More than two months after street protests broke out in Nicaragua, some 200 people have died, and peace talks between President Daniel Ortega’s administration and opposition and civil society groups have been for the most part unsuccessful. Nicaragua’s Catholic bishops, who are mediating the talks, said both sides are discussing the possibility of rescheduling presidential elections for March 2019, rather than holding them in late 2021 as planned, Agence France-Presse reported. Meanwhile, violence has continued to break out across the country. Why have talks stalled, and what scenarios to the impasse are most likely in the months ahead? Is negotiating electoral reform with Ortega realistic? What is each side bargaining for, and how can a peaceful resolution be found?
Francisco Campbell, Nicaragua’s ambassador to the United States: “Shortly after the outbreak of the crisis in Nicaragua this past April, President Ortega announced his commitment to a peaceful solution, based on respect for the Constitution and laws of the country. He also requested the participation of the Catholic bishops as mediators and witnesses. This commitment to a solution through a national dialogue is firm. Moreover, the government highlighted the dialogue by stating its willingness to discuss all issues in an environment conducive to a successful outcome. Persistent violence, however, is a clear obstacle to advancement of the dialogue, for it undermines the trust and confidence that is necessary to achieve understanding. This is why the government maintains that removal of barricades holding Nicaraguans and citizens of other countries hostage, violating basic principles of human rights, including freedom of movement, the right to go to work or to go to school, is imperative. The impact of these barricades is being felt beyond our borders, fostering insecurity and severely affecting transportation and commerce between Central American countries. Strengthening democratic institutions, including reforms of the electoral system, is a priority for the Nicaraguan government. For the last two years, the government has been working with the Organization of American States to bring the electoral system in line with standards of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has repeatedly stated this cooperation is moving along positively and will create conditions and a timetable for free, fair and transparent elections in Nicaragua.”
Mario Arana, director of the Nicaraguan Foundation for Social and Economic Development and a former Nicaraguan minister of finance and central bank president: “The civic, non-violent, inspired protests and the level of mass mobilization took the government by surprise. Initially, the opposition, made up of student leaders, the business sector and a diverse coalition of other interest groups, had the upper hand. The process has stalled because Ortega has felt the need to reverse the unfavorable forces protesting against him, using delaying tactics to have time to increase repression and take back the control of some of the main regional transit international roads in the hands of protesters. Strategically, though, it is most likely that Ortega will not be able to regain control of an acceptable level of governance. He has lost the support of key allies, the private sector, the United States and the church. The sustainability of the economy is simply no longer viable under his rule. With the most recent regain of control, Ortega is actually in a better position to negotiate his exit than if he waits until 2021 when normal elections are scheduled. Ortega is difficult to predict, though, and while he may be encouraged by his recent achievements against the opposition, he will most likely call for early elections in 2019, will try to stay during the transition, and will accept institutional and electoral reforms. Some are calling for Ortega’s immediate resignation. This outcome would cost more lives and take more time to settle, it would do more damage to the economy than an early exit, and it is less likely to happen. Ortega staying until 2021 would be the worst-case scenario in every respect.”
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, director of Confidencial in Managua: “Negotiations regarding justice and democratization have stalled because there’s a lack of political will from the government. In reality, discussion on the very first point of the agenda has not even begun. Ortega has set out to launch a military offensive, supported by paramilitary forces, to retake control of upraised cities and clear the roads. The results have been more repression and many more dead, even with the presence of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations in the country. This, in turn, makes Ortega remaining in power even less viable, even if he does accept the rescheduling of elections. Most people, in the streets and even presidents of some business chambers, are demanding Ortega’s immediate resignation in order to then proceed to negotiate political and electoral reforms. Alianza Cívica, for its part, demands the disarmament and dismantling of paramilitary groups, and political reforms that will allow the rescheduling of presidential elections. But Ortega will never agree, unless he’s forced into it by extraordinary civic pressure, both national and international, that will persuade the pillars of his regime—the police, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the army and civilian government forces—that he can no longer rule and should either exit or negotiate. For now, we’re in the process of mediating forces, on which the future of the dialogue depends, while Ortega is focusing his counteroffensive military in order to come emboldened to the negotiating table.”
Christine Wade, professor of political science and international studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.: “Attempts at dialogue between the Ortega government and civil society have been fraught from the beginning. A broad, disparate group of civil society is demanding an end to repression and the resignation of President Ortega and Vice President Murillo. The Ortega administration has focused on dismantling barricades that protesters have erected around the country, as a condition for dialogue. The violence and repression against protesters has been a major point of contention. The government has repeatedly denied that the police and parapolice have engaged in repression, insisting that protesters are responsible for a majority of the violence. A recent report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, however, documented 212 killings and found that the government used ‘excessive and arbitrary use of state force’ to repress protesters. The Ortega administration lambasted the report as biased and ‘unprofessional.’ The administration’s refusal to take responsibility for the repression has seriously undermined the prospects for a successful national dialogue. As repression continues, the crisis may worsen before it improves. Ortega’s resignation is unlikely so long as he maintains the support of the armed forces, and the protesters are too weak to overthrow the government. Dialogue must continue. Despite discussion about the possibility of early elections in 2019, it remains unclear whether Ortega will capitulate or how that process would unfold. Early elections would not be without problems, as the political opposition is weak and the protest movement disparate, but they appear the best prospect for a resolution to the current crisis.”
Gavin Strong, director for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean at Control Risks: “Control Risks does not expect a swift resolution to the political crisis currently engulfing Nicaragua. President Daniel Ortega and First Lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo appear hell-bent on remaining in power, whatever the cost. This is reflected in both their apparent unwillingness to proffer meaningful political concessions—most notably, agreeing to bring forward the 2021 general election to March 2019—as well as the continued repression of protests. The latter includes the brazen use of paramilitaries, despite provoking vehement opprobrium both in Nicaragua and among the international community. The regime has allowed the deployment of international investigators to the country to look into alleged human rights abuses committed since the crisis began in April. However, rather than a sign of good faith, we believe this is part of a broader tactic by Ortega and Murillo to draw out the national dialogue brokered by the Catholic Church until the opposition to the regime, including the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, runs out of steam. A game changer in this respect would be if the army, which is coming under increasing pressure to intervene in the crisis, were to renounce the regime or step in to disarm the paramilitaries. However, the army has given little indication to date that it intends to do either of these.”
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