Nicaragua
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Crisis Group: International community must send “strong messages” to Ortega

Cohesion of the Nicaraguan opposition and a coordinated international pressure strategy are needed “so that Daniel Ortega can feel pressured enough to make some concessions”, estimates Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group. 

Crisis Group recently published an analysis entitled: “Nicaragua: Facing the Dangers of a Rigged Election” in which they propose that the European Union coordinate with the United States and Canada to create a road map that includes greater international pressure to bring about a political dialogue between Ortega and the opposition after November 7. 

But for this to happen, the sectors in the opposition that fear reprisals “must overcome it if they want to revive the spirit of 2018 and form a clear alternative that gives hope to the population”, while the international community must send “strong messages” and a “forceful” response to Ortega’s refusal to hold transparent elections, Breda warns. 

However, the Crisis Group analyst believes that political, diplomatic and economic pressures will be more effective after Ortega has managed to re-elect himself without electoral competition, and meanwhile, the international community should demand: the release of political prisoners and the opening of freedoms for the citizenry and the national and international press to document the electoral process controlled by the ruling party. 

In this interview, Breda analyzes the repercussions of the declaration of illegitimacy of Ortega’s reelection by the European Union and the United States, why Nicaragua should not be expelled from the trade agreements, the lessons of the Venezuelan crisis, and the political dialogue that should not override demands for justice. 

The International Crisis group published an analysis in which they make a proposal to the international community, including the European Union and countries like the United States, to present a joint road map to face the political crisis to Daniel Ortega. How can the international community play an interlocutor role with a regime that has not accepted any diplomatic mediation so far? 

A woman watches and listens to Daniel Ortega’s speech on October 4, 2021. Photo: Efe/Jorge Torres

We hope that this may change when there is a more forceful and coordinated response at international level, which also includes some kind of reorganization, as far as possible, of the opposition forces which are headless, most of them in exile, some of them in silence in the country, because we feel that this, in some way, is what has been lacking up to now. 

Many steps have been taken in terms of legislation and sanctions, but often they have not been coordinated, they have been, let’s say, scattered, between the United States, the European Union, above all, in a limited way with the region. Therefore, we believe that after November 7, if we manage to harmonize this type of positioning and response at the international level, this could somehow help Ortega to feel enough pressure to make some concessions. 

Crisis Group proposes the resumption of dialogues between the Government and the opposition, however, Daniel Ortega’s regime did not comply with any of the agreements signed at the negotiation table in March 2019 with the Civic Alliance; on the contrary, it aggravated the repression, and imprisoned main opposition leaders. How can it be possible to return to a dialogue that Ortega rejects?

Well it is definitely not a simple issue to address, there is clearly a lot of distrust, above all on the part of the opposition sectors and the international community, because it is true that the second attempt at dialogue was in general, more of a failure in a way; above all, as far as the agreement regarding respect of citizens’ rights is concerned. 

The problem with that is, clearly, I think that attempt also had a very ambitious agenda, it wanted to reach a conclusion in a very short time; and after that failure, the sanctioning measures arrived at once, especially on the part of the United States; and therefore, I think there may also be a certain type of distrust from the Government. 

This type of trust must be re-established because we believe that the Nicaraguan crisis has been going on for three years now since the eruption of massive protests, but it has deeper roots, it has some unresolved issues that have accompanied the political and social life of the last 30, 40 years. 

And how can this trust be reestablished? Are there at this moment effective mechanisms of national or international pressure that can encourage the regime to dialogue? 

In the publication, we argue that part of this coordinated effort between European and Latin American countries of the Western Hemisphere should precisely include strong declarations, non-recognition of the electoral process, which clearly does not meet any minimum international standards. They should include the expansion of certain types of punitive measures that include precisely those measures that occurred in the electoral process, those responsible for those outrages; and they should also include measures at the regional level, for example within the OAS, where there are mechanisms to address ruptures of the democratic and  constitutional order in member countries. 

I believe that the coordination between these measures could, effectively, accelerate this process of international isolation of the Government that results from these elections. Therefore, the hope is that this could, in some way, push it towards trying to recover some legitimacy, to minimize this isolation, once it has already achieved its permanence in power, albeit in a very debatable, very questionable way. 

Precisely, Crisis Group warns that the pressure measures could be more effective after November 7. What should the international community do before then? 

It is necessary to continue demanding the release of political prisoners, although I fear that this will not happen before the elections; also that at least a space be left for citizens, for the national and international press, to observe and document what is happening in the electoral process. These are, surely, the minimum conditions that we should try to achieve before the elections. And, make it clear, even through the channels of communication with the Government that are still open, that is, through some friendly countries in the region, that if this type of repressive escalation continues, the response of the international community will be forceful after November 7. 

