organizations, there are no substitute sources to reactive the economy.
The debate between economists and business people about capital flight and the loss of international reserves are not about a diagnosis of the problem —all agree that without a political solution, there are no economic solutions—, but rather about a date for the collapse of the system, whether it can last four, seven or nine months, and what will be its consequences.
Critics warn of the imminent risk of a disruption of the most sensitive social variables that affect the population: impoverishment and loss of jobs, the rise in prices, the increase in indebtedness, the reduction of urban transportation and electricity subsidies, with the additional impact of the coffee growing crisis and the social security reforms, which will aggravate unemployment in the city and in the countryside. Government supporters, on the other hand, argue that the informal economy and migration [family remittances] will function as escape valves for our structural economic crisis; and, that the public sector still has room for action to cut costs and raise income, albeit with increasingly recessive policies, to postpone the crisis until the end of 2020.
What no one disputes is that the country has already entered into an economic recession with the loss of 347,000 jobs—according to the Economist Intelligence Unit the economy will register a loss of -3.4% in 2018, for a total product fall of 8.4%–, and the government mitigation measures may well trigger a further economic contraction, which will affect the regime’s support bases, including state employees.
It is impossible to establish a direct causal relationship between the dynamics of social conflict and political demands, but if the demands derived from the economic crisis are intertwined with the political grievances accumulated by the April massacre, this combination can represent a formidable challenge for the regime. Ortega has lost the ability to generate the consensus to stifle and co-opt the popular protest, and has also shown that he has no scruples to kill, persecute, and violently suppress a civic protest. The question for the immediate future is whether the living forces of Nicaraguan society—including the Sandinistas who aspire to survive the Ortega-Murillo family—will this time have the determination and the ability to stop the repression, and avoid a new massacre.
2. The new repressive escalation and the periods for departure
At the end of the first five months of the peaceful revolution, it is evident that the regime lacks the political will to re-establish the National Dialogue. Although he does not have Maduro’s state resources, Ortega is replicating Venezuela’s control and repression strategy, with more or less similar results: the exodus of persecuted opponents and a setback to the economy. With the slogan “the commander stays”, he dynamited all the bridges that would have allowed him to negotiate a political solution, placing the regime at a point of no return, in which the FSLN and its Government are now tied to his own political fate.
On July 19th, Ortega disqualified the bishops of the Episcopal Conferences as “coup mongers”, who at April’s end he desperately asked to mediate the National Dialogue. In August, after requesting the good offices of the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, he expelled from the country the team of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the UN, whose report confirmed that in Nicaragua there are no signs of a “coup d’état”, but a state massacre and acts of police and paramilitary repression. In September, he demanded the “resignation” of his former ally, the OAS Secretary General, Luis Almagro, when he demanded early elections and, finally, acknowledged that “a dictatorship is being installed in Nicaragua.”
Although the prisons are full of political prisoners accused of “terrorism” for having participated in the civic protests, an even worse repressive escalation cannot be ruled out by the end of 2018. While the United States contemplates applying political and economic sanctions against the government and those closes to them, under the new legislation expected to be approved by the US Congress and Senate next week, the logic of Ortega will always be to escalate the repression. His “Law for the Financing of terrorism” threatens to repress dozens of social organizations, business people, democratic foundations and the communication’s media, by adducing that when they receive international donations they incur in the alleged crime of “terrorism and coup conspiracy.”
The government strategy of retaliation seems destined to generate a new cycle of repression-protests-repression, prolonging the economic agony. However, it is still possible to find a political solution before 2021, if the unity in action of three fundamental forces is achieved: the political force of social mobilization of the self-convoked, the Civic Alliance and the Social Movements’ Coordination; the economic muscle and pressure from big business people; and the distancing from the Ortega-Murillo family by an important sector of the Sandinista Front, public employees and the State bureaucracy.
From the convergence of these three forces and the simultaneous support applied by the international community to isolate the dictatorship, depends the possibility of shortening the deadline for Ortega’s departure, and having a negotiation leading to early elections. External pressure and the economic crisis, separately, will never modify the authoritarian course of the regime, as long as the domestic forces do not assume the risk of becoming actors for democratic change.
3. The scenarios of the crisis and the end of the dictatorship
A solution to the crisis of misgovernment that Nicaragua is living is torn between two possible scenarios: Ortega remains in power until 2021 largely by repression, and three consecutive years of economic recession leaving the country collapsed. The second is that before 2021 new outbreaks of civic protests are produced, linked to the political crisis and the setback caused by the economic and social crisis, which would lead to negotiations, reforms and early elections.
In both outcomes, after an electoral reform that allows for reasonably transparent election, “Orteguism” reduced to a political minority, will undoubtedly lose the presidency and the legislative majority, but will continue “governing from below” with paramilitary groups, control of other State powers and blackmailing with chaos, in exchange for amnesties, political perks and power quotas.
From the aforementioned, a conclusion is derived for the path to democratic change of the April rebellion, and it is that any proposal to transition to democracy with justice, and economic recovery with social peace, requires not only that Ortega leaves power, but also deep political reforms to prevent the caudillo and his thugs from making the country ungovernable. It will not be enough to defeat Ortega in an election, but the new democratic leadership that emerges from the Blue and White Movement should obtain at the polls an overwhelming majority, giving it an undisputable political mandate to call the international community to provide an extraordinary assistance plan, in order to support the implementation of reforms needed to dismantle the legacy of dictatorial structures.
Unlike the 1979 armed revolution that swept aside the National Guard and other institutions of the Somoza dictatorship, the peaceful revolution aims to come to power by votes and by reforming institutions from their roots. But the disarmament of paramilitary groups, the bringing in of repressors and criminals to justice, and the fight against corruption without impunity requires the dismantling of the dictatorial structures, beginning with purging and comprehensive reform of the National Police, Prosecutor’s Office, Supreme Court of Justice and the Comptroller’s Office of the Republic.
In order to undertake these and other changes, sheltered under a constitutional reform that will have as a reference the 1995 Constitution, the new democratic government will require the support of a supranational investigative entity with an even greater scope than the current International Commission against Impunity of Guatemala. Otherwise, it is unthinkable that the foundations of stability with democracy can be laid down and those responsible for the massacre brought to justice. Consequently, real change begins, after Ortega leaves power, with the dismantling of the dictatorship and the end of impunity, and this will only be possible with a multilateral assistance plan that has the support of the UN, the OAS, the European Union and other international partners.