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A Thaw or a Trap? Nicaragua’s Surprise Return to Negotiations
A Thaw or a Trap? Nicaragua’s Surprise Return to Negotiations
As Ortega Tightens His Grip, Nicaragua Braces for Volatile Elections
As Ortega Tightens His Grip, Nicaragua Braces for Volatile Elections
A man watches a TV broadcast of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in Managua, Nicaragua 21 February 2019. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

A Thaw or a Trap? Nicaragua’s Surprise Return to Negotiations

Nicaragua has launched a second round of national dialogue to negotiate a way out of the political and economic crisis that erupted last year. Both the opposition and international actors should demand results, but avoid the animosity that contributed to the first round’s failure.

Why is Nicaragua having a national dialogue?

On 27 February, government and extra-parliamentary opposition representatives began a second round of dialogue with the aim of resolving the turmoil triggered by last year’s uprising, which the government met with lethal violence. More than 325 people, mainly opponents of President Daniel Ortega, have lost their lives in clashes between protesters and police and para-police, while 777 are held in prison or under house arrest, according to the Committee for Liberation of Political Prisoners, a local civil society organisation. Protests started in April 2018, when Ortega announced the terms of a highly unpopular reform to the social security system, and soon ballooned into a full-scale revolt including mass marches, roadblocks and the establishment of opposition-controlled territories after security forces initiated a brutal crackdown. An independent group of experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has concluded that the police and para-police units operating alongside them perpetrated offences that can be considered crimes against humanity.

Government and opposition had initiated a first round of dialogue in May last year at the height of the protests. The process, which was marred by ongoing street violence and evident hostility between the sides, stalled eight months ago during Ortega’s counter-offensive. But on 21 February, despite a series of increasingly authoritarian measures against the opposition, media and civil society in recent months, Ortega took the surprising step of proposing a start date for the resumption of talks.

The Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, the umbrella opposition front created last year for the first dialogue, agreed to take part in the new talks. Its six-person negotiating team has set down three broad planks as its agenda. The first is “liberation of political prisoners and restoration of the liberties, rights and guarantees established by the Constitution”. The second is “electoral reforms that guarantee free, fair and transparent elections”. And the third is “justice”, alluding to the opposition’s call for some form of redress for the victims of last year’s violence.

The government is reluctant to countenance the presence of international guarantors, who would seek to ensure that both sides comply with any agreements reached in the talks.

In an apparent good-will gesture, the government released 100 prisoners on 27 February, though they remain under house arrest. The Civic Alliance stated that the release was unilateral and not part of negotiations. The Alliance was coy about progress in the talks until 5 March, when it announced that the parties had agreed on a roadmap, including an ambitious end date of 28 March, which is likely to be pushed back. Sources close to the Alliance’s negotiators report that the government is reluctant to countenance the presence of international guarantors, who would seek to ensure that both sides comply with any agreements reached in the talks. On 5 March the parties decided to postpone appointment of guarantors until after they agree upon an agenda, which seems to confirm the government’s hesitancy.

Why did the government come back to the negotiating table?

At least four reasons drove Ortega to reopen the dialogue.

First, he is on the political defensive, as his government’s approval rating has been dropping since the April uprising. Support tumbled from 67 per cent before the uprising to 23 per cent afterward, according to the 2018 Latinobarómetro study. Sensing trouble in party ranks over the government’s management of the crisis, Ortega used the resumption of national dialogue to round up his support base ahead of 3 March regional elections in the Caribbean region (won by the ruling party with around 54 per cent of the vote, though civil society has denounced electoral irregularities).

Secondly, reopening the dialogue is a way for Ortega to ease mounting international pressure amid the parallel push for regime change in Venezuela. President Nicolás Maduro is one of his closest allies. Ortega’s announcement about restarting the dialogue came after a series of visits by high-level delegations from the U.S., EU and Organization of American States (OAS), and just two days before the planned date to secure the entry of U.S.-backed humanitarian aid into Venezuela. Visiting diplomats conveyed the message that, in the absence of a change in the government’s approach to the post-uprising crisis, their home governments would take further punitive action. The U.S. has already imposed three rounds of targeted sanctions on Ortega’s inner circle, including his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, while recent sanctions upon the Venezuelan state oil corporation PDVSA have also affected the Albanisa oil company, a joint venture in which PDVSA is the major shareholder. Senior U.S. officials, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, have proclaimed that Ortega’s “days are numbered”, suggesting that his government will be next to fall after Venezuela’s, and promising to intensify sanctions using the Nicaragua Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act signed into law by President Donald Trump in December. The EU has also expressed readiness to use all the tools at its disposal, including sanctions, to pressure the government should it continue its repression rather than commit to a negotiated way out of the crisis. The OAS Permanent Council has started discussions about application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter to Nicaragua, which could lead to the country’s expulsion from the organisation, with serious repercussions for its diplomatic relations and ability to pursue multilateral loans.

