This is a long interview, but worth the read because it addresses in a comprehensive way different facets of the crisis and options for its resolution. The author was a founding member of the National Directorate of the FSLN in the 1980s, and has the experience of being part of the FSLN´s negotiating team during the transition after the FSLN lost the elections in 1990. The Spanish version is not yet available on the Cultura de Paz website, a magazine that for the 23 years of its existence has made important contributions to the promotion of peaceful resolution of conflicts. The author has been a frequent contributor to that magazine.
The crisis of April: Nature and scope
Interview of Dr. Jaime Wheelock Román, to be published in the “Cultura de Paz” magazine of the Martin Luther King Institute of the Poly-technical University of Nicaragua (UPOLI).
You were a member of the negotiating team in 1990, in an extremely delicate moment for signing the peace agreement, because as we know, Doña Violeta had won the elections, but the Resistance was armed. What are the most important experiences that, in your judgement, need to be recovered from those negotiations, taking into account as well that we were coming out of a war that had left 50,000 dead and hundreds of thousands of victims?
This has been one of the most critical and harrowing moments that many people still remember and that we all suffered, but it also showed us that if we Nicaraguans act with responsibility and patriotism, we can reach an understanding, get out of war and conflict, and move the country forward. Even in the midst of the armed conflict, the revolutionary government agreed to move up the elections to February 1990 in keeping with the agreements of Esquipulas and Sapoá. But also due to the pressing needs of that moment: the economic crisis was getting worse because of the effects of the war, and above all because the allies from the socialist camp were throwing in the towel because of the impossibility of their providing economic and military aid, and because of the reality that we had exhausted the reservoir of Patriotic Military Service, to be able to continue the conflict even one more year, to not even mention indefinitely.
Likewise, moving the elections up would allow us to receive the new US president George Bush with a very helpful electoral ecosystem installed in Nicaragua for blocking the continuity of the economic and military aid to the counter-revolutionary forces in the US Congress. Under these accords, the armed groups of the Contras or the Resistance had to be re-concentrated, demobilized and disarmed before the elections.
The FSLN lost the elections on February 25th, and the Contras continued armed. At that moment, the situation was very serious and unacceptable for Sandinism: losing the elections with an opposing army at its doors. The next day February 26th we, a delegation of the FSLN and the Government, held a meeting with three important observers: James Carter, ex-President of the United States; Joao Baena Soares, the Secretary General of the OAS; and Ramsey Clark, special envoy from the UN. Our delegation (Humberto Ortega, Joaquín Cuadra and Jaime Wheelock), after a quick evaluation of the situation, explained to those observers the essential concerns that were putting at risk the possibility for a peaceful transition: the Contra forces, without being disarmed and expecting to replace the Constitutional armed forces; the climate of vengeance and “long knives”** that was evident on the part of extremist sectors of the UNO; declarations from the victorious camp that they would roll back all the revolutionary changes, including, above all, the transformations in land ownership, and the rural and urban property allocations that benefitted hundreds of thousands of families.
The observers received these first reactions from us as legitimate concerns and promised that very morning to communicate with Doña Violeta and her team. By the afternoon there already was a response.
The first agreement was that Mr. Lacayo personally would travel to Honduras to accelerate and assure the demobilization and disarming of the Contras, so that it would take place before the inauguration on April 25th. The second agreement was the organization of a roundtable composed of high level representatives with enough power to arrive at agreements leading to a fluid and peaceful presidential transition. From that transition commission came the Transition Protocol agreements that assured a peaceful and successful change of government, but principally the establishment of peaceful conditions that would put an end to years of war, foreign intervention and the destruction of the country.
In my opinion the first thing to highlight in this effort is that the differences that have led us, even to war, can be resolved patriotically through dialogue and understanding; also you have to highlight the willingness that both parties showed in making very difficult reciprocal concessions in favor of national co-existence and peace. Likewise essential was the reconciliation between the parties achieved by the friendly mediators, Carter, Baena and Clark.
I also believe that the National Directorate of the FSLN had the political maturity to recognize the electoral defeat, not giving in to opportunities to fix the results to their favor, recognizing unanimously the triumph of their opponent, which also meant in those circumstances an unexpected mortal blow to the continuity of the revolution. We knew that it would put an end to the revolutionary stage, but understanding that it was not possible to continue without putting the population in risk of more sacrifice and blood. It was preferable to accept the defeat and in the future look to rectify and build new opportunities.
On part of the team of Doña Violeta, with Mr. Antonio Lacayo at its head, I would highlight the understanding and negotiating skill of recognizing that there were legitimate concerns on the part of the Sandinistas, among which I recall: the continuity of the Army and the Police, as well as their leadership; respect for the transformations of the Agrarian Reform; legalization of the homes that the revolution had provided; effort of both parties to create an environment of peace, mutual understanding and cooperation in favor of stability and the economic development of the country.
