An important analyst and early founding member of the FSLN now in exile in this article proposes political reasons behind the puzzling lack of reaction of the Nicaraguan government to the coronavirus threat.
Óscar René Vargas: “Ortega´s Regime is betting on creating chaos”
The sociologist, economist, historian and political analyst reveals a possible political strategy which the Ortega regime is implementing in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Ana Cruz in La Prensa, April 4, 2020
Óscar René Vargas, 73 years old, is one of the cofounders of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) in the sixties. In 2006 when Daniel Ortega sought once again to get to power, he was one of those who supported his campaign, but his relationship with that party ended twelve months later, because he dared to reveal that “thinking is dangerous” within that political organization, and the Ortega regime did not like that.
Now from Costa Rica, in what he calls his second exile, Óscar René Vargas, sociologist, economist, historian and political analyst, author and co-author of more than 50 books, analyzes the scenarios in which Nicaragua will find itself in 2021. In addition, he points out what he thinks is the strategy that the Ortega regime is implementing to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to offset the civic rebellion that began in April 2018.
Everyone sees the inaction of the regime of Daniel Ortega in the face of COVD-19, do you think that it is affecting his image more?
First of all, I must say that this coronavirus is not an issue between the regime and the opposition, it is an issue that must concern all of us in the country. Unfortunately, the Government has adopted a policy, a strategy on this issue, that consists in letting the disease enter with the political objective that the people themselves begin to say that you have to be more concerned about coronavirus, and not about the issue of the political divinity of the Government. The proof of what I am telling you is the press release itself that the students issued this week, that says that you have to be concerned about the issue of health, and that is not political, but all public policy in health is a policy of the Government, in other words, every action of the Government is political, that is the mistake that people are falling into, and it is an mistake that several from the opposition are falling into as well.
In other words, you think that Ortega is also using COVID-10 to offset the civic struggle that has been developing since April 2018?
Correct. The proof is that the press release from the students does not propose any action of civic struggle, etc. In other words, the civic struggle is being left to one side, almost no one is talking about political prisoners.
So, the fight against COVID-19 should not displace the fight that has been happening for now nearly two years?
Correct. That is the objective that they should not lose, because the problem is that this is the approach of the Government, if it continues to be applied in the same way, and that is why there has to be pressure to change their policy, because if not, It is going to be a disastrous thing for the country, this situation is going to quickly collapse the hospitals and health centers, and therefore, there is going to be an extraordinary amount of deaths. This is the issue behind that, in other words, the fact that the regime has not taken any preventive measures in the case of the coronavirus pandemic is not because they do not want to, but because it is a strategy. The objective is to dismantle social protests, social mobilizations, if a complete disaster comes, try to stop the US sanctions.
But do you really believe that the Ortega regime is achieving this objective? There are opponents, for example, who continue demanding the freedom of the political prisoners.
I do not believe that the objective is being achieved with everyone, but precisely the objective of Ortega is this, dismantle the opposition and turn attention to the coronavirus. The objective is to divide. Some are no longer addressing the problems for which people were fighting for nearly two years.
So, I insist, is Ortega achieving the objective according to your analysis?
Partially, but the problem is that five crises are being confronted that they do not control, five crises that are developing more every day, and this is the weakness of the government. The problem of the people that believe that you should not get involved in politics is because they do not understand that the five crises have their own dynamics. The dynamic of the health crisis is one, the dynamic of the economic crisis is another, the dynamic of the international crisis is another, the problem of the Central American crisis, and the problem of the international crisis, the problem of the crisis in the United States. Only in the United States, to give you an example, there are more than 100,000 people affected by the virus, in other words, they are crises where the Government has no control, but that in one way or another have a repercussion in Nicaragua. The crisis of the United States means for Nicaragua that there are 2.2% of jobs have been lost, and most are in the construction sector or in commerce, jobs that generally are occupied by migrants, so this means that family remittances are going to drop. The crisis in Central America is where the Government does not have control either, let us remember that remittances also come in from Panama and Costa Rica.
With regard to economics, the Ortega regime, through the official media, has been justifying that it did not order a quarantine because, precisely the informal sector is one of those most affected by those measures.
The clearest example that they are not concerned about those sectors is that the Ortega unions themselves, who are in the free trade zones, are forcing workers to retreat to their homes without pay, alleging that it is to protect employment. They are promoting unemployment. In other words, this propaganda discourse that they are not stopping for the informal workers does come from a reality that is being experienced, because at least between 70 and 80 percent of economically active people are within the informal sector. In the face of that, there is no policy that would help them. They only use them, and put up their photos, to justify that they are not doing anything for those who live day to day and are exposed to coronavirus.
What public actions or policies would have to be happening for the most vulnerable sectors of the country, such as the informal workers?
The first thing that the Government has to do is ensure the basic resources of the country for people: energy, potable water and sewage, drainage. The municipal governments should be geared toward this work, to keep the pandemic from propagating. The other detail is that people go out in the streets to get food and the expenses of daily life, because they only have their work space in the streets, because the system has not been able to incorporate them into the formal economic system, in other words, street vendors can be indirect victims of coronavirus. These citizens cannot isolate themselves and stay in quarantine, but the problem that they are also confronting is that there is another sector that is staying in quarantine, you have to be clear that at this time there is no policy that can resolve these problems, but there are some measures that can mitigate the problem: remove taxes on all the products of the basic basket of goods to make the prices cheaper and more accessible to the population; that the people stop paying for basic services and taxes for three months; so that people can dedicate their money to the purchase of the basic basket of goods; that people have access to true information to prevent the distortion of information; that the State change its policy and seek to mitigate the increase in coronavirus, this means that the students would no longer go to school, that government officials would no longer go to their institutions unless they are indispensable, that businesses close and can only offer through delivery. There is a series of measures that the Government can take to mitigate the crisis because of the coronavirus, but poverty they have not been able to resolve in 13 years, and they are not going to resolve it right now in this period.
