Update on Nicaragua: The National Dialogue is back on…for now
Following fighting between the Nicaraguan government and protestors in mid-April during which nearly 50 people were killed in four days, the National Dialogue was set up as a means to discuss the conflict and work toward justice for the victims of the violence. At the table are the government, representatives of the national university system, labor unions, and the opposition Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, composed of students from the April 19th Movement, the Superior Council of Private Enterprises, and representatives of “civil society” organizations. Catholic Bishops from the National Episcopal Conference are working as mediators in the talks – they have largely sided with the Civic Alliance in setting the agenda for discussions. The Dialogue was launched on May 16 – but then suspended on May 23, as the opposition refused to remove blockades throughout the country, and the government refused to talk until they did.
After several intense weeks of conflict in the streets, the National Dialogue reconvened on Friday, June 15 with the intention of addressing two broad themes: 1. Human rights and justice for victims of the violence and 2. Democracy. The discussions held in a plenary session in front of cameras did not yield an agreement. However, behind closed doors on Friday and into Saturday agreements were reached on the first theme, including:
- Formal invitations to the Interamerican Human Rights Commission, the Organization of American States, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, and representatives of the European Union to participate in investigating the violence that began in April, leaving 170+ people dead and over 2,000 wounded.
- Creation of a Commission for Verification and Security, represented by members of the government and the opposition Civic Alliance, to participate in the investigation.
- Creation of a second commission, also represented by members of the government and the opposition Civic Alliance, to work to guarantee the security and human rights of all the people of NIcaragua.
- Beginning the process of taking down the blockades that have been erected around the country (though the opposition later recanted on this point – clearly seeing the blockades as an important bargaining chip. It is also not clear that the people at the table actually have control over the blockades).
On Monday, the Dialogue broke down again, when the opposition Civic Alliance walked out on the discussions, citing the government’s unwillingness to share official letters of invitation to the international organizations mentioned above, while also refusing to address the ongoing issue of the blockades. The government later made the content of the letters public and international organizations have since verified receipt and acceptance of the invitations. As of Thursday, June 21, the Dialogue is scheduled to resume.
When the Dialogue gets back underway, the discussion will focus on proposals to end to the political crisis. From the opposition side, members of the Civic Alliance have indicated they will simply demand that Ortega resign, and that an interim council be established to oversee new elections – the council drawn from the ranks of the opposition. Breaking with members of the Civic Alliance, the Superior Council of Private Enterprises (COSEP) joined with the Bishops, who are acting as “mediators” in discussions, to propose that elections be moved up to March of 2019 for all levels of government; the new government then taking office in April. Finally, the government has countered that it is already in the process of reforming the electoral system with the Organization of American States, and that a package of reforms will be ready in January. Elections should be held as scheduled (2021 for national elections), not moved up.
It is hard to read where this will all go at the moment. If the Civic Alliance withdraws its demands that Ortega resign and joins in the call for early elections (their original position), it will put a lot of pressure on the government to agree. However, it will also split the opposition. Some student leaders, for example, have indicated that they want Ortega out and may well continue protests regardless of what the people at the table decide. The resignation scenario – at least as proposed – would be a direct violation of Nicaragua’s constitution. The president can, of course, resign, but the National Assembly has the constitutional responsibility for selecting an interim president, and he or she would certainly come from the ranks of the Sandinista Party. Which is to say, the opposition is essentially arguing for the government to bypass the constitution, and in essence, agree to a coup d’etat. This seems unlikely.
The early elections proposal seems to be where the momentum is heading. This has its own pitfalls. Again, presumably the National Assembly would need to affirm a new elections calendar. If the government agrees to this at the Dialogue, the vote in the Assembly would likely follow suit. However, left out of the discussion at this point are representatives of other political parties in the county, who are not officially represented at the National Dialogue. For example it is not clear where the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC), Nicaragua’s second largest party, stands on this process. They currently control 15% of the seats in the National Assembly and several municipalities. Perhaps they will see a chance to gain more seats, but they may also view the Civic Alliance as a threat to their position if the Alliance runs its own slate of candidates. Of course, there is also a strong chance that if early elections are held, the Sandinistas will win again. They remain the largest political party in the country, facing an opposition with no clear ideological framework or cohesion.
The United States government has now begun pressing for early elections as well. Florida Senator, Marco Rubio called for a referendum on Ortega’s government, to be followed by new elections next year. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a “transitions” expert, who advised the opposition to press for early elections. The State Department joined in the call and on Tuesday dispatched the U.S. Ambassador to the OAS, Carlos Trujillo, to Nicaragua to meet with Ortega and opposition leaders separately, where he also indicated that early elections were the way out of the crisis.
As the United States has not been invited to play any kind of mediating role, taking sides in the Dialogue strikes me as an inappropriate (if far from surprising) intervention. Indeed, whatever other role the U.S. may have played in the current unrest behind the scenes, out in the open it has steadily distorted the electoral process in Nicaragua through financing opposition organizations for over 30 years. It is hard to imagine that this has not contributed to the polarization we are seeing today. And of course, the U.S. has most recently been helping opposition voices build an online messaging machine for which the international media has adopted the role of stenographer since the conflict began in April.
As the National Dialogue continues, we remain hopeful. The Quixote Center is not advocating for a particular outcome, but we do believe the process should be determined by the people in Nicaragua – not Washington, D.C.