The negotiating effort was conducted in a discrete and really closed framework. This helped to avoid misunderstandings and interference, or false expectations from the public. Work was done for several weeks in daily meetings for long hours. We had the initial help of the reconciliation group that I mentioned, but nothing else. They played the role of high level facilitators at the beginning.
When we arrived at the final agreements, we asked Cardinal Obando to sign them with us as an Honorary Witness. And that is how it was. On April 25th the presidential sash was turned over to Doña Violeta, while the FSLN went into the plains to remake itself and take up their responsibilities in the National Assembly and in the spaces that we were able to keep. That dangerous excerpt of our history was bridged through maturity and constructive dialogue, which gave way to the future of many years of stability and co-existence. Without those agreements and their willingness, I am not sure that the peaceful transition would have existed from a revolutionary government to another of a more civil and conventional nature, and that even many of us would still be alive.
From your perspective, what is the origin and nature of the political, social and economic crisis that we are currently experiencing in Nicaragua?
I will refer first to the possible chief causes of the outbreak of the crisis , and then the general context. The causal factors are different, but interconnected by political practices perceived as limiting citizen spaces and rights. In the case of the university students, there was discontent over the tendencies of their official leadership to bring the university into line with policies that conflicted with autonomy and freedom of opinion.
In the neighborhoods, communities and municipalities there were complaints of leaders and authorities around directives sent down from the capital, not always consistent with the interests of the population. Peasant communities in the south and southeast of Nicaragua felt themselves threatened by the property encumbrances required by the canal project. In the autonomous regions there were complaints from the communities and their authorities about the lack of recognition of their autonomous rights.
In the NGOs unrest was growing over hostile policies and actions to suffocate them. Also among veterans, retired military and local Sandinista leaders there were complaints over marginalization and limited response to their problems of unemployment, poverty and health care. On their part the Catholic church resented the silence of the government to their demands in the first attempt to seek understandings, while the discontent continued of the clergy over the manipulation of their rites and feast days. The business sector, while receiving preferential economic treatment, saw itself positioned as a partner of the government in the institutional shipwreck that was dragging the State toward an authoritarian regime. All of this formed a breeding ground for the crisis.
What are the similarities and differences with other conflicts of extreme violence in our recent history?
The protest movement that started in April does not have a precedent in contemporary Nicaragua. Seen in general terms, it has been a multi-class movement of a national character, with urban and rural expressions and to a certain point unconnected to the activity of parties. In their massive expression it is an outburst of radical condemnation of a large part of the population against abuses of public force. Seen closer up, it is noted that the protest movement is composed of at least four components: a) network of self convoked and indignant people who later joined the Civic Alliance, and that expressed themselves through massive demonstrations on a national scale; b) a component of the focal insurgency with the presence of ex military or veteran combatants, and urban and rural population who, with the use of fundamentally rudimentary means, set up barricades and blockades and gained partial control in neighborhoods in some places; c) sectors with unresolved conflicts who joined the protests bringing their own demands, the peasant movement, women, retired people, etc.; d) component of informal sector without political motivation who from the nearby neighborhoods maintained a presence around the university campus takeovers, or set up barricades from which they acted in a somewhat disorderly fashion.
These complex forms of protest arose from the events of April 18th and 19th, even though they responded to a dynamic and leadership independent from one another. In my opinion it is not a matter of a civil war, or a conflict between armed groups, or a coup or terrorist riots. Rather it is a matter of a civic protest with a predominance of massive peaceful marches that were interspersed with insurrectional outbreaks, also spontaneous, as a reaction to the disregard for life and fundamental rights of the citizenry, which came to light in the bloody episodes of April 2018.
What is your assessment of the Nicaraguan youth in this stage of our contemporaneous history and in the current crisis?
Starting in 1990 after the electoral loss, the youth were demobilized without a banner for focusing their energies on altruistic causes, as they had for ten years, the literacy and health campaigns, support for the harvests of cotton, coffee, volunteer work, and above all the defense of the revolution. With the governments of the FSLN since 2007, the youth were not mobilized nor called upon to participate. The impression existed of facing a new individualistic generation of young people, and more connected to the globalized world of the superficial, without much interest in transcending toward social or political concerns addressing the national reality. But the concerns of the youth were there, and what was missing was the motivation. In fact, in the universities and high schools there were concerns about participating or collecting funds for noble causes. Later, demands of a more political tone were gestated around autonomy, the independence of the student movement, and the first sit-ins in support of the elderly contributors to INSS.
The youth were in search of a cause that they soon found. Everything fell into place. It was enough for a violent governmental reaction against the students around their schools for the spirit of struggle of the entire community throughout the country to be stirred. This youth in a short period of time showed great human quality and fearlessness, on a par with the most responsible and valiant youth generations in the defense of their rights.
From the perspective of the crisis, what is the reading that you have of the Nicaraguan political system and the political class in general?
I think that the Nicaraguan political system presents one of the most complex crisis of a functional nature in contemporaneous history. A quick diagnosis of the social and political body of Nicaragua allows at least three compromised and even collapsed vital systems to be perceived with concern.
