A Nicaragua Balance Sheet for 2016

News that Marked the Year

Ortega’s reelection amid massive abstention; the Nica Act and the OAS; the migrant crisis and the strengthening rural protest movement

By Confidencial.com.ni

Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo after voting. Photo: Carlos Herrera
Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo after voting. Photo: Carlos Herrera/Confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – On a national level, 2016 was a year marked by the reelection of Daniel Ortega via an electoral process with no credibility: the opposition excluded; no national or international electoral observation; and a high level of abstention.

Ortega will face his third consecutive term with his wife Rosario Murillo as his vice president in a year marked by uncertainty due to events such as the crisis in Venezuela, the menace of the law known as the Nica Act – currently approved by the US House and waiting to be ratified by the United States Senate – and the incoming government of Donald Trump.  Below, we present a summary of the Nicaraguan and world news that marked the year 2016.

Reelection amidst abstention

The second consecutive presidential reelection of Daniel Ortega – amid a massive national protest reflected in the high levels of abstention – headed the events of 2016 in Nicaragua. Ortega, the 71-year-old Sandinista leader who returned to power in January 2007, was once again reelected on November 6th. He became the country’s first head of state with four terms on his record.

Now he’ll govern with his wife, influential first lady Rosario Murillo, as his vice president. Murillo is thus first in the line of constitutional succession to power if something should happen to the president.

As of January 10, Ortega will face another five years with the support of a majority of the deputies in the National Assembly, with no opposition, and with a solid alliance with the large commercial interests of the private sector and labor.

The menace of the “Nica Act” and the OAS

The legitimacy of the reelection was questioned due to the exclusion of the principal opposition block from the ballot, the prohibition of independent electoral observers, and the low voter turnout.

When the opposition and social forces demanded free elections and questioned Ortega’s turn towards authoritarianism in 2016, the government responded with increased police repression.

In the United States, the Republican-dominated Congress promoted the approval of the initiative known as the “Nica Act”, which would impose economic sanctions on Nicaragua by blocking loans they request from the World Bank and the International Development Bank – some 250 million dollars annually – if democracy is not reestablished.

The threat of these threatened economic sanctions caused Ortega to approach the Organization of American States about establishing a means of negotiation that would allow his regime to increase the credibility of the electoral processes over the next five year period, including facilitating a presidential succession in 2021, according to analyst Arturo Cruz.

Following 45 days of dialogue with the government behind closed doors, OAS secretary Luis Almagro met with the opposition and with all the forces in the country to evaluate Nicaragua’s fulfillment of the OAS Democratic Charter.

The dialogue will conclude on January 15 with an agreement between the government and the OAS establishing a “critical path” for political, institutional and electoral change, or possibly laying bare the discrepancies between the two sides.

Stable economy affected by political events

The national economy maintained its growth in 2016, attaining an average increase of 4.7% in the GNP. The dynamic external sector, direct foreign investment, and the flow of family remittances all contributed to this economic stability.  The government strengthened its alliance with the large businesses sector organized in the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), leading to a regime of mutual cooperation, without democracy or political opposition.

Nonetheless, the elimination of political pluralism decreed by the government in the approach to the November 6 elections, has begun to have a negative effect on the business climate and the expectations for investment.

The war on migrants

migrantesThe government of Comandante Daniel Ortega declared war on the Cuban, Haitian and African migrants that were attempting to cross Nicaragua to reach the United States. The southern border with Costa Rica at Peñas Blancas was closed off by the police and the army.

The initial humanitarian crisis began in November 2015 with over eight thousand Cubans stranded in Costa Rica. Hundreds of captured migrants were returned back across the Costa Rican border.  The situation was eventually resolved thanks to an air bridge that was set up through an agreement between Mexico, El Salvador and Costa Rica.

Months later, another deadlock involving thousands of African and Haitian migrants became the subject of a new drama when the migrants tried to evade the barriers raised by Ortega. Desperation caused them to hire coyotes or simply to attempt the crossing themselves through blind spots. Eight of them didn’t have good luck at this and drowned in the Sapoá river, their corpses eventually washing up on the coast of the Lake of Nicaragua.

