This is an interview of Sergio Ramírez by the Costa Rican newspaper “La Nación”. He is a well known writer throughout the Spanish speaking world, and was Daniel Ortega´s vice President in the 1980s. In 1995 he was one of the founders of the MRS (Movement for Sandinista Renovation).
Sergio Ramírez: “Maybe what Daniel Ortega wants is to provoke a civil war”
By Ximena Alfaro M. in La Nación, July 17, 2018
The conflict in Nicaragua now has been going on for three months and there are nearly 300 deaths. President Ortega continues in power, but the writer and politician Sergio Ramírez thinks that even though he defends himself with police and paramilitaries, he is more and more isolated.
When Sergio Ramírez received the Cervantes award in Madrid on April 23rd, he dedicated it to the first 30 youth killed in the protests against the government of President Daniel Ortega.
Just five days had passed since the beginning of the social struggle that still afflicts Nicaragua. The civil rebellion that opened up a new chapter in the history of the country this Wednesday July 18 marks its third month and is maintained with barricades and uprisings in the streets to challenge the regime that has opted for hardening the repression and freezing the dialogue, while the figures for those who have died varies from between 280 and 300 people.
Sergio Ramírez was close to Daniel Ortega. With him he led the rebellion of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) that overthrew the Dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, and later was his Vice President between 1985 and 1990. Nevertheless, he distanced himself when Ortega separated himself from the principles of Sandinism. Since then he has become a critical voice against the government and is considered one of the most outstanding intellectuals of Latin America.
“To think that Daniel Ortega is going to leave tomorrow on his own will, that he is going to take a plane with his family, is really a fantasy.”
In this interview done by phone on Tuesday July 17th, the writer referred to the political strategy that the Nicaraguan president could be sketching out with the use of paramilitary forces. In addition, he stated that the pressure from the international community is needed, but is not enough to leave the crisis behind. He also evaluated the role of the Army, whose neutrality in the conflict he believes could end up being very costly for it given the increase in the repression. Ramírez talked with hope about the civil struggle that is marking an unprecedented change in Nicaragua, and he thinks that the battle is not lost because the spirit of the citizens “continues very high.”
Three months of conflict and the dialogue is stalled in Nicaragua. Does it continue to be the most effective mechanism for addressing the crisis, or is that path exhausted?
As the only tool possible to achieve a political understanding, the dialogue continues being valid, what happens is that it is stalled for two reasons: first, the intransigence of the government of never having wanted to discuss the issues of democratization. This is an issue that in the agenda designed by the bishops began with the shortening of the presidential period and celebrating elections by March of the coming year at the latest. The government dragged their feet on this, it was never accepted and then the government now says that it did not accept it. So, there we have a first barrier. Secondly, another commitment of the government was to end the repression, that they did not do either. These two fundamental points completely annulled the possibility for a negotiated solution.
“Immediately the government began to attack the mediators, to see the mediators of the Catholic Church as enemies, the attack on the Divina Misericordia Church connected to the assault on the National University in Managua, before that the personal aggression against the Bishops and the Apostolic Nuncio in the San Sebastián Church in Diriamba, the attack on the parish church of the Apostle James in Jinotepe. The mediators and witnesses of the dialogue have become, suddenly, the target of attacks of the government. Lastly, the imprisonment of Medardo Mairena, who is a member of the dialogue roundtable for the Civic Alliance of civil society; he is a peasant leader who was arrested and now is being accused of murder and a whole bunch of other crimes.”
“This led me to conclude necessarily that there is no will on the part of the government to continue the dialogue. At this point, it seems to me that the government of Ortega only used the dialogue as a means to gain time while it recomposed their paramilitary forces.”
At that moment, that was one of the principal fears: that Ortega would seek to gain time. Even though there was also a hopeful air.
“He realized that he could not confront that civic insurrection with the simple forces of the Police and the anti-riot police, and that is why he organized the paramilitary forces, which are very well armed forces with rifles of war and heavy machine guns, that are only sowing terror in the country, like right now in Monimbó which has been under fire since 6am (of Tuesday July 17th).”