Thirdly, the country’s economic woes, another result of last year’s crisis, have put Ortega under the gun. In 2018 the gross domestic product fell by 4 per cent, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. The outlook for this year is also grim, with all estimates predicting that GDP will fall: figures range between -2 and -10.9 per cent. Now that aid from Venezuela – which stood at over $700 million in 2012 – has virtually disappeared, the strength of Ortega’s political support network has become dependent on the country’s economic performance, led by a buoyant private sector. Last year’s protests, however, came on the heels of a rupture between the government and the country’s main business organisations, which went on to join the Civic Alliance. Since then, the government has sought to squeeze and harass the private sector by hiking taxes and increasing state powers over business, in hopes that it would respond to the pressure by distancing itself from the opposition. So far, this strategy has failed. “The private sector understands that there cannot be any solution to the crisis without a political agreement”, a private-sector representative told Crisis Group. But business leaders are clearly more open to a deal with Ortega than the rest of the opposition. A delegation of business tycoons was the only Nicaraguan group outside the government’s coalition to meet with the president in recent months; this meeting occurred just days before he announced the resumption of dialogue.

Lastly, Ortega’s initiative may be part of a divide-and-rule strategy, aimed at splitting the opposition at a time when it is struggling for cohesion, with many of its leaders in exile, in jail or facing trial. On the eve of the dialogue announcement, the Blue and White National Unity, a civil society coalition established last October as a platform for a wider range of opposition movements than the Civic Alliance, was about to form a political leadership council, made up of seven to eleven people, according to some of its members. Ortega’s sudden move caught most of the Unity’s member organisations by surprise and led it to postpone the council’s creation. And Ortega’s repressive tactics persist. The courts recently sentenced peasant leader Medardo Mairena and others to more than 200 years in prison on trumped-up terrorism, organised crime and other charges. Police attacks on journalists and NGOs also continue apace. These actions seem intended to signal that repression will not cease without concessions from the opposition and an end to public protests.

There is no hiding the potential pitfalls of the current round of dialogue.

What lessons have been learned from the first national dialogue, and what are the risks in the new round?

The first national dialogue was broadcast live on television and social media, which may have been necessary to give it public credibility but also showcased the grudges between the two sides. Both the government and the Civic Alliance have acknowledged that the new round of negotiations should take place in private. Likewise, they have agreed to reduce the number of participants and narrow the agenda to ensure quicker and smoother negotiations. The various components of the Civic Alliance have also overcome their mutual mistrust and are better prepared to undertake dialogue than last year, when they “did not know whom [they] were sitting next to”, as one representative put it. The first round’s mediator, the Episcopal Conference (the leadership body of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church), is included among the national “accompanying” parties for the second round, alongside representatives of other Christian denominations, such as the Evangelical Church. The Vatican has contributed to smoothing out Church-government relations somewhat, thanks to papal nuncio Waldemar Sommertag’s conciliatory approach, after Ortega had branded the bishops as coup plotters some months ago. It is still uncertain, however, which Episcopal Conference members will participate as advisers of its president, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes.

Meanwhile, there is no hiding the potential pitfalls of the current round of dialogue. Ortega may be approaching the dialogue in bad faith, intending only to buy time and placate international critics. By alternating between reconciliation and repression, dealing preferentially with the private sector, and (for the time being) baulking at the participation of international guarantors, he may already have signalled a lack of interest in making more concessions than the minimum needed to avoid further sanctions and salvage the Nicaraguan economy, without addressing the opposition’s core demands of democratisation and justice. For its part, the Civic Alliance’s delegation has the difficult task of winning over doubters in the opposition. Critics have berated the Alliance for its negotiating team’s composition: it over-represents the private sector (half the negotiators are businessmen) and includes no women, rural representatives or members of the victims’ organisations made up of relatives of political prisoners and of those killed in the uprising.

How can the parties avoid a second failure of talks?

The Civic Alliance’s biggest challenge is now to negotiate the dialogue’s agenda. Its first aim after that should be to enhance its legitimacy and credibility while the dialogue is under way, to avoid a scenario in which large segments of the opposition disown the talks’ eventual results. Establishing regular communication with Blue and White National Unity representatives in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica, where many exiled leaders live, would help strengthen the opposition’s overall cohesion. It should also consider appointing victims’ representatives as advisers, if not observers, when dealing with issues related to justice. While the renewed dialogue has emboldened people to demonstrate again – despite a police directive forbidding protests without prior approval – the Civic Alliance should call on the opposition to maintain public order during negotiations.

