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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
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.

Coaxing Nicaragua Out of a Deadly Standoff

Political repression and economic hardship are pushing Nicaragua toward a low-intensity, protracted conflict. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 - Third Update for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to press for compliance with earlier agreements and a fresh round of negotiations that can help the country out of this deadly standoff. 

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2019 - Third Update.

A year and a half since the eruption of mass anti-government protests that paralysed the country, Nicaragua is edging toward protracted, low-intensity conflict. Sparked by controversial social security reforms in April 2018, last year’s demonstrations were met with a ferocious crackdown by police and para-police forces, resulting in more than 300 dead, chiefly on the protesters’ side, while hundreds more were detained. The government and protesters, gathered under the umbrella opposition group Civic Alliance, have twice tried negotiating a peaceful way out of the crisis. In March they struck two agreements on releasing political prisoners and upholding citizens’ rights, although the government has only partly complied. Since May, talks have been suspended, and President Daniel Ortega has shown scant interest in addressing issues of pressing concern to the opposition, notably electoral reform and justice for victims. Meanwhile, the government continues to crack down on dissent through detentions, harassment and intimidation; murders of protesters and political opponents are reportedly also on the rise.

Nicaragua is expected to face a loss of up to 5 per cent of GDP this year following a 3.8 per cent fall in 2018.

Already one of Latin America’s poorest countries, Nicaragua is expected to face a loss of up to 5 per cent of GDP this year following a 3.8 per cent fall in 2018. Thousands of Nicaraguans have fled, particularly to neighbouring Costa Rica, where migration authorities expect 100,000 asylum requests by the end of the year. The Nicaraguan government claims the country is back to normal and repeatedly denounces foreign meddling in domestic affairs, dismissing the findings of a recent UN human rights report and denying entry to a high-level commission of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The EU has long called for the resumption of dialogue between the government and opposition, and offered its support to that end. Its latest decision to put in place a framework to enable targeted sanctions against individuals is an attempt to push the government back towards dialogue and deter repressive conduct that will make resolution of the crisis yet more difficult. The EU and its member states should now take the following steps:

  • Continue to call on the government to honour the agreements struck in March and resume talks with a focus not only on electoral reforms, but also on creating a truth commission, with a mandate to address the country’s recurrent cycles of violence over recent decades. They should also call on the government to support thorough and impartial investigations into alleged state-sanctioned killings.
     
  • Keep reminding the government that intensifying repression will result in travel bans and asset freezes against responsible government, judicial and security officials, within the framework of the EU’s new targeted sanctions regime.
     
  • Offer incentives such as supporting local peacebuilding initiatives and providing an economic stimulus, should the government return to negotiations and fulfil the pledges it has already made.
     
  • Coordinate its next steps with the OAS, particularly should the high-level commission’s assessment of Nicaragua, due in November, match the EU’s appraisal.
     
  • Provide technical support to overwhelmed Costa Rican migration authorities and give financial backing to national and international humanitarian organisations working to alleviate grim living conditions for Nicaraguan migrants and refugees, as well as Costa Rican host communities.

Political Standoff, Repression and Recession

Talks between the Nicaraguan government and the Civic Alliance resumed in early 2019. This was a time when Ortega was facing mounting criticism from the U.S., the OAS and the EU, and thought he was about to lose his main regional ally, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who appeared at risk of being toppled by his internationally-backed opposition. By the end of March, the government and opposition had signed two agreements, one to release political prisoners and the other to ensure respect for citizens’ rights.

Government misgivings about the merits of compromise and deep mistrust between the two sides overwhelmed this fragile progress. Ortega’s inclination to find a negotiated solution with the opposition dimmed. This could have been connected, on one side, to Maduro’s survival and, on the other, to the imposition of additional U.S. sanctions in April, including on Ortega’s son Laureano. In fact, Ortega conditioned any further progress in negotiations on opposition support for lifting sanctions, which they refused to offer. Talks then faltered. On 20 May, the Civic Alliance left the negotiating table after authorities killed a political detainee during a prison riot, stating they would only resume talks after the government released all political prisoners, who number around 700 by opposition estimates. Ortega both released 500 over the course of the year and passed an amnesty law before 18 June, the deadline set by the deal. This was sufficient for the Civic Alliance to call for the resumption of talks, although both they and foreign powers still argued that Ortega had only partly complied with the March agreements. Ortega chose not to heed their calls and, in late July, informed the dialogue facilitators, papal nuncio Waldemar Sommertag and OAS special representative Luis Ángel Rosadilla, that the talks were over.

Opposition groups say anti-riot police officers are regularly deployed at their press conferences or demonstrations.

Meanwhile, the government’s crackdown on dissent has been unrelenting. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recently reported the government continues to violate basic civil rights. Opposition groups say anti-riot police officers are regularly deployed at their press conferences or demonstrations, and arrests of protesters, albeit mostly temporary, continue; around 140 still languish in jail. Pro-government forces have recently harassed high-level opposition figures, daubing threatening messages on the walls of their houses, or chasing or attacking with stones the vehicles in which they travel. Civic organisations assert repression is even harsher outside urban areas and report an increase in murders of rural residents and political opponents, thirty of whom were murdered in the first nine months of 2019. Security and para-police forces are allegedly responsible for many of these killings, which mostly took place in the region bordering Honduras. The police have failed to conduct thorough investigations into these deaths, sometimes dismissing them as the result of personal quarrels.

Ortega’s government rejects all accusations of abusing power, and claims it has restored normal life after an attempted U.S.-sponsored coup last year. It asserts that it is promoting peace and welfare, and has launched around 10,000 “reconciliation, peace, and justice” commissions across the country but without providing further details about their work. According to public opinion polls, support for the government remains stable at around 25 per cent this year, having fallen 40 per cent in 2018.

