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Don't lose sight of plight in Nicaragua

As the eyes of the hemisphere are transfixed by Venezuela, it is important not to lose sight of the plight of Nicaragua. The democracies of the region, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the United States have a responsibility and an interest to stay engaged in Nicaragua, too.
John Feeley was US Ambassador to Panama and is a Univision political analyst.
A protester against the government of President Daniel Ortega in Managua Crédito: Alfredo Zuniga/AP

Ten months ago, the Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega unleashed a campaign of state terrorism against peaceful protestors, the brutality of which had not been seen in the Western Hemisphere since the massacres perpetrated by both governments and guerrillas during 1980’s Cold War proxy conflicts.

The killing time was relatively short, a matter of weeks, but devastatingly effective. Over 300 dead; thousands wounded. More than one thousand political prisoners locked up on bogus charges. And a traumatized country that has now lost all pretense of being a functioning democracy. At a time when the eyes of the hemisphere are understandably watching developments in Venezuela, it is important not to lose sight of the plight of Nicaragua.

So what to do?

First is to recognize that Ortega and his Lady Macbeth wife, Rosario Murillo, lost all claim to legitimate governance when they gave their hooded paramilitaries authorization to open fire on defenseless citizens. The crimes against humanity committed by the regime just from April 18 through May 30, 2018 are fully documented by the outstanding report of the International Group of Independent Experts. This exhaustive labor of forensic examination not only captures in prosecutorial detail the acts of atrocity, it lays out a road map for restoring justice and the rule of law in Nicaragua.

When the mass killings stopped, Ortega focused his repressive apparatus on the last standing institution of Nicaragua’s tattered democracy: the independent press. The country’s most recognized journalist and former Sandinista fellow traveler, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, witnessed his El Confidencial offices raided and his equipment confiscated. Like so many of his colleagues at the popular 100% News channel, Radio Dario, and other non-government backed publications and broadcasts, Carlos Fernando has left Nicaragua. In the journalists’ wake, there is a real news blackout in the country, with only state propaganda on the broadcast airwaves. This information deficit must be addressed by freedom-loving governments supporting those journalists in exile.

Meanwhile, as Venezuela’s subsidies to Ortega ineluctably decline, and the Nicaraguan economy tanks, Ortega has reverted to international beggar mode. He successfully sought a temporary lifeline in the form of $100 million soft loan from Taiwan. The United States should use its influence to lean on Taiwan – it has no business supporting a cruel dictator in exchange for UN recognition.

Also on the “to-do” list, Western Hemisphere and European Union governments should watch carefully the dialogue process. Weeks after the outbreak of repressive state violence last spring, a negotiation of sorts was undertaken. The government opponents were led by the influential Catholic Church and joined by the Civic Alliance, a loose amalgam of actors representing business, student, the political opposition and civil society sectors. But the talks with Ortega fizzled quickly. Finger pointing and blame ensued all around and not much happened throughout the fall and early 2019 … besides thousands of Nicaraguans fleeing the country, many fearing the regular paramilitary patrols that round up anyone suspected of dissent.

Finally, after months of quiet diplomacy by the United States and others, the Papal Nuncio in Managua announced on March 5 guidelines for conducting a second dialogue – "a new route", as Ortega called it - to resolve the political impasse. Unlike Venezuela, there was guarded optimism that this time talks might achieve, if not a permanent solution, improvements to Nicaragua’s hurting democracy and iron fist repressive rule. Given Ortega’s underhanded, deal making past, his ability to co-opt the private sector and wantonly kill and imprison opponents, there are good reasons for skepticism, however, the mere fact he has returned to the negotiating table indicates his weakness. He is now bereft of genuine popular support and knows it.

To its credit, the Trump Administration is playing its Nicaragua hand well. It recognizes that, as in Venezuela, Nicaraguans must own their own destiny. Uncle Sam can’t want it more than they do. The Civic Alliance must firmly lead the agenda and the talks themselves. Moreover, the Trump Administration has welcomed the naming of Luis Angel Rosadilla by the OAS as special envoy to Nicaragua – another serendipitous embrace by Trump of multilateralism. Finally, the Trump’s State Department and Embassy in Managua appear to be willing to be patient.

That is good because just several days after the second round of talks started, the Catholic Bishops Conference decided on March 8 not to play a formal role, but rather remain at a distance and observe. Not a death knell for the talks, scheduled to end by March 28, the church’s suspension of its participation is not an encouraging development in a devoutly Catholic nation where Cardinal Brenes and his bishops play an outsized role in national life.

Nicaragua remains an evolving story, with a complicated and multilayered context of historical and pragmatic considerations. Despite the inside baseball complexity, two issues must remain front and center if and when dialogue restarts: the establishment of a date for early elections and an immediate release of the raft of political prisoners, mostly students, that Ortega has sought to silence.

Despite his repeated professions that U.S. policy is not about promoting or consolidating democracy overseas, Trump appears to have given a green light to his team to do just that in Nicaragua. Certainly, the Venezuela experience, while not exactly the same, is instructive. Whatever Trump’s motivation, friends of democracy in the region should welcome this tack and support a renewed negotiation process.

At this moment, it is the only path that will give Nicaraguans a chance to vote freely and fairly on the future of Ortega and his thuggish regime. This is something he will oppose strenuously, having lost a popular election once before in 1990. But 2019 is not 1990. Arming Contra guerrillas is not on anyone’s agenda.

It’s time for Nicaraguans to reclaim their democratic destiny, supported by their friends.