On July 7, Daniel Ortega burned the last bridges that offered him the possibility of negotiating an exit from power in gradual steps and of advocating for his party to maintain some influence in the government institutions during a future democratic transition. In a delirious speech before tens of thousands of public employee on Saturday, Ortega was accompanied only by his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, while surrounded by his daughters and dozens of armed police bodyguards. Ortega branded as “terrorists” the people who have been massively demanding his resignation as unfit to govern since the massacres and accused them of being part of a coup attempt. He then threatened them with more death and repression.
In addition, he viciously attacked the bishops from the Catholic Church and the large business owners who offered him a road map for democratization. That plan would have him leave power in March of 2019, preceded by political reforms and early elections. Without mentioning names, Ortega spoke of “those who are financing terrorism” – in reference to his former allies, the big business people – and “those who curse us in the name of religious institutions,” alluding to the bishops from the Episcopal Conference.
Ironically, while the people in the streets and at the barricades are demanding that Ortega leave power immediately, not next year, it’s been the business community and the bishops who were advocating – even in the face of warnings about the political infeasibility of this – for Ortega to remain in power until turning over the presidential sash in 2019. That was the same position, at least up until this speech, held by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and the government of the United States. Both alleged that Ortega’s exit from power before early elections could be held would generate a vacuum of power, although apparently they never pondered the chaos, the misrule and the economic disaster implied in each additional day that Ortega remains in power.
Ortega didn’t dare to reenact the historic Repliegue march to Masaya where the massive repudiation of the population awaited him, led by the indigenous Monimbo neighborhood. Instead, he only attended his Party’s rally in Managua with a disproportionate display of security forces. Despite this obvious sign of weakness, he attempted to intimidate the nation as if he were confident of his legitimacy and of the backing of a political majority. In truth, he’s maintained in power only because he’s the high commander of the National Police and the paramilitary forces. Making abusive use of the national television simultaneous broadcast system, he proclaimed that those who want to get him out of power should wait for the next elections as established by the Nicaraguan constitution that was reformed in 2014; that is, until the end of his term in 2021.
It’s likely that in raising the ante, Ortega is preparing to negotiate with the US government. In conversations with US representatives a month ago, he had offered to move up the elections and now must offer up explanations, following the sanctions imposed against three members of his inner circle: Police Commissioner “Paco” Diaz; paramilitary chief Fidel Moreno; and the corrupt manipulator of the “petrodollars” from Venezuela, “Chico” Lopez.
But the truth is, by severing any relations with by the business community and sinking his bridges with the bishops, he’s also challenging all the regime’s forces – the historic Sandinista followers, the state employees, the police and the army officials – to tow the line of a steadfast defense of his scheme for family power. Ortega’s unmistakable message is that the regime has arrived at a point of no return, and as such his close allies must all proclaim their absolute loyalty, ruling out any possibility of a negotiated exit, as the civic rebellion is offering.
The million-dollar question revolves around the reaction of FSLN supporters who are committed to saving the Party and separating it from the political destiny of the presidential couple; the public employees and the state workers, who are there out of necessity and their vocation for service; and above all, those police and army officials who aren’t yet stained with the repression and corruption. Are they willing to distance themselves from the regime and recommit to the negotiation process? Or, like the Liberal Nationalist Party and the entire state apparatus of Somoza in 1979, have they mortgaged their fate with the Ortega-Murillo family?
While this query plays out, there are only four possible courses of action for the independently organized people who’ve put up the dead and are committed to achieving the departure of Ortega and opening the path to justice and democracy.
First: to avoid the trap of violence that Ortega is trying to push the population into. Although the correlation of forces may look extremely unequal, only a civic struggle, a peaceful struggle, can defeat this repressive dictatorial regime in the shortest possible period. As soon as Ortega manages to infiltrate armed groups into the protests, or the population falls into the trap of creating armed militias to wage counterattacks on the regime, Ortega will have gained a strategic advantage, allowing him to impose an image of civil war, to be countered by the armed force of the police, the paramilitaries and eventually the army.
Second: the citizens’ resistance demands a will of iron on the part of the leaders to bring its forces together. They need to organize a national and local network that can maintain the maximum level of pressure through all the forms of civic struggle exercised simultaneously: in the streets, with the barricades, the national strike, civil disobedience, international pressure, encouraging the police to desert their ranks… The question to debate isn’t how far Ortega is willing to go to repress and kill, but whether the leaders and representatives of the civic rebellion do or do not have the determination necessary to keep their accelerator foot pressed hard to the floor with no let-up, until they arrive at the final moment and attain the dictator’s resignation in order to negotiate the regime’s surrender.
Third: the watershed of this peaceful struggle for irreversible change will be reached when the National Police refuse to continue the repression – because they can no longer suffocate the national civic protest and because the political cost of the repression is too high – leaving the paramilitary bands to stand naked as the regime’s only support. At that point, the army will confront their final crossroads: either they maintain their complicity and sink with Ortega, or they become a decisive factor for stabilization, disarming the paramilitaries and facilitating the departure of Ortega from the national political scenario.
Last but not least: in order to resist the blows of the regime over a period that may be somewhat prolonged, the civic rebellion must preserve their unity at all costs and renew and expand the banners of their struggle. These must be ethical banners, first and foremost, but they must also prepare to sketch out the needed political, economic and social reforms. Such reforms were proscribed by Ortega’s authoritarian system for over a decade under the pretext of maintaining a pact for stability with the large business owners, a pact with neither democracy nor transparency.
These are the flags of change that the new and emerging political forces are unfolding: the university youth, the rural movement, the democratic organizations of civil society. But they must represent everyone without exclusion – the business community, the democratic political parties and also the Sandinista Front freed of the political control of the Ortega-Murillo family – so that all can form part of the national solution. Because, at the end of the day, the new peaceful revolution of the twenty-first century in Nicaragua will only be a true revolution if it’s genuinely democratic.