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An anti-government protester takes part in a protest to demand the release of demonstrators detained during recent protests against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's government in Managua, Nicaragua 11 August, 2018. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas
Report 72 / Latin America & Caribbean

A Road to Dialogue After Nicaragua’s Crushed Uprising

Public resentment is high in Nicaragua after street protests in April were crushed in a brutal government crackdown. To prevent further unrest, President Ortega should implement agreed electoral reforms while international actors maintain diplomatic pressure to create conditions for dialogue.

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What’s new? Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has quelled a civic uprising through violence, intimidation and prosecution of protesters without due process. More than 300 people died in clashes pitting protesters against police and parapolice groups. Protests have since subsided, with many opponents fleeing into exile. Talks between the sides have collapsed.

Why does it matter? A steep economic downturn, the estrangement of the government from Ortega’s former allies in the Catholic Church and private sector as well as broader social anger over the crackdown make further unrest likely unless the Nicaraguan government signals it is prepared to address at least some protester demands.

What should be done? Ortega’s resumption of control and the protesters’ lack of leadership hinder the immediate resumption of talks. Instead, diplomatic pressure on Ortega from Latin America, the U.S., EU and Vatican could spur him to conduct electoral reform, which would demonstrate his willingness to compromise and pave the way for future dialogue.

Executive Summary

Long portrayed by its government as a pocket of tranquillity in a violent neighbourhood, Nicaragua suffered an unexpected and devastating setback this year. Enraged by social security reform plans, protesters took to the streets in April only to face the firepower of security forces and parapolice. Months of revolts, clashes and mass arrests subsided in July, when President Daniel Ortega re-established control. Though estimates vary, over 300 people died in the upheaval, most of them protesters. Brute force and support from the grassroots and state institutions enabled Ortega’s survival. But economic woes, unabated political hostilities and the disaffection of erstwhile allies could fuel more unrest. To prevent this, President Ortega should undertake electoral reforms and ensure due process for arrested protesters. Regional states, the EU, U.S. and Vatican should steer clear of additional sanctions for now but press the government to commit to these reforms as a precursor to renewed dialogue.

Ortega still enjoys the support of close to a third of Nicaraguans despite the bloodshed.

Resurrecting the rhetoric of the 1980s, when his government battled a U.S.-funded insurgency, Ortega has blamed American coup-mongering and local terrorist cells for the uprising. In contrast, his opponents in universities, the private sector, farming communities and civil society denounce the Sandinista government’s erosion of democracy since Ortega’s re-election in 2006, a process recently capped by the president’s effort to establish a dynastic one-party regime by installing his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his vice president and political heir. But the opposition’s demand, voiced in the heat of the protests, that Ortega and Murillo leave office and depart the country reinforced the government’s belief that a coup was under way. This galvanised the ruling couple’s determination not to make concessions, particularly as Ortega still enjoys the support of close to a third of Nicaraguans despite the bloodshed. Talks involving his government and protesters collapsed as security forces re-established control of the streets. Protest leaders faced arrests and trials, and many fled into exile.

The country’s extreme polarisation is now less visible. The protest movement, always disparate, lacks clear leadership and opposition parties are weak after years of narrowing democratic space. It is unclear who would speak for Ortega’s opponents in talks, which in any case the president shows little inclination to restart. Recent announcements have reinforced counterterrorist powers and banned protests, while the private sector decries expanding, invasive state control over business.

But even if it is in control, the government still contends with damage done to its political support base at home, the uprising’s long-term effects and international disrepute. Two key allies from Ortega’s last decade in office, the private sector and Catholic Church, have withdrawn their backing. An estimated 4 per cent fall in GDP this year has caused consternation both within the opposition and among Sandinista business figures. Latin American and Western leaders have condemned Ortega’s crackdown.

Washington has imposed sanctions, but such measures are unlikely to alter Managua’s calculus unless they aim to secure concrete concessions and feature clear conditions as to how they can be lifted. Ortega perceives sanctions as an unwanted resurrection of Cold War power games, and dismisses them as a ploy aimed at regime change – a perception that the recent U.S. anointing of a “troika of tyranny” in Latin America, composed of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, only reinforces. His government is likely willing to suffer economic decline so long as it makes poor communities more dependent on state handouts, thus enabling the Sandinista government to retain their backing. Ortega can also offset Western pressure by leaning more on Chinese and Russian support.

But quieter diplomacy might work. Nicaragua’s isolation in Latin America and Ortega’s manifest anxiety over his government’s reputation abroad suggests that a calibrated and cautious application of outside influence could nudge the president in a more conciliatory direction, and eventually create conditions for a return to dialogue. UN Secretary-General António Guterres maintains contact with Ortega and could appoint an envoy to Nicaragua to facilitate mediation efforts; Vinicio Cerezo, the head of the Central American Integration System, a sub-regional organisation, also enjoys Ortega’s confidence and might play a mediating role.

Restarting such dialogue will be essential to tackling the most contentious disputes between the government and opposition, including holding to account those responsible for killings and preparing the way for deeper reforms. Negotiations will not be easy – as the frustrated efforts at dialogue from May to July illustrate - and will depend on sustained international pressure on the government and the opposition establishing stronger leadership and moderating its expectations. For now, pushing for dialogue is unlikely to succeed, given the government’s resistance and the opposition’s lack of cohesion or agenda. Instead, outside powers should call on the Nicaraguan government to:

  • Recommit to and implement electoral reforms. Both the EU and OAS have documented steps necessary to remake the electoral system, including changes in the Supreme Electoral Council’s composition. Ortega has in the past agreed to such measures, which will ensure that forthcoming presidential polls, currently set for 2021, take place on a level playing field.
  • Guarantee due process for those detained over recent months. Although the government has expelled UN human rights observers, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights remains active and present.* The government should provide it with a complete list of the names and locations of detained protesters, estimated to number up to 600, and guarantee detainees fair trials.

Such steps, ideally followed by a resumption of dialogue with the opposition, would signal President Ortega’s willingness to compromise and reduce the risk of further protests. They also could help restore his international standing and legacy. For Ortega’s opponents, still disjointed and leaderless, pushing for the president’s departure or early elections makes little sense: Ortega is unlikely to step aside and neither the political opposition nor protesters are ready to campaign any time soon. They should instead prepare for a fairer 2021 election and, should the opportunity arise, resume talks on far-reaching judicial reforms that could be enacted by a new legislature elected in three years’ time.

Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 19 December 2018

Hours after publication of this report, the Nicaraguan government expelled the Commission from the country.

A Road to Dialogue after Nicaragua's Crushed Uprising

Public resentment is high in Nicaragua after street protests in April were crushed in a brutal government crackdown. In this video, Crisis Group Analyst Sofía Martínez Fernández explains why the time for negotiations has not yet arrived in Nicaragua. CRISISGROUP

I. Introduction

Though still one of the region’s poorest countries, Nicaragua’s stability and economic growth until recently suggested it had moved on from the revolutionary tumult and conflict that gripped the country at the end of the Cold War. After decades of U.S. occupation followed by Washington’s support for the dynastic despotism of the Somoza family, in 1979 the left-wing guerrilla Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and established a revolutionary government under the leadership of Daniel Ortega.[fn]The FSLN was founded in 1961 in Managua and gathered support from students, rural workers, members of the church and opponents of Somoza to form a guerrilla movement aimed at overthrowing a dictatorial regime characterised by its brutality, corruption, indifference to the poor and U.S. military backing. After failed negotiations and several guerrilla offensives, on 19 July 1979 the FSLN seized the capital and President Somoza fled the country. Baracco, L., Nicaragua, Imagining The Nation: From 19th Century Liberals to 20th Century Sandinistas (New York, 2005), pp. 61-105.Hide Footnote Over the course of a decade, the Sandinistas adopted transformative social policies including agrarian reform and a mass literacy campaign, while also introducing military conscription to fight a counter-revolutionary insurgency – known as the Contra War – which the U.S. funded and equipped.[fn]The Reagan administration secretly funded the “Contra” insurgency using resources from arms sales to Iran, the so-called Iran-Contra affair. “Report of the congressional committees investigating the Iran-Contra Affair”, U.S. Congress, 1987.Hide Footnote

Via strategic alliances with the private sector, Catholic Church and military, Ortega achieved high and sustained growth and maintained the lowest rates of crime in Central America.

Having lost elections and handed over power in 1990, President Ortega returned to power after winning polls in 2006 and has since established the FSLN as Nicaragua’s dominant political, social and economic force. Via strategic alliances with the private sector, Catholic Church and military, Ortega achieved high and sustained growth and maintained the lowest rates of crime in Central America despite Nicaragua’s proximity to Honduras and El Salvador, two of the most violent and crime-ridden countries in the hemisphere.[fn]According to official police figures, Nicaragua’s homicide rate in 2017 was seven violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants; the same year, El Salvador and Honduras registered homicide rates of 60 and 42.8 murders per 100,000 inhabitants respectively, mostly attributed to gang violence. “InSight Crime’s 2017 Homicide Round-Up”, Insight Crime, 19 January 2017. See Appendix D.Hide Footnote Apparent stability under Ortega’s rule – described as “a model of peace in the cemetery” – persuaded many outside governments and Nicaraguans to accept the new order, even as the Sandinistas dismantled constitutional checks and balances and imposed partisan control over public institutions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Nicaraguan academic, Managua, 6 September 2018.

The spontaneous civic protests that started on 18 April 2018 abruptly ended a decade of relative public quiescence, as Nicaraguans took to the streets to demand President Ortega’s departure and the return of genuine democracy. An eclectic anti-government movement of students, the private sector, intellectuals and civil society demonstrated and set up barricades in a bid to convince Ortega to step down and negotiate electoral and political reforms. Initially shocked by the speed and scale of the uprising, the government later branded the movement a coup led by U.S.-backed terrorists.[fn]“Presidente Daniel Ortega llama a tomar el camino de la paz”, El 19 Digital, 13 July 2018.Hide Footnote The official response was brutal. Clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces left several hundred dead and thousands wounded. Efforts to bring the parties to the table, led by the Catholic Church, proved fruitless, and the government abandoned them once it had quelled the protests.

This first Crisis Group report on Nicaragua assesses the aftermath of the crackdown and possible routes to a negotiated solution by exploring incentives for dialogue on both sides and potential engagement by international bodies such as the UN, European Union (EU) and the Organisation of American States (OAS). It is based on dozens of interviews with diplomats, church leaders, former officials, civic leaders, and opposition groups, including student organisations, private sector bodies, politicians in Nicaragua, Guatemala and the U.S., and Nicaraguan asylum seekers in Costa Rica between September and October 2018. Despite numerous requests, no Nicaraguan government official or FSLN member agreed to speak with Crisis Group. The government perspective is drawn from the study of 31 publicly available speeches, articles and interviews with senior FSLN officials as well as interviews with former officials and figures close to the government.

II. Ortega’s Apparatus of Power

For over a decade, President Ortega’s government achieved sustained economic growth and low crime rates. However, this came alongside ever greater FSLN control over courts, electoral institutions and much of public life. This mix of authoritarianism and development owed a great deal to strategic alliances with the private sector, the church and the military.

A. The Foundations of Modern Sandinismo

The fragmentation of Nicaragua’s political opposition in the early 2000s paved the way for Ortega’s return to power. While he was still in the opposition, Ortega signed in 1999 a pact with former President Arnoldo Alemán from the right-wing Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), who from 1996 led a government beset by corruption scandals. In exchange for political and judicial protection, Alemán agreed with Ortega a series of electoral and justice reforms that aimed to consolidate a two-party system dominated by the FSLN and Alemán’s Liberals.[fn]The “Ortega-Alemán” pact divided representation in the country’s Supreme Court, electoral authorities, and Attorney General’s office between the FSLN and Alemán’s party, limiting the access of other parties. It also included a custom-made electoral reform for the benefit of the FSLN that would allow it to win presidential elections if its candidate polled first with 35 per cent or more of the vote in the first round and a 5 per cent lead over the second-placed candidate, a figure that matched the party’s historic vote base. “Política nacional sellada por el pacto”, La Prensa, 30 December 2001.Hide Footnote Corruption scandals and the 1999 pact split the PLC into two rumps: Alemán’s supporters, and dissident liberals led by Eduardo Montealegre. Neither were able to beat Ortega in the first round of the 2006 elections, which he won with 38 per cent of the vote thanks to reforms made in the 1999 pact. Back in power, Ortega and his allies in the courts and electoral authorities manoeuvred to block and sabotage opposition parties.[fn]The Electoral Supreme Court blocked candidates from the Sandinista Reformist Movement (MRS) and the Liberal Conservative Party (PLC) from competing in the 2011 polls. “Nicaragua: how was institutionality reformed to concentrate power?”, Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) report, June 2017, pp. 14-19.Hide Footnote

After winning the 2011 vote, the FSLN majority in the Assembly – often described by the opposition as “the Sandinista steamroller” – passed legislation removing term limits on presidential re-election in 2014 and expelling 28 deputies from the Independent Liberal Party (PLI). This latter move gave the Sandinistas full control of the Assembly and neutralised a large part of the opposition a few months before the 2016 elections by declaring illegal the country’s second largest political force.[fn]In June 2016, five months before elections, Nicaraguan electoral authorities resolved an appeal filed six years earlier relating to internal disputes inside the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), leading to the removal of Eduardo Montealgre as the party’s legal representative. Its 28 lawmakers were forced to resign in July 2016 after refusing to recognise new party leader Pedro Eulogio Reyes Vallejos, considered an Ortega ally. Crisis Group interview, former Nicaraguan diplomat, Guatemala City, 17 August 2018. “El Consejo Electoral de Nicaragua destituye a 28 diputados opositores y refuerza el poder de Ortega”, AFP, 29 July 2016. “Reforma que permite reelección presidencial en Nicaragua entrará en vigor el lunes”, El Nuevo Herald, 8 February 2014.Hide Footnote

FSLN propaganda has been a cornerstone of its political influence.

With the opposition in disarray, and with a firm grip on his party and allies in all branches of the state, Ortega, now aged 73, moved to cement a new political dynasty by appointing his wife Rosario Murillo as his vice presidential candidate.[fn]Many analysts point out that Murillo’s rising influence stems from a tacit agreement with her husband after she supported him when one of Murillo’s daughters from a previous marriage accused Ortega of sexual abuse in 1998, a claim strongly denied by Ortega and for which he was never tried. “Rosario Murillo, primera dama de Nicaragua y ariete de Daniel Ortega”, El Mundo, 23 July 2018.Hide Footnote Murillo has assumed progressively greater control as Ortega’s health has declined; every single request to, or public statement from, the Nicaraguan government allegedly has to be sent to her email account, where thousands of messages pile up waiting for her approval, according to former officials. “She is the manager of the country”, said a former diplomat.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former Nicaraguan diplomats, Guatemala City and Managua, August-September 2018.Hide Footnote FSLN propaganda has been a cornerstone of its political influence. Most non-cable TV channels and half the radio stations are controlled by the Ortegas or people related to the FSLN, and lavish praise on the government’s achievements.[fn]Most Nicaraguans from rural areas cannot afford cable TV, on which most non-government channels are broadcast. TV channels in Nicaragua from 2-13 are considered pro-government except channels 10 and 12, which are owned by other groups. Crisis Group interview, journalist, Managua, 6 September 2018.Hide Footnote The black and red FSLN party colours are usually seen beside the national flag atop institutions such as the National Assembly and presidential palace. “In Nicaragua there’s a hybrid structure between [the FSLN] party and the state”, said a human rights expert.[fn]Crisis Group interview, human rights expert, Managua, 6 September 2018.Hide Footnote Nicaraguan school enrolment, far above the Latin America average, administer curriculums that acclaim President Ortega and the ruling party.[fn]School enrolment rates from the World Bank Databank, figures for Nicaragua, Latin America and the Caribbean, available at: https://bit.ly/2P0zc0N. Crisis Group interviews, Nicaraguan exiles, Guatemala City, August 2018.Hide Footnote

Nicaragua’s high poverty rate – the second highest in the hemisphere after Haiti – has enabled Ortega to reinforce loyalty through patronage.[fn]Poverty rates from the World Bank Databank, available at: https://bit.ly/2P0zc0N.Hide Footnote Programs like “Zero Hunger” and the distribution of food and housing via FSLN activists and municipal officials has assured the government of a solid social base across the country. Public employees must prove their allegiance, under threat of dismissal, by attending pro-government marches or giving other shows of partisan support.[fn]After the 18 April uprising the FSLN sent a mandatory request to public employees to provide information regarding all their social media accounts. Crisis Group interviews, Nicaraguan academics and civil society leaders, Managua, 4-6 September 2018. “Empleados públicos de Nicaragua callamos por miedo y necesidad”, EFE, 28 July 2018.Hide Footnote “If you want to do something in Nicaragua, you need an FSLN membership card”, said a priest.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Catholic Church, Managua, 3 September 2018.Hide Footnote