Some of the policies that you have mentioned do not require more than will, what is the regime of Daniel Ortega betting on, politically speaking, in the face of COVID-19 with this inaction?
I think that he is betting on creating social chaos. That they might appear as the saviors and call a national emergency, a national roundtable, so that people come to talk and they direct this matter. They want to dismantle the protest. In two years with the repression they have not been able to do that, and they think that the social chaos, that might be established because of the humanitarian crisis, could dismantle the social protest, that is a political strategy that they have. Now this political strategy also has another element, which is that this social chaos and this chaos because of the health crisis might allow the regime to appear as a regime that needs international aid to be able to address the fiscal shortfall that they have in the budget. They are out looking for how they can fill the treasury with international aid. The strategy of the regime has several angles, not just one, it has the angle of killing off social protest, the proof is that people are talking about the fact that you cannot mix politics with humanitarianism, but the Government continues repressing, the fear continues, in other words, the policy of repression has not changed.
So, if they want to create chaos to displace social protest, how do you think we are going to get to 2021?
That is precisely the objective of the regime, getting to 2021. Personally, I think that they cannot get to 2021. Why do I think that? Because the poor management of the health crisis can be a trigger for a deeper social and political crisis that could generate an unexpected fall of the regime, like no one was able to foresee the rebellion of 2018. This is the same. In this possible scenario where the regime might fall, the opposition would have to be proactive to be able to present a transition government. This is the central element for me.
But in the case that he gets to 2021, would we see a weaker regime?
I think that he is not even going to get there, because, look, only the departure of the regime can allow us to begin to truly resolve the problems and change the strategy of dealing with coronavirus. Ortega does not want to change because that weakens him. In other words, any truce that might want to be given to the Government, what is does is facilitate him getting to 2021.
That is precisely what I wanted to get at. A political or economic truce is talked about, how viable is this?
This just means establishing again the alliance between the economic powers and the regime. If the health crisis goes beyond April 30 what is most likely is that the economy will reach a drop of -5%… But even forming an alliance, the economy cannot be solved while the health problem is not resolved. There has to be a change in the health, economic and social policy, in other words, all that weakens the Government, and that is why it is not doing it. I do not see the economy is going to straighten out by this year, and I would see it to be political suicide on the part of big capital if it looked to negotiate with the Government, but these press releases that the students have been issuing endorse a possible truce because they want to give a non- political covering to things that are political.
And so, how does Ortega remain on the international level in the face of this irresponsibility with which he is acting in the face of COVID-19?
So far Ortega has been left alone on the international level, because previously he invoked the fact that other countries were not acting, but now only they are the ones who are not doing anything to prevent the spread of the virus. He no longer has the backing of Cuba, nor Venezuela, who are his political allies, not even Russia, because yesterday they announced that they are building a 500 bed hospital, in other words, there is no one in the world who has the position of Ortega-Murillo in the face of COVID-19. This situation of isolation obviously is going to have repercussions for him. The proof of that is that the United States decided that, in the support for the fight against coronavirus in the region it did not include Nicaragua, therefore this has repercussions on other international organizations, that also will not be very much in agreement in supporting Ortega, because he is acting contrary to all the recommendations of the World Health Organization. Ortega is being left internationally isolated and this weakens him even more because of the internal weakness that he has had. In other words, that combination of internal and external weakness puts the government of Ortega in a predicament, that it is weaker and therefore, he is going to look for a way to enter into a logic of creating consensus with some social sector that would lend itself to that ploy.
In terms of the weakness of Ortega on the international level, the fact that countries like Venezuela and Cuba, in addition to Nicaragua, are joining with other members of the UN to request a call for the lifting of sanctions, what does that show?
In the case of the other countries, like Cuba itself, the sanctions have been against the State, and in Nicaragua they have been against individual people, with the exception of the Police, so, there isn´t the evidence to equate them with the situation of sanctions that impact the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, they would have to very clearly differentiate this.
So, should they not even be included in this pronouncement?
No. Not even did Michelle Bachelet herself include them, because she mentioned the sanctions that have an impact on the country, not on individuals.
In terms of the sanctions against regimes, the Government of the United States has not remained quiet, recently Nicolás Maduro practically was designated a criminal on the international level. How does this affect Nicaragua, Maduro being one of the principal allies of the Ortega dictatorship?
I would say that they trained their guns on Maduro. Two intelligence chiefs turned themselves in, and now they pull out a framework to democratize the country, in other words, they are offering the regime a ladder to get out; but the regime obviously is going to say no, but this is going to soften up a part of the Army. The repercussion for Nicaragua is that the Government of the United States is saying that, in spite of the coronavirus, they are continuing with their political strategy for Latin America. So, Nicaragua continues on the US radar…One element of evidence for this is the nomination of Carlos Trujillo, as Sub-secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs.
If the international community continues doing their part, and the regime its part with these strategies that you are commenting on, in the face of COVID-19 and the rebellion of April, what then is left for us Nicaraguans?
I think that you have to continue the resistance. It does not mean that I am sending people into the streets, because the conditions that have changed. The resistance now means making issues like the freeing of political prisoners, the repression, continue being important issues in the political struggle, this means that it be an important issue for international organizations and pointing out that, as long as the Ortega-Murillo government remains in power, the danger that Nicaragua might become the focus of the health crisis in the region becomes more real every day. In other words, an uncontrollable crisis can break out in Nicaragua that is going to have repercussions on the countries of Central America.
 Current High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations