Nicaragua: Extortion, Dialogue and a Longing for Peace

Tortilla con Sal

Recent experience confirms that the Latin American and the Caribbean right wing, like US government, cannot be trusted to comply with agreements. That has been true for Cuba’s revolutionary government in its direct talks with the US authorities, for Colombia’s FARC former guerrillas  over government implementation of the peace agreement and for Venezuela’s government in the national dialogue with the political opposition. Likewise, misgivings prevail about the integrity of the National Dialogue for Peace in Nicaragua mediated by the Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church as witness of the process.

Ever since April 23rd, violent right wing extremists have murdered government supporters and bystanders, continued to attack municipal offices and police installations, vandalized and looted commercial property as well as buses, taxis and private vehicles and have shot and wounded numerous police officers. But the Episcopal Conference openly sides with the opposition, falsely suggesting that the violent opposition are victims. The dialogue process has only been kept on track thanks to the dour patience of the Nicaraguan authorities led by President Daniel Ortega and their determination not to allow provocations to sabotage the chance for peace.

On April 22nd President Ortega asked the Catholic bishops to mediate a dialogue without conditions. The bishops led by Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes accepted. But they took almost three weeks to agree the dialogue with an opposition made up of business organizations, students, and opposition politicians. Everything suggested the opposition simply did not want dialogue. That was confirmed on May 11th, when, after originally agreeing to mediate without preconditions, the bishops set out four aggressive preconditions involving a fundamental contradiction. Claiming to defend the rights of all Nicaraguans, the bishops insisted that the police be taken of the streets, implicitly leaving the violent opposition gangs free to continue their attacks.

President Ortega accepted the four preconditions of the bishops’ provocative ultimatum, self-contradiction and all, noting diplomatically his government’s agreement about the need to stop all violence, intimidation and aggression. He also expressed “our great concern about climates of fear in communities, where, far beyond peaceful protests, which we absolutely respect, acts of violence proliferate that destroy and damage the quality of life of Nicaraguans of all ages, who cry out to God for a return to normality”. All through that same weekend armed gangs attacked and intimidated people across Nicaragua, burning down a famous craft market in Masaya and setting up road blocks, the majority operated by masked thugs preventing freedom of movement.

Between the events of May 11th up to and including the day the dialogue finally began on May 16th, the armed gangs attacked police installations and municipal offices in Matagalpa, Masaya and Jinotega. In Matagalpa they shot dead two government supporters and a one year old girl. They also shot and wounded three police officers. In Masaya they shot dead a government supporter. In Jinotega, they wounded two police officers. At one of the roadblocks, a woman patient in an ambulance held up for hours went into convulsions and died before she could be stabilized.

These were the most serious of innumerable incidents of violence and intimidation by the right wing opposition gangs. In response to these events, on May 12th Cardinal Brenes issued a general appeal calling for an end to all violence,  omitting any explicit call on the political opposition to stop their violent provocations. The bishops’ extraordinarily cynical statements biased in favor of the opposition falsely suggest that primary responsibility for the violence lies with the government. That perverse propaganda line persists and also characterized the dialogue’s opening session on May 16th. Aggressive opposition students tried unsuccessfully to shout down President Ortega during his statement and the mediating bishops themselves attacked the government for not withdrawing the police from the streets. In response, President Ortega pointed out that the opposition were responsible for the violence, that the police had orders not to use their firearms and had indeed refrained from taking action.

He noted, however, “We cannot be in a country where one part of Nicaraguans has the right to terrorize and the other part has no alternative but to be terrorized, as currently thousands of families are.” That opening session of the dialogue, with the bishops mediating entirely in favor of the opposition was a triumph of resilient patience on the part of the government representatives in an atmosphere designed to provoke them. Subsequently, on Friday May 18th, the first session of direct talks ended with an agreement from both sides to work for peace and develop proposals covering the various issues to be negotiated. The day before, on May 17th, a delegation from the OAS Inter-American Commission for Human Rights arrived to begin their investigation of the violent events from April 18th onward.

Even OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has conceded that dialogue in Nicaragua has worked in terms of promoting peace. For the moment, the government has defused the opposition violence and intimidation ordinary Nicaraguans have experienced for over three weeks now while opposition forces absurdly pretend they are victims. Apart from the intimidation they have suffered, tens of thousands of workers and small businesses and farmers have been unable to work normally and the cost to the economy currently runs to over US$200 million. As for the opposition, as usual, they are divided. Most of the business sector and their associated politicians are anxious to get the economy back to normal.

By contrast, the extremist political opposition led by ex-Sandinistas do not, logically enough, since the income for the NGO network they depend on is guaranteed by funding from the US and Europe. Similarly, many of the students regret the damaging results of the violence, but others are more intransigent. The bishops too are divided. The most right wing bishops continue to cynically exploit their mediation role in favor of the opposition while others do not. Priests at grass roots have played an important role genuinely mediating often in very difficult conditions at some risk to themselves.

These divisions put the opposition and their supporters among the bishops at a disadvantage up against a solidly united government team with vast experience and negotiating skills accumulated over more than thirty years. Some opposition leaders, like Violeta Granera, a perennial client of US government funding, are now so frustrated they have even accused Luis Almagro of treachery for not facilitating their extremist agenda as they had expected. The problem for the government in the negotiations is that whenever these opposition extremists feel they are losing ground, they can reactivate their violent terrorist gangs and plunge the country into chaos again.

Against that constant extortionist threat, the government is likely to sit tight waiting for public opinion to force the extremists to back down. If the extremists withdraw from the talks it will be very hard for the bishops to continue to insist, as they have done implicitly for weeks now, that the government allows violent opposition extremists to destroy public order when a clear majority in the country craves normality. While talks on issues like institutional changes or social security and tax reform take their course, above all, people in Nicaragua want to be able to live, work and study in peace.