“It is as if it were an army of occupation; so now that he feels that he has been able to advance on the barricades and free up the highways for traffic, he thinks that he is strong militarily and that he does not need any dialogue, which to me seems an illusion. Even though it is true, with a force of 1,000 or 1,500 men he can militarily dominate the situation, because the people are disarmed and are defending themselves with morters and homemade bombs, but the people cannot resist those attacks with high calibre weapons and weapons of war. In the face of a disarmed population, military superiority well obviously gives him an advantage in the field, but it seems to me that the advantage that I would call strategic he lost some time ago; in other words, he might be waging a war of terror, but the political war he has lost.”
Nevertheless the possibility of a quick departure of Ortega from power seems unimaginable.
“What happens is that thinking that Daniel Ortega is going to leave tomorrow on his own will, that he is going to get on a plane with his family, that really is a fantasy. Principally, as long as he feels that he has that fanatic base, because they are fanatics that are around him, all those masked people and they are there defending that he stay, and not that he stay until 2021, but that he stay forever. That is the guarantee that they have, that the only defense that they have for the crimes that they are committing is that Ortega be there forever, protecting them.”
“The day that key nail comes out, everything will fall apart; so, that is why he is going to continue. This is a worm gear: he has to insist that he stay and thus the others back him because he is going to perdure, but that is also a fantasy, because this situation cannot continue from here until the year 2021.”
What level is the violence reaching in Nicaragua?
“The first indicator are the numbers. Now we are heading for nearly 300 deaths, soon there will be 500; in other words, imagine 500 deaths by repression in a country like Costa Rica, that is completely unimaginable. This is the first shock of death. What death means in the heart of the family, in the neighborhoods, in the communities, in the circle of friends, in the university classmates of the dead. Each death has an enormous social and family impact, because we are talking about a country of nearly six million people.”
“Secondly, citizen security is zero, because one day the hooded people enter a home, take out a young man by his hair, who does not appear again or appears in a jail and no one provides a reason. There are dozens of mothers at the doors of the famous El Chipote, which is the military detention center, asking about their sons, their relatives or their husbands. There are no judicial nor legal guarantees for anyone, we are going as on a suspension of the rule of law and everything is being done in front of the international humanitarian organizations that are here, like the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights, the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations, the European Union, it seems like this does not matter to them. When these commissions request entry to the detention centers, at times they let them in, and other times they prohibit them from entering. There is no sense of shame in this situation, so there is no juridical security. That in addition to the number of dead, in addition to the mercilessness of the repression, can give you an idea of the trauma that the country is experiencing.”
What is left of the Daniel Ortega who you knew and who you accompanied in the Vice Presidency during the first government?
“We are talking about something that happened 35 years ago and I have not had any opportunity to go back to see him, so I do not know what to say in response in that sense, they are two situations very distant in time and completely different. What we are seeing here is a repressive government like very few that we have faced in the country, and he is at the head of this government.”
How has daily life changed in Nicaragua since the repression began?
“The universities have been closed for three months and the high schools as well. 10% of the public schools are functioning, no parent thinks about sending their child to school. Life ends at 5pm, everyone looks to get home. There is no night life in Managua, being out on the street after 6pm is putting your life at risk. Social life has changed a lot, so it is a situation of seclusion. This does not mean that people act with cowardice, people are acting with precaution, because here massive marches continue happening. People go out to protest leaving fear behind, and every time that there is a massacre or attack, the people go out in the street to demonstrate, and they come out by the thousands. In that sense, I think that this is far from being a lost battle to the extent that the spirit of the people continues to be high.”
“An isolated government, while the economy is falling to pieces, does not have the capacity to maintain itself.”
The new part also is that the fear maintained for so long has been lost.
“Yes, there was an explosion, I would not say of courage, but of audacity on the part of the people, of leaving fear behind and going out to express themselves. Before, here no one gave their opinion with their face and their name, now people come out on television and in spite of the fact that they are exposing themselves to the repression, they talk with their name, show their face, and express what they feel. This seems to me is a profound change for Nicaragua. I think that the country is in the midst of a irreversible decision to get to have a regime of justice, freedom and democracy, and since we are going to achieve it through civic means and not through arms, it seems to me that the possibilities that this democracy can get to be lasting are much more certain than if this depended on an armed victory once again against a dictatorship, and then we expose ourselves to the risk that the one who triumphs with the weapons has the temptation toward absolute power. This we are not going to have because this is a civic struggle.”
