Dora Maria Tellez: “Ortega Deceived His Followers”

Covid-19 has brought a credibility crisis and a splintering, says Tellez, because “Ortega has played with the lives of his own followers.”

By Carlos F. Chamorro (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Three Nicaraguan patients infected with Covid-19 died in the 24 hours between Tuesday, April 28 and Wednesday, April 29, according to medical sources and their family members. This brings the official death figures from the virus to six. One day later, on the eve of May 1st, in his second television appearance following two long absences from public view over 50 days, President Daniel Ortega admitted to four dead instead of six, while he minimized the pandemic’s effect and launched a frontal attack against the citizen campaign “stay at home” to prevent the virus and save lives.

On Sunday, May 3rd, the Ministry of Health spokesperson admitted the existence of a fifth official death. A month and a half after having announced the first positive Coronavirus case on March 18, the Ministry continues to insist that “there’s no community transmission” in Nicaragua, even though airlines have suspended flights to Nicaragua and in the last several days the number of seriously ill patients coming to the public and private hospitals has increased.

Dora Maria Tellez, Minister of Health during the Sandinista government of the 1980s, assures that the Covid-19 crisis is already eroding the power of Daniel Ortega’s regime. Tellez, currently a leader of the Sandinista Renewal Movement, warns that “Ortega deceived his followers” by promising them that they didn’t need to do anything about Covid-19. Instead of preventing the virus, his regime has facilitated its spread. “The crisis in Ortega’s credibility is going to be very serious, and there’ll be a fracturing, because he’s played with the lives of his own followers,” Tellez affirmed in a Skype interview for the internet news program Esta Semana and the website Confidencial.

Dora Maria Tellez, former guerrilla commander, former Minister of Health, and now a leader of the Sandinista Renewal Movement and a historian. Photo: Carlos Herrera / Confidencial

When asked if there was any light at the end of the tunnel, with the Coronavirus crisis and a regime which continues to cling to arms and repression, without any movement towards a political reform to bring about free elections, Dora Maria Tellez, former guerrilla commander and head of the “Rigoberto Lopez Perez” front in the insurrection against the Somoza dictatorship in Leon in 1979, categorically dismissed the idea of a new armed struggle. “The civic struggle takes time, she said, and we have to use this time until their gone. I believe that, pushing and pushing, this power will continue crumbling until it collapses.”

The central theme of President Ortega’s message on April 30 – his second television appearance in 50 days – was a frontal attack against the citizen crusade: “Stay home”. To what do you attribute this reaction?

Dora Maria: Ortega simply doesn’t have any clear policy in relation to confronting the pandemic, so he assumes that any proposal coming from outside his group is an act of opposition. That is, Daniel Ortega is viewing the Coronavirus as a terrorist act against his model of power, so he sees all the proposals that civil society, the business community, the Church, and even the World Health Organization have made as a huge conspiracy and an attack on his regime.

Covid-19 deception

This attitude of negligence in the face of the pandemic and the continued promotion of close contacts among the population: Does this have support in the Sandinista Front, among the civil and military public servants, or among the workers from the health sector?

I believe that it had some backing up until a week ago. This week, it’s becoming perceptible to those in the health system that there are doctors, nurses, health personnel who are being infected; that they haven’t had the needed protection; that Ortega has deceived them saying that nothing’s happening and that nothing’s going to happen. And now they’re beginning to get sick.

In addition, there are now a lot of people with ties to the Ortega camp that are also getting sick and dying, and the families are saying: “Hey! They deceived us, and they’re telling us that we shouldn’t take any precautions, that we should go out to all the fairs and carnivals and that nothing’s going to happen to us because the comandante said that we’re protected.”

A lot of people really believed Ortega’s word. All the Ortega supporters, that are a segment of the population, believed his word and didn’t bother protecting themselves. But now, you’re going to see fractures within the Police, within the Army, because in the military hospital they’re already seeing people who are sick with Covid -19, and within the hospitals they’re beginning to feel the pressure of a great demand from sick people, and Ortega’s lie is being exposed.

Nevertheless, in Managua and the principal cities of the country, there’s greater activity. The public sector went back to work, they sent the kids to school again, and a certain amount of commercial activity has come back, in contrast to the situation of voluntary quarantine that was seen in the country before Easter Week.