The first, institutional disfunction, the result of the political cannibalism that has prevailed in the parties, and particularly among the two important political forces. The second, the closing of spaces in the political system. The third, the loss of direction of the path that the country is following.
In terms of the first, the end of the war and the transition begun with the government of Doña Violeta Chamorro, unlocked opportunities for convergence and cooperation among the forces that were fighting. But on the contrary, among the leaders of the UNO – the victorious alliance – a mood of confrontation remained, where politics became the continuation of the war by other means.
Throughout the period that extended between 1996 and 2006, Sandinism saw itself subjected to a barrage of attacks to corner it and even remove it from the political and institutional scene, in spite of the fact that they had lost with 42% of the electorate, and still maintained 36% by the middle of the 2000s. Also the FSLN took on a defensive-offensive attitude, and in the context of these new forms of confrontation – governing from below and acting from above – got involved in an all-out fight for control of the branches of the State. Without the option of agreements between the parties (PLC-FSLN), the institutions were being devalued and emptied of their capacity to be adherents and guarantors of democratic life and exercise, turning them into partisan fiefdoms for beating or neutralizing the adversary.
In this way the spaces for the solution to conflicts were dealt with on the basis of shady deals between leaders, political allocation of public institutions, arranged elections, all interspersed with corruption and patronage. At the beginning of the 2000s, the Alemán-Ortega Pact was created through which the number of votes required of a candidate to be elected to the presidency was lowered to 35%. Aided by this reduction in the electoral floor, in 2006 the FSLN with Daniel Ortega as candidate won the elections with barely 38% of the electorate, beating the liberal groups, whose popularity and capacity to be the opposition would enter into a free-fall until these times.
The second disfunction rooted in the political system itself, currently closed and collapsed, closed and collapsed in the sense that Sandinistas as well as Liberals, through different political and legal arrangements, obstructed the entry of parties or people to compete in free elections. The system was also closing because through several voter barriers, society had been left blocked from knowing the true results of the elections as a result of an electoral system highly intervened to the advantage of the two dominant parties. The result of both interferences has been the increasing loss of citizen credibility in the parties and in the political system itself.
Two indicators offer us references. First, the growth of electoral abstention, which if in 1996 had been 23.6%, and in 2006 31.5%, now in 2016 had risen to 52.3%, to reach more than 60% in the municipal elections of 2017, and according to the disputed data from the Electoral Council. Nevertheless, citizen perception and that of independent observers estimated abstention to be close to 70%. The second indicator of the collapse of the system resides in the growing proportion of citizens without a party, or without preferences for any party. Likewise, while in the 1996 elections those who declared themselves to be independents constituted one digit of the electorate, now by 2016 they reached 34% of voter preferences. This last tendency, which would continue increasing in succeeding years, reveals the departure of hundreds of thousands of citizens from the game of politics.
In a first moment the massive desertion of political preferences came from the PLC that had won the elections in 1996 with 51%, years later in the elections of 2017 they barely registered a preference of 8%. This same electorate, previously identified with the liberals, did not side with the FSLN either, and was dispersed in other minority preferences or, more probably, quit going to the ballot box, enlarging the cohorts of abstentions.
In this way, following the first wave of desertions from the political system due to the liberal collapse, a second wave of desertions among the electorate came from the camp of those in sympathies with the FSLN, accelerated with the municipal elections of 2017. What weighs so much outside the FSLN as well as inside it, is the rupture of the rules of the institutional and political game, and the natural attrition that characterized the last years of Ortega´s government.
The reasons for this migration outside of the game of politics are common to the two large parties, but there are other limitations and errors of each one on their own. In addition to those already noted, I note down quickly the following: lack of confidence in the clean up of the electoral system; administrative corruption scandals, pacts, cronyism and anti-ethical behavior of the candidates; outdated party programs more inclined to exploit strong man style leadership and the spirit of political patronage. One weighty reason comes also from youth sectors who, in their educational and professional ascent, bore expectations about the economy, the improvement of the State, society and political democracy that greatly surpassed what was offered, and the limited willingness of the traditional parties to incorporate them, and much less concede them.
Now, the event of April signified a remarkable loss of sympathizers for the FSLN. In the best of the results of surveys and polls, the political base of the FSLN appears to have suffered a reduction of close to 50%. This data and tendencies – with all the ball park nature that it might have – situates between 65-75% of the potential electorate outside the current political institutional system, combining all the parties.
This process led to a counterproductive overall result in the historic scenario of our institutional evolution: the departure from the political system of a broad electorate, declaring itself subsequently as independent or without political preferences, or simply remaining absent from the elections.
Using a metaphor, it is as if ruptures appeared in the circulatory system of a body simultaneously in the arteries, where the blue blood circulates (red and black), and in the veins, where the red blood circulates (“red without stain”*). And all this blood, each one on its own, is deposited in other parts of the body. The body cannot function, it loses oxygen. Likewise the political system collapses with the voting citizens or electors not going to the ballot boxes, abstaining, leaving the ballot blank, without a party, without candidates – distancing themselves from liberal and Sandinista leaders. Later on I will refer to the third disfunction.