Do you see a government disconnected from reality, for example, when Rosario Murillo calls the opposition protestors “a minority of hate” or asks to “clean” the cities of barricades?
“I think that this discourse of Doña Rosario Murillo is a discourse deceitfully intentional, she says exactly the opposite of what is happening, but that is a strategy. The events that they themselves generate they call terrorist, but blaming the civilian population. It is a discourse very well calculated to keep their party members together. No one now is fooling civil society, here the big weapon are the social networks. Here everyone is informed up to the minute about what is happening, each citizen has become a journalist. Each citizen not only is a camera person, but narrates the events, is a journalist in the field and in the networks circulate thousands of images and messages every day, and this no one can defeat unless they would block the sources of internet and leave us in limbo.”
Could the role that the international community is playing end up being decisive?
“The international support is growing, the pressure is greater and greater and the declarations are stronger and stronger, like that of the Secretary General of the United Nations from Costa Rica, the unanimous position of the ex presidents of Costa Rica, the declaration of the president of Chile, of Argentina, the resolution that is going to be voted on (today) in the Organization of American States (OAS), that I hope is a forceful resolution, the position of the United States Government itself, that of the European Union, but that is not enough.”
“ A problem like this cannot be solved with declarations from outside. I am very grateful for these declarations, and I think that they are now sufficiently strong. There is international attention on Nicaragua, that is very good, but that is not going to resolve the problem. It is a piece to the solution of the problem. This problem has to be solved here in some way. I hope that never through a civil war, because maybe what Daniel Ortega would like is provoke a civil war and then the armed people at a disadvantage could be more easily masscred, and that would give him the opportunity to call the Army into the streets, something that he has not been able to do so far. The country has never experienced a civic struggle before, a citizen resistance like this is a new experience for Nicaragua , but I think that it is the only weapon that we have. If we resist in a civic manner, it could be that it is complex, that it could not have results in the long term, but I insist on the fact that this political battle Ortega has lost. How he is going to organize his departure, that is another matter, but he has to return to the dialogue table, because here he is alone, surrounded by paramilitaries and a more and more discredited police force. The rest of society is against him: the Catholic Church, private enterprise, students, youth, the people in the neighborhoods, the peasants. An isolated government, while the economy is falling to pieces, does not have the ability to maintain itself.”
Is there a need for more solidarity with Nicaragua on the part of the governments of Central America?
“There has been different stages in this. First, it seems to me that when SICA met (Central America Integration System), Ortega was able to get them to produce a resolution that we call in Nicaragua “rooster-hen”, one of those weak resolutions that called all parties to cease the violence, no matter where it came from. If here there is no violence from all parties, hiding this already seems to me that you are an accomplice; in other words, violence no matter where it comes from, but that is hypocresy, because here it is know where the violence is coming from. That stage has now been surpassed and the other Central American countries have been coming closer to the firm position that Costa Rica took from the beginning: demanding that the governmental repression cease, you have to call things by their name. Now the declarations that I have read from the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, are aligned with the declaration of Costa Rica. It seems to me that in this sense we have been progressing in this declaration of 13 countries that even Guatemala signed, because the tone is different. It seems to me that tomorrow (in the OAS meeting) there will be a considerable block of countries along the same lines when the Permanent Council of the OAS opens their meeting.”
How discredited is the OAS in Nicaragua, after Luis Almagro negotiated “under the table” an electoral calendar with Ortega?
“I do not think that it is at this moment. What happens is that Almagro was acting under the belief that Ortega was serious when he committed to move up the elections to March, and Almagro himself declared it in the session of the OAS, that Ortega had promised to move up the elections, and then he has stepped back from that. So it seems to me that the position of Almagro is very firm and clear in harmony with the immense majority of the countries of the OAS who have made pronouncements. I think that the OAS is an important, mulitlateral political instrument to help in the solution to this conflict. It seems to me that the resolution that is circulating would be a great support and I hope it happens.”
What do you think about sectors of the Latin American left like the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (El Salvador) and the ex-Uruguayan president José Mujica that have kept silent in the face of the slaughter?
