AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post was updated on Feb 20 to include updated information about the meeting, the identities of the businessmen who requested it, and statements by Mons. Silvio Baez of the Archdiocese of Managua.
On the evening of February 16, Daniel Ortega’s administration released a press statement announcing a meeting with “representative members of the private sector”. Also in attendance were Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, archbishop of Managua, and Mons. Waldemar Sommertag, Vatican Ambassador to Nicaragua, who came as “guests”. It might be a new attempt at a National Dialogue, since the first try fell apart last year.
The next morning, Cardinal Brenes identified Carlos Pellas, president of the Pellas Group, a representative of Banpro, a private bank, and representatives of the Lafise Group, as being present at the meeting.
El Cardenal Leopoldo Brenes confirmó que entre los "empresarios representativos" que se reunieron con el dictador Daniel Ortega están Carlos Pellas, del grupo Pellas, un representante de Banpro. Y uno de los representantes del grupo Lafise. "El otro no me acuerdo", dijo. pic.twitter.com/cabq96pasP
— Maynor Salazar (@Maynorsalaz) February 17, 2019
Up to that point, I had thought that OrMu had requested the sit down. I was mistaken. Later the same day, the five “representative businessmen” issued a press statement, indicating that they had “taken the initiative” and requested to meet with Ortega, “to reiterate the urgency of an inclusive, serous, and frank negotiation with civil society.”
That’s right. Carlos Pellas (Grupo Pellas), Roberto Zamora (Lafise), Ramiro Ortiz (Grupo Promerica – Banpro), Juan B. Sacasa (BDF), and Jose Antonio Baltodano (Mercon) requested a meeting and OrMu said “sure, why not?”
The fivesome’s press release goes on to clarify the goal of the meeting. They simply wanted to “open the doors” to a new negotiation between the Government and the Alliance — The Alianza Civica por la Justicia y la Democracia — , and to express to “the Government […] that it is urgent to address civil society’s concerns, as well as those of the international community.”
Damos a conocer la nota de prensa publicada por los empresarios que sostuvieron la reunión con el Gobierno de Nicaragua, con el acompañamiento del Cardenal Leopoldo Brenes y el Nuncio Apostólico Stanislaw Waldemar. pic.twitter.com/9A4zJrTC3G
— COSEP Nicaragua (@COSEPNicaragua) February 18, 2019
Both, the administration and the Archdiocese of Managua, in identical press releases, called the meeting “an open exchange” that has “confirmed the need for understanding to begin a negotiation, through an encounter that is inclusive, serious, and honest.” Neither took credit for calling the meeting, nor did they identify the fivesome as the brains behind the conclave.
Nota de prensa del Gobierno de Reconciliación y Unidad Nacional https://t.co/xRQVA9aXYH
— El 19 Digital (@el19digital) February 17, 2019
In addition, Cardinal Brenes, COSEP’s President Aguerri, and US Ambassador Kevin Sullivan further characterized the meeting as a positive step. According to La Prensa, Archbishop Brenes described Ortega and Murillo as “listening receptively to the concerns of the business community,” which he views as “the start to finding solutions to the problems of the country.” Similarly, COSEP President, Jose Adan Aguerri, described the meeting as “progress in a direction towards inclusive negotiations for the good of the country”, and US. Ambassador Sullivan issued the following tweet, welcoming “the effort”
The US Government welcomes this effort to reestablish negotiations between Nicaraguan Government and civil society representatives. The negotiations will require good faith efforts to achieve real solutions in real time for the Nicaraguan people. https://t.co/PnkiWjCema
— Kevin K. Sullivan (@USAmbNicaragua) February 17, 2019
A new “national dialogue”?
In May of 2018, as the crisis was in its infancy, OrMu representatives sat down with a wide range of stakeholders to negotiate, with mediation from the Catholic Church. This was the National Dialogue, and it went nowhere. Now, the dictatorship seems willing to sit down again, but the conditions have changed. When the National Dialogue began, there were at least 48 people dead. To date, the death toll can be anywhere between 325 and 561 people, As for political prisoners, there are somewhere between 340 and 767 of them.
Under the circumstances, I have serious misgivings
- How can you have an “encounter” that is “inclusive” when only big capital stakeholders, like Carlos Pellas, are sitting at the table? That’s the same Carlos Pellas whose iconic rum brand, Flor de Caña, is the object of a boycott due to his support of the “consensus model.” Even if they called the meeting on behalf of civil society, I cannot wrap my head around the idea of two billionaires like Carlos Pellas and Ramiro Ortiz speaking for the average Nicaraguan.
- Will representatives of civil society be invited later? What about the relatives of political prisoners, human rights organizations, student groups, the Peasant Anti-Canal movement?
- Can you even negotiate in the midsts of ongoing repression?
- Can you negotiate in “good faith” without releasing political prisoners first?
