Nicaraguan Negotiations Suspended: A Return to Violence? (Pt. 1/2)

Following two months of protests and an estimated 170 dead, the violence briefly subsided, as opposition-government negotiations tried to resolve the situation. The opposition now says the government is reneging on commitments and will abandon negotiations. What led to this crisis and where will it go from here? We discuss the situation with Trevor Evans and Camilo Mejia

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador.

The political crisis in Nicaragua continues unabated. On Monday, the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, the mediator for the dialogue between the government and the opposition, decided to call off all further negotiations. The stated reason was that the government had not fulfilled previously-reached commitments to invite international observers to help investigate the large number of deaths that took place in Nicaragua since the protests began in late April. Up to 170 people have been killed and over 2000 injured in protests so far. Victims include opposition protesters, government supporters, and security forces.

Exactly who has been responsible for these deaths and injuries is mired in controversy, with each side accusing the other of carrying most of the blame. The protests began when students and the country’s business federation launched a movement against the government’s efforts to reform Nicaragua’s pension system. Since then, groups and issues involved have broadened. Demonstrators now demand immediate resignation of President Daniel Ortega.

Joining me to help make sense of what is happening Nicaragua are Trevor Evans and Camilo Mejia. Trevor joins us from Germany, where he teaches at the Institute for International Political Economy School of Economics and Law. He has worked in Nicaragua in the 1980s and 1990s, for a total of eight years. Also recently, he wrote an in-depth article for SocialistProject.ca titled “The family party-state nexus in Nicaragua.” Camilo Mejia joins us from Florida, Miami Florida. Originally he’s from Nicaragua, but joined the U.S. military in 1995. He went on to become a conscientious objector when he was deployed in the Iraq War in 2003, and then he became an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. He recently wrote an open letter to Amnesty International, objecting to their latest report on Nicaragua. Thanks for joining us today, Camilo and Trevor.

So Camilo, let’s start with you, and the most recent developments in Nicaragua. As I mentioned in the intro, you wrote a long letter to Amnesty International objecting to how they covered or reported on what’s going on. The report’s title already is quite telling. It says “Shoot to Kill: Nicaragua’s Strategy to Repress Protests.” This is also generally how international media have depicted the conflict so far. So from what you know what’s happening, what is wrong with this depiction?

CAMILO MEJIA: Beginning with the larger [inaudible], I think that the information has been manipulated and left out the entire geopolitical frame within which the conflict is happening. For starters, the reforms proposed by the government were not government reforms, but they were counter reforms to impositions basically made by the International Monetary Fund alongside this powerful business group that sought to cut out 53000 Nicaraguans from their retirement benefits.

These 53000 Nicaraguans are people who fought on both sides of the aisle during the Contra wars back in the ’80s, and the families of people who were killed. These are people who were not able to contribute enough to the system because the economy was shattered. And the original reform, in order to cover the deficit of the Social Security institute, sought to throw 53000 of the most, of the poorer citizens of Nicaragua under the bus.

So the government responded with a kind of reform that didn’t cut anybody out, and that merely sought to take a 5 percent cut from retirement tax and to remove a ceiling protecting Nicaragua’s high salaries from higher taxation, as well as increased contribution by both employees and employers. All of that was left out of the equation when they were going to [inaudible] marches. People are organized by this powerful business group.

And I think this is really important to say, because it provides a larger context. These IMF reforms are tied to the NICA Act, which is being proposed by some of the more right-wing Republican legislators in the United States, including Ted Cruz, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Marco Rubio. So U.S. involvement in those, in this whole picture, has been completely left out of the analysis. And I think that’s a big problem.

Amnesty opened its report pretty much by saying that the government had cut retirement checks, leaving everything else out. I think it’s interesting also to say that the people who are behind this coup, because it cannot be called otherwise, are civil society organizations that are being financed by organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, and USAID. And they have been the ones behind training a lot of the young people who represent the face of this movement, and who are working alongside political parties that don’t have a popular base in Nicaragua, that don’t have any credibility, that are known for being corrupt. And so it is necessary for them to create unrest and chaos, because the constitutional reforms will not lead to an overtaking of power by these right-wing parties and these other groups that are behind much of the violence in the country.