The social movement, fundamental actor of the civic protest, called itself the movement of the “self-convoked”, with the characteristics that it burst out without the classic leadership of any political party or movement, but also without a platform or program, which is just now being delineated seven months after the rebellion of April. What comments does this unusual phenomenon in our contemporaneous political history in Nicaragua provoke from you?
The first is that it is a matter of a protest movement crossing the entire political spectrum of the country, and realigning the population into two groups. On the one side, the government supported primarily by a military apparatus and by an immediate support composed of public employees and the militants or closest collaborators of the party in government; and on the other side, a massive popular expression created based on the indignation and solidarity provoked by the armed attacks against youth and the population, disseminated in full color and on a national scale by different communications media. The very fact that a large mass of the population came from deserting the conventional parties, in part explains the great magnitude of the demonstrations that came together around the protests against the governmental repression, without the guidance nor intervention of the traditional political parties.
This social movement of civic protest was not even a matter of an opposition movement with political shades. It is composed of people from every flag and color – including Sandinistas – who have in common the irresistible natural instincts of indignation and in addition solidarity over the abuses that mowed down the lives of youth, the promise of tomorrow. This was the mental picture shown in all the homes of the country as a general threat that hung over all their children.
What role do you attribute to the new communication technologies in the new forms of doing politics? We have examples of presidents Obama and Trump in the United States, the Arab spring, among others.
Without a doubt, they played and play a qualitative role. I think such a massive and quick popular reaction like that of mid April and the following months would be very difficult without the mediation of the new communication technologies. For several years Nicaragua was among the American countries with the smallest coverage of internet. Currently, according to figures from CANITEL, the media network in Nicaragua covers 85% of the population with 8.3 million mobile cell lines. By January 2018 only 11 municipalities did not have coverage, and most of them are in the Caribbean regions.
The population could directly see, be that through news programs, on line newspapers or networks, the attacks with weapons of war by government forces against unarmed demonstrators, the burning of an entire family and their children by paramilitary, the shots of armed groups, masked civilians, sharpshooters carrying war weapons, women and elderly beaten, a newly born baby dead from a gunshot in the head. This media coverage allowed, among other things, calls for massive and fluid demonstrations, the creation of subnetworks of denouncement, solidarity, influencing public opinion, etc. In addition, by virtue of the in situ capacity of transmitting the acts of repression through videos captured by the population itself, it was able to be established that the versions of the official spokespeople and media lacked credibility. The technology here had an organizing, educating and mobilizing role that I believe took all of us by surprise.
What comment does it merit the fact that, once it was known that the decree about INSS that led to the civic protest was repealed, that did not stop the protest, rather it transformed it into a large scale movement, with actions of force and violence (trenches, roadblocks, burning of buildings and vehicles, attacks on bases of the National Police), with a clear purpose that the current Government resign?
Once the acts of violence happened, in my opinion disproportionate, I do not think that anything nor anyone could prevent the eruption of the massive protests, not even the church itself. Nor could the government do it. Even more, in the same appearance of President Ortega announcing the withdrawal of the decree, other members of the government had harsh and offensive comments against the students and population who were leading the movement. This had the effect of throwing more wood on the fire, neutralizing the positive results that taking a step back with the decree could have caused.
If the massive protest was the offspring of the indignation and solidarity that all people have with their fellow citizens – even more when most were youth and students – the barricades and roadblocks seemed to due to a defensive response of the population in their communities. Let us not forget that from the beginning groups of masked paramilitaries went out with weapons of war, which later mushroomed, attacking civilians in neighborhoods and localities. There is no doubt that both defensive forms, roadblocks and barricades – in short order were transformed into forms of struggle and on occasions, gave way to acts of violence. The principal point is what unleashed them? What provoked them? Likewise, if there were attacks from there that took the lives of poor police, is it valid to think that those attacks would have existed without what happened on April 18-19th?
The movement that emerged beyond the problem with INSS, do you think that it could have been avoided, and that this also could have had the result of a smaller number of human lives lost?
It is very difficult to state that the escalation of the protest in a few weeks, taking 200 or 300 lives, could have been controlled, if the government had taken a self critical and restorative approach. But in the first moments it was possible. Of course, the discontent that had been incubating in different sectors would have remained without a solution. It seemed that the withdrawal of the INSS decree on the part of the President on his return, it seems from Cuba, gave the impression of an initiative that sought an arrangement, as also was accepting the initial solution of dialogue with the call to the Catholic church to mediate and be a witness.
But on the other hand, the pre-eminence of the use of force was noted. It is as if there were two contradictory approaches at the same time to solve the crisis. In my opinion, if the President retracted withdrawing the INSS decree, he would have had to censure as well the use of violence and assume responsibility for the 20 youth and citizens fallen in the first days. But that did not happen. The path of confrontation was taken, with the expectation possibly that a hard hand could quickly resolve the state of agitation. Of course, a calculation that did not work out at all, and that led to several hundred dead, thousands of wounded, hundreds of prisoners, dozens of thousands of people stampeding toward neighboring countries. Practically then a point of no return.
