Central America / Politics

Maradiaga: “We must offer a way out to Nicaraguans who have supported the Ortega regime”

Oslo Freedom Forum
Oslo Freedom Forum

Sunday, July 9, 2023
Nelson Rauda Zablah

Leer en español

Felix Maradiaga was a presidential candidate aspiring to defeat Daniel Ortega at the ballot box when he was arrested in 2021. Two years later, banished from Nicaragua but finally free, he is the best-positioned opposition leader in public opinion polling. In June Cid Gallup found 46 percent favorable ratings for Maradiaga, the highest of everyone included in the poll. Ortega obtained 34 percent approval, with 56 percent unfavorable public appraisal. Maradiaga acknowledges his leadership role in the opposition but discards as a “distraction” any discussion of possible candidacies to preside over a future democratic government of Nicaragua.

Maradiaga, secretary general of the Defense Ministry between 2002 and 2006 —the year before Ortega returned to power—, is the president of the Foundation for Freedom. In 2018, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights documented two assassination attempts against him. In February of this year, after spending 20 months in prison, Ortega stripped him of his citizenship and all of his belongings, as he did with the other 221 political prisoners, expelling them to the United States. He says this is his third time in exile.

He valued his imprisonment as a somber “achievement that allowed us to unmask Ortega.” He says that in Central America “populism gives immediate results that simulate answers to poverty but with no long-term sustainable solutions”. Even so, he is reluctant to issue advice because “Nicaragua is no success story.”

In mid-June, Felix Maradiaga spoke at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway alongside survivors of China’s Uyghur concentration camps; a journalist tortured in the Maduro regime’s Helicoide prison in Venezuela; a Ukrainian lawmaker whose husband is a political prisoner in Russia; and a Kenyan activist who denounced conditions of slavery for migrant workers in Qatar for the last World Cup. In an emotional introduction, Maradiaga shared a video of his reunion with his daughter Alejandra and wife Berta. He talked about non-violence and the imperative of not building societies “from a place of vengeance.”

On July 8, three weeks later, a group of expelled Nicaraguan opposition leaders announced the formation of the Monteverde Process for Peace and Democracy in Nicaragua, named after the Costa Rican mountain town where their talks took place. They said in a statement that the initiative “seeks, with a common vision, to attain liberty for our nation and pave the way for a state truly governed by the rule of law.” Maradiaga is one of its first spokespersons.

Before the 2021 elections, there were failed discussions within the Nicaraguan opposition on how to establish a single platform and agree on candidates. Looking back on it, do you think the opposition could have done things differently?

We didn’t have a single strategy, but I disagree with those who say we didn’t have a strategy at all. The organizations I was working with had a clear strategy: We thought we had to unmask the regime, working hand in hand with the international community and showing the greatest political will to be an organized opposition, a government alternative, to find a non-violent, democratic solution and push the regime to electoral reform.

I don’t think we had the international attention nor the conditions for a different solution. Some analysts think it was a strategic mistake to compete in the elections. Ortega had been organizing fraudulent elections under the nose of the international community, but hadn’t faced a unified opposition. There was no international will to reject the fraudulent results of previous elections. We candidates understood that Ortega was waiting for us to abandon the process in order to say: ‘The opposition isn't organized. They are unable to face me and don’t have a trustworthy candidate. I’ll compete with anyone willing.’ We were ready to go to the polls and overwhelmingly win. In the scenario of a fraud, we were going to make every effort for citizens to pressure in the streets and for international pressure to demand that the vote be counted.

Did you achieve something?

A deeply painful achievement: We forced Ortega into having no other response but to throw all candidates in jail. That extreme measure, at an enormous human and personal cost, has made it so no international actor can rationally propose to attempt elections in Nicaragua. I’ve been denouncing electoral fraud since 2008. I personally saw the international community’s indifference. They said, “But you’re not beating Ortega.” There was a narrative where people outside of Nicaragua believed that Ortega was committing fraud, but the biggest weakness was in an opposition that hadn’t faced Ortega in an organized way.

What alternatives were there?

Not showing up for the elections. But people who suggest that idea forget we tried it before. In 2016, the Coalition for Democracy was not allowed to run, under the flag of the Liberal Independent Party. Presidential candidate Luis Callejas and his running mate Violeta Granera were not allowed to register. We did a massive campaign, “Don’t throw away your vote”, and achieved the highest percentage of absenteeism in Nicaragua’s history — over 75 percent, according to our numbers. The international community did nothing else than voice concern.

The opposition has tried not going to elections, and then going, which ended up with you and many more in jail. Is there a political path forward?

The opposition is talking more fluently than ever. By throwing us in prison, Ortega made a huge mistake because there’s much more human and personal empathy than before 2021. That empathy doesn’t necessarily mean full strategic agreement. The prevailing perspective is the need to seek Ortega’s complete illegitimacy, based on the fact that the regime is not born of free elections, that it has exited the Organization of American States and is in contempt of the Inter-American Human Rights Court. For the international community to support this position, they must feel there’s an opposition with the capacity to govern. This is not about seeking support for an individual. Nicaragua doesn’t have the possibility of a Juan Guaidó, like in Venezuela.

Are you discussing any other ideas?