When deemed necessary, the government also silences opponents through repression. A rural movement that battled plans to build a Chinese-funded channel rivalling the Panama Canal and a demobilised group of former militia fighters from the “contra war” suffered the brunt of targeted violence, carried out by the police and special army units.[fn]The government has for years sought to quash protests organised by the “anti-canal” movement, which opposed the project. It also cracked down on former “contra” fighters in the North, accusing them of criminal activity after withdrawing post-conflict benefits granted by the Violeta Chamorro administration in the early 1990s. Crisis Group interviews, civic leaders and human rights activists, Managua, 4-6 September. For background on the new “contra” groups and alleged rights violations linked to its demobilisation, see: “Los recontras: campesinos armados con amplia base social”, Revista Envío, No. 119, September 1991, and “Ortega vs. the Contras: Nicaragua Endures an ’80s Revival”, The New York Times, 7 March 2016.Hide Footnote Organisations not aligned with the government suffered continuous harassment: “[W]e received astronomical electricity bills, they [FSLN members] boycotted our activities …, we got constant threats”, explains a civic leader.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society leader, Managua, 6 September 2018.Hide Footnote Local intelligence-gathering under the so-called Family, Community and Life Boards – previously known as the Citizen Power Councils, or CPCs – exerted social control, while providing the security forces with grassroots information on criminal activity and monitoring of alleged government opponents.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civic leaders and human rights experts, Managua, 3-6 September.Hide Footnote

As a result, Nicaragua under the Ortega-Murillo government offered stability and prosperity. But this came alongside harsher social control and democratic backsliding. Though some international organisations raised concerns over deteriorating human rights, most multilateral bodies celebrated the country’s economic growth.[fn]The EU, the U.S. and Nicaragua-based human rights groups have reported deteriorating conditions for democracy and human rights. Crisis Group interviews, civil society leaders and human rights experts, Managua, 4-7 September 2018. For background, see: “Nicaragua 2017 Human Rights Report”, U.S. Department of State, 20 April 2018. An example of multilateral organisations’ positive reviews of Nicaragua’s economic performance is “Nicaragua 2015 Article IV Consultation”, International Monetary Fund, Country Report No. 16/34, 4 February 2016.Hide Footnote So too did Nicaraguans. According to a 2017 Latinobarómetro survey, 67 per cent approved of the government’s performance and 52 per cent believed it ruled in the public interest.[fn]Latinobarómetro is a key source of statistical data on public opinion in the Latin America region. “Daniel Ortega, presidente mejor evaluado de Latinoamérica”, Hispan TV, 13 February 2018. “Informe 2017”, Corporación Latinobarómetro, 12 January 2018.Hide Footnote Today, however, many lament that they are now “paying the price of eleven years of silence”. “Basic material needs are so great here that people became tolerant towards democratic abuses. They were afraid of losing their jobs so they only dared to speak about politics in the closest circles”, admitted one opposition representative.[fn]Crisis Group interviews with opposition representatives, Managua and Guatemala City, August-September 2018.Hide Footnote

B. Strategic Alliances

In the years prior to his re-election in 2006, Ortega came to understand he would not be able to sustain his government without the support of the Catholic Church and the private sector.[fn]Ortega has publicly recognised that he is not a strong supporter of democracy. In a 2009 Cuban TV show he admitted his preference for a one-party rule because “multi-party politics divides the nation”. “Montealegre en Sébaco arremete contra Ortega”, El Nuevo Diario, 27 April 2009.Hide Footnote Cardinal Miguel Obando, a harsh critic of the Sandinista government in the 1980s, became a close ally. In return, just days before Ortega’s electoral victory in November 2006 Sandinista deputies in the National Assembly supported a blanket ban on abortion,[fn]“El aborto hipoteca a los sandinistas”, El País, 22 January 2007.Hide Footnote while the president makes frequent references to a “Christian, socialist, and caring Nicaragua” in his speeches, helping secure the support of the country’s devout majority.[fn]Obando, who died in June 2018, presided over the 2005 marriage of Ortega and Murillo in a Catholic ceremony. Of the 80 per cent of Nicaraguans considered Christians, between 20-30 per cent attend evangelical churches, which have rapidly expanded across Central America in recent decades. “Muere cardenal Obando, aliado de Daniel Ortega”, EFE, 3 June 2018. “International Religious Freedom Report for 2017”, U.S. State Department, 29 May 2018.Hide Footnote

Close relations with Nicaraguan conglomerates also allowed Ortega to protect the military’s business interests.

Umbrella organisations representing the private sector for their part acquired extraordinary influence as a result of their alliance with Ortega, based largely on the pursuit of mutual benefits. The Ortega family and members of the FSLN have sizeable commercial interests, with companies in oil distribution, gas stations, transportation, fashion and mass media. Close relations with Nicaraguan conglomerates also allowed Ortega to protect the military’s business interests.[fn]According to security expert Roberto Orozco, the military’s economic interests are mostly in finance and real estate. Crisis Group interview, journalist, Managua, 6 September 2018. “El clan Ortega, una dictadura dinástica”, El Mundo, 2 May 2018. For more on how the Ortega family manages its business empire, see: “Los anillos de poder y los operadores de Ortega y Murillo”, Confidencial, 16 April 2017.Hide Footnote “There was an understanding that all economic issues had to be agreed between the private sector and the government”, said a top Nicaraguan businessman. “The result was over 100 commonly agreed laws, a six-fold increase in foreign investment and eight international free-trade treaties that business was fully involved in drafting”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Nicaraguan business leader, Managua, 6 September 2018.Hide Footnote Government plans extended to massive infrastructure projects, notably the trans-oceanic channel, and free trade zones in border areas.

Sandinistas claim that business abandoned this pact due to growing resentment over the division of profits between the state and the private sector, which reached its climax in the dispute over social security reform in April 2018, caused by government demands that both businesses and employees make higher contributions to fund the shortfall in pensions. Private sector representatives, however, claim a more gradual reasoning behind their decision to break with the president.[fn]“They were no longer interested in being with the government because it [the pact] was not producing as much money as it initially did”, said leading FSLN politician Jacinto Suárez. For a Sandinista perspective on the social security issue, see: “Gran victoria obtenida por el sandinismo”, Redvolución, 16 agosto 2018; and “Los enmascarados son de los dos bandos”, El Faro, 6 July 2018. For a critical overview of the government’s handling of the social security dispute, see Carlos Chamorro, “Un parteaguas en Nicaragua”, El País, 20 April 2018. For the private sector silence over the government’s authoritarian moves in recent years, see: “El COSEP también es un actor político”, Confidencial, 12 September 2016.Hide Footnote In particular, they say, the private sector had resisted Ortega’s heavier-handed moves, particularly as regards alleged abuse of the electoral system and a draft law in 2015 that would have given the state control over the provision of internet access. According to critics, the bill would have opened the door to internet censorship, but was halted following private sector pressure.[fn]On internet bill, see: “El Gobierno de Nicaragua crea una ley para controlar Internet”, El País, 13 May 2015; “El cerco se estrecha y en la mira, redes sociales”, Revista Envío, No. 433, April 2018 issue. On business demands from 2016 for electoral reform, see: “Líder campesina denunció la represión ante Almagro”, Confidencial, 2 December 2016.Hide Footnote Business concerns over deteriorating relations with the state reportedly intensified after Rosario Murillo’s 2016 election as vice president.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Nicaraguan business leader, Managua, 6 September 2018.Hide Footnote

Venezuela was another vital partner in Ortega’s economic policy. The day after his swearing-in in 2007, Ortega signed an agreement with late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez enabling Nicaragua to import ten million barrels of oil per year. Nicaragua could pay half of the bill in 25-year loans at a very low interest rate through a lending scheme from the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), a project to socially and economically integrate a number of Latin American countries founded by Venezuela in 2004.[fn]The oil distribution group in Nicaragua is a private company, “Albanisa”, co-owned by Venezuelan and Nicaraguan state oil companies PDVSA and Petronic respectively. For more on oil distribution in Nicaragua from Venezuela, see the following investigations from Confidencial: “Albanisa’s Secret Accounts”, 5 March 2011; “The Petro-Dollar Booty”, 8 June 2015; and “Albanisa’s Cash Box”, 9 April 2016.Hide Footnote The fall in Venezuelan oil and financial support for Nicaragua in 2018 was abrupt. Statistics from Nicaragua’s Central Bank indicate that $4.8 billion in funds and loans were transferred from Venezuela to Nicaragua between 2007 and 2017, but only $9 million arrived from Venezuela in the first half of 2018.[fn]According to official reports in 2015, 38 per cent of these funds were spent on social welfare programs, while the remaining 62 per cent was invested in for-profit companies in the energy, agricultural, tourist and media sectors, most of them allegedly linked to the FSLN. Crisis Group calculations from “Informe de cooperación oficial externa”, Nicaragua Central Bank report, October 2018, p. 15. “Informe de cooperación official externa”, Nicaragua Central Bank report, April 2016, pp. 10-11. “Albanisa’s Secret Accounts”, op. cit.Hide Footnote


III. The April 2018 Crisis: Uprising, Dialogue and Fallout

Between April and July, a spate of civic protests triggered by a package of social security reforms met with a brutal government crackdown. Clashes among riot police, protesters and pro-government groups, reportedly including unofficial parapolice units, left hundreds dead and resulted in extensive human rights violations. A brief dialogue attempt between the government and opposition representatives was short-lived, mainly because of its improvised methodology, overly ambitious agenda and the Sandinista government’s lack of commitment. The upheaval has gravely damaged the economy, which is expected to keep contracting in 2019.

A. The 18 April Uprising

The spark behind the unrest was the government’s plan, unveiled on 16 April 2018, to reform the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security by reducing pensions by 5 per cent. Aside from cutting benefits, the reform package, largely based on the International Monetary Fund’s recommendations, would have raised taxes on companies and employers – a proposal the business community opposed, claiming the measures were introduced without a prior agreement with the private sector and would undermine Nicaraguan competitiveness.[fn]A June 2017 International Monetary Fund report urged the government to reform its social security system before it runs out of reserves by 2019. “Nicaragua Country Report No. 17/174”, International Monetary Fund, 27 June 2017. The eventual reform package proposed by the Nicaraguan government did not mirror precisely the IMF’s advice. The reforms raised tensions with the largest private sector organisations, which rejected the move and called on the government to backtrack. “Empresarios y Gobierno negocian en combo una reforma fiscal y al Seguro Social”, 5 April 2018. “INSS rompe modelo de diálogo y consenso”, Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) communiqué, 17 April 2018.Hide Footnote On 18 April, students led a march against the reforms in the capital Managua and the smaller western cities of León and Matagalpa that ended in clashes between protesters and armed Sandinista groups allegedly assembled by the government and coordinated with riot police.[fn]These groups, called mobs or turbas in Spanish by the opposition, were mostly citizens supported by the FSLN’s patronage schemes, such as members of the Sandinista Youth Movement and unidentified pro-government civilians in motorcycles with helmets similar to the chavista motorizados in Venezuela. They usually coordinate their actions with Nicaraguan riot police to disperse anti-government marches. Crisis Group interview, former diplomat, Guatemala City, 17 August 2018; Nicaraguan academic, Managua, 6 September 2018. “Serious human rights violations in the context of social protests in Nicaragua”, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Report, 22 June 2018, pp. 17-19, 46.Hide Footnote

This violence sparked fresh protests, leading to renewed clashes. By 24 April, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an autonomous part of the Organisation of American States (OAS), had registered at least 25 deaths, mostly young protesters from urban areas, and reported several others wounded during marches.[fn]Among the first casualties, the IACHR also registered the murder of a journalist and, according to state-owned media, a police officer. “IACHR Expresses Concern over Deaths in the Context of Nicaraguan Protests”, IACHR communiqué, 24 April 2018. “Así te contamos la multitudinaria marcha contra la represión del Gobierno sandinista”, La Prensa, 23 April 2018.Hide Footnote As the death toll rose, the demonstrations’ initial premise – against social security reform – faded, particularly once Ortega agreed to repeal the plan a few days after the first protest. But by the end of April, thousands of Nicaraguans were marching to demand his resignation.[fn]“Nicaraguan authorities call for peace after deadly protests”, BBC, 22 April 2018.Hide Footnote

Initially led by students, the protests brought Ortega’s critics together in an eclectic common front. Its largest component parts were the small-scale farmers’ (campesino) movement, which earlier had opposed the inter-oceanic canal project, human rights activists, civil society and regional leaders, and former Sandinista and opposition figures who felt betrayed or abandoned by the FSLN’s shift to dynastic one-party rule. Meanwhile, Ortega’s erstwhile allies, the private sector and the church, turned against him and headed many of the marches calling for repression to end. Much of the private sector declared its economic alliance with the government over: “[A]fter the [social security] reforms, that model broke down”, said a top private sector representative.[fn]The Higher Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), the largest business chamber in Nicaragua, and the American-Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) released on 19 April critical statements condemning the violence. Crisis Group interviews, civil society leaders and members of the Church and the Civic Alliance, Managua, 2-6 September 2018. COSEP and AmCham communiqués, 19 April 2018.Hide Footnote

Casualties among youths and students fuelled anger at the government in a country where “the dream of every poor family is to get their kids to university [one day]”, in the words of one academic.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Nicaraguan academic, Managua, 6 September 2018.Hide Footnote One especially brutal episode came on 30 May – Mother’s Day in Nicaragua – when a march led by mothers of victims killed during the protests ended with fifteen dead.[fn]“Al menos 15 muertos en la marcha de las madres en Nicaragua”, El País, 31 May 2018.Hide Footnote From May to July, hundreds more died in cities during armed clashes that pitted protesters against riot police and pro-government groups.[fn]Also in July, the Divina Misericordia Church in Managua was besieged for a day by Nicaraguan security forces as over 100 protesters sought refuge from attacks that killed two protesters. Crisis Group interview, humanitarian officer, Managua, 6 September 2018. A U.S. reporter, present during the siege, wrote a harrowing account: Joshua Paltrow, “‘They are shooting at a church’: Inside the 15-hour siege by Nicaraguan paramilitaries on university students”, The Washington Post, 14 July 2018.Hide Footnote Protesters built over 200 barricades across the country’s urban areas, an insurrectionary tactic from the late 1970s aimed at fending off security forces, blocking major roads and forcing the government to accept talks, in this case mediated by the Catholic Church (see Section III.C).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the Civic Alliance, Managua, 4 September 2018.Hide Footnote

The Nicaraguan government allegedly used parapolice forces to disperse protesters.

Even as efforts at dialogue continued, in mid-July Ortega launched “Operation Clean-up” to dismantle the barricades, initiating a new phase of the crisis as the government sought to restore control of the streets and prosecute protesters.[fn]Crisis Group interview, human rights expert, Managua, 6 September 2018.Hide Footnote Cities like Masaya, an epicentre of opposition resistance, saw physical signs of the clashes quickly erased as the barricades were torn down.[fn]Masaya, 30km east of Managua and an emblematic site of the Sandinista revolution, was partly controlled by protesters for nearly three months. Confrontations with police, besieged in their local precinct, were constant and left dozens dead and over a hundred wounded. Crisis Group interview, humanitarian worker, Managua, 6 September 2018. “Masaya se atrinchera contra Ortega”, El Faro, 5 June 2018.Hide Footnote Walls daubed with blue and white anti-government graffiti – the colours of the Nicaraguan flag that became a symbol of the marches – were painted over and infrastructure damaged by the attacks repaired within days.

By the end of August, protests were scarcer and kept in check by security forces and pro-government militias. On 13 October, the police announced that protests without prior approval from public authorities were banned.[fn]Nicaragua National Police, 28 September and 13 October 2018 communiqués.Hide Footnote Mass detentions aimed at people suspected of manning the barricades forced prominent anti-government leaders into hiding or led them to flee to neighbouring Costa Rica to avoid prosecution on terrorism charges.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nicaraguan exiles, Costa Rica, 10 September 2018.Hide Footnote Throughout, the government insisted that the uprising was a “violent effort to overthrow the constitutionally elected government”.[fn]“Our first concern was to avoid a civil war”, The Washington Post, 26 September 2018.Hide Footnote Official sources said the threat to the country’s stability and potential escalation into “civil war” justified the use of violence.[fn]Ortega and Murillo have repeatedly declared that their government is a bulwark of peace and stability as opposed to the violence created by the uprising. Crisis Group interview, former Nicaraguan diplomat, Managua, 4 April 2018. For the government’s version, see: “Bret Baier Confronts Nicaraguan Pres. on Alleged Murders of Citizens”, Fox News, 23 July 2018. “Ortega niega la represión y culpa a EEUU y al narco de la crisis en Nicaragua”, EFE, 4 September 2018. “Daniel Ortega: No existe ninguna persecución en Nicaragua”, Deutsche Welle, 7 September 2018.Hide Footnote According to one priest: “Ortega felt the ground shaking under his feet”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Catholic Church, Managua, 3 September 2018.Hide Footnote

B. Armed Violence and Human Rights Violations

The Nicaraguan government allegedly used parapolice forces to disperse protesters, according to human rights groups and reports from the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and Amnesty International.[fn]The OHCHR report noted previous evidence of parapolice forces quelling election-related protests and the anti-canal movement. Crisis Group interviews, human rights experts, Managua, 3-6 September 2018. “Human Rights Violations in the Context of Protests in Nicaragua”, OHCHR report, 29 August 2018, pp. 33-34. “Shoot to Kill: Nicaragua’s Strategy to Repress Protests”, Amnesty International, 29 May 2018, p. 19. “Serious human rights violations”, op. cit, pp. 17-18.Hide Footnote “Who they really are is an enigma”, observed a human rights officer.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Managua, 4 September 2018.
 Hide Footnote
 Their members typically covered their faces to conceal their identities. “[They seem to] respond to political orders”.[fn]The theories around the identity of parapolice range from former military and members of the Sandinista Youth to foreign fighters from Cuba and Venezuela who get paid $6-15 dollars a day for their services. Nicaraguan security expert Roberto Cajina has also indicated that some of them are “disguised gang members”. Crisis Group interview, human rights officer, Managua, 6 September 2017. “Cajina: hay un ‘silencio cómplice’ del Ejército”, Confidencial, 2 August 2018. “La política de terror del régimen coloca al Ejército ante una encrucijada”, Revista Envío, No. 436, July 2018 issue.Hide Footnote Opposition representatives insisted that the groups followed orders from the Vice Presidency and the Managua mayor’s office, an accusation those officials deny.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the Civic Alliance and the Catholic Church, 3-4 September 2018. “Human Rights Violations in the Context of Protests”, op. cit. p. 33.Hide Footnote In a TV interview, Ortega confirmed that armed civilians were working on the government’s behalf and also alluded to the participation of unidentified “voluntary police” in some operations.[fn]Although the Nicaraguan police has voluntary reserve units, human rights experts said the government did not make use of these forces to contain the protests. Crisis Group interviews, Managua, 6-7 September 2017. “Ortega admite la acción de parapolicías enmascarados en la entrevista con Euronews”, EFE, 31 July 2018.Hide Footnote

