A Thaw or a Trap? Nicaragua’s Surprise Return to Negotiations

A man watches a TV broadcast of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in Managua, Nicaragua 21 February 2019. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas
A man watches a TV broadcast of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in Managua, Nicaragua 21 February 2019. REUTERS / Oswaldo Rivas

Why is Nicaragua having a national dialogue?

On 27 February, government and extra-parliamentary opposition representatives began a second round of dialogue with the aim of resolving the turmoil triggered by last year’s uprising, which the government met with lethal violence. More than 325 people, mainly opponents of President Daniel Ortega, have lost their lives in clashes between protesters and police and para-police, while 777 are held in prison or under house arrest, according to the Committee for Liberation of Political Prisoners, a local civil society organisation. Protests started in April 2018, when Ortega announced the terms of a highly unpopular reform to the social security system, and soon ballooned into a full-scale revolt including mass marches, roadblocks and the establishment of opposition-controlled territories after security forces initiated a brutal crackdown. An independent group of experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has concluded that the police and para-police units operating alongside them perpetrated offences that can be considered crimes against humanity.

Human Rights has concluded that the police and para-police units operating alongside them perpetrated offences that can be considered crimes against humanity.

Government and opposition had initiated a first round of dialogue in May last year at the height of the protests. The process, which was marred by ongoing street violence and evident hostility between the sides, stalled eight months ago during Ortega’s counter-offensive. But on 21 February, despite a series of increasingly authoritarian measures against the opposition, media and civil society in recent months, Ortega took the surprising step of proposing a start date for the resumption of talks.

The Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, the umbrella opposition front created last year for the first dialogue, agreed to take part in the new talks. Its six-person negotiating team has set down three broad planks as its agenda. The first is “liberation of political prisoners and restoration of the liberties, rights and guarantees established by the Constitution”. The second is “electoral reforms that guarantee free, fair and transparent elections”. And the third is “justice”, alluding to the opposition’s call for some form of redress for the victims of last year’s violence.

In an apparent good-will gesture, the government released 100 prisoners on 27 February, though they remain under house arrest. The Civic Alliance stated that the release was unilateral and not part of negotiations. The Alliance was coy about progress in the talks until 5 March, when it announced that the parties had agreed on a roadmap, including an ambitious end date of 28 March, which is likely to be pushed back. Sources close to the Alliance’s negotiators report that the government is reluctant to countenance the presence of international guarantors, who would seek to ensure that both sides comply with any agreements reached in the talks. On 5 March the parties decided to postpone appointment of guarantors until after they agree upon an agenda, which seems to confirm the government’s hesitancy.

Why did the government come back to the negotiating table?

At least four reasons drove Ortega to reopen the dialogue.

First, he is on the political defensive, as his government’s approval rating has been dropping since the April uprising. Support tumbled from 67 per cent before the uprising to 23 per cent afterward, according to the 2018 Latinobarómetro study. Sensing trouble in party ranks over the government’s management of the crisis, Ortega used the resumption of national dialogue to round up his support base ahead of 3 March regional elections in the Caribbean region (won by the ruling party with around 54 per cent of the vote, though civil society has denounced electoral irregularities).

Secondly, reopening the dialogue is a way for Ortega to ease mounting international pressure amid the parallel push for regime change in Venezuela. President Nicolás Maduro is one of his closest allies. Ortega’s announcement about restarting the dialogue came after a series of visits by high-level delegations from the U.S., EU and Organization of American States (OAS), and just two days before the planned date to secure the entry of U.S.-backed humanitarian aid into Venezuela. Visiting diplomats conveyed the message that, in the absence of a change in the government’s approach to the post-uprising crisis, their home governments would take further punitive action. The U.S. has already imposed three rounds of targeted sanctions on Ortega’s inner circle, including his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, while recent sanctions upon the Venezuelan state oil corporation PDVSA have also affected the Albanisa oil company, a joint venture in which PDVSA is the major shareholder. Senior U.S. officials, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, have proclaimed that Ortega’s “days are numbered”, suggesting that his government will be next to fall after Venezuela’s, and promising to intensify sanctions using the Nicaragua Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act signed into law by President Donald Trump in December. The EU has also expressed readiness to use all the tools at its disposal, including sanctions, to pressure the government should it continue its repression rather than commit to a negotiated way out of the crisis. The OAS Permanent Council has started discussions about application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter to Nicaragua, which could lead to the country’s expulsion from the organisation, with serious repercussions for its diplomatic relations and ability to pursue multilateral loans.

