Is Nicaragua Headed Back to Its Violent Past? Q&A with Felix Maradiaga

Civil society leader Felix Maradiaga addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in Nicaragua on September 5, 2018. (UN Photo/Manuel Elias)

Recent events in Nicaragua have prompted many to fear the country is returning to a cycle of violence and oppression similar to the one that left it in ruins 40 years ago, when corrupt dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle launched a bloody campaign to eliminate his opposition, the Sandinistas. On April 19, one of those Sandinistas, President Daniel Ortega, launched a campaign of his own (calling it “Operación Limpieza,” the same as Somoza), with government snipers and paramilitary killing hundreds of peaceful protestors. Some 300 people are estimated to have been arrested, and there are disturbing reports of torture and ill treatment, while 27,000 have fled the country, mostly to bordering Costa Rica.

One of the most prominent and much-quoted voices on the crisis is Felix Maradiaga, the Harvard-educated Executive Director of a Managua-based think tank, the Institute for Strategic Studies on Public Policy. On September 5, Mr. Maradiaga addressed the UN Security Council during the body’s first meeting ever on Nicaragua. On September 26, a judge in Nicaragua issued a warrant for his arrest. On September 27, Mr. Maradiaga made a passionate plea for the international community to stay engaged with his country at an International Peace Institute event on human rights; this interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, was conducted shortly afterward.

About six months ago, in April, there was an eruption of protests in Nicaragua. What was Nicaragua like leading up to that?

For 11 years, the Daniel Ortega regime benefitted from the fact that Nicaragua was off the international community’s radar. Central America is a highly volatile part of the world. Of the top ten most dangerous cities in the world—according to Interpol, based on the number of homicides per one hundred thousand people—three of those cities are in Central America. But Managua is not one of them. So the fact that Nicaragua has been so “safe,” in a way, created this idea that Nicaragua was a democratic country, when in fact, it was a non-violent country— and that is an important distinction to make. Mr. Ortega was able to persuade the international community that, precisely because organized crime and homicides in Nicaragua were at its lowest level, then the country was fine. But in fact, what we were experiencing was an authoritarian regime that was able to control crime, while, at the same time, demolish democratic institutions, to not allow a free press. Over 90 percent of media was and still is controlled by the Ortega family— not even by the government, but by the family.

So, prior to the protest on April 18, the country lived a complicated situation in the sense that there are—there were—citizens of two classes; if you were not a member of the ruling party, you were a second-class citizen. If you were a member of the ruling party, you would have access to jobs, scholarships, etc. And a lot of people, particularly those of a very low income, accepted those rules of the game—they joined the party.

On April 18 the students from public universities, which historically had been incredibly favorable of the Ortega regime, got fed up with that system. The façade of stability collapsed, the peaceful protesters went to the streets. But something happened the next day, on April 19th, something that was unexpected, even by those of us who for over a decade had been documenting political abuses, sexual abuses at the prisons of Nicaragua. We had been documenting over 70 political assassinations in a ten-year period, for example, and extrajudicial killings, things of that sort. Even for us, we never expected that the response of the Sandinista police, together with paramilitary groups, was going to reach this level. At some point, one peaceful protester was being killed every five hours. Within the first thirty days, over seventy people had been killed. And today, depending on which of the accounts you want to take, the Inter American Human Rights Commission estimates close to 330 people have been killed. Our independent estimates bring it closer to 500.

Right now, it’s no longer about public policies, it’s no longer about economic demands; right now, the situation is very serious. It’s basically peaceful protesters that no longer accept a political regime that has killed people, that has persecuted the students, that has particularly targeted the Campesino movement (the peasants’ movement) and the women’s movement. That’s the situation in Nicaragua right now.

And Ortega expelled a couple of international organizations a few weeks ago.

Yeah, it’s based on what I was just saying: the idea of stability should not be confused with the idea of democracy and rule of law. Five years ago, the office of the United Nations Development Programme was kicked out of the country. In 2012, many international missions were asked to leave. I’m talking about missions from Finland, missions from Sweden, missions from countries that had been historically extremely close to Nicaragua. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, which was a US initiative to support local communities, was also suspended in Nicaragua after electoral fraud. So, there was a difficult relationship with the international community, because Ortega really wants to benefit from the fact of having a nice, elected country, of not being in the news—that’s his strength. Nicaragua is, geographically and geopolitically speaking, a small country. So of course, being in the international news is not good news for Ortega. We were surprised by the fact that after the human rights crisis in April, the Ortega administration allowed the OAS—the Organization of American States—and the United Nation’s High Commissioner’s Office to come into the country.

But as soon as the regime looked at the first report by these two missions, they were immediately expelled. So right now, we are completely isolated from the international community; there is no dialogue, and every single day, dozens of protestors are put in prison. The situation is even more serious for journalists, and for members of the women’s movement—which Ortega has targeted specifically, because the women’s movement had been very active in the streets prior to April. Prior to April, there were only two social movements in the streets: the Campesino movement that for the last five years has been protesting against a project to build an inter-ocean canal; and the women’s movement, protesting all the new laws against women’s reproductive rights. So those were the only two movements in the streets; we didn’t see students, we didn’t see workers. On April 19th, we saw a merge of all these different movements, we saw students, together with the women’s movement, with the Campesino movement. A footnote on that is the fact that Ortega wants to present the crisis in Nicaragua as a protest that is designed from abroad against the Sandinista revolution. The interesting thing is that those that were leading the protest are former Sandinista students, and the progressive movements such as the Campesinos and the women’s movement are the forefront of the protests.

Ortega said he’s trying to prevent a civil war. 