The government should continue to show good-will by ceasing attacks against NGOs, journalists and opposition figures. It should also release more political prisoners, at least those who are ill or remain in detention despite having been acquitted, and grant at least house arrest to those undergoing trial or awaiting their first hearing.

Agreement upon rules of the game was a crucial step in the process. If the parties manage to agree on an agenda and subsequently on admitting international guarantors, then the negotiations’ main goal should be to ensure a timetable for free and fair elections, with a basic agreement on justice, such as the creation of a mixed truth commission, including members of the government, opposition and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The international community, particularly the OAS, the U.S., the UN and the EU, should welcome – but not settle for – the resumption of the national dialogue. They should state clearly that they will respond to any efforts to undermine the talks with increased pressure on the parties, while offering incentives, as well as technical assistance, to implement any agreement the dialogue may produce.

As Ortega Tightens His Grip, Nicaragua Braces for Volatile Elections

Originally published in World Politics Review

It’s hard to imagine that three years ago, Nicaragua was rocked by huge anti-government protests that paralyzed the country before being ruthlessly quashed. Today, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of vaccines, the capital, Managua, is abuzz with activity. Shopping malls are teeming, while the intersections are crowded with beggars and vendors. Everyday life in this Central American country seems to have returned to normal. Visible scars of the 2018 unrest remain only in the form of graffiti, although many of the protest slogans have been daubed over with pro-government messages proclaiming, “The commander remains”—a reference to President Daniel Ortega. Anti-riot police watch over traffic roundabouts, clearly bored but ready to quell the first signs of public dissent.

With presidential and legislative elections scheduled for November, the coming months will test whether the calm is more than skin deep, as Nicaraguans face the prospect of lifetime rule by Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. During a recent visit to the country, I heard a common refrain from disenchanted Nicaraguan voters: “They’re going to steal the elections.”

Ortega, who turns 76 in November, has a revolutionary past that belies his modern-day authoritarianism. As a young Marxist rebel with the Sandinista National Liberation Front, he spent seven years in prison under the dictator Anastasio Somoza’s regime before going on to help overthrow him in 1979—one of only two successful armed uprisings in Latin America after World War II. He then led the Sandinista government as it waged a civil war against the U.S.-backed contra fighters and won the country’s first post-revolution presidential election in 1984. He lost his reelection bid in 1990, but staged a successful comeback in the 2006 presidential poll and has been in power ever since.

This November, he will seek a fourth consecutive term as president in an election clouded by memories of the 2018 mobilization and crackdown, when over 300 people, chiefly protesters, were killed during around five months of unrest, many of them by police and parapolice forces. Since then, Ortega has lost allies at home and become increasingly isolated internationally. His recent moves to consolidate control over the electoral authorities and hamstring the opposition mean that, absent a change of course, the polls are likely to be seen as heavily rigged in his favor. That raises the prospect of another wave of unrest that further isolates the government and worsens the already dire economic and humanitarian situation in one of Latin America’s poorest countries.

Ortega’s government is clearly not inclined to concede any ground to the opposition. After the 2018 protests, the regime outlawed marches and strengthened a grassroots intelligence system employing local party loyalists, ex-convicts and even parking valets to gather information about Ortega’s opponents, the most vocal of whom are constantly harassed by security forces. Anti-government gatherings have been largely nonexistent over the past couple of years, while political discussions are taboo even within households.

Over the past year or so, the regime has enacted a series of laws and other measures that seek to stymie opposition parties’ participation in the polls, including by stacking the Supreme Electoral Council, the country’s top election body, with loyalist magistrates. The new government-friendly magistrates, appointed in early May, set a May 12 deadline for registration of political alliances, sparking a frenzied but ultimately unsuccessful effort by the two main opposition blocs, the National Coalition and the Citizen Alliance, to forge a united front against Ortega, with the latter registering on its own.

The council then moved to annul the legal credentials of the Democratic Restoration Party, the main political vehicle of the National Coalition. At the same time, judicial authorities recently launched investigations into money-laundering allegations against several journalists as well as Cristiana Chamorro, the most popular of the opposition’s presidential hopefuls and daughter of former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who bested Ortega in the 1990 polls. This week, the attorney general’s office issued a statement effectively forbidding Chamorro to run for any public office. On Wednesday, she was placed under house arrest.

