The fate of Nicaraguan democracy is hanging in the balance as President Daniel Ortega weighs up his options amidst mounting pressure to step down.
On Thursday, Ortega told the country’s bishops that he needed a couple of days to reflect on their latest proposal to end the six-week-old political crisis that has seen more than 120 people killed in street protests, mostly by gunfire from police and progovernment paramilitaries.
Nicaraguans are now asking: will Ortega go gracefully, via a negotiated exit, or will he try and ride out the storm even if its plunges the country into prolonged chaos?
Details of the proposal, designed to revive a dialogue over restoring democratic rule, are not public, but Univision has learned that it involves Ortega stepping down next April after elections in March, as well as a series of reforms to the country’s electoral system and an independent investigation of responsibility for the protest deaths. The electoral reforms would bar Ortega, and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, from seeking re-election.
“The idea is no way back, one way is for Ortega to resign and the other way is move up the elections,” said Mike Healy, president of the agricultural producers’ group UPANIC, part of the powerful private sector association COSEP, which is involved in talks to end the crisis.
The COSEP previously backed Ortega’s government, but broke with him after the protests began April 18. UPANIC represents 100,000 farmers, ranchers and food producers.
The proposal in Ortega's hands appears to have the backing of the United States and Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), who has had two top representatives in Managua this week holding talks with all sides.
The OAS passed a weak resolution on Tuesday at its General Assembly in Washington where there was little appetite to discuss the Nicaragua crisis, due in part to intense efforts led by the United States to suspend Venezuela from the hemispheric group.
But the Trump administration has been vocal in its criticism of Ortega and his responsibility for the violence. “It’s the Nicaragua government that has committed grave crimes against peaceful demonstrators,” U.S. ambassador to the OAS, Carlos Trujillo, told reporters after the OAS meeting.
While the U.S. has not publicly espoused a solution, Trujillo supported the idea of early elections in an interview with the online Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial.
Ortega was re-elected in 2016 to his third consecutive five year term which runs out in 2021. But the election was marred by numerous irregularities, including the choice of his wife as his vice-presidential running mate
An earlier attempt last month to establish a National Dialogue to resolve the conflict collapsed after only a few days of talks due to continued killings of protestors, including a Mother’s Day massacre on May 30 in which 15 deaths were reported by human rights groups.
The Ortega government blames its political opponents for the violence but says it supports the need for dialogue. In a speech at the opening of the National Dialogue, Ortega said the police were being victimized and that right-wing groups were "conspiring" to destabilize his government with the support of "extreme political groups in the United States."
"They want him (Ortega) out now"
Outraged by Ortega’s repressive tactics, many protesters are demanding Ortega’s immediate removal, while others say time is needed to fix the damage his 11-year rule has done to the country’s democratic institutions.
“People are really heated up right now,” said Mario Arana, former Central Bank president and director of a commercial business group, APEN. “They want him (Ortega) out now,” he said, adding that any deal that allowed Ortega to remain in power during a transition period while the reforms are passed would need to convince people that “his hands are tied behind his back.”
Some also question whether Ortega will ever agree to leave peacefully, noting that he and his wife would likely face criminal charges for his role in the police tactics if he left power. “I don’t think Daniel is going to give up that easily,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a veteran Latin America expert at Florida International University (FIU).
The Ortegas and their eight children, have jobs and financial stakes in numerous companies. “They are wedded to the economy. Their family is into everything. He’s got too much to lose,” said Gamarra.
The Venezuela comparison
Some observers point to anti-government demonstrations in Venezuela last year that fizzled out after four months of protests that claimed 120 lives. However, Nicaragua is a far smaller and poorer country and lacks the vast oil and gas reserves that have sustained socialist rule in Venezuela for almost 20 years.
Also, while Venezuela's military is firmly allied to President Nicolás Maduro, in Nicaragua the military has remained neutral, and stayed on the sidelines of the conflict.
"Unlike Venezuela, Ortega's pillars have crumbled," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington DC. "He's lost the private sector and the whole thing is collapsing. It's not sustainable."
Any successful agreement would need guarantors on both sides, experts say. Students who have been at the forefront of the protests, and have suffered the most casualties, deeply mistrust the private sector, while the Ortegas have may not trust for the Catholic bishops due to their strongly-worded denunciations of the police tactics.
"A different Ortega"
Complicating matters, many suspect that Ortega, 72, is manipulated by his wife and a group of advisors who are widely considered to be corrupt and are blamed for the violent turn of events. They may have even less interest in seeing him give up power.
“What we have seen in the last six weeks is a different Daniel Ortega,” said Arana. “He has surrounded himself with very dubious people. The repression has the stamp of these people.”
Vice President Murillo is also a force to be reckoned with by herself. She is the lead spokesperson for the government and is even more despised by protestors who she dismissed early on as “vampires” seeking bloodshed.
“Rosario has constructed her own power structure of people who are loyal to her. She has cut Daniel off from his base,” Arana said, noting how Ortega had dropped many of his more trusted former allies and advisers in favor of a shady group of individuals with economic interests tied to the Sandinista party.
To be sure, predicting the future course of events in Nicaragua is not easy, Healy said. “Things are moving very fast. It’s amazing what has been achieved in just six weeks. It took two years to overthrow Somoza,” he added, referring to the dictator Anastasio Somoza who was ousted by the 1979 Sandinista revolution, ironically led by Ortega.
“I believe once an agreement is in place the protests will stop,” said Healy. “We don’t want to destroy the country. We want a new country with new laws and a return to democracy.”