There’s another line of thought: to force Ortega back to the negotiating table. I disagree. I believe democrats solve their problems by negotiating, but Ortega is not a democrat. To resurrect the dialogue would be a mistake. It’s an intellectual contradiction for a democrat to reject any dialogue process, but Ortega has shattered every line that would allow a dialogue under minimal guarantees. That’s no longer an alternative.

Is there a third position?

I don’t think we should devote a lot of time to it, because in Nicaragua we refer to it as the mosquito strategy: when artificial political parties are willing to go to the polls in 2026 without minimal guarantees, repeating the same old recipe. This position doesn’t have support of any kind, but I mention it as a latent risk. Throughout our history, mosquito parties have played into the dictator’s hand.

As political prisoners, Ortega held you in torturous detention centers. Does that experience make it any simpler to reach agreements?

We’re closer than ever to a consensus. I believe we had already achieved it in February 2021, when the bigger leaders in the country reached an agreement. But there’s a fetish for unity. Both inside and outside Nicaragua there’s an expectation for everybody in the opposition to reach an agreement. That’s simply impossible. If Nicaragua has 100 members of the opposition and they have three different positions, when is unity attained? When 100 members agree? Maybe 50, 75 or 80? There are always going to be those who breach the agreement.

What role do you see for yourself?

We can’t talk about electoral processes or candidacies. We can’t structure an opposition with an electoral appearance. That was a key element in 2021 but now it would be a distraction. My main proposition is for none of us to think of ourselves as candidates. My second one is to collectively choose spokespersons as representatives to the international community and an entity that talks to Nicaraguans about the route of transition to democracy.

The arbitrary arrests of the main leaders brought hopelessness and bewilderment. While we were in jail, there was the hope that our time in prison would provide us all the answers. Jail itself doesn’t generate enlightenment on the path to freedom. But I think it gave us humility. It brought us closer to the pain of Nicaraguans and increased our commitment to struggle.

My third proposition is that we move the strategy to the international field. Every way to press and protest inside Nicaragua is closed. Activating those mechanisms exposes the opposition in Nicaragua to imprisonment.

To close out his speech, Félix Maradiaga brought on stage his daughter Alejandra. He thanked her for giving him hope during his imprisonment. Photo El Faro/Oslo Freedom Forum
To close out his speech, Félix Maradiaga brought on stage his daughter Alejandra. He thanked her for giving him hope during his imprisonment. Photo El Faro/Oslo Freedom Forum

You say that every avenue in Nicaragua is closed. How do you give citizens hope that things can change?

First of all, citizens have to see there’s a group of people in opposition with an unwavering commitment to civic struggle toward the end of the regime. Naturally, extreme processes of political persecution like the one in Nicaragua demobilize many people. We have to appear to the population as an organized opposition with a plan leading to hope. Second, people have to feel the possibility of small victories that undercut the regime’s power, bringing it closer to collapse and undermining the idea that the dictatorship has closed every space for resistance.

Small victories?

One is to stimulate in a targeted way the implosion of the dictatorship. We have to see daily how the regime picks itself apart, not because of natural decay or inertia, but out of an organized work of the opposition to stimulate that outcome. We also must offer a way out to Nicaraguans who have supported the regime. When the opposition frontally attacks Ortega, they shouldn’t feel we’re attacking the Sandinista schoolteacher or the principal, the mid-level public official. Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans are not enrolled in any party. Our struggle against the regime is not an indiscriminate search for revenge against any person who has voted for the FSLN. They need to hear that the opposition has a plan and an open door so those who supported Sandinismo to abandon it.

In your speech at Oslo, you talked about nonviolence and eschewing revenge. When you talk to opposition leaders, you talk to people who endured unimaginable torture, lockdowns, and days without sunlight. Are they open to those ideas?

You can’t build fair societies, consistent with human rights and dignity, on the basis of vengeance and hate. History is on my side on this. There’s a populist dimension where politicians say what people want to hear, but the thankless teaching approach is to listen to those 200 people but also persuade them that non-violence is not passivity. Non-violence is a political struggle with clear results around the world. If this becomes a strictly emotional discussion, we’ll arrive nowhere.

It’s natural for human beings who have gone through trauma to seek revenge. I’ve survived two assassination attempts, I was hospitalized after a beating, I lost all of my belongings, I was in prison and I’ve been exiled three times. I think that shows I’m not preaching from a place of ignorance. I, too, have lost close ones. It’s precisely because of that pain, because I’ve suffered what many Nicaraguans have, that I insist that the end of Nicaragua’s suffering is not violence. In the best scenario, violence temporarily postpones an equally perverse cycle.

That populist message that you reject is all over Central America: in Guatemala’s persecution of prosecutors, judges, and journalists; in Honduras’s state of exception; in El Salvador, with Bukele’s reelection; and even in Costa Rica, with a president who sees the press as the enemy. Is Central America backsliding?

Central America is paying the price of elites' mistake of adopting free-market positions without accompanying them with specific results to reduce inequality and strengthen the middle class. The Latin American pendulum is swinging, and those of us with firm pro-free market positions must not forget that Central America has some of the world’s most unequal economies. The only path toward sustainable democracy is through a strong middle class. The Central American middle class has high rates of migration. Those with high levels of education don’t find any market alternatives and leave en masse. The most transformational politics don’t succumb to populist temptations for the dispossessed majorities nor privileges for small elites. We have to concentrate policies on strengthening the middle class, the backbone of any modern society.

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