According to the UN, these pro-government units acted “in a joint and coordinated manner” with the Nicaraguan police. Protesters claim they were armed by the government with high-calibre guns and played an active role in harassing, identifying and detaining protesters with information gathered through the Family, Community and Life Boards, the community intelligence network established by the FSLN. The government has not publicly addressed these allegations.[fn]Protests leaders interviewed highlighted the active role of mayors, mostly from the FSLN, in intelligence-gathering activities aimed at identifying protesters. According to security expert Roberto Cajina, parapolice forces were armed with AK-47 and Dragunov sniper rifles. Crisis Group interviews, members of the Civic Alliance, 4 September 2018. “La política de terror del régimen”, op. cit. “Human Rights Violations in the Context of Protests”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Most anti-government marches were peaceful, but protesters were at times involved in violence, including attacks on public employees. On the basis of interviews of over 100 police officers and Sandinista activists to verify claims of torture and abuse by anti-government groups, the UN concluded that “beyond a number of very cruel isolated incidents, these acts were neither organised nor common”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 3 October 2018.Hide Footnote By 19 July, the government said eighteen police officers had been killed during clashes and 400 wounded.[fn]“Serious human rights violations”, op. cit, pp. 23-24. “Discurso del presidente Daniel Ortega en conmemoración al 39/19 del triunfo de la revolución popular”, YouTube, 21 July 2018.Hide Footnote

Security forces and protesters were both involved in human rights violations around the barricades built across the country. Behind the walls of cobblestones, motley groups of farm workers, young unemployed people, disillusioned Sandinistas and, in some cases, members of street gangs resisted Ortega’s security forces for over a month with no clear chain of command. Abuses of power by participants of the barricades were reportedly common. “The barricades seemed like a jail [which created an environment for] crimes such as rapes, attacks, payment of extortion”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, human rights expert, 6 September 2018.Hide Footnote Some people who participated in the barricades admitted that they used guns to respond to the government’s attacks. In most cases their arms were rudimentary, including homemade mortars, slingshots and shields made from barrels.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Costa Rica and Guatemala City, August-September 2018. “Human Rights Violations in the Context of Protests”, op. cit. p. 15.Hide Footnote The government referred to the construction of barricades as “terrorist” acts carried out by “right-wing paramilitary forces”.[fn]“Entrevista al Presidente-Comandante Daniel Ortega”, La Voz del Sandinismo, 31 July 2018.Hide Footnote

Human rights groups allege that parapolice units captured more than 80 per cent of those detained, with many later released or formally charged.

Sources differ as to the death toll from the unrest and government crackdown. According to an 18 October Inter-American Commission on Human Rights statement, the numbers killed since 18 April in the context of the protests and state repression stood at 325, including victims from both sides. Local human rights groups counted up to 545 protesters killed by 23 November.[fn]“CIDH alerta sobre nueva ola de represión en Nicaragua”, 18 October 2018. “Al menos 545 muertos y 4.533 heridos deja la crisis en Nicaragua, según una ONG”, EFE, 23 November 2018.Hide Footnote The government has recognised only 199 deaths of both civilians and security officers, claiming other figures mistakenly count victims of common crime. However, the UN report notes that it is unlikely the death toll has been inflated in this fashion given Nicaragua’s low homicide rate and the fact that many victims matched the age and social profile of protesters.[fn]Moreover, figures mentioned in the UN report indicate that 91 per cent of the victims were killed either near the marches or in the crossfire between protesters and security forces. “Serious human rights violations”, op. cit, p. 24.Hide Footnote A 29 May Amnesty International report noted that many of those killed by gunshots during the marches had been shot in the head, neck and chest, indicating a pattern of “shoot to kill”.[fn]“Shoot to Kill”, op. cit. p. 32.Hide Footnote The government denies these reports and condemns them as “totally biased”.[fn]“Los enmascarados son de los dos bandos”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

On the pro-government side, the Truth, Justice and Peace Commission of the Nicaraguan Assembly – created by the FSLN-dominated legislature on 29 April to investigate abuses during the crisis – said it could not confirm reports from national NGOs of over 1,000 cases of enforced disappearances by 23 November. Human rights groups allege that parapolice units captured more than 80 per cent of those detained, with many later released or formally charged; no verifiable figures yet for disappeared people presumed dead or detained are available. A human rights expert stated that so far there have been “no observed patterns of forced disappearances”.[fn]The issue of enforced disappearances remains extremely sensitive in Latin America following the massive human rights violations during the Argentina and Chile dictatorships in the 1970s and the 1980s. Crisis Group interviews, human rights experts, Managua, 4-6 September 2018. Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 3 October 2018. Nicaraguan General Assembly’s Truth, Justice and Peace Commission, Preliminary Report, 10 July 2018, p. 50. “Al menos 545 muertos”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The church and the papal nuncio have remained the only stable channels of communication between anti-government groups and Ortega.

Most known detainees – officially 273 although local NGOs count 558 – have been sent to El Chipote jail in Managua or other nearby prisons.[fn]Ortega himself was held in El Chipote, when it was known as La Loma, while jailed for his guerrilla activities in the 1970s. José Luis Rocha, “¿Qué estamos logrando con la rebelión de abril?”, Revista Envío, August 2018. “Alianza Cívica afirma que existen 558 ‘presos políticos’ en Nicaragua”, EFE, 24 October 2018.Hide Footnote Human rights groups report that of the overall number of detainees, around 300 face trial without due process presided over by pro-government judges.[fn]“Gobierno de Nicaragua solo reconoce 273 personas detenidas por protestar”, El Nuevo Diario, 5 November 2018. “En Nicaragua hay 558 presos políticos según Alianza Cívica”, EFE, 24 October 2018.Hide Footnote Local activists report a “total lack of procedural guarantees”, including prosecutors calling up to 50 witnesses to testify against the accused, with in some cases no defence attorneys present. “The typical charge is for terrorism and organised crime” said one, adding that most convictions cannot be appealed. The government did not answer requests from human rights bodies seeking permission to witness trials,[fn]Though the Nicaraguan Assembly approved on 17 July two laws – the “Creation of the Financial Analysis Unit Law” and the “Anti-Money Laundering, Financing of Terrorism and the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Law” – that established sentences of up to twenty years in jail for acts of terrorism, judicial authorities had been using previous anti-terrorism legislation under articles 394-398 of the Nicaraguan Penal Code as the grounds for indictment. Crisis Group interview, human rights experts, Managua, 3-6 September 2018. Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 3 October 2018.Hide Footnote while in early December the National Assembly voted to strip a number of local human rights organisations of their legal registration.[fn]“Cancelación de personerías a ONG en Nicaragua preocupa a la CIDH”, El Nuevo Diario, 12 December 2018.Hide Footnote

C. A Failed Dialogue

President Ortega called on Nicaragua’s Episcopal Conference – the main authority of the country’s Catholic Church – to mediate between the government and protesters on 22 April. Since then, the church and the papal nuncio have remained the only stable channels of communication between anti-government groups and Ortega, and have convinced the latter on a few occasions to establish humanitarian corridors and release imprisoned protesters.[fn]The bishops had previously mediated successfully during the June 2013 social security crisis. Crisis Group interviews, members of the Catholic Church and the Civic Alliance, Managua, 3-4 September 2018. “Brutal desalojo de ancianos y jóvenes”, Confidencial, 26 June 2013.Hide Footnote

The bishops were also responsible for unifying the diverse parts of the anti-government movement under the umbrella of the “Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy” as a counterpart to the government in negotiations. Church leaders nominated members of four private sector organisations, the campesino movement, groups representing Nicaragua’s regions and civil society, who were tasked with agreeing on an agenda for dialogue that would reflect protesters’ demands. The Alliance also included the University Coalition, which brought together different student associations; students had “gained the legitimacy [to be part of the dialogue] after suffering most of the deaths”, said a Managua-based diplomat.[fn]Representatives of the Civic Alliance said the criteria on which the Catholic Church chose them was, first, their ability to represent broader civil society sectors and, second, their willingness “not to offend” Ortega by proving too belligerent. Crisis Group interviews, diplomat and members of the Civic Alliance, Managua, 4-6 September 2018.Hide Footnote The bishops agreed to initiate dialogue after the government confirmed it would invite the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to verify human rights conditions in the country, one of the bishops’ preconditions.[fn]Other preconditions included release of detainees, withdrawal of paramilitary forces and the clarification of responsibility for deaths. On 11 May, Pope Francis sent a letter to President Ortega urging him to reach a negotiated solution to the crisis, thereby supporting the launch of the National Dialogue a few days later. “Daniel Ortega invita a la CIDH a Nicaragua”, El Nuevo Diario, 14 May 2018. Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference, communiqué, 3 May 2018. “El Papa pide ‘diálogo sincero’ en Nicaragua”, El Nuevo Diario, 2 June 2018.Hide Footnote

The National Dialogue began in a spirit of overt hostility on 16 May. Local and international media gathered in a Managua seminary to cover a meeting without precedent since the 1990s. Students, farm workers, civil society and business representatives publicly confronted presidential couple Ortega-Murillo. Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans watched as the event was streamed live on TV and social media. After a bishop opened the session with a long homily, one student set a more combative tone, shouting “you must surrender!” at Ortega and Murillo.[fn]“Nicaragua: así fue el duro comienzo del diálogo nacional entre el gobierno de Daniel Ortega, estudiantes y líderes de oposición”, BBC Mundo, 16 May 2018.Hide Footnote “The language heated up”, said a Catholic priest present at the event. “It seemed as if they were going to throw the cutlery at one other”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Catholic Church, Managua, 3 September 2018.Hide Footnote

Following a brief hiatus in early June due to the violence at the Mother’s Day march, Ortega agreed on 12 June to a “Constitutional Agreement and Route Program”, which had been prepared a few days earlier by the Church and featured an agenda based on human rights accountability and democratic reform.[fn]The plenary session had agreed on 18 and 21 May a ceasefire which was not respected, as well as acknowledging the recommendations from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights after its visit to Nicaragua on 17-21 May 2018. Crisis Group interview, member of the Catholic Church, Managua, 3 September 2018. Mediation and Witness Commission for the National Dialogue, official communiqués, 18-21 May and 13 June 2018.Hide Footnote The two sides met on four more occasions in mixed committees of government and Civil Alliance representatives – with two working groups on electoral and judicial reforms, alongside a “Security and Verification Mission” that aimed to oversee the process and reduce hostilities. The program included ambitious discussion points, such as advancing elections from 2021 to 31 March 2019 and substituting all magistrates of the Supreme Electoral Council, the highest electoral authority in Nicaragua.[fn]Mediation and Witness Commission for the National Dialogue, communiqué, 16 June 2018.Hide Footnote

Negotiations faced major hurdles. At no stage did the two sides agree to cease repression or dismantle the barricades, meaning already weak trust between them was continually undermined by government crackdowns and the creation of new opposition barricades, over which the Civic Alliance itself had little sway. Without the ability to manage the barricades, its representatives could not exploit the most effective form of leverage over the government.[fn]Only a handful of barricades were dismantled peacefully on the basis of cooperation between government and opposition. Two international officials who monitored the crisis agree the state operation to take down these barricades was generally done in an orderly and disciplined manner by Nicaraguan security forces. Crisis Group interviews, Managua, 4-6 September 2018. Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 30 August 2018.Hide Footnote

Even so, the dialogue extracted some concessions from the government, including the creation of the Interdisciplinary Group of Experts (GIEI) by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, tasked with analysing human rights violations.[fn]Other advances included requesting the establishment of the “Special Follow-up Mechanism for Nicaragua” (MESENI), also under the aegis of the Inter-American Commission, to provide support to the National Dialogue and advise civil society groups on issues of memory, truth, justice and reparation; and pushing for the invitation to the country for the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, which started its mission on 26 June. “Acuerdo entre la Secretaría General de la OEA, la CIDH y el Gobierno de Nicaragua”, 30 June 2018. “CIDH instala el Mecanismo Especial de Seguimiento para Nicaragua (MESENI)”, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, press release, 25 June 2018. “Nicaragua: Hoy inicia misión oficial de ONU Derechos Humanos”, OHCHR, press release, 26 June 2018.Hide Footnote Diplomats who met during the dialogue with Ortega and government officials believe they acquiesced out of alarm over the scale and impact of the mutating protest movement. Blockades were affecting the country’s main roads and harming cross-regional trade. Some 400 truck drivers had been stuck for over a month.[fn]Neighbouring Costa Rica to the south and Honduras and El Salvador to the north, Nicaragua is a crossing point for 92 per cent of regional transport. Crisis Group interview, former Nicaraguan diplomat, Guatemala City, 17 August 2018. “Migración rechaza 9 de cada 10 solicitudes”, communiqué, Costa Rica government, 19 June 2018. “Comercio en la región se prepara para caída por crisis en Nicaragua”, El Periódico, 6 July 2018.Hide Footnote As a last resort, Ortega and Murillo reportedly said in private they would agree to reforms and early elections so long as they were allowed to take part in the polls.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 30 August 2018.Hide Footnote

If the government’s exploitation of the dialogue impeded its success, so too did the Civic Alliance’s aspirations.

That said, some observers in the talks maintain the government saw the National Dialogue as nothing more than a delaying tactic, enabling it to dismantle the barricades and re-establish unchallenged authority. “The government never accepted the dialogue agenda. He [Ortega] understood the process as a route to get rid of them [the Civic Alliance]”, said one Managua-based diplomat.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the church, Civic Alliance and diplomat, Managua, 4-6 September 2018.Hide Footnote

In several instances, the government’s gestures were revealed as hollow. Before the dialogue began, on 29 April, the government majority in the Nicaraguan Assembly created the Truth, Justice and Peace Commission, but only appointed members close to the FSLN. Ortega invited the OAS and UN human rights agencies into Nicaragua but commanded the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to control all their information sources and deny officials permission to leave Managua.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Managua, 4-6 September 2018. Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 3 October 2018. “Asamblea aprueba polémica Comisión de la Verdad”, Confidencial, 29 April 2018.Hide Footnote After the success of “Operation Clean-up”, the FSLN abandoned talks entirely, and at the end of August Ortega expelled the UN human rights mission following publication of a critical report. According to one student activist, “there never was a real dialogue … from the beginning the government accused us of being plotters”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Civic Alliance, Managua, 4 September 2018.Hide Footnote

If the government’s exploitation of the dialogue impeded its success, so too did the Civic Alliance’s aspirations. “Their expectations were unrealistic. They hoped the U.S. was going to escort Ortega out of the country”, observed one U.S. official.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 30 August 2018.Hide Footnote Negotiators, diplomats and international officials based in Managua were concerned by the wishful thinking evident in the anti-government coalition’s demands. Opposition leaders acknowledge this in hindsight: “In April we got blinded by the moment. We actually thought: Ortega is leaving”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, participants of the National Dialogue and members of opposition groups, Managua and San José, 3-10 September 2018. Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 30 August 2018.Hide Footnote

The final blow to the dialogue came in the form of attacks on the mediators, who were perceived in Sandinista circles to be closer to the Civic Alliance than the government. On 9 July, FSLN supporters assaulted Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, papal nuncio Waldemar Sommertag and other priests. One church leader has since condemned the government outright, a sentiment shared by various other Episcopal Conference members. “I am a victim of a campaign of repression, defamation, and bullying”, declared Bishop Silvio José Báez after Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada accused him of organising a coup with the aid of the far right in a 28 October public event. The government in turn questioned the church’s suitability as mediator: “I would say that the credibility of the Episcopal Conference was damaged because of the attitude of some bishops”, Ortega said on 30 July.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Catholic Church, Managua, 3 September 2018. “El canciller acusa a sectores de la Iglesia de terrorismo y golpismo”, 100% noticias, 26 October 2018. “An Exclusive Interview with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega”, Greyzone, 30 July 2018.Hide Footnote

After the talks broke down, the government stated that it did not accept the Civic Alliance as a counterpart in negotiations. One Sandinista questioned whether the “self-proclaimed spokespeople” of the opposition actually represented any significant social grouping.[fn]“Gran victoria obtenida por el sandinismo”, op. citHide Footnote The government was also frustrated that even when they complied – albeit only partially and on their own terms – with the Civic Alliance’s human rights demands, their counterparts did not proceed to dismantle the barricades: “they [the Civic Alliance] came to demand and did not want to give [back] anything”, said Jacinto Suárez, a FSLN leader in the legislature.[fn]“Los enmascarados son de los dos bandos”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

D. Economic Turmoil

Nicaragua’s economy, previously one of the region’s most buoyant, has taken a battering in the wake of the uprising. According to private sector groups, 417,000 Nicaraguans – over 14 per cent of the country’s total workforce – have lost their jobs since the start of the crisis.[fn]“Unos 417.000 empleos se han perdido en Nicaragua por la crisis, según patronal”, EFE, 9 N0vember 2018. World Bank Data, available at: https://bit.ly/2qURjLo.Hide Footnote Total losses to the country’s economy in the first half of the year ascribed to the crisis have risen to $1,180.6 million – around 8.6 per cent of Nicaragua’s GDP – according to the National Treasury, while the IMF estimates a contraction of 4 per cent of GDP this year.[fn]“Gobierno admite deterioro económico por protestas”, El Nuevo Diario, 2 October 2018. “Misión del FMI concluye visita a Nicaragua”, International Monetary Fund, press communiqué, 31 October 2018.Hide Footnote Despite recent years of growth, Nicaragua remains a poor country without natural resources and with an economy vulnerable to a sharp loss in business confidence and investment.