Nilamar Alemán, a teacher from the town of San Juan del Sur, challenged Ortega’s anti-migration policy when she aided a Haitian woman and her two-year-old daughter who had become lost in her community when the coyotes abandoned them.  Her gesture of solidarity got her put in jail. She was prosecuted and found guilty of human trafficking, but later freed thanks to the protests of the townspeople, becoming a national symbol of solidarity.

“Chica”Ramirez and the farmers’ struggle

In 2016, the rural movement led by Francisca “Chica” Ramírez demanding the repeal of the canal law was consolidated and became the most influential social movement in the country.

The farmers have held 82 local protest marches and 5 national marches and resisted all forms of brutal repression when they decided to add their struggle to the national demand for free elections.

In the latest national march, officials and agents of the National Police Force riot squad militarized the country, establishing over 50 roadblocks points in all the access roads to the capital to block a rural caravan en route to Managua. The police repression included searches, tear gas, rifle shots that included both rubber bullets and AKA munitions, the destruction of bridges and other infrastructure, and even the impounding of Mrs. Ramírez’ work vehicles.  Once again, this became a political defeat for the Ortega regime.

Those deported by Ortega

US functionaries, Latin American environmental activists, political scientists, students and artists joined the list of 25 foreigners who have been deported from Nicaragua since Daniel Ortega’s return to power, with no official State justification.  The expulsions caused international tensions with Mexico and the United States.

The most critical junctures involved the expulsion of two United States customs inspectors, and that of Evan Ellis, a political scientist investigating relations between China and Latin America. But the most dramatic case was that of Mexican student Jobany Torres, who disappeared for ten days after being detained ink the El Chipote State Security detention center. He was later presented in court with signs of torture, and found guilty of intents to damage the image of the Nicaraguan state.

In addition, activists from the Meso-American Caravan, who were teaching farmers from the anti-canal movement how to build more efficient ovens, were expelled, and political scientist Vidriana Rios from the Wilson Center in Washington denounced the National Police for following her while she was carrying out her research. She later left the country.

Deforestation and the environmental crisis

Deforestation, climate change and the negligence of institutions such as MARENA (Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources) unleashed an environmental crisis.  The destruction of the forests and natural reserve areas due to the growth of the agricultural frontier and the actions of loggers aggravated the other causes of the prolonged drought.

The government responded with a reforestation campaign catalogued as a show by scientist Jaime Incer Barquero.  In the north of the country, the loggers laid waste to the pine forests.

The dysfunctionality of INAFOR, the forestry institute, cost director William Schwartz his position. Nonetheless, in the North Atlantic zone of Nicaragua, the indigenous Miskito people continue to suffer from both the deforestation and the brutal violence of the colonists that have invaded their lands, leaving more than 30 dead, 47 wounded, 11 kidnapped and three indigenous people missing. An investigation carried out by Confidencial proved that functionaries of the Sandinista Front as well as prosecutor Hernán Estrada were tied in with the network that was trafficking in communal land, something prohibited by Law 445. It also uncovered a network to fabricate illegal deeds that operates in the area known as the Mining Triangle, around the towns of Siuna, Rosita and Bonanza.

Epidemics of Zika, dengue, and chikungunya

Dr. William Araya of the Costa Rican Ministry of Health displays a jar containing larva from the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which transmits the Zika virus. EFE
Dr. William Araya of the Costa Rican Ministry of Health displays a jar containing larva from the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which transmits the Zika virus. EFE

Dengue, Zika and Chikungunya swept through the country, and the response on the part of the Health Ministry to eradicate the mosquitoes that are the vectors was catalogued by specialists as erratic.  First Lady Rosario Murillo maintained tight control over information regarding the crisis, blocking any real information of the extent of the illnesses.

Prevention in the form of controlling the mosquitoes that transmits the virus failed, according to Leonel Arguello, the Health Ministry’s former Director of Epidemiology. The arrival of the Zika virus caused great alarm because it carried the additional danger of causing microcephaly in the fetus of infected pregnant mothers.

According to the presidential spokeswoman, there were 6,337 reported cases of dengue – a number that was higher than the 3,581 cases reported in 2015.  There were 682 reported Chikungunya cases and 2,051 cases of Zika, among them 1,114 in pregnant women.

How the world changed in 2016

*Trump’s victory imposes a climate of uncertainty for the United States and for the entire world.  In Latin America there was the peace agreement followed by the “No” vote in Colombia and the destitution of President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil.

