MANAGUA— Nicaragua is a going through the paroxysms of a violent metamorphosis. A new country is emerging from the dried cocoon of Sandinista dictatorship. The process is just starting, but Nicaragua is changing. Where's it's heading, nobody knows. But it's going there fast.
In the past week, Nicaragua lost its fear of dictatorship, while the Sandinista government lost its control of the streets, and state lost all credibility, and President Daniel Ortega lost the narrative.
By some counts, more than 30 Nicaraguans are dead, and many are still missing. Most of them were just university students a week ago. Now they're heroes and martyrs, in a country that already has plenty of both. People fear the students' body count will continue to rise in the coming days, as the "missing" are found in morgues.
Nicaragua is at a dangerous crossroads. Leaders of the Catholic Church and Nicaraguan private sector are trying to point the country down the road towards an "open and inclusive" national dialogue, where all sides can sit down at the table and talk it out. The other road leads back to the streets.
"At the end of the day, these issues need to be worked out at the negotiating table, and not on the streets," says José Adán Aguerri, president of COSEP, the country's largest business chamber. "I think Nicaragua has enough experience with all this to know what the result will be if we try to deal with these issues on the street," he said referring to the country's bloody history of revolution and civil war.
For the past decade, Aguerri, whose 11-year presidency of COSEP has matched Ortega's 11-year presidency of Nicaragua, negotiated an economic alliance between the private sector and Ortega's Sandinistas, the new captains of industry. Aguerri says the alliance was always intended to be an economic arrangement to promote growth, stability and investment, not a political model or an integral plan for development. COSEP warned years ago that Nicaragua needed similar dialogues to resolve the country's political and educational issues.
"But those other dialogues never happened, and now we are seeing the consequences of the that," Aguerri told Univision News.
Even COSEP's dialogue with the government has ended. The decade-old pact died on April 18, the day Ortega broke the arrangement by unilaterally passing a sweeping series of tax reforms intended to refill the coffers of Nicaragua's insolvent social security system. Ortega's decree sparked outrage from COSEP and the population in general, which took to the streets behind the lead of student groups. The government responded with brutal repression.
COSEP hopes to tourniquet the bleeding with a new national dialogue, one the Nicaraguan bishops agreed Tuesday to "mediate and witness." Ortega, cornered by the unexpected uprising that put tens of thousands of Nicaraguans on the streets Monday demanding the president's ouster, has said he is willing to dialogue.
"A national dialogue without the government and without Daniel is difficult," Aguerri said. "It wouldn't be a national dialogue."
But much of the country has lost what little trust they had in Ortega. Many students interviewed this week say his removal from office should be a condition for dialogue. No amount of back-peddling can bring back the dead or restore public confidence.
"There will be no dialogue with this government, because this government never keeps its promises," a masked Upoli student leader going by codename "El Verde" said on Monday. He said students fear repression if they agree to talks and leave their campus stronghold. "The first thing [Ortega] would do is send people to kill us, because that's what he wants. He wants us to let our guard down."
Another masked student noted that one of Nicaragua's greatest betrayals in history came when guerrilla leader Augusto C. Sandino got killed by the National Guard in 1934, shortly after agreeing to leave the mountains and come to talks with the president of the day. Some students are afraid their fate would be the same, especially considering that many of them come from Sandinista backgrounds and being labeled a "traitor" is a serious offense in party that was born as a marxist guerrilla movement.
Nobody knows what lies ahead for Nicaragua. Some think the relative calm that has settled over the country for the past 24 hours means the worst is over. Others fear Nicaragua is just in the eye of the storm, and the backend will be brutal.
In any event, the country is mobilized. The people have lost their fear and reclaimed their right to be in the street. Nicaragua is lurching towards democracy one way or another. People are demanding a voice and a say in their future.