The battle for Nicaragua’s streets

June 21, 2018

The two-month old uprising in Nicaragua against the government of President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo (Ortega’s wife} has turned into a city-by-city battle for control. Students began the protests with opposition to cuts to Social Security, but now, the chief demand of the spreading movement is the resignation of the Ortega-Murillo government.

At one point, the government seemed to teeter, but government-backed paramilitary forces are waging a campaign of terror to intimidate the population into submission. Meanwhile, the government is negotiating with a fractious grouping of opposition representatives in an effort to resolve the crisis. Ortega has indicated he may be willing to accept early elections in 2019, but not leave power any sooner. But it’s unclear whether this is a sufficient concession to demobilize the anti-government protests.

Oscar René Vargas is a Nicaraguan sociologist and political analyst who was a militant in the Sandinista revolution, and is now a critic of the political and moral degeneration of the FSLN and the Ortega government. This article first appeared in Correspondencia de Prensa and was translated by Lance Selfa.

1. The events of June 15-17, 2018, lead us to the following conclusion: The Ortega-Murillo government has no political will to find a peaceful solution to the country’s crisis. Nor will it leave power. That is why it has unleashed a terror offensive using the police, hired assassins and paramilitaries in the cities of Masaya, León, Estelí and the eastern neighborhoods of the city of Managua.

2. The Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) have condemned the massacre by government-affiliated paramilitaries.

3. The Ortega-Murillo government is demonstrating that, even as it participates in a National Dialogue forum (mediated by the Catholic Church and comprised of representatives from the government and various opposition forces), it continues to act with a “war” mentality against the people because it has been losing its social base in Nicaragua’s different regions and within the state machine.

A mass demonstration against the Ortega government in Masaya, Nicaragua
A mass demonstration against the Ortega government in Masaya, Nicaragua

4. Heavily armed paramilitary groups kill, kidnap and torture in broad daylight under the protection of the executive, in collusion with, and even the participation of, police officers. The Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH) reports 215 deaths, more than 2,000 wounded and hundreds of disappeared as of 11:45 a.m. on June 17.

5. There are two fronts of the struggle running in parallel: a) the streets and the road blockades, where the Ortega-Murillo government has been pushed back in a several places, even while people are killed at the roadblocks and in the streets day and night; and b) the National Dialogue, where the government delegation has set the pace with more cunning and skill than the representatives of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy (ACDJ).

6. The ACDJ includes representatives from COSEP [the equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce] and social movements, such as peasant organizations opposed to the planned inter-oceanic canal, feminist and civil society organizations, and the five movements that make up the University Coalition (the April 19 University Movement, the April 19 Student Movement, the Coordinating Committee for Justice and Democracy, University Alliance of Nicaragua and students from the National Agrarian University (UNA)).

7. The government’s main tactic is the brazen physical elimination of people in order to cause intimidation, fear and terror. It hasn’t succeeded because the unarmed population is becoming more outraged. This attitude is without precedent in struggles in Nicaragua during recent decades.

8. Government representatives are trying to construct a narrative to discredit civil society’s representatives in the Dialogue, while undermining the citizen’s movement in the eyes of the international community. The government is facing tremendous international pressure from several Latin American countries, Europe, the United States and international bodies.

9. Another of the government’s aims is to force the representatives of the ACDJ and/or the Nicaraguan Bishop’s Conference (CEN) to walk away from the table and to scuttle the National Dialogue. That is the reason for the high level of cynicism about the government’s interventions. At bottom, it wants to anger and outrage the ADDJ representatives and the bishops so it can wrest control of the negotiations from them.

10. Despite the limitations, the National Dialogue is in fact another arena for struggle. It is a valid and legitimate space. It is the space where the government’s “policy of terror” is exposed, recorded and documented.

11. Ortega is lying shamelessly. He is carrying out a war of attrition in which he says one thing and does another. The Ortega-Murillo government has moved against the demonstrators with the same repressive ferocity employed by the Somoza dictatorship. Ortega, like a character from the Lord of the Rings, has been unable to escape the most perverse and negative allures of power. He has become a dictator like Somoza.

12. Big business has distanced itself from Ortega-Murillo. They had provided cover for the regime in exchange for a good business climate and extraordinary profits. They had opted to turn a blind eye to the complete demolition of the political opposition and the absolute monopolization of all the institutions and public authorities. Today they fear paying the price for their folly, so they cling to the idea of a “soft landing,” meaning “Orteguismo” without Ortega.

13. Different readings are offered for the military’s passivity during this crisis. For some, it means that the military is complicit with Ortega-Murillo. Others think that it has turned its back on the regime. And there are those who applaud the fact that it remains in the barracks because its intervention could only make the current situation worse.

14. The army’s intervention is seen as the key to tipping the scales toward either side. However, so far, the armed forces’ only action has been to deny publicly their participation in the conflict and to commit themselves to not taking up arms against the demonstrators.

15. On May 12, the army issued an ambiguous statement calling for nonviolence, supporting dialogue, and the Bishop’s Conference, but not condemning killings by the government’s paramilitary forces.

16. The main reason the Army is keeping its distance is because it is looking after its corporate and economic interests. In addition to investments in Nicaragua, military institutions have shares in the New York Stock Exchange and other investments in the United States. So getting directly involved with Ortega in this context could provoke U.S. economic sanctions against the institution itself and individual members of the military leadership.

17. Another reason for not intervening is to preserve its institutional integrity for a political transition, since the army, unlike the police, is currently one of the few public institutions that does not have “blood on its hands.” To survive, the army must separate itself from the Ortega-Murillo government’s fatal errors.

