Note: This piece originally appeared in Spanish on our partner website esglobal. You can read the original article here.
It’s been almost a decade since the book, Nicaragua and the FSLN: ¿What is left of the revolution?, was published. The objective of the book was to see to what extent throughout the history of Nicaragua—going beyond regime changes—patrimonial, violent and authoritarian practices have persisted among those who have held power.
The issue of analyzing the continuities of Nicaraguan politics beyond oft-studied ruptures is especially relevant today. In a little more than a century, Nicaragua has experienced U.S. occupation, a liberal oligarchic regime, a repressive family dictatorship, a revolutionary regime of a socialist nature, a liberal democracy, and, since Daniel Ortega’s return to power in 2007, a hybrid regime that has combined democratic institutions with authoritarian elections and that, as of April 2018, has mutated into a new tyranny.
What is happening this year in Nicaragua is surprising to many people, whose only reference to the country’s politics were the victory (in 1979) and electoral defeat (in 1990) of the Sandinista revolution. Despite their differences, these two episodes were exceptional for many reasons, but above all, for their intention of breaking the caudillo, revanchist and patrimonial system of Nicaraguan politics. The Sandinista Revolution was exceptional because of its multi-person leadership (consisting of nine commanders) that condemned and discarded caudillismo and the cult of personality. In addition, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) abandoned the Leninist dogma and put pluralism into practice, even offering the government the preparation it needed to hold free and fair elections, which led to the victory of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in 1990.
But after a while this exceptionality vanished. On the one hand, the FSLN failed in their attempt to democratize and quickly came under the tight control of Daniel Ortega. On the other hand, the liberal democracy inaugurated in 1990 mutated in 1997 with the rise to power of a corrupt president, Arnoldo Alemán, who had no qualms about agreeing with Ortega to un-democratize the country in 2000. From there on, Nicaraguan politics were redirected through traditional patterns; a political culture reappeared based on the concentration of power in few hands, in the cooptation (or expulsion) of the opposition, in the dismantling of institutional counterweights, and in impunity.
Later on, with Daniel Ortega’s return to power in 2007, elements of continuity with somocismo—named after the Somoza-family dictatorship, which ruled the country from 1937 to 1979—reappeared with more force, concentrating a large amount of public and private resources in the hands of Ortega’s family and close associates and controlling the state apparatus, including the army, police, and supposedly independent agencies such as the electoral machinery and the courts.
The only thing that seemed to differentiate Ortega from Anastasio Somoza was that Ortega used force and repression more sporadically. As we know, a few months ago, that difference vanished. From April 18, 2018, when protests broke out, to July 26, 2018, there have been 448 deaths, 2,830 injuries, and 718 Nicaraguans reported missing. The Ortega government is to blame for 98% of those cases—based on information provided by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) and the Nicaraguan Association of Human Rights (ANPDH).
Ortega has not online co-opted the FSLN and its symbols and concentrated the power of the State in his figure (and that of his wife); he has de-democratized the country. This means that the regime has had the capacity to rid institutions of dissent, strip institutions of legal status, and create puppet electoral machinery to weave political complicity with the appearance of plurality. In this sense, the political, social and humanitarian crisis in Nicaragua is not going to be resolved by resurrecting traditional parties (which have been co-opted), or by creating new political formations overnight. Protests in the street are one thing; competition in the electoral arena—through either early elections or in officially scheduled elections in four years—will be another challenge entirely.
The regeneration of Nicaraguan political life depends on more than organizing new elections and voting. In order to rejuvenate a functional party system, ready to compete in democratic elections, there’s a lot to be done. The process of de-democratization carried out over the last decade has not only disrupted Nicaragua’s electoral administration, but has also broken up all party life. Precisely for this reason, any solution to the crisis requires negotiation outside the framework of the country’s broken institutions.
Like so much else in Nicaraguan politics, negotiation outside the institutional framework has been a permanent element in the history of the country. The historian Antonio Esgueva Gómez has worked extensively on the subject. Part of his hypothesis is that substantive changes that have taken place in Nicaraguan politics have been the result of negotiation outside the institutional sphere—necessarily devoid of representatives of the regime—between confronting actors who recognize themselves as interlocutors.
Among the most recent examples of negotiations of this nature are the agreements made at the end of the 1980s between the Sandinista government and the Contra; the negotiations between the Chamorro administration in 1990 for the preparation of the Protocol of Transition of the Executive Power (PTPE); and, most recently, the “Governance Agreement” (better known as “The Pact”) between Alemán and Ortega with which the democratic system began to erode in 2000.
Many Nicaraguans, and outside observers, believed that May 16, 2018, when the first session of the National Dialogue Table began, would mark the start of a negotiating dynamic of a similar nature. Members of the government, universities, unions, private employers, and members of civil society sat down for negotiations mediated by the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua.
But the dialogue failed after the Ortega government failed both to put an end to the repression and agree to advance a democratizing agenda. Ortega blamed the Catholic Church for the dialogue’s failure. The criticism of the Church was not accidental, because it has become the only solidly-structure institution with voice and authority that is present throughout the country. Outside the Church, only a heterogeneous coalition exists, sustained only by its rejection of the regime.
As of today, it is too early to think of a successful end to negotiations that results in peace. Nobody knows when or how this crisis will be resolved. The Ortega regime still has control over the armed forces and has enough economic resources to survive a few more months. For this reason, Ortega’s speeches continue to focus on insulting opponents, denouncing “external agents” and appealing to resistance. The presence of the foreign ministers of Cuba and Venezuela in the July 19 celebrations of the anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution is a sign of where the regime wants go in the coming months: namely, political survival through a rhetoric that appeals to popular interests and the fight against imperialism. The regime’s new slogan is clear: “Daniel stays.”
Nowadays, nobody knows what the outcome of the crisis will be, although up to now it has reflected the build-up to past crises in Nicaragua, namely the concentration of power of resources in the hands of an autocratic leader, the use of force at critical times, and the inability of institutions to resolve conflicts. As a result of these continuities, political violence and impunity has reappeared in the country.
Until recently, Nicaragua appeared safe from the epidemic of crime present in the Northern Triangle countries. That’s not to say that the future of the country is the same as that of its northern neighbors, but mistrust, government repression, and social and political polarization are bad indicators. In addition, the impact of the conflict on the Nicaraguan economy has already been felt, hundreds of thousands of citizens have already crossed the Costa Rican border, and tens of thousands more are stranded on the southern border of Mexico.
In any case, it is difficult to imagine that the crisis that began on April 18 will simply fade with time: resisting peacefully, without organization or resources, a government that does not hesitate to use force is a very difficult task. It is also hard to imagine that Ortega can continue to maintain his grip on power without the unlimited oil resources enjoyed by Maduro in Venezuela or the control devices available to the Cuban regime. As the French priest, politician, and diplomat Charles Maurice de Tayllerdand warned a couple hundred years ago: “You can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them.”
Salvador Martí i Puig is professor of political science at the University of Girona and a research associate at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB). You can follow him on Twitter @SalvadorMartiP