- Can you negotiate in “good faith” without reinstating non-profit organizations that were arbitrarily stripped from legal personhood?
- Can you negotiate in “good faith” without re-instituting freedom of the press and returning seized property to La Prensa, Confidencial, and 100%Noticias?
I’m not the only one with misgivings about this new development. Many very influential Nicaraguans and Human Rights Activists have taken to Twitter to express their doubts, some more forcefully than others. For example, cartoonist Pedro X. Molina stated that he did not feel represented in the “so called negotiation” by ANY OF THEM. N-O-N-E.
#Nicaragua HECHOS: Ortega y Murillo, Almagro, Brenes, el Nuncio, el COSEP… hasta ahora siendo eso los anunciados en la tal "negociación" dejo constancia fuerte y clara que como nicaragüense NO me siento representado por NINGUNO DE ELLOS. N-I-N-G-U-N-O. #SOSNICARAGUA
— pxmolina (@pxmolina) February 17, 2019
Over at Articulo 66, the cartoonist Cako shared his skepticism about the dialogue in a drawing.
— CaKo (@CaKoNicaragua) February 17, 2019
Journalist Arnulfo Peralta wondered about who would be in this dialogue? “The leaders are in jail or in exile. Who will represent the Blue and White people? who will take upon themselves the right to sit at the table, and under which guarantees? Wow, this is complex, and there are many questions to be answered.”
Diálogo con quienes ? Los líderes están presos o en el exilio, quienes representarán al pueblo AZUL Y BLANCO ?, quienes se atribuirán el derecho de sentarse en una mesa y bajo que garantías? Wow, que complejo y cuantas preguntas por responder.#SosNicaragua 🇳🇮 pic.twitter.com/LRtIgGwAVi
— Arnulfo Peralta Solís (@ArnulfoPeraltaS) February 17, 2019
Another journalist, Amalia del Cid, remembered the results of last year’s “dialogue”: “Almost all of the people who participated on the blue and white side are in prison or in exile. Ortega has never been one for dialogue. He only “dialogues” when he’s under pressure and has no choice”
El único resultado del intento de diálogo del año pasado es que casi todos los participantes del lado azul y blanco están ahora presos o exiliados. Ortega nunca ha sido un hombre de diálogo. Solo "dialoga" cuando se ve presionado y en la sin remedio, no porque sea su voluntad.
— Amalia del Cid (@AmaliadelCid) February 17, 2019
A Negotiation with Pre-conditions
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to these new negotiations is that OrMu has lost credibility. The dictatorship has engaged in a systematic propaganda campaign vilifying the opposition, while pretending that everything in Nicaragua is back to normal. In reality, the country is not enjoying “peace” or prosperity, and the dictatorship has not done anything to reassure most Nicaraguans that, this time, a dialogue will resolve the crisis, reinstating democracy and the rule of law.
As a consequence, many on Twitter are proposing pre-conditions. For example, Mons. Silvio Baez stated that “negotiations among elites have never worked in Nicaragua. Negotiations under the table, and behind the people’s backs, have brought great disillusionment and have damaged our society greatly. We must all make an effort, and we must demand an authentic dialogue, where the people are the key participants, in order to bring democracy back to Nicaragua.”
— Gerall Chávez Nicaragua (@GerallChavez) February 18, 2019
Baez then added that you cannot have a dialogue without freeing political prisoners first.
Una de las principales garantías para la reanudación del diálogo es la liberación de los presos políticos dice Monseñor @silviojbaez @carmelitequotes @nicaraguainvest #SOSNicaragua pic.twitter.com/aJKQsp5WG5
— Gerall Chávez Nicaragua (@GerallChavez) February 18, 2019
On the other hand, Suyen Barahona, president of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), shared that the MRS’ position will not consider any dialogue as “credible” unless the government guarantees the following:
Immediate release of all political prisoners. Those how have not been processed yet, must be released without further ado. For ongoing legal proceedings, the accusations must be withdrawn and the processes must be suspended. For those prisoners who have been sentenced, the sentences must be vacated.
Cessation of all detentions and kidnappings, as well as harassment of citizens who participated in the protests, and of their relatives.
Riot police and special operatives must return to quarters. Police must not carry weapons of war.
Disarmament and dissolution of the paramilitaries.
Guarantees for the return of exiles. The most immediate guarantees are: immediate repatriation, no retaliation, due process in cases of human rights violations, and humanitarian aid.
Reestablishment of unrestricted freedom of the press and restitution of buildings and equipment that were confiscated from the media.
Full freedom of association and mobilization.
International human rights organizations must return to the country. Entities that will verify and follow up on the compliance with agreements, and that will investigate crimes must be allowed back.
Legal personhood must be restituted to the non-profits that were stripped from it, particularly those who are engaged in the defense of human rights. Their equipment and assets must be returned.