The tug of war between Ortega and the private sector has damaged the formerly intertwined business interests of both.

Conscious of these risks, the government and private sector organisations have exploited the threat of economic decline to undermine each other. The Civic Alliance used the barricades to hurt regional trade by reducing the land transit of merchandise by 80 per cent between May and June, and called three national strikes that were widely observed in urban areas.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Nicaraguan businessman, Managua, 6 September 2018. “Crisis de Nicaragua: Tránsito de mercancías se redujo en cerca de un 80%”, Mundo Marítimo, 10 August 2018.Hide Footnote The government also tightened the screws on the private sector. Among other things, it allegedly expropriated land owned by Nicaraguan businessmen and handed it over to low-income families (authorities have not acknowledged this as official practice; indeed, in some cases they have promoted evictions of those occupying confiscated land).[fn]According to the Union of AgroProducers of Nicaragua, by mid-October 5,000 hectares continued to be occupied from the total 6,900 seized since April. Crisis Group telephone interview, 1 November 2018. “Tomatierras causan daños de 24 millones”, El Nuevo Diario, 31 October 2018. For the government’s alleged actions on land occupation see: “Ortega intenta desalojar tomatierras”, Confidencial, 23 September 2018; “Tomatierras del régimen tendrán que pagar si quieren un lote en Managua”, La Prensa, 7 November 2018.Hide Footnote In addition, the National Assembly has approved the creation of a public company to manage foreign trade and given new discretionary powers to the Financial Analysis Unit, which investigates suspected money laundering and terrorist finance, to access citizens’ personal information. Private sector organisations consider both initiatives unconstitutional efforts to bolster state power over business.[fn]Businesses fear that the Financial Analysis Unit will carry out politically-motivated police-like investigations and that the Nicaraguan Import/Export Enterprise (Enimex) will promote only government-aligned firms. For more, see: “Cosep recurrirá legalmente contra Enimex”, El Nuevo Diario, 1 November 2018. “Cosep recurrirá por inconstitucionalidad contra Ley de la Unidad de Análisis Financiero”, La Prensa, 11 October 2018.Hide Footnote

The tug of war between Ortega and the private sector has damaged the formerly intertwined business interests of both. “People in the government are as hurt as we are from what is happening”, stated a Nicaraguan businessman.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Nicaraguan businessman, Managua, 6 September 2018.Hide Footnote Should tensions continue, Central America’s smallest economy could plunge into recession. According to economic experts, long-term risks include negative economic growth, lower tax revenue, the elimination of subsidies, and higher unemployment. Reforms of the Social Security Institute – the reforms which catalysed the civic uprising – cannot be postponed for much longer as its reserves are predicted to run out by 2019.[fn]Crisis Group interview, economist, Managua, 6 September 2018. “Nicaragua Country Report No. 17/174”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

IV. Prospects for Dialogue and Reform

Renewed dialogue in Nicaragua appears unlikely at this point given the government’s limited incentives to restart negotiations and the state of the opposition, which is struggling to decide on its future and leadership. However, in light of the country’s economic downturn as well as public outrage over the violent crackdown, more protests and repression remain on the cards. Failure to address political tensions could also lead to growing insecurity and humanitarian risks in the region. Although small and weak in comparison to their peers elsewhere in Central America, Nicaragua’s street gangs are alleged to have collaborated with both government forces and opposition protests.[fn]Sociologist José Luis Rocha affirmed in a June 2018 article that “[Since 2015], FSLN militants have offered money, weapons, ammunition, transportation and impunity to active and retired gang members who wanted to participate in “spontaneous” anti-demonstrations to repress opponents protesting against electoral fraud (…)”. “Breve historia de las pandillas del reparto Schick: ¿los “vandálicos” de abril y mayo son pandilleros?”, Revista Envío, No. 435, June 2018. As for alleged opposition collaboration with gangs, see “Violencia armada en Nicaragua: un producto importado”, El 19 Digital, 27 June 2018.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, thousands of Nicaraguans have fled from poverty and state repression to neighbouring Costa Rica. A total of 13,697 are reported to have made a formal request for asylum in the country between January and September, a sharp increase on 2017. In the same period, a total of 40,386 people are reported to have arrived in Costa Rica in search of international protection.[fn]See “Observaciones preliminares sobre la visita de trabajo para monitorear la situación de personas nicaragüenses que se vieron forzadas a huir a Costa Rica”, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 1 November 2018. The UN human rights report and several media outlets had initially mentioned a higher figure of around 23,000 Nicaraguan asylum seekers resulting from the repression. However, that number does not match official data from the Costa Rica government, and includes both registered and pending asylum requests. Tweet from Francisca Fontanini, UNHCR spokesperson, 16 September 2018. “Miles de personas que huyeron de la violencia en Nicaragua hoy buscan refugio en Costa Rica”, Infobae, 6 September 2018.Hide Footnote

Implementing electoral reforms ahead of the 2021 polls is the most realistic way for President Ortega to both de-escalate tensions and restore something of his international repute. His opponents should see reforms as a means to pave the way for future dialogue and further-reaching change, above all regarding human rights and the judicial system.

A. Incentives for Renewed Negotiations

President Ortega has regained control of the streets at a high cost in blood, and despite losing public and foreign support has shown little interest in making concessions since quashing the uprising. Conscious of the potential for future upheaval, the government seems reluctant to disarm parapolice groups or reconsider its willingness to silence protests through violence. It also has the local intelligence and judicial infrastructure to prosecute opponents while protecting Sandinista loyalists from criminal investigation. The ruling FSLN remains the largest political force in Nicaragua, and has not displayed to the public any recent major internal fractures.[fn]However, sources close to the government suggest the FSLN is not unanimous in support of the crackdown and that some of its party members allegedly oppose the prospect of Vice President Murillo succeeding her husband, although for now no alternative with a sufficient power base has emerged as a contender. Crisis Group interviews, Managua, 6-7 September 2018. The FSLN has in the past suffered various splits, and only three members of its original nine-man revolutionary National Directorate, including Ortega, now support the government. All of its members are still alive except FSLN co-founder Tomás Borge who died in 2012, and Carlos Núñez, in 1990. “Muere Tomás Borge, comandante de la revolución nicaragüense”, El País, 1 May 2012.Hide Footnote

For its part, the opposition is in disarray and has not managed yet to become a robust counterweight to the FSLN. The National Blue and White Unity – an umbrella movement of over 40 organisations critical of the government, including the Civic Alliance – was established on 4 October with the aim of running against Ortega in future elections. But it has remained mostly a civil society movement without clear leadership or organisational structure.[fn]Outside the Civic Alliance, the anti-government movement comprises a further 40 groups such as the Articulation of Social Movements and Civil Society Organisations, made up of grassroots NGOs. Crisis Group interviews, civil society leaders, Managua and San José, 4-10 September 2018. “Nace Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco”, Euronews, 4 October 2018.Hide Footnote Its diverse membership, from wealthy business leaders to university students, encompasses a broad range of interests that complicate internal decision-making. “The only thing they have in common is their opposition to Ortega”, said a diplomatic source.[fn]Crisis Group interview, human rights expert, 4 September 2018.Hide Footnote Apart from national strikes and protests, their power to mobilise supporters is limited compared to that of the government.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomat, opposition member and human rights expert, Managua, 4-6 September 2018. Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 30 August 2018.Hide Footnote Furthermore, the relationship between this movement and Nicaragua’s opposition parties has yet to be determined as Ortega’s long history of manipulation and co-option of the official opposition has brought these parties into disrepute.[fn]A 27 September Cid-Gallup survey showed the FSLN remained the largest political party with 23 per cent support, with the smaller Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) and the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) only registering 4 and 1 per cent respectively. 67 per cent of participants declared they were not aligned with any political party. “El 61% de los nicaragüenses exige la renuncia de Daniel Ortega y su esposa, según una encuesta”, Infobae, 27 September 2018.Hide Footnote

Even if most activists remain committed to peaceful protest for now, the progressive criminalisation of public dissent could lead to greater resentment and recklessness in actions against the government.

This makes renewed talks unlikely in the near term. Even within the Civic Alliance, members of which have repeatedly called for a return to negotiations, prominent figures conclude that conditions are not ripe: “You cannot have a dialogue with this level of repression”, said one opposition member.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opposition member, Managua, 4 September 2018.Hide Footnote Reviving the established format of the National Dialogue is arguably not the best way to spur talks between both sides given the government’s token commitment to the process and the lack of realistic expectations or defined agenda. Moreover, religious authorities have lost their credibility as mediators with the government, and have aligned more closely with protesters. Indeed the scope for moderate voices more generally has narrowed, with both the FSLN and the opposition movement maintaining a rhetoric of “war and resistance” since the end of the talks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, human rights expert, 4 September 2018.Hide Footnote

However, the government’s containment strategy has limitations and it may well be only a matter of time before more protests or other forms of dissent arise, likely leading to more clashes. “People have lost the fear of protest”, said a former Nicaraguan diplomat.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former diplomat, Guatemala City, 17 August 2018. “Cid Gallup: 61 por ciento exige renuncia de Ortega-Murillo”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Even if most activists remain committed to peaceful protest for now, the progressive criminalisation of public dissent could lead to greater resentment and recklessness in actions against the government. Nicaraguan public support for Ortega’s government fell from 67 per cent to 23 per cent after the April uprising according to the 2018 Latinobarómetro study, while polls show that over half of Nicaraguans favour early elections.[fn]“Informe 2018”, Corporación Latinobarómetro, 9 November 2018, p. 18. “Cid Gallup: 61% exige renuncia de Ortega-Murillo”, Confidencial, 26 September 2018.Hide Footnote

In light of the risks his government faces from its loss of popularity, severed ties to its main allies and the economic downturn, Ortega would be well-advised to consider concessions to placate his opponents. The art of tactical accommodation to maintain stability is not a novelty for the Sandinistas, who allowed the 1984 and 1990 elections to take place despite their reservations in both cases, and built their power over the past decade on the basis of alliances with former opponents. Given this history of compromise, a set of reasonable demands centred around democratic reform should remain at the core of the opposition’s campaign and international pressure.

B. International Engagement and Pressure

Coordinated high-level diplomacy between Ortega and the UN, with the support of the Catholic Church, may potentially persuade Ortega to agree to specific concessions, particularly regarding electoral reforms. Despite their differences with some of the Catholic bishops, the ruling couple still considers the papal nuncio in Nicaragua, Waldemar Sommertag, a valid intermediary willing to support international mediation.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Managua, 6 September 2018.Hide Footnote

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, also maintains cordial relations with the Nicaraguan government despite the hostility the UN as a whole faces in Nicaragua, but must act without the Security Council given that China and Russia are likely to block any action there.[fn]On 5 September, the UN Security Council discussed Nicaragua. The debate focused on whether the UN was obliged to respond to early signs of conflict and human rights violations or whether it should refrain from interfering in Nicaragua’s domestic affairs, on the basis that the crisis did not represent a threat to international peace and security. Russia and China adopted the latter position. “Security Council takes up Nicaragua Crisis, with some reservations”, UN News, 5 September 2018.Hide Footnote Guterres should designate an envoy to Nicaragua to compensate for the UN’s weak country presence since 2015, when Ortega dismissed the UN Development Programme, accusing it of “political meddling”.[fn]“Ortega acusa a PNUD de ‘injerencia política’”, Confidencial, 16 February 2016.Hide Footnote Persuading the government will require confidentiality, and these talks should be handled separately from essential ongoing human rights monitoring, the sensitivities of which were fully exposed when the government expelled the mission of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) two days after the publication of a UN report on human rights violations.[fn]“Ortega llama “instrumento de terror” a la ONU”, El Nuevo Diario, 30 August 2018.Hide Footnote

Ortega has publicly rejected diplomatic efforts by the EU and the OAS to press for dialogue, calling them “interventionist”.

Ortega has pointed to the Central American Integration System (SICA) as another potential intermediary.[fn]The SICA is a Central American organisation founded in 1991 to promote regional economic integration. Official SICA website: https://www.sica.int/.Hide Footnote Its secretary general, former Guatemalan president Vinicio Cerezo, is an old friend of the Nicaraguan president. “Ortega’s last resource is Vinicio Cerezo and the SICA. Ortega picks up the phone [if Cerezo calls], now even more so. Cerezo is one of the few who would listen to Ortega’s complaints”, said a former Nicaraguan diplomat.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former Nicaraguan diplomat, Managua, 4 September 2018.Hide Footnote However, Cerezo is also a centrist who does not owe any allegiance to the Sandinistas. He could play some mediation role by supporting UN efforts, but based more on his personal connection to Ortega than the institutional capacity of SICA, which has little power over its member states and limited experience addressing regional crises.[fn]Some opposition leaders expressed concerns that the SICA is a malleable option which would suit Ortega’s interests in an eventual dialogue. The SICA has not condemned so far the crackdown in Nicaragua. Cirisis Group interview, former diplomat, Managua, 4 September 2018. “Declaración especial sobre Nicaragua”, LI reunión ordinaria de jefes de estado y de gobierno de los países miembros del SICA, 30 July 2018.Hide Footnote

Ortega has publicly rejected diplomatic efforts by the EU and the OAS to press for dialogue, calling them “interventionist”.[fn]“Daniel Ortega acusa a EE.UU., OEA y UE de ‘intervencionismo’”, Deutsche Welle, 9 November 2018.Hide Footnote His attitude to the OAS in large part stems from the Permanent Council’s vote rebuking his government’s actions in July, when a clear majority of Latin American countries condemned the government’s violence against protesters, supported dialogue and called for democratic and human rights reforms to prevent a recurrence of bloodshed.[fn]The resolution was passed by a majority of 21 votes out of 34 Permanent Council members. Only three countries voted against it: Venezuela, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Nicaragua itself. Seven abstained, while three were absent (including Bolivia). “The Situation in Nicaragua”, Organization of American States CP/RES. 1108, 18 July 2018. For more on the regional response to the Nicaragua crisis, see: “Resolución sobre Nicaragua”, Foro de São Paulo, 1 August 2018. “La división de la izquierda latinoamericana frente a Nicaragua”, The New York Times, 19 August 2018.Hide Footnote The UN should, however, coordinate with both these bodies over mediation and reform efforts given their strong presence in Nicaragua. The OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights remains essential not just for human rights monitoring, but also to sustain communication between the opposition and international actors. The EU for its part enjoys long-standing diplomatic and financial ties with the government, and should continue to offer technical support for reforms, as should European states, notably Spain and Germany, both of which offered to mediate during the crisis.[fn]For an EU response, see: “EU deplores ongoing violence in Nicaragua and calls for peaceful and democratic solution”, press release, 17 July 2018.Hide Footnote

Alongside mediation efforts, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Nicaragua following the violent crackdown.[fn]The U.S. called a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the country’s crisis in early September. It also backed high-level mediation efforts in June that engaged both Ortega and Murillo. Meanwhile, U.S. senior diplomats admit that their reluctance to support additional efforts to unseat the president or force early elections derives from the opposition’s weaknesses and fragmentation. Crisis Group telephone interview, U.S. official, 31 August 2018; Crisis Group interview, U.S. diplomat, 9 October 2018.Hide Footnote The U.S. Senate in July 2018 tabled the “Nicaragua Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act”, which was approved by Congress on 11 December and would give President Donald Trump the power to impose financial sanctions on Nicaraguan officials accused of human rights abuses and corruption. The bill was a new version of the so-called “Nica Act”, which was originally conceived as a move to dissuade Ortega from seizing more power and undermining democracy.[fn]“Nica-US relations in the era of Trump”, Revista Envío, No. 425, February 2017 issue.Hide Footnote Using the existing Global Magnitsky Act, a first round of sanctions on 5 July targeted three officials from Ortega’s inner circle.[fn]On 5 July, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Francisco Díaz, a deputy chief of the national police force; Fidel Antonio Moreno Briones, the secretary of Managua mayor’s office; and Francisco López, the FSLN treasurer and vice president of Albanisa. “Treasury Sanctions Three Nicaraguan Individuals for Serious Human Rights Abuse and Corrupt Acts”, U.S. Department of the Treasury press release, 5 July 2018.Hide Footnote President Trump proceeded to sign a new Executive Order on 27 November that the U.S. Treasury used to sanction Vice President Murillo and one of her aides, accusing her of corruption and human rights abuses.[fn]Sanctions against Murillo and her security adviser Néstor Moncada Lau freeze all of their properties under U.S. jurisdiction and bans U.S. companies and individuals from carrying out transactions with them. “U.S. sanctions Nicaraguan officials, including Ortega's wife”, Reuters, 27 November 2018.Hide Footnote

Sanctions against Murillo and her security adviser Néstor Moncada Lau freeze all of their properties under U.S. jurisdiction and bans U.S. companies and individuals from carrying out transactions with them. “U.S. sanctions Nicaraguan officials, including Ortega's wife”, Reuters, 27 November 2018.