Donald Trump’s nation

Donald Trump, President-elect of the United States EFE/EPA/PETER FOLEY
Donald Trump, President-elect of the United States EFE/EPA/PETER FOLEY

The surprising election of Donald Trump with a populist and xenophobic discourse founded on the promise to make the United States “great” again via protectionist policies and a rejection of immigration has imposed a new political dynamic on the United States and the world.

The legacy left by US President Barack Obama is now opposed and menaced by his successor, especially in the matter of health reform and the rapprochement with Cuba and Iran, together with the resounding failure to bring peace to Syria and the court defeats of his immigration policies.

Obama, who made history in 2009 by becoming the first African-American president of the United States, will leave the Oval Office in January. He had placed his hopes for continuation of his policies on Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate to the White House. However, this was left in the air with Trump’s victory in the November elections.

While waiting to be sworn into his post in the traditional inauguration ceremony next January 20, the tycoon has begun configuring his cabinet with an abundance of generals, millionaires and controversial appointments such as that of his chief strategist, far rightist Stephen Bannon, accused of racism and misogyny. Oil magnate Rex Tillerson will be the next head of US diplomacy if ratified by the Senate, in a process that is expected to be very complex due to the international business ties of the chosen Secretary of State, especially with Russia.  Tillerson, who has worked for the Exxon Mobil Company since 1975 and led it since 2006, has known Russian president Vladimir Putin since the days of President Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999) and has even been decorated by the Russian government.

The accords with Cuba and immigration reform

Obama leaves the White House with a relatively large level of popularity, hovering around 50%, something that is considered “very unusual” for the end of a second term.  However, there is no certainty regarding the luck that two of his successes in exterior policies will run: the nuclear pact with Iran and the reestablishment of relations with Cuba.  Regarding Cuba, the tycoon has been more explicit. Following the death of former President Fidel Castro, he threatened to put an end to the rapprochement if the Government now headed by Raul Castro isn’t ready to seal “a better accord”.

Obama failed to advance several of his priorities, such as immigration reform or greater control over firearms. With the path to immigration reform closed in Congress, at the end of 2014 Obama decreed measures to put the brakes on the deportation of nearly five million undocumented immigrants, decrees that were blocked shortly afterwards at the petition of 26 states. Now the problem of immigration is in Trump’s hands.

Brexit in Great Britain and peace in Colombia

A group of young people protest in front of Westminster against the results of the referendum regarding the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. EFE/SEAN DEMPSEY
A group of young people protest in front of Westminster against the results of the referendum regarding the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. EFE/SEAN DEMPSEY

A negative response to immigration and to the consequences of economic globalization led the British to vote in 2016 in favor of leaving the European Union. This watershed in the history of the United Kingdom has plunged the country into uncertainty. David Cameron, who convoked the national consultation convinced that the “Yes” vote on continuing within the European Union would win easily, resigned as Prime Minister.  His successor, Theresa May, was previously in charge of immigration policy as head of the Interior ministry.

The year 2016 was also definitive as the year of peace for Colombia, which succeeded in signing a government accord with the former guerrilla group FARC, ending 52 years of internal armed conflict. They also came closer to a negotiation with another former guerrilla group, the ELN. These efforts earned President Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel Prize.  However, Colombians rejected the accord in a plebiscite, voting for the “No” option by a scarce margin of less than half a percentage point, some 54,000 votes. The movement for a “No” vote was led by former President Álvaro Uribe.  With an improved accord, Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, also known as “Timochenko” returned to sign once more, this time without ceremony or international guests on November 24 in the Colón Theater in Bogotá.

The destitution of Dilma Rousseff

Smothered by corruption and economic crisis, Brazil lived through a year of political convulsion that remained unresolved by the destitution of Dilma Rousseff.  That convulsion now threatens to engulf the new government led by conservative Michel Temer, surrounded by scandals. The recession and the denunciations of corruption that sped up the fall of the Workers’ Party (PT) after 13 years in power have only been accentuated in the last months. A large portion of Brazilians don’t trust Temer, according to the latest polls. These surveys reveal that over 60% of voters would support early elections, a majority similar to that reflected in the polls previous to the fall of the former president.