Transitional justice: restitution of citizen rights to all those who were condemned in political trials, while the revision of the proceedings is carried out. In addition, those sentences that do not comply with minimal standards of justice must be annulled. The mandate of the GIEI (Group of Independent Experts) must be extended.
Posición del MRS
En relación al anuncio de la apertura eventual de negociaciones o diálogo para enfrentar la crisis nacional, planteamos que un diálogo para ser creíble debe asegurar:
1. Libertad inmediata de… https://t.co/4Ofs0PV2dt
— Suyen Barahona (@SuyenB1) February 17, 2019
The MRS is not the only organization proposing conditions. Jose Manuel Vivanco, of Human Rights Watch, said that any dialogue could only begin when the following conditions had been met: “(1) Liberation of political prisoners, (2) the end of restrictions to protests, (3) the return of the IAHRC and the UN to the country, (3) reinstatement of legal personhood to non-profit organizations, and (5) the return of seized property to Confidencial and 100%Noticias.
Cualquier diálogo en Nicaragua debe cumplir con precondiciones básicas:
1. Liberación de presos políticos
2. Fin de restricciones a protestas
3. Retorno al país de CIDH y ONU
4. Restauración de personeria a ONGs
5. Devolución de instalaciones a Confidencial y 100% Noticias. https://t.co/clQ4TelwTq
— José Miguel Vivanco (@JMVivancoHRW) February 17, 2019
Similarly, Luis Carrion, a former member of the original Junta that governed Nicaragua from 1979 to 1984, also believes that freeing political prisoners is absolutely necessary.
— Luis Carrión (@lcarrioncruz) February 17, 2019
From exile in Costa Rica, Carlos Fernando Chamorro expressed that four conditions need to be met before negotiating “Ortega’s exit and political reforms so that we can have early elections: 1. annulment of all sentences and freedom for all political prisoners, 2 cessation of the repression and disbanding paramilitaries, (3) freedom of the press and freedom of mobilization, and (4) the terrain of the IACHR and UN
4 PUNTOS antes de negociar salida de Ortega y reformas políticas para ir a elecciones anticipadas: 1. Anular juicios y liberar a TODOS los presos políticos. 2. Cese de represión y desmantelar a los paramilitares. 3. Libertad de prensa y movilización. 4. Retorno @CIDH @OACNUDH
— Carlos F Chamorro (@cefeche) February 17, 2019
The OrMu Twittersphere Reacts Too.
Twitter accounts supportive of the dictatorship reacted to the news as well. They are circulating the OrMu government’s preferred version. They mention no pre-conditions are mentioned, and there is an effort to present the meeting as proof of Ortega’s wisdom. For example, this twitter user describes Ortega as a “true leader, who is well organized and is always teaching us something new for us to learn.” The tweet ends with the ominous hashtag #Plomo19 (bullets19), popular among Ortega sympathizers who use it to threaten anyone who opposed them.
— Somos2ConVoz (@Somos2V) February 16, 2019
Memes are all set to go, and even Laureano Ortega Murillo, son of OrMu, is sharing them. The memes use blue and white palette, and downplay and the symbols and colors associated with the dictatorship, such as red and black, and pepto bismol pink.
Que viva nuestra Nicaragua en paz! pic.twitter.com/GWHbQXmv7J
— Laureano Ortega Murillo (@LaureanoOrtegaM) February 17, 2019
"Cuando conozco a alguien no me importa si es blanco, negro, judío o musulmán. Me basta con saber que es un ser humano" #WaltWhitman
— 𝑵𝒊𝒄𝒂𝒓𝒂𝒈𝒖𝒂❤🖤 (@VivaNicaragua79) February 16, 2019
On the media side, journalist Maynor Zapata, of Canal 6, described the news as evidence that “our government is working for peace and common good in Nicaragua.”
— Maynor Zapata (@maynor_canal6) February 17, 2019
Zapata has not tweeted any updates, since the news broke that it was the businessmen who requested the meeting. Instead, he has opted for attacking other independent journalists and tweeting against Mons. Silvio Baez. To Baez’s insistence that a dialogue cannot take place without freeing political prisoners first, Zapata responded “Who is asking for the opinion of that Silvio Baez? The people are in charge here, and Nicaragua wants peace, because they could not and they cannot (#NoPudieronNiPodran)*
— Maynor Zapata (@maynor_canal6) February 18, 2019
What happens now?
Nicaraguans are still processing the news about this meeting. We don’t know who will participate, who will mediate, or if any of the guarantees that are necessary in order to have a dialogue will be granted. Given the history of our country, where political compromise has typically meant a pact between power players at the expense of true democratic change, I remain skeptical but vigilant.
*#NoPudieronNiPodran is a popular hashtag among OrMu supporters and propagandists. It refers to the idea of a failed coup d’ etat. It means “They could not, and they cannot” succeed in overthrowing OrMu.