This article, and a similar one by Cajina published in ENVÍO this month, respond to an important question about the role of the Nicaraguan Army vis a vis the current crisis. This is especially important in light of the government´s position that what was really behind the crisis was an attempted coup. Ortega and Murillo blame the Bishop´s conference, the self convened, the UCA and other Nicaraguan NGOs of colluding with right wing sectors connected to the US to bring about a coup. This article examines the response of the military to the crisis, and specifically addresses the government accusation of a coup.
NICARAGUAN ARMY, SPECTATOR OR ACCOMPLICE?
By Roberto Cajina, Civil Consultant in Security, Defense and Democratic Governance
Published on 100% Noticias website, Dec 3, 2018
Good beginning, terrible end
After the defeat of the FSLN in the general elections of Feb 1990, the Nicaraguan Army began an unprecedented and hopeful process of restructuring of Defense. The objective: set the bases for its professionalization and institutionalization to survive in an adverse and very complicated scenario. Unprecedented, because from being the army of a party – the FSLN – it would be turned into the military institution of the nation, of all Nicaraguans. Unprecedented also because it would be the first time that Nicaragua would have an army that was not subjugated to the interests of groups in power or any political party. Hopeful, because on recognizing and accepting the supremacy of the legally constituted civil authority, it supported the difficult process of the construction of the democratic institutional structure in the country.
Even before the defeat of the FSLN in the elections of February 1990, the first step was the reform of the Law for the Creation of Ranks of Honor, Military Responsibilities and Ranks in July 1986, where the old ranks of the guerrilla were abandoned, and a hierarchical scale was established consistent with what exists in all the professional militaries around the world; the second step was the formal rupture of its connections with the FSLN through the resignation of its principal chiefs and officers in 1990 from the responsibilities that they exercised in the party bureaucracy, as stipulated in the Transition Accords of March 1990.
Time would demonstrate that this was not more than a simple formality, because in real terms it was not possible that only by that “resignation” they would be stripped of their political loyalty to the party, that had been the womb where it was incubated and had developed for the space of a decade. Moreover, I have always said that the “red and black heart” that the founders – its commanders and high officers -carried within themselves never disappeared. The third step was the construction of the legal framework of the institution, whose fundamental pillar is Law 181, Code for the Organization, Jurisdiction and Social and Military Provision of September 1994, which changed the moniker of the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) to the Nicaraguan Army, and later the laws relating to military justice, among others.
Until the end of 2006 the Army of Nicaragua enjoyed national recognition and was, with good reason, a first line reference point on regional and hemispheric levels. Its role in the political transition from authoritarianism to democracy, in other words, from the regime of Daniel Ortega to the government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, and the two legitimately elected governments that followed her, was key in the haphazard process of the construction of democratic institutions in Nicaragua. It was the highly polarized scenario of the first years of the transition, when the government of Ms. Barrios de Chamorro was submitted to intense destabilizing pressures, from the radicals of the UNO and the most conservative sectors of the US Congress, as well as the FSLN extremists, whose leader, Daniel Ortega, decided to “govern from below”.
Twenty years later, nevertheless, now with Daniel Ortega once again in power, and his authoritarian involution underway, hope was frustrated. Starting in 2010 with the naming of Julio César Avilés as the new commander in chief, the Army began to squander everything that it had achieved up to then, and entered into a process of de-institutionalization. Two weeks after the partial reform of the Constitution in January 2014, Law 181 was reformed, the Code for the Organization, Jurisdiction and Social and Military Provision that gave the Army greater levels of functional autonomy and almost complete institutional autonomy. At that time the identification of General Avilés with the policy to maintain the status quo of Daniel Ortega was very clear, where the corporative interests of the Army, administered by the Institute of Social Military Insurance, and the individuals in the military leadership – the generals and colonels – merged with those of the Ortega-Murillo consortium. Daniel Ortega never missed an opportunity to remind the soldiers in their official events of their “Sandinista origins”, but not as one of the values of their original military identity, but rather personal to his dynastic political project.
