when the dictatorship was against the ropes
Jesus Tefel, Yarithza Mairena and Ernesto Medina: “the most visible leaders are imprisoned, but the grassroots leadership is intact and continues organizing.”
By Ivan Olivares (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – “This is a surrender table, to arrange your departure.” Those words, celebrated a thousand times, were spoken by Lesther Aleman during the first National Dialogue in May 2018. They summarized the illusions that prevailed in the streets choked off by barricades the citizens had constructed to keep the “caravans of death” from entering their neighborhoods, as eventually happened.
“At that moment, the people in the streets had their hopes set on the notion that the peaceful civic struggle would end the dictatorship,” stated Yarithza Mairena. “Instead, the government dug in further. They hypocritically began calling the uprising a ‘Coup attempt’, while they kept stalling on the dialogue. We’d later learn their only aim was to buy time to organize and implement their ‘Clean-up’ operation,” she added. Yarithza Mairena herself was subsequently expelled from the Nicaraguan Autonomous National University (UNAN) in Managua, jailed as a political prisoner, and released in 2019. She currently represents the Association of Political Prisoners.
Renowned academic Ernesto Medina, former dean of the Americana University and the UNAN in Leon, recalled the reaction of Denis Moncada, the dictatorship’s representative, when Medina read the proposal for the constitutional mechanisms that could resolve the crisis. “This is a recipe for a Coup d’etat!” Moncada declared upon reading the steps outlined: “prepare free elections; return the country to the constitutional order that has atrophied; return the Supreme Court to its former full independence…”
The April Rebellion “was capable of knocking the dictatorship against the ropes. The self-organized citizens created all the conditions for a peaceful, civic and democratic transition. Looking at it now, in retrospect, we could have done some things differently in the negotiations… certain of the de facto powers could have made different proposals,” reflected activist Jesus Tefel, a member of the National Blue and White Unity.
One of those things they could have done differently was establishing a dialogue between the Civic Alliance – one of the opposition organizations at the negotiating table – and those in the streets. At the time, the Civic Alliance represented the majority of those in the uprising.
“That lack of dialogue about the perspectives and strategies we were putting forth, was the factor that kept us from launching coordinated actions to increase the pressure against the regime,” recalled Yarithza Mairena, reflecting on the things that could have been achieved if the mobilizations in the streets had been coordinated with the points being discussed in the Dialogue, and if there had been more international diplomacy.
Instead, the regime launched a campaign of violent repression via their “Clean-up Operation”, which extended from the end of May through June and July of 2018. This was followed by another wave around the same dates in 2021, when the regime imprisoned civic and trade union leaders, as well as all the aspiring presidential candidates, in order to assure that Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo would “win” the presidential elections on November 7,2021.
Yarithza Rostran, Jesus Tefel and Ernesto Medina were interviewed this past week on the online television news program Esta Semana. They were asked to reflect on the lessons from the 2018 April Rebellion, and the opposition’s efforts four years later to move the country towards a democratic transition.
The total shutdown
In recalling 2018, Yarithza Mariena commented: “one of the things we never expected was the cruel repression that was unleashed, and the political persecution of the students. The latter included over 100 arbitrary expulsions [herself included] and the imprisonment or flight of thousands of students.”
Ernesto Medina echoed her view. “We weren’t prepared for the repression.” This was in part because they thought the ongoing dialogue represented the government’s will to seek a solution to the crisis, “which was already very deep and serious.” Tefel added: “People were in the street, and Ortega made the decision to put the brakes on everything through bullets, jail and repression. We weren’t going to go the route of an armed conflict.”
Three years later, Ortega once again unleashed a major wave of repression, this time employing clubs and cell bars more than bullets. As we commemorate four years since the April Rebellion, the scenario in Nicaragua includes more than 170 prisoners of conscience in the jails. All have been subjected to kangaroo trials that invariably resulted in guilty verdicts under spurious laws.
“Were we ready to confront anything like that? Possibly not,” said Jesus Tefel. He noted that they didn’t expect what actually happened – that all their leadership would be jailed or forced to flee the country, except for a few who were in hiding in Nicaragua. “That was unforeseeable. I don’t believe we could have had the capacity to receive such a blow and not suffer serious consequences,” he confessed.
Four years later
“The country can’t continue in the direction it’s going now. While it’s true that Ortega has consolidated his power into total control, the people too have given signs they’re not going to resign themselves to continue living this way. They demonstrated that resolve on election day last year, with the same silent protest we see each day,” Ernesto Medina pointed out.