Thirdly, the country’s economic woes, another result of last year’s crisis, have put Ortega under the gun. In 2018 the gross domestic product fell by 4 per cent, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. The outlook for this year is also grim, with all estimates predicting that GDP will fall: figures range between -2 and -10.9 per cent. Now that aid from Venezuela – which stood at over $700 million in 2012 – has virtually disappeared, the strength of Ortega’s political support network has become dependent on the country’s economic performance, led by a buoyant private sector. Last year’s protests, however, came on the heels of a rupture between the government and the country’s main business organisations, which went on to join the Civic Alliance. Since then, the government has sought to squeeze and harass the private sector by hiking taxes and increasing state powers over business, in hopes that it would respond to the pressure by distancing itself from the opposition. So far, this strategy has failed. “The private sector understands that there cannot be any solution to the crisis without a political agreement”, a private-sector representative told Crisis Group. But business leaders are clearly more open to a deal with Ortega than the rest of the opposition. A delegation of business tycoons was the only Nicaraguan group outside the government’s coalition to meet with the president in recent months; this meeting occurred just days before he announced the resumption of dialogue.

Lastly, Ortega’s initiative may be part of a divide-and-rule strategy, aimed at splitting the opposition at a time when it is struggling for cohesion, with many of its leaders in exile, in jail or facing trial. On the eve of the dialogue announcement, the Blue and White National Unity, a civil society coalition established last October as a platform for a wider range of opposition movements than the Civic Alliance, was about to form a political leadership council, made up of seven to eleven people, according to some of its members. Ortega’s sudden move caught most of the Unity’s member organisations by surprise and led it to postpone the council’s creation. And Ortega’s repressive tactics persist. The courts recently sentenced peasant leader Medardo Mairena and others to more than 200 years in prison on trumped-up terrorism, organised crime and other charges. Police attacks on journalists and NGOs also continue apace. These actions seem intended to signal that repression will not cease without concessions from the opposition and an end to public protests.

What lessons have been learned from the first national dialogue, and what are the risks in the new round?

The first national dialogue was broadcast live on television and social media, which may have been necessary to give it public credibility but also showcased the grudges between the two sides. Both the government and the Civic Alliance have acknowledged that the new round of negotiations should take place in private. Likewise, they have agreed to reduce the number of participants and narrow the agenda to ensure quicker and smoother negotiations. The various components of the Civic Alliance have also overcome their mutual mistrust and are better prepared to undertake dialogue than last year, when they “did not know whom [they] were sitting next to”, as one representative put it. The first round’s mediator, the Episcopal Conference (the leadership body of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church), is included among the national “accompanying” parties for the second round, alongside representatives of other Christian denominations, such as the Evangelical Church. The Vatican has contributed to smoothing out Church-government relations somewhat, thanks to papal nuncio Waldemar Sommertag’s conciliatory approach, after Ortega had branded the bishops as coup plotters some months ago. It is still uncertain, however, which Episcopal Conference members will participate as advisers of its president, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes.

Meanwhile, there is no hiding the potential pitfalls of the current round of dialogue. Ortega may be approaching the dialogue in bad faith, intending only to buy time and placate international critics. By alternating between reconciliation and repression, dealing preferentially with the private sector, and (for the time being) baulking at the participation of international guarantors, he may already have signalled a lack of interest in making more concessions than the minimum needed to avoid further sanctions and salvage the Nicaraguan economy, without addressing the opposition’s core demands of democratisation and justice. For its part, the Civic Alliance’s delegation has the difficult task of winning over doubters in the opposition. Critics have berated the Alliance for its negotiating team’s composition: it over-represents the private sector (half the negotiators are businessmen) and includes no women, rural representatives or members of the victims’ organisations made up of relatives of political prisoners and of those killed in the uprising.

How can the parties avoid a second failure of talks?

The Civic Alliance’s biggest challenge is now to negotiate the dialogue’s agenda. Its first aim after that should be to enhance its legitimacy and credibility while the dialogue is under way, to avoid a scenario in which large segments of the opposition disown the talks’ eventual results. Establishing regular communication with Blue and White National Unity representatives in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica, where many exiled leaders live, would help strengthen the opposition’s overall cohesion. It should also consider appointing victims’ representatives as advisers, if not observers, when dealing with issues related to justice. While the renewed dialogue has emboldened people to demonstrate again – despite a police directive forbidding protests without prior approval – the Civic Alliance should call on the opposition to maintain public order during negotiations.

The government should continue to show good-will by ceasing attacks against NGOs, journalists and opposition figures. It should also release more political prisoners, at least those who are ill or remain in detention despite having been acquitted, and grant at least house arrest to those undergoing trial or awaiting their first hearing.

Agreement upon rules of the game was a crucial step in the process. If the parties manage to agree on an agenda and subsequently on admitting international guarantors, then the negotiations’ main goal should be to ensure a timetable for free and fair elections, with a basic agreement on justice, such as the creation of a mixed truth commission, including members of the government, opposition and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The international community, particularly the OAS, the U.S., the UN and the EU, should welcome – but not settle for – the resumption of the national dialogue. They should state clearly that they will respond to any efforts to undermine the talks with increased pressure on the parties, while offering incentives, as well as technical assistance, to implement any agreement the dialogue may produce.

Tiziano Breda, Researcher, Northern Triangle and Nicaragua.

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