Economic scars inflicted by the political turmoil are also proving hard to heal. Nicaragua’s economy, once among the fastest growing in Latin America even as per capita income remained well below the regional average, suffered a steep downturn. Following a 3.8 per cent GDP contraction in 2018, national organisations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank expect it to drop by another 5 per cent this year. The Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development reported that, in the first months of the year, prices of basic goods and energy bills rose significantly, while more than 200,000 jobs could be lost by the end of 2019. In response, the government raised taxes at the start of the year and started hunting for foreign investment in Asia and the Middle East, striking a trade deal with Iran in August.

Nicaraguans’ asylum requests have boomed, numbering 32,269 new applications in 2018, and now stand at over 88,000.

This combination of political repression and economic hardship has pushed thousands of Nicaraguans to seek shelter elsewhere, particularly in neighbouring Costa Rica. Nicaraguans’ asylum requests have boomed, numbering 32,269 new applications in 2018, and now stand at over 88,000, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). Of these, around 70,000 have been filed in Costa Rica, where authorities expect almost 100,000 by the end of the year.

Costa Rican officials argue that many requests were filed by Nicaraguans already living in the country as a way to attain legal residency, and the International Organization for Migration insists that Nicaraguan migration has maintained its cyclical, primarily economic character. For these reasons, less than 1 per cent of asylum requests are approved, according to a UNHCR official. However, a survey conducted between April and June 2019 by the IOM found the number of highly educated young people emigrating has increased, and that three out of every four Nicaraguan interviewees left the country because of the socio-political crisis. Costa Rican authorities acknowledge that handling the sudden spike in asylum requests has proved challenging, while humanitarian workers report their capacity to provide housing and food to newcomers, particularly in the suburbs of Costa Rica’s capital San José, has reached its limit, and complain about a chronic lack of resources.

A Fragmented International Response

Foreign powers, spearheaded by the U.S., have paid intermittent attention to Nicaragua, which has been overshadowed by Venezuela’s political, economic and humanitarian crisis. The UN has only engaged directly with the Nicaraguan government through the OHCHR, and the country’s predicament was not a major topic at its General Assembly this year. The OAS has been moving slowly toward applying the Inter-American Democratic Charter. It took two months for the Permanent Council to create the high-level commission mandated by an OAS General Assembly resolution in June to “carry out diplomatic efforts to seek a peaceful and effective solution” in the country. The commission’s independence is also disputed, as all of its members – the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Paraguay and Jamaica – have been highly critical of Ortega’s government. The U.S. and Canada even jointly imposed sanctions on Nicaraguan officials in July, a measure that in turn reinvigorated Ortega’s anti-imperialist rhetoric.

The government’s attitude toward these efforts at foreign engagement has combined shows of resistance with tactical concessions. Ortega invited the OAS Secretariat in August to resume its work on electoral reform, which it started in 2017 after signing a memorandum of understanding with Managua. On the other hand, the government vehemently rejected the recent UN human rights report, claiming it was biased and based on a fabricated version of last year’s events. In mid-September it denied entry to the members of the OAS commission, stating it would not recognise any commission nor authorise any visit it has not requested.

Ortega is in effect seeking to elude further international condemnation while deploying an intransigent defence of national sovereignty when faced with what he deems foreign intimidation. However, denying the OAS and the UN access to Nicaragua is likely to prejudice these organisations in their final assessments, with possibly serious repercussions for the government. The OAS commission has to submit its report to the Permanent Council before 11 November, in which it will suggest responses. These might include expelling Nicaragua from the OAS, although this remains a remote prospect as it would require two-thirds of the votes of an extraordinary General Assembly. Short of this, the OAS is likely to pass another resolution to call for resumption of talks, while the U.S. may consider expanding sanctions to the military and try to block external financing from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Reopening Space for Dialogue and Mitigating Spill-overs

President Ortega appears reconciled to growing estrangement from some foreign powers, which could translate into further diplomatic isolation and economic hardship. However, his tough rhetoric has also been matched by moves to ease pressure and restore his international standing, suggesting that he recognises the dangers of consigning Nicaragua to pariah status.

Mounting international pressure on both Venezuela and Nicaragua helped persuade Ortega to resume negotiations with the opposition.

Mounting international pressure on both Venezuela and Nicaragua helped persuade Ortega to resume negotiations with the opposition. But ill-coordinated and unilateral punitive measures have since jeopardised the process. The EU should take into account the OAS assessment due in November and possibly align its actions with the regional bloc’s and continue to press for compliance with the March agreements, a fresh round of negotiations and accountability for alleged killings.

The EU’s recent decision to adopt a framework for targeted sanctions against individuals should now be accompanied by diplomatic and economic incentives to encourage government compliance with requested reforms. The fact that the EU coupled its decision with clear demands on the government offers the government a clear route to avoiding the implementation of sanctions under this framework.

As for incentives, in the short term, the EU or member states could consider expanding local confidence building projects supported by some European states, which have gained government backing, potentially also through the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP). In doing so, it would provide Ortega an opportunity to validate his claim of promoting peace while mitigating tensions between government and opposition forces. Thinking ahead to its next programming cycle for development assistance, the EU should consider earmarking resources to stimulate job creation and support future reforms agreed between the government and the opposition, especially changes to the electoral system.

The EU and member states should also recognise the Nicaraguan crisis has taken on a transnational dimension, with consequences felt most acutely in Costa Rica. In providing technical support to Costa Rican migration authorities, the EU and member states could help smooth the search for legal residency of thousands of vulnerable Nicaraguans, boost their economic opportunities and enable them to gain access to basic services. By backing UNHCR and local NGO efforts to provide humanitarian aid to those most in need, including in Costa Rican host communities, the EU and other donors would help address the grim conditions in which ever more people are living.