Hide Footnote

Whether these sanctions will affect the Nicaraguan government’s choices is questionable, especially as they make no concrete demands of the government nor are there clear conditions for lifting them. They also fuel the FSLN’s anti-imperialist rhetoric and its insistence that the U.S. is “a plotter” behind the uprising, a claim rooted in a long history of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua. U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s recent bracketing of Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela together in a so-called “troika of tyranny” that would face firmer U.S. sanctions and diplomatic pressure until their governments fall has reinforced these perceptions.[fn]Bolton used this expression in a 2 November speech. “Troika of Tyranny: Trump White House announces tough new policies against Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua”, The Independent, 2 November 2018.Hide Footnote As it is, the squeeze the Nicaraguan government is putting on businesses suggests that Ortega is willing to risk reduced economic growth so long as he can cow opponents and avoid concessions that would weaken his rule. The FSLN might potentially even benefit from a sudden decline in living standards as it would increase Nicaraguans’ dependency on state handouts and allow it to blame “imperialist” coup-mongers for the country’s plight.

Sanctions could play a part in future international pressure on his government.

The government may also be able to ease pressure from sanctions by reinforcing ties with Russia and China. The latter has increased its commercial links with Nicaragua in recent years and become the second largest importer of the nation’s exports after the U.S. despite the postponement of plans to build an inter-oceanic canal.[fn]“Claves que hicieron sucumbir al gran canal de Nicaragua”, Estrategia y Negocios, 18 June 2018.Hide Footnote China’s interest in Nicaragua might be related in part to its efforts to convince Ortega to withdraw its recognition of Taiwan – as El Salvador did in August 2018 and Panama in 2017, although Managua has yet to follow their lead.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former Nicaraguan diplomat, Managua, 4 September 2018. “Estadísticas por Mercados de Destino Enero a Septiembre 2017-2018”, Centro de Trámites de las Exportaciones, 2018. “¿Por qué en plena crisis Taiwán le tiende la mano a Daniel Ortega?”, La Prensa, 10 October 2018. “El Salvador Recognizes China in Blow to Taiwan”, The New York Times, 21 August 2018.Hide Footnote Nicaragua has also bought military equipment from Russia in recent years, including 5o T-72 tanks and an unspecified number of Yak-130 jet combat trainers. The Russians have constructed a sizeable embassy complex in Managua as well as a centre for cooperation in counter-narcotics operations, although diplomatic sources speculate that the installations are being used as a listening station.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Managua, 4-6 September 2018. “Tanques, aviones y un ‘centro de espionaje’: la Nicaragua rusa que inquieta a EEUU”, Confidencial, 10 July 2017. “The Soviet Union fought the Cold War in Nicaragua. Now Putin’s Russia is back”, The Washington Post, 8 April 2017.Hide Footnote

Far from pushing Ortega towards accommodation with the opposition, punitive sanctions have served so far to inflame his anti-imperialist rhetoric. Sanctions could play a part in future international pressure on his government, above all to dissuade the government from the use of lethal violence against protesters and opponents, but only so long as these measures aim to secure concrete concessions, enjoy broad backing from Latin American countries, and include clear conditions as to how they can be lifted.

C. Electoral Reform

The violent crackdown against protests and restoration of government control makes it hard to envisage Ortega agreeing to early elections, a core demand of the protest movement that OAS secretary general Luis Almagro also backed in July.[fn]See address by Luis Almagro, “La solución está en medir posiciones en las urnas, no con armas ni con represión”, Revista Envío, August 2018.Hide Footnote Even were it to be met, this demand could prove counterproductive to the opposition since an early poll handled by institutions run by FSLN loyalists would probably benefit the ruling party. The opposition would be better served by focusing instead on securing reforms that would guarantee that the next presidential poll, currently due in 2021, fairly reflects the electorate’s choices. Electoral reform efforts are not new in Nicaragua, and recently even enjoyed Ortega’s lukewarm backing. In October 2016 the OAS won the Ortega’s approval to strengthen the country’s electoral institutions, though the initiative faded away by mid-2017, according to Managua-based diplomats, mostly because the government failed to honour its initial pledges.[fn]In the context of the 2016 elections, OAS secretary general Luis Almagro sent a letter to Ortega on 14 October 2016 expressing concerns about the electoral process and offering to start a dialogue about strengthening Nicaragua’s democratic institutions. On 28 February 2017, the OAS signed a memorandum with the government that included an electoral observation mission for the November 2017 municipal elections and technical support on electoral legislation. During the National Dialogue, the OAS tried to revive this effort by proposing a timeline of reforms in June 2018, which was never finalised due to the collapse of the talks. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Managua, 6 September 2018. “Cronograma proyecto Fortalecimiento de las Instituciones Democráticas en Nicaragua”, OAS communiqué, 1 June 2018. For a background of the OAS recent reform efforts see: “Statement of the General Secretariat on the Electoral Process in Nicaragua”, OAS communiqué, 16 October 2016; “Memorándum de entendimiento entre la Secretaría General de la OEA y el Gobierno de la República de Nicaragua”, 28 February 2018; and “Ortega le saca tres años a la OEA”, La Prensa, 21 January 2018.Hide Footnote

The combination of previous OAS reform efforts in Nicaragua and recommendations by both OAS and EU electoral observation missions make up a reform package that could help ensure the next elections in Nicaragua are reasonably credible in the eyes of all contenders. New political party legislation should reinforce parties’ rights in the face of FSLN-dominated institutions by reforming the Supreme Electoral Council and establishing stricter selection protocols of its magistrates to ensure its independence, simplifying the registration and participation of new parties, and creating new rules to oversee political funding. Other priorities should be guaranteeing that National Assembly seats for each constituency are fairly apportioned and modernising the voter registry.[fn]A more detailed set of political-electoral recommendations can be found at: “OAS Electoral support mission in Nicaragua municipal elections: Final report”, 5 November 2017, and “Nicaragua, Final Report: EU Electoral Observation Mission, General Elections and the Parlacen 2011”.Hide Footnote

Though Ortega seemingly has few incentives to talk, a specific electoral reform agenda would not constitute an imminent threat to his grip on power. In practice, it would mean committing to carry out reforms his government had already agreed to during the OAS-led efforts in 2016-2017. This presents an opportunity to modernise the country’s electoral institutions with international support, potentially even before regional elections are held in March 2019. The FSLN is still almost certainly the most popular political party in Nicaragua, so a stronger Supreme Electoral Council need not scupper the Sandinistas’ chance of winning the next general election and could validate any such victory in the eyes of both Nicaraguans and foreign powers. Highly conscious of the damaging effects of the crackdown on Nicaragua’s international reputation, Ortega gave an unprecedented number of media interviews since July 2018 in which he sought to rebut protesters’ version of events.[fn]“Ortega niega la represión y culpa a EEUU”, op. cit.Hide Footnote By agreeing to these reforms, Ortega could also curb his growing isolation in Latin America, which was strikingly illustrated by the OAS vote in July.

Although the government considers its repression of protests a legitimate response to a failed coup attempt, evidence suggests that Sandinista security forces commit-ted serious human rights violations.

Those reforms would neither address the original trigger of the crisis, namely the proposed changes to the country’s social security institute – for which it is essential that the government reconstruct working relations with the private sector – nor heal the scars left by the violence unleashed against protests. But they would at least address anger at the closure of channels for genuine democratic participation. Ideally they would build trust and form the basis for renewed dialogue between government and opposition. However, if political hostilities impede the resumption of talks and reforms still progress, then international bodies supporting changes to the electoral system, above all the EU and OAS, should at the very least establish channels and platforms for the opposition and civil society to express their views and provide input into the process.

Whether such reforms will have any lasting effect depends on the strategic choices of the Civic Alliance and the broader Blue and White Unity. Should they choose to become a civil movement, their aim would be to transform currently discredited opposition political parties into vehicles for their political objectives. Certain cases in the region are worth emulating in this regard, such as the Assembly of the Civil Society in Guatemala during the country’s peace talks in the 1990s, which operated with support and advice from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.[fn]The Guatemalan Civil Society Assembly was created in 1994 to produce non-binding recommendations on specific issues of negotiations to the end of the armed conflict in 1996. For its role, see: “The Civil Society Assembly: Shaping agreement”, Conciliation Resources, 2002.Hide Footnote If the protest groups decide to become a political party or coalition, they will have to establish a clear leadership structure and achieve a greater degree of unity, campaign muscle and a coherent strategy ahead of the next elections.

D. Justice and Human Rights

Although the government considers its repression of protests a legitimate response to a failed coup attempt, evidence suggests that Sandinista security forces committed serious human rights violations. Even in the absence of direct talks between government and opposition, foreign powers and international bodies, above all Latin American nations, the U.S., EU and the Vatican, should continue to urge Ortega to respect a basic threshold of human rights standards in future policing of protests and attempted prosecution of protesters.

Any future efforts to monitor and contain demonstrations should take into account the recommendations of international human rights bodies related to the use of force during marches.[fn]See recommendations “Human Rights Violations in the Context of Protests”, op. cit., p. 39.Hide Footnote Aside from the barricades, most protests have been non-violent demonstrations involving Nicaraguan citizens calling for democratic reform. As long as marches remain peaceful, citizens should be allowed to demonstrate without facing abuse and violence. They should also be free to demand political changes, decide on their leadership and promote the exchange of ideas without risk of prosecution or physical harm.

A key demand of the opposition prior to entering any talks is sure to be the release of political prisoners.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 3 October 2018.Hide Footnote This is not a concession the FSLN would stomach easily. However, at a minimum releasing an exhaustive list with names and location of imprisoned protesters which could be verified by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, working alongside local human rights bodies, could prove less troublesome for the government and would not compromise its containment policy toward the uprising. More importantly, it would help resolve the needless pain of families searching for their detained relatives, and establish clarity as to how many prisoners remain to be released in the build-up to any future dialogue. The government should, meanwhile, allow public scrutiny of trials and provide guarantees of due process for detained protesters.

More ambitious judicial and human rights reforms should wait for the next National Assembly, also due to be elected in 2021. Future initiatives should draw from those proposed in the National Dialogue, and should be among the main issues for discussion in negotiations before those polls: these include selecting independent heads of the country’s top justice institutions, reforming the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office to ensure it offers effective oversight, and deciding on mechanisms of transitional justice to deal with crimes committed by both the government and opposition supporters during the uprising.

V. Conclusion

Through violence and a politicised judiciary, the Nicaraguan government has so far contained the protest movement that unexpectedly arose in April. But fast declining support for President Ortega, festering public resentment and a steep economic decline could set off further unrest. At the same time, Nicaragua’s response to the crisis has isolated it in the region and beyond.

The president’s critics insist that his government has lost legitimacy and allies at home and abroad, which is true enough. Their claims that its demise is inevitable and even imminent are, however, far-fetched. The government is now in firm control. Its apparent conviction that it is confronting an international conspiracy and its clear superiority in terms of coercive power militate against concessions to a protest movement it denigrates as a bunch of criminals and terrorists. Dialogue between the two sides is essential to averting future upheaval, but the protesters’ and opposition’s fragmentation and the government’s stubbornness make conditions for negotiations difficult at this stage.

Foreign government and international bodies, above all the Latin American nations in the OAS and the Central American Integration System, as well as the U.S., EU and the Vatican, should instead look to build flexible, discreet channels of communications with the government to create conditions for the resumption of talks and help establish a format for dialogue. They should encourage the government to cooperate with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, by sharing a list of detained protesters and guaranteeing them due process. Electoral reforms to which the government has already agreed would enable a fairer vote in the next presidential election in 2021, for which the opposition and protesters should start to prepare in earnest. None of these measures would endanger the government’s hold on power, but would signal its willingness to compromise and restrain the worst abuses of state and judicial authorities; flexibility on these issues should help pave the way to the full resumption of talks, which should also focus on justice reform and holding to account those responsible for violence during the crisis.

Sandinista political history is marked by concessions to its erstwhile enemies as a means to ensure its survival.

The Nicaraguan government may not be the most transparent or accessible in the region, yet there is little doubt that it is alarmed over the scale of this year’s revolt and the effects on its international image. Its anti-imperialist rhetoric may be reminiscent of speeches by firebrand Bolivarian leaders such as Venezuela’s President Maduro, but Ortega opened the door to talks with the U.S. at the height of the protest movement.[fn]Nicaragua’s differences with Venezuela are significant. The economy of the Central American country is 30 times smaller than Venezuela. Nicaragua does not count on commodities to live off nor can hold on to foreign exchange reserves, which have diminished by almost 20 per cent from the beginning of the crisis. The Nicaraguan army, although loyal to the government, has different interests and is not allegedly involved in illegal economic activities. For more on Crisis Group on Venezuela, see: Latin America Briefing N°36, 19 July 2017, Power without the People: Averting Venezuela’s Breakdown, and Latin America Bripefing N°37, 23 November 2017, Venezuela: Hunger by Default.Hide Footnote Sandinista political history is marked by concessions to its erstwhile enemies as a means to ensure its survival. In the interests of his country’s well-being and his own political future, Ortega should now do the same with compatriots who vehemently oppose his rule.

Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 19 December 2018

Appendix A: Map of the Central America Region


Appendix B: Map of Nicaragua


Appendix C: Nicaragua’s Economy

GDP growth 1990-2018 (%) IMF and World Bank
GDP growth 1990-2017, USD IMF and World Bank
Economic performance since Ortega’s return (2007-2017) IMF and World Bank

Appendix D: Homicide Rates in Central American Countries

Sources: National Police of Nicaragua, Annual statistics, 2007-2017 (per year); Ministry of Justice and Public Security of El Salvador, Directorate for Information and Analysis, Total amount of homicides 2007-2017 (per year); Secretary of Security of the National Police of Honduras, Department of statistics – Directorate for planning, operational proceeedings and continuous improvement, December 2018; Tweet from Ministry of Interior of Guatemala, “Historic comparison of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants”, 31 August 2018; Vice Ministry of Peace of Costa Rica, Observatory of violence, Tables and charts.

Appendix E: Venezuelan Development Aid in Nicaragua

“Informe de Cooperación Externa”, Nicaraguan Central Bank, October 2018.
11 June 2019, Nicaragua, Managua: Yubrank Suazo (M.), a prominent figure in the student protests against the government, embraces a friend as he is awaited by friends and relatives in front of his house after his release from prison. Photo: Carlos Herrera/dpa Carlos Herrera / DPA / dpa Picture-Alliance

The Keys to Restarting Nicaragua’s Stalled Talks

President Daniel Ortega’s government has released almost all political prisoners held since Nicaragua’s April 2018 uprising. It should stay this course, honouring its other commitments to the opposition in national dialogue. International actors should promise consequences if the government drags its feet.

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Principal Findings

What’s new? A year after countering a civic uprising with lethal force, President Daniel Ortega’s government has reached agreement with Nicaragua’s opposition on two issues: releasing all political prisoners and strengthening citizens’ rights. Despite significant progress on these fronts, talks about electoral reforms and justice remain on hold.

Why does it matter? Nicaragua’s economy is collapsing and Ortega faces deepening international isolation. But he still can resolve the crisis through dialogue. The alternative would likely be renewed clashes between state and opposition supporters and expanded international sanctions.

What should be done? President Ortega and the opposition should fully implement their existing agreements and convene a third round of talks to tackle pending issues. The U.S., OAS and EU should welcome the advances, while making clear that that if the government fails to meet its promises they will impose further costs on it.

Executive Summary

A chance still exists to resolve Nicaragua’s simmering crisis peacefully. Talks between the government and opposition have been on-and-off, and marked throughout by a legacy of deep mutual suspicion following last year’s brutal crackdown on street protests. Even so, under mounting international pressure and facing a severe economic downturn, President Ortega invited the opposition to resume dialogue in February. The two sides reached agreement on two issues: the release of hundreds of political prisoners and a commitment by Managua to respect citizens’ basic rights. While major progress has been made, these still need to be fully implemented under international supervision for talks – currently on hold – to resume. The end result should be a broader settlement that meets both sides’ core interests: a more level playing field in early elections and justice for the victims of last year’s violence for the opposition movements, and a return to stability, lifting of existing sanctions and a lowering of tensions, both domestically and with international partners, for the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) government.

The Nicaraguan crisis erupted in April 2018, when unpopular social security reforms prompted mass demonstrations that police and para-police units met with lethal violence. However, fragile channels of communication between the two sides remained open and, unlike similar contacts between the government and opposition in Venezuela, at times relatively productive. In March, both sides agreed that those detained in connection to last year’s uprising be released, charges against them dropped and that the government would restore citizens’ rights, including those of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. However, they made no more progress before 3 April, the deadline they had set for this round of negotiations, and talks have remained in limbo since. On 20 May, the opposition said it would withdraw from further negotiations until the government releases all prisoners. Since then, the government has freed almost all remaining prisoners – a move that the opposition applauded – and passed an amnesty law to annul charges against them.