Impassive in the face of the police and the paramilitary massacre
Throughout nearly eight months, from April 18 to today, the Army of Nicaragua has remained apparently impassive in the face of the political and humanitarian crisis that the country is experiencing. The repression unleashed by the Police and the paramilitary gangs of the Ortega-Murillo regime has left more than five hundred killed, more than 4,000 wounded, 1,609 disappeared, hundreds of people captured illegally, abducted, tortured, more than 500 political prisoners and close to 400 people judicially processed under unfounded charges, like terrorism and organized crime. Many have asked and ask themselves what is this supposed indifference of those in uniform due to, while sectors of the population and some political actors have demanded the intervention of the Army to disarm the gangs of paramilitaries who, along with the Police, murder, abduct, and capture those who demand freedom, justice and democracy. Indeed, the effrontery of the Army is not how it appears. Without directly intervening in the crisis, the very fact of keeping quiet in the face of the repression and the genocide turns them into silent accomplices of the regime.
The press release of April 21, the press release of May 12 and the press release of May 30 have been the only three times in which the military has fleetingly came out of is oyster shell of secrecy in which it has enclosed itself. In the first statement, immediately after the massacre began, titled “The Position of the Army before the situation of the country”, stated that in the last hours they have been “filled with grief and mourning” and that they join and support “the decision of the search for a solution through dialogue to find a consensus response to the issue that gave rise to these moments of grief”. Likewise they rejected “the manipulation of information that has been carried out on the work of the Army of Nicaragua,” without specifying what that “manipulation” was.
The press release of May 12, almost a month after the Police and the paramilitaries unleashed their orgy of criminal and bloody repression of innocent Nicaraguans, and four days before the National Dialogue was installed, expanded on the terms of the press release of April 21. They “show solidarity with the families who have lost their loved one, and those who in one form or another have been affected by all the acts of violence” assuring that they support “the efforts to clarify these acts and that the law be applied.” The Dialogue, they point out, “is the only path that will avoid irreversible impacts on our people, our economy, national development and our security.” Likewise they support “the work of mediation and witness to the dialogue that His Eminence is leading, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes.” And they warned that “the current situation is dragging us to the division of the Nicaraguan family from campaigns that are promoting hate”, without pointing out who is doing the fomenting.
The press release of May 30 – right after sharpshooters stationed in the installations of the National Stadium shot at the huge march on Mother´s day, and killed eight self-convened young people in front of the principal entrance to the Central American University (UCA), in addition to three killed in Chinandega, one in Masaya and four in Estelí, where similar marches to the one in Managua were being held, in addition to dozens of wounded – is exculpatory and only refers to a video that circulated in the social networks where double cabin pickup trucks appear with armed people entering and leaving the installations of the Military Hospital. The note says that the Army “reiterates its rejection of all types of manipulation of false information that through different media is disseminated to distort the actions of our institution”, assuring that they will never accept slanderous information. “The Army of Nicaragua has absolute control over its Forces and Resources,” they stated. After these three documents, absolute and profound silence until today. Except for a light reference to the dialogue, not one word from General Julio César Avilés, commander in chief of the Army, on the massacre, for example, on the celebration of the 39th anniversary of the Naval Forces this past July 30.
In addition, a small digital daily publication of Managua on July 18 published a note titled “Army of Nicaragua rejects a role of “coup mongers”, where the spokesperson for the armed institution appears more concerned about the image of the Army and insists on legal formalities related to the behavior of the Army during the crisis. Pure form and nothing of depth.
The three dimensions to the ostracism of the military
The silence of those in uniform in the face of the political crisis that Nicaragua is experiencing since last April 18, and to the people murdered, wounded, abducted and tortured by police and paramilitaries, has three dimensions: one legal, another political and the third is financial. The first involves constitutional precepts, and the second what is established in Law 855, the Military Code reformed in January of 2014. The first thing that should be underlined is the incoherency between the constitutional mandate and what the law prescribes in terms of the intervention of the Army in public security and domestic order missions. On the one hand, article 92 of the Constitution states that “Only in exceptional cases can the President of the Republic, in the Council of Ministers, in support of the National Police, order the intervention of the Army of Nicaragua when the stability of the Republic is threatened by large internal disorders, calamities or natural disasters.” Even though this constitutional article establishes a clear restriction on the military in so far as it allows them to act “only in exceptional cases” and “serious internal disorders” and by order of the President of the Republic, the fact is that what is happening in Nicaragua is an exceptional case and those who have provoked the serious internal disorders have been the poilice themselves and the paramilitaries. In any case, it would not be in support of the Police, but to disarm the police and paramilitaries alike. But who would think that Ortega would order the Army to intervene to neutralize the two pillars that are keeping him in power?