18. At present, there probably are not even 80 members of the army who started out as officers after 1990. Up until now, this sector remains a minority in the army.

19. The cities of Masaya, Catarina, Niquinohomo, Jinotepe, Dolores and Diriamba have all been taken over by the civic insurrection. In the city of León, only the city center has yet to fall. Roadblocks continue in the north of the country and in the Boaco, Juigalpa corridor that reaches all the way to Nueva Guinea. There is no entry or exit for international transport, and 6,000 trucks are trapped on the country’s highways.

20. On June 16, after taking Nindirí and removing the roadblocks, police and paramilitaries entered the city and went house to house to capture and kill all those suspected of being members of the insurgent opposition. They had done the same thing before in the city of Masatepe.

21. In Matagalpa, hundreds of people marched on June 16 through the main streets of the city demanding justice and an end to the repression. One person was killed in the city of Bilwi on the Caribbean coast, and another was injured in San Marcos; meanwhile, fuel shortages in Esteli were caused by the June 16 and 17 protests. In Bilwi, unidentified individuals looted businesses of well-known leaders of the ruling party.

22. The June 14 general strike was called not to bring down the government but to resume negotiations. It was a simple pressure tactic. The strike was successful because the people want decisive action to put an end to the Ortega-Murillo government’s massacres.

23. The government’s delaying tactics have been used to regroup its forces and show the U.S. government that, despite the crisis, it is strong enough to remain in power. It also wants to show its willingness to resolve the crisis through dialogue/negotiation in order to avoid sanctions from the U.S. Congress.

24. Under these conditions, the National Dialogue was resumed on June 15 and 16, and the Ortega-Murillo government “gave in” when the IACHR mission (which is establishing an International Research Group), the UN High Commissioner, the European Union and the OAS all arrived in the country for an open-ended visit.

25. Clearly, Ortega has not followed through on any of the agreements established in the National Dialogue. Neither are the people backing off from the roadblocks. No one will give up the road blockades without first ensuring Ortega-Murillo’s resignation.

26. The link between the dialogue and the street must be maintained. This struggle is taking place in different spaces and with different languages, although with the same objective: stop the massacre, stop the repression and force Ortega-Murillo to resign.

27. The presence of international bodies on the ground means that responsibility for crimes against humanity can easily be confirmed. The massacre of the resistance and civic revolution provide grounds for demanding the immediate resignation of Ortega-Murillo and the disarmament of the paramilitaries.

28. Local media have reported that Ortega told a member of the U.S. Senate that he would be willing to call new elections, but not to leave power.

29. Ortega has proposed to hold early elections in 2019 in order to secure more time in power, during which he plans to find new tricks to help him stay in office indefinitely.

30. At the same time, the government is stalling any decision about early elections with the aim of improving its political fortunes. Also, it gives it more time to implement a cleanup operation in several cities, as it is doing in Masatepe and Managua.

31. For example, in Managua, pro-government forces burned down a three-story house with a family inside. Two small children and four adults died. Paramilitaries and the police were responsible for this. The two survivors and witnesses accused government assassins of setting the fire.

32. The government’s central objectives are to contain the popular insurrection, prevent its overthrow, overcome the crisis and promise business sectors early elections.

33. If, in the coming weeks, the government succeeds in changing the balance of forces on the ground, weakening or demoralizing the resistance of the roadblocks, then everything will have changed. It will have survived its most dangerous moment.

34. However, on Saturday, June 16, the Coordinating Committee of Social Movements and Civil Society Organizations called for reinforcing and extending the roadblocks. These are the only guaranteed means that citizens have to neutralize the death squads protected by the government.

35. If the demand for Ortega-Murillo’s immediate resignation is abandoned, it will in fact confirm that the government can survive until early elections are held at some unspecified date. Any agenda that leaves out the central demand of “they must go” is a betrayal of the people and the dead.

36. In the street, dialogue is treated with skepticism. Up to now, talks have only seen more violence, and the government has not complied with even its initial conditions. By not agreeing to these conditions, the government signals that it has no intention of joining a real dialogue. It is trying to prolong this whole system of repression so that the people tire and demobilize.

37. The separation between the Civic Alliance negotiators in the National Dialogue on the one hand and the socio-political dynamics of the blockades on the other is real. The fact is that the representatives of the Civic Alliance do not really direct the roadblocks, which have their own dynamics. This contradiction between the social base of the insurrectionary movement and the negotiations led by businessmen is real, and the government knows it. So, for its own sake, the government is trying to drive a wedge through this contradiction.

38. The social and student movements make up the majority of the protests. They are the ones who have marched and fought in the streets. They are the ones who risk their lives at the blockades. But the people in charge of negotiations are the businessmen of COSEP and FUNIDES [a business-funded think tank].

39. The social movements must regain control of the negotiations, wresting them from COSEP/FUNIDES, if they want to expel the presidential couple from the government, the first real and true step in the democratization of Nicaragua.

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40. Repeating the experience of the city of León, spreading the strike city by city until it becomes an indefinite general strike, would create the conditions for the Ortega-Murillo government’s definitive departure.

41. The route towards democracy proposed by the Coordinating Committee of Social Movements and Civil Society Organizations includes four major steps: a) removal of Ortega-Murillo from power; b) formation of a transitional government; c) election of a Constituent Assembly; and d) general elections once a new political constitution is in place.

42. In my personal opinion, there is no other way out of the socio-political crisis than the immediate resignation of Ortega-Murillo. Otherwise, the repression and killings will continue.

First published in Spanish at Correspondencia de Prensa. Translated by Lance Selfa.

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