That’s the reason I say that Ortega’s discourse is criminal. It’s no longer just simple negligence, but a deliberate action that’s putting the health of the population at risk. When Ortega, who has the voice of authority, says that nothing’s going to happen, there are people who simply and humbly believe him. The problem’s going to come this next week and the next, when we have an enormous quantity of sick people coming to the hospitals, a demand that the health system can’t resolve. By then, it will already be late for some actions.

At this moment, Nicaragua has had at least 6 deaths from the Coronavirus, even though the government only recognizes four. Even by looking at those official statistics, we have the highest mortality rate in Latin America. What can you infer from these numbers?

Well, there’s a falsehood there. For every Covid-19 fatality, there are those who calculate 50 or 100 [unreported] cases. There are different calculations, but you’re never going to have one, four, or six deaths from the quantity of cases that Ortega says there are. Beyond this, there’s an alarming element to the count that Daniel Ortega made: if you take away the deaths that Ortega spoke of, you’re going to notice that overall deaths have tripled in the last 15 days of April. That is, the average count of daily deaths is three and a half times what it was before April 15th. Those are statistics that Ortega presented, but he deliberately omitted speaking of [causes]: death from pneumonia, heart attacks, chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder, acute respiratory infections. So, the Ministry of Health should give a very clear explanation of what those people died from, to have made that number increase so enormously.

The latest protocol we’ve seen from the Health Ministry oriented the realization of only 50 Covid-19 tests a day, although there are 26,000 test kits that the Central American Bank for Economic Integration donated to Nicaragua. Can the government convince the country and the international community that we have such a low rate of infections if results of massive testing aren’t presented?

The tests serve to reveal what’s happening. If there are no tests, you’re blind, and here the Ministry of Health and the Ortega regime are deliberately blind. It’s possible that they have the results from more tests that they’re not making public, but obviously, no one in the international community are going to believe them if there’s no evidence. They can no longer argue that they don’t have the tests: they have 26,000 test kits that were donated by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration.

This is the moment that Nicaraguans should have complete information, for example: “we’ve conducted 5,000 or 10,000 tests, and the situation of contagion in the country from the Coronavirus is the following…”  No one is going to believe Ortega if he doesn’t show any evidence.

The crisis in the hospitals

Epidemiologists project exponential growth of the pandemic in Nicaragua in the next two weeks of May. There are no State-sponsored social distancing measures in place and government actions go in the opposite direction. How do you see the capacity of this citizen crusade that was born several weeks ago now, to prevent contagion?

The only thing we have at hand is what we ourselves, the people, the family members, the communities, the neighbors, are doing. What’s happening in the neighborhoods? People say the police arrive with an ambulance and some first responders dressed like astronauts. We already know that when they come it’s because there’s a case of Covid-19 in the neighborhood.

So, the only thing we have at hand – because we already know that there’s no government, we already know that this regime is incapable and negligent – the only thing left to us is what we do: to wash our hands, not go to crowded events, not to crowd in anywhere, not to go to those activities that the regime convokes and that serve to foment contagion. To maintain a two-meter distance from other people, to use face masks when we go out on the streets. These are essential measures that we can all take, and if we all take them, it will have a positive impact.

What I’m much more worried about is that this past week [April 27 to May 2], a large quantity of serious cases began arriving at the hospitals: the Chinandega hospital, the Rivas hospital, [and in Managua] the German hospital, the military hospital, the Sumedico hospital. In all these hospitals there are quantities of people arriving in serious condition, including young people. There are already doctors, specialists that work in the public hospitals, who are now hospitalized themselves. That, too, is serious, because if these specialists get sick, how long will it take them to recover?

Organizations like the Civic Alliance and the National Unity have demanded that the government adopt protective social measures, including moratoriums on taxes, on payments for public services and on loans. They’ve also advocated for the creation of special funds to protect those receiving pensions, and economic protections for self-employed workers. But Ortega has said: absolutely not, his government isn’t going to establish any policies of this kind. What alternative does the political opposition have before a government that turns its back on the pandemic? Does it have any leverage to pressure that government?

All kinds of things have been done to pressure the government, but in addition, one extremely constructive thing has happened: [political forces] from all over the world have made proposals. This has been an absolutely constructive action on the part of all of civil society. Even the Catholic Church has made proposals, has acted coherently; the Assemblies of God have acted.