Against the grain of what the Constitution prescribes, article 2 of law 855 states that one of the 20 functions of the Army is “Make their forces and resources available to fight threats to national security and defense, and any illegal activity that would put at risk the existence of the Nicaraguan state, its institutions, and the fundamental principles of the nation.” As can be verified, while the Constitution conditions the intervention of the Army, Law 855 does not, and leaves their hands untied to intervene without need for an order from the President of the Republic. This is the incongruence and the Army takes advantage of it, considering, even though without saying it expressly out of clear expediency, that the Constitution is above any ordinary law. In spite of that, it is always essential to ask oneself. Why did the Army not follow what their own Law ordered?
Millions of Army resources at risk
The political dimension is very clear. It is more than obvious that the current commander in chief of the Army, General Julio César Avilés, does not have nor the political authority nor the personal disposition to pound on the table of the Ortega-Murillo, as the commanders in chief who preceded him did do to the presidents in their terms, each one for different reasons. Even though Avilés is another one of the founders of the Popular Sandinista Army (EPS), his level of political ascendency is absolutely inferior to that of Generals Humberto Ortega, Joaquín Cuadra, Javier Carrión and Omar Halleslevens who preceded him. Avilés took over the leadership of the Army in February 2010 for a five year period, until February 2015, but because of his submission to the Ortega-Murillo couple, Daniel Ortega “rewarded” him, extending his period of command of the army institution for five more years, until February 2020.
The third dimension is relatively little known by the citizenry, except by specialists and maybe some politically informed sectors. It deals with the millions of dollars of resources of the Army that are administered very efficiently by the Institute for Social Military Insurance (IPSM). An audit of the Deloitte & Touche firm ascertained that in 2002 the IPSM had capital worth $29.5 million, which by 2009 had increased to $79.3 million dollars.
By 2012 those funds could have increased to $100 million, 40% of which are invested in US bonds, and are administered by investment firms Russel Investments, Reverence Capital Partners, and TA Associates. Just imagine, without having to do a complicated operation of financial mathematics, how much those resources of the IPSM are worth today, six years later. Nicaraguans in the United States have begun a campaign to get these investment firms to quit administering the pension funds of the Nicaraguan Army because, they state, it is money stained with the blood of Nicaraguans murdered by the Ortega-Murillo regime. “We must make them understand, they state in a letter sent to the general managers of these investment firms, that they are sitting on money soaked in the blood of our Nicaraguan brothers and sisters, so that they might break their relationship with the murderous regime of Daniel Ortega and his benefactors in the Army.”
The Army knows very well that getting openly involved in the bloody repression unleashed by the Ortega-Murillo regime, their funds invested in the United States would be automatically frozen and that its impact would be devastating. Practically they would not have the funds to cover their obligations with officers who have retired or will retire, nor to maintain the additional benefits that they offer their members. This explains, in part, not just the silence of the military, but also their lack of open, direct participation in the crisis and repression. In fact, in declarations to a US television network starting in September of this year, the Republican Senator Marcos Rubio warned the Nicaraguan military that if they did so, there would be “consequences. For example, their retirement funds, the retirement of the Nicaraguan military, are invested in the US Stock market. They is going to be frozen.” Enough of a threat to maintain at least appearances, no?
Moreover, through the IPSM the Nicaraguan Army is one of the principal shareholders of the Banco de Finanzas (BDF), one of the four banks of the country negatively rated by Fitch Group, the global leader in financial information services and credit ratings, which has already put at risk the financial interests of those in uniform, because in the case of bankruptcy the shareholders are the first ones affected. To the extent that the economic crisis caused by the political crisis triggered by the couple in El Carmen deepens, the risk will be ever greater, and this situation should have already set off alarms and put the military authorities into red alert, but it is not known what provisions they will be taking or have taken. This would be enough reason for the military to have warned Ortega that he is taking them over the cliff. But even so, they have closed ranks with the Ortega-Murillo regime. Is it that they will be willing to “die with their boots on”, squander their millions of dollars of resources, and leave the officers who pay into the IPSM forsaken and in ruin?
