WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

26 Feb 2019 | Commentary

What’s Required for Talks in Nicaragua to Succeed

During the week of February 18, after heavy international pressure, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega took some initial steps to re-open the negotiations that will be necessary to resolve the country’s ongoing political crisis. But more will need to happen for serious talks to advance.

The crisis erupted last April when bubbling discontent at Ortega and Vice President (and First Lady) Rosario Murillo’s concentration of power, heavy-handed response to protestors, and a slowing economy all exploded in widespread anti-government demonstrations. Repression was intense: according to the UN High Commission on Human Rights more than 350 died, overwhelmingly at the hands of government and paramilitary forces. Hundreds of activists were forced to hide to safe houses, while thousands of other Nicaraguans fled across the border into Costa Rica.

The government passed an anti-terrorist law, jailed activist leaders, cracked down on the independent press, and shuttered several prominent human rights organizations. Demonstrations were banned. A delegation from the UN High Commission on Human Rights was ordered out of the country after publishing a critical report, and an Independent Group of International Experts sponsored by the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was told to leave as well before they could publicly release their own report in Managua in December. The report linked responsibility for police abuse to President Ortega, to whom the police commissioner directly reported.

Since the beginning of 2019, international pressure on Nicaragua has intensified, while the country's domestic economy has deteriorated.

International criticism has been quick. Not surprisingly, the Trump administration, whose foreign policy apparatus includes a number of long-time conservative critics of the Nicaraguan government—people whose hostility dates back to the 1980s—has been outspoken. The U.S. Congress has also been critical, but these critics have included people on the left as well as the right. Members of Congress historically sympathetic to the FSLN, or to the announced intentions of the Ortega government to improve the lot of the poor, were troubled by the repression and brutality of the government’s response to demonstrations. They joined with more conservative colleagues in passing the Nicaragua Democracy and Human Rights Act and in calling on the Nicaraguan government to cease repression and engage in serious talks with the emerging opposition about new elections.

Internationally, the UN Security Council held a session to discuss the situation in Nicaragua, and the OAS Permanent Council has held multiple sessions. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission has spoken out repeatedly, as has the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights.

Since the beginning of 2019, international pressure on Nicaragua has intensified, while the country’s domestic economy has deteriorated. A delegation from the European Parliament visited Nicaragua in late January; the delegates raised the possibility that Nicaragua could lose privileges under the EU-Central America Association Agreement, which provides trade benefits for Central American exports to Europe, saying, “The current situation in Nicaragua as regards to human rights and democracy is incompatible with the partnership agreement between the European Union and Nicaragua.”

While the president’s statement is clearly a positive development, there are still a lot of uncertainties about whether or not this will lead to serious negotiations.

International pressure has come from other sides as well: a delegation of high level U.S. State Department officials met privately with President Ortega to reiterate U.S. concerns. Business leaders in Nicaragua, who have had ambivalent attitudes toward the Ortega administration, have also been exerting pressure on President Ortega out of concern for the economic impact of the political crisis, and their own economic interests. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s heavy-handed and confrontative approach toward Venezuela has worried some in the Nicaraguan government (National Security Advisor John Bolton recently tweeted that “Ortega’s days are numbered.”)

These pressures—some legitimate expressions of concern about democracy and human rights, some closer to old-fashioned, big-power bullying—have pushed the Nicaraguan government towards reopening talks.

Last week, President Ortega met with representatives of the Catholic Church (who had been involved in an earlier, failed, round of dialogue), and with a small group of wealthy business leaders. This meeting appears to have been preceded by earlier behind-the-scenes discussions. The next day, the president announced that he intended to re-inaugurate the dialogue with the political opposition, and hoped to hold an initial session on Wednesday, February 27.

The Nicaraguan opposition is a broad coalition of forces...

While the president’s statement is clearly a positive development, there are still a lot of uncertainties about whether or not this will lead to serious negotiations.

The Nicaraguan opposition is a broad coalition of forces. Students and youths have been outspoken and active opponents of the Ortega government. Women’s groups, environmental activists and campesino groups have been long-time critics who have complained that the government, for all its rhetoric, has been too close to the interests of the traditional business elite. Former Sandinista leaders, many with experience in government and diplomacy, have also acted as spokespeople for the opposition. The Catholic Church has leaned toward the protestors, as have some business leaders in the country’s leading business chambers who have echoed some of the protesters’ actions and demands (though not consistently).

All this makes the opposition somewhat unwieldy. Opposition coalitions—the Alianza Civica, the Unidad Azul y Blanco—have to coordinate among their member organizations and networks to develop common positions.

However, that breadth has also been the opposition’s strength. Given this diversity, it’s important that serious negotiations between President Ortega and the opposition include a wider range of representatives of the opposition coalition. The first round of talks on February 27 include several individuals proposed by the Alianza Civica. This initial grouping will have to grow and expand in diversity in order to be truly representative.

Serious negotiations over new elections, their timing, and other issues are unlikely to be successful unless and until the opposition team is diverse and representative...

The fierce repression that took place in the last few months forced many leaders to find shelter in safe houses, while many others have fled the country. In addition, the government and its security forces arrested hundreds under anti-terrorism laws and has been moving only slowly to bring them to legal proceedings. (A prominent campesino leader was recently sentenced to 216 years in prison.) The end result has been to complicate the work of the opposition, and make it more difficult for them to carry out the internal dialogue and political work needed to construct more unified positions in the face of the Ortega government.

That’s why one of the key demands of the opposition has been the release of political prisoners, accompanied with an end to repression. This would allow activists to re-emerge from their safe houses and exiles to return from abroad. The return of the UN Human Rights Commission group, as well as the OAS monitoring mechanism, may be necessary to assure that repression has ceased and that activists are free to once again work and move freely.

Serious negotiations over new elections, their timing, and other issues are unlikely to be successful unless and until the opposition team is diverse and representative, and real steps to free political prisoners and end repression take place. If President Ortega takes only the most superficial steps—meeting only with a narrow group of opposition leaders, and failing to cease ending the repression that remains ongoing in the country —talks will not succeed in restoring peace, economic and political stability, or democracy.