On November 26, 2019, The Inter-American Dialogue hosted the event “Failed Democratic Order in Nicaragua” in response to the report recently released by the OAS High-Level Commission on Nicaragua. The report followed the General Assembly’s June 2019 mandate calling for an assessment of the political situation in the country. The conversation featured Bianca Jagger, founder and president of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, Francys Valdivia and Susana López from the Association of Mothers of April, Edwin Carcache who is a released Nicaraguan political prisoner, Veronica Ordóñez, who is a Nicaraguan activist and wife of a political prisoner, and Roberto Courtney, executive director of Ethics and Transparency. Manuel Orozco, director of the Dialogue’s Migration, Remittances, and Development program, moderated the event. The conversation centered around the country’s dire human rights situation and the difficulty of establishing a dialogue with President Daniel Ortega’s dictatorial administration.
Jagger began the conversation by stating that, since government repression began in the wake of the April 2018 protests, the past few months have seen an increase in violent tactics carried out by agents of the Ortega regime. On November 14, mothers of political prisoners began a hunger strike in a church, and the National Police summarily surrounded the church, threatening the mothers inside, impeding access in or out, and cutting off basic services such as electricity and potable water. Jagger emphasized that no one seems to have access to President Ortega to begin a dialogue: he does not seem to want to participate in any discussions about the status quo and is not afraid to use torture to maintain it. Jagger urged the international community, including the OAS, to take action to stop human rights violations in Nicaragua, which have transformed it into a terrorist state where persecution extends even to Catholic priests. Free and fair elections will not be able to take place while Ortega is in power, she maintained.
Courtney emphasized that there can be no democracy in Nicaragua without reform, and Ortega does not want to undertake the necessary reforms. His decades-long political career has focused on obtaining and centralizing power. The Civic Alliance, a group of civil society organizations and citizens promoting democratic transition in Nicaragua, cannot congregate because members are constantly dogged by patrols and surveillance. Discussing ways to institute a new electoral process in Nicaragua is tricky because Ortega’s departure must be negotiated, and he is currently unwilling to negotiate. In May 2019, the Civic Alliance left the negotiating table after Father Eddy Montes was assassinated after being held as a political prisoner since October 2018. The group’s departure responded to the Ortega regime’s violation of the first of three preconditions for negotiation, which were agreed upon in February 2019: 1) humanitarian treatment of political prisoners; 2) a fair process for release, as laid out by the International Committee of the Red Cross; and 3) the definitive release of all political prisoners by June 18, 2019.
Valdivia continued on to say that, under Ortega, there is no freedom to congregate or dissent in the country. In order to provide testimony for the OAS High-Level Commission’s November 2019 report on Nicaragua, they and others had to meet OAS representatives in El Salvador because it was difficult to arrange a meeting within Nicaragua. Two months ago, repression against civil society and government protesters intensified, and government-affiliated actors have even taken the unprecedented step of vandalizing the graves of protesters who were killed for dissenting. There is also a continued lack of transparency and closure on the assassinations of dissenting individuals killed by government-affiliated forces.
Carcache highlighted that the Nicaraguan government’s flagrant violations of human rights and access to justice are violating the country’s constitution. He noted that people are facing spurious criminal charges for providing aid to protesters, even necessities such as food or water and that there is no longer freedom of association. Carcache also underscored that human rights advocates and opponents of the Ortega regime will not stop their nonviolent struggle.
Ordoñez pointed out that there are currently over 150 political prisoners in Nicaragua, and López added that there is no legal, institutional framework or recourse to justice in Nicaragua. Even the mothers of murdered political protesters continue to be victims of government aggression. The Mothers of April asked the international community, particularly the United States, to be more assertive in condemning the Ortega regime’s actions and applying strong sanctions on guilty actors. Jagger stated that while Nicaragua cannot compete with Venezuela in terms of the volume of people displaced and repressed, proportionally speaking, the number of people who have been forced to flee or live in terror in Nicaragua is considerable for the country of 6 million people. The international community has purported that Nicaraguans need a dialogue involving all parties, but Jagger asserted that there can be no dialogue without a willing interlocutor, which Ortega is not. Ortega has dismantled all legal institutions in Nicaragua, she averred—they need to be rebuilt in order for us to have free elections one day.
The question and answer portion included a question about disunity among the Nicaraguan opposition, and whether “speaking with one voice” is necessary for negotiations to be successful moving forward. Jagger responded by saying that it is unreasonable to ask all opposition factions to speak with one voice, just as it would be unreasonable to expect that all opponents to Donald Trump be united and speak with one voice. Unfortunately, since the nature of politics in Nicaragua has been transactional since Ortega came to power, any political party active in public life had to participate in a corrupt system and so unity is compromised. However, for a year, the opposition has succeeded in maintaining a political coalition despite internal differences.