An army tailor made for Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo
Article 93 of the Constitution defines the Army as “a national institution of a professional, nonpartisan, apolitical nature, obedient and non deliberative.” In 1994 it prescribed that “the members of the Army of Nicaragua and the National Police will not be able to carry out political partisan activities.” On paper this could be music to the ears of Nicaraguans, unfortunately in reality they are only empty words. There are facts, apparently irrelevant ones, but in reality they are not, that show it. For example, up to before 2007 the celebrations of the anniversaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy were held, as appropriate, in their military units, usually in the morning, and under the procedures of Military Protocol. This changed in 2007 with the return of Daniel Ortega. First the Secretary of Communication and Citizenry, and then the Vice President of the Republic, monopolized the celebrations of the military. They began to be held outside of the military units and at the end of the afternoon. Militar Protocol, usually restrained, was replaced by the gloating of Rosario Murillo. The Blue and White flag of Nicaragua began to be steamrolled by the red and black FSLN flag to such an extent that these celebrations of a national nature were turned into party meetings with the consent of the military authorities, and in open violation of what is established in article 94 of the Constitution. In spite of this, those in uniform never have seemed to feel uncomfortable. It seems like they enjoy it. This nevertheless is not a simple formality nor a way of having the people participate in these celebrations, even though those held this year 2018 have been in closed places. It has to do with the open aim of sending an intentional message: “The Army is with the government, the Army supports the government.” With a deeply rooted militarist tradition in the collective imagination of Nicaraguans, this message could have easily permeated into the population, giving the regime a privileged position of power, the power of rifles, power on which the Ortega-Murillo regime sustains itself.
What did the military receive in exchange for their loyalty? Just unkept promises
Nevertheless, is it important to ask: what did the Army receive in exchange for their support for the bicephalous regime? Apparently nothing, just promises for the modernization of their air and naval resources, because what they have are very old, have already gone beyond their useful life, and their status is more than precarious. Ortega first tried to find those resources in Vladimir Putin´s Russia, but the government of the ex KGB agent did not have the conditions to replicate the donations of the “generous” assistance that the disappeared Soviet Union provided the Sandinista revolution in the decade of the 1980s. Ortega had no other option than to negotiate with a Russian shipyard for the purchase of six surface resources – four patrol boats and two missile frigates, the latter of course unnecessary – even a clueless general spoke about acquiring MIG 29 fighter planes with the outlandish idea of fighting drug trafficking as if it were a conventional war. It was also said that a fleet of Russian Yak-130 airplanes would be acquired, training and combat aircraft, of little or no use in the interdiction of international drug trafficking planes.
In the end, the Army had to be content with the donation of T-72 B1 tanks, which were discarded from the Russian Armed Forces, and which for Nicaragua only means more spending because you have to provide them maintenance, so they only serve to show them off in the military parades every September 2 when the anniversary of the founding of the Army is celebrated. But out of nowhere an unexpected light appeared at the end of the tunnel. The government announced that it had contracted with the Dutch company B.V. Schepswerf Damen Gorinchem for the purchase of two Damen Stan Patrol 4207 patrol boats, worth $14 million dollars. But without more explanations, that light went out because up to now, and in spite of the fact that the National Assembly approved the respective loan, the two patrol boats have not yet arrived at the nation´s ports.
The Army tolerates the paramilitaries, it is not acting out of expediency
But if the Army only receives unfulfilled promises in exchange for their support for the Ortega-Murillo regime, why does it keep silent in the face of the criminal repression unleashed by the governing couple? The only thing that one can think is that maybe they are defending part of their financial corporative interests and the individuals of the military high command, who might be colluding with Daniel Ortega, Rosario Murillo and their closest circle. Apparently there is no other explanation, because if anything is true, it is that their relationship is not grounded on ideological nor political convergence as in the decade of the 1980s. Now they are essentially utilitarian, for mutual financial benefit.
