The civic insurrection of April 2018 established an inflection point in Nicaragua. The social outburst that mobilized hundreds of thousands of people for more than three months through protests, barricades, and strikes, demanding freedom, democracy, and early elections, provoked an irreversible political crisis in the Ortega-Murillo family dictatorship. The authoritarian regime, which was not designed to govern with opposition, responded with unusual repressive violence. During the protests, a new pro-democracy political majority was born, which remains unchanged to this day, despite not having achieved its initial goals of democratization and justice.
The latest polls conducted by CID Gallup, in September and October, reveal that a majority of 65% of the population would vote on November 7 for a formula of the opposition candidates if they were not in jail, against 17% who openly support Ortega; and that same 65% demand the release of the prisoners of conscience and the annulment of the political trials. The political ceiling of this blue and white majority is extended to 76% of Nicaraguans who consider that, under Ortega’s dictatorship, the country is going in the “wrong direction”, and 78% affirm that Ortega’s reelection, without political competition and excluding the opposition, will not obtain national and international legitimacy.
The consolidation of that political majority buried the plan to establish a dynastic dictatorship through the succession of power from Daniel Ortega to his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, as planned before the April Rebellion, for 2021. Following the massacre and “Operation Cleanup” in 2018, Ortega imposed an iron-fisted police state, curtailing all democratic freedoms. However, despite having absolute political control of the electoral system, he did not dare to take the risk of putting power at stake in a free and competitive election. Between June and August of this year, the candidate for reelection and supreme police chief eliminated electoral competition by imprisoning seven aspiring candidates of the opposition and more than 30 political and civic leaders – activists, peasants, students, businessmen, journalists, and human rights defenders – representing the entire national political spectrum, and stripped the only two opposition political parties of their legal status. In this way, Ortega lost the November 7 elections twice: first, during the civic protests of 2018, when he executed crimes against humanity to quell the April Rebellion and, now in 2021, in the face of the challenge of a unified opposition leadership at the ballot box, when he was forced to annul the electoral route.
Against the backdrop of this double political defeat, the FSLN caudillo will be reelected this Sunday without competition, beginning his fourth consecutive period of government under his most serious crisis of national and international political legitimacy. Ortega and Murillo’s regime will no longer be considered as a hybrid regime, an imperfect democracy, or competitive authoritarianism, but a dictatorship, with the political and economic consequences derived from its international isolation, and the rupture of the national alliances that allowed it to govern with stability between 2007 and 2017. Certainly, Ortega can prolong the agony of the regime, screwing himself in power with the Police, the paramilitary, and the complicity of the Army, and strengthen his alliances with Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, Taiwan, Iran, and Belarus, but at an economic, social, and human cost, increasingly intolerable for Nicaraguan society. In the meantime, the country will oscillate between the uncertainty of reaching a dead end, with the worsening of the social crisis that translates into greater migration to the north and south, and the expectation that only with maximum political pressure, national and international, can the balance of power be changed to clear the way for new free elections.
The first step, starting November 8, is to face the crisis of the 150 political prisoners that the dictatorship has tried to make invisible, as it has never been able to break politically with jail and torture. For Ortega, they are hostages and bargaining chips in an eventual negotiation. For the pro-democracy movement, they represent a symbol of resistance and the hope of leadership for change. Consequently, the demand for the release of the prisoners of conscience should be much more than a daily banner held by their relatives, to become the main national and international political strategy to weaken the police state. The pressure to change the balance of power begins with the release of political prisoners and the annulment of spurious trials, to preserve all their political rights.
The political opposition, decapitated by the repression, has begun its process of reorganization in exile, without proclaiming itself the spokesperson of an illusory provisional government or of the imprisoned leaders, but only as a facilitator of a process of national unity, which calls for dialogue, capacity for communication with the international community, and above all to rebuild the bases of civic resistance in the country. At a time when there are no conditions for the electoral battle, the opposition faces the challenge of reactivating the networks of civic resistance and connecting with the demands of the population in the face of the rising cost of living and unemployment that impoverishes the great majorities and the middle sectors, including public servants, who are also hostages of the regime.
With a bishop and several priests in exile, and five business leaders in jail, Ortega has failed in the attempt to subdue the Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church and to rebuild his corporatist alliance with big business. The Church is the most credible institution in the country and will continue to exercise a powerful moral leadership in defense of human rights and demands for justice. On the other hand, despite their dominant weight in the national economy, the business leaders of the private sector remain silent for fear of reprisals from the regime and have renounced to exercise a civic role, although they have not granted political legitimacy to Ortega in his totalitarian drift.
In a parenthesis of three consecutive years of recession, when the economy is benefiting from the dynamics of foreign demand, a negotiation between the large companies and economic associations with the Government is foreseeable in the next months, in the interest of mitigating the extortive economic policies, but it is unlikely that they will try to revive a failed model, politically endorsing the dictatorship in the announced national dialogue. On the contrary, given the imminence of a review and eventual suspension of Nicaragua from DR-Cafta provoked by Ortega and the breakdown of democratic order, the greater the incentive should be for the business leadership to recover its autonomy, exert pressure and place institutional limits on the dictatorship, to contribute to the search for a democratic solution that will provide a lasting solution to the economic crisis.
The international community, led by the majority of nations in the OAS and the European Union, has already advanced its judgment on the electoral farce of November 7, anticipating that the voting results do not meet the conditions of a democratic election. Disregarding the Ortega regime does not amount to a diplomatic rupture or expulsion from the OAS, but rather amounts to more effective forms of political and economic pressure, such as the Renacer Act passed this week in the U.S. Congress, to weaken Ortega’s power to repress without consequences. However, the only way out of the regime’s political crisis is in Managua, not in Washington or Brussels. And, therefore, diplomatic pressure should focus on how to influence the restoration of democratic freedoms in Nicaragua. The Ortega regime can withstand international sanctions, individual or institutional, for a time, but it cannot rule a single day without losing control of power if the police state is suspended.
Ortega’s political defeat on November 7 will always be incomplete, as long as it does not lead to greater national and international pressure to recover the freedoms of assembly, mobilization, press, and expression, and the right to elect and be elected in Nicaragua. From that moment on, the democratic opposition that today is in jail and in exile will become an alternative power to negotiate the rules of the democratic transition, with or without Ortega and Murillo.
Editor's Note: This column was originally published and translated by Confidencial.