The movement that emerged from the civic protest, called the self convoked, with purposes beyond the issue of INSS, do you think that it has been something genuine, or that it responds to another reality?
The civic protest is the movement itself. Until the opposite is proven, it is a spontaneous manifestation of generalized protest and indignation, a direct consequence of the repressive acts. That is why it lacks organization and formal leadership. Its strength is its massiveness and the self convocation. Some describe it as opposition, but it really is not, at least not yet, even though its objective – open the way to a path for the democratization of the country – it could address without necessarily becoming a political or even electoral movement.
In my opinion, as a political coalition, they should move very carefully and make efforts to get closer to the existing parties, including dissidents and groupings of business owners. Likewise I think that first of all, this coalition should prioritize the task of seeking a way out of this crisis through dialogue without proposing maximalist ends. We should not forget that the Civic Alliance is a convergence of sectors with different natures, origins and interests. Nor should we forget that some political groupings with their own agendas and interests have been adding to the motives for the protests.
The government states that there was a conspiracy, but they have not presented convincing proof. Let us think for a moment that the pre-existence of an entire destabilization plan to overthrow the government could be a possibility. Well, present the proof then. So far those accused of coup supporters and terrorists are mostly young students, or people without apparent connections with one another. Here the point is that the violence came from the government first. The protest had a civic form and content, even though later on with the intensification of the government repression, there were focal points of armed acts, at least in the neighborhoods of Diriamba, Jinotepe and Monimbó, principally.
A point of legitimate concern for Sandinism was that of the insecurity that families aligned with the FSLN suffered, exposed to the dangers experienced in places where roadblocks were placed and arms were exhibited on the part of people without leadership, although they were mostly homemade weapons. The question, nevertheless, is who ignited the violence? It is on this point that I state that the outburst of Abril did not seem to be part of any plan, but rather emerged spontaneously like a spark. A spark capable of igniting the prairie where the contradictions were accumulating of the different sectors who provided the firewood that extended it.
What is the situation and perspective of the Sandinista Front in the midst of this crisis, as a fundamental actor in the past half century in Nicaragua?
I have not been an active militant for many years, and can only base myself on observations of a non participant, with the shortcoming that implies. Every party and government in a society where the citizens have the right to chose who governs them, undergoes deterioration. This is natural and in my opinion positive, because it gives way to periodic turnover, bringing in new ideas, while it allows the one who has lost to renew itself for the next round.
What seems to me in plain view is that starting in April 2018 the political correlation was turned more sharply against the FSLN for the reasons stated. The solid support, particularly that the youth and urban sectors lavished on it, had diminished. The alliances with the church and the private business sector have been broken. If the elections were held today, the FSLN has a high probability of losing them; and their capacity to govern is found eroded by the determination to trust more in repressive responses over dialogue and cooperation in pursuit of a peaceful solution to benefit the entire Nation.
Since April the political crisis has triggered a severe economic crisis. In a few months the GDP has plummeted 8%. Close to 400,000 workers have been laid off. Dozens of thousands of citizens have opted for exile and thousands of businesses of different sizes have gone broke. Fiscal revenue has fallen and foreign and domestic investment contracted, along with bank deposits, credit and international reserves. This economic crisis tends to worsen and feed back into the political crisis, exposing Nicaraguan society and the FSLN itself in government to slip into dangerous limits of citizen insecurity, increase of violence, crime and larger waves of migration.
In the international sphere, the government as well as the FSLN finds itself isolated. There are complaints and protest from the international community. Political leaders, intellectuals, ex-presidents and well qualified voices from the left continue condemning the violence used against the civic demonstrators, and the lack of willingness to dialogue and a joint solution.
There is a central matter that I would like to link to the collapse of the political system. It has to do with the third disfunction that I referred to previously: a notable lack of direction in the path that the country has undertaken. The new government since 2007 came to power with the rules of democracy, within the framework of a democratic constitution promulgated in 1987. The 38% who voted for the winning party, as well as those who voted against it, agreed that the direction of the car was aimed toward a society in transition under the design of the existing constitution. But in mid course and without any explanation, the direction was changed, and the rules of the game were modified. The changes, even drastic ones, are not bad in themselves, but they should be consulted. Nevertheless, the consultation was omitted, and in addition the changes proceeded without the cover of legal modifications. The branches of government ceased to be independent; the police ceased being national and were treated as partisan; the President could be re-elected indefinitely; a first degree of affinity relative was chosen as Vice president, etc. All this in violation of constitutional dispositions.
The government and even the republic were declared to be socialist and Christian, which in itself could be praiseworthy, but on the condition that it be based on the will of the citizenry, and not on the individual preferences of the ruler of the time. It is not by chance that there would be reactions and conflicts for that very reason. It is as if not just the circulatory system would quit working, but also the central nervous system of the country, the one that sets the direction we take, would lose the sense of direction leaving all of us disoriented.