Fresh talks toward a comprehensive deal are critical to avoiding another escalation and should happen soon. The opposition and international actors should welcome the government’s prisoner releases thus far, while seeking clarification on the status of 200 other reported prisoners and the legal charges most of those released still face. Opposition factions should bridge internal divides and develop a more coordinated strategy and realistic demands, recognising that the next round of talks may be prolonged, President Ortega will likely not resign and elections, even if held early, will not take place within months. The Organization of American States (OAS), EU and U.S. should maintain the threat of further sanctions if the government impedes progress. Sanctions, if they become necessary, should be calibrated: multilateral not unilateral, targeted at key officials and businesses, and paired with benchmarks for how they could be lifted. To monitor compliance with accords, regional and multilateral bodies, including human rights delegations, should be allowed back into Nicaragua.

Assuming the parties resume talks, they should aim for agreements on two core issues:

  • Credible and possibly early elections, albeit not prior to late 2020 in order to allow sufficient time for essential electoral reforms. These should draw on past agreements between the government and OAS, and include reform of the Supreme Electoral Court.
  • The establishment of a Truth Commission composed of both opposition and government-appointed representatives, potentially with international expert participation. Its mandate should go beyond investigating and ensuring accountability for last year’s violence by assessing the root causes of Nicaragua’s recurring cycles of armed conflict.

President Ortega agreed to resume talks almost certainly in order to preserve his rule at a moment of acute economic and political weakness; much of his negotiating strategy has been to stretch talks as much as possible and exhaust the opposition. This approach is risky, since opposition and foreign powers could lose patience, leading to a heightening of the regional and international pressure Ortega is determined to lessen. In releasing most political prisoners, Ortega himself appears to have opted for the wiser course. He should now build on this commendable gesture, fully implement existing agreements and seek a lasting settlement that could help his government escape international condemnation and fresh sanctions, prevent worsening economic distress and stave off future unrest.

Bogotá/Brussels, 13 June 2019

The Keys to Restarting Nicaragua's Stalled Talks

I. Introduction

Just over a year ago, Nicaragua, the second poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean, was engulfed by a sudden, massive yet largely unpredicted uprising against President Daniel Ortega’s government. Formerly head of the revolutionary government that took power in 1979 after the left-wing guerrilla Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, Ortega waged a ten-year long civil war against a U.S.-sponsored insurgency before losing elections in 1990 and handing over power. Even out of office, however, he maintained a tight grip on national institutions. On returning to power in 2007, he steered the country toward rapid economic growth and some of Central America’s lowest rates of criminal violence, albeit at the cost of eroding democratic checks and balances. Public discontent erupted in April 2018, when social security reforms prompted mass protests.[fn]For more on Ortega’s system of rule and last year’s events, see Crisis Group Latin America Report N°72, A Road to Dialogue After Nicaragua’s Crushed Uprising, 19 December 2018.Hide Footnote Thousands took to the streets to demand change, but were met with violence by police and para-police units, resulting in hundreds of dead, chiefly on the protesters’ side.[fn]As of 15 February, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights reported 325 deaths in relation to last year’s uprising. The Nicaraguan Truth, Justice, and Peace Commission, which is close to the government, has reported 253 deaths in relation to last year’s protests. The Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights counted 568, whereas the government acknowledges only 199 dead. “Annual report 2018. Chapter IV B. Nicaragua”, Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, 21 March 2019. “III informe de la Comisión de la Verdad, Justicia y Paz a la Honorable Asamblea Nacional”. Comisión de la Verdad, Justicia y Paz, 5 February 2019. “ONG establece en 568 el número de muertos en crisis de Nicaragua”, El Diario, 4 April 2019.

The government and protest leaders have twice endeavoured to settle differences through talks. The first round started in May 2018 when, at the height of protests, the government called for a national dialogue. Created by Catholic church leaders as a means to represent the protesters and disgruntled business leaders at these talks, the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy gave a face to what was a scattered and largely spontaneous opposition movement.[fn]The Civic Alliance comprised members of four private sector organisations, the campesino (farmers) movement, groups representing Nicaragua’s regions, students, and civil society.Hide Footnote President Ortega’s main interest in these negotiations was to lift the tranques, makeshift barricades set up by protesters along major highways that had paralysed the country. But with talks faltering due to ongoing state violence and protesters’ refusal to lift the barricades, Ortega opted to clear the roads by force, scatter demonstrators and abandon talks in July 2018. Over the ensuing months, he displayed scant interest in reviving negotiations, having virtually cowed all social unrest. An unexpected second round of talks nevertheless kicked off in February this year, resulting in the signing of two agreements that committed the government to release hundreds of political prisoners before 18 June and respect citizens’ basic rights.[fn]For more on the reasons behind resuming of the national dialogue, see Crisis Group, “A Thaw or a Trap? Nicaragua’s Surprise Return to Dialogue”, 6 March 2019. “Asimetría y desequilibrio político en la negociación”, Confidencial, 25 March 2019.Hide Footnote

This report assesses progress the dialogue has made, explores its failings, and suggests concrete steps that national and international actors, particularly the OAS, EU and U.S., could take to move toward a third round of talks and resolve outstanding issues. It is based on dozens of interviews between January and June 2019 with diplomats, church and civic leaders, academics, security, human rights and transitional justice experts, victims’ organisations and opposition groups, including student organisations, private sector bodies and politicians in Nicaragua, and Nicaraguan exiles in Costa Rica. It was not possible to speak to any government official, despite several requests, so the report draws on official statements and pro-government media articles and conversations with the government-appointed Truth, Justice, and Peace Commission.[fn]The Commission was created by the FSLN-controlled National Assembly amid protests, on 29 April. The appointment of its five components was not preceded by prior consultations with civil society or victims’ representatives, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which handed some recommendations to the government in order to guarantee its legitimacy. The opposition accuses it of being lenient toward the government. “Graves violaciones a los derechos humanos en el marco de las protestas sociales en Nicaragua”, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 21 June 2018, p. 84.Hide Footnote

II. Returning to the Negotiating Table

Ortega had good reason to resume negotiations with the opposition. Although he maintains support from the principal state institutions and the security forces, above all from the police, his position has become more tenuous, and some former allies have started defecting.[fn]Attorney General Hernán Estrada, one government minister, and at least two judges from the Supreme Court of Justice have resigned so far, including Rafael Solís, who was best man at Ortega’s wedding to Rosario Murillo in 2005. While the first cited health reasons, the latter three signed a letter decrying the presidential couple for their management of the crisis. “Nicaragua closer to new civil war than ever before, judge warns”, The Guardian, 11 January 2019. Gloomy economic prospects, his declining domestic popularity and growing regional and international pressure on both his government and key ally, Venezuela seemingly persuaded the president and first lady as well as Vice-President Rosario Murillo that the best chance for political survival lay in returning to the negotiating table.[fn]According to the 2018 Latinobarómetro survey, the government’s approval rating dropped from 67 to 23 per cent in the space of a few months last year, while overall trust in security forces and other institutions halved. A recent national survey by Borge y Asociados suggests these low ratings have remained relatively stable since then, with 22 per cent of interviewees saying they would still vote for Ortega, though 41 per cent identify as Sandinistas. “Informe 2018”, Corporación Latinobarómetro, 9 November 2018. “El 87 por ciento de los nicaragüenses está a favor del diálogo”, El Nuevo Diario, 21 March 2019.

The economic prognosis arguably played a key role, given that growth in the country is highly dependent on its private sector, which has been a crucial component of the opposition since the eruption of last year’s protests. Indeed, there are few signs that Nicaragua can return to growth absent a negotiated settlement that carries business leaders’ confidence. Last year’s wave of political violence erased the hard-won trust of international financial markets and multinational corporations achieved under Ortega and his predecessors. Nicaragua saw its financial indicators and economic outlook downgraded by all main financial ratings institutions, while its economy contracted by around four points in 2018, according to various sources, including the same Nicaraguan Central Bank.[fn]“Banco Central de Nicaragua: Economía decreció 3.8% en 2018”, El Nuevo Diario, 31 March 2019. “Los cambios aplicados por las calificadoras de riesgo en la región en 2018”, Estrategia y Negocios, 19 February 2019. Foreign currency reserves dropped by a third and now stand below two billion dollars.[fn]“Reservas internacionales caen 33.1 por ciento en solo nueve meses en Nicaragua”, La Prensa, 8 April 2019.

The outlook for 2019 appears equally grim. The International Monetary Fund recently revised its economic forecast from a 1 to a 5 per cent fall in GDP.[fn]See the October 2018 and April 2019 World Economic Outlook reports by the International Monetary Fund at: https://bit.ly/2VEBZPG.Hide Footnote Others predict a far steeper drop.[fn]The Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES) estimates that GDP will fall by between 7 and 11 per cent this year, while economist Nestor Avendaño fears it might nosedive by 20 per cent. “Without a political agreement, Nicaragua’s economy goes into free fall”, Confidencial, 10 April 2019.Hide Footnote In fact, the absence of credit lines and the effects of a controversial February tax reform have increased production costs between 20 and 28 per cent and are likely to hit the exports sector, which accounts for around half of the country’s GDP.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Civic Alliance and private sector, Managua, 5 April 2019.Hide Footnote The $100 million and $200 million-dollar loans respectively offered by Taiwan and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration provide short-term relief. But averting an economic freefall will largely depend on resolving the crisis in a manner that meets some of the opposition, civil society’s and private sector’s aspirations.[fn]Prominent actors in the Civic Alliance are the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham), and the Agriculture and Livestock Council (UPANIC).Hide Footnote

The threat of further sanctions, particularly after U.S. measures against Venezuela, also influenced Ortega’s calculus. Tellingly, he announced the talks just two days before the Venezuelan opposition’s commitment, with many foreign countries’ backing, to bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela, which was widely – though erroneously – perceived at the time as a tipping point in that crisis.[fn]Many observers saw the planned entry of aid on 23 February as a potential turning point in the struggle between Maduro and National Assembly chair Juan Guaidó. The failure of that effort – for reasons described in Crisis Group Commentary, “Will pressure bring down Venezuela’s government?”, 9 April 2019 – arguably encouraged Ortega to harden his negotiating position.Hide Footnote The U.S. has already imposed three rounds of sanctions against Ortega’s inner circle, including his wife and eldest son, while measures freezing revenue from Venezuela’s state-run oil corporation PDVSA hit the company’s Nicaraguan joint venture, Albanisa, and its subsidiary bank BANCORP, which requested permission from the country’s banking regulator to cease operations on 24 April.[fn]Sanctions were imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act in July 2018 on Francisco Díaz, chief of the national police force; Fidel Antonio Moreno Briones, secretary of the Managua mayor’s office; and Francisco López, treasurer of the country’s ruling party. President Trump signed an Executive Order in November sanctioning Vice President Rosario Murillo and National Security Adviser Nestor Moncada Lau. In an attempt to circumvent U.S. sanctions on PDVSA’s related businesses imposed in late January, the Nicaraguan government nationalised Bancorp on 7 March, but the bank, together with President Ortega’s son Laureano Ortega, was later directly targeted by U.S. Department of Treasury sanctions on 17 April. “Nicaragua’s Bancorp asks to cease operations after U.S. sanctions”, Reuters, 24 April 2019.Hide Footnote The EU has also threatened sanctions, while in January the OAS began discussing, at its secretary seneral’s request, the Inter-American Democratic Charter’s application to Nicaragua, which could mean the country’s expulsion.[fn]Article 20 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter foresees that “in the event of an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state, any member state or the Secretary General may request the immediate convocation of the Permanent Council to undertake a collective assessment of the situation and to take such decisions as it deems appropriate”. Such decisions may include mandating the institution to use its good offices to resolve the crisis, but if that proves unsuccessful or the situation is urgent, the Permanent Council can convene the General Assembly, which is the only body that can vote to expel the country. “Inter-American Democratic Charter”, Organization of the American States, 11 September 2001. This in turn would further isolate the country and possibly endanger its access to international credit.

But if by embracing dialogue Ortega intended to ease foreign pressure, he met with only mixed success. Although he has averted EU sanctions for now, senior U.S. officials maintained their hard line, vowing that his government would fall.[fn]U.S. Security Adviser John Bolton tweeted on 21 February: “As President Trump said Monday, Ortega’s days are numbered and the Nicaraguan people will soon be free”. He also falsely claimed in a tweet that the communique released by the G7 on 9 April called for restoration of democracy in Nicaragua, whereas it only made reference to Venezuela. See tweets here: https://bit.ly/2Vabgyg; https://bit.ly/2URYLaB.Hide Footnote Then, as talks stalled, the U.S. convened the OAS Permanent Council on 5 April to assess the country’s political predicament – a step toward full application of the Democratic Charter, which could culminate at the OAS General Assembly due to gather in Medellín on 26 June – and imposed further sanctions. The Permanent Council gathered again on 21 May, passing a resolution calling on the government to release political prisoners, undertake electoral reforms and allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to return to the country. It also committed to debate Nicaragua’s predicament at the General Assembly.[fn]“OAS Permanent Council Adopted Resolution on the Situation in Nicaragua”, Organization of American States, 21 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Ortega first reacted sorely to the latest round of U.S. sanctions, branding as “human miseries” those who celebrate their imposition in a public speech on 30 April, and conditioning progress in negotiations on the opposition joining a call to lift them. But his government responded more mildly to the OAS resolution in May, publishing a document reiterating its commitment to abide by the signed agreements and address pending issues.[fn]“Gobierno de Nicaragua da a conocer el Programa y Complemento de Trabajo para consolidar Estabilidad y Paz”, El 19 Digital, 23 May 2019.Hide Footnote Ortega’s contrasting reactions suggest he is keen to avoid expulsion from the OAS or further U.S. measures, particularly those under the so-called Nica Act, even as he vents outrage against what he portrays as foreign intimidation.[fn]The Nicaragua Human Rights and Anticorruption Act of 2018 – or Nica Act – signed into law by President Trump in December 2018, targets Nicaraguan officials associated with human rights violations and constrains the Nicaraguan government’s ability to obtain multilateral development loans. It also instructs Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to report to Congress before June on the human rights situation in Nicaragua and possibly suggest new sanctions. “Nicaragua: Ortega tries to stop sanctions”, Havana Times, 3 May 2019.Hide Footnote

III. Dialogue Amid Distrust

Renewed efforts at dialogue appear to be popular with many Nicaraguans exhausted by last year’s turmoil; recent polls suggest close to 90 per cent favour a negotiated solution.[fn]“El 87 por ciento de los nicaragüenses está a favor del diálogo”, El Nuevo Diario, 21 March 2019. But thus far talks have been hampered by enormous mutual distrust and suspicion, as well as estrangement between negotiators and activists in both camps, scepticism as to mediators’ neutrality and opposition disunity.

The two sides’ narratives about the crisis diverge starkly. The government describes last year’s events as an attempted coup by U.S.-funded terrorist groups.[fn]The government repeatedly has stated it survived an attempted coup d’état, in which terrorism was disguised as peaceful protest. “Nicaraguan Foreign Minister addresses UN General Assembly for Ortega”, Havana Times, 1 October 2018. “Presidente Daniel Ortega llama a tomar el camino de la paz”, El 19 Digital, 13 July 2018. For more on the crisis, see Crisis Group Latin America Report N°72, A Road to Dialogue After Nicaragua’s Crushed Uprising, 19 December 2018. According to members of the Truth, Justice, and Peace Commission, the uprising was an attempt to eradicate Sandinismo, the movement that first rose to power in 1979 by toppling the dictator Somoza. They argue that the media fabricated stories of state repression whereas Sandinistas were targeted by violent, armed protesters, and claim the first person to die was a police officer. They cite this as the reason why the government is allegedly struggling to convince its base to back dialogue.[fn]These officials claim that Sandinistas or even public employees sometimes had to disguise themselves as protesters in order not to be caught in the tranques, where they would be attacked, kidnapped or even tortured. Crisis Group interview, members of the Truth, Justice and Peace Commission, Managua, 2 April 2019. For more on the Commission’s version of the facts see its different reports: https://bit.ly/2Wn8Ytb. For its part, the opposition denounces the government’s authoritarian instincts and human rights violations, chiefly stemming from the excessive use of force by police and para-police units – allegations largely supported by international human rights organisations.[fn]International human rights organisations’ reports, such as those of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Amnesty International, all refer to an excessively violent crackdown by security forces on mostly peaceful protests. Crisis Group interviews, members of the Civic Alliance and the Blue and White National Unity, Managua, January and April 2019. “Nicaragua: report by independent experts affirms that government of President Ortega has committed crimes against humanity”, Amnesty International, 21 December 2018.Hide Footnote

Many opposition activists and leaders were circumspect about the way in which talks resumed and the composition of the negotiating teams. They feared a second round of dialogue could end up as little more than a government ploy to gain time, avoid outside pressure, exploit opposition weaknesses and exacerbate its internal divisions. Many Civic Alliance leaders remained in either detention or exile, particularly from its student, feminist and rural branches, which spearheaded the uprising.[fn]According to the Committee for Liberation of Political Prisoners, an organisation mainly composed of mothers of detained protesters, at least 731 people were detained for participating in the uprising. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) recently reported that about 62,000 Nicaraguans have been forced from their homes, of whom 55,500 have sought shelter in Costa Rica. Reliable estimates of those forced into exile are difficult to obtain, as many entered neighbouring Costa Rica illegally and did not register with national migration authorities. Crisis Group interview, representative of the International Organization for Migration, San José, 5 February 2019. “Nicaragua crisis: One year in, more than 60,000 have fled, seeking refuge”, UN News, 16 April 2019. “Refugiados políticos nicaragüenses en Costa Rica: problemas y propuestas de solución”, Panóptico, 2019.Hide Footnote As a result, and due partly to its previously close ties to Ortega, the private sector has assumed a leading role, opening a channel of communication with the government and securing half the seats in the Civic Alliance’s negotiating team.[fn]Ortega maintained a “dialogue and consensus” relationship with the private sector in recent years, interrupted by last year’s turmoil. His announcement of a return to dialogue was preceded by a meeting between him and some prominent businessmen – albeit not members of the Civic Alliance – on 16 February, with the participation of the papal nuncio Waldemar Sommertag and Cardinal Brenes. This came shortly after a visit by a delegation from the Organization of American States (OAS), with the purpose of holding exploratory talks. Crisis Group interview, academic, Managua, 5 April 2019.Hide Footnote Some opposition figures worry that ties between the government and business figures, and their shared interest in halting Nicaragua’s economic decline, could yield an elitist settlement that ignores their aspirations, akin to the pact reached between then-opposition leader Ortega and former president Arnoldo Alemán in 2000.[fn]The “Ortega-Alemán” pact parcelled out representation in the Supreme Court, electoral authorities, and Attorney General’s office between the FSLN and Alemán’s party, the Constitutionalist Liberal Party. It also included a custom-made electoral reform that benefitted the FSLN by allowing a candidate to win the presidential elections if it came out ahead with 35 per cent or more of the vote in the first round and a 5 per cent lead over the second-placed candidate. This figure matched the party’s historic voting base. “Política nacional sellada por el pacto”, La Prensa, 30 December 2001.Hide Footnote

However, the Alliance negotiating team has so far remained steadfast on core opposition demands, including the release of political prisoners, early elections and the need for international institutions to oversee implementation of the agreements. The business community itself has joined the consensus position. An Alliance representative said: “the private sector has calculated the costs and benefits of each choice, including a possible realignment with the government, and come to the conclusion that a satisfactory political settlement and an orderly transition are the only viable options to solve the situation”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, member of the Civic Alliance, Managua, 5 April 2019, and another member of the Civic Alliance, Managua, 31 January 2019.Hide Footnote

Internal divisions within the opposition have impeded progress in the talks and limited public support for its results.