Ortega has tried before to meddle with the electoral process. Since he reassumed the presidency in 2007, several municipal and national elections have been tainted by allegations of wrongdoing, including the withdrawal of some opposition parties’ credentials and reported interference in the vote count. On those occasions, Ortega managed to get away with the alleged offenses thanks to his high level of public support—underpinned by robust economic growth—and strong working relationships with two of the country’s most important constituencies: the Catholic Church and the private sector.

Much of this public and institutional backing has since drained away. Businesses, the clergy and an increasing number of Nicaraguans have grown averse to the president since the 2018 crackdown, while resentment runs high among those who oppose the government but are unable to express their criticism with any safety. Only one-third of Nicaraguans continue to support Ortega, according to opinion polls. Three consecutive years of contracting GDP have induced a deep economic slump, aggravated last year by the COVID-19 pandemic and two back-to-back hurricanes.

Aware of the vulnerability of the economy and people’s livelihoods, the Ortega government avoided imposing any strict coronavirus lockdowns and managed pandemic-related data with great secrecy. The virus nevertheless claimed the lives of several high-ranking Sandinistas, including close Ortega allies, paring down the ruling party’s aging leadership at a time when there is no credible presidential successor.

Acclaimed even by critics for his political cunning, Ortega still has a clear edge over his rivals in this November’s election, when he will face a weak and fractious opposition that lacks public support. Although the opposition could in theory still band together under the Civic Alliance’s umbrella, it has broadly failed thus far to capitalize on public discontent and shape a convincing alternative to the government. Whereas students and civil society activists led the protests three years ago, well-known political and business figures—many of whom also face harassment by security forces, but attract less public support because of their perceived association with the traditional political establishment—have mostly displaced them as the chief anti-Ortega spokespeople. As a result, opposition movements and parties have performed poorly in recent opinion polls: None of them attracts support from more than 4 percent of Nicaraguans.

As recent crises in other Latin American countries such as Honduras and Bolivia have shown, a disputed election could plunge the country into fresh turmoil.

Even so, as recent crises in other Latin American countries such as Honduras and Bolivia have shown, a disputed election could plunge the country into fresh turmoil. Should the poll be widely perceived as rigged in favor of Ortega and the Sandinistas, it could rekindle public anger, particularly if the main opposition forces are able to muster enough unity to rally around one candidate. A disputed poll would also further isolate Ortega internationally, hindering any economic recovery and possibly adding to the exodus of Nicaraguans to neighboring Costa Rica, which has received most of the 100,000 people who have fled since 2018.

Unsurprisingly, the United States, the Organization of American States and the European Union have expressed alarm, firmly rejecting Ortega’s electoral “counter-reform” and reiterating their willingness to press for fair elections. Yet these reproaches cannot hide the fact that Nicaragua remains just one hotspot in a troubled region where diplomatic engagement, particularly from the U.S., needs a rethink. President Joe Biden has promised to reengage with Central America after Trump restricted cooperation to a narrow, migration-focused agenda, but for now, Biden is still concerned primarily with a dramatic increase in arrivals at its southern border. Nicaragua has received far less attention than the three Northern Triangle countries that are seen as the drivers of northward migration—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—and which have been appointed their own U.S. special envoy, Ricardo Zuniga. When I asked one Civic Alliance representative about support from the Biden administration in March, the person sarcastically responded, “What Biden administration? They haven’t shown up yet.”

The White House will have its work cut out for it in crafting a strategy that would address Central America’s chronic challenges in governance, inequality and security, while neither legitimizing nor antagonizing political leaders with dubious records on the rule of law and corruption. Strongly worded statements, targeted sanctions and other punitive measures, which tend to be Washington’s preferred means of applying pressure, have fallen far short of their goal of correcting Central American governments’ behavior. In the case of Nicaragua, instead of causing defections among Sandinista loyalists or prompting concessions, the sanctions that the U.S. has imposed since 2018 against 26 top officials have led the government to dig in, reinforce its anti-imperialist rhetoric and bring to a halt virtually all communications with its Western partners.

At a time of a great stress across Central America, it would be in both Washington’s and Managua’s interests to explore solutions that serve regional stability

Withdrawing sanctions against the Nicaraguan government would be politically difficult for the Biden administration, particularly in light of the bipartisan support they enjoy in Congress. Still, refraining from imposing new ones and offering to lift some—at least privately—might help persuade Ortega to level the political playing field somewhat. Such concessions should be part of a broader effort to step up diplomatic engagement in order to prevent any electoral strife. Including Nicaragua in Zuniga’s portfolio could also be a useful first step to opening fresh communication channels. At a time of a great stress across Central America, it would be in both Washington’s and Managua’s interests to explore solutions that serve regional stability and keep Nicaragua from slipping toward greater isolation.