If there was a first and later a second breakdown of the social and political structure, now this third rupture was experienced. If we were in a stage of transition to democracy and even to a social democracy, without citizen consultation, a referendum, we turned toward a regime of another nature and even a divisive one, which in itself represents a fundamental contradiction with the type of society, economy and political culture that had prevailed in contemporary Nicaragua.
It would seem a condition or a challenge for the possibility of the FSLN or any party that would aspire to play a relevant role in Nicaragua, to try to be a factor of order, institutionality and legality for the Republic, as well as a unifying force for Nicaraguan society. Internally, it will have to reinvent itself and take up again the hard work of party formation in the fields of program, organization, political education, direction, etc. But above everything else consensus must be sought urgently and immediately, in order to obtain a peaceful way out of this conflict for the country.
How do you assess the impact that international economic actors could have, including the government of the United States, on Nicaraguan economy and politics?
Recurrent in the history of our conflicts has been the hope of groups in conflict to place the political solution on the external factor. Thus Walker came in 1855 and those who called him also facilitated him proclaiming himself president of Nicaragua. Thus the marines came in 1912, 1927, etc. It is also surprising that an eventual collective defense of forces from the Alba countries is being encouraged. The two options are harmful and pernicious for the national sovereignty of Nicaragua, and for the obligation of the political forces of the country to seek a national solution to this crisis. The sanctions that the United States conceives for the government and those around them in themselves are not a solution, and in the short term are not going to dismantle the power of those who have already experienced two wars and confronted blockades and foreign interventions of a large magnitude and duration.
The sanctions, those coming from the Trump Administration as well as those known as the Nica Act, are going to incentivize the polarization within the country, and intensify the current measures of intimidation against critics or opponents. The Nicaraguan people are going to be the ones who pay this cost.
In the 1980s the Reagan administration declared Nicaragua an imminent danger for the security of the United States, and imposed an economic embargo escalating the military aggression that they were directing and financing. But then the cause of Nicaragua had worldwide solidarity support, including important allies of the United States, that for years offered us political, economic and even military solidarity. The decree of the Trump Administration is not properly speaking against Nicaragua, but aimed at the government and its actions, and in fact puts it at risk. The cause defended today by the government is at least questionable, and it is in a deep isolation. The capacity to govern is limited and seriously disorganized. Surely the economic crisis is going to worsen. The solution in any case is that we Nicaraguans be the ones that put an end to this conflict.
The bill for the Culture of Peace and Reconciliation that the vice president of the Republic is promoting has shaken up public opinion, because of its characteristics and the moment in which it is proposed to be implemented. What is your opinion about the need for the establishment of a lasting peace, true reconciliation processes that have never existed, and of the bill itself?
Nicaragua needs a space of calm, of serenity. Let us treat Nicaragua as a patient who needs rest to rehabilitate itself. Let us not set her to doing things that she should not, cannot do. It is important to know first what affects her health as a republic. It requires a type of board of doctors who would reach an agreement about the diagnosis; that would review her metabolism, her circulatory system, her nervous system. And look for the appropriate remedy. Introducing into this crisis the promotion of a Culture of Peace would seem pertinent. And if it is being proposed out of good faith, it is positive. But not for that reason opportune and adequate at this moment. Here it is not a matter of a change in the culture in favor of peace – what generally in the field of customs and values takes many, if not hundreds, of years. There already is a commotion over who, how and in what opportunity this initiative was launched, and who will coordinate it in the territories. We need to bridge first our differences, because the culture of peace cannot be decreed. Many see in this possible law a ploy, not any different from decreeing the normalization of the country, or conferring overnight – in a challenge to COSEP – to small, popular businesses the role of being the new fundamental actors of the Nicaraguan economy, which is equal to giving the task of being the spearhead for the economic development of this or any country to sectors with lower productivity and greater disadvantages.
There is no room for improvisations in the search for the solution to this crisis, that can instead block the achievement of a real and lasting peace. In addition if we want to promote a culture of peace, the promoter herself should start and show herself to be the first and most consistent practitioner of peace.
Do you believe that the government of President Ortega has the capacity to rebuild its alliances and model with which it had been functioning until April 18th?
It would seem that the government itself does not believe that. There is a flexible and negotiating facet that Daniel Ortega has shown in the past, and let us hope that he shows it quickly by returning to the dialogue. Many people are surprised on hearing the people in the government determined to see enemies where there are none; see coups where there are only protests of the indignant; see terrorists where only women, youth, peasants, people are seen, fighting for what they feel are their rights or complaints protected by the constitution. All of them cannot be demonized by exceptions. Why choose the violent response that has already cost the lives of 300, 400 Nicaraguans, mostly young people? And thousands of wounded, and other hundreds of prisoners? The one who pays for these mistakes and these visions are the people. But the one who most loses appears to be the government itself and also the FSLN.