I think it’s really important also to look at the history of Nicaragua and the United States. Sandinismo in particular, which started with the fight of Gen. Sandino back in the late ’20s and ’30s, first expelled the Marines from the country, and then led to a movement that overthrew a 40-year dictatorship supported by the United States. The Sandinistas then called for elections not even six years after winning power through armed struggle, and then later lost the election, and the 1990 election. And then were able to come back from loss through a series of deals that they made with the church and with the business sector, and were able to go back into power and bring back a lot of the benefits that had been cut out by neoliberal governments of the past 15 years prior to the Sandinista government.

So this larger analysis, I think it’s completely missing from, from the picture. And I think it’s really important to recognize who are the people who are behind this narrative, and who are the people who are creating this idea that the government suddenly turned genocidal.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Camilo, we want to get into many of those issues that you raised. But let me also turn to Trevor for a moment. In addition to, of course, there’s this whole issue which we still need to get into a little bit about the unresolved issue about the responsibilities for the violence. But I also want to get into this question about the motivations behind the protests. You, Camilo, have already talked about that to some extent. But I also want to get your input, Trevor. What do you think is behind this? I mean, as Camilo mentioned, originally the IMF and the business federation wanted the government to cut the pension benefits much more sharply. And also we have to take into account that Nicaragua has been one of the fastest growing economies in recent years, between 2010 and 2017 growing by 5 percent per year. So taking into account this relatively positive economic situation and the fact that Ortega won the last presidential election with 72 percent of the vote, what do you think, Trevor, is motivating these protests? And how would you respond to some of the things that Camilo is saying?

TREVOR EVANS: You know, I was really surprised by these protests. I left Nicaragua at the very end of March, and they broke out two weeks later. What one should say is that Ortega was reelected in 2007 because the two, the conservatives and the liberals, were split and couldn’t agree on a candidate. And then he won again in 2011, although the Constitution not allow consecutive presidencies. He then changed the Constitution, and stood yet again in 2016 with his wife as vice president. So this is a very irregular system that really doesn’t accord with the original provisions of the Constitution.

Since he came back to office in 2007, and the economy, as you say, has grown, it was initially hit by the world crisis 2008-2009, but since 2010 it has grown, and it’s one of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America. But if you look at what’s happened to living standards, it’s difficult to get reliable figures, but if you look at the figures for workers who are in the pension scheme, their wages expressed in dollars have been rising at about 1 percent a year since 2010. The economy’s been growing at 5 percent. So some of the difference will have gone to a big commercial sector.

But above all, it’s, it’s the rich. It’s the bourgeoisie, the landed class, who have since invested in agriculture, industry, and banking, who has done very, very well out of this. And Ortega himself is reputed to have made quite a lot of money, as have some of the other Sandinista leaders, although nothing on the scale of Nicaragua’s richest man, who’s [inaudible] to have a fortune of about two and a half [billion]. But it does mean that most people have not done all that well out of this, and most families have survived by having at least one person who’s gone to the United States or Costa Rica in order to work and send home money.

So despite this growth, most people have not done very well out out of the economy. And on top of that, they’ve seen Ortega appearing to manipulate the election results. In 2016, the last presidential election, a large number of people didn’t vote. And the figures are controversial, but all reports indicate that many of the voting booths didn’t have queues outside as they normally would. So people have been distancing themselves from Ortega, from the government. And it appears that even people who have traditionally supported Ortega and the Sandinistas didn’t go to vote in 2016, because Ortega a couple of months before the election got the electoral court to strip the main opposition coalition of its right to stand. So it was, it was a clear, uncontested win for him.

GREG WILPERT: OK, we’re going to have to stop here for now for Part 1. Join us for Part 2, which will follow right away.