It could be true that the Army has “absolute control over its Forces and Resources”, as was stated in the press release this past May 30, but the reality is that the military have allowed, willingly or not, the Police and the paramilitaries to take from them the legitimate monopoly of the use of Force, and that has turned them into less than bit players in the crisis that the country is experiencing. The Constitution recognizes the existence of only two armed institutions in Nicaragua, one military – the Army – and the other of civil nature – the Police. Trying to contain and neutralize the unexpected and massive peaceful and civic rebellion of the self-convened, Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo resorted to the Police and the paramilitary gangs.
They were organized from the Vice Presidency of the Republic in coordination with the 135 municipal governments and the Councils of Citizen Power (CPC) at the territorial level that Murillo controls. The paramilitary gangs are composed of ex police and ex military, rank and file police who dress as civilians at night, workers of these municipal governments, an undetermined amount of more than 800 prisoners who were serving their terms, even long terms, who were freed by order of Daniel Ortega, demobilized military service members, demobilized and/or active gang-members and social risk youth, in addition to small scale drug traffickers on the local level. Their commands are distributed between members of the Association of Retired Military (AMIR), former members of the Special Troops of the Ministry of the Interior (MINT), known as the Pablo Úbeda Troops (TPU), active members of the Special Operations Office (DOE) of the Police, and police officers with military experience.
Paramilitaries, an armed body outside the Constitution
In spite of the fact that it is practically impossible to establish the exact amount of their members, it is important to point out that these gangs of paramilitaries constitute an authentic irregular force with military capacity, established with a quasi-military format, but who do not respond to the official command of the security forces, in this case the Police. In photographs and videos that circulate in social networks it is possible to identify the weapons they are using, among them AK-47 assault rifles, FAL and AR15s, 12 caliber shotguns, M1 carbines, pistols and revolvers.
If the Constitution expressly establishes that “there cannot exist more armed forces in the national territory than those established in the Constitution,” and the paramilitary gangs are a third armed force, who then is supposed to enforce this constitutional precept? I have already indicated that the Constitution points out that it is the President of the Republic. But if he does not do so, who should do it then? The response to this question is found in the Supreme Norm itself and in Law 855, which we will call the Law of the Army. The former points out in its article 95 that “The Army of Nicaragua will be governed by strict adherence to the Constitution, for which it will preserve respect and obedience;” the latter prescribes in its article 2 that one of the functions of the Army is to “make its forces and resources available to fight threats to national security and defense, and any illicit activity that might put at risk the existence of the Nicaraguan state, its institutions, and the fundamental principles of the nation.”
It is more than obvious that the paramilitaries, in so far as an illegal armed force, constitute a serious threat to national security and defense, and their illicit activities put at risk the existence of the State, its institutions and the fundamental principles of the nation. This article, as can be confirmed, does not condition nor restrict the intervention of the Army for controlling and neutralizing this “third armed body” organized, armed and financed by the couple in El Carmen. Consequently, if the Army does not make their forces and resources available to fight them, it is simply because they are not willing to enforce what the law orders them to do, in this way shoring up the Ortega-Murillo regime against the will of the great majority of Nicaraguans who demand justice and democracy and demand that they leave. But in addition the military violates the Constitution because by not doing so, it is clear that they are not governed by the Constitution, and neither respect nor obey it. So even though the Army has legitimacy of origins, by their complicit silence they do not have legitimacy of performance. Evidence of this is the little or null confidence that the majority of Nicaraguans have in the Army, and the unfavorable opinion that Nicaraguans have of General Julio César Avilés, commander in chief of the military institution, according to the opinion survey of CID Gallup done in September of this year.
An “attempted coup” and the Army, where was it?
Since it repealed the controversial reform of the INSS, and accepted dialoguing to try to resolve the crisis, on April 22, five days after the unprecedented civil and peaceful rebellion began, but maintaining its repressive escalation, the Ortega-Murillo government knew that it was cornered. They had nothing to offer in the Dialogue to solve the crisis which they themselves provoked in their obstinacy to remain in power. They arrived at the installation of the Dialogue with a disproportionate and intimidating security deployment, including two Air Force helicopters, and their hands empty, but already bloodstained. The first days of the Dialogue developed between the intransigency of the government and the firmness of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy. On May 23 , one week after having been installed, it was temporarily suspended.