And what we’re seeing right now is a broad consensus of the Nicaraguan people asking for free and fair elections. The Nicaraguan legal system allows for early elections; it only requires an approval from Congress. We have used that method in the past—in 1990, the elections in Nicaragua were used as a method of peaceful resolution. It’s important to mention that it is not something new, it’s not unprecedented. We have done it in the past, and it worked very well. Now it’s a sort of referendum, so that’s what the protesters are asking at this point.

If we were to transport ourselves to Managua right now, what would we see?

Well, we are experiencing right now what most people are referring to as the third phase of the oppression. The first phase was very broad. Snipers were placed in different parts of the city of Managua, and other cities around Nicaragua, to shoot randomly at protestors. That’s what’s caused most of the oppression. The second phase was the use of paramilitary groups, so over 2,000 radical members of the ruling party were given military weapons to work together with the police to terrorize the population. Right now, what we’re seeing is a new stage in which the government is working very hard to give the illusion of stability, so if you go to Managua, you will see people going to the movies, some people going to the theater, or just walking on the street. But the police could stop you randomly and ask you for your cellphone.

There are some polls—in fact, there is formal polling about this, so it depends on which numbers you take—that say between 12-20 percent of the people have actually accepted that humiliating condition. They say, “Well, if you have nothing to fear it’s okay, and its better if we are going to live a normal life.” So, the idea of “normality.” But for over 80 percent of the population, that type of humiliation, that type of persecution, is unacceptable. There are hundreds of Facebook posts and YouTube posts in which you see people being arrested for having white and blue balloons. So, white and blue are the colors of our flag, and that has turned into a sign of protest. So since it is not safe for people to go out to the streets and protest, one of these days, people—peaceful protesters—released a number of white and blue balloons in the streets as a sign that the protest was still alive. Believe it or not, the police issued an operation to find people who were holding balloons. This kind of extreme thing would evoke laughter, if it were not so representative of the life of the people of Nicaragua.

What do you think is the role of the international community?              

To draw a line when it comes to human rights, not only in Nicaragua, but in the world, and in particular in countries without strong institutions, because the issue of sovereignty has been used to give perpetrators of crimes against humanity an excuse to continue. To think really, really hard about the voice of the voiceless; those people who do not really understand international law, they do not understand a post-WWII system that needs to be modernized. As much as I respect the principles of sovereignty, I think that the role of the international community is to give voice to the voiceless, and that’s not an issue of international law only; it’s an issue of humanity, of human dignity—for the women who are being abused in the Nicaraguan prisons, for the university students who are being killed, for the thousands and thousands of political refugees caused by the Nicaraguan crisis who have just recently fled to Costa Rica – we’re talking over 27,000 just in the first 150 days. For them, there’s no hope; for them, there are no national institutions, for them, there are no other mechanisms but the international community.

Can you talk about the women’s movement and their role in the protests?

The women’s movement became very strong during the Sandinista revolution, and played an important role. The women’s movement believed that the Sandinista revolution was going to be a platform for many of their rights. And that happened, very briefly, until there was a severe conflict between the women’s movement and the Sandinista party leadership—way before the #MeToo movement—on issues of sexual abuse. The Sandinista revolution faced that issue when the daughter of Daniel Ortega was the first #MeToo person in Nicaragua in 1998, when Zoilamerica, the adopted daughter of Daniel Ortega, gave a press conference, saying that when she was eleven years old, she had been raped by her father, Daniel Ortega.

This created a national debate. I should say that the most brave, courageous women leaders of Nicaragua—from Gioconda Belli, who is an international renowned novelist; Marta Maria Blandon, one of the leaders of the women’s reproductive rights movement; Dora Maria Tellez who was one of the military commanders of the revolution and an icon of the revolution—all of them decided to split, to be on the side, not only of Zoilamerica, but of all the women who had been abused by Sandinista leaders, and particularly Daniel Ortega.

So, a new movement emerged, a different movement that was a women’s movement independent from the Sandinista revolution; very progressive, you know, very liberal, but not attached to party politics. The reaction of Ortega, surprisingly, was to become an extremely conservative Catholic; that was his strategy. He decided to marry his partner, Rosario Murillo, who was a very quiet woman, and who became the speaker of the party, and later, elected as Ortega’s Vice President. Most of Nicaragua remained quiet, which outraged the women’s movement, so the women took the streets, became really outspoken, making a direct link between electoral fraud, the demolition of democratic institutions, and the individual abuses of women; that was the basic argument. The women’s movement tried to awaken the nation, and many didn’t listen.

So when finally the consciousness of Nicaragua seemed to awaken because of the students, Ortega had to find people guilty, he had to find who were the conspirators, and of course, he looked at the women’s movement. In fact, the first very well-known activist to be severely beaten in April was Ana Quirós, one of the national women leaders, and many of the people who are being persecuted supposedly because of a new law that is called the Anti- Terrorism Law are members of the women’s movement, but actually are targeted because of this difficult history between Ortega and the women’s movement.

Is there anything else that you want to say to our readers?

I’ll say something about the issue of political prisoners in Nicaragua. There was a dialogue table, using the Catholic Church as mediators, and Ortega is putting many of the members of the dialogue table into prison. At this point, the regime has acknowledged over 200 political prisoners; of course, they are regarded as terrorists from the perspective of government, but I think that its unacceptable that in the 21st century, we have, in a country in the Western hemisphere, just two hours away from Miami, in which we’re seeing torture in prisons we have been able to document with the testimonies of medical doctors, torture that spans from genital mutilation to rape, assassinations inside the prisons of Nicaragua, and political prisoners. I think that’s unacceptable in the Western hemisphere.