Last week, an important group of the opposition signed a document in which it disavows the electoral process and the reelection of Daniel Ortega, and urges the international community to exert greater political, diplomatic and economic pressure, but what should be the role of the political opposition in Nicaragua, under a state of police siege and with the main opposition leaders imprisoned?   

There is still a leadership that is unfortunately mostly in exile which is positioning itself, 

we believe that this is important, that this process of consensus be strengthened among the social forces, in particular those that led the protests of 2018 and that have led the efforts to approach the Government;  but it should also include, perhaps, certain sectors that still agree with certain positions but do not dare to expose themselves or expose their dissent for fear of reprisals, and that is a very understandable fear, but unfortunately I think that we must try to overcome it in some way, if we really want to revive a little of the spirit of 2018 again, and form a clear alternative that can give hope to the population that is leaving the country in an increasingly faster and stronger way.

If Daniel Ortega’s reelection is declared illegitimate by the European Union and United States after November 7, what would the consequences be for the management of this crisis? 

It complicates the international position of the Government itself, and this should have repercussions in terms of access to credit, international loans and possibly also in terms of attracting foreign direct investment. So, this would surely have an important effect, first of all, in terms of legitimizing the international isolation and its economic consequences for the country, for the access to resources. 

I believe that giving a forceful response would also limit the possibility of similar situations developing in the future in other countries of the region, or at least, it would increase the cost of doing so, at least it would act as a disincentive. 

President Daniel Ortega and vice president Rosario Murillo at the central act for the Bicentennial of Nicaragua’s independence. Photo: Presidency 

U.S. congressmen and European parliamentarians have debated the options of expelling Nicaragua from the DR-Cafta Free Trade Agreement and the EU-Central America Association Agreement. What is Crisis Group’s position on this issue?  

We are focused on trying to find solutions to a negotiated solution to the Nicaraguan crisis, so I think there is a big difference between the goals that certain proposals have.

I believe that sometimes there is a temptation to provide simplistic solutions to a rather complex reality such as the Nicaraguan one, and that they do not take into account some aspects, both national and international, but above all the consequences that certain actions could have, especially in the light of a lack of evidence that they would work to meet certain objectives. 

Therefore, for us, measures such as general economic sanctions, embargoes, in touching trade agreements, are not desirable because they would have a very strong direct impact on the economy. According to estimates, the withdrawal of Cafta alone would cause the loss of 100,000 jobs in Nicaragua, which would accelerate this process of deterioration of the economic and humanitarian situation in the country; it would accelerate the processes of migratory flows; and therefore would aggravate the situation in the country. It would not contribute to a solution, but would aggravate the humanitarian situation for hundreds of thousands of people, and in our view this is not advisable.

What lessons can the Nicaraguan opposition and the international community learn from the failed attempts to resolve the Venezuelan crisis? Nicolás Maduro remains in power despite the economic crisis, the humanitarian crisis, sanctions and international isolation. 

First, that maximum pressure from trade embargoes, sectoral and general sanctions are not necessarily as effective in bringing about change in the country; the second is that alternative governments, which in the case of Venezuela, had their legal basis in the issue of elections and the president of the Assembly became president, in the case of Juan Guaidó, have not turned out to be, let’s say, the most prolific strategy from that point of view, and have become a headache in terms of recognition at international level. It is an initiative that has stalled and that I believe the international community is not willing to repeat. 

The fourth lesson that can be learned from and we still are… is to see how this new attempt (of dialogue) in Mexico will work. But certain agreements that really begin to benefit, or at least address certain critical conditions in the country, such as the humanitarian situation, are effectively reached through a dialogue that has some kind of international accompaniment between opposition forces and government forces; and we hope that there may be greater progress in this type of effort, and that this may also encourage it to be replicated in other spaces, even in the Nicaraguan crisis. 

You propose the resumption of the dialogues with Ortega and you refer to coexisting with Ortega, but what does this mean? There are people who interpret this as forgiving Ortega after November 7, for the repression that he has committed against the Nicaraguan population. 

Well, more than Ortega, as a person, we think that we have to look for an agreement between currents, between forces, between groups that make up the social and political life of this country, even Orteguismo, Sandinismo, however you want to define it. Among the issues we propose that should be part of this possible new attempt of dialogue, of negotiation, is the issue of justice, which is very important; We believe that it is indeed necessary to put together, to design a process of traditional justice, therefore we do not refer directly to him as a person but as, let us say, representative of a political portion, so to speak, of a portion of society that still has representation and that will remain in the country, even when Ortega leaves public life, in one way or another.

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