One month earlier, April 23, the same day in which thousands of Nicaraguans participated in the largest peaceful self convened march in Managua, the first references appeared to a supposed “soft coup” or “soft landing”, that presumably was hatched against the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. One month later, May 23, the very day when the Dialogue was temporarily suspended, the official narrative changed from the “soft” to the “hard”. The Foreign Minister of Daniel Ortega, who led the governmental delegation in the National Dialogue, stated that the Agenda of the Dialogue presented by the bishops of the Episcopal Conference in their task of Mediation and Witness “is an Agenda that, on looking at its concentrated form, leads us to one point: The design of a path for a coup, the path to change the Government of Nicaragua.” But what the Agenda pointed out was the constitutional mechanisms for the celebration of a fair and transparent electoral process, indicating that to do so, a partial reform of the Constitution was necessary in order to move up presidential, municipal, legislative and autonomous region elections, as soon as possible, as well as other concurrent reforms.
Starting at that moment, the rhetoric of the “coup attempt” spread from the mouths of officials of the regime like wildfire, but was the Agenda presented by the bishops really a “attempted coup”? Obviously not, but in their desperation to discredit and criminalize the civic and peaceful protests of the self convened, the Ortega-Murillo regime resorted to the first issue that it found the easiest in order to turn themselves into victims; but it is the most unreasonable, because strictly speaking a coup is a violent action carried out by military forces or rebels who seek to seize the power of the State, and constitutes a lack of recognition of constitutional legitimacy. A serious political and conceptual slip up on the part of the Foreign Minister, because a “change of government” through a constitutional means is not synonymous with a “coup”, and the self convened are not soldiers nor rebels who attempt to seize the Government through violent means. The civic and peaceful nature of the civic and unarmed citizen rebellion is, without a doubt, the greatest denial to the official narrative of a coup.
Even Guillermo Fernández Maldonado, the Coordinator of the Mission of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Nicaragua, declared in a press conference on August 29th, that since the beginning of the crisis the Ortega-Murillo government proposed to the Mission that the protests dealt with a coup attempt that sought to break the constitutional order. “What we said to them [the government] –stated Fernández Maldonado – is that if that is the vision (of a coup) that they should give us access to the information and the places that would ratify that vision, and if we found that indeed the facts sustain that vision, we would make it public. They have not responded to us, he added, to any of the requests for information and they have not allowed us to go to any of the places that we proposed”, adding that the official information that the Mission has had access to “does not support that vision (of a coup).” The following day, with the falseness of their narrative uncovered and without any more arguments than force and the abuse of power, the Ortega-Murillo regime ordered the expulsion of the Mission of the OHCHR from the country.
But let us leave behind the intricacies of that dispute between the Government of Ortega and the Mission of the OHCHR, and let us assume that indeed the bishops of the Episcopal Conference and the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy really did attempt to carry out a coup of President Ortega, a coup that according to the latter has been plotted since he returned to power in January of 2007. Let us assume as well that those who were behind this conspiracy were, as Ortega has reiterated, “extremist forces in the United States who are settled in Florida”, and that it was carried out by the “clandestine armed forces that […] have become an instrument of death of the right wing coup.”
In such circumstances one must ask oneself: Why did Ortega wait 11 years to denounce it? Where were the Army and what were they doing meanwhile, along with the Office of Defense Information (DID), its body “specialized in strategic State information”, turned into an organ of political intelligence – political espionage – of the regime, in open violation of the constitutional precept that expressly “prohibits organizations of the Army and the Police, and any other State institution from carrying out activities of political espionage”? Nothing! Moreover, in none of the three documents (press releases mentioned above) issued by the Army is there even the most minimal reference to that “attempted coup”. In any country in the world a coup attempt is uncovered by its intelligence organs and immediately the security alarms go off to neutralize the conspiracy and capture the conspirers. But in Nicaragua that did not happen. The Army did not know, or was not able to discover in time the threat that was hanging over its Supreme Chief. It was Foreign Minister Moncado who did! And this has two explanations: or the DID is highly inefficient, or this information was maliciously saved away for unsuspected purposes.