International actors that played a prominent role in the resumption of dialogue now act as official companions to it. These include papal nuncio Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag and OAS Special Representative Luis Ángel Rosadilla, who have helped overcome both sides’ intransigence wherever possible and interceded at moments of high tension. The nuncio, for example, took part in the first dialogue efforts last year and, at the height of hostilities, intervened alongside Nicaraguan bishops to secure the release of detainees and prevent a potential massacre when student protesters were cornered in a Managua church.[fn]“Nicaragua students freed from church after violent night; one killed”, Reuters, 14 July 2018.Hide Footnote Rosadilla, a former Uruguayan guerrilla, was a member of the OAS delegation that approached the government in February and also worked alongside the government on an electoral reform plan in 2017.[fn]Conversations between the OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and the government began in October 2016, when Almagro sent a report to the latter expressing concern over irregularities in the elections Ortega won in November. The parties eventually signed a Memorandum of Understanding on 28 February 2o17, which set out two areas of cooperation: a political-electoral one, foreseeing the deployment of an OAS electoral mission to observe local elections in November 2017, and technical support to improve the electoral register; and an institutional one, including strengthening constitutional norms aimed at tackling defections from political parties. “Nicaragua y Secretaría General OEA suscriben acuerdos”, El 19 Digital, 28 February 2017.Hide Footnote His presence points both to the importance of electoral reform in any eventual agreement and to the government’s desire to prevent any further deterioration in relations with the OAS.

That said, harder line opposition figures regard the role of both men warily. They accuse the nuncio of straying too close to the government and question his impartiality. According to several media outlets, during a 11 March visit to La Esperanza prison, the nuncio reprimanded political prisoners who were on a hunger strike to protest against talks being held before their release.[fn]“Crónica de una interrogante aNunciada”, Confidencial, 17 March 2019.Hide Footnote On 10 April, after some bishops expressed their disagreement with the new negotiations, the Pope relocated Monsignor Silvio Báez, a longstanding government critic, to Rome. The summons seems to highlight the Vatican’s readiness to accommodate some of Ortega’s demands if this serves to make him readier to negotiate. The nuncio has repeatedly rejected the accusations against him, defended his impartiality and denied involvement in the Pope’s decision.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, academic and papal nuncio, Managua, 5-6 April 2019.Hide Footnote Opposition leaders have also criticised Rosadilla for not speaking out against the government’s failure to comply with the agreements.[fn]“Caricatura del día – La reacción de los testigos”, Confidencial, 7 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Internal divisions within the opposition have impeded progress in the talks and limited public support for its results. The Civic Alliance’s relations with the broad-based opposition front, the Blue and White National Unity, are marred by mistrust.[fn]The Blue and White National Unity is the wider opposition platform created in October to complement the Civic Alliance’s narrower grouping. It now comprises 72 organisations, representing five main sectors: youth and students; civil society; political parties; regional organisations; and victims’ organisations.Hide Footnote This hinders coordination and has led to a gap between the rhythm and intensity of street protests on the one hand and progress in the talks on the other. The National Unity itself is also internally divided. The presence within its ranks of older political forces’ leaders has prompted concerns among the grassroots sectors, such as the so-called Articulation of Social Movements, that it will be used as an electoral vehicle, exploiting the energy of the civic movement to serve personal or party ambitions.[fn]For some of its members, the National Unity should be a political platform running in future elections. For others, it should maintain its civic vocation, serving as a counterweight to the Civic Alliance and demanding greater concessions from the government, while testing the government’s adherence to agreements reached at the negotiating table, particularly those regarding respect for the right of peaceful assembly, through domestic “street pressure”. Crisis Group interview, member of the Blue and White National Unity’s political council, Managua, 2 April 2019.Hide Footnote Organisations representing victims of last year’s repression feel particularly under-represented.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of a victims’ organisation, Managua, 1 April 2019.Hide Footnote Moreover, Unity members across the country complain they do not know who coordinates actions at the national level, and often receive no answers from Managua.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Blue and White National Unity, León, 3 April 2019.Hide Footnote

There also is a lack of a clear line of communication between the Civic Alliance and the National Unity. Civic Alliance leaders worry about what they consider their counterparts’ haphazard decision-making process and argue that harder line views (which favour toppling the government through street protests and establishing a transitional administration) are over-represented. This, they say, undermines prospects of a more realistic, negotiated political settlement. For their part, National Unity members complain about the Alliance’s purported opacity and fear it has already planned to pick its own candidate for the next presidential vote.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, member of the Blue and White National Unity’s political council, Managua, 2 April 2019, and member of the Civic Alliance, Managua, 5 April 2019.Hide Footnote

IV. Progress and Pending Issues

Harshly criticised, notably by some opposition members, the second dialogue nonetheless was described by the papal nuncio as “a flower born where for ten months there had been desert”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, papal nuncio, Managua, 6 April 2019.Hide Footnote The authorities’ efforts to stifle dissent, which intensified in the second half of 2018, were replaced by the semblance of a political thaw as the two sides met face-to-face in a business school campus in Managua. The government has progressively released or moved almost 500 detainees to house arrest, enabling their return home after months in dire jail conditions.[fn]Numerous testimonies tell of police threats and violence, inhumane cell conditions, and the medical and psychological consequences of prisoners’ suffering. Crisis Group interviews, adviser to the Committee for Liberation of Political Prisoners, Managua, 30 January 2019; member of a youth-led political movement, Managua, 5 April 2019. “Reprograman juicio contra Lucía Pineda, Miguel Mora y Edwin Carcache”, El Nuevo Diario, 29 April 2019.Hide Footnote

Civic mobilisation also revived somewhat, as the police’s presence thinned slightly in Managua after months in which the capital’s streets had been filled permanently with anti-riot officers warning citizens against demonstrating. The National Unity resumed regular if minor protests, despite the police ban on demonstrations without prior permission still being in force.[fn]In September 2018, the Nicaraguan Police issued a communiqué stating that any demonstration would require its permission, and has repeatedly denied requests since then.Hide Footnote These marches provoked police responses that were tough but not as harsh as those of last year; so far this year no protester has been killed in demonstrations and detentions typically have been brief. Overall, the government has not responded as violently as last year to dissent, either to limit international condemnation or because the latest protests have been modest.

These advances derive from the progress made in the negotiations. The two sides agreed on the format of talks and a six-point agenda for negotiations, and signed two agreements on 27 and 29 March respectively. The former committed the government to release people detained in relation to the 2018 uprising; the latter to respecting citizen’s rights, including reforming existing laws where necessary. Since then, the government has made major strides in releasing prisoners, while falling short in meeting commitments made in the second agreement; still, these accords represent a new baseline of obligations that international actors can use to assess Managua’s performance and, if they are fulfilled, a basis for moving onto a third round of talks.[fn]For more on the roadmap, visit the Civic Alliance’s website at: https://bit.ly/2P6rl2y. For more on the agenda “Séptimo comunicado del encuentro por el entendimiento y la paz en Nicaragua”, La Voz del Sandinismo, 20 March 2019.Hide Footnote

The first agreement set a 90-day term for the release of all above-mentioned prisoners and an end to legal proceedings against them. The International Committee of the Red Cross is to oversee the process, from establishing a list of prisoners (based on names provided by the government and the opposition) to supervising their release.[fn]“Acuerdo de liberación de personas privadas de libertad”, Alianza Cívica para la Justicia y la Democracia, 30 March 2019.Hide Footnote The first lists were presented by the Red Cross on 8 April, but revealed a significant gap between government and opposition estimates: only 232 people appeared on both, far from the over 700 the opposition claimed were languishing in jail.[fn]The Civic Alliance recently stated that its and the government’s lists of detainees differ by 89 people, while the Committee for Liberation of Political Prisoners has requested the government clarify the location or legal status of another 102 prisoners. Crisis Group interview, adviser to the Committee for Liberation of Political Prisoners, Managua, April-May 2019. “Cruz Roja confirma 230 presos listos para ser liberados”, Confidencial, 9 April 2019. “Liberación para todos los presos políticos”, Alianza Cívica para la Justicia y la Democracia, 29 May 2019.Hide Footnote To date the government has nearly fulfilled its obligations: almost 500 prisoners have been released so far, although only half were actually removed from jail under the Red Cross’ oversight, as foreseen in the agreement, which has created confusion as to the total numbers of those released and the process’s integrity. Furthermore, almost 400 of the released prisoners are still under house arrest. In general, the government has used releases to show goodwill at moments when domestic and foreign critics questioned its willingness to honour promises or proceed with talks.[fn]The government released 100 political prisoners to mark the beginning of the dialogue on 27 February; 50 on 15 March, while the UN Human Rights Council was discussing a resolution on the country; another 50 on 5 April, a few hours before the OAS Permanent Council session on Nicaragua; 36 on 17 April, just before the anniversary of the protests, hidden in a group of another 600 common criminals; another 100 on 20 May, this time under the oversight of the International Committee of the Red Cross, after the Civic Alliance announced its withdrawal from negotiations and the day before the OAS discussed Nicaragua again; 50 on 30 May, Nicaragua’s Mother’s Day, which in 2018 marked one of the violent peaks in the crisis; and 50 and 56 on 10 and 11 June respectively, coinciding with U.S. Congress hearings on the situation in the country. “Crisis sociopolítica de Nicaragua será abordada nuevamente ante el Congreso de los Estados Unidos”, La Prensa, 4 June 2019.Hide Footnote

Ortega has nonetheless come close to honouring his word. On 8 June, the government passed an Amnesty Law to annul charges against all those involved in last year’s events, whether on the government or opposition side. The Civic Alliance objected, arguing that the law would also provide immunity to prosecution for police and para-police units that committed crimes in 2018.[fn]“Liberación definitiva e incondicional de todos los presos políticos”, Alianza Cívica para la Justicia y la Democracia, 8 June 2019.Hide Footnote Even so, the government proceeded to release amid scenes of euphoria many of the remaining detainees on 11 June, including Civic Alliance leaders and prominent journalists.[fn]“Liberan a periodistas y líderes sociales de la oposición en Nicaragua”, El País, 11 June 2019.Hide Footnote

The most pressing issue for the opposition concerns the right of peaceful assembly.

Drawing on input from the Red Cross and prisoners’ organisations, the parties still need to discuss three related issues. First, negotiating teams should hand the Red Cross up-to-date prisoner lists, as police reportedly continue to make arrests. Although those arrested generally are detained for shorter periods, some supposedly remain in prison while authorities have charged others with common crimes (as opposed to terrorism or conspiracy).[fn]On 22 May, members of the Civic Alliance claimed that at least 42 more people have been detained in 2019 in relation to last year’s uprising, and should be considered political prisoners. Crisis Group interview, members of the Committee for the Liberation of Political Prisoners, Managua, 1 April 2019. “Régimen orteguista manipula cifras de presos políticos para no liberarlos a todos”, La Prensa, 22 May 2019.Hide Footnote This would also help clarify the fate of prisoners not on the government list. Secondly, parties should agree which cases and crimes should be covered by the new Amnesty Law, and which should instead be prosecuted.[fn]The Amnesty Law only refers to “political” and “common crimes” related to last year’s events. A judicial ruling or a further law could provide more specifics. Crisis Group telephone interview, transitional justice expert, 10 June 2019. Law 996 published in La Gaceta – Diario Oficial n. 108, Nicaraguan Government, 10 June 2019.Hide Footnote Thirdly, the parties should consider creating a mechanism to provide medical and psychological support to those set free to overcome prison-related trauma and facilitate their reintegration into civilian life. Some may need security assurances, particularly if they live outside Managua, where they are more easily targeted by government loyalists.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, member of the Union of Political Prisoners, 6 May 2019; International Committee of the Red Cross official, Managua, 2 April 2019; member of the Blue and White National Unity, León, 3 April 2019.Hide Footnote The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has issued at least 160 injunctions on behalf of jailed or freed protesters.[fn]“La CIDH emitió 143 medidas cautelares en Nicaragua el año pasado”, El Nuevo Diario, 5 January 2019. “Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos adopta medidas provisionales para 17 presos políticos en Nicaragua”, La Prensa, 21 May 2019.Hide Footnote

The second agreement aims to ensure respect for citizen’s rights. The eighteen-point accord addresses issues such as legal due process, political and economic rights, security, university autonomy, freedom of expression and the right of return for exiled Nicaraguans. It also calls upon security forces to disarm illegal armed groups and abide by international norms on the use of force.[fn]“Acuerdo para fortalecer los derechos y garantías ciudadanas”, Alianza Cívica para la Justicia y la Democracia, 30 March 2019.Hide Footnote This agreement officially came into force upon being signed, but implementation of some of its promises is based on a series of action plans yet to be agreed between the parties, and could include changes to the law. Here too, the government’s performance appears deficient. It has abided by parts of the agreement, but unilaterally launched initiatives that should have been negotiated beforehand.[fn]It has respected some of its provisions, such as releasing new detainees within a 48-hour period after their arrest (point 1) or locating and seizing illegally-owned weapons (point 4).Hide Footnote For example, acting on its own, it approved a “Return Plan” for exiled Nicaraguans and sent an invitation to the International Organization for Migration to help implement it, even though the Civic Alliance had objected to the proposal.[fn]“Exiliados no tienen garantías de seguridad para volver dice Alianza Cívica”, Diario Metro, 15 April 2019.Hide Footnote

The most pressing issue for the opposition concerns the right of peaceful assembly. This poses a dilemma for Ortega: approving all applications for legally permissible protests could entail many more people taking to the streets, particularly now that leaders of last year’s revolt have been released, but to overly circumscribe this right would be at odds with the agreement, likely fuel public anger and provoke international criticism. For now, the government appears to be adopting a tough line against protests while avoiding last year’s extreme brutality. In fact, less than 24 hours after the agreement was reached in March, police encircled a protest staged at Managua’s Metrocentro mall before charging into the crowd and detaining eleven people. The police argued it was safeguarding public order, and used this argument to deny the Blue and White National Unity permission to stage marches in April and May. Police officers then disbanded demonstrations that nonetheless took place to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the crisis and others staged during Easter week.[fn]According to the Civic Alliance, at least 160 people were temporarily detained as a result. The Alliance denounced this and other breaches of the agreement to the dialogue companions on 23 April. The National Police denied the arrests. “Presentamos carta a testigos, acompañantes y garantes internacionales”, Alianza Cívica por la Justicia y la Democracia, 23 April 2019. For the National Police version, see “Nota de prensa no.11-2019”, 30 March 2019; “Resolución no. 02-2019”, 5 April 2019; “Nota de prensa no. 016-2019”, 22 April 2019. https://bit.ly/2WrtKLH.Hide Footnote

Talks between government and opposition are now officially off, but there is a strong chance they can soon resume.