Now, after what occurred and given the official line on the confrontation, it is very difficult that the previous scheme can be remade. But it is not impossible. In any case it is going to require a genuine willingness to compromise with this people, and have the disposition to recognize errors, act with generosity and carry out the changes in direction, vision, leadership and coherency needed in accordance with the responsibilities of any ruler. Only changing the path of confrontation for one of a peaceful solution, the disposition to correct mistakes, exchanging persecution for justice, will lead to new opportunities.
In your judgement, for the country to get out of the crisis will it require renewing and adapting the National Dialogue, or rather a Political Agreement? If it is the Dialogue that is needed, what do you think should be the most functional reconfiguration, in particular, what should be its agenda seven months into the crisis?
To overcome the crisis a negotiated solution is needed. There is a lot of accumulated conflict and several breakdowns in the system. The country needs to get out of the crisis in any way, but it needs to get out and soon. If the crisis gets prolonged, it is going to cost more lives; there will be more people detained and more citizens fleeing from the violence or unemployment, and a runaway economic crisis that will affect the most vulnerable the most. There is a point in which the crisis will have qualitative effects so serious that it will plunge the country into chaos and ungovernability.
The current government in its course represents a factor of instability for the region at least. I am referring to the economic breakdown, the wave of migrants that it is causing, the obstacle to regional trade, and what is most dangerous to the already known historical tendency that the growing internal discontent, connected to the cross-border exile, ends up triggering armed conflagrations. For the government here there is no possibility of trying their luck with a Venezuelan type path, without oil nor the capacity to discourage aggression from its neighbors. In addition the government lacks the allies of the revolution in the 80s, which provided generous solidarity to maintain itself. The national leadership should cut off these tendencies toward chaos and move on to peaceful solutions.
The Dialogue is the best vehicle, but we need to accept that we have had mistakes in methodology as well as in the expectations of what can be obtained, and in terms of trust and commitment. In my opinion, a first step should be taken in the search to improve the climate of internal understanding, even before the dialogue is reopened. Seeing and considering the legitimate concerns of both sides. It is evident that the president and the FSLN had legitimate concerns that were not taken into account.
I have insisted on that fact that it is important to first place the patient under forced rest so that it can recover. Obtaining a haven of serenity, to then proceed to the Dialogue with the changes that could improve it along the lines of: a) raising the power of representation of the spokespeople; b) conducting the negotiations with discretion and in private; c) ensuring the impartiality of the mediation, supported by international experts with authority; and d) forming an agenda with two or three essential points, without purporting that the Dialogue be a form of an impossible Constituent Assembly.
The FSLN led a broad and transcendent revolution in the life of the country, with its own characteristics in the humanitarian and Christian planes, that distinguished it from other revolutions. Generosity was something essential in the Sandinista Revolution. The Government has described those who participated in different actions against the Government, including attendance at marches and demonstrations, as coup plotters and has tended to deprive them of their liberty. Do you think that it would be more beneficial for the country to return to generosity and spirit of high mindedness?
Yes, I completely agree. This is one of the points that could open up a path for a new opportunity for the government and the FSLN. The chain of mistakes that were committed, and those that continue being repeated, should be recognized with integrity.
There is a great silence, void and distrust between the fundamental actors of the crisis, government-opposition. How do you think trust could be recovered that would allow for a return to dialogue, that would address a way out of the crisis.
Recovering trust each day that passes is getting more and more remote, while new confrontational and intimidating measures are deployed. It is absolutely necessary that the government recognize that it is going in the opposite direction. Changing that direction is indispensable, and moving to build bridges. Do it out of a commitment to the Nicaraguan people and for the peace of the Nation.
I would like to insist on this point. I do not strictly see an opposition to the government among those who are protesting and in solidarity for obviously just reasons. Many of those who were demonstrating in April were Sandinistas or children of long term Sandinista families. I have learned in these days that Lester Alemán Alfaro, for example, the very young man who lambasted the government at the beginning of the dialogue, was born into a family of Sandinistas who since the 1970s provided refuge to clandestine militants, and it was a home for national leaders.
Lester was still a boy* when Tomás Borge took refuge in his house in Villa El Carmen after the action of December 27th. Through there passed Pedro Arauz, Roberto Huembes, Luis Carrión and other of us compañeros. Lester in his school was and maybe still is, an admirer of those clandestine combatants that his own family and his martyr uncles, like Abraham Sequeira, taught him to admire. Without knowing it, in April from some part of the government came the order to fire against young men linked to Sandinism. I know that in the Alliance, the business chambers, the academy and the students themselves there is the willingness to dialogue to seek a solution to the conflict.
The Army is one of the institutions that is a fruit of the Revolution, that until now has maintained its nature and functions with which it was founded and that the Constitution established, even you as one of the chief negotiators of the Transition Accords, ensured their continuation, which later would progress to their process of professionalization and institutionalization until arriving at what it is today. In the framework of the crisis in general, behavior has been noted outside its institutional framework, which now is saying something. Being a key entity in any contemporary society, how do you assess their behavior and what should it be in the face of the crisis that we are experiencing?