The three leaders coincided in their overview of the current situation. The opposition finds itself faced with four great challenges: organizing a broad national leadership; expanding its view to incorporate sectors that are currently silent; taking advantage of the support expressed by over 20 foreign ministers on the continent; and recovering the trust of the Nicaraguan citizens, by offering a trustworthy leadership that can give continuity to the struggle that broke out in 2018.
“The main thing is to promote the diverse opposition leaders that still remain. They are essential for continuing this peaceful civic struggle,” stated Tefel. “The opposition is there. It’s true that the most visible leaders are in prison, but the territorial leaders remain. The grassroots leadership is still intact, albeit in hiding. They’re not out protesting in the streets, but they’re there, organizing.”
In reference to the need to renew, broaden and relaunch the push for unity among citizens and organizations that was forged in the heat of the April Rebellion, Ernesto Medina considers it “worrisome” that two of the most important sectors – private industry and the church – continue maintaining silence.
Medina noted, self-critically: “We’ve maintained a culture of confrontation and threats against the private sector, maybe with some cause. However, a responsible opposition must understand that the private sector is a key player in Nicaragua’s future. Instead of pushing them into the dictatorship’s arms, we need to forge closer ties, in order to build a broad alliance, which is the only thing that can put an end to the dictatorship.”
Meanwhile, Jesus Tefel pointed out that the “total abstention” with which the citizens responded to the November 7 electoral farce, as well as “the declarations of some government functionaries that they’re ‘fed up,’” are all signs of “growing discontent within the Sandinista Front, a phenomenon caused in large measure by the actions of Rosario Murillo and Daniel Ortega.”
The demand for justice
“Being found guilty of Crimes against Humanity wouldn’t only present Ortega with a dilemma at the international level, but it would also provoke internal questioning in the Sandinista Front. Rosario Murillo has mentioned the crimes against humanity accusations in her latest talks, precisely because she’s concerned that Justice could be something she’ll never escape, and never be able to resolve,” expressed former prisoner Yarithza Mairena.
Professor Medina sees how, little by little, the old monolithic control of the Sandinista Front over its grassroots structures is eroding. He recognized that “the opposition has a big responsibility in its hands,” but added: “the future is complicated (…) especially if the opposition lacks the courage, the honesty, to assume the responsibility of putting aside the positions that continue dividing us.”
“If we succeed in constructing a clear strategy that can excite people and make them to feel they have a responsible leadership to look to, with clear ideas, I believe that a new movement could begin that could end by tossing out Ortega,” Medina believes.
Those efforts must be accompanied with a “less polarizing, more citizen-based, more national” discourse, one that seeks a solution “among Nicaraguans”. That implies understanding that the greatest obstacle to a better future for Nicaraguans is “this dictatorial system, which has led us into levels of poverty and misery we won’t be able to resolve while the same people remain in charge,” Jesus Tefel declared.
Overcome the fragmentation
In the international sphere, Tefel recognized that one of the problems of the struggle that exploded in April 2018 was the lack of coordination among the different means of pressure that can be exerted against the dictatorship – from timely demonstrations to international pressure.
He recalled that pressure from the international community plays out “through diplomatic channels, by convincing the decision-makers in other governments. These channels work slowly, whether we like it or not. But that’s what we have, and that’s the path we must seek.”
Looking at the situation in the country with an eye towards the future, Jesus Tefel summarized: “The organization of the citizens, the political and social organizations, must be prepared for the upcoming context.” That means not returning to the past situation, where the citizens didn’t have anyone representing them, the political party system had collapsed, and there was no widespread belief in the civil and union organizations.
“What there was, amounted to total fragmentation. We have to overcome that fragmentation, in part caused by the regime, but also in part because, as a society, we’ve been carrying that tendency ourselves,” Tefel argued.
The fragmentation was on display, for example, during the conformation of the National Coalition. Ernesto Medina recalled how the participants in this effort embroiled themselves in thorny discussions of whether they should or shouldn’t permit the participation of the political parties, ignoring the fact that political parties are the vehicle for participating in any kind of an electoral contest.
“After that, with an opposition thus fragmented and decentralized among the most visible leaders, no one knew how to transition towards a strategy that would take us into the elections. In addition to the separation of all the groups that disagreement with participating in the elections, that [vacuum] provoked a rupture we’re still trying to heal as opposition members,” concluded Yarithza Mairena.