The government, if it had the will, could perfectly well look over all the proposals, listen to the independent scientific medical committee, listen to the doctors and from these sources choose the best packet of measures for Nicaragua to confront this pandemic. But Ortega has blockaded himself off, focused on his war against the United States and also on demanding that they remove the sanctions against him and his family.

Ortega railed against the Catholic Church, against the business community, against civil society. He railed against everyone, including, at an international level, against all the countries that maintain a “Stay at Home” campaign…

Where’s the light at the end of the tunnel with this Coronavirus crisis and the country’s political crisis? The government continues to control the repressive apparatus, it continues persecuting and repressing; it hasn’t admitted any kind of political reform and it would seem that it may strengthen itself with this public health crisis, because now, in addition, it faces less pressure from the international community. On the other hand, the National Coalition is only a project, it’s not viewed as a political alternative for change. Is there a way out of this?

Of course there is. Ortega’s regime continues to erode and now the erosion has touched two more aspects.  Nicaragua is now the only Central American country that hasn’t received a cent of help to confront the Coronavirus pandemic, and that’s logical since the regime doesn’t have a plan.  Ortega has become the principal obstacle to external aid.

But he has access to funds from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration.

That’s going to be ever stricter. But it’s not as if he has access to large open funding – all of those funds are restrictive. The second thing is that, certainly, Ortega has maintained his repressive apparatus and his social base. But the impact of the epidemic touches everyone. It doesn’t go around making distinctions about whether you are or aren’t an Ortega supporter. Daniel Ortega’s base is going to notice that Ortega has not only deceived them, he’s sent them out to be infected; and the health centers don’t have capacity to attend to them once they’re infected; and that some of them may have a serious outcome, fatal, just as other Nicaraguans can have.

That crisis in Ortega’s credibility is going to be very serious. There’ll be a fracturing, because he’s played with the lives of his own followers. Every day he plays with the life of the health workers, by not proportioning them with adequate protection. He plays with the life of the police that are being sent onto the streets in a tight pack, without protection.

Sympathizers of the official Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) once again challenged the Covid-19 pandemic in Nicaragua on Easter Sunday, with numerous outings to the beaches and popular fiestas. Photo: Jorge Torres / EFE


The erosion of the dictatorship

There’s a sector that continues their fanatical support of the government, totally committed to their project. Two years ago, more than 300 people were killed and the government later invented a conspiracy to explain it, said that there’d been an attempted Coup d’etat. Could they say tomorrow that the people are dying of something else, and not from Coronavirus?

To the Ortega supporters, those were deaths of outsiders, even of those they considered enemies. But when someone in your family dies, and Ortega has been telling these supporters that nothing’s happening, that they’re going to be attended wonderfully in the hospitals, that there are ventilators aplenty, that everyone is super well trained, then you’ll see a fracturing of the credibility. It’s impossible that this not be produced, unless they’re going to be like those in that sect in Guyana where [in 1978] all of the followers committed suicide together with the pastor…  But that’s another story.

I believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There’s an erosion of the regime’s power that goes much deeper. This regime is paralyzed; the only thing they have out there is a spokesperson [Rosario Murillo] that spits fire against the whole world, but does nothing else, and that in addition maintains a repressive model that is itself in the process of eroding.

Meanwhile, the advance of the opposition is slow because we Nicaraguans face the effects of a regime that has broken society into little pieces, fragmented it, but we do advance quietly. The processes to reach an agreement take a little longer, are more complicated, but I believe that it’s better to go slowly but to go well.

Now, effectively there’s a desperation in many of us to see Ortega gone already. If Ortega had a minimum of cordiality, a minimum of political decency, well that man would resign and open the way for a transition that could manage the crisis in the country.

That depends on the correlation of forces. Does the opposition have the strength to exercise that pressure?

The opposition has no correlation of forces for this within the National Assembly, and we’ve now spent two years saying that he must go. We’re not going to resort to armed struggle, even though there are people who say, “Ah no, only weapons make this guy understand.” No, we’re not going to resort to armed struggle, peaceful struggle takes time, and that time must be seen through to the end. I believe that, pushing and pushing, that power is going to continue crumbling until it collapses.