“It seems to me that in this sense things are also changing. What happens is that here there is an orthodox and obsolete left that feels committed to defend those governments that are called leftist, like Venezuela or Nicaragua, when they do not behave as governments of the left, as I have understood the left since my youth, as an ethical force, that defends ideals for change in society, not as a force that kills and commits the same abuses that the right wing dictatorships in the past of the southern cone. It is difficult in these ideological frameworks, closeminded in this left, to understand that what is happening in Nicaragua is not a manuever of Yankee imperialism, as Ortega says and these international loudspeakers repeat.”
“This is an authentically popular movement, it is the people of Nicaragua who are in the streets wanting to achieve democracy, this is not a manuever of anyone, it is not a conspiracy of anyone, so those are obsolete ideological clichés, that this antiquated sector of the left uses.”
Have you received any type of threat recently?
“Personally no, but I know what I am involved in. I am in a frontal struggle, civic, accompanying the people. I know that I have a voice as an intellectual, as a writer and I am obliged to use that voice in favor of democracy in Nicaragua and to accompany the suffering of the people. So, I do not know what cost I will have to pay for raising my voice, but I am going to continue to do so because I feel it is my duty.”
The Army has made some calls to end the repression; nevertheless, they have been restrained. How do you evaluate their role?
“In this institutional debate, where all the institutions are cadavers, well the Army is maintained as an intact institution, and so far the Army organically has not participated in the repression. What many people are beginning to resent is that the Army allows armed paramilitary groups, armed to the teeth with weapons of war, to go out into the street with impunity, and the Army is not fulfilling its constitutional duty of disarming them, because the Army has the monopoly of the use of weapons of war, and should not allow that other masked people, no matter how much they are accompanied by the Police in combined operations, to use weapons that are reserved only for the use of the Army. It seems that in that sense the margin of the Army is being reduced a lot; in other words, the discourse of neutrality is losing opportunity to the extent that the repression increases, this is a serious responsibility that the Army has in the face of its own future and in the face of Nicaraguan society. I have defended the institutional role of the Army, I have thought that their role has to be preserved as an institution that is going to help in a transition to ensure stability, because in a political-civil-civic transition we are going to need elements of stability, but the silence of the Army in terms of the existence of these paramilitary groups I have to recognize that it is damaging its image. They have to make some type of decision.”
Can the business people be trusted now, after they were in an alliance with the Government for so many years?
“The business sector had an alliance here with the Government and I prefer to see them in the past, this is a moment in which all of us are together, there is a common front in the search for democracy and the business sector are playing a very important role in being part of this alliance. What they did in the past does not matter much to me, what matters to me is what they are doing now. There are people who made mistakes, others that did not, but let us see that in the past. At this moment there is a strong alliance here, between business people of all sizes, to find a democratic solution to this situation that has become irreversible since they killed the first young people on April 18th and from then on. It is no longer possible for a situation to return to that like before April where there was this understanding between the business people and the Government, that stage has run out, what is going to emerge from here is something new necessarily with the participation of the the business people.”
“This is a market economy; therefore, the business people have a role. What is not going to be able to be separated in the future is what Ortega tried to do with them, that I will take care of the politics and you be concerned with your business. No, politics is part of everything and above all when it deals with replacing a dictatorship with democracy.”
Do you think that this civic struggle will not end until a democratic solution is found?
“I believe so, I think that the energies of people are intact, and that no matter how many reverses they receive, no many how many reverses that the Government is able to inflict in terms of deaths, retaking bastions of the resistance, the struggle is going to take other civic paths. I insist a lot on this word, we cannot abandon this experience of changing this situation through absolutely civic means.”
Could this situation wear down the Nicaraguan president until it ends up removing him from power?
I think that the political isolation in which he finds himself, the animosity of society against the regime and the acelerated deterioration of the economy, in addition to the international pressure, are factors that are going to accumulate to offer some type of new outcome. All resistance is difficult, this is not going to happen overnight. Perseverance is needed, resistance is needed and what the Nicaraguan people have which is the spirit of civic struggle. That is the great motor.
Editor´s note: José Mujica, the ex president of Uruguay this Wednesday July 18th refered to the situation in Nicaragua and criticized the government of Daniel Ortega for the repression.