 The parties also disagree on who will monitor compliance with this second agreement. Opposition leaders have requested that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – both expelled by the government from Nicaragua last year – fulfil that role, but remain open to the engagement of other foreign bodies, such as the OAS General Secretariat.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Civic Alliance, Managua, 5 April 2019.Hide Footnote Foreign Minister Moncada justified the expulsion of two Inter-American Commission on Human Rights delegations in December 2018 by arguing that both the OAS and the UN were trying to “asphyxiate the Nicaraguan people” by “divulging false information aimed at promoting sanctions”.[fn]As he expelled the UN Commissioner for Human Rights mission on 30 August, Ortega described the UN as “an instrument of the policies of terror, lies and infamy”. “Nicaragua da por concluida la misión de entes de la CIDH y carga contra Almagro”, EFE, 19 December 2018. “Nicaragua expels UN human rights mission”, France 24, 31 August 2018.Hide Footnote

The government has proposed an alternative for monitoring. It is considering inviting the Central American Integration System (SICA), whose president, Vinicio Cerezo, is allegedly close to Ortega, as a guarantor, together with the papal nuncio and the OAS.[fn]Find the government proposal in point e) of the “Nota de prensa de la Delegación del Gobierno de Nicaragua ante la Mesa de Negociación”, VivaNicaragua, 6 May 2019.Hide Footnote The SICA could play a supporting role, but has little power over its member states and limited experience addressing regional crises. For his part, the nuncio lacks capacity to monitor compliance with such a multifaceted agreement. The OAS is focusing on electoral issues and, with the nuncio, already acts as guarantor of the agreement on political prisoners. However, it could deploy a delegation to Nicaragua and draw on the expertise of Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, partly compensating for the latter’s absence from the country following its expulsion last year. Ideally, the government would allow both that Commission and the UN High Commissioner to return, despite the accusations it previously made against them. At a minimum, it should engage with the UN and cooperate with it ahead of the High Commissioner’s report due in September.[fn]The report, preceded by an oral update in July, is requested by the UN Human Rights Council resolution A/HRC/40/L.8. Crisis Group telephone interview, UN official, 9 April 2019.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, the companions to the negotiations have struggled to bring the parties together. After talks stalled in April, the nuncio and Rosadilla maintained an open communication channel with both sides and handed them a proposal on 29 April to implement the first two agreements. According to the Civic Alliance, after reaching a deal the government backtracked and conditioned its acceptance of the proposal on a joint call to lift sanctions, which the Alliance has ruled out prior to reaching a final political settlement.[fn]The proposals included continued release of political prisoners in May, under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross; annulment of all judicial charges against them; and the appointment of international guarantors for the agreement on citizen rights. “Dictadura orteguista se burla de los testigos de la mesa de negociación al rechazar propuestas de implementación de los acuerdos”, La Prensa, 29 April 2019.Hide Footnote

Talks between government and opposition are now officially off, but there is a strong chance they can soon resume. Since the official suspension of negotiations on 3 April, both parties have occasionally met to discuss ways to implement the agreement while also broaching major pending issues. The death of Eddy Montes, a political prisoner holding U.S. citizenship, during a riot in La Modelo prison on 16 May, represented a watershed. Clashes in the same jail between detainees and prison officers wounded more than 90 prisoners, according to the Permanent Commission on Human Rights, and 21 officers, according to the Ministry of the Interior.[fn]Since police and opposition versions of the facts differ, the EU and the U.S. have called on Nicaraguan authorities to carry out a thorough, independent investigation. “U.S. citizen shot dead in Nicaraguan prison was a Navy veteran, critic of President Ortega”, Reuters, 17 May 2019. “CPDH denuncia que hay más de 90 manifestantes lesionados en La Modelo”, El Nuevo Diario, 20 May 2019. “Ministerio de Gobernación informa sobre investigaciones abiertas en relación a los sucesos del jueves 16 de mayo”, El 19 Digital, 21 May 2019.Hide Footnote After reconsidering its position, the Civic Alliance announced on 20 May that it would not return to the negotiating table until all political prisoners are released.[fn]“Nos retiramos de la mesa hasta la liberación de presos políticos y llamamos a paro nacional”, Alianza Cívica por la Justicia y la Democracia, 20 May 2019.Hide Footnote The Alliance should welcome the recent mass release of prisoners, and work alongside the government to clarify the status of the last remaining detainees before joining a fresh round of talks.

V. Steps Forward

Implementing the existing agreements is crucial to the resumption of talks. The Civic Alliance has made the release of all political prisoners its condition for returning to the negotiation table, while the OAS, the U.S., and the EU have also vowed to step up pressure if there are no concrete steps in that direction. If the government’s main concern is to avoid further sanctions, its best interests lie in complying with the accords by the 18 June deadline. Recent moves to release prisoners represent unequivocal steps in that direction, and should be welcomed by foreign powers and foster international goodwill toward Ortega. Improved coordination across the opposition and sustained pressure from abroad could help persuade the government to continue honouring its pledges, and pave the way to a third round of talks focusing on electoral and justice issues.

A. Ensuring Compliance

A combination of internal and international pressure could assist in ensuring the government’s continued compliance. Thus far, Ortega’s willingness to compromise has been proportional to the pressure exerted by internal and external forces. To ensure this remains the case before and after the June deadline, opposition factions should seek to align their strategies. The Civic Alliance and the Blue and White National Unity’s political council should establish regular communication, debate proposals and agree on an approach to continue pressing the government and maintaining an international spotlight on the crisis. The National Unity in particular has a responsibility to keep street protests peaceful. Joint efforts with the Civic Alliance on the occasion of the 23 May national strike marked a step forward, but the group should consider going beyond calls for demonstrations by increasing internal coordination and taking advantage of its wider national reach to generate support for the Alliance’s negotiating efforts.

For their part, foreign governments and regional bodies, above all the OAS, EU and U.S., should align policies toward Nicaragua and jointly warn the government that they will take further action, including imposing additional sanctions, if Ortega reneges on his pledges. The U.S. ought to avoid unilateral steps; more generally it should cease suggesting its goal is to bring down Ortega’s government. Sanctions, if they are necessary, should focus on squeezing individual or state-run business assets rather than the entire country. Terminating Nicaragua’s membership in trade agreements, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the Association Agreement with the EU, would be unwise as it would primarily hurt the poor.[fn]U.S. officials have leaked that the Trump administration is considering expelling Nicaragua from the CAFTA. As for the EU, while its Foreign Affairs Council did not refer to specific measures, the European Parliament exhorted it to consider Nicaragua’s suspension from the Association Agreement. “After NAFTA fight, Trump threatens another trade battle with Central America”, McClatchy, 9 January 2019. European Parliament resolution on the situation in Nicaragua, 14 March 2019. “Nicaragua: Council adopts conclusions”, Council of the EU, 21 January 2019.Hide Footnote For its part, the OAS should only expel Nicaragua as last resort, as doing so could have unintended consequences, including cancellation of the electoral reform plan it agreed with the government.[fn]The last time the Inter-American Democratic Charter was fully applied was in 2009, when Honduras was expelled in the aftermath of the coup d’état that ousted President Zelaya. The aim of the measure was to revert the coup, but it proved unsuccessful, and it took two years before the country re-joined the organisation. “Para que los hechos no se repitan”, Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación, July 2011, p. 29.Hide Footnote Lastly, international actors should signal that easing existing sanctions and diplomatic pressure will not follow from merely signing new agreements, but also putting them into practice.

Outside powers should also make clear that they will lift punitive measures if the government honours its agreements. Should the government conclude the release of political prisoners, lift the charges against them and show its willingness to abide by the agreement on citizens’ rights before 18 June, they should stand ready to support the third round of talks, and to offer political and financial backing to enable both sides to reach a lasting settlement. That outcome would afford Nicaragua an opportunity to chart a way out its current deadlock and avoid another bout of violence. International actors should also make clear they expect tangible results from the next round of negotiations in a reasonable timeframe, though without setting tight deadlines.

Nicaragua has never undertaken a genuine transitional justice effort.

B. A Third Round of Talks

Two topics remain pending for future talks: electoral reform and justice for the victims of last year’s violence.[fn]Other items that, according to the agreed agenda, remain to be discussed after these two are settled are consolidating all agreements and related implementation mechanisms into one document, and actions the parties will take to gather international support for the agreements and lift sanctions. “Séptimo comunicado del encuentro por el entendimiento y la paz en Nicaragua”, La Voz del Sandinismo, 20 March 2019.Hide Footnote Narrowing the gap between the government and opposition on the former seems realistic, especially since Ortega’s government recently recommitted to reforms agreed with the OAS in February 2017.[fn]After the government invited the OAS to resume activities in the country on 26 March, Cristobal Fernández, the organisation’s head of the department of cooperation and electoral observation, visited the country on 24 April to discuss electoral reforms. “Nicaragua reitera ante la OEA su compromiso para lograr el entendimiento”, La Voz del Sandinismo, 26 April 2019.Hide Footnote The Alliance proposes to update that agreement, by adding new reforms, including by changing the Supreme Electoral Council, reintroducing presidential term limits, increasing the votes required for outright victory in the first round of presidential polls (now at 35 per cent), and bringing forward presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for November 2021.

The government prefers to stick to the terms of the OAS agreement but could meet the opposition half way. Changing the composition of the Supreme Electoral Council would likely increase the opposition’s confidence in elections, given its alleged past involvement in fraud.[fn]The U.S. imposed sanctions on then-president of the Supreme Electoral Council Roberto Rivas in December 2017, for being “above the law” and perpetrating electoral fraud. Rivas resigned on 31 May 2018. “United States Sanctions Human Rights Abusers and Corrupt Actors Across the Globe”, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 21 December 2017.Hide Footnote In turn, the opposition could drop the reintroduction of presidential term limits and its demand that the vote threshold for the first round of presidential elections be changed. For a more inclusive agreement on electoral reform, political parties, such as the Constitutional Liberal Party, should be consulted.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Civic Alliance member, Managua, 5 April 2019.Hide Footnote

The pivotal issue is that of election timing. The government has publicly ruled out the possibility of advancing elections and the presidential couple has made clear it intends to remain in power until the end of its term. Yet a compromise seems possible.[fn]Some buses in Managua have displayed the “Ortega-Murillo 2021” slogan on their windshields, while government officials have conveyed to the OAS their intention of “strengthening the electoral political process by 2021”. “Statement by the OAS General Secretariat on Nicaragua”, Organisation of the American States, 15 February 2019. “Nicaragua government rejects early elections after OAS meeting”, Euronews, 25 April 2019.Hide Footnote Indeed, opposition negotiators recognise that the necessary electoral reforms would need a transitional period of at least twelve months. Faced with similar economic and social pressures, and after losing the support of the collapsing Soviet Union, Ortega himself brought forward elections in 1990. To soothe internal and international pressure, and possibly restore some degree of economic stability, one solution might be to hold polls in 2021, but earlier than November.[fn]Recent surveys suggest about 62 per cent of those polled would like elections brought forward, eight points more than the same survey conducted in January, but another 32 per cent would like them to take place in 2021, suggesting that early that year would be a well-supported compromise. Crisis Group interview, papal nuncio, 6 April 2019. “Cid Gallup: 62% pide adelanto de elecciones para salir de crisis”, Confidencial, 30 May 2019.Hide Footnote The OAS could take advantage of its role as both dialogue companion and external player to enable a broader discussion on reforms and a timetable for polls.

An agreement on justice reforms will be harder to reach. Although both sides claim to seek redress for victims, the government and opposition are entrenched in seemingly irreconcilable positions. The Civic Alliance insists upon the establishment of a new, independent Truth Commission as a first step toward achieving justice. Before passing the Amnesty Law in June, the government had proposed a form of restorative justice that would hand responsibility for investigations and accountability to the very national institutions allegedly involved in the original crackdown, such as ministries, the police and the public prosecutor’s office.[fn]Under “restorative justice”, those who committed crimes have to confess their actions and receive an amnesty in return for taking other measures to acknowledge their guilt. “Nicaragua aprueba una Ley para atender a las víctimas de la crisis, sin justicia”, EFE, 29 May 2019.Hide Footnote On 29 May, it also passed a law on “integrated attention to victims” of last year’s unrest, envisaging benefits for families affected by “coup plotters’ violence”.[fn]The law determines that the Human Rights Ombudsman, in partnership with government ministries, would be in charge of implementation, “Ortega imposes his own amnesty law”, Confidencial, 31 May 2019. “Delegación de Gobierno ante la mesa de negociación ratifica compromisos asumidos ante la Patria”, El 19 Digital, 31 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Given the alleged loyalty of all judicial and security institutions to the government, the Civic Alliance regards all these proposals as tantamount to impunity for those responsible for violence against protesters, and has rejected them.[fn]Lack of trust in national institutions is so deep among victims’ constituencies of the opposition that some feel “there cannot be any justice under the current government”, in the words of a political prisoner’s mother. Crisis Group interview, Committee for Liberation of Political Prisoners, Managua, 1 April 2019.Hide Footnote In light of charges by the International Group of Independent Experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the state committed crimes against humanity, anything that smacks of an amnesty for government officials would be extremely hard for the opposition to swallow.[fn]“Nicaragua: Report by independent experts affirms that government of President Ortega has committed crimes against humanity”, op cit.Hide Footnote

Despite 50 years of counter-insurgency, revolution and civil war, Nicaragua has never undertaken a genuine transitional justice effort. Before discussing detailed proposals, the parties ought to consider regional experiences, draw on expert testimony and consider victims’ perspectives and needs. On that basis, and in the likely absence of a consensus, they should try at a minimum to agree on governing principles for a truth commission with a broad mandate. As such, it would not merely aim to clarify the events of 2018. It should also explore the historic causes of Nicaragua’s exceptionally turbulent recent past as a means to understand the country’s deep-rooted polarisation and prevent the recurrence of armed violence. Such a commission could include government and opposition-appointed representatives, as well as international experts.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, expert in transitional justice, 11 April 2019.Hide Footnote

VI. Conclusion

Government officials and opposition leaders have brokered two important deals that could move them closer to resolving their year-long deadlock. Following months of state efforts to silence dissent, President Ortega’s decision to resume talks, likely motivated by mounting international pressure and a steep economic downturn, surprised many Nicaraguans, both opposition and government supporters as well as international observers. Negotiations occurred amid deep mutual distrust, yet the prospect of a negotiated solution enjoys high levels of public support. Results of the second dialogue also exceeded those of the first, particularly with the agreed release of hundreds of political prisoners. However, shortcomings in the accords still remain, above all the absence of international oversight for one of them, some uncertainty as to whether the government has fully complied and doubts over what comes next.

Should the last remaining disputes over the accords’ implementation be resolved, the two parties would ideally return soon to the negotiating table and strike an accord on outstanding issues. The principal challenge thus far has been on the government side, with President Ortega seemingly more interested in buying time and staving off further sanctions than genuinely extricating his country – and his government – from its predicament. However, the release of most political prisoners before the 18 June deadline suggests he is committed to a negotiated path out of the crisis. For their part, opposition movements should fine-tune their demands before the next round of talks to ensure they are realistic, draw on input from across the opposition coalition and seek as far as possible to drum up public support for the dialogue. Foreign powers and multilateral organisations should continue exerting pressure on the government. They should be prepared to impose further sanctions if the government fails to meet its commitments and progress in the talks lapses, so long as any measures taken are targeted, enjoy broad international backing and are lifted once the government honours its pledges.

President Ortega may be ruthless, but he remains one of Latin America’s greatest political survivors and a pragmatist fully aware that the campaign to unseat President Maduro in Venezuela bodes ill for his own rule. His anti-imperialist rhetoric serves to close Sandinista ranks, but he has demonstrated the ability and readiness to make concessions. He may not be interested in sweeping institutional changes, but he is aware that his resilience and Nicaragua’s economy depend upon maintaining domestic support and international trust. Stability stands at the heart of his interests, and the best route to preserve it can be found in moving to a third round of negotiations and forging a lasting political settlement with those who seek to remove him.

Bogotá/Brussels, 13 June 2019

Appendix A: Map of Nicaragua

Appendix B: A Timeline of Nicaragua's Year-long Political Crisis

18 April 2018
After the government passes a highly unpopular social security reform  on 16 April, mass protests erupt across the country.

22 April 2018
The government invites the Catholic Church to mediate a dialogue with the private sector. On 11 May, the Church creates the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy.

16 May 2018
The National Dialogue begins between the government and the Civic Alliance.

30 May 2018
At least eight are killed and dozens more injured during a Mothers’ Day march led by mothers of victims killed during the protests.

9 July 2018
After government sympathisers attack prominent Church figures, the National Dialogue is officially suspended.

23 September 2018
Max Andrés Romero, 16, is killed in a protest in Managua. The government says he is the last of 199 dead. Human rights groups claim the toll could be much higher.

28 September 2018
The National Police forbids any demonstration without its permission, and has rejected formal requests ever since.

16 February 2019
Prominent business leaders hold exploratory talks with Ortega in the presence of Nicaragua’s Papal Nuncio Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag and Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes.

18 February 2019
Campesino leader and Civic Alliance member Medardo Mairena is sentenced to 216 years in jail. He is one of over 700 people detained since last year's uprising, according to the Civic Alliance.

27 February 2019
Talks resume at the INCAE Business School campus, leading to the government's release of the first 100 prisoners.

27 March 2019
Under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross, parties sign an agreement for the release of all political prisoners within 90 days.

29 March 2019
Parties sign an agreement on respecting citizens' rights, including the right to return for the 62,000 Nicaraguans (according to UNHCR estimates) forced to flee the country.

3 April 2019
The deadline the parties set for talks on new agreements passes. The National Dialogue is suspended but parties meet occasionally to discuss implementation of previous agreements.

20 May 2019
A few days after Eddy Montes, a political prisoner, dies during a prison riot, the Civic Alliance announces it will not return to negotiations until all political prisoners are released.

8 June 2019
Ten days before the deadline for the release of all political prisoners expires, the government passes an amnesty law for those accused of crimes in relation to last year’s events.

11 June 2019
The government releases another group of political prisoners, including protest leaders and prominent journalists, bringing the total of those released to 500.

Appendix C: Frequency and Phases of Mass Public Protests in Nicaragua, 2018-2019