With the electoral triumph of Doña Violeta Chamorro in February 1990, there was in effect within the parties of the UNO the eminent opinion that the Sandinista Army should disappear, and even be replaced by the armed members of the Resistance. In the agreements signed between the incoming government and the outgoing government to ensure a fluid and peaceful transition, not without some resistance, it was agreed that the only Armed Forces of the republic would continue being the Army as well as the Sandinista Police, in exchange for both forces being made to have a national, professional and apartisan nature.
These transition accords helped to cement in Nicaragua a new climate of peace, understanding and cooperation among the political forces which helped stability continue forward, not without some hiccups. The army and the police proceeded to be called the National Army (NA) and the National Police (NP), and their legislation, as well as the training of officers and soldiers, were directed at transforming them into national professional and apartisan instruments of defense and internal order, respectively. This has been a positive historic step.
In our history there are several examples of attempts on the part of the rulers in office to influence and even break up the Armed Forces, who receive a ample battery of every type of resource. It has been questioned, for example, the decision of the current president to pass over military law extending the term of the Commander in Chief of the Army, which objectively weakens the military institutional structure and the authority of the command itself, subjugated for its continuation to the discretion of the ruler, which makes it political. I am not going to refer to the intentions of the president. But the commitments made in the Transition Protocol should, in my opinion, be honored and maintained, and particularly that of ensuring that the armed forces of the republic do not become partisan.
It is comprehensible that it ends up being at least uncomfortable for the military command to oppose the decisions of the person who constitutionally is the Supreme Chief of the Armed Forces, but in practice that decision violated the law and affected the armed body, as it would affect it more if taking sides is permitted in times of peace, or even worse during civil conflict. For the strengthening of the army it would have been preferible if the respect for the five year [term] and the periodic replacement of the military command would have been kept.
On another plane, the institutional posture of the Army of not intervening in this conflict of a political, domestic nature is correct. And correct the position to call for a peaceful solution through dialogue. At some moment the responsibility of the Army from the point of view of intelligence and prevention is to maintain the warnings to the President about the dangers for domestic peace implied by the economic breakdown, increase in unemployment and the escalation of violence that sooner or later will culminate in an armed conflict that it would be difficult for the Army to avoid. Armies are not just for fighting wars, but principally to avoid them. The army itself, in a civil armed conflict, will always be bound to lose: exposing themselves to be accused of being partisan by the defeated side, or in the worst of cases, be dissolved by the winner and disappear. Today at this moment the Army should be faithful to peace for the republic with the mission of promoting a quick and consistent peaceful solution.
What are the political scenarios that you would see as possible paths in the immediate future to get out of the crisis?
The first, working and achieving an environment of serenity and pacification that is not difficult, to take the second step to negotiate free elections and transitional justice. What is surprising and upsetting is that the solution is simple. It requires nothing more than a dosis of patriotism, responsibility and the will to achieve it: I see it feasible to create first an environment of tranquility, with the government proceeding to demobilize the paramilitary groups and freeing all the prisoners for political motives. In accordance with this gesture, from the side of protest and resistance, call the citizenry to open a space of tranquility. With this elemental agreement that would open a consensus-based normalization, the National Dialogue would continue with two essential points: a) Legal and institutional reform that would ensure clean, fair, transparent, inclusive and observed elections; and b) Transitional justice that would ensure punishment of those responsible for human rights violations, and reparation for the affected families.
It is the least costly and safest scenario, and without a doubt the one that is helpful to the country, the FSLN and President Ortega. The first is peace, tranquility and security for all families. As a key matter and going back to the issue of what has affected us as a society, I would say that the Gordian knot here is getting back on the central path that we have abandoned: the evil that afflicts us is only cured with interior peace followed by clean, transparent, fair and inclusive elections, the only medicine within our reach to restore trust in the political system for citizens: that it be the citizens who chose in a fair contest the leadership and the path that the Nation should take.
The only losers are those few you can count on your hand that are looking to open up opportunities for power and get ahead riding in the car of repression and violence. The rest of the scenarios are the multiple variations that come from all the possible combinations of the same ingredients that are invariably going to end in a abyss: continuation of the repression, extension and diversification of the protests and internal ill-will, worsening of the economic crisis; political, financial and commercial sanctions on the part of the United States, European Community and Latin America, international isolation, fall of direct foreign investment, increasing loss of the capacity to govern, etc. So in any case there will be a way out. But a dramatic one, and with the country destroyed.
* expression comes from purges done by brownshirts in 1930´s in Germany
* phrase the PLC has used to refer to itself to distinguish itself from FSLN which has red and black.
* Translator´s note: Lester was not born when that action happened, Dec 27, 1974. It would mean that Lester would have to be at least 45 years old. This fact however does not detract from the main point that he comes from a historic Sandinista family.