NICARAGUA: ‘The protests expressed an articulated demand for genuine democracy, based on respect for the popular will’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and specialists about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks with Amaru Ruiz about recent protests in Nicaragua, which were severely repressed, with hundreds of citizens killed. Amaru Ruiz is president of Fundación del Río, an environmental organisation that works for the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable development in the southeast region of Nicaragua, and coordinator of the Nicaraguan Network for Democracy and Local Development (Red Local), a civil society coalition that seeks to strengthen civil society organisations (CSOs) to promote inclusive and equitable local development, influence public policy-making, manage knowledge and promote active citizenship. Both organisations are part of the Articulation of Social Movements and Civil Society, which focuses on the struggle for justice, freedom and democracy in Nicaragua.

1. In April 2018, protests of unprecedented magnitude took place, to which the government responded with unprecedented violence. How did this happen?

It is important to understand that the government of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) has undergone three very different periods, during which its support base has eroded. The first (2007-2012) was marked by caution: the government was not ready to manage the state, since the FSLN had been in the opposition and did not really expect to win the elections, even though the pact reached with former President Arnoldo Alemán had reduced the percentage of valid votes required to win the elections. It was in the second period (2012-2017) that the government's strategy to perpetuate itself in power was set in place. Discontent started to simmer when the Supreme Court issued a ruling that allowed President Daniel Ortega to get re-elected. This reform was promoted on the basis of the same argument that Oscar Arias had used in Costa Rica and that Álvaro Uribe had attempted in Colombia: that we are all equal before the law and therefore it is not legitimate to prevent a single citizen - in this case, the acting president - from aspiring to public office; as the Supreme Court of Nicaragua put it, “electoral discrimination and interdiction should not be imposed on the President and Vice President, Mayors and Vice-Mayors.” Following this ruling, President Ortega, along with FSLN mayors and vice-mayors, was able to get re-elected for a second consecutive term. And therefore a third period started in 2017.

Permanence in power resulted in the concentration of decision-making at the municipal level and the establishment of a corporatist model closely linked to big capital - a model of consensus and dialogue among the government, businesspeople and workers' unions linked to the FSLN.

During this second period, the government became more interested in accumulating wealth. Investments began on behalf of the presidential family, and confusion deepened not only between state and party, but also between party and family. The president’s wife and right hand, Rosario Murillo, has had more power than any minister, and since the beginning of his third presidential term, she has also been vice president. For quite some time now, the Ortega-Murillo family has hoarded top management government positions, while also building an economic dynasty.

Their business interests have involved contracts and concessions to powerful private investors, both domestic and foreign, approved by the state: concessions for mining, such as Rancho Grande; for plantations, for instance of African palm; and for megaprojects such as the Tumarín Dam on Matagalpa’s Rio Grande, the deep-water port of Bluefields and, last but not least, the Interoceanic Canal.

In reaction to these processes, some of which moved forward without the consent of affected communities, social movements representing sectors of the population that had been left unprotected by the Nicaraguan state started to protest. The FSLN had come to power with the support of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of Nicaragua, not as a representative of the private sector. The most vulnerable urban sectors, in particular, saw in Daniel Ortega an opportunity for backtracking on the neoliberal model established by preceding governments. Instead, the neoliberal model has deepened, which resulted in a breakup between the government and part of the social base that had initially supported it.

This rupture has also manifested itself around other issues, most notably around the so-called saneamiento of the Miskitu indigenous territories, which confers on the state the obligation to guarantee indigenous peoples’ effective use of their titled territories against the occupation of settlers who claim to have legally acquired properties in indigenous territories. Instead, violations of the Miskitu indigenous peoples’ human rights have escalated, including looting, kidnappings and murders in their communities. This has resulted from the prevalence of economic interests that feed on the hoarding of natural resources.

Another important factor that converged in these processes was the role of so-called solidarity funds, earmarked for social projects, that Nicaragua received for years from the government of Venezuela. These funds did not go into the national budget, and therefore were not audited and could be used with the full discretion of the Nicaraguan government. This cash was used, on the one hand, to fund welfare programmes for the most vulnerable sectors - a policy that the government referred to as one of “rights restitution” - and, on the other, to acquire companies, hotels, television channels and agro-export investments, which were all placed in the hands of figureheads, party elements and the Ortega-Murillo family. The latter, in particular, took place to the detriment of local communities whose rights were violated. As a result we now have a huge debt with Venezuela, which puts pressure on the public budget, and the ruling party and the president's family have accumulated more resources than ever. All of this has generated discontent among a growing section of the citizenry, as well as among historic FSLN party cadres.

2. How did these isolated conflicts turn into mass protest? What triggered them?

Conflicts had been going on for quite some time in rural areas; the turning point was when the protests moved into urban areas. Moods had been heated since the 2012 municipal elections, in which the FSLN obtained 76 per cent of the vote and won most mayoralties. These raised questions of fraud, were marked by a high abstention rate and caused dissatisfaction even among ruling party supporters. The FSLN had held primaries in which voters selected candidates who turned out not to be the ones to receive the blessing of the party structure; the popular will was therefore ignored and the president imposed his own favourite candidates. Thus, FSLN activists in the affected municipalities went out to protest. This was a new development, since never before had ruling party supporters protested against the government: supportive demonstrations were typically held by obedient party activists for whom their commander’s word was absolute truth.

