Ramón de Campoamor, the poet, said: “everything is according to the color of the lens through which we look”. In Nicaragua, the “electoral year” and the countdown to the November 2021 elections have already started for some; while for others, it is only the beginning of the third year of a police state reinforced by the trident of punitive laws – Life Sentence, Gag Law, and “Foreign Agents” – which will allow the regime to exercise repression while claiming that it is only complying with the law.
Across the street, Daniel Ortega is already designing a reform to the Electoral Law, without making changes to the party control that the Sandinista Front maintains in all instances of the Supreme Electoral Council. In other words, what is underway for Ortega is a combination of both abnormalities: an election without competition or transparency like the one in 2016, although now under a police state, with political prisoners and without freedom of press or mobilization. Following the pattern of the Cuban-Venezuelan model, he prepares for a non-competitive election, with which he will attempt to prolong the agony of the regime for some time, at the cost of its international legitimacy and the worsening of the economic and social crisis.
Faced with this leap into the void, the only way out of the national political crisis lies in the suspension of the police state, in order to complete an electoral reform – with or without Ortega and Murillo – that allows free elections to be held. But this outcome does not depend on external pressure from the United States, the OAS, and the European Union, as some opposition leaders naively suppose, but on the maximum pressure of civic protest. Ortega and Murillo, or their successors, will only negotiate political reform in an extreme situation when they are forced to by pressure from the opposition to suspend the police state and release the last political hostages.
Throughout our history, external pressure against authoritarian regimes has always been a necessary condition for bringing about political change. However, as the experience of the last four decades shows, it has never been the determining factor. It is false, for instance, that the withdrawal of support for the Somoza dictatorship by the Democratic government of Jimmy Carter in 1977-79, and its human rights doctrine, led to the triumph of the Sandinista revolution. It is also wrong to attribute the defeat of the FSLN in the 1990 elections to the Reagan-Bush Republican Policy and its financing of the counterrevolutionary war in the 1980s. Both processes undoubtedly strengthened national and international coalitions as opposed to Somoza and Ortega, respectively, but the key factor was the strategic management of the national leadership and its ability to weaken the regime that was in power at the time, adding new forces to change the balance of power.
The result of the United States elections, with President Donald Trump refusing to accept the victory of Democrat Joe Biden, apparently allows relief for Ortega, whose government now has more than 24 top officials and companies sanctioned by the United States. In the power bubble of the bunker in El Carmen, they are betting that the Democrats who opposed Reagan’s financing of the Contra in the 80s, among them president-elect Biden himself, his current adviser and ex-senator Christopher Dodd, and the ex-mayor of Burlington and now veteran senator Bernie Sanders, will make concessions to the dictatorship that presents itself as “the second stage of the Sandinista Revolution”.
But Ortega and Murillo tend to read Washington’s political insights in a whimsical manner. At the end of 2018, they dismissed the warning that Trump would apply severe sanctions against their government and blamed it on a bluff from the Cuban-American lobby in Miami, when in reality it represents a bipartisan policy of the North American Congress. So it is only a matter of time before Ortega verifies that his dictatorship also has no way out with the Biden Administration and that instead, he will be facing a much more structured strategy of diplomatic pressure in favor of a democratic change.
But the ball of political change is not in the court of the new Biden government but in that of the Nicaraguan opposition. The OAS resolution approved in October with twenty votes in favor, two against, and twelve abstentions, established a deadline until May 2021 for the regime to implement electoral reforms that allow free, transparent, and competitive elections. The agenda for the reform has been agreed upon through the proposal of the Electoral Reform Promotion Group, but Ortega has already anticipated his rejection of the OAS resolution and is preparing his own “electoral reform” with the exclusive participation of the “mosquito” political parties. Consequently, the opposition faces the dilemma of waiting another seven months to confirm that Ortega is not willing to allow a democratic election and advocate for the solution to come from outside, or to refocus its strategy towards internal factors that can generate political conditions for electoral reform.
In the first place, consolidate the organization of the Blue and White movement in all the municipalities and departments of the country to demand the suspension of the police state, and to support the population in their claim against the rising cost of living and public services, the lack of employment, and the lack of a covid-19 prevention and mitigation strategy.
But in addition, it is imperative to join the additional forces in favor of the full restoration of democratic freedoms: that of large businessmen and business chambers, and that of the vast majority of civil and military public servants, who are not committed to repression or corruption. Only the unity in the actions of all the opposition forces – Unidad Nacional, Alianza Cívica, Coalición Nacional, CxL, independent and those without a party – can wrest the suspension of the police state from the dictatorship. The electoral reform, the creation of an electoral alliance, and the selection of the candidates of the opposition unit to participate in free elections will immediately fall under their own weight.
This article has been translated by Ana Maria Sampson, a Communication Science student at the University of Amsterdam and member of our staff*