This precedent also had an effect on the national, legislative and presidential elections of 2016, when the abstention rate surpassed 70 per cent. Everyone knew beforehand who was going to win; nobody believed that voting could be of any use to effect change in their municipalities, and much less at the national level. The opposition parties that presented candidates played in favour of the ruling regime, as those that had truly remained in the opposition had been stripped of their legal status and therefore their candidates had not been allowed to run. Even some former allies of the ruling party had drifted apart.

With the government already affected by a loss of legitimacy, the first trigger of the massive protests was the government’s terrible handling, through a bad mix of indifference and negligence, of the fires of suspicious origins that affected 6,788 hectares of forests in the Indio Maíz biological reserve in early April 2018. The environment is, along with social media, the great issue that the Nicaraguan government has long wanted to control but has not been able to. The government has created several structures, even forming a pro-government environmental movement, but still has not been able to control the issue politically or technically. Environmental organisations are solid in generating knowledge and advocacy on an issue marked by negligence from both the government and the business sector, as reflected in the atrocities committed by extractive industries, which we have steadily denounced.

The information and awareness campaign run by the environmental movement on social networks, subsequently amplified by independent media, succeeded in mobilising both national and international solidarity around the issue. The first expressions of protest, seen during the week of 9 April 2018, had their epicentre at the Central American University and focused on the mismanagement and concealment of information regarding the fires. Protesting students were assaulted by pro-government mobs and dispersed by police forces.

Finally, rains ended up extinguishing the fire on a Friday night, almost at dawn on Saturday. And two days later, on Monday 16 April 2018, a presidential decree mandating a reform of the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security (INSS) was published. I don’t think the government, or anyone else, imagined the reaction this would trigger. On the afternoon of the same day, the private sector broke the consensus model by expressing their disagreement with the reform, which according to them had been decided without consultation. Many people, especially students, immediately began to protest in the capital, Managua, and the city of León. The first hashtags that were used were #SOSIndioMaiz, #SOSINSS and #SOSNicaragua: all discontents had come together. All social movements - including the peasants’ and women’s movements - soon showed their support of the protesting students, and protests became massive. It was a self-convened movement, very diverse, that basically went out to the streets to say: ENOUGH. It was no longer focused on a specific grievance but built around a more articulated demand for genuine democracy, based on respect for the popular will, transparent institutions and independent justice.

The government did not expect such reaction. The protests that had been held so far, and that had been repeatedly repressed, had taken place in rural, isolated and sparsely populated areas, often out of the reach of the media. But police, paramilitary groups and armed sectors of the Sandinista Youths shooting at people in urban, densely populated areas, in front of the cameras: that was something else.

3. Several months have passed since the peak of the repression and the world may begin to think that things are returning to normal. Are they?

Not at all. Of course, the government wants to transmit the image that everything is normal, but in August there have been new mobilisations in several cities, and there were more in September, in this case preceded by a national strike. Of course, these have not turned massive, because following the ferocious repression that they suffered, many social movement leaders have left the country, particularly to Costa Rica, and repression continues to take place on a daily basis. Protest is criminalised and activists are persecuted, especially students and peasants, who have been declared terrorists. While repression has so far targeted social movements, it is now reaching more established CSOs. I think the recently passed Law against money laundering, financing of terrorism and financing of mass-destruction weapons proliferation will be used against CSOs.

Various sectors within the country are fighting for a civil and peaceful exit from this situation, but the possibility of a resurgence of violence is very real. The president has said that there will be no more dialogue, and if dialogue is truly over, one of two things can happen: either violence increases, or resignation prevails. The latter is not the most viable option: it is only a temporary way out, given that as a result of accumulated frustrations, unresolved tensions will at some point resurface and people will return to the streets. That is, it would be just a way of postponing violence. Truth is, faced with the dilemma of what to do now - to either keep going out and risk getting killed, or stay quietly at home. Many will prefer to stay home, while others will continue getting out, and still others will stop protesting and begin conspiring.

4. What is your opinion of the role played - or not played - by the international community throughout this process?

Many actors - not only international but also domestic, such as the church - have played a fundamental role in this process. The church, in particular, has encouraged its parishioners to support civic struggle and denounced the atrocities committed, and has sought to distance itself from any form of violence.

International solidarity expressed itself in the form of reports sent to their respective countries by embassies in Managua, which helped give visibility to the situation and have generated one international defeat after another for the government of Nicaragua. In all areas of international diplomacy our government has been defeated. The situation of Nicaragua has even been discussed in the United Nations Security Council, despite the efforts made by the government and its allies to prevent it. The very fact that the issue was placed on the agenda was enough. This also happened at the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: in spite of the government's efforts to present the protests as an attempted coup d'état, and despite the resistance of the left to admitting the repressive nature of the ruling regime, what has happened in Nicaragua has become clear to the whole world. Until then, international CSOs had paid little attention to Nicaragua, but now they have begun to take an interest in it.

5. What support does Nicaraguan civil society need to find a peaceful solution to the situation?

First, we need solidarity with the people who continue to fight in Nicaragua and with those who have left and are doing it from abroad. Likewise, CSOs and social movements that remain active need support in terms of strategy, resources and protection.

Finally, support is needed for undertaking advocacy to influence decision-makers in international forums. For instance, we recently expressed our rejection of the candidacy of Paul Oquist, the Public Policies Secretary of Nicaragua, to co-chair the global Green Climate Fund. This decision is made by many countries who have a vote, and we need their support to prevent the Nicaraguan government from gaining legitimacy by occupying such positions.

Civic space in Nicaragua is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. The country is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor’s Watch List.

Get in touch with Fundación del Río through its website and Facebook page, and with Red Local through its webpage and Facebook page.